Nietzsche: Prophet of the Twentieth Century?

From Human All too Human, “A Glance at the State”
Paragraph 472:

But what if a quite different conception of government such as is taught in democratic states begins to prevail? If it is regarded as nothing but the instrument of the popular will, not as an Above in relation to a Below but merely as a function of the sole sovereign power, the people? Here the attitude towards religion adopted by the government can only be the same as that adopted towards it by the people; every dissemination of enlightenment must find its echo in their representatives, and an employment and ex- ploitation of the religious drives and consolations for political ends will no longer be so easy (unless it happens that powerful party leaders for a time exercise an influence similar to that of enlightened despotism). But if the state is no longer free to profit from religion itself or the people come to hold far too diverse opinions on religious matters for the government to be permitted any single unified policy regarding religious measures – then the way out will necessarily be to treat religion as a private affair and to hand it over to the conscience and customs of every individual. The first consequence of this will be an apparent strengthening of religious feeling, inasmuch as suppressed and concealed manifestations of it to which the state involuntarily or deliberately gave no breathing space now break forth and proceed to excesses and extremes; later religion will be overrun with sects, and it will become plain that at the moment religion was made a private affair an abundance of dragon’s teeth were sown. The sight of this conflict, the malignant exposure of all the weaknesses of the religious confessions, will finally admit of no other way out than that every better and better gifted man will make irreligion his private affair: which disposition will then come to dominate the minds of those in government and, almost against their will, give to the measures they take a character hostile to religion. As soon as this happens the mood of those still moved by religion, who formerly adored the state as something half or wholly sacred, will be transformed into one decidedly hostile to the state; they will lie in wait for the measures taken by the government, seek to obstruct, to cross, to disrupt as much as they can, and through the heat of their opposition drive the counter-party into an almost fanatical enthusiasm/or the state; in which development they are secretly aided by the fact that, since their sundering from religion, hearts in these circles have felt a sense of emptiness which they are seeking provisionally to fill with a kind of substitute in the form of devotion to the state. After these transitional struggles, which may well last a long time, it will at length be decided whether the religious parties are still strong enough to revive the past and turn back the wheel: in which case the state will unavoidably fall into the hands of enlightened despotism (perhaps less enlightened and more troubled by fear than formerly) – or whether the anti-religious parties will prevail and, perhaps through schooling and education, in the course of generations undermine the propagation of their opponents and finally render it impossible. Then, however, they too will experience a slackening of their enthusiasm for the state: it will grow ever clearer that, together with that religious adoration to which the state is a sacred mystery, a supraterrestrial institution, the attitude of veneration and piety towards it has also been undermined. Henceforth the individual will see only that side of it that promises to be useful or threatens to be harmful to him, and will bend all his efforts to acquiring influence upon it. But this competition will soon become too great, men and parties alternate too quickly, hurl one another too fiercely down from the hill after barely having attained the top. None of the measures effected by a government will be guaranteed continuity; everyone will draw back from undertakings that require quiet tending for decades or centuries if their fruits are to mature. No one will feel towards a law any greater obligation than that of bowing for the moment to the force which backs up the law: one will then at once set to work to subvert it with a new force, the creation of a new majority. Finally – one can say this with certainty – distrust of all government, insight into the uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles will impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to the abolition of the distinction between private and public. Private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors. Disregard for and the decline and death of the state, the liberation of the private person (I take care not to say: of the individual), is the consequence of the democratic conception of the state; it is in this that its mission lies. When it has performed its task – which like everything human bears much rationality and irrationality in its womb – when every relapse into the old sickness has been overcome, a new page will be turned in the storybook of humanity in which there will be many strange tales to read and perhaps some of them good ones. – To repeat in brief what has just been said: the interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined. The belief in a divine order in the realm of politics, in a sacred mystery in the existence of the state, is of religious origin: if religion disappears the state will unavoidably lose its ancient Isis veil and cease to excite reverence. Viewed from close to, the sovereignty of the people serves then to banish the last remnant of magic and superstition from this realm of feeling; modern democracy is the historical form of the decay of the state. – The prospect presented by this certain decay is, however, not in every respect an unhappy one: the prudence and self-interest of men are of all their qualities the best developed; if the state is no longer equal to the demands of these forces then the last thing that will ensue is chaos: an invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state. How many an organizing power has mankind not seen die out: for example that of the racial clan, which was for millennia far mightier than that of the family and indeed ruled and regulated long before the family existed. We ourselves have seen the idea of familial rights and power which once ruled as far as the Roman world extended grow ever paler and more impotent. Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion. To work for the dissemination and realization of this notion is another thing, to be sure: one has to have a very presumptuous idea of one’s own intelligence and scarcely half an understanding of history to set one’s hand to the plough already – while no one can yet show what seed is afterwards to be scattered on the riven soil. Let us therefore put our trust in ‘the prudence and self-interest of men’ to preserve the existence of the state for some time yet and to repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous!

Reflections on campaigning

Watching the heated start of the legislative elections 2009 campaigning-marketing initiatives I could not refrain myself to remarkzz a couple of points, although quite disarticulated here is a draft for those who are crazy enough to read:

1- Election campaigns have totally new techniques (as I said earlier much better imbued with advertising brand-empowering), away from the cult of the figure, and into the elusive world of concepts. The striking transitive example is Amal that has its own brand empowering (Al Amal Youwahid, Hope unites) along with a logofied picture of Nabih Berri. this kicking in of advertising techniques are really something compared to previous elections in that flooded the country with people’s faces. Portraits should start appearing now, although I am not in Beirut to testify.


