Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Cook’s Column

Regular column by Martin Cook

A few months back I suggested that technocratic European elites had failed to connect with their peoples. We all saw this in France and Holland – with more referenda maybe in many other places, Germany for a start? Instead of painless increments in affluence and welfare, the European model now seems to mean paying more tax (for the lower paid) for fewer benefits plus rampant unemployment. The Bundesbank and their successors at the E.C.B. did a lot, with tight money policies, to wreck support for the new Constitution, enlargement, or anything else.

To many in Britain, the “Euro project” is a “centre left” one. However there was scant sign of this in the debates. The anti globalization left pointed to all the pro market, free trade dogma hard wired into the constitution. As arch Europhile Will Hutton says, it was Blair’s people that had ‘social’ aspects like workplace rights deleted from the Constitution – giving the likes of him nothing to argue for. Recently it has been national governments, under electoral pressure, holding the line against marketism (oh sorry, “modernization”). Call this populism or protectionism if you like. So what if it has benefits! Chirac had ALSTOM, a major employer that builds the TGV trains bailed out when it got into trouble. The CBI thought this dreadful but what’s it to us? No one makes trains in Britain any more.

E.U. central organs all push the other way especially the present Commission (of whom Mandelson is slightly to the left!!). No wonder that in France the poorest areas voted the biggest “non”. All these marketizing changes are supposed to help Europeans “compete” with Chinese workers on 10p an hour in a police state with 900 million desperate peasants to take their jobs if they get stroppy. Competitive like the U.S. and U.K. economies with their colossal trade deficits, maybe?

When Marx called religion ‘the opium of the people’ * this was not an anti clerical rant, but a thoughtful piece describing religion as ‘the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions’. Maybe he shared naïve nineteenth century ideas about the inevitable decline of religious faith, but he didn’t see clergy bashing as vital task. For him, religion would wither on the vine when humanity came to greater consciousness and changed the oppressive conditions giving rise to religious fervour. True, in countries like France there was a strong anticlerical tradition, with reason since the Church propped up the corruption and brutality of the ancien regime. Later socialists sometimes allowed their politics to get muddled with an anti religious tradition which seems amazingly dated in Western Europe.

Today, we find churches to the fore of social and environmental protests, their activists well to the left of the mainstream parties. They are concerned to be inclusive as debates in our Church of England over the ordination of women and gays show. [It’s unfair to criticize these churches for hesitancy on such issues, since in most religious communities in the world such debate could not be envisaged!] There is a “fit” between the preoccupations of religious people and the “secular” left – community, fair shares, human rights and scepticism about immediate gratification and hedonism. In these circumstances, the nineteenth century Continental socialist legacy of militant atheism seems irrelevant and counter productive: why alienate potential allies gratuitously? Would society be more pleasant if organized religion vanished overnight?

However, the world is not all thus. In the U.S., while many mainstream religious denominations (notably the ‘black churches’) hold progressive views and are active in social justice movements, the Religious right cannot be ignored. Maybe it can be exaggerated – most of Dubya’s votes are to do with patriotism, relative economic progress for some, media bias and security scares. However it is unprecedented that militantly extreme fringe Christians who care nothing for the environment, reject evidence for evolution, would risk global war to defend Israeli intransigence, and are unwilling to give an inch on abortion or homosexual rights could have such power as they do under Bush jr in the sole superpower.

Elsewhere, in the shanty towns of the poor world or the inner city estates of big European cities, we have seen a resurgence of religious intransigence and fundamentalism that can be both externally violent and intolerant while internally oppressive of critical spirits let alone women and gays. While aspects of modern Islam certainly fit this pattern, it is of course to be found with Hindus (B.J.P.), Sikhs, Buddhists and Pentecostalism to name but a few. The rise of religious intolerance and bigotry stems from the failure of secular left and nationalist movements to be more effective, not to say the active help given by local reaction and the ‘West’ as a bulwark of order.

Sections of the left, blinded by understandable anti racism and ‘anti imperialism’, chose to defend reactionary religious practices or condone for instance the barbarism of some in the Iraqi resistance. Others opposed the French ban on the Muslim hijab in schools as being authoritarian. Of course, had tens of thousands of young women refused to comply with this edict, it’s hard to imagine what the repressive state machine could have done – send in tanks? In practice, I gather that there are currently only a few dozen refuseniks insisting on headscarves. A cynic might conclude that most of the rest are happy to dress like their less religious peers and find the new law a convenient to resist the pressure of community and family. The demonization of the state on parts of the left seems to have grown just as real life states find themselves losing more and more power. Informal community pressure can be a lot more oppressive than legal restrictions!

* in the opening paras of his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.