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    psicobolche tcda's Avatar
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    Default Critique of the concept of "Fanaticism" (article)

    LENIN'S TOMB

    Review of Alberto Toscano on fanaticism

    I have been procrastinating over this book for some time. I have intended to review it for more than a month now, but I've constantly put it off. This is primarily because of the difficulty I would have in doing it justice. It is the sort of book I would like to have written, or at least to have had available when I was writing Liberal Defence. It is the sort of book I will enjoy plagiarising, come to that. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that its remit covers much that is without my area of competence. The book was launched in a fairly packed hall at Marxism today, and focused mainly on the curious idea of "political religion", and the relevance of various invocations of "fanaticism" as a form of political critique.

    We have encountered the trope of "native fanaticism" before, in the context of imperialist ideology, from Uttar Pradesh to Baghdad. Orientalism has produced various "Muslim fanatics" over the centuries. The figure of the fanatic is also a familiar subject of Cold War obloquy, from Spargo's appraisal of Bolshevik psychology to the 'antitotalitarian' literature of Fifties America and Seventies France. And of course, these discourses have been reinvented today to meet the putative challenge of "political religion". Today, "fanaticism" is held up as a sort of sock puppet opponent for those who would consider themselves enlightened, liberal, and modern. But is there anything that unites these various ideas? The answer might be that fanaticism is a mood, a psychic state characterised by a non-negotiable commitment to "something abstract" - whether that abstraction is revolutionary liberty, communism, or the earthly rule of God. In contrast, the liberal is empirical in his attitudes, and sensible of the need for compromise in pursuit of a modus vivendi. This is the ideologeme, the stereotype, or at least one variant of it.

    Toscano's terse, penetrating account of the "uses" of "fanaticism" seeks to historicise and contextualise an idea that vigorously resists history and context. The book is not so much a history, though its chapters are arranged in a roughly chronological sequence, as a work of philosophy, a literary critique, a genealogy of ideas and also - inasmuch as each chapter could stand alone - a volume of thematically continuous essays. In examing different aspects of the idea of fanaticism, from origins in the Germans Peasants War (here he draws on the work of the excellent Peter Blickle), through its uses in the Enlightenment, in the defence of slavery and in imperialist theodicy, Toscano juggles an intimidating array of topics - psychoanalysis, philosophy, racism, anticommunism, recondite marxist polemics, secularism, anti-utopianism, etc etc. - comfortably shifting between multiple perspectives and analytical frameworks. One of the most surprising and enjoyable chapters in the book deals with the complex relationship between reason and fanaticism in Enlightenment thought. In this, we encounter fanaticism not merely as irrational dogma, but as a surfeit of reason. Indeed, the whole Burkean critique of those revolutionary "fanaticks" is precisely mounted on anti-rationalist precepts framed by one trained in Humean empiricism.

    As far as "political religion" is concerned, this line of critique comes from two angles. One suggests that a political religion is a perverted expression of a spiritual impulse that is far better served by authentic religion. This raises a potentially discomfiting chain of induction for the devout since, by identifying religion with a set of ideological gestures and social processes, it raises the prospect that all religions are in essence no different to other ideologies and thus susceptible to the same modes of critique. The other angle, the response of the empiricist liberal ostentatiously displaying the looted intellectual treasury of the Enlightenment, suggests that the very idea that a form of politics recalls religion in having non-negotiable tenets, in pursuing non-empirical, abstract goals (eg, universality) is already to damn that politics. But that line of critique assumes that there is some form of behaviour that is essentially religious. Toscano deflates this with a choice quote from Kenelm Burridge:


    "Meditating on the infinite may be a religious activity, so may writing a cheque, eating corpses, copulating, listening to a thumping sermon on hell fire, examining one's conscience, painting a picture, growing a beard, licking leprous sores, tying the body into knots, a dogged faith in human rationality - there is no human activity that cannot assume religious significance".