2- Battles occur at the symbolic level where one idea of the nation prevail in reaction to what the other propose. At this level, and without taking actual intentions into consideration (meaning that I don’t care if these guys do ‘mean’ what they say), Hizbullah and Amal’s campaign are unifying symbolically, whereas LF and and Kataeb are reactive border-lining resentfulness. Tayyar campaign is a bit pompous I must say, looking overly confident and it kind of goes well with the projected character of its leader General Aoun (see here for an example). I say projected because it is how he is perceived that counts and because it mirror well with its Christian constituency social practices (Lebanon is the Switzerland of the ME, fashion, pubs etc.)

So in a sense, campaigns are reactionary, and even more so, they stigmatize quite well who is ‘more at ease’ in the perception of his political presence on the Lebanese scene. It also represents quite well the different historical perception of the different confessions of the Lebanese state. Anyway, when Kataeb Insurance-product-like ads (al Barlaman silahouna, the Parliament is our weapon) make a clear allusion to Hizbullah’s weapon, Hizbullah has a rebuttal to Kataeb newcomers (Sami Gemayel and his Loubnanouna, on which I vented), with their “Loubnanoukom, loubnanouna, loubnanouhom” (Your Lebanon, Our Lebanon, Their Lebanon) barred and “loubnan watan wahid li jami’ abna’ihi” (Lebanon, one nation for all its people). The strong is all-embracing, not out of some murky sentimental love mind you but just out of his position of power, while the weak is isolationist and resentful. I did not invent that, the last guy to elegantly conceptualize this timeless fact is Nietzsche with his morality of master and slave.


3-So the fight is clearly conceptual. But that’s what advertising is all about. And the Lebanese advertising ‘community’ has been working on its slogans for decades now. These are the real nationalists. And its inclusion in the political ethical discourse is rather new in the Lebanese setting. But this goes hand in hand with the idea that TV, newspapers, ads, etc. are the new temples of this ‘religion’ called the Nation. And here friends and relatives, I just look from one angle of what the term religion could actually mean. These media devices are producers of morals, in the Nietzschean sense, they are the protectors of the liberal tradition: the idea that man as an individual is free and a utility-maximizer. This tradition can only exist when is erected through the new moral boundaries in which this freedom is incarcerated: “You’re free but you have to behave this way, consume this or that, be Lebanese, or Palestinian or French, etc.” My point is surely not that man could be free and is enchained once again. My point rather is that the liberal tradition has made people think they could be free in a rather novel way (from previous traditions), to conceptualize freedom as such and really believing that it is a worthy, if not the number one goal to achieve, in order to crystallize even more so the imprisonment of man in the capitalist-eco-technological-commodifying system whatever you want to call it of today.

4- I will glimpse on my last point and think about it for another post. Hizbullah’s biggest competitor on the Lebanese scene is tayyar because it is the only party that people defined confessionally as shi’a takes somewhat seriously. Here competitor can involve a constructive process. It is the challenge of the presence of Tayyar and its popularity throughout its Shi’a constituency, that will push Hizbullah to move more and more away from a politico-religious discourse, here religion means a specific reading of a  socio-historical tradition to a more national-political one. It does not mean that Hizbullah will do away with Islamic idioms, far from it, but this political ‘islamicity’ will develop quite differently (and has already been evolving in different directions for quite some time). I must say that whether you want to call the State “secular”, or “religious” or what have you, the important point that will never change is that the State is here to stay with its projected imaginary sense of a nation. Political slogans such as the liberation of Jerusalem, may well invite for new types of political solidarity pushes, but at best it will facilitate a drive to better regional integration (EU style) more than anything else. Breaking from the boundaries of the nation-state even for movements that emerged at the antipodes of it is going to be quite difficult. it does not mean that all local movements are ‘nationalists’ whatever that may mean. It just means that these group want to play the nationalist card because that’s what works and counts politically.


This post is undergoing severe re-Clarification! It is the writers opinion, following his enlightened readers, that the terms used obscure more than clarifies the meanings he is trying to propose…

It is not “religion” that makes people more “conservative” and sexually less “liberal”, but it is the capitalistic system, and the emergence of a bourgeois society. So Religion, or religious institutions in a capitalist system, religion under the watchful eye of the State can project more “conservative” practices.

Yet “conservative” does not mean much, and the management of the body is a much more complex issue than being “free to do whatever I want”. Because “free” and thinking that one knows what he/she “wants” are conceptual illusions that blind you from seeing how enslaved one is by the power structures in place. And that’s the merit of the liberal system.

The politics of “the rule of law” and that of “God”

I am more and more convinced that there is no basic difference between what is commonly called “secular” and “divine” rule. And I’m stressing the political dimension of this. Its performative dimension. Of course religiously derived rule is “rule of law” too. But here I’m using the secular concept of “rule of law” as European enlightenment has convinced itself and convinced the colonized world that there is such a difference, between “human-based” rights, and ethics (turned into rules) derived from religious teachings. Secular rule derive legitimacy from the texts of men whereas religious rule (an invention that arose in reaction to the idea that ‘secular rule’ exists) derive legitimacy from the texts of God, and the words of prophets (let’s not even venture in the discussion that prophets are men).

