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Eagleton on God and Capitalism

April 9, 2010

Like it or not, God is back. In leftist circles, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and others have been musing on Christianity’s revolutionary potential. Meanwhile, God’s detractors continue to churn out such titles as The God Delusion and God Is Not Great — works that have fueled op-ed and in-person debates with Dinesh D’Souza and other religious believers.

So why all the God-talk? In a fascinating lecture at Edinburgh University, literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton (himself no stranger to the God Debate) hazards a theory — 9/11:

The fall of the World Trade Center happened not long after some leading Western ideologues, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, had declared that history itself, history with a large “H”, was now at an end, the end of history debate in the sense that the various grand narratives that had characterized modernity — progress, reason, science, enlightenment, classical liberalism, Marxism, and the like — were now definitively over. What remained was a pragmatic, post-ideological, distinctively post-metaphysical form of late capitalism, which was now the only game in town — hence the phrase “the end of history.”

But the intellectual triumphalism which could promulgate this doctrine reflected an actual political triumphalism in the world, not least in the West’s heavy-handed and self-interested dealings with the so-called — sometimes rather laughingly called, I think — underdeveloped world. And that resulted with the consummate irony in the unleashing of a new grand narrative, just as you thought you’d close one down — that of radical Islam. The very act of trying to close down history succeeded merely in prizing it open again . . . the West now found itself eyeball to eyeball with a full-blooded metaphysical opponent, for whom absolute truths and rock-solid foundations posed no problem at all (would that they did) at just the point where it was in danger of lapsing into an unholy melange of moral relativism, political pragmatism, ontological anti-foundationalism, and philosophical skepticism — a mixture which, whatever else one might say about it, has the disability of being gravely ideologically disarming, not least at a time of acute political crisis.

In his book Reflection on the Revolution in Europe (see my review here), Christopher Caldwell makes a similar point about Islam’s challenge to the secular West. Unlike Caldwell, however, Eagleton doesn’t imagine that capitalism can happily co-exist with strong metaphysical commitments. Capitalism, rather, tends to undermine Western values, even as it relies on them for self-justification:

Capitalist civilizations can’t help being averse to what one might dub deep belief, at least in their more advanced, more technocratic stages. Market societies are more inherently secular, relativist, and materialistic – whatever their civilians or leaders might highmindedly proclaim. To legitimate their operations, however, they stand in need of values and principles rather more edifying and eternal than this, which is one reason why they cling to religion, even though they increasingly don’t believe in it, except in the pathologically godly United States.

Caldwell wants to pin Europe’s troubles with Islamic immigrants on its liberal tolerance, but overlooks the close relationship between such tolerance and laissez-faire economics. Both are the outgrowth of classical liberalism (or what is now called libertarianism). If defining the good life is essentially a private affair, as John Locke and other 18th-century philosophers contended, it follows that the state has no more of a right to promote prayer in the public schools than to impose its vision of fairness or equality on wealthy businessmen (a point conservatives and liberals alike fail to grasp). While by no means rejecting classical liberalism wholesale, Eagleton very astutely points out the limitations of its individualism — particularly as expressed in advanced, technocratic societies such as Europe and the United States.

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