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Latin America and the Religions of the Moderns

Alberto Toscano 7 May 2013

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It has become customary, when criticising the imperialism of Western reason, to emphasise its reliance on the production of 'others' – pathological, animalistic, irrational, pre-modern. The tale told in this book was occasioned, like most genealogies and histories of ideas, by the attempt to confront and counter a prominent feature of its present: the designation of 'fanaticism' as the principal menace to social peace. In the metropoles of global capital, the first decade of the new millennium seemed to unfold under the ideological sign of a renewed war between Enlightenment and unreason – in the guise of that unstable amalgam of religion, politics and violence represented by international or, more commonly, 'Islamic' terrorism. There is no shortage of coruscating denunciations of how the spontaneous philosophy of the 'war on terror' – the many variations on how 'our values' of liberalism and tolerance are threatened by the murderous radicalisation of subaltern populations – spread a very thin veneer over a long global history of dispossession, racialisation and the instrumental uses of fundamentalist groups against popular movements and geopolitical foes. The task I set myself was very different, if not unrelated: not so much to engage in a critique of the dominant ideology, but to show, through the systematic investigation of certain crucial episodes in the life of an idea, how 'fanaticism' could serve both as an instrument of depoliticisation and as a kind of inverted prism through which to rethink the question of intransigent subjectivity, in a period when, throughout the world, precarious efforts at emancipatory politics are met by well-tested apparatuses of neutralisation.

Admittedly, there was a certain amount of hopeful perversity in the attempt to take the clash of fundamentalisms or barbarisms that defined the spectacle of the 2000s as an opportunity to rethink the structures of feeling that innervate a politics of emancipation, as well the reactions against it. But even a cursory acquaintance with the curious history of this thing without history, fanaticism, will suggest that this was not, after all, such a peculiar endeavour: from the millenarian protest against princely power of the sixteenth century to the risings of the sans-culottes in the eighteenth, from the radical movement to abolish slavery to twentieth-century communism, efforts to realise radical equality have been stigmatised as fanatical. This is not, I argue, just a matter of the ease with which a language of denunciation can be transferred from one enemy to the next. Rather, the antinomic character of fanaticism's uses – the manner in which it is enlisted to diagnose intractable particularism and denounce excessive universalism, to attack piety and atheism, archaism and innovation – show us how we are not, at least after Kant, dealing with an 'other' of reason, as much as with a political and subjective potential internal to the very ideas of rationality and modernity.

When Frantz Fanon polemically assumed fanaticism as an anti-colonial passion, he was in a sense simply bringing together the two principal registers through which the conservative Enlightenment and an imperial liberalism dealt with fanaticism: as the religious revolt of colonised subjects (untamed particularity) and as the violence of egalitarian abstraction (extremist universalism). In exploring some of the syncopated dialectic of this blunt but mutable idea, I hope at least in part to have shown how, contrary to both its partisans and critics the very idea of Western reason (and modernity), especially when seen from the angle of its others, is a far from monolithic one; how the language of domination is also haunted by powers of emancipation it can never simply banish or exorcise.

Though in the pages that follow I dwell briefly on the fate of millenarian politics in Latin America, in a discussion of Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões, I cannot say what a history of the uses of fanaticism from a Latin American vantage point would look like. No doubt it would dwell on the devastating uses to which the cold war against the 'political religion' of communism was put – a grim testament, if any were needed, to the infinite cruelties that have been committed under the banner of the struggle against fanaticism. It would also consider the forms of anti-systemic Manicheanism that centuries of dispossession and social war gave rise to in different national contexts. It would also, of necessity, consider three conceptual axes that traverse my own Fanaticism: the civilisational imaginary of fanaticism; the separation, or lack thereof, between the religious and the political; the place of passion in the politics of emancipation. In these brief remarks, I want to touch on these three lines of investigation, simply to sketch out how my own account is inflected by a consideration of some episodes and problems from Latin American intellectual history.

In Fanaticism, I note the way in which the idea is imputed not just to irreligiously egalitarian and combatively monotheistic revolutions, namely to the odd couple of Robespierre and Muhammad, but also to the dispersive frenzies that possess the supposedly benighted populations of the 'dark continent'. In the same pages on the geographical bases of history, where Hegel sets out his racial fantasies about the pagan violence of Africans, he also considers another land without Spirit, South America. The contrast is indicative of the different registers in which Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European though embarked on 'othering'. Prior to Hegel, the pioneers of Enlightenment historiography and political economy had confronted America through the model of a stadial history, struggling to place the people of the 'New World' on a linear axis correlating cultural advancement with modes of subsistence, and generally moving through the four stages of hunting, pasturage, agriculture and commerce. The reports coming back across the Atlantic from missionaries, administrators and adventurers had been enlisted in the delineation of an image of the savage, be it romantically noble, or, more frequently, ignobly arrested. The Americas provided a coeval image of human and European origins, following Locke's famous dictum: 'in the beginning, all the world was America'.     