But in both cases, it is the actual texts that authorize ruling (not men). Reading is interpreting and interpretation is always different depending on the historical context of the reading (if I want to summarize a very thorny theoretical issue!). Texts are read by men (of course ‘women’ too) and they assume a constant supremacy over them. Indeed the most important aspect of these texts at the legal level is this space where the text is held above men, which is the same in rules supposedly whether derived from men or ‘God’. It is assumed that texts change more often in content under a ‘man-based’ rule, and I’ll go with the assumption that it does, but the result is the same when the text is set during a specific period of time it is above immediate human judgment.

Now a little story that will illustrate only one application of what I am trying to say: If I cross the street in London when the green light is on for cars, taxi driver (those who probably are mostly used to follow ‘the law’ to the letter) would actually accelerate the speed of his car in a seeming attempt to hit you. In this instance, there is a brief time where the law supersede the ‘human condition’, where the possibility of killing is ‘ethically’ less condemnable because “he’s conforming to the law”. And in every human action the English system is mainly based on this all pervasiveness of the law. Every human action is sentenced by a rule, a role, that is made much more explicit and inscribed than in other systems of rule (my point is that the “God” predicament does not change much).

Actually most Nation-State’s rate of success (economically, socially, etc.) is measured according to how strongly the ‘rule of law’ is ‘respected’, to what extent it dominates human relation, over human’s ability to make instantaneous choices. The disciplinary extent of that can be quite pervasive: it is the flip side of the fictitious ideology of “Individualism”, “free will”, etc. So many times have I gotten the typical answer “Sorry we understand you, and although it is an exceptional case, we have to follow the procedure or else it will be against the Law”.

I would actually postulate that human-derived laws can be way more detrimental and ‘despotic’ than God derived ones at the very least because of this feeling of superiority that man has when he finds out that he’s the bearer of ‘the logos’, of the Verb. I will stop here so that it does not result in a long post. But these ideas will be developed at length in coming posts.

Sex, Sex, and Sex (now do your job search engines)

Some time ago NBN (care of Nabih Berri, leader of Amal) had a show on relationships between the sexes that quickly turned into a debate about sex before marriage. The show consisted of an audience of students probably in their twenties, put in front of one Maronite priest, one Shi’a sheikh, and a sociologist from the Lebanese university (or Balamand, not sure).

I want to comment on what came out of this show, because I think it demonstrated quite well the big questions around which ‘sexuality,’ as a concept, has been framed, at least, in this part of the world. And my aim is to be as brief as possible so that people might actually want to read the whole post. So here are my tentative claims:

When we talk of sex before or after marriage today we raise questions; we come to understand sexuality very different ways than say a century ago. The role concepts like ‘religion’ and ‘belief’, play in the way sexuality is understood or framed change overtime in the sense that the very ‘notion’ of ‘sexuality’ does not mean the same thing for different people at different point in time and space. My claim is that the way we ask questions about sexuality betrays a specific ‘modern’ understanding of it that we in turn project back to some ‘non-modern’ past. This was clearly present in the discourse of the people attending the show, with or without social status (priest, academic, etc). Again just to illustrate, sexuality in the ‘modern’ sense is framed along new categories such as ‘private’ and ‘public’, sex related choices are made by ‘individuals’ living in a ‘society’. Most importantly, it puts the individual in the spotlight as a taking decision, analyzing and making ‘choices’ based on ‘reason’ or reasoned thoughts (i.e. this is good for me because such and such, or bad because such and such). All this is rather new.

The problem raised by all these ‘individuals’ when talking of their notion of sexuality is mostly not one of ethics, or even ‘morals’, but one that resembles what we clumsily call ‘identity’, and that I would characterize for the sake of simplicity here as a problem of ‘projected tradition’. Of course, social actors in place do for some think that the nature of their question is ‘moral’ (or reasoned) and that’s the whole novelty of it, but one need to go beyond the moralistic claim as representing fixed ‘values’ each person borrows from a pool of eternal norms that here we call ‘religious’ and there ‘secular’, etc. And so by identity I mean a completely fragmented constant effort at attaching representations of the self according to different traditions, histories or narrative, different signifiers built on difference, while being subjected to the various institutions, ‘legimators’, disciplinary agencies that are put in place. One needs to understand the specificity as well as the banality of statements such as ‘I am a secular’ or ‘a religious’, a ‘Muslim’, or ‘liberalist’, etc.

Every claim is attached to different representations of what the body ‘means’ for the self along with its experiential testimony (that in any case is always reverberated by meaning). If I put a veil or I don’t do sex before the marriage it means that I decide to manage my body in a specific way that builds up my ‘individuality’ as attached to the different signifying chains I make. But this building up of ‘individuality’ is crucially modern and legitimated by very similar agencies of power throughout the world, namely Nation-States and what has been dubbed ‘the liberal system’, that I definitely don’t think the “Islamic” wave challenged, for the simple reason that the political apparatus prevailing is being used without being changed by “Islamists”.

Which leads us to my third idea: with the rise of the modern state as a massive redistributor, reorganizer, and mobilizer of resources, living entities and geographies, and most importantly, as an institutional challenger to other social arrangements that once prevailed, ‘religion’ comes to occupy a different social space. The ‘religious sphere’ is created in reaction to this weird invention, the ‘secular sphere’. There is no religion, at least as we know it today before the rise of ‘the secular’ (a perfect example is the word ‘Din’ that did not mean the European term ‘religion’ likewise developed through the emergence of the capitalist system). These are new understandings elaborated in the epoch of ‘modernity’, projecting in the past notions worked out in the present through a specific reading of history, another tool for creating narratives or stories of belonging.

