Saturday, February 21, 2015

Marx and the Current Crisis by Yanis Varoufakis

In 2008, capitalism had its second global spasm. The financial crisis set off a chain reaction that pushed Europe into a downward spiral that continues to this day. Europe’s present situation is not merely a threat for workers, for the dispossessed, for the bankers, for social classes or, indeed, nations. No, Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.

If my prognosis is correct, and we are not facing just another cyclical slump soon to be overcome, the question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?

To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.

.My view on this dilemma has always been that the powers that be are never perturbed by theories that embark from assumptions different to their own. The only thing that can destabilise and genuinely challenge mainstream, neoclassical economists is the demonstration of the internal inconsistency of their own models. It was for this reason that, from the very beginning, I chose to delve into the guts of neoclassical theory and to spend next to no energy trying to develop alternative, Marxist models of capitalism. My reasons, I submit, were quite Marxist.

 Neo classical economists recognise the mountain of debts and banking losses but neglect the opposite side of the same coin: the mountain of idle savings that are “frozen” by fear and thus fail to convert into productive investments. A Marxist alertness to binary oppositions might have opened their eyes.

A major reason why established opinion fails to come to terms with contemporary reality is that it never understood the dialectically tense “joint production” of debts and surpluses, of growth and unemployment, of wealth and poverty, indeed of good and evil. Marx’s script alerted us these binary oppositions as the sources of history’s cunning.

From my first steps of thinking like an economist, to this very day, it occurred to me that Marx had made a discovery that must remain at the heart of any useful analysis of capitalism. It was the discovery of another binary opposition deep within human labour.

Between labour’s two quite different natures: i) labour as a value-creating activity that can never be quantified in advance (and is therefore impossible to commodify), and ii) labour as a quantity (eg, numbers of hours worked) that is for sale and comes at a price. That is what distinguishes labour from other productive inputs such as electricity: its twin, contradictory, nature. A differentiation-cum-contradiction that political economics neglected to make before Marx came along and that mainstream economics is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge today.

In the classic 1953 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien force does not attack us head on, unlike in, say, HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Instead, people are taken over from within, until nothing is left of their human spirit and emotions. Their bodies are shells that used to contain a free will and which now labour, go through the motions of everyday “life”, and function as human simulacra “liberated” from the unquantifiable essence of human nature. This is something like what would have transpired if human labour had become perfectly reducible to human capital and thus fit for insertion into the vulgar economists’ models.

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.
At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”

 Marx has given me the tools with which to become immune to the toxic propaganda of neoliberalism. For example, the idea that wealth is privately produced and then appropriated by a quasi-illegitimate state, through taxation, is easy to succumb to if one has not been exposed first to Marx’s poignant argument that precisely the opposite applies: wealth is collectively produced and then privately appropriated through social relations of production and property rights that rely, for their reproduction, almost exclusively on false consciousness.

In his recent book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, the historian of economic thought, Philip Mirowski, has highlighted the neoliberals’ success in convincing a large array of people that markets are not just a useful means to an end but also an end in themselves. According to this view, while collective action and public institutions are never able to “get it right”, the unfettered operations of decentralised private interest are guaranteed to produce not only the right outcomes but also the right desires, character, ethos even. The best example of this form of neoliberal crassness is, of course, the debate on how to deal with climate change. Neoliberals have rushed in to argue that, if anything is to be done, it must take the form of creating a quasi-market for “bads” (eg an emissions trading scheme), since only markets “know” how to price goods and bads appropriately. To understand why such a quasi-market solution is bound to fail and, more importantly, where the motivation comes from for such “solutions”, one can do much worse than to become acquainted with the logic of capital accumulation that Marx outlined and the Polish economist Michal Kalecki adapted to a world ruled by networked oligopolies.*

Marx’s first error – the error of omission was that he failed to give sufficient thought to the impact of his own theorising on the world that he was theorising about. His theory is discursively exceptionally powerful, and Marx had a sense of its power. So how come he showed no concern that his disciples, people with a better grasp of these powerful ideas than the average worker, might use the power bestowed upon them, via Marx’s own ideas, in order to abuse other comrades, to build their own power base, to gain positions of influence?