    Which, if you think about it, somewhat takes the sting out of the charge of "political religion". The war on terror has of course produced various kinds of 'anti-fanatical' discourse. In the main, this is has focused on Islam, although some of the soft liberal critique of the neoconservative right also takes this form - they're obsessed with some kind of abstract global democratic revolution, because they're all closet Trotskyists. But that aside, the main way in which we encounter such discourses is with respect to Islam. Toscano is entertaining on the history of this kind of vituperation, particularly on the laboured analogies drawn between Islam and communism. Depending on who you listen to, Islam is the communism of the 21st Century; communism was the Islam of the 20th Century; Lenin was Mohammed (Keynes); Robespierre was Mohammed (Hegel); and even Hitler was Mohammed (Barth, Jung). The logic is curious. It is as if Islam itself is merely a worldly, materialist social doctrine in devotional get-up; but at the same time, Bolshevism (and/or Nazism, depending on who you're hearing from) is really a fanatical pseudo-religious doctrine with worldly trappings. It sets up a dichotomy that automatically deconstructs. But the even more curious thing is how, from the counter-revolutionaries of the 18th Century to the counterinsurgency texts of the 21st Century, the role of 'fanaticism' always turns out to mandate an equal and opposite 'fanaticism' in retort: since our enemy is fanatical, will stop at nothing, knows none of the humane and liberal limits that we assume, we must be fanatical, stop at nothing, throw aside our humane and liberal limits, otherwise all is lost.

    Toscano has much fun, and vents justified disgust, at the expense of the turgid polemics about Islam that have been produced in the context of philosophy and psychoanalysis. This includes, but is not restricted to, a finely pointed, piercing critique of Zizek's engagement, or non-engagement, with Islam. In contrast to his ostentatiously philosophical approach to Christianity and Judaism, Toscano maintains, Zizek's encounters with Islam are strictly ideological, or sociological, tending merely to reproduce trite clash-of-civilizations discourses, predictable interrogations of the 'veil' that feed into the usual moral panics, dichotomies that award to Christianity an emancipatory, rationalist kernel that is held to be missing from Islam, and which produce the Muslim-as-pervert, the fundamentalist fanatic with a direct line to God. Taken in conjunction with Zizek's particular appropriation of Bloch's atheism-in-Christianity thesis, his belabouring of Islam feeds into the typical problematic of a Christianity that is supposedly the religion to end all religions, but is chronologically prior to Islam and is in some sense haunted by Islam's alterity. At best, this results in Orientalist pseudo-analysis of the kind that his favourite philosopher, Hegel, was rather fond of. The relationship between this kind of 'anti-fanatical' discourse and Zizek's broader Eurocentrism, not to mention his explicit apologias for US imperialism in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, is obvious and requires no elaboration here. I will not do Toscano's analysis - either with regard to Zizek, or the wider topic of psychoanalytic treatment of Islam - justice by attempting to render it in a few brief phrases here. But I found it useful to have an argument that meets and bests the psychoanalyst on his own turf.

    This dissection of fanaticism, and the family of concepts surrounding it such as political religion, totalitarianism, and so on, is a potent intervention that defends radical and revolutionary Enlightenment, and the emancipatory ideologies emanating from it, from the pall of misappropriation on the one hand, and defamation on the other. It is a compendium of useful idiocies trumped by biting retorts, extravagant rhetoric let down by coolly deflating satire, rampant idealism met and surpassed by sophisticated materialism. For those who remain faithful to the liberating adventure of Enlightenment-as-insubordinate-thought, who still cleave to the possibility of emancipation licensed by reason, and who are marginalised by doctrines of extremity on account of it, this book is a weapon. In the best sense, it is, as Tocqueville said of French revolutionary ideology, "armed opinion".
    "Of course we spent our money in the good times. That's what you're supposed to do in good times! You can't save money in the good times. Then they wouldn't be good times, they'd be 'preparation for the bad times' times."

    "Every country in the world owes money. Everyone. So heere's what I dont get: who do they all owe it to, and why don't we just kill the bastard and relax?"

    -Tommy Tiernan, Irish comedian.