Now let’s see how all three points meet:

So during the show, as every person deploys such concepts and notions depending on personal strategies, experience, background, lifestyle, dispositions, etc, the different protagonists battled their way through making sense of their different social positions. The sheikh kept on going back to the idea that ‘religion’ is still very useful to regulate the lives of the commoners and that sex before marriage is more a source of nuisance than anything else, especially with marriage as a contract and very flexible tool etc. Here for example what the Sheikh points out to be ‘the religious’ was once ‘the social’ (also as we call it today) if I can permit myself such an abstraction. But the Sheikh does not realize this or let’s say that even if he did he’s nonetheless constrained by this hegemonic notion of the religious I am myself trapped in as I presently write.

The priest tried to articulate a concept of “love” which various significations could help the individual confront the realities (read as ‘choices’) fragmented families, teenagers and young adults are exposed to, and in turn could be used to strengthen their relationships. Knowing how to love creates types of union etc. The priest was in this sense way ‘weaker’ than the Sheikh, a sign of the more enduring autonomy of Islamic institutions in legislating lives and so adapting to changing meaning of words. This is understandable in the sense that the priest (along with Christian ecclesiasts of the Orient) internalized the western discourse on religiosity, an effect of the influence of Christian western missions to Lebanon that completely changed local Christian understandings of ‘Christianity’, and created an unbridgeable schism between enduring local social practices that are very similar to Islamic ones and are alien to practices that emerged in the ‘secular’ world, and the actual language that derives from the latter world.

One obvious example of this is when one guy quite sarcastically said that he was already in his mid-20s and kind of had difficulties managing his libido, and could not get married for obvious socio-economic reasons (changing realities we live in), and that he asked for counseling. So the Sheikh immediately answered him that he had the choice of zawaj el muta’a, while the priest kept on turning in circles diverting from the very banal issue of the guy until he said in an exasperated way “I have no solution for him”. The priest is left with the ‘secular’ version of Christianity, one that has no social solution in itself, but needs the backing of the all powerful State and its disciplinary institutions. Both the Sheikh and the priest though are trying to find answers to questions modernity asks.

The sociologist was a bit useless, stating obvious things such as attraction exist and that ‘statistically’ when two people are attracted and they are in the same reason there will most likely be some type of contact, you can avoided etc. This is probably a mark of the weakness of academic institutions in this part of the world in creating predominant worldviews (ideologies) and adapting discourse to local particularities without copy pasting Comte, Weber, or Gidden’s Sociology. Again this reinforces the authority ofwhat are today called ‘religious’ instances.

At some point a veiled woman in the audience answered a guy who’s been arguing for sex before marriage, explaining his argument by saying: ‘You are a secular, and I am a motadayineh’ the latter translates roughly as ‘religious’, in any case nowadays. But I think this claim is one that aims at drawing imaginary and so political differences (whether they exist in a ‘hard’ reality or not). They don’t exist as ‘sign’ that’s for sure. The question of identity that I tried to get around before is probably at work here. Then she adds quite interestingly “there is no difference between ‘making love’ and ‘having sex’ except for the emotions involved” and so for her, “marriage is for sex”. Indeed, for her, the system which encompasses what she calls ‘religiousness’ includes the social practice of getting married, legitimating, rendering ‘just’, in order to have sex. This choice she makes is akin to the one some women make when they decide never to have sex on the first night, or any other disciplinary practice that has the function of managing ‘sexual’ activity, or of course the total opposite which is to be ‘sexually liberated’ to choose to have sex whenever she wants.

But to go on a tangent here (already somehow explored in another post), one of my main ideas is that when we invoke the concept of the Secular we either refer to an institutional arrangement or a ‘State of being’. In the first case, the modern nation-state makes it very hard for alternatives to secular arrangements to exist (for example even if Iran as a political system claims to divert from secular governance, it is still institutionally very much a secular state where ‘religious’ authorities always have their legitimacy challenged by other political actors). In the second case, we are in a totally different place, we are referring to an imaginary sense of being (any sense of being is imagined I am just stressing the ‘imaginary’ part of it), that resembles more nationalist discursive elaborations, appealing to a historical tradition, a narrative that makes sense differently to each individual, although the process itself is the same (for ex claiming to be ‘religious’ or ‘secular’).

During the show, the most important (in the sense of the most mentioned) argument against sex before marriage revolved around a specific understanding of femininity, of ‘the woman’, the ‘woman in the east’, ‘the east’ as opposed to ‘the west’, etc. Most of the students agreed that one of the main problems facing women is how they will be marginalized and oppressed if they have sex before getting married (‘the fault is always on the woman’ they repeated). The Sheikh and the others agreed with this perceived social status-quo, calling on the students to then take marriage as a useful tool to escape this danger.

But I was astonished to see the extent to which certain women internalize this status-quo. At some point, one woman says to a guy advocating sex before marriage: “At the end of the day, will you accept to marry a non-virgin woman”, and I don’t know why but the other guy did not answer, and the discussion went into another direction. But this woman takes very seriously this eventuality: being refused by men because they lost their virginity ‘to somebody else’. She was practically accusing the guy of even thinking getting a woman that is not virgin. This is not just ‘female subjection’ as would a classical feminist reading of this would go but also ‘man subjection’: She was calling on the man to fulfill his role as “man” in a certain sense as dictated by ‘eastern society’. When you define the woman you are defining the man, a subject always overlooked by those studying women’s condition in this part of the world.

