Saturday, June 19, 2021

Theological Breaks: Tosel on Marx's Critique of Religion


I never really knew what to do with this meme, but it fits the topic. 
Also sorry. 

At the beginning of his trajectory of criticism Marx wrote, "the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism." There is perhaps no contemporary philosopher who has taken up that challenge than André Tosel. Tosel has returned to the question not just of Marx and religion, but more broadly of the role of the critique of religion in radical thought from Spinoza onward. Tosel's trajectory in some sense begins and ends with the question of the critique of religion, beginning with Spinoza ou le crépuscule de la Servitude : Essai sur le Traité Théologico-Politique and nearly ends with Nous citoyens laïques et fraternels? : dans le labyrinthe du complexe économico-politico-théologique (I realize that the book on Gramsci and the little book on Emancipation came out afterwards). Throughout his life Tosel was interested in thinking through the relationship between religion and capitalism, and to what extent the critique of religion could be used to make sense of our subjection and attachment to capitalism. 

I have blogged briefly about Tosel on religion and capital before here.  L'Esprit De Scission: Études sur Marx, Gramsci, Lukács (published in 1991, but one of the last books by Tosel that I have gotten to, yes, I am reading them all) contains a brief essay on Marx and the critique of religion that offers an interesting historicization, even a kind of break, in Marx's thought on religion. Tosel argues that the early Marx offers a critique of religion which is primarily Feuerbachian in orientation. Religion is a separation and an alienation from reality. "Religious consciousness is characterized as the maximum of ideological alienation in that it is the most unreal and the most imaginary." It is this formulation that we see running through Marx's early writings, from "On the Jewish Question," which considers the modern bourgeois state to be in essence religious because of its detachment and alienation from the hierarchies and divisions that define modern life, to The German Ideology, in which the priest is the first form of the ideologist.

When religion returns in Marx through the famous section on commodity fetishism and in the lest famous, but equally important formulation of the "religion of daily life" referred to in Volume Three it is a very different figure. Religion no longer signifies abstraction, separation, and alienation of daily life, but something that is entirely intertwined with it and immanent to it. As Tosel writes,

"In Capital Marx makes it appear that the real submission of labor under capital (in the production of relative surplus value) is the condition that provokes the modern religious reflection which has the specific form of the sentiment of dependence under a God that has become universal, and the determination of human beings under the abstraction of man. It all happens as if in the age of capitalism religious mysticism has for its basis the mystical character of commodities. Commodity fetishism is at the origin of the genesis of modern religious ideology. The relations between people become foreign to them and take the form of things and the description of this fetishism uses the religious analogy."

It could be said that whereas Marx's first critique of religion was predicated on the Old testament, a separate and transcendent God ruling over us, the later criticism is more of a New Testament, in which the commodity is our daily bread. Tosel takes Marx at his most extreme point, the point where he identifies religion, and specifically Deism, with commodity production. This provocation is the condition of a reversal of the fundamental sense of religion, and with it the mystification and symbolic nature of the social order. It is no longer something that stands above and apart from society, acting on it by being disconnected, but is entirely immanent to it, produced by it. Commodity fetishism is not an alienation or separation from daily life, but a production of it. 

The two different critiques of religion are in some sense not about religion at all, but on how we understand the relationship between the connection of the order of things and ideas (to use a Spinozist formulation) or base and superstructure, to use a Marxist one. Tosel uses, or will come to use, a different formulation framing it as a question of the relation between capital and its symbolic order. The two different critiques of religion intersect with a different transformation in Marx's thought. As Tosel writes in his later works, in The Communist Manifesto Marx identified capitalism with the destruction of any symbolic order, all that is holy is profaned, but Capital fundamentally reverses this, it is capital that creates its own fetish.

The lingering question, at least for me, is how to think what Tosel refers to as the symbolic dimension of capitalism itself. The way in which money, labor, and commodities are not just material things, or economic relations, but are also part of the symbolic order we live under and the imaginary way that we orient ourselves in this order. Thus, it is necessary to dispense with the idea that capitalism is a kind of rationalization, of existence, decoding norms and values with axioms between abstract quantities, to use Deleuze and Guattari's formulation, or a "desacralization of the social bond," to quote Badiou. Capitalism mystifies as much as it demystifies. These mystifications do not relate to some other world, to God or even the nation or state as something beyond capital, but to capital itself. It seems to me in thinking about work, and its ethical and subjective importance, as well as the odd deification of billionaires one comes back to the point that we never really left the critique of religion, only now capitalism is our religion. 

Lastly, as much as I titled this post with a reference to Althusser and the idea of an epistemological break, Tosel's argument, his whole way of reading Marx, is less a matter of a decisive break than one of different tendencies. Even in 1843 Marx's famous assertion that religion was the opium of the masses was followed by the line connecting this opium to the pains it alleviated, to its social conditions; in a similar manner, the religion of daily life under capitalism, that stems from the commodity form, is as much an inversion of the appearance of social relations as it is a product of them. The two different critiques of religion, that of alienation or fetishism, never entirely displace each other, but overlap as two different ways of addressing the same problem, that of the relation of materiel conditions to the way these conditions are conceptualized or represented. 

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