For Hegel, in passages that da Cunha would both appropriate and deflect, the American 'savages' are not so much geographically determined as underdetermined: they are in a sense unformed, like the still new lands that they inhabit. The dialectic of spirit and territory, which involves both the organic bond of a nation to its soil, and the capacity to engage in what Hegel calls an 'antithetic abstractive process' vis-à-vis a stable nature is supposedly thwarted by the Americas. For this racialised philosophy of history, indigeneity in the Americas is not marked by the monomaniacal frenzy, be it sub- or hyper-rational, of fanaticism, but by its very opposite: 'a mild and passionless disposition, want of spirit, and a crouching submissiveness', whence the forecast that 'it will be long before the European succeed in producing any independence of feeling in them'.

Though transposed into his own speculative frame for the articulation of land, Geist and political life, Hegel was only following in the condemnation of the 'inconstancy of the Indian soul' so brilliantly anatomised by the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his eponymous book. Where, as I suggest in the book, the idea of fanaticism is often the product of a colonial encounter or an economic clash, the attempt by Jesuit missionaries to force Tupinambá natives into the arms of the Church was met by a very different 'strategy': acquiescence, even enthusiasm, about apparent conversion, which resolved itself into a syncretic practice and the endurance of 'heathen' practices (polygamy, cannibalism). What frustrated the Jesuits, in Viveiros de Castro's retelling, was being confronted with peoples who did not seem to possess the same habitus of belief, who could not be wrenched from their conviction into another, and who thus remained unbelieving even in their belief – in the process evading an anthropological model of culture-as-totality itself shaped by theology. The frustration voiced in the Dialogue of the Conversion of the Heathen provides an interesting counterpart to the trope of the 'fanatical encounter', in the very possibility of subjects unsubjected to the very idea of belief (and thus, a fortiori, to fanaticism itself):

If they had a king, they could be converted, or if they worshipped something; but since they do not even know what believing or worshipping is, they cannot understand the preaching of the Gospel, because it is based on making people believe in and worship only one God, and serve him alone; and since these heathens do not even worship anything, everything one tells them turns into nothing.

Needless to say, inconstancy can provide as good a cover for racial and imperial subjugation as the supposed intractability of the fanatic. Hegel's own passing remark about how the aboriginal populations of America 'gradually vanished at the breath of European activity', is a chilling instance of how the idea of an ephemeral and 'ignoble' savage could serve to euphemise, in the domain of Spirit, the politics of extermination, at the same time as it provided a negative emblem for the bourgeois values of commercial society: 'inequality, property rights and the accumulation of capital'.

Given the history of how historiography and the philosophy of history transformed an indigenous America into the very representative of the unhistorical, through linear or stadial modes of civilisational 'improvement' and political-economic 'development', and how this pattern progressed with a vengeance through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is no accident that Latin America has provided and continues to provide both practical and intellectual lessons in the need to think the plural temporalities of capital and insurgency; to unsettle the empty, homogeneous time of 'metropolitan' and colonial modernisation. In this regard, I think that the two chapters of the bookwhich represent my attempt to reconsider the legacy of Marx through the prism of this antinomic and promiscuous idea of fanaticism – in terms of millenarianism and the politics of time, in Chapter 2, and the question of abstraction and the critique of religion, in Chapter 5 – could in retrospect be woven together through a reconsideration of the debates over 'Marx and Latin America', which, in the writings of José Aricó, Álvaro García Linera and Enrique Dussel, tie together the question of capitalism's unevenness (unequal exchange, dependency, accumulation by dispossession) with that of the forms of political action and subjectivity in Latin America; forms that both a dominant liberal reason and a modernising Marxism would – against Marx's most profound insights, his most incisive dislocations Enlightenment political economy – treat as the results of arrested development. Whatever their specific merits, Aricó's investigation into a Bolivarian 'autonomy of the political', García Linera's investigation of the missed encounter (desencuentro) between Marxism and indigenismo, and Dussel's effort to rethink the anti-imperialist struggles 'people' and 'nation' through a non-linear Marx all put on the agenda the formidable task of thinking capital's powers of homogenisation alongside its profoundly differentiated temporalisation and homogenisation; to conceive the anti-capitalist politics of emancipation outside of a proletarian teleology that illegitimately universalises the trajectory of the nineteenth-century European workers' movement – thereby occluding the recognition of new class struggles in the present, as well as of forms of indigenous and popular conflict and community ill-suited by a fixation on nineteenth and twentieth-century European models. In other words, what kind of oppositional politics can emerge from 'the crisis of the mythical idea of a homogeneous and continuous time’?