So in a way this was an unconscious acknowledgement that there is no ‘essential’ moral problem with having sex before marriage, but that it had to do with a particular region (they do it in the West but they are ‘different’, again the identity argument) that creates specific understandings of what it is to be a woman or a man. By the way, all this stands in radical contradiction with (and actually incorporation of) the repeated claim during the show that ‘we live in another epoch today’, the ‘epoch of fast information, internet, etc’ where ‘everything is available’. This is basically sex in the modern age: A redefinition of roles, a re-ordering of the functioning of institutions whether called religious or secular, a remaking of differences, and in order to defend these differences, the flashing of hollow moral arguments that hides a re-ordering of perceptions of the body and what it ‘means’ to the actors involved.

Sense and non-sense about “Political Islam”

Those studying what is commonly refered to as political Islamic movements should know that the paradigm of the Nation-State is here to stay, and quite for some time and with all its institutional and politically practical consequences. The whole ‘secular VS religious’ debate begs the question. It is all an endlessly renewed effort to find a discursive envelope to the same infernal machine called the modern State with its projected population/territory/etc. It does not mean that alternative to the classical European narrative to the nation is not possible. “Islamism” is one such. And I’m not saying that the Nation-State cannot be challenged by “Islamists”. It can actually be challenged by any politically relevant actor/organization when the latter can challenge on a large scale the economic and cultural logic of the capitalist system and all of its institutional (legal for example) ramifications. Although “Islamists” branch out and create at times slightly different type of institutional structures they by and large stay very much fall prey to the cultural logic of the system no matter how hard they officially fight the ‘nationalist’ paradigm because their political calculations cannot but be national, geared towards using the structure of this pre-established colonial State.

The sexuality fixation of the left reveals its liberal nature

Following Jamal’s post on leftism and its concern with “nudity” I did some thinking (never enough) and I ended up circling around this idea that the left always contained the elements needed to provoke its own demise.

The left’s stance concerning the dispositions and use/techniques of the body (sexual freedoms sometimes narrowly defined) is supposed to go hand in hand with the idea that to fight oppression, one must be able to manage his body as he/she pleases. Society imposes all kinds of rules on these practices, this status-quo is called “conservative”. When you put into question these rules you become “progressive” or “leftist”. One of the biggest problem the left has with Islamic movements is their very disciplined, gendered type of politics.

Notwithstanding the fact that this aversion betrays a bourgeois contempt of the left towards the other, I think the left completely lost focus of what fighting the domination/oppression of the body really is about (surely not the narrow minded ‘sexual freedom’). The exact lines of power between the self, the body and society are not as clear as “i can have sex with whoever I want”.

First the contradiction: if one is supposed to cultivate a ‘free’ management of the body, then one becomes self-centered and with time loses his more social concerns. I think this is why Fascism and Communism are not just two sides of the same coin (two opposite extremes), they are the mirror image of each other. Both ask for the erasing of the individual into the overarching ‘social’. The left thinks naively (in a liberalist way) that the individual actor can do this and at the same time learn to do “whatever he wants with him/herself”. But this makes one fall into a narcissistic pseudo-destructive individualistic practice of the self.

By the way, the real challenge to the Liberal political system of state-forming Europe was Fascism, and not Communism. Because it challenged the very nature of the relation between the self, the body and society, whereas the left was more concerned with preserving the liberal legacy of the all-mighty individual actor. I don’t know to what extent fascism was truly a challenge to the liberal order because Fascism was defeated (as a grand project, but fascistic tendencies still exist in Europe and the Americas today).

This is what the Islamic trend really objects to: Communism and other leftist trends are part of the liberal legacy. Both legacies (leftist and its father liberalism) through their doctrines have poor understandings of the place the relation between body and self-mastery occupies in society.

The secular and the religious (Part I): Conceptual confusions

Let’s wrap up the concerns that were voiced over the idea of an Islamic State. This text is a bit disarticulate and is mostly a series of thoughts on the question that I fail to more effectively organize. But I have been trying to produce a decent post about this for the two last weeks and I promised an answer so here it is. This is just the first part. Part II will be on the actual practices, historical and present, of political movements and institutions in the Middle East in relation to the concerns raised in the comment section of the last post.

I will start by the statement I found the most interesting: “I disagree though that an Islamic or for that matter any religiously derived state is better than a secular one. Unless the religious is regulated in a secular way”.

At the heart of this highly coherent and seemingly legitimate comment, lies the working of modern hegemony: The acceptance of a social system that has changed the significance of the term ‘religion’ or for that matter our understanding of the “religious” phenomenon and led to the rise of another elusive concept, the “secular”. The trigger of this discursive shift is the emergence, the rise of the almighty modern nation-state. New structures of power require new conceptualizations of social reality. The definition of two allegedly different phenomenon namely “the religious” and the “secular” is a political move before anything else.

It does not mean that the secular creates similar social spaces than the religious, on the contrary, but it is important to remember that the difference has nothing to do with something intrinsically religious or secular about it. Ok, for now I’m talking abstract and enigmatically so let’s try to illustrate.

When we use these terms we usually mean several connected spheres of social life:
1- personal beliefs about reality physical or spiritual
2- rituals and practices we engage in and the meaning we give to them (i.e. 1)
3- legal rules we abide by that regulate the interaction between social agents
4- Institutions that have the power to enforce the legal rules specific to the region (the State, courts, etc.

When people discuss the relation between the religious and the secular they usually refer to one or more of the four mentioned areas. The problem, I think is that sometimes they mix everything up. In a pre-modern settings these 4 areas of social life are not politically separate or distinguished, but the rise of modernity triggered a discursive separation, meaning that it enabled intellectuals, political actors, institutions etc, to talk of a separation of spheres.

