Sunday, April 13, 2008

Slave New World

Karl Marx's "On the Jewish Question" is arguably the greatest essay of political philosophy of the 19th Century. In it, Marx argues that there can be political emancipation without human emancipation. For Marx, this meant that individuals can obtain and exercise their full rights as citizens of a secular state in spite of their religious beliefs. However, Marx's essay was far from a glowing endorsement of the modern democratic state. In fact, Marx believed that the modern secular state provided an illusory mode of social recognition that concealed the manifest social alienation necessitated by the capitalist economic system. He believed that the twofold existence of the individual - his existence as citizen of the state and as economic participant in civil society - are irreconcilable, and therein lies his political estrangement. Religion, according to Marx, was the spiritual analogue of the state. Both the state and religion function to redress the alienation precipitated by the forces of production, by displacing the individual's universal existence to another sphere. For Marx, religion is merely the symptom of a mode of political alienation.

I remain unconvinced. For one thing, I do not share with Marx any hope of a utopian economic and political structure that resolves all forms of social alienation. Furthermore, even if such a system could be achieved, religious irrationality would still subvert and destabilize the system's social and political gains. Marx is right to think that religious fanaticism is (often) a consequence of social instability; but he seems not to recognize the ways in which religion precipitates this very instability. The direction of influence goes both ways.


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