Sunday, 12 July 2009

Stray thought

Marx remarks that, "Religion is the opium of the people." Everyone knows that bit, but the comment is often misunderstood.

It comes from A Contribution of Hegel's Philospohy of Right:
This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. (1)

So it is not quite as simple as saying that religion is the wool that is pulled over our eyes to keep us stupefied and placid. It occurs as a response to a need with a far more funamental purpose than coercing obedience through threat of Hellfire. In Marx's view, the religious impulse is an attempt to explain the conflicts created by the fundamental injustices of the world - a doomed attempt, based on false premises, but a valid, genuine effort, none the less.

Which is all well and good and clear enough. But it lead me to a new thought today, or at least the concise formulation of an old one which had been rattling around in the back of my head.

Morality is the wallpaper applied to cover the cracks in the socio-eonomic sturcture of society. In the good old days, it took the form of religion, and people were told they'd go to Hell if they didn't obey the next up on the feudal heirarchy.

Social taboos and morals were established for fundamentally good economic reasons - the Ten Commandments that aren't about the correct form of Sky God worship are essentially about property. Adultery was deemed immoral because it compelled a man to waste his time and effort raising another man's child, theft because it meant the appropriation of the fruits of anothers labour, coveting asses and wives and oxen because it might lead to conflit over the envied property.

In the Victorian era, it was still religion, and this time in was used to justify colonialism and slavery, as being the natural order of things decreed by God. The British/German/French empire was seen to be doing God's work on Earth and thus what strengthened the empire was given divine sanction, no matter how bestial and cruel.

The Sky God smiled on enterprise and industry, nodded his approval over slums and Hellish factories and slavery, because it was all for the greater good, in some ineffable way that no-one could quite explain. Jesus had said something about Money being Not Good, but because money wasn't the ultimate aim, that was okay. But achieving that ultimate aim, conveniently, required that certain people have a lot of money and use it to make more. For the greater good, of course.

In the twentieth century, in the west, religion fell out of favour, as the Sky God was no longer a suitable explanation, post-Darwin. Most of the old morality was junked along with the Sky God, and in its place we have the cult of individualistic hedonism, which says that whatever makes us feel good - especially consumption - is good, and the poor deserve to be poor because they aren't as clever/strong/resourceful/ruthless as their betters.

Immorality is defined as restiction on individual liberty. Think about how the governments are compared to a Peeping Toms when they introdce new legislation giving themselves more investigative powers. Remember the language used to describe Sue Bradford, the Greens and the government during the Section 59 repeal.

It is interesting to note that the liberties enshrined are still the bourgeois ones of privacy and private property - the individual's liberty to help him or herself to the physical property of another is as frowned on as it was in the time of Moses. Failure and need are also now immoral - how often are negative moral labels applied to the the poorest, especially accusations of 'laziness,' 'dishonesty' and 'irresponsibility'?

So the basic repulsiveness of the whole set up is maintained through another polite fiction.
1 - From the introduction to "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," by Karl Marx, published in 1844. Reproduced courtesy of (

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