The rise of “the secular” as a space in modern politics is, if you ask me, a big trick. In marxist linguo, it serves to preserve the interests of the overarching state (thus the dominant actors behind it). The rise of the ‘secular’ is accompanied by the rise of the concept of “individual”. The individually maximizing profit type of actor. The individual who thinks independently of his social structures. When we refer to the fact that ‘the individual’ should be free to make his own decision about what he believes in is to play by the rules of modern political structures of power. In this case, we fail to understand that in the first place, individual are social actors, meaning that they form beliefs ‘socially’, that their decisions are socially determined. But this valorization of the individual paves the way to the biggest political alienation of the individual which is the creation of the national actor. So you become an individual who is supposed to make his own decisions about things provided that you’re labeled from birth to death as a ‘citizen’ with benefits, and responsibilities vis-a-vis an overarching State.

So the State compartmentalize the four areas mentioned above. It privatize what becomes “religion”. Whereas in a pre-modern setting there is no such thing as “religion”, but more of a general understanding of social and political life that disursively links beliefs to rituals and political rule. It does not mean at all that people are automatons following the dominant ways of holding beliefs, it just means that talking about beliefs as different from rituals and other social activities, at the political level is non-sense. Privatizing religion (saying that religion is a private affair everyone chooses to practice on his own) involves fooling the individual into thinking that he is free to make his own beliefs about things, and these beliefs will be called “religion”, or non-religious is they don’t derive from a tradition of beliefs.

Arguing that there is something peculiarly religious about Islamic political movements is I think to miss the point of general political, social, and economic processes at stake. We think we have different beliefs about life etc. The content may be different but the form is pretty much the same. We all believe the same way. There is a striking resemblance between women who strive to look undressed and those that veil. Both are elaborating a specific representation of femininity. It is basically the metaphors that change, linguistic metaphors that end shaping the conceptualization of our Self. And this process is virulently social: We are all social agents holding socially determined beliefs. Rimbaud was not that stupid when he said “je est un autre” (I is another or Self is Other).

Also, we should not think that when one talks about being ‘religious’ he means going back to a pre-modern understanding of the four areas mentioned above (even if he/she think he/she is). Islamic movements for example accept, whether consciously or unconsciously the dominant social paradigm of modernity. Why? Not because there is something special about them but because of the imperative of new political and economic structures in place namely the modern-State.

Islamic movements are totally in line with these new conceptual categories the modern State feeds to the people. In this sense claiming to want an Islamic state is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The key here is that the reaction against the dominant discourse of ‘secularism’ is one against the identification to institutions that are not ‘homegrown’ (a point mentioned by one commentator). In this sense if I can vulgarize a bit, asking for an Islamic state is asking for a different ‘nationality’. Of course here the process of national formation is very different from initial European ones at the very least because the former is a post-colonial one. This is why we may in the foreseeable future see the rise of modern-state that are not exactly “nations” in the old European sense (as Islamic movements approach power).

So Secularism cannot exist without nationalism (or maybe other forms of projected collective history) i.e. language and stories from which governance legitimacy is derived. Likewise nationalistic manifestation in the Middle East take place through the discursive Islamic prism. France is ‘secular’ but without French ‘history’ of kings, revolutions, age of enlightenment and other Totemization of the past (to use a Straussian concept) what would become of the secular “French” system.

One should read Islamic resurgence through the same lens: the dialectical relation of social actors to a specific territory, its institutions. The Islamic is the set of signifiers attached to specific representations of the self. It is in this sense, I think, that the secular/Islamic debate is a bit sterile at the normative level. At the legal level, it wants to derive the rule of land, people, and resources from a different regional and historical context.

I have tried to understand Islamic movements as a cultural movement through the use of language in an earlier post for those interested. But I will have to develop these ideas further.

The rituals of legislative rulings

When the U.S. House of Representative voted to put the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on the list of terrorist organizations, Iran’s Parliament agreed on qualifying the C.I.A. and the U.S. army of terrorist organizations.

This can be read as follows: Any form of resistance must pass by the vocabulary of the hegemonic, here being the US definition of terrorism, its various uses, and the ability to ‘institutionalize’ the ruling (becoming law through the parliament). Why do Iran bother to pass legislative decrees stating that that these American institutions are ‘terrorists’? The same reason why it deployed all this effort for the ‘holocaust’ convention. The Holocaust convention was not a case of showing antisemitism etc. It was an effort to show that another ‘normalized’ reality could exist and be debated by people.

So why does it bother? Because the new conceptual and descriptive formulations will be uttered and written, it will enter the terms of speech and thus will exist as a political reality. In fact Iran takes very seriously the inner functioning structures of the international system, the U.N. etc. It uses the available system to voice contention. This is the power of symbols, this is what they actually do in a given reality.

A linguistic theory (or perspective) to understand "Islamic" movements

Ok friends, here we go. After a couple months of ‘deep’ thinking, I got my own eureka. Here is what I think serves as a binding device for all the arguments I’m going to be making in my work. But I need to have an idea of what you think, if it makes sense, or is my eureka just a figment of my imagination (well it is one) that cannot be shared.

A couple of questions:

Is there something that differentiates Islamic movements from other movements? Is this something has to do with some “Islamic” component? If yes, how to understand this “Islamic” component?

