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Communitarianism and the self-institution of divinity

A new left can be pro-religion in the context of autonomy

A thoroughgoing re-institution of society will inevitably have to deal with the issue of religion. The revolutionary platform must formulate a stance that stands as an antipode to the machinations of the ruling class while providing an alternative for the longer term success of the cultural shift such re-institution would both partially presuppose and provide the impetus for.

Should we break with tradition or insist on the methods of earlier social movements? Is religion itself a convention that humanity can live without, or must there always be some form of religiosity in every society, no matter the particularities?

The old left has historically held an outright atheist view of the world in which religion per se is bundled up together with the establishment. To overthrow capitalism and intersecting forms of oppression has been equated to a struggle for dethroning god. Effective communism in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere thus enforced top-down atheism, replacing belief in the divine with slavish commitment to the omnipotent state’s edicts. As modern Russia shows, the communist reforms did not emanate from a cultural will. They instead coagulated as centralist technocratic despotism. Soviet godlessness failed to plant its roots in popular conscience. The implosion of the USSR was inevitably followed by a recrudescence of the religious views of pre-revolutionary times. Today the average Russian’s religiosity is undeniable.

Contemporary leftists, broadly understood as a spectrum, adopt an equivocal stance on the matter. Some cling on to atheism that occasionally manifests as de facto quotidian elitism against other citizens, while others prefer to emphasise their pro-science outlook. The latter is the more reasonable approach. However, it too can produce untenable propositions when it is not willing to entertain uncompromising or unconventional thinking.

The careless cheerleader of science does harm to genuine scientific inquiry by attributing to science a quality that is not inherent to it: that of yielding certain knowledge. Such are the workings of scientism, where “science” no longer represents the body of work that is permeated by the ethical qualities of dubitativeness, inquisitiveness, dialecticism, and parrhesia (honest plain-spokenness). It is instead treated as the equivalent of oracular wisdom that none shall question.

Scientism proceeds from the fundamental misunderstanding that if some programme looks like science, if it is couched in terms of statistics, charts, and jargon, it must doubtless speak the truth with precision. The falsehood is reinforced by the function of social stratification that higher education certificates perform, namely, that X number of PhDs support a given view, “therefore…”, the thinking goes, “who are you to question them?”. The notion of a conventional wisdom that embeds itself as self-evident orthodoxy is totally lost. As are the nuances that can be expressed in an honest scientific context about the propriety, adequacy, and scope of the given research methods.

It was once impossible to question the clergy, for their word was supposed to be that of the one true God. Again, “who are you to question the Lord?”. We are fast approaching the same type of normality, only this time the role of the authority is assumed by a simulacrum of science that exists in symbiotic relationship with the state apparatus and the platformarchs that control the economy. The alarming signs of such a regression are clear whenever scepticism is expressed against the initiatives of malevolent political and economic actors who present their stratagems as objective, i.e. inevitable, reality: sceptics are cast aside as uninformed, out of sync with the state-of-the-art, too paranoid, and so on.

Whether we are dealing with mainstream theism, Soviet-style atheism, or scientism, we are basically facing the same problem. Some power elite is in control of the narrative. A group of bureaucrats, career politicians, priests, conniving entrepreneurs, etc. are imposing their agenda in a top-down fashion. Their ostensible truth springs from a position of authority and privilege. This is the real problem.

A new left requires a more considerate approach. Rather than preemptively reject religiosity, let us think as true scientists:

  • Why is it that all hitherto existing civilisations have had some sort of belief in divinity?
  • What is the social or political utility of organised religion beyond the narrow confines of governance?

In political terms, can a religion-based sense of belonging reinforce centrifugal forces whose end goal is autonomy at the local community level? Put differently, can we use our own conception of the divine as a vehicle for enacting reform in our immediate milieu?

Localism and religious belonging

To escape from the meta-narratives of the status quo we must be willing to discern what is common in the multitude of phenomena that are germane to the ideology that pursues the ever-increasing concentration of power. This is what I call “gigantism”: the reinforcement and proliferation of the hierarchical model of organisation, which results in the accumulation of ultimate control at the top of the chain of command.

The old left experimented with its own brand of gigantism, only to confirm to us that the concentration of authority is pernicious in and of itself, regardless of its modalities. It is against this backdrop that a new left can introduce a genuine alternative: a programmatic agenda whose ambition is to re-organise society as a distributed system of largely autonomous local communities, in respect of their history and presence in their land. Let whatever forms of cooperation between them develop per the evolving needs, in a model that could be described as the “organic society”.

What kind of religion would be suitable to an organic society? Such is the problématique that must guide our thinking.

The pre-Christian, pre-Roman world of Europe was defined by its polytheism. It was also known for its diversity and locality-bound distribution of power. With polytheism, people of the same culture were loosely linked together by broad themes of theology, yet each community had its peculiar deities and cults, which were not strictly limited to gods. For instance, religion in parts of Greece was also expressed as faith in a hero of legend, like Hercules.

