Monday, 12 January 2015

The Strange Parallels Between English History and Islamic Fundamentalism

John Wesley: Despite the sober image Methodists were often accused of fanaticism 


There is an interesting parallel between society in England during the Industrial Revolution and the growing popularity of different kinds of religious reaction today. Though the causes are different in both cases the world - or at least a segment of it - witnessed the destruction of a pre-existing social hierarchy and the creation by force of a new one.

Though initially limited to England - and even then spread unevenly across the country - the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, determined by a developing social division of labour and the ability of competitive English capitalists to incorporate new forms of technology, would have a profound impact on the shape of the capitalist world in centuries to come. By comparison the long downturn of the world market since the 1970s, propelled by western manufacturing decline, has seen the power of global capital transferred definitively, if again unevenly, into US-controlled financial markets. The long era of postwar state-led growth, financed in the Third World through import substitution-based development, was forcibly cut off with certain regions better placed to participate in this change of emphasis in the order of global capital than others. The losers in both historical events were numerous but two require particular attention: on the one hand, the English artisans who experienced mass proletarianisation in the wake of the adoption of new, industrial manufacturing techniques; on the other, the Arab world, which has experienced collapsing income from oil revenues and a clutch of collapsing, debt-encumbered states.

The social symptoms of these changes were and have been both contradictory and explosive. They are also far from being neatly analogous. Yet in both we see a clear strain of social and political reaction mediated at a fundamental level through the language, thought modes and institutions of religion. The question of religion's place in the Industrial Revolution boils down to this: Were religious traditions swallowed up by industrial modernity? The answer is an almost overwhelming no. In fact new religious practices and beliefs developed concurrently with the Industrial Revolution. Before the first stirrings of any labour movement capable of representing the needs of the working class arose there were Wesleyism, Southcottism, new strains of Calvinism and old Dissent. As the new technologies and industrial techniques displaced the older social hierarchies that had made life bearable for the skilled artisans of the guilds, pre-existing beliefs were reanimated and rearticulated to meet the harsh new realities confronting working people. Some, like the followers of Joanna Southcott, were truly esoteric, thoroughly at odds in their evangelical zeal with the traditional sobriety of English public life.

Perhaps the most influential, however, was Methodism, with its radically Protestant emphasis on universalism - the idea that God was for the salvation of all - which inspired a missionary project along with its tendency to try to cleanse the human person of contamination by the technological world. It is important to emphasize the extent to which Methodism was not simply an elite reaction launched by the church to capture the gullible and disenfranchised. Instead it was a positive project borne out of dissent that offered deeply attractive answers to people whose fate seemed unavoidably constrained by the new world being constructed by capitalism. Methodism was above all a mode of dissent within and subordinate to existing, broader institutions, reflecting a society lacking the strength to establish new, autonomous organizations of its own. As EP Thompson put it:

As a dogma Methodism appears as a pitiless ideology of work. In practice this dogma was in varying degrees softened, humanized, or modified by the needs, values, and patterns of social relationships of the community within which it was placed. The Church, after all, was more than a building, and more than the sermons and instructions of its minister. It was embodied also in the class meetings: the sewing groups: the money raising activities: the local preachers who tramped several miles after work to attend small functions at outlying hamlets which the minister might rarely visit.

Historians like EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm widely and very publicly debated the impact of new religious movements on the radically changing social world of the 19th century. We have seemingly forgotten their lessons. Their arguments remain crucial, however, for understanding the power of religious reaction today. "Chiliasm [the notion of God's 1000 year reign on Earth] has always accompanied revolutionary outbursts and given them their spirit. When this spirit ebbs and deserts these movements, there remains behind in the world a naked mass-frenzy and a despiritualized fury." What Thompson calls a "reactive dialectic" nevertheless experienced its apogee in the movement for manhood suffrage of the Chartists and later the trades union movement. It is not that Methodism - which was in many ways a wicked, puritanical ideology aimed at destroying the notion of bodily pleasure - led directly to socialism and trade unionism. Rather, Methodism was a very important and widespread phenomenon generated by modern industrialisation as a violent reaction to it. Nevertheless, its disappearance as a historically significant phenomenon could not take place until the working-class movements - based on commonality of social interest as such - could assert themselves much later. In any event, it was in the midst of appalling reaction (during the Napoleonic Wars and the Pitt government's suspension of habeas corpus) that these religious movements took place. Lacking the material conditions and the ideological resources to build an adventurous and bold working-class movement, new forms of religious reaction filled the void.

The parallels with the Arab world and the Middle East more generally should be obvious. Indeed the extension of jihadist operations into Africa - in the form of Boko Haram and so on - are further proof of this. Although the Arab world is the "weak link" in the chain of the world market, the states of the African core are nevertheless its most chaotic depository. They do not yield revolutionary scenarios such as Tahrir, yet they are nevertheless profoundly volatile. Whereas the movements organized around Tahrir were informed and shaped by a long, if marginal, tradition of secular trade unionism, other states necessarily find those secular resources out of reach. This should not be read, however, as an apologia for the necessity of religious reaction. It is quite simply a sober historical assessment of the forms taken by social anxiety in extremely volatile situations where no fuller articulations are able to take root. If you want to stamp out Islamic jihad, it is first necessary to establish the grounds for a socialist critique of global capitalism. There can be no doubting the comfort offered to the uprooted, the disenfranchized, and the dispossessed by the daily, community-based activities of religious zealots. Global disorder simply reproduces their conditions of existence. An intensification and expansion of the security state merely crystallizes their isolation. Tellingly it was only with the thaw of the 1830s - and the onset of the Parliamentary Reform era so long agitated for by radical militants and Luddites alike - that the new trade unionism could emerge in Great Britain.

What the history of the Industrial Revolution in England tells anyone interested enough to look is that the popular politicisation of religion - not religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world" but as a mobilizing and organizing force - is not the last but indeed the first resort of those whose loss of existential stature in the grinding onslaught of technological modernity compels them to oppose it. The same goes mutatis mutandis for Islamic jihad: these are not reactionary cruelties conjured from the cumulative wisdom of some imam's head. Neither in fact do they arise phantom-like from the teachings of the Prophet to suck the life from the world's impressionable young. This is just idealism masked as ideology critique. There is - dare I say it - a dialectical interaction between bodies of religious thought and the processes of technological modernity. Reaction is not the echo of a vanquished past but is in fact conjured by modernity. The supposed absolute contest between secular enlightenment and religious reaction is a fantasy. The real struggle that develops out of the dialectic of modernity is one between forms of political representation which, on the one hand, seek to establish the domination of one group over another and those, on the other, that seek a lasting recognition of difference mediated first by common interests.         

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