To Mistake Piety in Your Own Slavery as Liberation, Research Time, 17/11/2014

When it comes to those early periods in the modern tradition, how I engage with those texts very much depends on how the major thinkers of the period of my specialty (Nietzsche and the following Continentals, Russell and the following Analytics) engaged with those thinkers. When I read Spinoza, it’s having had the tutelage of historical works by authors like Gilles Deleuze and Etienne Balibar. Essentially, they have made Spinoza a political thinker for me above all, meditating at length on what is probably the most important question for our times.

Why do people fight for their enslavement with the fervour they should apply to fighting for their freedom?

Deleuze and Félix Guattari made this the fundamental question of Anti-Oedipus, and Balibar’s book Spinoza and Politics puts it at the forefront of his analysis from the beginning. Anti-Oedipus examines the question from contexts of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, as well as from larger questions of politics and economic relations. None of these books settle the question with a clear answer; if they did, they never would have become such brilliant books of philosophy. They would have become footnotes to be discarded when the question recurred again in politics, as this question always does.

Probably the most impressive totalitarian regime in
human history.
Spinoza’s examination of the question in his political writings may actually have more relevance for the modern situation than Deleuze and Guattari’s calculation. They adapted the question to wondering why people so strongly desired to be rigidly diagnosed into psychoanalytic categories, boxed in to immutable definitions. And they asked why people so strongly desired the mass enslavement and will to self-destruction of totalitarian regimes.

Spinoza, speaking to the conditions of his earlier time and his experience as an advocate for liberal secular politics at a time of religious wars and the political marriage of monarchy and theocracy, framed the question in terms of religion. Why would a person so rigidly define their existence according to the orders and rules of ecclesiastical institutions to the point of annihilating their faculties of critical thought, when such thinking is how we become free?

This context is immensely important today because it’s now so similar to our current global politics, particularly in the Middle East. The ongoing war devastating Syria and Iraq right now is the strongest explosion of resistance against the militarized monarchist states whose armies and secret police have enslaved their populations for decades or longer.

Yet the movement that would replace these would enslave the Arab, Levantine, Persian, and Magreb peoples under an even tighter yoke. Many of the military (think of Egypt) and monarchist (think of Jordan, the UAE, and the small Persian Gulf sheikhdoms) are police states, yes. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia mandates Salafist Islam by all but the gun, and although they violently oppress Shi’ite and Sufi minorities, at least being a Sunni Muslim is enough to avoid serious police state violence.

An Islamic State rally. Well, I guess you have to start
The Islamic State movement, the most hardcore of similarly oppressive fundamentalist Islamic political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, would in practice be an even more dangerously terrifying totalitarian regime even than Hitler’s and Stalin’s versions. Uniting the oppressively violent extremes of Taliban-intensity religious certainty with the apparatus of a Ba’athist or monarchist police state and contemporary computer surveillance equipment would give Islamic State authorities the power to control every social aspect of an individual’s life to the fractally smallest detail.

Yet hundreds of thousands of people in the Islamic State armies (leaving aside the drive for total social control in the extreme wings of the slightly less insane fundamentalist movements) fight to the death to install a regime that would mandate rigid conformity to theocratic principles, and enforce those principles through totalitarian state violence.

Spinoza’s analysis in his political writings shows how people would develop such a hideous desire. He analyzes an ancient theocracy to show how a mutually empowering social cohesion can develop from an entire population sharing a single religion when that religion’s sole authoritative institution is inextricably bound with the state itself.

The religious state institution mandates very particular behaviours in all aspects of life, a mass similarity and familiarity that encourages, along with laws preventing one from being permanently divested of all property and means to support oneself, an atmosphere of brotherhood and camaraderie.

The problem with this is that internal brotherhood of this intensity, achieved through a totalizing social identity with the community of fellow-believers and the state, creates a terrifying xenophobia. The resulting external conflicts must always go the way of the religious state, because the people’s hatred of outsiders would tend to such extremes as to make the feeling universally mutual among peoples.

That was just one example, though. In this case, it was the first kingdom of the ancient Hebrews in Jerusalem, an analysis that would have, shall we say, ruffled a few feathers. I have no idea if it’s accurate as a depiction of the first Hebrew state in Jerusalem before the Babylonian conquest, and it can only be tangentially applied today. If the Taliban regime of Afghanistan is any indication, I doubt an Islamic State based in Baghdad would put much focus on internal camaraderie. As well, the ancient Hebrew Kingdom ruled by men like David and Solomon never had access to the regulatory institutions and tools of governance that we do, which would allow a government genuine control of every miniscule action, and even thought, of a citizen.

But Spinoza at least got the ball rolling on this question, even though it took a while for people to make the question of the people’s desire for their own enslavement a central question for political philosophy again. I don’t think we’ll forget it again anytime soon.

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