The problem of moralism

Jul 28th, 2011 by aragorn in personal

I’m thinking a lot about what we (in the US) get absolutely wrong in (anti)politics as I am traveling in Europe. My last piece was about sociability and the structural difficulties in working with other people in the US context of no commons, people passing through, and the near requirement to full time work for survival (in much of the country). This time I am going to talk about consciousness and the suffocation of radicals by moralism usually learned from the protestant upbringings of most of the US but also from the newer religions of secularism and counter-cultural politics. Consider this a draft of some ideas that I will try to expand on later.

More importantly it is a self-criticism and a break from my own past & choices. You can laugh as long as you are not sanctimonious about it. I still believe in drawing lines.

Protestant religions

I spent a lot of time digging into the cultural implications of the religions of Europe. My review is cursory and based on the limitations of my contacts in Euro-radicalism but I feel confident on the level of observing some differences that are worth sharing without pressing too hard on any conclusions. For starters, most of the people I have met haven’t really even thought about the issue. Perhaps this is true in the US also but my experience growing up in the northern Bible Belt instilled a certain necessity of understanding the impact of religion on cultural & social life. I’ll be specific and talk about a couple generalizations from around the country.

The major protestant religions in the US are Calvinism, baptist, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. There are a scattering of Anglicans (although I’ve never met one), Amish, congregational, etc but these are the major ones. My specific history is with Calvinists (meaning I grew up around them but I’ve never even been to one of their services) and here is a nutshell on what differentiates them from other Christians.

  • all people are depraved and incapable of following God on their own. They require guidance.
  • predestination aka God already knows who is going to heaven

I’m sure they believed other things but these two things alone is enough to realize what a cold and formidable religion this is. As a result they created cold and formidable things in my town that largely dominated the psychic landscape. The children who broke with their religion (and eventually returned) tended to classic (aka boring) breaks; inebriated, sex starved monsters. Passionate moments to reflect on during later lives of monotony and cold, as shame is a warm emotion.

Baptists are creatures of a different suit entirely. Where the Calvinists are tight and disciplined in their impoverishment the baptists are fairly wild in theirs. Much of what we understand to be characteristics of the American personality are, in fact, Baptist traditions. Specifically the four freedoms (which most Baptists accept) which basically boil down to the idea that your soul and salvation are a reflection of your individual relationship with the savior (and your interpretation of the holy of holiest scriptures). Baptists don’t need anyone but their bible and Jesus which is about as American of a doctrine as I can imagine.

The orthodox & Catholics

These two religions vary wildly from the protestants. So much so that it is hard to believe they all are into the same zombie myth at all.

The Catholics are the original recuperators, taking whatever cultural artifact they encountered and rebranding it. The result is a conservatism that would be seemingly inherent in a 2000 year old institution. In Spain and France the role of the Church seems be entirely defending the cultural, social, and political gains it has achieved over that time. There is no real sense of a missionary zeal in these countries, only old buildings and a certain sense that the world is passing it by, but it doesn’t matter because it is the world-in-itself.

The orthodox are fascinating to someone who hasn’t been around their particular brand of archaic outfits and long beards. As exotic to someone from the US as the Muslims these people are the original Christians (the split was at the council of Nice and the composition of which texts were to be in the holy book we’ve been plagued with every since). A cultural artifacts that are notable with the Orthodox is the priest vow of poverty. This is also true with the Catholics but their thousands of years of hypocrisy make them a little harder to take seriously. With the (Greek at least) Orthodox this isn’t exactly the case and more importantly continues to be a social/cultural imperative. Greek society does not link wealth with holiness in the way that several Protestant sects do and the difference is real. Yes, it makes anarchists seem less crazy, but it also places the small business owner at the center of the Greek imagination.

Another example of this is to examine the prevalence of security cameras in each country. Greece has a very low number of security cameras with a generalized social repulsion to the idea that public space, and individual people in that space, should be recorded. This is somewhat related to a discussion of their tradition between the relationship between Idols and icons but as was described to me the Greek “face” (the actual human face of a Greek person) has a value that cannot be recorded. I can’t make this shit up.

Contrast this to Northern Europe, especially the UK where you cannot travel without being imaged by CCTV 300 times a day which likely correlates to the weakly ideological nature of the Anglicans requiring a process to verify trust. But also to the Calvinist Dutch who actually pedagogically believe that privacy is irrelevant because judgement is only possible from God who can see everything anyway).

Obviously I’m not painting enough of a picture here but the premise I’m working on is that both the Catholic & Orthodox are much older, sedate religions (even if they ostensibly worship the same bearded guy) than the Protestant one’s I know in the States. The impact resonates in the cultures themselves.