My tentative answers respectively to each questions:

The difference is in the language used as representative of a different ‘form’ of consciousness (culture, etc.) shaped by different institutions and power relations in place. It has to do with something ‘Islamic’ in so far as the discourse and practices used to act are different and claim to borrow ‘legitimacy’ (understood as ‘linguistic coherence’) from a pool of metaphors, symbols, and clusters of meaning (of course constantly changing) derived from the spoken (here Arabic, but other languages too), and the written (Koran, etc.). The Islamic is understood as a powerful pool of meanings anchored (taking authority) from written heritage (Koran, etc.) that provides an all encompassing forms in order to direct changing practices on the social ground. The difference here between the spoken and written is crucial, I will try to explain this in a later post. The borrowing happens in hectic, unpredictable, and even contradictory way sometimes (depending on symbolically powerful actors who are at the forefront of this knowledge creation.

My argument (heavily indebted to ‘critical thought’ in general) then is: Islamic movements are resistance movements to a slowly maturing colonizing process, the one that penetrates and changes the consciousness of subalterns. The fall of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of modern state, and the entry of new forms of economic and social exploitation, all reverberating in the intrusion in the language used (here Arabic that completely changed its modes of work included new formulations, meanings, etc.), all are examples of this colonizing process. The most successful form of resistance is the one that strives to create separate forms of consciousness (different understandings (symbols, meanings, etc.) of social reality. Islamic movements to varying degrees are about that, that is their only a priori similarity, they go back to a specific articulation of the “language”, the one of the Koran for example (Gramsci rightly points out that language is a worldview). Now depending on historical, social, institutional etc. circumstances in their respective geographies, you have completely different experiences that arise. Most importantly, their relation with other forms of consciousness (like the more hegemonic, “western” form) is crucial to understand the evolution of meanings amongst these movements.

I’m not saying that Islamic movements are a ‘renaissance’ of Arabic as a language. First, this does not mean anything, just as much as the ‘Nahda’ of the XIX century was not a ‘renaissance’ of Arabic but more aptly described as a re-appropriation and development of linguistic devices to assert new forms of consciousness representing a specific social class etc. There is no aesthetic judgment in what I am saying, I’m just putting into light certain processes that I think can be derived from the reality we live in. However, I want to say that Islamic movements strive to master a certain use or practice of Arabic, one that sees specific concepts fusing in. It is like a laboratory of already existing clusters of meaning that is constantly re-worked to include the contemporaneous pressing concerns. the important thing is the artifact, the form in place (the language and its potential of asserting independent forms of consciousnesses)

Also more importantly, I’m not saying that Islamic movements are ‘regressive’ or ‘progressive’, leftist or rightists, fascists, etc. because all these are ‘western’ categorizations (meaning institutionally and historically determined in Europe and elsewhere) for political organizations. One can always compare and derive certain similarities and difference, some of them being very interesting, but remember that this categories are political programs in themselves. Fascism exists in Leftist political formations and vice versa. The dichotomy of right and left in Europe and elsewhere serves as a political disciplining device. Anyway that is another subject. And for fear of diverging too much I leave you with that.

God, reason, and language

Echoing with what I started fumbling about in a previous post, I found this marvelous passage in Derrida’s critique of Foucault’s History of Madness:

Mais Dieu, c’est l’autre nom de l’absolu de la raison elle-même, de la raison et du sens en général. Et qu’est-ce qui saurait exclure, réduire ou, ce qui revient au meme, comprendre absolumment la folie, sinon la raison en général, la raison absolue et sans détermination, dont l’autre nom est Dieu pour les rationalistes classiques ? On ne peut accuser ceux, individus ou sociétés, qui on recours à Dieu contre la folie, de chercher à s’abriter, à s’assurer des garde-fous, des frontières asilaires, qu’en faisant de cet abri un abri fini, dans le monde, en faisant de Dieu un tiers ou une puissance finie, c’est-à dire en se trompant ; en se trompant non pas sur le contenu et la finalité effective de ce geste dans l’histoire, mais sur la spécificité philosophique de la pensée et du nom de Dieu. Si la philosophie a eu lieu – ce qu’on peut toujours contester – c’est seulement dans la mesure où elle a formé le dessein de penser au de là de l’abri fini. En décrivant la constitution historique de ces gardes-fous finis, dans le mouvement des individus, des sociétés et de toutes les totalités finies en général, on peut à la limite tout décrire – et c’est une tâche légitime, immense, nécessaire – sauf le projet philosophique lui-même. Or dans son sens intensionnel propre, il se donne comme pensée de l’infinie, c’est-à-dire de ce qui ne se laisse épuiser par aucune totalité finie, par aucune fonction ou détermination instrumentale, technique ou politique. Se donner comme tel, c’est là, dira-t-on, son mensonge, sa violence et sa mystification ; ou encore sa mauvaise foi. Et il faut sans doute décrire avec rigueur la structure qui lie cette intention excédante à la totalité historique finie, il faut en déterminer l’économie. Mais ces ruses économiques ne sont possibles, comme toute ruse, que pour des paroles et des intentions finies, substituant une finité à une autre. On ne ment pas quand on ne dit rien (de fini ou de déterminé), quand on dit Dieu, l’Etre ou le Néant, quand on ne modifie pas le fini dans le sens déclaré de sa parole, quand on dit l’infini, c’est-à-dire quand on laisse l’infini (Dieu l’Etre ou le Néant, car il appartient au sens de l’infini de ne pouvoir être une détermination ontique parmi d’autres) se dire et se penser. [footnote on page 90-91)

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. L’écriture et la différence. Paris: Editions du Seuil

On being a "Lebanese" leftist

Part I: General considerations

“every language contains the elements of a conception of the world.” Antonio Gramsci (p. 325, Selections from the Prison Notebooks)

Some time ago, there was a little debate engaged on the blogosphere (here and here) on what it means to be a leftist in the context of Lebanon, and on what are the choices Lebanese leftists are faced with in the Lebanese or Middle Eastern context. I was hoping to post something on this but I guess I just needed time to think about the main issues. I’m not saying maturity has been reached, but the time taken has delivered certain conclusions. So in the hope of keeping with this tradition of being labeled as leftist, here are a few preliminary thoughts.