Marx’s second error, the one I ascribe to commission, was worse. It was his assumption that truth about capitalism could be discovered in the mathematics of his models. This was the worst disservice he could have delivered to his own theoretical system. The man who equipped us with human freedom as a first-order economic concept; the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics; he was the same person who ended up toying around with simplistic algebraic models, in which labour units were, naturally, fully quantified, hoping against hope to evince from these equations some additional insights about capitalism. If I am right, Marx knew what he was doing. He understood, or had the capacity to know, that a comprehensive theory of value cannot be accommodated within a mathematical model of a dynamic capitalist economy. He was, I have no doubt, aware that a proper economic theory must respect the idea that the rules of the undetermined are themselves undetermined. In economic terms this meant a recognition that the market power, and thus the profitability, of capitalists was not necessarily reducible to their capacity to extract labour from employees; that some capitalists can extract more from a given pool of labour or from a given community of consumers for reasons that are external to Marx’s own theory.

Alas, that recognition would be tantamount to accepting that his “laws” were not immutable. He would have to concede to competing voices in the trades union movement that his theory was indeterminate and, therefore, that his pronouncements could not be uniquely and unambiguously correct. That they were permanently provisional. This determination to have the complete, closed story, or model, the final word, is something I cannot forgive Marx for. It proved, after all, responsible for a great deal of error and, more significantly, authoritarianism. Errors and authoritarianism that are largely responsible for the left’s current impotence as a force of good and as a check on the abuses of reason and liberty that the neoliberal crew are overseeing today.

Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled, under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better.” As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. The hope that the deterioration of public goods, the diminution of the lives of the majority, the spread of deprivation to every corner of the land would, automatically, lead to a renaissance of the left was just that: hope.

The reality was, however, painfully different. With every turn of the recession’s screw, the left became more introverted, less capable of producing a convincing progressive agenda and, meanwhile, the working class was being divided between those who dropped out of society and those co-opted into the neoliberal mindset. My hope that Thatcher would inadvertently bring about a new political revolution was well and truly bogus. All that sprang out of Thatcherism were extreme financialisation, the triumph of the shopping mall over the corner store, the fetishisation of housing and Tony Blair.

The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a longlasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis. It is, indeed, the most important determinant of my stance in relation to the crisis. It is the reason I am happy to confess to the sin I am accused of by some of my critics on the left: the sin of choosing not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the bankrupt bankers.
Yes, I would love to put forward such a radical agenda. But, no, I am not prepared to commit the same error twice. What good did we achieve in Britain in the early 1980s by promoting an agenda of socialist change that British society scorned while falling headlong into Thatcher’s neoliberal trap? Precisely none. What good will it do today to call for a dismantling of the eurozone, of the European Union itself, when European capitalism is doing its utmost to undermine the eurozone, the European Union, indeed itself?

A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone.

 If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it. Not out of love for European capitalism, for the eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis.

View more comments

*Austerity? Call it class war – and heed this 1944 warning from a Polish economist

The single best guide to what happened in Britain last week was published in 1944. Naturally, its author was a Polish economist. Even economics students may not have heard of MichaƂ Kalecki – but it's the discipline that got small, rather than his legacy. In his time, Kalecki was recognised as having anticipated some of Keynes's most important ideas, years before the Master published his General Theory, and he exerted a big influence on such legendary Cambridge thinkers as Joan Robinson and Nicky Kaldor.

His article, Political Aspects of Full Employment, explains with an almost eery prescience why the coalition is attacking our wages, our working terms and conditions and our welfare state.

The tone is exhilaratingly brisk. "A solid majority of economists" agree on how to solve a slump, Kalecki says. The government borrows more and invests the cash either in building schools and hospitals or in providing benefits and tax cuts; this boosts demand and generates employment. Ta-da! Two pages in, and he has both fixed the problem of recessions and despatched most of the arguments against public borrowing that we have heard with such tedious frequency in the past five years.

What if savers become wary of lending to the state? Then, Kalecki says, the Treasury pays higher interest rates – and, since most of its lenders are British (just like now), the money will still flow back into the economy. But he notes that Churchill's war coalition has run "astronomical budget deficits", while "the rate of interest has shown no rise since the beginning of 1940". What if it becomes too costly to keep on top of the national debt? Then ministers should raise more funds, not by taxing ordinary pay or spending, which would slow the economy, but with a levy on idle wealth.

That proposal, by the way, is tossed out in a mere footnote on the second page; and, reader, if you can't love a man who comes up with a novel way of soaking the rich in one short italicised paragraph, then I fear we're never going to be friends.

Having rattled through the urgent problems, Kalecki points out that a booming economy and healthy profits would be good for the "leaders of industry", but that they will never support such government intervention. And in a sentence that sums up post-crash Britain, he identifies one of the principal sources of resistance as "so-called 'economic experts' closely connected with banking and finance" along with "big business".

The opposition posed by this coalition of bosses and financiers is motivated by three factors. First, they want as little government interference in the economy as possible; second, they don't want the state expanding into new areas and so doing them out of business. But the thing that really keeps the capitalists awake at nights is the boost to workers' confidence that will be provided by a heathy jobs market. They will demand more pay, better working conditions, perhaps even a say in how their companies are run. Fully employed, well-paid Britons will have more cash to buy things, so a healthy economy supported by the government is better for corporate profits than a sick one. "But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated by the business leaders than profits". Rather an insecure and cowed workforce than a confident and boisterous one.

But it's Kalecki's "political business cycle" that sums up the world we're in now. Rather than opting for public investment and a healthy recovery, Britain is stuck in a slump that austerity and a blind trust in private-sector vigour is only deepening. But the parallels don't stop there. Last week, the day after MPs voted through a bill for real-terms cuts year upon year in benefits for the jobless and the low-paid, newspapers led on government briefings that the butchering of the welfare state would not stop there. Next, the FT reported, winter fuel allowance would be for the chop.

Meanwhile, living standards for those in work are also under attack: through wages that are falling further and further behind inflation and government schemes to sacrifice workplace rights in return for share options. For those slow on the uptake, there is always William Hague, telling Britons to "work harder".

The rhetoric is also echoed in our media. Last Friday, the Guardian's librarians went through all the British tabloids and broadsheets since 2007. Up to 2010, they found that Fleet Street was quite restrained in its use of the term "scrounger": a mere 46 mentions (when discussing benefits or welfare) for all of 2007. In 2010, though, that shot up to 219 mentions, and last year 240 mentions. As for shirkers v strivers, the false opposition du jour, newspapers did not use the phrase at all until 2010. Last year, the total was 10. In the first two weeks of 2013, the press had already racked up 30 mentions.

Whether from politicians or the press, these justifications for austerity are getting more strident even while evidence of austerity's failure is stacking up. It may be that Britain goes into a third recession this year; it is certainly not going to enjoy a recovery. And what was always evident in the coalition's spending plans issued back in 2010 – that our welfare state and public realm were going to get shredded – is slowly but surely materialising.

This assault on an entire social contract, says Malcolm Sawyer, a leading expert on Kalecki, is what his subject warned about. "The argument for dealing with budget deficits has provided cover for attacking wages and benefits." And austerity is just code for the transfer of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Battle of Lepanto and the Clash of Civilization by Mohammad Arkoun

The battle of Lepanto – 7 October 1571 – was one of the major episodes in the competition between Islam and Christianity for Mediterranean supremacy. As in many other confrontations between two rival powers, each side invoked ‘the laws of God’ and the revealed Truth, ignored or rejected by the ‘infidels’ opposite.

Religion was fully mobilized to legitimize cynical strategies of political and economic dominance. A commonplace situation, one might say. Wars always take place between what my friend Paul M.G. Levy calls ‘possessors of the true’. Even today, however, it is to be noted that religious thought has still not drawn all the conclusions from these common place situations in which religions played and still play leading roles. Instead of reflecting on the true functions of religion to advance our knowledge of the religious phenomena, the guardians of orthodoxy in each community have tended to interpret victory over the enemy as a sign of God’s approval, and to erase the compromises present in official religion while continuing to exalt the ‘transcendence’ of eternal belief.

What does the Battle of Lepanto tell us about this aspect? If we take the trouble to examine impartially the language, the conduct and ideologies of the two sides, we find that Islam and Christianity performed the same functions of masking reality, twisting the meaning of events and transcendantalizing profane behavior, with the same later results of individual and collective alienation. This last, in will be claimed, is the price to be paid for the survival and temporal growth ( spiritual growth, believers will insist) of each community. If that is an unbreakable boundary in the human condition, it is well worthy a thorough investigation of its causes and consequences with the aid of historical examples such as the Battle of Lepanto.

This exercise will be attempted 1) by describing the protagonists; 2) by defining what was at stake in the battle; and 3) by bringing out the common mode of thought underlying the Christian and Islamic discourses.

Description of the Protagonists

On the Christian side, the Republic of Venice had a firm ally in Pius V who headed the thirteenth crusade against the Muslim infidel. The Pope had no difficulty in recruiting Philip II, King of Spain (1527-1598), by making him a beneficiary of the papal bull that launched the crusade, ensuring him an annual income of 400,000 ducats extracted from Church property. Philip had abandoned his father Charles V’s dream of a universal monarchy and was seeking to rebuild the power of Spain, having lost Preveza in Greece in 1538, Djerba in 1559-60, Malta in 1564 and Tunis in 1570; Granada in Spain itself, was under threat from the Moors. The king hoped, with the help of Venice, to eliminate the Calabrian ‘renegade’ Uludj Ali who held Algiers and Tunis in the name of the Ottoman sultan. This power strategy had aroused Venetian suspicions, the more so when Pius V helped manoeuvre Don Juan of Austria (1545-1578), fresh from his harsh repression of the Moorish revolt (1568-1570), into the supreme command of the allied fleets. Within this command, Marc Antonio Colonna, Constable of the Kingdom of Naples, favored Venice; the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria supported Philip II.

On the Muslim side, the Ottoman Empire, in 1570, covered the Balkan peninsula and the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean; pirates of various origins, operating out of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, maintained (with the help of their Christian competitors) a climate of insecurity, making it possible for example for the Turks to take the Venetian colony of Cyprus in 15670. But, although Turkish power looked threatening from the outside, internally the regime had a number of weaknesses. Sultan Selim II, who had succeeded his father, Suleiman the Magnificent, in September 1566, was seen by Western contemporaries as ‘a sovereign both unworthy and incompetent, odious, squat and obese . . . the first of the indolent sultans.’  Continuity of imperial power was in the hands of the Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokoullou (or Skoklovitch), one of those astonishing individuals characteristic of the whole age.  Sokollou was actually a Bosnian, born in Ragusa (now Known as Dubrovnik) and taken from his family as a child under the devshirme of press-ganging Christian boys to fight for the Ottoman empire. Raised and educated in the seraglio, he had learned how to assert his authority without losing his footing among court intrigues, merciless struggles between foreign clans, demanding Janissaries and over-ambitious Pashas. While accepting sumptuous presents and fabulous sums of money from the vassals of the empire (but also from Venice and the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople), he maintained an attitude of obedience and devotion to the Sultan.

In their battles in Cyprus, Lepanto and elsewhere, both sides depended on galley-slaves (oarsman) and mercenaries of every origin and provenance. Thus, when the peasants of Crete showed extreme reluctance to assist, Venice was obliged to call upon the Bohemians. But it is also true that when the SAxcred and Perpetual Union against the Turk was proclaimed in May 1571, Italy and Spain were once again swept up by a crusading fervor and every town and city wanted to raise a contingent. The Turks, by combining calls for holy war (jihad) and with the practice of devshirme, managed to assemble a force of 25,000 men and 2,500 Janissaries. Sickness, desertion and treachery spread confusion and uncertainty on both sides in the run-up to the battle, exacerbated by internecine violence, incompetence and squabbling among leaders.

It would be interesting to dwell on the extraordinary characters who figure in the preparations and negotiations before the battle, the battle itself and its aftermath. Popes, kings, ministers, viziers, cardinals, ambassadors and military officers of all ranks, all deserve detailed biographies to map the status of the human individual in Muslim and Christi an settings. How can he importance for each of them of genuinely religious motivation be measured, given the general predominance of ambition, appetites for power and revenge, obsessions and private fantasies? Thus, Don Juan ‘recognized as a royal prince from the age of 16 but known to all as ‘the bastard’ . . .eaten up withy the lust for action, he at last found, with his nomination, an opportunity for revenge on his destiny . . .’ Marc-Antonio Colonna ‘descended from an illustrious Roman family. . . quarreled with Pope Paul IV, stripped of estates, excommunicated . . . remains indebted to the King of Spain. . .’ Veniero ‘whose difficult character was already known . . . not pleased at having to obey an inexperienced young man . . .also scornful of his worldly character, and jealously protective of Venetian prestige . . .’

Uludj Ali (  known as Kilidj Ali or ‘Ali the scimitar’) had even more the characteristic features of the age than those described above.

He was both choleric and melancholy, ostentatiously devoted to the Empire and suspected of treason. Like many other Ottoman dignitaries, he was a Christian renegade. Born into a very poor family in Calabria , he had always been a child of the sea, as fisherman, galley-slave and finally pirate, Captured by the Turks at age 16 and mocked by his fellow galley-slaves when afflicted with scurvy, he killed one of them in a brawl and abjure Christianity to avoid the death penalty. He later amassed a colossal fortune as Beylerbey of Algiers.

Many other such portraits could be quoted but it is already apparent that religion counted for very little in the behavior of the most visible protagonists. And even less among the mercenaries greedy for loot or the press-ganged rowers who cowered under the lash of their guards. There remain the many peasants and humble townspeople who had responded with fervor to appeals from a Pope and a Sultan venerated as spiritual’ leaders. It will be seen that the language of the official discourses employed all the stereotypes most likely to arouse eschatological visions and millenarian aspirations in the popular consciousness.

Notwithstanding all this, can it be claimed that the stakes over which the Battle of Lepanto was fought were as varied as the interests of those individual parties, communities and ethno- cultural groups? Or is it possible to discern amid this tangle of violent appetites, explosive hatreds and deep-seated rivalries certain more universal and permanent aims?

What the Battle was About

Lepanto is an episode in the secular struggle between all the Mediterranean peoples. The geo-historical facts of this competition were admirably described by F. Braudel in his major book on the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II. The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and its impact first on Byzantium and, from the eleventh century onwards, on the expanding Christian West, came increasingly to be presented as an intolerable challenge to the temporal and spiritual power of the Church. In the minds of both sides, a religious motive was thus substituted for the real reasons which were (and remain to this day) strategic and economic. The wealth of polemical Islamic and Christian literature makes it possible to monitor the construction of what I have called a cultural system of reciprocal exclusion, on which the perceptions that Islam and Christianity have of each other are still based today. For the Muslims, the ‘arguments’ and framework of the polemic were fixed for all time by the Qur’an, which reflects the climate of opposition to the Prophet maintained by the Jews and Christians first in Mecca, and then in Medina. For the Christians, a haunting collection of imagery has been built up in the course of many Crusades against the infidel in the East, in Spain and in the Maghreb.

By considering historical turning points such as Las Navas de Tolosa, Granada, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Lepanto, Constantinople and the Palestinian tragedy today, I am trying to establish the nature of the major concern at stake in our own time. Since religious imagery has been attached to the struggles for political and economic hegemony in order to give them ‘divine’ legitimacy, and since such imagery has for centuries fixed a priori the forms of sensitivity and intelligibility in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, it is reasonable to suggest that the history and anthropology of the Mediterranean area needs to be given a cognitive basis that is radically different from the one established by mediaeval theologies and continued by positivist, colonial, Eurocentric historiography until at least the 1950s. Academic research hardly bothers with this purifying function although it is of great importance currently, especially in the Mediterranean world, where serious conflicts have built up, not over territorial issues but more essentially in what I will call the metaphysical structure of the three great religious universes. Thus, for example, although Michel Lesure reveals to the reader many valuable texts redolent of the mentality of the age, he takers no interest in the common structure of thought that produced these utterances; so he does not help the unprepared reader to understand that, although couched in obsolete sixteenth-century linguistic forms, their underlying thought still prevails to this day in the three communities. The whole literature of the Israel-Arab conflict broadly confirms the currently status of the legitimization discourses used during all the Crusades and, notably, at Lepanto. Although Christian discourse appears to be more ‘modern’ since Vatican II, it should be recognized that the hard core of traditional theological thought successfully resists all attempts at reform.

To better outline the cognitive background to the debates launched in the Mediterranean world by the successive emergence of the there monotheists religions, it is worth analyzing some significant texts.

Observations on Historical Psychology

The defeat of the Turks at Lepanto was greeted by all the Christian peoples as ‘Christ’s victory. A durable imagery was crystallized in the popular consciousness during the widespread celebrations that followed, encapsulated in songs such as this one:

Did you think, booby, you could confront
Italy and Spain with your rabble
And did you believe Mahomet would vanquish Christ?
O my Selim, what’s become of you? And Mahomet,
What a lot of help he gave you!
Your pashas have all gone up in smoke.

The text of the Holy League signed in Rome on 19 May, 1571 includes the following:
After first invoking the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost . . . in the presence of our Holy Father and the Most Reverend Cardinals. . . ha been published this Sacred League.
. . .They ( the Confederate members ) wish and agree, through the grace and favor of God, that to destroy and ruin the Turk, this league be perpetual, and not only to defend the kingdoms and principalities of the Confederate members of the League against the Turk, but also to go and cause him damage and invade his territories, both by land and by sea, and in these enterprises are included Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli in Barbary . . .

Christian convicts serving life sentences were ‘permanently set free and encouraged to fight for Jesus Christ through whose grace they have been delivered from servitude. . .’

Pius V, who had ‘received from Heaven on 7 October the revelation of victory’, wrote to the king of Spain:

My very dear son in Jesus Christ . . .since receiving the happy news of the most glorious victory won by the army of the Sacred League over the army of the arrogant tyrant and enemy of the Cristian name, we have not ceased giving thanks to the Lord God who, in his mercy and infinite bounty, did not fail to fulfil the hopes He had given to that effect. . .

The Turkish texts are just as thickly sprinkled with propitiatory formulae, invocations to God and the Prophet to ensure victory. The enemy is referred to as ‘the fleet of the vile Infidels’, the ‘boats of the miserable Christians”. ‘War is uncertain in its results,’ wrote Selim to Pertev Pashia. ‘Judgment belongs to God, the High, the Great, the Master and the Benefactor. We hope that Almighty God will soon make possible all sorts of humiliations and the crushing of the enemies of the Religion and the Empire. . .

In his instructions to the Kapudan Pasha, Seyit-Ali, Sokoullou wrote:

. . . with the help of Almighty God and placing your absolute trust and resignation in the ultimate assistance of the All-Highest, relying on the abundant blessings of the Prince of Prophets, and seeking the aid of the Prophet’s four Companions – God’s grace be upon them –and all the holy spirits, you will come down from the direction of Corfu . . .

 When villagers all over Europe celebrate ‘Christ’s victory’, when Catholic kings confer with the Holy Father to found a Sacred League, when Sokoullou discovers ‘at random’ a Qur’anic verse predicting the later restoration of the true order and values, we see living examples of the exercise of a single mode of semiotic organization. On both sides, the theme of True Religion is evoked in the same fashion by direct and constant references to God, rather than to signs, symbols, myths, rituals and narratives that, over time and with effort, gradually form the specific consciousness of a community. In victory as in defeat, the Scriptures are given confirmation of their transcendent nature.

We call this ‘religious’ to the extent that historical events are integrated (as in the case of Lepanto) into the setting and with the aid of religious symbolism; we call it ‘national’ when the system of legitimation is secular ( territory circumscribed by a political frontier, mother country, historic individual etc.) The passage from one system of legitimation to another takes place with very different frequency in different social-cultural environments. Apart from that, these occurrences are becoming ever more important in the present phase of history, as the political monoliths of ‘modern’ regimes restore to the traditional religions their function of ultimate refuge for the marginalized or silenced social groups. I refer, of course, to the rapid proliferation of ‘sects’ of different kinds in the Western societies and the role of Islam in the expression of political opposition. That is why those of ostensibly modern and secular consciousness should not be to quick to dismiss the texts quoted above as cliches and and ritual formula from another age.

While Christian theology is starting to embark upon a serious investigation into the changing content and functions of faith, beliefs and spirituality under various determining factors, the same cannot be said of Muslim or Jewish thought which continue to fulfil dialectical, polemical and self-establishing functions in the context of the Israel-Arab conflict and more generally the structural violence exerted in international economic and cultural relations.

Still, the guardians of Christian  orthodoxy and the transcendent will certainly object to the reductive side of this analysis [as exemplified by conservative reactions to President Obama’s recent speech at a Congressional ‘Prayer Breakfast in which he simply referred to the brutality of the Crusades]. This objection has two meanings. It confirms that contemporary consciousness  , despite all the positive achievements of modern rationality, continue to acquiesce in the spontaneous operations of transcendentalization; this  signals the philosophical  quest that ought to accompany ‘the new scientific spirit,’ illustrated by the explorations of human and social sciences. This is what I am pursuing personally by attempting a re-reading of the Scriptures, not through the axioms of traditional theologies, but by using all the instruments of a greatly expanded historical sciences.