The even newer religions

I don’t believe that there will be a holy war led by these old religions. Not in my lifetime and probably never again. I would not say the same about some of the Protestants but I think it is quite likely that they will continue with their mainstreaming strategy (public participation in political and cultural crafting of the US) along with nurturing their lunatic fringe. I also will not say the same about other identity-religions.

Before I begin I’ll caveat. I believe I will make a stronger criticism of identity-politics another time. At this point I am scrabbling about myself, figuring out a way to distance myself from my own sense of false unity and self-betrayal that has surrounded my own participation the lie that we understand as identity. And the confusion we (in the US) have suffered from the secular mantra of the “personal is political” never realizing we were actually just repeating the gospel of Luke in different words (cite 1 and 2).

The formation of synthetic identity will be the new terrain for holy wars in this century. It may not be the vegans vs the paleolithic diet, instead it may be the equally fabricated Wahabi or Westboro Baptist Church that sets it off. What is important to argue is that the ideology of nation-as-identity is fading fast. I am not American and nearly no one on the globe is fighting for the glory of their own Nation-State (with a very few exceptions of course). But I have been, on the other hand, a handful of other labels that I was willing fight for yet didn’t have any tie to bind me but my own belief in them.

This auto-generation masks an existential point. We crave people. I craved some sense of place (meaning people) since there was no real place for me in the place I came from. In our search for place we attach ourselves to identity as a way to find a common vocabulary, a way to find people, and mission accomplished, we usually find them. It takes nearly a decade (measuring for instance the average lifespan of a punk, anarchist, or vegan) for most of us to realize that the unity that we have in these synthetic identities isn’t real connection, place, or enough to fill the loss. Especially since these new programs don’t have the infrastructure to fake real they have yet formed significant militias, creches, or old age homes.

A new moral framework with the added benefit of the illusion of Real Human Life ™. It also is a fair restatement of many substantial critiques of “the subcultural” which is why I want to be clear that what I’m saying is not a dismissal of people who participate in (sub, anti, or counter)-culture. I get it and I’m not trying to distance myself from the need that contra-culture represents. Instead I am saying that I realize now that this need isn’t possible to fill, not with one synthetic identity or another, not with religion, not with family.

This means that while I still have some connection with my contra-cultural past it is entirely on the level of liking the same music, sharing a preference for good food, and liking the same books. I am no longer set of terms but something else… perhaps just another person whose frustration with the language and so many of the people I have met along the way has just grown stale.

How I would rather put it is that the new post-secular religions haven’t improved on the source material in a significant way and draw far more from it than they would like to believe. Veganism isn’t going to change the world, end animal suffering, or much of anything at all except fill a different set of people’s pockets. DIY hasn’t made people particularly engaged with their own life, hasn’t slowed down the flow of products from China, and done much of anything except fill a different set of people’s pockets. Anarchist hasn’t created much anarchy.

So here we are, left in the rubble of Christianity. Anarchists have, by and large, avoided religion as a topic for criticism for the past 50 years out of some misguided tolerance but this has been a mistake. Religion, in the form of morality and Christianity, absolutely frames us. Our counter-cultures, our radical politics, our missionary zeal and our acts of contrition are all fruits of a poisoned tree. In the past I have called this tree European thought, but that is perhaps too abstract to be helpful. Perhaps this rant against religion and the way that it permeated everything that we believe is a little bit more grounded, but probably not.


  • Wow, Aragorn! I’m really amazed with this blog post. It reminds me of a post I wrote ( when I was trying to distance myself from the A-word and changed my name back to “Ian”, my original name. I saw too how the whole clinging to a sense of particular identity was an attempt to fill some deep void within myself.

    I personally grew up in a very religious family myself. My mother was (and still is) a very devout member of the Baha’i Faith, so I had Baha’i stuff permeating my whole childhood and adolescence. In fact, me becoming an anarchist was a very big personal struggle for me, since the whole “I am a Baha’i” thing had such a strong grip on my psyche.

    In retrospect, I see how I kept that whole mentality of having a missionary zeal of trying to convert the whole world to a particular belief system and plaster everything with the same label. Much of my anarchist life has essentially been an attempt at doing the same thing with the a-word. And I still have that within me, I just try to be as conscious and intentional about that as I can be.

