Materialist enchantments

I was recently asked to respond to Paul Cloke, Christopher Baker, Callum Sutherland and Andrew Williams’ really interesting new book, Geographies of Postsecularity: Re-Envisaging Politics, Subjectivity and Ethics as part of the launch event for the book. Here is the text of my response, which explores narratives of (dis-)enchantment and questions about social reproduction in relation to Christianity and political activism.

I wanted to pick up on theme of enchantment in the book because it’s where the authors engage my work, partly because I’m not sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing, and partly because I’ve been developing my thinking on what we’re actually talking about when we talk about disenchantment in ways that might be productive for ongoing conversations about the books’ arguments.

The idea of disenchantment emerges as a narrative which suggests that some sense of the world as spiritual is lost with the advent of modernity, that our connection to one another is damaged and that what we need, then, is a restoration of that sense of magic and wonder. The book advocates re-enchantment as one of the characteristics of the ethics of postsecularity that the authors want to advocate for, and suggest that religion can help us restore ‘a sense of mystery and wonder … a greater acknowledgement of the possibility of the sacred, and a dissatisfaction with neoliberalised secularity’.

But there are some problems with the account of disenchantment that this call for re-enchantment is based on. Jason Josephson-Storm’s recent book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences suggests that this narrative falls apart on closer inspection – we in the West never stopped believing in invisible forces; we just believed in them differently, or believed in different forces.

I’m increasingly convinced that what we need is a much more materialist understanding of disenchantment, to see it as being always about a reorganisation of society, as being – to be a vulgar Marxist about it – about both base and superstructure, both the ways that we organise material production and the stories we tell about how the world is and ought to be. I want to suggest that we might better understand disenchantment as a process of disinvestment from – and often, in the history of capitalism – violent suppression of one way of organising power, belief and legitimacy in favour of another. We believe in certain invisible connections and powers and we disbelieve in others; and we organise society in such a way that those invisible connections and powers really structure society, even if their existence is purely a function of our belief in their existence. So, for example, in the traditional Marxist understanding of Christianity, what we call God is really the reification of our own capacities for transforming the world, and a disavowed expression of own decisions about how to organise society; or, alternatively, we see this in the functioning of money, which does not exist outside of our belief in its mysterious powers and yet profoundly orders the distribution of power in society. Enchantment, then, is about belief, but it is also about practice. My argument in favour of a ‘post-disenchantment’ approach was an argument that we have never been disenchanted: we have always believed in some immaterial source of sovereignty and legitimacy, be it God, reason or the market, such that the question is not how to re-enchant the world but how to enchant it differently – how to transform both the material relations of production and our affective and spiritual investment in those material relations.

And out of that, I want to suggest that some of the anxiety about disenchantment that we see around us in general but also in this book, might be usefully understood as a manifestation of the crisis of social reproduction that we find ourselves in. The work of social reproduction – as opposed to the work of production, of creating products for the market – is the work we do to keep ourselves alive but also to reproduce ourselves as good workers and citizens of the society that we inhabit, so housework, childcare, and also the emotional work of caring for one another, of teaching our children manners, of taking care of our mental health or that of the people around us). One of the reasons we’re seeing these conversations about postsecularity is that neoliberalism means that the logic of the market is increasingly encroaching onto the realm of social reproduction which has previously been kept outside of it; and another reason is that we’re in a crisis of care, because neoliberalism has begun to undermine the resources available to us for reproduction. This is a crisis tendency that, as Nancy Fraser argues, is inherent to the functioning of capitalism, which both relies on social reproduction because it needs workers, and also constantly undermines social reproduction by trying to increase its profits by reducing the resources available for those essential processes of social reproduction.

I’m talking about social reproduction because the book associates religion and spirituality with enchantment, and I want to suggest that religion, as it’s understood in this book, belongs firmly in the realm of social reproduction – the vision of religion that’s articulated at the start of the book corresponds nicely to the 19th century understanding of religion that emerges with new divisions between productive and reproductive labour, in which religion is assigned predominantly to the private sphere, though also secondarily to the sphere of civil society, which occupies a murky middleground between public and private (I think this is one of the reasons the book talks about the “pre-political”). One of the reasons why adherents of Christianity are disproportionately women is that under a capitalist regime which distinguishes between productive and reproductive labour, religion and spirituality – along with other forms of care for the self and others – are predominantly women’s work. Like other forms of social reproduction, spirituality is important to capitalism because it gives individuals the spiritual sustenance and the resources that they need to survive under conditions of exploitation and alienation – so Žižek, for example, argues that yoga functions within capitalist societies to “enable you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it”; and I’ve written previously about the post-crash enthusiasm for evangelical Christianity amongst financial workers, who found in Christianity the resources they needed to continue working in extremely stressful banking jobs.

But ‘religion’ is also important because it’s linked to our formation as ethical subjects. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Maurizio Lazzarato argues that “the task of a community or society has first of all been to engender a person capable of promising…of honouring his debt”. A person capable of paying their debt is a person with memory, so that they may remember their debt, and a conscience, so that they can be guaranteed to repay it. This means that morality, virtue, ethics are necessary conditions of a debt economy. It means that, in a society which relies so utterly on the circulation of debts as ours, “‘ethics’ and economics function conjointly”; that economic production is inextricably bound up with the production of virtuous individuals who believe in the necessity of paying what they owe.

As neoliberalism continues to intensify economic exploitation, alienation, and environmental degradation, the moral legitimacy of capitalism begins to come into question – so no wonder that we are suddenly interested in Justin Welby’s thoughts on payday lenders. But there’s nothing inherently radical about this. Restraining the excesses of capitalism is important for capitalism, which simultaneously wants to squeeze every last drop of surplus value out of us and also for us to continue to reproduce ourselves as workers, and as contented citizens of capitalist economy.
Social reproduction is crucial if we take as a basic ethical principle that it’s better for people to stay alive than to die – and hopefully everyone here is broadly on board with that – but it’s also fundamentally ambivalent. To keep people alive within capitalism is almost always to some extent to keep people alive for capitalism, to keep them alive in order that they might continue to be exploited.

What are the property relations that go along with the vision of postsecularity that are discussed in the book? I think they’re actually pretty close to the property relations that we currently have under neoliberal capitalism. Receptive generosity, rapprochement and re-enchantment are all pretty well suited for a rentier economy which prizes flexibility and adaptability above all else, which requires us to find our own spiritual and emotional resources for survival. I’m not saying that these postsecular virtues are bad, that they’re straightforwardly on the side of neoliberalism. But I am suggesting that although I think they might function quite effectively to help us survive within capitalism I’m not convinced that they are enough to help us destroy it, which is really the only way to survive in the long term.

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