An interview with Alberto Toscano

An interview with Alberto Toscano

Alberto Toscano is a sociologist from Goldsmiths College, London, and author of Fanaticism: On the uses of an idea. In this email interview, SHIFT asks him why understanding the history of the term fanaticism is important for those engaged in emancipatory struggles today…Originally published in January 2011.

Perhaps you could start by giving us a brief overview of your theory on fanaticism.

As the subtitle of the book [Fanaticism: On the uses of an idea] suggests, my aim in writing the book was to explore the way in which the idea of fanaticism has been polemically employed, in particular to stigmatize doctrines and subjects that stray from certain normative understandings of politics. Unlike certain sociologists and political scientists (most recently Gérard Bronner), I have not produced a theory of fanaticism as a more or less unified phenomenon, but rather a critical analysis of some key episodes of intellectual and political history in which the accusation of fanaticism has played a prominent and symptomatic role (the Radical Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Cold War). A conceptual history of fanaticism reveals a systematically ambivalent or even paradoxical term, which is marshalled to oppose excessive universalisms and intransigent particularisms, steadfast atheism and religious allegiance, modernist utopianism and supposed atavisms. What intrigued me about this Janus-headed notion is the manner in which it combines two ideological traits of our allegedly post-ideological present: the condemnation of political projects aimed at radical social transformation and the identification of threats to ‘the West’ in absolutist religious movements. Heirs to both the Cold War denunciations of communism as a political religion and to a colonial discourse of counter-insurgency targeted at the fanaticism of religious revolts, many of those who today plead for Western civilisation and Enlightenment against internal and external extremisms repeat that peculiar trait of anti-fanatical discourse: the use of the very same idea to denounce a universalist politics of abstraction and a religious reaction to imperialism. To the extent that our political common sense has been shaped by the various polemics against fanaticism, any attempt to revive a radical politics of emancipation has to confront fanaticism’s history and its enduring uses. Two in particular deserve attention: the suspicion of a ‘politics of abstraction’ that would disastrously reduce the complexity of social life, and the view of fanaticism as a levelling of social differentiation – whether in the guise of the secular state’s transcendence over religious and cultural affiliation or in that of the separation between the political and the economic. As I try to show in the fifth chapter of the book, we can take our cue from aspects of Marx’s account of religious, political and economic abstractions to move beyond the invidious either/or: liberalism or fanaticism.

Alongside radical Italian writers collective Wu Ming, you recently contributed to a new collection of speeches given by Thomas Müntzer, radical Protestant leader of the 1524-25 peasant rebellion against the political-religious establishment. In his 1850 title The Peasant Wars in Germany, Engels became the first to read the peasant revolts as an expression of class conflict, albeit articulated through the only language available at the time i.e. that of religion; would you agree with this position? If so, we wonder what emancipatory potential and limitations you see in a) these historical antecedents to modern anti-capitalism; and b) religious movements.

While I think there is still considerable mileage in a class analysis of religious mobilization, Engels’s model risks relying excessively on the presumption that capitalist modernity brings to an end the disjunction between social relations and consciousness that gives religion its emancipatory rationality in pre-capitalist times. This means that Engels both overestimates the necessity of theology (some peasant programmes, for instance that of Gaismair in the Tyrol, are remarkably ‘materialist’ in their demands) and underestimated the manner in which religious languages persist in the context of capitalism’s uneven and combined development (a phenomenon acutely identified by Mike Davis in terms of the “re-enchantment of catastrophic modernity”). That said, Engels does emphasise a striking temporal and ideological dimension of the interaction between political contestation and religious vision, when he notes that the peasant’s rearguard millenarian resistance against a rising capitalism also allowed them to anticipate a future beyond capitalism. This utopian surplus was the object of Ernst Bloch’s fascination with this moment, and of his refusal to accept that the relationship between the economic, the political and the religious (or better, the utopian) was to be conceived according to a linear, progressive concept of time. As for the lessons to be learned from such moments, aside from the abiding attraction of their languages of transfiguration and refusal, things are not so clear. They are movements that respond to the violence and anomie of the imposition of capitalist social relations on other forms of life, and could thus be regarded, to borrow from Beverley Silver, as ‘Polanyi-type’ defensive movements against the capitalist expropriation of the commons and the disembedding of the economy from society. In that sense, they are of scant use for thinking of political opposition in worlds really subsumed by capital. On another level, the intransigent affirmation of another – even transcendent – justice, or the repudiation – even of a moral type – of this world, are not easily discarded by a politics of emancipation. For better and (most often) for worse, religious movements flourish when the sense that justice is immanent in the ways of this world wanes. But their motivational power is often inversely proportional to their capacity to identify the levers of real change.

We’d now like to concentrate on the relevance of all this for modern day political movements - both progressive and reactionary - many of which, particularly those on the far right, are now engaged in conversations surrounding religion. Is Marx’s phrase “the opium of the people” still relevant? What did he actually mean by it?