Seen from the historical trajectory of Islam, Europe/the West is a hostile, hegemonic geopolitical sphere, unavoidable since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and broadly responsible for a historical decline which began in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As a geocultural, intellectual and spiritual sphere, Europe, before the emergence of the economic, technological and powerful monetary sphere called the West, is in many ways an extension and expansion of the thought and scientific knowledge accumulated in the  Islamicized area of the Mediterranean during the classical age of the Arab-Islamic civilization (750-1300). The change in direction in intellectual, scientific and cultural exchanges between the Muslim Mediterranean and Europe can be dated from the year 1492 AD when Catholic Spain drove the Muslims and Jews out of Andalusia and Europe discovered the American continent and opened the Atlantic route, which resulted in supplanting the Mediterranean route with the growth of United States power, especially after 1945.

This is not the place for a detailed account of all the stages and conditions of these developments, which include notably the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the colonialization of all the Muslim countries, the liberation wars of the 1950s and the ideological peregrinations of the so-called national states since the achievement of political ‘liberation.’ What interests us here is the accumulation of unthinkables and unthoughts during the four centuries from the sixteenth to the present, during which Europe/the West was constructing intellectual, political;, legislative and cultural modernity in Western Europe. Not only did Islamic thought play no part at all in this development; it cut itself off from its own classical heritage by eliminating the practice of philosophy and even theology, which so enriched religious thought in the past and has yet to be reinstated.

That is why the historical summary I have provided is strictly unthinkable in the historical and cognitive contexts in which Islamic thought has been imprisoned since the political triumph of nationalist ideologies in the struggle for liberation, and the ensuing construction of single-party states either on the apparently claimed liberal European model or ,until 1989, that of the ‘people’s democratic republics’ of Communist Europe. From 1950 to 2000, two determining factors substituted a sociologically dominant populist ideology for a liberal culture, itself restricted to circumscribed and fragile urban elites. Education systems, manipulated by one-party states universally promoted a nationalistic, militantly ethnic vision, sometimes openly xenophobic, in the guise of vigilance- not entirely unjustified – against imperialist exploitation by the ‘West’: and the social settings of knowledge were thrown into confusion by a demographic growth rate unprecedented in the history of human society. In all Islamic contexts, the situations crated in this way will never be superseded as long as the military and police-states endure, with their total hostility to the most unarguable values of democratic development in modern societies.

It is in terms of these weighty and complex factors that we should interpret the militant ‘argument’ proclaiming the radical and definitive incompatibility of ‘Western’ science and thought with that of ‘Islam’; in which ‘Islam’ has its own conceptual apparatus and horizons of meaning which admit absolutely no theoretical or pragmatic validity in the intellectual and spiritual ‘wanderings’ of Western positive science. This position is defended in the education systems and religious rhetoric of Islamicist militants issuing from the sacred enclaves of the mosques, and also by official media compelled to take part in a mimetic escalation concerning the ‘validity’ of ‘Islam’ as a source and foundation of all religious, ethical, political and economic legitimacy. All discursive utterances in contemporary Islamic contexts are inspired to a greater or lesser degree by this ideological perception of the ‘Western’ protagonist of contemporary history, just as in that ‘West’ constructed by the political-religious imaginary, the world of ‘Islam’ is generally perceived as radically incompatible with, and therefore threatening to, the superior ‘values’ of the West. This is the highly successful ‘clash of civilizations’ theory that has haunted the Western political imagination since the end of the Cold War. There is certainly a clash, but it is between collective imaginaries constructed and maintained on both sides through unthinkables and unthoughts cultivated by the education systems, the discourse of political and academic establishments, and the media that feed on this rhetoric and seek to increase their following by outdoing each other with anticipations of interpretations from the leading minds.

But there are very few works in which the boundaries of specialization- sociology, psychology, ethnography, anthropology, theology and philosophy- are truly merged in order to completely change representations and interpretations of belief and the teaching offered to the believer. On the contrary, macro-theories on the clash of cultures presented by political scientists are currently overwhelmingly successful allover the world, despite the fact that they spread a dangerous, ideological polarization of backward, obscurantist, anti-humanist cultures and religions that threaten enlightened, advanced, humanist values.

Islam: To Reform or To Subvert by Mohammad Arkoun, Saqi Essentials, London, 2002, 2006.
M. Arkoun is Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne.