Sellout of the century

The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous commotion. The banners and posters with which the square was decorated were all wrong! Quite half of them had the wrong faces on them. It was sabotage! The agents of Goldstein had been at work!

-George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I’ve been arguing for quite a while now that the antiwar left has sold itself out to the religious right. After reading this Seumas Milne piece, I can only say – it’s nice to know it’s all official.

Milne has practically spelt out my argument for me.

Before 9/11, the left saw religion, rightly, as an ally of the establishment and a tool of social control. Marx’s phrase ‘opium of the people’ was misinterpreted to mean the churches’ efforts to stave off revolution by brainwashing the masses. As Milne says:

Historically, of course, it was the left, rather than liberalism, that was most hostile to religion. From Tsarist Russia to Tibet, after all, organised religion stood with the established order, preaching social deference to the powers that be and leaving hope of justice to the hereafter.

In the first years of my political awareness, anyone who was against war and capitalism would likely be a fiery atheist as well. Bill Hicks was our favourite artist, and like him we mocked and hated the church – any church. There might have been a vague half-interest in Buddhism (brought on by the Kerouac books we were all reading) but the faith was not taken seriously in the way it is now.

The left position on religion was nicely summarised by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He used the character of Moses to stand for the hypocrisy of the church:

The pigs had an even harder struggle to counteract the lies put about by Moses, the tame raven. Moses, who was Mr. Jones’s especial pet, was a spy and a tale-bearer, but he was also a clever talker. He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.

And then September 11 happened and everything changed.  Suddenly figures I admired on the liberal and far left began defending repressive belief systems and theocratic regimes. The principal peace movement of my day formed an alliance with a far-right Islamic organisation, and allowed it to hand out leaflets at its demos. For the ease of this alliance the movement watered down lifelong commitments to gender equality and gay rights. Academics and columnists bent over backwards to make excuses for harmful religious practises, and self-elected representatives from reactionary faith groups were given comment pieces and interviewed on serious radio shows. It turned out we had been fighting Eastasia all along. Suddenly faith was good.

Why this massive U-turn? Milne’s reason – that religion has become more progressive – doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The Iranian theocracy is still executing socialists and trade unionists, amongst many others. The Al-Qaeda/Baathist ‘resistance’ is doing much the same in Iraq. The Christian fundamentalists Bill Hicks used to rant about are still in power, and actively involved in the terror war. Our own church disgraces itself on a monthly basis by fighting against any proposed social change. There has been an increase in forced censorship and the persecution of writers and artists across the globe. If anything, faith-based politics has got worse.

So, again, why the reversal? Milne inadvertantly sets out the real reasons.

1) Opportunism – some religious groups are fighting the West, and anything that’s against the West can’t be all bad. Or, as Milne says: ‘At the same time, Islamist groups which had provided crucial support for conservative pro-western regimes around the Muslim world in the postwar era began to fill the political space left by the decline of Arab nationalism and the left, increasingly drawing their support from the poor and marginalised.’

2) Disillusionment – faith, especially Eastern variants, seems to offer a more spiritual alternative to our decadent consumerist society. From Milne’s piece: ‘People continue to search for spiritual meaning in a grossly destructive economic environment where social alternatives have been pronounced dead and narcissistic consumption is king.’

For Milne, the new enemies are now the ‘anti-religious evangelists’ (oh, we’ve never heard that one before, Seumas) who ‘are increasingly using atheism as a banner for the defence of the global liberal capitalist order and the wars fought since 2001 to assert its dominance.’

Got that? Nonbelievers, especially passionate ones, are ‘apologists for capitalism and war.’

Milne gives no examples of atheists propagandising for Bush, and that is not surprising. As Norm points out, Richard Dawkins – the man most people are talking about when they speak of ‘militant atheism’ – is a strong opponent of the Iraq war. Ditto Sam Harris, ditto Martin Amis, ditto A C Grayling. Only Christopher Hitchens is vocally and unapologetically pro-war. Milne’s symmetry doesn’t stand up.

His article is a childish slander against the secular left. But this is where we are. This is why people who call themselves and are accepted as liberals or leftists support religious regimes or movements that fight every principle the left stands for. This is why Muslim dissidents and refugees, who speak out against their governments at great personal risk, are denounced as ‘Uncle Tom’ figures and/or CIA stooges. This is where we are now.

It would be good if the status-quo left learned that it can piss and whistle at the same time: oppose the injustice of global capitalism, and also oppose the religious alternatives that are far worse.

It would be good if criticism of religion wasn’t just dismissed as racism, or neocon propaganda, but seriously discussed.

But this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

5 Responses to “Sellout of the century”

  1. Inept Marxist case for religion « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] argument is one I’ve discussed before, but I have never seen it presented so hilariously as Molyneux has. I actually laughed out loud […]

  2. Accessory to empire part 94 « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] argued that there’s just no point engaging. I did address Eagleton’s basic argument in this post. If he, Bunting, Milne etc ever change the record I will come back into the […]

  3. Gerard Stocker Says:

    Stanley Fish just published this on Eagleton.

    Thoughts? I agree with much of what Fish says here. Certainly understand your chagrin at having atheism described as the vanguard of the “global liberal capitalist order” though. Not “croyant” myself, btw.

    Just found your blog via Terry Glavin. Good stuff. Don’t agree with everything but always nice to find a live mind.

  4. Lenny’s Bullshit Bingo « Shiraz Socialist Says:

    […] between faith schools is in fact the British state. And many defenders of secularism are and were against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – so spare us the denounciations of ‘those who have aligned themselves with mass […]

  5. Lenny’s Bullshit Bingo « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] between faith schools is in fact the British state. And many defenders of secularism are and were against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – so spare us the denounciations of ‘those who have aligned themselves with mass […]

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