  • I think one of my greatest flaws as a social being is to assume that people are interested in things for the same reason that I am. Anarchist social theory has always pointed to a very specific and fundamental problem with social life: that it is very difficult to maintain communal relationships without a material, consistent, close in approximation culture that derives its social mores from the desire to preserve or create communal relationships. So, I have always highly admired attempts at communal life, collective work, and other projects that are rooted in transforming our social relationships to be more in accord with our real material interdependence. The challenge of such a project seems to me to be this sort of problem of Identity. Identity relationships can get passed the objectification that are implicit in relating with another based on an abstraction. But, at best it seems that Identity is a social filter more than anything else: a hope to hook up with others whose values are similar to yours.

    Ok – well, this is a big problem when Identity defines and restricts your social life instead of enhancing your capacity to meet others who you may have wonderful relationships with. The geneology of morals and values for anarchists is an interesting topic, but what I think you’re really getting at is a more basic problem. We are pushed by very powerful forces to atomization in the US. And, those who many people remain closest with …beyond appearances …have very different values. This itself is cherished as a sort of grand freedom – but it is just the freedom to form utterly superficial relationships.

    When it comes to a bunch of people who agree that revolution is necessary and that this revolution seeks the negation of the same aspects of life, there isn’t any promise of meeting anyone who really does make for a good friend, partner, whatever. In a sense, there isn’t any real identification with each other as individuals …just identification with a mediation: “Anarchist”. So our social lives to some extent become compartmentalized: those we simply love or are friends with (in a very deep sense) and those who we fight together with. We’re stuck with an alienating, atomizing, stupefying social situation and against the odds, some of us do find worth while relationships while at the same time – we come together in a struggle against these conditions as “mere comrades”.

    On the bright side …I don’t think that this mediation of Identity is itself always destined to produce the “mere comrade” (or “mere acquaintance”) relationship over and over again. I think that the superficiality of Identity-centered relationships can become deep. But, I think that for us this will require a lot of work that isn’t revolutionary in the traditional sense. It wouldn’t be a change to any outside world, but a change in all of our lives. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good reasons to put such an issue to the side and just focus on the immediate threats to our lives and our well-being (and others’). Creating a culture where we are all eating together frequently and having blase conversation is less important than getting our theory and prefabricated notions of how to be revolutionary straight.

    I’m of the opinion that if we all die tomorrow, it will be better to have been less revolutionary and been a boon to each others’ lives. That is the level at which I comprehend prefiguration. We tell ourselves over and over again that we are in a sense, responsible for the continuation of oppression, ecological disaster, etc. because we don’t fight hard enough or something. I think this is a sort of delusional thing. We didn’t create the necessary conditions for life to be this way and we can’t hold ourselves responsible for that. We can do our best to change the way life is lived and do our best to abolish dominance. What we can’t do is include everyone else in this project without their consent.

  • good thing a contemporary anarchist from the USA writes an anti-religion article. Free-thought sounds to many people in radical anarchist-like circles like something uncool for “rationalist” “scientificists” and so too many have embraced postmodernist excesive tolerance toward mainstream church. I say it might look like politics are decided by conservatives and liberals/social democrats but the fact is that in the USA it is clear protestantism is deciding so much of peoples lifes and politics and where I live, latin-america, catholicism morality still is strong while USA imported protestantism is rapidly expanding.

    In Europe anti-religion activism has a bigger importance than it seems it has in the USA in anarchist circles and I am campaigning that it develops a bigger importance in latin american anarchism. Of course i don´t want too much of a 19th century ultrarationalist scientistic free thought but how about a surrealistic atheist free-thought which could bring back good old anti-clerical blasphemy and iconoclastic methods as well as the great libertine tradition. Anyway I recommend the kind of atheism and libertine anarchism that Michel Onfray has been promoting inspired by George Bataille´s call to Atheology.

  • Hi Aragorn,

    A few thoughts:

    Prior to the Protestant reformation/wars, religion was not about belief. It was about Law and more importantly about ritual and practice. This is still the case for observant Jews and Muslims (as well as some Catholics and Orthodox Christians). Religion as belief does not require discipline or consistency, and it makes sense that this very modern idea is so popular in a world without obligation or community. Everyone can believe what they want, change their beliefs, etc without doing anything differently or being accountable to each other, whereas for religions still tied to the Law/religion-as-practice you have to make the choice to continue, every single day.

    What’s interesting to me about veganism is that while people attach all sorts of whacky beliefs to it (animal rights, buddhism, seventh day adventism, etc), ultimately beliefs do not matter. It is a practical choice that must be reaffirmed every time one eats. This is totally at odds with Protestantism and has a lot more to do with the heuristics of pre-modern religions like Judaism. Veganism is also an act of respect for the dead, an obligation to the dead, that is practical and has nothing to do with belief.