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Michael Lind: What Politics Is(n’t) 

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In defense of what politics is and is not.

Michael Lind writes: What is politics? The answer is not obvious. Most Americans on the left and the right either do not know or have forgotten what politics is. Conventional American progressives have pretty much abandoned any distinction between the political realm and society and culture in general, while conventional American conservatives treat politics as an exercise in doctrinal purity. Both sides, in different ways, undermine the idea of a limited public square in which different groups in society can agree on a few big things while agreeing to disagree with others — progressives, by including too much of society in the public square, and conservatives, by blocking compromise with too many ideological tests.

February 23, 2014: People paint on the KGB officers monument in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

February 23, 2014: People paint on the KGB officers monument in Kiev, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

“The secularization of the population was not necessary, but the secularization of the public sphere was. You could no longer win political debates by appealing to a particular interpretation of divine Scripture. Under the rules of Enlightenment liberalism, you had to make a case for the policy you preferred that was capable of persuading citizens who did not share your religious beliefs. A mere numerical majority was not enough. If the politicians express the will of a majority of voters, and the majority are told how to vote by clerics, then the democracy is really an indirect theocracy.”

Politics is only possible in a society in which much, if not most, of social life is not politicized. In premodern communities in which every aspect of life was regulated by custom or religious law, there was no politics, in the modern sense. There was no public sphere because there was no private sphere. Tribal custom or divine law, as interpreted by tribal elders or religious authorities, governed every action, leaving no room for individual choice. There were power struggles, to be sure. But there was no political realm separate from the tribe or the religious congregation. And disagreement was heresy.

A February protest against a liquified natural gas export facility in Maryland. Susan Yin/Chesapeake Climate Action Network

A February protest against a liquified natural gas export facility in Maryland. Susan Yin/Chesapeake Climate Action Network

The separation of church and state — strictly speaking, the privatization of religious belief, beginning in early modern Europe and America — was the precondition for modern politics. The secularization of the population was not necessary, but the secularization of the public sphere was. You could no longer win political debates by appealing to a particular interpretation of divine Scripture.

“Conventional American progressives have pretty much abandoned any distinction between the political realm and society and culture in general, while conventional American conservatives treat politics as an exercise in doctrinal purity. Both sides, in different ways, undermine the idea of a limited public square in which different groups in society can agree on a few big things while agreeing to disagree with others — progressives, by including too much of society in the public square, and conservatives, by blocking compromise with too many ideological tests.”

Under the rules of Enlightenment liberalism, you had to make a case for the policy you preferred that was capable of persuading citizens who did not share your religious beliefs. A mere numerical majority was not enough. If the politicians express the will of a majority of voters, and the majority are told how to vote by clerics, then the democracy is really an indirect theocracy.

Statue of Lenin in park of the statue near Budapest in hungary

“As the Marxist substitute for Abrahamic religion has faded away, its place on the political left is being taken by the new secular political religions of environmentalism and identity politics. Each of these is strongest in post-Protestant Northern Europe and North America, and weakest in historically Catholic and Orthodox Christian societies.”

Unfortunately, as Horace observed, “You can drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back.” The same might be said of religion. While some forms of religion have been expelled from politics, new forms keep trying to creep in, to recreate something like the pre-Enlightenment world in which a single moral code governs all of society and disagreement is intolerable heresy.

[Read the full text here, at The Smart Set]

Marxism can only be understood as a Christian, or Judeo-Christian, or Abrahamic spin-off — a faith militant, with its prophets, its holy scriptures, its providential theory of history, its evangelical universalism, its message of brotherhood and sisterhood transcending particular communities. Marxism was the fourth major Abrahamic religion. Nothing like Marxism could have evolved independently in traditional Confucian China or Hindu India, with their cyclical rather than progressive views of history.

Climate-Change-e1377805589403

“Other elements of religion, expelled from the public sphere, have crept back in via the left, thanks to environmentalism. As the great environmental scientist James Lovelock has pointed out, anthropogenic global warming is affected by the sources of energy for large-scale power generation and transportation. But refusing to fly on airplanes or reducing your personal “carbon footprint” is a meaningless exercise, explicable only in the context of religion, with its traditions of ritual fasts and sacrifices in the service of personal moral purity.”

As the Marxist substitute for Abrahamic religion has faded away, its place on the political left is being taken by the new secular political religions of environmentalism and identity politics. Each of these is strongest in post-Protestant Northern Europe and North America, and weakest in historically Catholic and Orthodox Christian societies. A case can be made that militant environmentalism and militant identity politics are both by-products of the decomposition of Protestantism in the Anglophone nations and Germanic Europe.

Mainstream environmentalism grows out of 19th-century German Romanticism, a secular creed which opposed the Enlightenment and filled the void left by declining Protestant belief. In 19th-century Germany, in particular, the idea of the ecosystem — a legitimate scientific concept, in the hands of Alexander von Humboldt — became transmuted into a mystical doctrine, by Ernst Haeckel and other proto-fascist thinkers who promoted the idea of harmony between particular races and particular environments.

Modern environmentalists tend to be anti-racist liberals, but the mystical idea of living in harmony with capital N-Nature continues to drive environmentalism. Of course, in reality, human beings cannot live in harmony with Nature because Nature will not permit it. Even without human intervention, the global ecosystem has constantly fluctuated. The human race has survived through ice ages and interglacials alike by adapting to a universe that is indifferent to humanity or any other species. The idea of human harmony with the physical environment and all living things is a mystical religious idea, not a scientific one.

Other elements of religion, expelled from the public sphere, have crept back in via the left, thanks to environmentalism….(read more)

Source: The Smart Set

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