The first years of the third millennium, captivated by a spectacular, if ambiguous, resurgence of religiously motivated violence, have seen the revival of a charged term in the Western political lexicon: fanaticism. Societal upheavals, revolutionary periods, religious wars, crises of legitimation, imperial projects – in the past five centuries, all have provided occasions for invoking fanaticism to stigmatise incorrigible enemies, whose disproportionate convictions and intractable beliefs put them beyond the pale of negotiation. Millenarian German peasants, anti-colonial ‘dervish’ rebels, terrorising Jacobins, anarchist bombers, anti-slavery ‘immediatists’, and eschatological Stalinists are just some of the figures thrown up by an investigation into the adversarial uses of this powerful idea. Exploring the historical semantics and polemical deployments of fanaticism reveals, among other things, its impressive plasticity. Cultic superstition and unbridled rationality, the refusal of progress and its immoderate celebration, intransigent particularism and expansive universality have all been the targets of the accusation of fanaticism.
This is partly accounted for by the closeness of fanaticism to extremism as a term of political abuse: as long as otherwise incompatible positions take sufficient distance from a standard of moderation or normality, they can be tarred with the same brush. Centrist denunciations of the excesses of Right and Left often take this form, as in the doctrine of ‘opposed convergent extremisms’ that was applied by Christian Democrats to Italian terrorism in the 1970s. Yet among political smear-words fanaticism has its own pedigree, which crucially includes two elements arising from its association with political theology and theological politics. First, fanaticism defines an ethic of conviction that abhors compromise. Second, fanaticism results from a politics of abstraction in which disembodied principles override pragmatism and mediation. In the fraught and discontinuous history of fanaticism, it was the reaction to the French Revolution’s egalitarian dictatorship of abstract reason that foregrounded these distinctive features. In particular, it was then that the reactionary trope of a ‘fanaticism of reason’ – mostly alien to the Lumières’ insistent condemnation of religious fanaticism – came into its own. It is not difficult to grasp how intransigence and abstraction, whether in religious or secular garb, could be associated with a certain ‘fatal purity’ – to quote the title of a recent biography of Robespierre. Twentieth and twenty-first century attacks on political fanaticisms continue to borrow from the arsenal of counter-revolutionary thought (be it liberal, conservative or fiercely reactionary, as in De Maistre), for which the Revolution’s frenzied attempt ‘to abstract and equalize’ society – to purify it of its stratifications, hierarchies, customs and differences for the sake of the ‘monstrous fiction’ of equality and human rights – was foredoomed to tyranny and catastrophe.
There are Reds under the bed. Or in the academies. Or worse: about to spill into the streets. So warns Alan Johnson in World Affairs, the esteemed Washington-based international affairs journal. Tracing the rising profile of a group of authors such as Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels and Slavoj Žižek and the popularity of their books, the columnist outlines what he sees as a nascent threat lurking in the incendiary words of Terry Eagleton and Toni Negri.
Marx Reloaded is a documentary on the political relevancy of the economic and political philosophy of Karl Marx in the light of the global financial crisis, featuring insight and interviews from such figures as Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière and Peter Sloterdijk. As the film hits cinemas next week, we asked its director, Jason Barker, a few questions.
In his rigorous review of The Idea of Communism for Libcom, Alasdair Thompson walks us through the main themes of this collection of essays by some of today's most important political thinkers. Edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, The Idea of Communism was developed in the wake of a 2009 conference of the same name at Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Thompson's review looks at a number of these texts in relation to each other, including work by Michael Hardt, Alain Badiou and Alberto Toscano.
In his introductory remarks at the recent Anarchist Turn conference at the New School, Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding, recalled being handed photocopies of a text from a then-virtually-unknown French journal called Tiqqun. At the time, the second New School student occupation was underway, and hundreds of polices officers had descended upon the school, pepper-spraying students, using force and arresting many. A few months later, Glenn Beck devoted one of his signature tirades to The Coming Insurrection (whose alleged authors have been associated with Tiqqun), which brought the group into the American public consciousness and made the book into a bestseller. “This is quite possibly the most evil thing I've ever read,” Beck had said.