Roman imperialism refashioned this mosaic of plurality. It did so by gathering competences in a central locus of power and by enforcing its brand of the Pantheon ex cathedra. The Roman policy on religion appears, prima facie, as an expression of tolerance: let all gods exist. In fact it was one of appropriation, assimilation, and eventual homogenisation of the empire’s subjects, as it amounted to an attempt at depriving communities of an invaluable mechanism for their inter-subjective identification: the collective self-institution of divinity. They were told, for instance, that Minerva is just another name for Athena, with the tacit understanding that the narratives surrounding the former were now controlled by a state apparatus far from the place where Athena was once worshipped.

The Roman Empire always had a propensity to impose religious standards that were consistent with its imperialistic outlook; a drive that was later embodied in the Christianisation through fire and steel that Theodosius I and Justinian I brought upon the early Byzantine empire (both of whom are labelled as “the Great”, while both are considered saints in Eastern Orthodox Christianity).

An establishment’s incentive is to mould its subjects in an image that suits its end. It must manipulate culture, intercept and control all discourses that influence society at-large, and make its subjects think that their well-being derives from the continued presence of the highly stratified order that controls them (alas, such is a constant that defines our times as well).

I would speculate that polytheism is not the main factor that contributed to the actual diversity of the ancient Greek world and of other cultures in Europe (here “Greek” is just a proxy for “city-states in the part of the earth where the modern Greek nation-state and its neighbours exist”). Besides, Roman elites were themselves polytheist for several centuries, during which they fought against localism in pursuit of their imperialist ends.

Diversity of the sort here considered must rather be attributed to the fact that centres of influence such as Delphi did not have the requisite sovereignty to enforce a uniform religious world-view and that no counter-party political organisation, in the form of an empire, existed to impose conformity with a certain dogma of godhood.

The ancient polytheist of the pre-imperialist era thus had the freedom to think of divinity in terms that were aligned with their political actuality and lifeworld. They could develop a faith that reflected localism and communitarianism, by exalting the local mountains, rivers, forests, etc. as deities that protected the peculiar ecosystems and the humans in their midst.

The naive rationalist will deride those people as simpletons for truly believing that a “mere mountain” can ever be a god. Yet it is not the theological claims that are of interest here, but how such sets of beliefs can enable a modus vivendi that stands as a natural enemy to gigantism; a lifestyle that all empires have actively opposed, trying to replace it with some state-sponsored interpretation of the world, including the secularised theology of nation-statist statecraft.

The point is to move beyond the phenomenalities of religious conduct and think in practical terms about social organisation. Let the mountain be a god. Let it be revered as a life-giver in its particular ecosystem, if that is what we need to differentiate ourselves from those who seek to deny us our freedom. My thesis is that theology must follow the functions of the polity we wish to enact. We must institute the divine in a way that would be conducive to our politics.

It does not really matter whether we figure out some polytheism that derives from modern ecology or re-purpose one of the existing or historical religions. We could think, for the sake of the argument, of an interpretation of Christianity that departs from Byzantine theocracy and reinforces the original meaning of koinonia (κοινωνία) as “the commons” or “the common good”, and ecclesia (εκκλησία) as “the call [to partake in the commons]”. Such would doubtless be combatted as heresy, which is to be expected given the original role of this religion as an instrument in the hands of emperors.

Could a radically reinterpreted Christian creed be consistent with communitarian ends? In principle, we must answer affirmatively. How likely is it though, given the gigantist heritage and concomitant values of this religion? One cannot be optimistic. Whereas, say, ecology that assumes new forms of artistic expression and allows for creativity feels like a type of polytheism that is both plausible and possible. Though I must reiterate my outright political, indeed revolutionary, perspective on the matter.

Beyond theological controversies

We must not perpetuate the mistakes of the old left. Religion is a potent tool that has developed in the history of humankind as a means to facilitate various processes in the political organisation of society. There are cases where it has been used for good and others where it has been weaponised in the service of gigantism. Religiosity that unfolds as an expression of local autonomy should be seen as a net positive: it reinforces the everyday anti-gigantism of the community, while it offers some guarantee that the community will not disintegrate over the medium to long term, due its newfound sense of identity.

The anarchist may counter with examples of their communities that nurture solidarity without allusions to theology. Such is an interesting phenomenon which, however, is not reproducible in societies that are not characterised by selection bias. The average anarchist has thought about politics, economics, and the like, in ways the everyday non-anarchist has not. When a group of them create a small community, they are effectively putting together a club of like-minded people; people who most definitely are not you common type of person.

Societies that occur naturally are diverse in terms of the talents and attributes that are distributed among their members. We cannot expect everyone to be a theorist. Religion is the answer to the problem of finding an overarching narrative of ethics that can be simple enough for everyone to grasp. Religiosity can serve as a foundation for teaching everyone various important lessons in manners and inter-personal behaviour, in thinking about their community and nature, and so on.

In essence, we need to escape from the trap of simplistic, binary thinking about complex issues and look at the phenomenon of theism from a position of wisdom, not passion. People must learn to form patterns of behaviour that are consistent with benign outcomes. We define those outcomes in a way that suits our revolutionary ambitions. The rest can be discussed indefinitely.

A state that can tell you what your god is, is one that can stand almighty against you. We must reclaim the right to institute divinity within our community, just as we must gain sovereignty in all of its facets within the confines of our locality.