in loving memory of Pierre Clastres and Max Stirner
Few places in the world are more secular than the United Kingdom. The laughable origins of the Anglican church, mixed with the centuries-old hegemony of capitalist ethics seem to have finally killed the religious spirit of the people of Albion. Religion, in the UK, is a mark of underdevelopment usually reserved for impoverished ethnic minorities or for the inhabitants of rural areas.
As a migrant from Catholic Italy, when I first arrived in the UK I thought I couldn't have asked for more. Not only were the remnants of the church so liberal and progressive that even homosexuals were allowed to be priests, but also people did not feel the need to fight off the presence of the church by indulging in God-oriented swearing, as is the common habit in Italy. God seemed to have finally disappeared, both as an unrequested father figure and as the millenarian oppressor of all living creatures. Back then, I thought I had arrived in the promised land of ‘really existing atheism’. And yet, I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
I realized the entity of my misunderstanding as soon as I started working in London. Every day, when I entered the office, most of my colleagues were already at their desks, frantically typing away on their keyboards. They used to look at me, silently, with the smug attitude of someone who has just won a race. Every night, as I was leaving the office, when the darkness of Northern Europe was already sieging the capital city, most of my colleagues were still wired to their computers. They used to simply nod at me, as marathon champions would do to an opponent who’s giving up. On my way back home in a packed train, surrounded by workers asleep on their seats, I could not but contemplate my perplexity. Why on earth were they so eager to start working earlier than they were supposed to, and to leave later than anyone else? What kind of race were they running, which I wasn’t aware of?
On the train home, always running slower than the one I took to work in the morning, I finally realized. God had never left. He just got rid of his mercy and His benevolence. A God for minimal times, reduced to his essence. God as nature, as the limitation of culture, of freedom, of self-regulation, of happiness: God as the negation of life. Him, the immortal abstraction. Over the ancient churches of London, converted into nightclubs, over the secular politeness of its hard-working people, The Abstraction remains, more powerful than ever. The protestant ethic has disappeared, the spirit of capitalism has melted into thin air, only the holy ghost of Work remains.
Let us unfold this notion.
The secularization of the West – with the exception of some provinces and of most of Southern Europe – can be easily assumed as a matter of fact. The crucified Son, the mystery of the Trinity, the story of that bearded guy in the sky and so on no longer play any relevant role in the life of the majority of the population of the First World. Churches are only good for tourists, old people and the poor. Similarly, the myths of marxist progress and of capitalist development, both so strong throughout the last two centuries, seem to have exhausted their energy. Who could still claim to believe in the notion that the future holds unspeakable wonders? The recent success of apocalyptic movies and literature should be seen as a hardly unconscious understanding of our progression towards the future. We do not need to bother evoking the fall of the Soviet Union, the recent financial crisis and the global environmental agony to explain this. In theory, this sudden disappearance of all ‘great narrations’ (including capitalism) could have opened for us the golden age of the hegemony of life and of total self-regulation. Sadly, this was not the case.
If we name ‘culture’ the sphere of influence and potency of the human society, we can define as ‘nature’ that which escapes it – and, consequently, what limits and negates it. Extremely simply, we can understand mortality and human fragility as the ground zero of nature. Since the beginning of History, however, humans have felt the desire to contribute to the creation and maintenance of this space of anti-life. The relentless creation of abstractions – under the names of God, Country, Humanity, Progress and so on – has historically functioned as a reassertion of the presence of a space that not only exceeds life, but negates it. Worse even, that constantly attempts to subjugate it. The fascination for the void, so beautifully described in Taoism and Zen buddhism, found its Western equivalent in the notion of ‘the meaning of life’, that is, in the need to stress the hegemonic role plaid by abstract finalities and goals over the spontaneous and un-finalized existence of life. As it is a common human habit, this range of abstractions have over time been constituted as narrative subjects, with their own, capitalized names.
