God and the Political Planet
Régis Debray is a French writer and philosopher. He was a top foreign affairs adviser to French President François Mitterrand and is a frequent contributor to NPQ.
Debray has been way ahead of his contemporaries in noting the resurgence of religious faith in a world supposedly gone secular. His comments here, more relevant now than even then, are based on a talk he first gave at the inaugural meeting of Intellectuels du Monde more than a decade ago in New Delhi. NPQ was a co-sponsor of that conclave.
Paris—In Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere along the rim of the Mediterranean, the first headway made by Islamists in the student world occurred initially in technical institutes, then in engineering faculties and finally in scientific universities—in other words in the most modernist sectors and those most exposed to the outside world.
But did our sociologists not tell us that all things religious emanated from the soil, from history and from tradition? Had our historians and philosophers not proclaimed a century ago that technological and scientific progress, industrialization and communications would without doubt erase nationalistic and religious superstitions? Don’t we daily speak about the “opposites” inherited from the 19th century: the sacred vs. the profane, the irrational vs. the rational, archaism vs. modernity, nationalism vs. globalism?
Apparently, we got everything wrong. Our modernist vision of modernity has itself turned out to be only an archaism of the industrial age. The anachronistic and the archaic all have their place in modern politics because “modern” does not designate a location in time but a position in the terracing of influences, or determinations: not the outmoded but the substratum; not the antiquated but the profound; not the outdated but the repressed. It is not by mere chance that such a large number of contemporary cultural mysteries can only be penetrated through the X-rays of primitive societies.
In fact, terms that are antithetical in the mind of modern sociology appear instead to be in correlation with each other. Every imbalance caused by technological progress seems to lead to an ethical readjustment. Hence, the confusion between the homogenization of the world and assertion of differences, between intellectual knowledge and emotional roots, between economic imperatives and spiritual aspirations.
When the birthplace becomes blurred, the threat of death looms large. We no longer know “where we are” for we no longer know whence we came. People discover they are lost and the list of “believers” lengthens. There is an intrinsic relationship between the disappearance of points of reference and the rise in myths of origins.
It is true that industrialization is antireligious because it relocates peoples through the rural exodus, the shift in employment, the immigration and emigration of foreign labor, the increased social mobility and the loosening of moral codes dependent upon close community.
But it is because of this very dislocation that, in industrialized countries, the pursuit of relocalization of the imagination is relentless through movements seeking regionalization or ethnic affinity. Even the ecological ethos of the age is “think global, act local.”
In agrarian countries subjected to industrial rape, a no less convulsive return to presumed sources of identity destroyed by technological standardization takes place. The Shah’s Iran liberated by Khomeini comes immediately to mind. In short, the modernization of economic structures leads to a rise, rather than a decline, in archaic attitudes of mind.
One Planet | Planetary reunification has, in a sense, indeed taken place: The world is one, and the interconnection between its parts is ever more apparent. But at the very moment that economic life has become planetary, cracks are appearing in the political planet. There are surprising cross-currents: An obsessional neurosis concerning territory confronts the increasingly free flow of commerce; the freer flow of information begets cultural self-assertion.
Our village is, at the same time, ever more planetary and chauvinistic. One exists because of the other; that is why we are experiencing the age of nationalism, separatism, irredentism and tribalism whose hidden face is that of segregation, war and xenophobia. The urge toward division which principally threatens large multinational states of a federal or confederal nature has not spared even the earliest “civilized” and centralized states of Europe.
The combination of the economic integration and political disintegration of the world calls for a deeper examination of the interdependence of the two. The rise in religious fervor can be interpreted as a backlash against leveling in the economic sphere, leaving the field open to the imposition of cultural boundaries, both as an outlet for the expression of differences and as a brake on technical uniformization. Identity lost in one field is regained in the other. Imposed globalism incites premeditated particularism as an antidote to homogeneity. The macro-spaces of dispossession lead to a loss of the sense of belonging, made up for by the micro-space of sovereignty.
Splintering politics counterattack integrating economics. The transfer of skills to external, uncontrollable decision-making centers gives rise to a compensatory tilt toward withdrawal and internal autonomy. Globalization must be appreciated under its twin aspects of withdrawal and redeployment, of contraction and expansion, of deculturalization and re-culturalization. In Europe this was all manifestly clear in the debate over the Maastricht Treaty on integration.
The appearance of localisms does not negate globalization. On the contrary, it is a product of globalization. Each new device for uprooting liberates a mechanism of defensive territorial implantation, necessarily of a sacred nature. The soil and the sacred go together.
It is as if there were a thermostat regulating collective identification, a mysterious anthropological mechanism that, through extremism, heals the wounds inflicted by dislocation on the cultural integrity of human groups.
The Spiritual Pendulum in History | The 20th century saw an unprecedented infusion of religions into politics, mostly through the great secular mythologies of class struggle and nationalism. Since the failure of our utopias and substitute millennarianisms with a universalist claim, we have witnessed the offensive of the old, local millennarianisms. The latter are trusted as far more consistent and less prone to “falsification.”
The disinvestment in the political field by those who have been disillusioned is now opening the way to investment in the “City”—in the ancient sense of a tribal grouping—by the revealed religions according to their natural, territorial inclination. This can be seen as a backward swing of the spiritual pendulum in history.
The liberal, mercantilistic and minimalist state is, therefore, playing into the hands of the clergy who will not relent until the universal secularism of modern times gives up completely. “We destroy only that which we replace,” Auguste Comte prophesied.
Religion turns out after all not to be the opium of the people, but the vitamin of the weak. How is it possible to divert the poorest of the poor from taking recourse to this vitamin if democratic states have no mystique to propose other than material improvement?
We must see that it is precisely due to the lack of a freely granted civic religion, the lack of an agnostic spirituality, the lack of credible political and social ethics that, once again, clerical fanaticisms are prospering.
Today, the greatest ally of obscurantism is the spiritually empty economism of our prosperous liberal societies. If our cynics up there at the apex of power were less concerned with the Dow Jones Index there would undoubtedly be fewer devotees, down here, in the mosques and basilicas.