‘Religion’ is such a polysemic term that it is often extremely difficult to identify precisely what is at stake in the supposed resurgence of religion as a political force. My impression is that, aside from well-circumscribed academic domains with little political influence, political-theological debate is of little contemporary import, and that religion as experience, or even ecstasy, is also a rather marginal concern. What is really at stake today is the refunctioning of certain doctrinal and cultural repertoires to fashion large-scale collective solidarities in political, social and economic contexts marked by anomie, anxiety, crisis, catastrophe, disaggregation, and the ravaging advance of seemingly unstoppable military or economic powers. Unlike irreligious universalisms, religion can both be a goad to militancy (in this sense some have suggested that Marx would have done better to write of the cocaine of the masses…) and a salve against the painful experience of history (opium was medically used in the nineteenth as a painkiller, not just for intoxication). This ambivalence gives it considerably greater resilience than worldly ideologies for which failure can often appear as a terminal indictment. That said, I think it is important to note that, when it comes to politics, the supposed return of religion (itself a sociologically problematic notion, as one can make a strong argument for de facto secularisation in terms of everyday practices) is more a by-product of the drastic setbacks to emancipatory projects and ideals than it is the re-emergence of something ‘repressed’ by a secular ‘age of extremes’.

In terms of how your theory of fanaticism contributes to our understanding of liberal democracy, we’d like to refer to the work of such as Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek regarding post-politics (see also Shift’s Issue 8 interview with Erik Swyngedouw). These thinkers have made the claim that in our current post-political condition, dissident voices face a choice between incorporation into and neutralisation by the liberal democratic consensus on one hand, and being written off as fundamentalists or extremists on the other. Does your work on fanaticism have anything to say on this, for example on whether this is really a new phenomenon? And how can radical emancipatory social movements respond to such a situation?

Not only is this not a new phenomenon, most of the arsenal of anti-emancipatory criticism and invective is already in place by the time of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, to be periodically dusted off and reused whenever there is a threat to the political norm – whence the staggering lack of insight or originality in phenomena like the French nouveaux philosophes of the late 1970s, or their contemporary epigones. At the same time, excessive concern with one’s ideological detractors, especially when they’re of quite low calibre, is debilitating, whether it means trying to pre-empt their criticisms (bending over backwards to show one is not a ‘totalitarian’, in what cannot but appear a partial admission of guilt) or over-identifying with the accusation to provoke one’s adversaries. Radical social movements would be better off attending to the interesting history of the Left’s internal critiques of extremism (be it in Marxian critiques of Jacobinism, Leninist critiques of ultra-leftism, anarchist critiques of Leninism, left-communist critiques of Party idolatry – a whole history of ‘fanaticism’ that still remains to be explored), but also at trying to define radicalism in terms that are not merely mirroring those of their accusers. As contemporary movements around health, education, public services or the commons demonstrate, there are many demands that are both difficult to stigmatise as extremist (e.g. free education) but which at the same time contain remarkable anti-systemic potential. This is the irony of a world in which what Mark Fisher has aptly dubbed ‘capitalist realism’ makes it so that seemingly reformist goals have a kind of millenarian aura.

Finally we’d like to ask you about the relevance of your ideas on fanaticism for the Left’s relationship with Islam. How can the Left relate to fascist groups such as the EDL who oppose a political Islam to secular ultra-nationalism on the other? Similarly, what would a non-liberal/radical critique of religious fanaticism look like?

The EDL is a racist organisation and is obviously to be dealt with like the various far-right groups that have preceded it, and which it continues to overlap with (namely the BNP). Its rhetoric of a non-partisan opposition to political Islam is a thin veneer over a particularly disturbing mutation of racist thuggery. Aside from the necessity of making common front in local, national and transnational struggles against racism, I don’t think the Left needs to develop a particular relationship to ‘Islam’, any more than to ‘Christianity’ or ‘Hinduism’. First of all, it is dangerous to reproduce the governmental rhetoric, often verging on the neo-colonial, of ‘Muslim communities’ or the retrograde idea that being a Muslim (or a Christian, or a Jew) is somehow transitive with political identity. This can lead to a culturalist condescension that impedes political development. If individuals or groups which draw inspiration from their religious allegiances support egalitarian, anti-capitalist politics then it’s obvious that leftist movements should explore alliances with them. A critique of religious politics has to be part of a broader critique of abstractions, that is of the manner in which abstract entities can dominate human collectives – whether their form is that of the State, Capital or God (and these forms of domination obviously differ greatly, and relate to one another in intricate ways, such that we can have a ‘religion of Capital’ as well as capitalist religions). The distorted universalisms peddled by repressive forms of religious politics have to be countered by projects of social and political emancipation that can channel or recode their anti-systemic drives and truly challenge the narrowness of religious allegiances (which in the final analysis are never fully universal, contrary to contemporary paeans to the atheism in Christianity) at the level of everyday life.

Originally published in Shift magazine

Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is an editor of Historical Materialism and the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea and The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze.