The decline and fall of totalitarian regimes has pointed up the underlying totalitarianism of ideologies that only yesterday were able to buttress their credibility with vocabularies of emancipation. With the crumbling of the old dichotomy between Eastern bureaucratic despotism and Western democratic bureaucracy, one thing has become perfectly clear: all ideologies are totalitarian. Cut off from the very life they are supposed to represent in the spectacle, they invariably take over a repressive power that has been in place for thousands of years: the power of heaven over earth, of the spirit over the body, of lucrative labor over creative pleasure.
Arising from a philosophy in rebellion against theology’s hermetic and pervasive vision of the world, ideologies were assured victory in their relentless undermining of the religious edifice when the agrarian mode of production gave way to industrial capitalism. The French Revolution rendered obsolete the long-held conviction that God was the arbiter of well-being and misfortune. Paradoxically, however, though they smashed the yoke of the Church and the priests, ideologies preserved the essence of religion over everyday existence by exercising control that; as secular as it might claim to be, perpetuated traditional Judeo-Christian forms of behavior: guilt, self-hatred, fear of pleasure, the hope for a future heaven on earth, and, above all, the contempt for the body and for the earth that gives our upside-down world its intolerable reality.
The present-day collapse of mass ideologies – of nationalism, liberalism , socialism, fascism , communism – encourages the increasingly widespread turning away from the political sphere per se. This reaction also reflects the confusion of people ill-prepared for independence and poorly schooled in the art of deciding their own fate. The inability of the most diverse governments to resolve the present economic crisis has produced contradictory and fluctuating tendencies: on the one hand, a regression toward the archaisms of religion; on the other, a new consciousness, that of the individual who banks on the will to live in order to rebuild the environment so horribly abused by traditional rulers.
So brutal has the exploitation of nature been that its resources – the very nature of its profitability – are threatened with exhaustion; there is thus no choice but to develop ecological markets in order to get the economy out of its present morass. People have already been aroused, then hoodwinked, by the imperatives of consumption at any cost. There is a good chance that people moved by real desire will easily discern tenderness and creativity among the dividends of this “renaturalization,” and that, for the sake of their own happiness, they will treat this process as an incitement to transcend the venal co-optation of life.
It is not, however, inconceivable that the religious spirit, weary of Churches but not of itself, may find a niche in ecology; that Gaia may be conscripted to lend a semblance of life to those mortal relics of God that still dictate so many actions governed by fear, submission, dependency and repression alternating with temporary release.
It is worth recalling, therefore, that religion has never been anything but the relational mode employed by the State as a replacement for the former osmosis between human and earthly nature. More than any other religious cult Catholicism and its dissenting offshoots have maintained their power through constant ecclesiastical control, using the spatial grid of parishes and the calendar’s ritual marking off of time to track down indifference or resistance to the inculcation of the faith.
By labeling as heresy all views of which it disapproved the Church successfully passed its orthodoxy off as a unique scale for weighing the true meanings of words, beings and things. It nevertheless felt inadequate and disarmed in the face of certain attitudes that it deemed “meaningless and demented.” With some unease the Inquisition attached the words “free spirit” and “madness” to men and women who renounced all spiritual and temporal authority, seeking no more than to live in accordance with their own desires.
As this book attempts to show, the partisans of the Free Spirit were divided on one fundamental issue. Driven by their will to follow nature, some identified with God and the ordinariness of his tyranny, using force, violence, constraint and seduction to secure the right to gratify their whims and passions. Others refused to countenance such a union between a despotic God and a denatured nature, a union whose exploitation found perfect expression in the myth of a divinity at once pitiful and pitiless. Instead they saw the refinement of their desires and the quest for a ubiquitous and sovereign amorous pleasure as a way for replacing the spiritualized animal and its labor of adaptation with an authentic human species capable of creating the conditions favorable to its own harmonious development.
Historians for the most part have ignored or misapprehended the struggle waged through the ages against religion’s impregnation of consciousness and behavior. The disappearance of dictatorships calls for an end to further tolerance of religion’s arrogant attempt to regulate the thoughts and actions of human beings by an infantilizing subjection that is no longer acceptable even in raising children.
Emerging from beneath the rubble of lies and fraud the present is beginning to re-experience some plain truths of the distant past. The Middle Ages were no more Christian than the late Eastern bloc was communist. The heaviest burdens imposed by barbarism have never completely smothered the ever-present yearning for true humanity.
That the commitment to life which is increasingly evident today should once have dared manifest itself in the sinister light of the burning stake is a lesson that, I venture to hope, will not be lost in the United States, where the gulf between technological modernity and an archaic agrarian mentality still nourishes the spirit of Calvinism and the morbid teachings of the Bible.
Raoul Vaneigem, The Movement of the Free Spirit.
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith