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What Hope for Years to Come?

Geoff Sharp: In the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States, the tension between religious piety and imperial power reveals the urgent need for re-examination of the new social forms

George W. Bush may well be right. The war, if it is a war, which he has declared, could last for a generation or more. It could take all of that for the Bush constituency to come to realise that the horrific immediacy of the United States’ own tragedy mirrors the devastation they have brought to others.

In the US capital a national cathedral, technically Episcopalian, sits close by the heart of the secular state. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the twin towers it was the site of a cultural mobilisation.

Everyone was there. In the very early morning, Australian time, the service was relayed by the BBC. It commenced by those present joining in a deeply resonant hymn:

O God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.

In the first half of the service there were readings by Jewish, Muslim and Christian figures. The cultural diversity of the United States was being actively recognised as mourning was grafted to combative resolution. All that was set within the generous spirit of the universal ideals which those great religions can invoke.

In this context these human ideals spoke to self-recognition. That is, to the self-understanding of a people who, believing that they live by these values, were now reaching out for a sense of common purpose which could sustain them in a protracted struggle. They were people who, taking for granted that this was a simple matter of the violation of their way of life, cried out for justice.

As the service ended and religious devotion receded before a return to the mundane world, those present joined again, this time in a hymn whose role was predominantly secular. With the same fervour as they appealed to the God of their ‘eternal home’, they now intoned ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. It was penned in 1861, during the American civil war, its author being inspired by the sight of soldiers at drill.

So much for a certain fusion of religious commitment, cultural diversity and state policies directed towards the mobilisation of the will and conscience of the nation.

In the more mundane world of imperial power, its complement is the rhetoric of freedom. This rhetoric taps back into the notion of freedom of conscience, which is so central to a universalising ethic. But in the Bush version, freedom of choice is the main accent. The choices, moreover, are material ones: choices in the market, consumption choices, all set within a crudely materialist vision of life and ratified by the rhetoric of democracy. But about that, there is no real choice on offer. The issue of how we are to be governed, to what ends, and with what consequences for the other peoples of the world, is yet to move to the centre of public conscience. Ideal values sanctify a wider culture of crude materialism and self-gratification which ignores its consequences in the wider world.

After the break-up of colonialism, after fifty years of Cold War, the nations which see themselves as developed, along with transnational corporations and global networks of high-tech and financial personnel, have consolidated a new inequality. More significantly, that inequality carries with it a deeper impoverishment of ways of living among both rich and poor.

It calls us to an order of life which has nothing in common with the framing values of the great religions or the generous humanism of certain secular currents in modernity. It proclaims their values, yet via the freedom of conscience, free choice in the market place and thimble illusion, it actually undermines them.

In the developed heartlands, masses of people are deeply confused and increasingly desperate. Many turn to the needle, a few to the bomb. Among the ‘less developed’ societies the situation is more urgently tragic. It is not merely that many millions are in dire want or ravaged by epidemics for which the only remedies are at ruling market prices. Whole economies, with their traditional ways of life, are being sucked dry by the exploitative ravages of one particular version of globalisation. That is to say, this present version of globalisation is structured to the advantage of the new rich, set within the new economy.

Equally important is the way in which life is conducted within newly ascendant social forms; these, by lending a distant and abstract quality to the fate of others, reinforce the certitudes that bind the new elites to their own primarily secular version of fundamentalism.

George Bush is probably only half right. A ‘war’ could go on for many years. But what kind of war will this be? When the small numbers he seeks to exterminate merge with whole populations, just where is the enemy? What will be the target? If a high-tech onslaught is directed against a whole population which cannot hit back in the same mode, would that be an act of war? Wouldn’t massacre be a more apt description? And would others, fearing the same fate, be likely to hit back by every possible means?

The problem with descriptions like ‘war’ and ‘terrorism’ is that they focus attention only on the surface phenomena of world politics and global change. They obscure the vast transition taking place in the ways of life of peoples all over the world. The world of intellectually grounded high tech, and of image-mediated sociality at a distance is reaching out to absorb and undermine an older world of labour, community and mutual presence. Within this epochal transformation the forms of conflict also change. War begins to transmute into massacre; the sense of outraged oppression can readily move on towards cataclysmic acts of terror against civilian populations.

The crucial issue is to begin to clarify and act within a perspective which challenges both fundamentalisms. We need an approach that challenges the dominance of the universal market as it now reaches out to transform every sphere of life. Similarly, it is an approach which challenges its counterpart: the bitterly outraged way of understanding which, because it invests itself in a just God, can act with a total self-righteousness which excludes any deeper reflection. It is this response which feeds the epithets ‘terrorist’ and ‘fanactic’, so that the labels help to obscure the underlying social transformation and the new roots of ignorance and oppression.

This transformation cannot be reduced to the interplay of economic interests. These interests should be seen as secondary, in spite of their enormous pull and pressure, both in the reconstruction of work and in extending the reach of the global market.