As they were faced by the end of great narratives (that is, by the radical emptying of the empty space of the anti-life), the inhabitants of the West could not resist the temptation of recreating that space, as they had always done since the beginning of Civilization. In fact, the very notion of Civilization is inextricably linked with the creation and maintenance of the space of dominant abstractions. We could even say that Civilization itself can be defined as the act of collective abdication in favour of the rule of man-made abstractions. Possibly, it was the fear of losing the safety net of Civilization, under which we are all equally submitted – as in the comforting myth of Mexican telenovela Los Ricos Tambien Lloran (The Rich Also Cry) – which motivated the liberated Westeners of the early XXI century, to re-forge, by hand, their own chains.
But what abstraction are we specifically talking about, when we talk about the exemplarily subjugated people of London? Let us explore it with the orientalist eye of the anthropologist, as we wander among them like aliens freshly landed on Earth. In the current age of machines – which potentially represents a cleaner version of the slave-run society which gave birth to Athenian democracy or Roman otium – humans finally have the possibility of devolving most productive processes to technological apparatus, while retaining all outcomes for themselves. In other words, the (first) world currently hosts all the necessary pre-conditions for the realization of the old autonomist slogan ‘zero work / full income/ all production / to automation’. Despite all this, 21st century Western societies are still torn by the dusty, capitalist dichotomy which opposes a tragically overworked section of population against an equally tragically unemployed one.
Gone are the times in which the marxist critique of the ‘industrial reserve army’ and of ‘exploitation’ were still able to explain the role, respectively, of the mass of the unemployed and of the overworked within a capitalist system. Clearly, the process of capitalist accumulation and exploitation have not terminated with the end of the faith in capitalism, but the permanence of both processes requires, today, further explanation in order to be justified.
We can approach this issue on a level which is not that of political economy and which, in fact, does not even touch the field of economics in the slightest. Clearly, after the end of the myth of scarcity – with the advent of automated production and the invention of genetically modified crops – humanity is in the objective situation of being able to re-consider its activities towards a non-work oriented direction. Both on a global and a local (that is, First World) scale, humanity already owns all the necessary means to provide for its augmented subsistence without the need of dedicating the majority of its time and resources to the issues of productive growth or of productiontout-court. With the exception of a few professions such as that of the doctor – which are necessarily labour intensive –humans could easily exploit the labour-needlessness of technology in their own favor, by rationalizing production towards the satisfaction of human needs rather than the compliance with the abstract commandments uttered, though a ventriloquist trick, by the stuffed dummy of deceased capitalism.
But it is not a matter of scarce means or technical impossibility. Far from the realm of the economy, the originating place of this desire for submission to work belongs to the ancient, Civilized realm of the Religious. For all its conquests, Western secularism reveals itself as an insufficient achievement. While it managed to liberate us from the archaisms of Christianity, it has dramatically failed to unbind our lives from their subjugation to anti-life abstractions – which ultimately is the essence of the Religious itself. This subjugation takes the shape, today, of the absurd self-sacrifice performed daily by millions of workers, as they seek in their office martyrdom a measure of their self-worthiness and of their satisfaction. Work, the activity etymologically bound to torture – as per the the Latin origin of the Spanish and French words for work, the torture tool tripalium to which convicts were bound and burnt alive – has expanded to the point of taking on the role of the Abstraction which demands from the living a complete sacrifice.
The discourse on voluntary servitude, inaugurated as far back as the 16th century, can only partially cover the reasons behind this voluntary mass-martyrdom. It is the inability to exist without a normative space of excess, rather than the masochist desire for a ruler, which should be addressed as the origin of the contemporary attitude towards work. Completely autotelic – since the end of the marxist and capitalist faiths – the work-action presents itself, today, as the desperate ritual through which humans reassert the presence of an outer entity for whom their (senseless) actions finally acquire a meaning. It is, all over again, the medieval myth of the courteous love, in which the chevalier glorifies his utter submissiveness to the theological rule – and his inability to enjoy the limited freedom of the flesh – by transposing the same relationship to the one he entertains with his idealized woman. In other words, through the excessive work of the overworked – and the anxious lack of work of the unemployed – humans are able to maintain the space of an absolute (that is, hetero-directed and mysterious) meaning to their actions. Clearly, the price for this kind of reassurance is very high: one’s own life.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that supposedly atheist people – people, that is, who do not believe in a life after death – are happy to sacrifice the majority of their short lifetime to the historical unnecessariness of work. Their atheism, in fact, is of a totally irrational type, run by a drive-to-nothingness which finds its satisfaction in the fullness of the belly of the beast – the empty space of the Abstraction – rather than in that of their own lives.
