Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Giegerich, Marx and Benjamin: Integrating Economics and Religion

I recently discovered the writings of Wolfgang Giegerich, and I want to share some thoughts.

Giegerich argues that the task of the present age is to help the soul move from its old home within inner religious experience, to its new home in the economy, science, art and all of culture. What is Giegerich talking about? I actually find it a surprisingly intuitive argument: just as the medieval mystic is gripped by an inner experience of God, modern humanity is gripped by the internet, television, and the nuclear bomb. Giegerich identifies the goal of maximizing economic profit as the most obvious expression of the shift that is occurring.

I believe this transition is precisely what Karl Marx describes as the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Marx, tragically, is unaware that the shift to socialism corresponds to a new birth of the soul. But he did foresee that the shift is taking place, and he understands that it is our job to create the conditions for it to be successful. As psychologist Erich Fromm observes:
"[Marxism] is the realization of the deepest religious impulses common to the great humanistic religions of the past... provided we understand that Marx, like Hegel and like many others, expresses his concern for man's soul, not in theistic, but in philosophical language."

Do not think that this transition happens mechanically or automatically. There are those who argue that soul should remain within individual experience, where tradition expects it. Giegerich would disagree. The question that must be addressed is, “Could we share soul with others or not?”

In formulating an answer, Giegerich quotes Chaucer writing in 14th century medieval England:
“But no one now sees fairies any more.
For now the saintly charity and prayer
Of holy friars seem to have purged the air.”
We are going through a similar transition today, claims Giegerich.
“[Profit maximization] is all around us, as our absolute; it is the medium or element of our existence, much like the air is the element of the human organism's existence, and it is the God to which we sacrifice what we hold most dear.”

Giegerich's idea that the economy is an expression of the soul challenges the traditional, orthodox Christian conception of "soul".  In the Christian tradition, shaped by the image of the Holy Spirit inhabiting the believer, the soul is seen as a kind of mediator between the individual and God. Combining this with the doctrine regarding the judgment of souls, it doesn’t make sense to speak of a “shared soul.”

However, as bridges are built with Eastern religious traditions, ideas are slowly changing. For instance, the New Age movement commonly talks about “soul groups” or “soul families”. The idea of soul as a shared experience is thus catching on.

Giegerich is more academic in describing the soul. Stealing from Wikipedia:

The major goal of this approach is to redefine the notion of psychology (the logos of the soul) as it has emerged as a discipline in Western thought. ... Giegerich argues for a shift in focus from the individual, whose very definition has changed radically throughout history, to a focus on “the soul.”... Accordingly, in Giegerich’s theory, the idea of soul does not function as some kind of objective or empirical substrate producing psychological phenomena. Rather it is the logical structure of thought as which any phenomena, viewed psychologically, exist. ... What is an expression of the soul? Anything of cultural significance—art, science, politics, social and political phenomena—in other words, any place that thought and mind have made an appearance. The interiority that is spoken of is the essential logical structure of such phenomena.

Unfortunately, many people are oblivious to the life of the soul, stuck in the cycles of addiction that economic hierarchy creates. Blind adherence to tradition and excessive wealth concentration combine into a sea of conformity.  

Thus Walter Benjamin, whose writings interpret Marx through the lens of Jewish mysticism, tells us to “wrest tradition from the conformism that is seeking to overpower it.” Without the efforts of people to organize with an urgency that values the strengths of our soul’s past, the soul’s transition could just as easily tear our culture, or our world, apart.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is the profit motive completely "bad"?

The orthodox religious traditions in the West would keep the individual as the center of life experience. Capitalism is a radical rejection of this principle, in that the dynamic of the profit motive has nothing to do with people. The profit motive moves the center of life experience outside of the individual. In this sense, capitalism has transformed us from holistic individuals of past ages into... something else.

Donna Haraway proposes that the machine that drives capitalism has made us all into “cyborgs,” “fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” She elaborates on what this might mean:
“Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust... Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection- they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”

She also characterizes cyborgs as “committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity... [and] no longer structured by the polarity of public and private.”

It is the intersection of the public and private spheres of life that most interests me. I believe what’s “bad” about our economy is not the profit motive itself, but the way we define profit and property in general as being exclusively personal or totally public, with little to no space in between.

I wrote in this earlier note on Facebook:
Individually-owned private property distorts the concept of private life, which properly refers to the land and tools of a group, such as the local community, tribe, or clan--not to single family units or individuals. Defining “private property” to mean “individually-owned” degrades private life, which is dynamic and rooted in culture, into the statistical, legalistic category of "personal".

Does the profit motive dissociate us from our intuition and force us into rationalizations? Yes, of course it does. And of course this is bad. But does it recenter human experience to be outside of the individual? Yes, and this is good.

As far as where we go from here... co-ops are the future. They are what cyborgs would do.