The Holy Southern Empire: a proposal for Southern European anarcho-papism
Cura hominum potuit tantam componere Romam,
quantam non potuit solvere cura deum.
Hildebertus, Carmina Minora, no.36
Beyond the Latin Empire
A few months ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a short article on the opportunity to rethink the EU along its cultural traditions, rather than its economic dogmas. Agamben based his article on the work of the Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, who presented the case for the political union of France, Italy and Spain in a culturally homogeneous Latin Empire which was to be politically and economically lead by France, and opposed to the Anglo-German block.
Despite the violent public reaction that followed Agamben’s piece, I would claim that, if Agamben is to be judge guilty of something, it is not of having been too provocative, but not enough.
As noted by Kojeve over sixty years ago, the nation state is today progressively turning into an updated version of the ancient form of the Empire. Both Agamben and Koveje correctly noted the tendency of the Anglo-German world towards the creation of a Northern Empire, and the opportunity for Southern Europe to create its own counter-Empire. However, I believe that the culture homogeneity which the two philosophers deem to be the sufficient glue for such a union, will not be enough for the task of Empire-making. As I will unfold my argument, I will first discuss the missing position of the Emperor, and then I will argue for the role of Catholicism as the main element of such an Empire. Finally, I will present the case for the creation of a Holy Southern Empire.
A Powerful Person in a Position of Power
Any Empire requires an Emperor, and none of the Prime Ministers of the states of Southern Europe – perhaps with the exception of Berlusconi, although the Italian Trimalchio might have at last run out of energy – has neither the qualities or the ambition to be one. The importance of the figure of the Emperor goes hand in hand with the current, progressive unveiling of the truth about power, as exerted in a hierarchical social institution such as a State.
Any organisation that is built around institutionalised power requires for its successful functioning that a powerful person occupies a position of command within its structure. A powerful person is not only an empty vessel of power – such as many, meek Prime Ministers have been, – but s/he is the mystical embodiment of power itself. For this reason, the Italian voters who elected an unsavoury character like Berlusconi were the only ones – perhaps together with the anarchists – to recognise the truth about power, and to act accordingly. Whenever a social institution based on power is lead by a non-powerful character, such as it is the case in most Southern European countries today, its power-fuelled machine simply stops working. A typical anarchist response to this understanding, would be to ban power from the functioning of social institutions, and to strive for voluntary associations of equals. Despite my agreement with the anarchist position, it is safe to state that, today, the anarchist turn is nowhere in sight. While we work for anarchism to take place at a pre-social, individual or inter-personal level, we should recognise the importance for our power-fuelled society to act in accordance to its nature and its natural needs. Hence, the importance of an Emperor to lead the Southern Empire.
But who could be such an Emperor?
The Catholic Exorcism of Religion
Before reaching an answer to this question, we must first challenge Agamben’s and Koveje’s claim that Latin culture can effectively function as a unifying factor for the Southern Empire. While it is true that Southern Europeans share approximately similar lifestyles, I would claim that it is not just their vague ‘culture’ that makes them so similar to each other, but more specifically their peculiar religiosity. With the exception of Greece, all the countries mentioned by the two philosophers – to which we could add Portugal and perhaps subtract France for reasons that will be discussed later – share the same Catholic faith. From the point of view of an atheist and individualist anarchist such as myself, Catholicism embodies perhaps the most advantageous form of religion currently available. As noted by the Italian philosopher Mario Perniola in his beautiful 2001 book Del Sentire Cattolico, Catholicism can hardly be considered as a religion. Rather, it is an intricate complex of rituals and practices, which allow their practitioners – here a more precise term than ‘believers’ – to establish a looser relationship with the tight structures of institutionalised social life, and indeed with religion itself. The emancipatory character of Catholic ritualism – as perfectly embodied by the Baroque style – can be explained in Lacanian terms, if we understand the religious drive as a declination of the unsettling ‘real’ which each and every one of us carries within themselves at all times. While both Protestantism and traditional atheism don’t allow for any relevant ‘imaginary’ expression of such drive – thus empowering and amplifying its haunting presence – Catholicism does exactly the opposite. The incarnation of the religious spirit in countless, astonishingly luxurious figurations, statues and rituals, achieves the effect of exorcising the religious, trapping it in the loop of ritualism. If we are to always be haunted by the spectre of the religious and by the call of the transcendent, Catholicism displays an exceptionally effective array of tools for their exorcism. Having performed their religious rituals in the most spectacular way every Sunday morning, Catholics have the rest of the week to revel in the most beautifully liberating and hypocritical immoralism.
After all, it was on the recognition of such immoralism and of the loss of the purely religious dimension to the Catholic Church, that the first Protestant movements gained their legitimacy and their spiritual driving force. It might also not be a coincidence that much left-wing atheism, with its complete refusal of any ritualistic element in any way connected with traditional religions, is in fact often intimately corroded by a powerful, guilt-ridden and ultimately paralysing religiosity. Repressing or fully internalizing the religious dimension, rather than exorcising it as the demonic force that it actually is, is possibly the best way of being deadly poisoned by it.
The Holy Southern Empire
Having considered both the necessity for a society based on power to function according to its nature, and the exorcism of power which is enacted by its very display, I can now proceed with my actual proposal for the constitution of a Southern European Empire.
Differently from Kojeve and Agamben, I will not identify the shared Latin culture as the core element of this future empire. Catholicism, understood as the spectacular exorcism of power and religiosity, has to be at its centre. Not just an Empire, then, but a Holy Empire. And of course, there is only one possible candidate for the position of the leader – indeed, the Emperor – of such a holy empire: the head of the Catholic Church, the Pontifex Maximus, the Pope-Emperor.
My claim isn’t only grounded in theoretical considerations about the nature of power and the virtues of Catholic immoralism, but it finds proof of its relevance in the face of today’s geopolitical challenges and opportunities. Countries such as Italy, Portugal, Spain and Greece (which, although not Catholic, shares a similar type of spectacularly exorcising religiosity), have never really fared well as Nation States. Each one of them has only really flourished when it was part of an Empire (and, in the case of Italy, also briefly as a galaxy of mercantilistic city-states). Within the current European scenario, and especially in the light of the recent proposal of a two-speed European currency, all these countries risk indeed to be part of an Empire – the Anglo-German Empire – but only as its impoverished, pathetic periphery. Although the situation is different for France, which has been for centuries a powerful Nation State, the decadence of the very form of the Nation State might encourage even France to rethink its position within a larger, imperial assemblage.
If a Holy Soutern Emprie was really to be constituted, Southern European countries should relinquish at once their territorial sovereignty to the head of what is now know as the State of the Church, which would incorporate all such territories in the higher form of the Empire. The Pope would become the sole representative of this newly formed geopolitical formation, of which he would officially be declared Holy Emperor. In exchange for the huge donation of territories and wealth, the Holy Emperor should graciously grant his new subjects complete freedom in sexual and biological affairs, thus concentrating the strength of the Church in the display of religious magnificence and in the actualisation of true political power, rather than in petty personal interference. At the same time – and as part of its therapy of religious exorcism – the Holy Empire would renovate that generous patronage of the arts which has always been the true backbone of the Church’s Propaganda Fidei. All of the sudden, Souther Europe would find itself united under the strong leadership of a powerful person shamelessly occupying the position of power, it would rediscover its vocation for the arts which is perhaps the main visible outcome of its historical legacy, and would be effectively liberated from the stranglehold of deep-rooted, Protestant, guilt-heavy religiosity. For the first time since the golden age of the Baroque, emancipatory individualism would be again possible.
But there is more. While the social democratic dream of modern Nation States has long shipwrecked under the storm of Neoliberalism, the Church has always maintained a strong focus on the provision of welfare services to the dispossessed. As the unfortunate dwellers of the Protestant North will struggle under the hailstorm of neoliberal privatisations, the subjects of the Holy Southern Empire will enjoy a mix of generous social services especially aimed at the proletariat, wide-ranging anti-work policies and unparalleled cultural patronage. At the same time, as long as they offer public homage to the exorcising rituals of the Catholic Church, they will also be free to indulge, without guilt or any deep moral pressure, in the astonishing rainbow of sins and vices which made the age of the Baroque so infamous and stupendously decadent. While the North will giggle hysterically at the impotent pornography of the epigones of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, Holy Southerners will enjoy the carnal sensuousness of a new breed of Caravaggios.
Thanks to its new status as a formal theocracy – although immorally Catholic – the Holy Empire would also find itself in a position of strength to negotiate a new common front with the constellation of Islamic States and movements throughout the world. It would be possible, for example, to imagine a common platform for religious banking, which would create a privileged connection between the Vatican Bank and the powerful networks of Islamic banking, thus opening the Holy Empire to a new, streaming flow of global capital. Similarly, by presenting itself as a religious, rather than secular power, the Holy Empire would be able to put the already existing diplomatic network of the Catholic Church to a profitable use in the interest of its political and commercial aims. For example, in a booming country such as Brazil, where 64% of the population is Catholic (for an astonishing total of 164 million people), the pressure exerted by local Catholics would be a formidable leverage in the political and commercial negotiations between the Holy Empire and the local Government. In the coming, formally post-democratic age (if there ever was a democratic age in the first place) claims based on a felt religious identity will play an increasingly powerful role in shaping popular demands to the political apparatus. It would be a wise move to slyly use this trend to one’s own advantage, rather than blindly falling victim to it.
Our Jesuit Masters
As absurd as all this might sound – especially coming from the pen of a self-confessed, atheist and individualist anarchist – an objective understanding of the nature of power as it is exerted in our society, and of the geopolitical challenges facing Southern Europe, sheds a strangely reassuring light on the possibility of creating a Holy Southern Empire under the control of the Pope-Emperor.
The future looks bleak for the people of Southern Europe, and even the beautiful claims of Koveje and Agamben for the primacy of the cultural difference of the South will not save those countries from plunging into an abyss of economic degradation, political irrelevance and general collapse of the quality of life. Rather than looking at the austere Protestant figures of today’s Northern policy-makers, Southerners should look back at their own cunning, treacherous and ultimately brilliant scholars of the art of clever opportunism: the great, ancient minds of the Jesuit Order. Jesuits such as Baltasar Gracian and Matteo Ricci, perhaps even more than the often quoted Machiavelli, truly understood the strategy and tactic of realpolitik, and the wide spaces of personal freedom that a cunning and detached – in a word, Catholic – relationship with power can offer to the individual.
As the age of the steel-cold dreams of the 20th Century finally comes to a close, it is on the shoulders of the all-too-human wisdom of such shadowy figures that we can find a good point of view to look towards a possible future. If we will have the heart to put aside the deadening realism which has informed modern Protestant thought, and to fully embrace the paradoxical consequences of Catholic nominalism, perhaps this future will contain some light also for the now collapsing Southern Europe. As the first anarch-papist of this century, and in the name of the Holy Emperor of the Holy Southern Empire, I can safely and surely say that it will. Deus Vult!