While this whole process of the re-ordering of social life is widely understood as the triumph of capitalism, it is also a shift in the priority of different forms of social life: of different ways of being present to and absent from others. It is a shift in the social bond, mediated in the first instance by the given powers of our species — to touch, to see and to speak with others in the flesh; in the second instance, as mediated by abstract technologies, the remaking of our very being, whether by the chip, the gene or the technological reconstruction of life more generally, we pass over into a world of mere interconnection.

These are issues which go far beyond conventional notions of class, status and power as the elements of social structures. They point to the ways in which the power of the intellect, expressed in abstract ways of addressing both the material and social world, are displacing the work of the hand and our immediate presence to each other, in the flesh.

In the short run this accelerating shift in the mode of human existence is often outside the realm of the public imagination. Within the corporate world, among the intellectually trained personnel, and within the realm of government, it is as if the basic arrangements of modernity have remained unchanged. They appear merely to have been supercharged so that the world of capital has now directly encompassed the work of the intellect. It is even as if a universalised mode of being is in prospect. The promise is that limitations of consumption, of gender, even of mortality can be overcome, if not quite today then by way of a treadmill of tomorrows.

This basic transition could not proceed without a radical shift in the social role of intellectual work. The predominance of the technosciences and their direct incorporation by commodity exchange is the central feature in the universalising outreach market. Throughout the modern period it expanded within and was limited to a degree by encompassing values. At first by Christian values; later they were joined by the humanist currents which branched out from Christian orthodoxies. Yet now, as the market reframes every sphere of life, previous boundaries are erased. Embedded as life is in the assumptions of a universal market, there is no ready place for a different perspective to stand.

Instead, perhaps for a whole generation to come, a new fetishism is set in place. It is a fundamentalism that carries a transcendental attitude and practice both secular and radically imperative. It presents itself to its carriers everywhere as inevitable, yet increasingly it stirs an inarticulate malaise. Just what does the future hold for our children and for us?

This sense of foreboding arises from the new reality in which, far more than ever before, life is carried on at two levels. On the one hand there is the world of the intellectually related practice, carried on at a distance. It is a world which celebrates its own ascendancy and has only the most limited insight into that other ‘less developed’ world with which it co-exists and from which it seeks to take its departure.

How long will it take to bring these issues into the realm of active public discussion? Is it conceivable that one generation will be sufficient time for the public conscience to respond to the challenge which now faces us as a species? The United States may have been the specific target of this attack, but the whole way of living that the market spawns is at issue.

After modernity the role of religion is a far more residual aspect of such a way of life. While it speaks with the voice of a universal ethic, it does not actively address the root cause, in our times, of the violation of that ethic — the greed, the individualism, the proclivity to treat our fellow beings as objects integral with the structure and mode of operation of a market. The recent gathering at the national cathedral in Washington was a case in point. Its essence was to join the precepts of a universal ethic to the battle hymn of the republic of greed. Yet the citizens of the United States, even some of its leaders, are far from seeing or intending this conjunction. Within their immediate circles of life they are insulated from the broader consequences of their way of life. They have yet to pause and ask themselves whether, in some way, they may have contributed to the onslaught which has wounded them so deeply. When that time comes, recognition of the harsh reality of the republic of greed will be the real test of their deeper values.

The over-riding impulse to now wage war should not, however, obscure the fact that for millennia,the great religions have been a primary source of efforts to interpret our being and to generalise ethical norms which might guide common life. Although compromised through history by their conjunction with the powers, in general terms they signify the need for institutions which can stand back from the pressures of everyday life and call people to an interpretive overview.

They are an expression of the role of the interpretive, as distinct from the technoscientific intellectual in his or her relation to the pulse of everyday life. For the present the latter is captive to a market-driven fundamentalism.

The humanities, meanwhile, are both under intense pressure within their institutions and characteristically driven by the narrowing impulse of the career, rather than by ‘the calling’ to contribute to an overview.

Yet the resources to call for a different way forward than the strike and counter-strike of fundamentalism, remain strong. Given a build-up of demand from an insistent public, yes, a ‘peace movement’ in the immediate circumstances is an urgent first step. But more than that is required. The United Nations as currently corralled by the United States will not do. What is needed is a movement with roots in every country among the many millions of people ready to stand up and act for truth and reconciliation. This will require exceptional dedication and prolonged endeavour. The interchange which embraced the elementally opposed groupings in post-apartheid South Africa is something of a model. Any passage to a shared truth, then on to reconciliation and even to justice as well would be long and difficult. Yet the minimum demand must be that the two fundamentalisms sit down among the growing number of responsible people. That is to say, citizens of every country who see that for the common good, the wider understanding of the roots of the new inequality is the urgent problem.

The world of extended interchange and interconnection has been an indispensable feature of every civilisation, just as the parochial worlds of direct presence in which people conduct much of their daily lives have been. When the relation between these forms of life is undergoing a basic change, public awareness is slow to respond to the need for radically new perspectives. Now, when the tragedy and the suddenness of the twin towers has awakened people to what could become their common fate, the time remains to think and to act differently.

Geoff Sharp is Arena Publications General Editor.

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