It is a sign of the political and cognitive ambivalence of religion that though Christianity served as a powerful component in the colonial matrix that relegated indigeneity and America to the pre-historical and the pre-political, one of the challenges to the subsumption of Latin America by capitalist imperialism emerged from the communal struggles and theological innovations of what Michael Löwy calls 'liberationist Christianity'. Reading this Latin American phenomenon through the lens of an avowedly romantic and utopian Marxism that finds in Ernst Bloch – the thinker of the 'atheism in Christianity' as well as of 'nonsynchronism' – its key practitioner, Löwy identifies some of the strength of this wide and variegated movement in its ability to draw on a critique of modernity and of development not available to the mainstream of progressive nationalism and Marxism (thus echoing some of García Linera's criticisms of el marxismo primitivo). Crucial to this 'religious' challenge to capital and the state is a displacement of a model of secularism that many regard as synonymous with modernity. According to Löwy, liberationist Christianity in Latin America affirmed a separation of the religious and the political at the institutional level, especially in contrast with a state Catholicism, but it refused their separation at the level of ethico-political commitment, all the while presenting a challenge to an idea of modernisation understood as a kind of functional differentiation of spheres, in which religion is privatised and the state the transcendent arbitrator of (capitalist) interests.

To consider the fortunes of a religiously-inflected oppositional politics, and the left challenge to a liberal conception of modern politics, would also require, as I explore in my fifth chapter, a consideration of how capitalism, as a kind of realised metaphysics or actually-existing idealism, must itself be approached as a 'religion of everyday life' – especially in the context of a catastrophic modernity inhabited by 'monetary subjects without money'. Among Latin American intellectuals, this is a theme suggestively explored by Bolívar Echeverría, who resonates with Walter Benjamin's own thoughts about 'capitalism as religion', in proposing that, rather than accepting the idea of a secularised landscape, in which religious outbursts are but remnants or survivals, we must confront ‘the religion of the moderns'. In a Marxian vocabulary, this requires considering how a theory of fetishism entails the broadening of the Weberian couplet of enchantment/disenchantment; a fervent, archaic, sacred enchantment is both surpassed and accompanied by 'a modern, cold and profane enchantment’. In Echeverría's provocative formulation: 'According to Marx, not only do the moderns “resemble” the primitive (arcaicos), not only do they act “as if” they handled enchanted objects, without really doing so, they in fact share with the primitive the need to introduce, as the axis of their life and their world, the subtle and everyday presence of a determining metaphysical entity’. This means that what passes as atheism in the context of parliamentary capitalism is in the end a 'pseudo-atheism'. There is a danger, of course, that such a critique of the theory of secularisation will replicate the former's implicit philosophy of history, undergirded by the idea of a sempiternal religious substance finding new forms in which to wield its psychic and social power. Social and political history, in South America as elsewhere, suggests that this is by no means a linear process, but one marked by profound unevenness and contingencies, multiple encuentros and desencuentros – encounters made and missed –between capital, religion and politics.

A positive delineation of the latter, politics, and in particular the politics of emancipation, lies beyond my book, and a fortiori this preface. But I am in no doubt that an engagement with the pejorative tradition of anti-fanatical thought can also serve to reconsider the significance of phenomena which have often been relegated to fanatical irrationality, be it because of their excessive abstraction or their intransigent particularity, and, more significantly, for the way in which they draw politics into the domains of collective passions. People, nation, community are all terms for enveloping identities that can demand what Hegel called an 'enthusiasm for the abstract'; but, as many Latin American radical theorists have suggested, they also mobilise forms of oppositional politics that we dismiss at our peril. When historical unevenness is reified into a difference that barely masks the prejudice of backwardness, the specificity of political practice – of collective passions and their own intrinsic rationality – is also lost sight of. I can only hope that the genealogical and ideological critique that this book tries to embody can make a contribution to the intellectual struggle, in Latin America as elsewhere, against the depoliticising legacies of the Cold War, and to rethinking the value and promise of a politics that, in the name of collective needs and human emancipation, refuses the compulsion to compromise.

Preface to the Colombian Edition of Fanaticism (2013) 

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