It is for this reason that the attempts of most radical politics to promote a more equitable sharing of the existing resources and of all potential outcomes of economic production –while undoubtedly necessary – are doomed to fall short of their expected results. As long as humans will fail to relinquish their necessity of reassurance by the hand of inhuman abstractions, the creation of objective preconditions for freedom will always fail to achieve its full potential.
Without the implementation of a radical atheism, any attempts of emancipatory politics are sadly destined to remain as yet another example of wishful thinking. Radical atheism is the development of the anti-God critique towards a powerful critique of dominant abstractions. Clearly, human life is supported by a series of fundamental abstractions (language, for example), and radical atheism does not aim at the impossible task of liberating humans from all types of representations or significations. Precisely, its task is that of liberating life from all duties towards those dominant abstractions (such as God and Country in the past, or Work today) which require constant sacrifices in order to continue existing. The enmity of such abstractions is thus not defined by their artificial and ‘unreal’ essence, but rather by their dominant and normative roles over people’s lives. Once reduced to their function of docile tools, abstractions could once again prove useful within the space of action of individual existences.
Radical atheism is the logical development of the traditional atheist understanding that human life is fragile and finite, with no possibility of return or of an afterlife. In the face of this acknowledgment, humans are called to choose between the millenarian, obsessive submission to fictional values (such as the flagellant fanatics of plague-ridden medieval Europe), or the decision to enjoy their unique life to its full potential and within its limits. If we were to use this notion as the core of political action, we would be able to claim the urgency of re-setting all existing structures and systems towards the necessities of human lives rather than on the maintenance of abstract vampiric entities.
In order to reduce these entities to docility, it is necessary to fragment their totalizing applicability to the whole of humanity into an infinitely multipliable submission to the directions of individual experiences. To this aim, we shall first of all start by putting an end to our attitude to the creation of abstract collectivities into which we can be comprised. Humanity, but also Society, Ethnicity and so on, are the collective abstractions which, for millennia, have made it impossible for individuals to attempt to fully live their unique, un-collectivizable lives. Individualism, once adequately cleansed of the capitalist remnants still attached to it, shall be reclaimed as the only possible ground for true emancipation. Thatcher’s motto ‘there is no such a thing as society’ shall be detourned and claimed as a fundamental emancipatory statement. Apart from in the world of abstractions, there is no such thing as Society and, if there was, we should rush to destroy it. There are individuals, who should be able to freely choose to federate, to live or act together, to separate and then to re-unite, as, how and whenever they wish. Any time a union of individuals turns into an entity which exceeds the arithmetic sum of its parts, we shall be aware of the presence of a potentially dominant abstraction – a ‘flag’ in the name of which the members of the group will sooner or later be called to act for, to live or die for.
Similarly to radical atheism, radical individualism is the acknowledgement of our tragic uniqueness and of our unsolvable loneliness, but also of the reality of happiness as an event which happens inside – and not between or above – individuals. Seen under this lens, the myths of belonging and of selflessness (both equally subjugating and murderous) shall give way to the practice of free choice and of empathy. It is the egoistic impulse of pleasure, at the hearth of empathy, and not the charitable impersonality of selflessness, which shall motivate our disposition towards each other, especially when faced by others in need. Just like in sex, reciprocal pleasure is the main road to personal, individual pleasure.
If for centuries humans have killed each other and themselves in the name of abstract entities such as God, Country, Progress or Truth, we will hopefully realize, one day, that in our own name we are much more willing to give and receive pleasure rather than death. How could an army of individuals exist, ready to die and kill? How could a legion of individuals, happy to sacrifice their short life to senseless work ever exist? How could we ever find warmth, adventure, a future if not in the arms of other individuals?
Societies and abstractions are faceless. Only trust those who have eyes.