To start with being a leftist is a human condition unbounded by ‘nations’ or other internalized political narratives. When I say in the Lebanese context I mean that I will propose practical applications in the case of this geographic area, this power cluster that came to be known as Lebanon. So the first notion the Lebanese leftist must think of is bringing back the Lebanese entity to its colonial root and recognize that there is nothing inherently “Lebanese” about any of the Lebanese.

Moreover, a leftist perspective would concentrate on demystifying all the various “Lebanese” narratives that are present in the various social fields of the country in so far as they block a genuine awareness of the general public interest. In so doing, any discursive endeavor to conceptualize a people is always geared towards creating new power structures, new dominant actors that use these idioms to better tame constituencies. So being nationalist especially in the reactive sense (against a perceived ‘other’) cannot be leftism. I have in mind all the pseudo-leftist turned anti-Syrian for example. For me, a leftist is someone who resist such labeling because he knows that it ultimately serves specific exploitative structures.

Being a leftist, is engaging above all in cultural issues. It is through the creation of meaning that oppression manifest itself. Paradoxically enough, although being a leftist is often equated with being a materialist and being concerned with the modes of production, social inequalities, etc. I think nothing of that can be understood without taking a close look at what bars some people to rise up and change the status quo, or to just follow different identification processes to arrive at new social realities. What better example to take here than Confessional Lebanon where specific ways of defining one’s self along a sect has tamed a truly popular uprising. Of course, sectarian divisions exists because it pays to be sectarian, meaning that clientelistic ties makes it easy for various players to keep constituencies happy (by bribing them). And vice versa, any individual who needs something is much better going to the local sectarian leader in order for it to be done.

But a truely leftist view should not forget that these ‘modes of production’ (the base as Marx would have it) projects specific forms of conceptualizing one’s self through the use of language. Our discursive practices solidifies, crystallizes our differences that are imposed on us by the coercive nature of power fields, and this is the power of ideology: When one starts thinking of himself as a Sunni, Christian, etc. without a direct conscious awareness of the base (economic and social modes of production).

In effect, being a materialist is an analytic device. It does not mean anything to BE a materialist. Creating sense or representation of reality already distances you from a totally materialist outlook. Moreover, having the “idea” of being a materialist has something spiritual to it. Being a leftist has something even religious to it. Misunderstanding this dimension has been the biggest blunder of the XX century. It unavoidably rendered “Leftism” as a purely European or ‘Westocentric’ phenomenon that emerged from a parochial struggle against the Christian Church over political prerogatives, and it has secluded all other forms of popular uprising as regressive. (In the latter case “Leftism” is a bourgeois phenomenon, but more on that in Part II).

So a genuine leftist view must reckon the religious in the rise of liberalism and the nation-state. A genuine leftist view must demystify the whole ‘enlightenment’ period, and understand it through its political angle, it must destroy words like ‘modernism’, especially when it comes to perceive the Middle East as at a cross road between ‘modernism’ and ‘obscurantism’ (something a ‘leftist’ like Samir Kassir never quite understood, and I will write more on Kassir in Part II). The leftist animosity against ‘religion’ should not be understood as a general reluctance to accept anything religious. On the contrary the left must understand that it is in itself a religious phenomenon and that the real leftist struggle is against those who use religion as an oppressive tool. This goes from certain types of religious institutions (I would call them social institutions) like Church etc. to the modern state.

But there is another point I’m trying to make here: Above all, “Liberalism” is as religious as “Islamism” or “Communism” in the sense that it engages social, political, economic, and cultural practices that disciplines individuals in their knowledge of themselves through ritualistic behavior. I don’t want to elaborate too much on that here, but it must be clear that there is nothing fundamentally specific (in a religious sense) about Islamic movements for example. A genuine leftist view must do away with dichotomies such as secular/religious, and must understand how religion was internalized in the secular.

A genuine leftist view must keep in mind that what it is after, is understanding all forms of oppression inflicted on societies, individuals and their bodies. It is partly why a leftist can understand that in certain parts of Latin America you had what were called “Marxist priests” fighting for native population’s rights and in the Middle East, people like sheikhs sayyeds and the likes who studied radical forms of Islamic thought in Najaf, Qom, etc and installed wealth-redistributive social institutions, or at least institutions that mobilized resources in a new and more effective way. Now what happens to these people across time is another question, and this is why a leftist view must always be concerned with how actors emerge as dominant and the possible oppressive tools they start having at their disposal.

Compare this with traditional ‘religious’ authorities such as the Maronite church (did you know that this church owns most of Christian populated lands in Mount Lebanon?) or Sunni Sheikhs (the type of dudes that were opposed to civil marriage because it would have taken out some of their privileges), or even some traditional Shi’a religious authorities that were vehemently opposed to the new comers. What is really funny is when some Lebanese ‘leftists’ or ‘critical thinkers’ like Wadah Charara (دولة حزب الله، مجتمعاً اسلامياً) writes on Hizbullah as a diabolic force of religious men that came to displace traditional forms of authority. In this sense some Lebanese ‘leftists’ perpetuated classical forms of domination through their bourgeois practices. But more on the Lebanese particularity in Part II.