  2. #2
    Sniffles
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    Interesting, I was just reading something about this topic last night:
    It is not just disgruntlement with the state of the world that stimulates the development and adoption of ideologies. After all, disgruntlement with society there has always been and always will be. Dissatisfaction is the permanent state of mankind, at least of civilized mankind. Not every dissatisfied man is an ideologist, however: for if he were, there would hardly be anyone who was not. Yet ideology, at least as a mass phenomenon, is a comparatively recent development in human history...

    ...Ideological thinking is not confined to the Islamists in our midst. The need for a simplifying lens that can screen out the intractabilities of life, and of our own lives in particular, springs eternal; and with the demise of Marxism in the West, at least in its most economistic form, a variety of substitute ideologies have arisen from which the disgruntled may choose.

    Most started life as legitimate complaints, but as political reforms dealt with reasonable demands, the demands transformed themselves into ideologies, thus illustrating a fact of human psychology: rage is not always proportionate to its occasion but can be a powerful reward in itself. Feminists continued to see every human problem as a manifestation of patriarchy, civil rights activists as a manifestation of racism, homosexual-rights activists as a manifestation of homophobia, anti-globalists as a manifestation of globalization, and radical libertarians as a manifestation of state regulation.

    How delightful to have a key to all the miseries, both personal and societal, and to know personal happiness through the single-minded pursuit of an end for the whole of humanity! How delightful to have a key to all the miseries, both personal and societal, and to know personal happiness through the single-minded pursuit of an end for the whole of humanity! At all costs, one must keep at bay the realization that came early in life to John Stuart Mill, as he described it in his Autobiography. He asked himself:

    “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

    This is the question that all ideologists fear, and it explains why reform, far from delighting them, only increases their anxiety and rage. It also explains why traditional religious belief is not an ideology in the sense in which I am using the term, for unlike ideology, it explicitly recognizes the limitations of earthly existence, what we can expect of it, and what we can do by our own unaided efforts. Some ideologies have the flavor of religion; but the absolute certainty of, say, the Anabaptists of Münster, or of today’s Islamists, is ultimately irreligious, since they claimed or claim to know in the very last detail what God requires of us....
    The Persistence of Ideology by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Winter 2009


    I left out the excerpts where Qutb's theories Islamism are compared with Lenin's theories, and how supposedly "IslamoLeninism" is more accurate than "Islamofascism"(I do sincerely question that, even given the parallels). Nevertheless I do agree with Dalrymple's argument that Islamism is largely a product of Modernity, a fact that often escapes many commentators these days - especially in America or Australia(in the case of Victor).

    I'll get into details concerning the issue of "political religions" a bit later.

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    Ginkgo
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peguy View Post
    I'll get into details concerning the issue of "political religions" a bit later.

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    Senior Member Survive & Stay Free's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peguy View Post
    Interesting, I was just reading something about this topic last night:


    The Persistence of Ideology by Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal Winter 2009


    I left out the excerpts where Qutb's theories Islamism are compared with Lenin's theories, and how supposedly "IslamoLeninism" is more accurate than "Islamofascism"(I do sincerely question that, even given the parallels). Nevertheless I do agree with Dalrymple's argument that Islamism is largely a product of Modernity, a fact that often escapes many commentators these days - especially in America or Australia(in the case of Victor).

    I'll get into details concerning the issue of "political religions" a bit later.
    I question attaching islam to either lenin or fascism, in either case its simply a prejorative use of the word, I'm surprised theres not been islamosocialist yet, just especially for the US market.

    I do think it could be accurate to describe it as political islam, the same way in which there has been political catholicism (Franco) and political protestantism (Christian Coalition) before now, I think that because of the significance of the political prefix to the religion because its supporters are generally more concerned with political, temporal power and objectives or martyrology than living in accordance to religions prescriptions in an imperfect world.

  5. #5
    Sniffles
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lark View Post
    I question attaching islam to either lenin or fascism, in either case its simply a prejorative use of the word,
    I agree with you. It creates an artificial political creation which has no basis in political reality. That's quite different than noticing and drawing the parallels that exist within Islamism and Leninism and Fascism.

    I'm surprised theres not been islamosocialist yet, just especially for the US market.
    I think Colonel Qaddafi has that corner covered.

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