Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 15 August 2019

Identity Politics, Guilt and Christianity

We suggested earlier that the central characteristic, the principium individuationis of Western Judaeo-Christian civilization is the sense – for what else could it be but a sense, a “sixth sense”? – of guilt. This sense that appears to be a consequence of our religion is in reality its essential pre-condition: it is guilt that constructs our religion, not vice versa. But guilt, the sense of guilt, depends on two necessary ingredients – memory and doubt. No, not “error”, because everything we do is at bottom an “error”. Rather, it is precisely the gnawing doubt that whatever we do might be in “error”, and the memory of what we have done – these are the preconditions of the sense of guilt. I say “the sense of guilt” because guilt itself, of course, like good and evil, does not exist – it is not a recorded fact, nor is it an object. Guilt is self-doubt upon the reminiscence of some past action – it is remorse, from the Latin re-mordere, to bite again, where what “bites” is the memory upon our self, upon our con-science, the knowledge or notion we have of our personal experience – the bite of remorse, to be pleonastic, or of compunction where the “punction” (Latin, pungere) is again the “pinch”, the pinprick of conscience.

Westerners are riddled with self-doubt and therefore with guilt – so much so that we often seek to put right actions that not only took place in the remote past, but actions that were not even carried out by us! Rather, they may have been actions attributed to, or documented to have been carried out by, our distant ancestors. If tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner – then surely to feel guilty about something is at bottom to think that we are responsible for everything that happens to us and by extension to others. Guilt is a negative emotion: by definition, it is backward-looking and so it does not and cannot lead to anything constructive. Even remedial action taken to atone for guilt does not originate from it. To the contrary, it is the need to do something about an existing state of affairs that we judge to be unjust that evokes in us the sense of guilt – almost as a justification of the remedial actions that we are about to undertake – precisely, to remedy our past “errors” or, more religiously put, “sins”.

We Westerners wallow in guilt. It is as if we could not bear to live unless we felt “responsible” (respondere, to answer for, to account) – indeed, accountable! (the German is Ver-antwortlich, answerable) – for some injustice or misdeed or even, yes, even a natural catastrophe. What Westerner has never felt “guilty” for surviving a “natural” disaster that had caused some victim? Can you imagine? A natural disaster causes a “victim” – as if nature itself could be held accountable or responsible for some kind of “sin”. For Westerners nature itself ought to feel guilty about things that occur, er, “naturally” of course! Nowadays, such are the advances of our “science”, and so refined has our sense of blame and fault become, so ethereal and detached from life, that no-one but no-one is allowed to die – “of natural causes”. Every event in the universe must have a “cause” – every accident has to justify itself before the tribunal of our sense of guilt. (Kant always likened our sense of self, our Reason, to a tribunal that acted pursuant to rules or “judgement” – and that therefore stood ready to judge be judged upon and be sentenced thereafter! The second transcendental question in the Critique of Practical Reason – after the first, “Who am I?” and before the third, “What can I hope?”, is “What can I do?” as if to say, “how can I right my wrongs?” It is the devastating realisation of the centrality of guilt to Western Judao-Christian civilization that characterizes all of Franz Kafka’s revelatory fiction.)

Identity Politics externalizes this sense of guilt. First, someone must be responsible for everything that happens in the world. Here, the tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner becomes its direct opposite – we must understand everything, not so that we may forgive everything but rather so that we may find someone to blame for it! We must understand everything so that we may identify a guilty perpetrator for every evil in the world. Everything must have a cause – and so every event must have an agent responsible for it, guilty of it! The problem is that guilt cannot be erased: it can be “atoned for”, it can be forgiven – it can be wrongfully forgotten, because sins and wrongs must never be rightfully forgotten –; but guilt, like sin, can never be, er, “washed away”. Only God can do that – but that is, you guessed it, for the day after “Judgement Day”.

Identity Politics consists essentially in finding somebody out there who is responsible for our present state – for our “condition”, for our “suffering” and our “victim-hood”. Indeed, for the proponents and agitators of Identity Politics, the “identity” that they identify and wish to champion and vindicate is always and everywhere a function of, a response and reaction to, the wrongs perpetrated by someone else or at the very least it is affront and indignation, revulsion even, at the inability or unwillingness of the guilty party or the accused to confess to his sins! The most vehement proponents of Identity Politics are not the alleged “victims” of injustice (blacks, homosexuals, Jews) – no, the most vociferous, ardent, indefatigable and unappeasable promoters of Identity are those self-same Westerners whose sense of guilt is so great….that they must find some other Westerner who is responsible for it or who refuses to atone for it. For the identitarians, what is most reprehensible and contemptible in these other evil perpetrators of sins present and past is that they steadfastly and guiltily refuse to avow their guilt and thenceforth to make amends for it!

Of course, the very first target of identitarian revulsion and loathing is – themselves! Deep down, identitarians have fully internalised the logic of guilt and self-loathing that is the central essential feature of Judaea-Christian civilisation. Yet identitarians are most keen in their rage when it is directed at – you guessed – Christianity and Judaism. Little does it matter that these religions as institutions hardly have any political weight at all in advanced capitalist societies! For this reason, they are always on the lookout for new targets for their disgust. I am “white” – so reason the identitarians - and therefore through my “culture” I am responsible and guilty for all the crucifixions of the past and the present. But more guilty than me are those other whites who refuse to confess their guilt and to atone for it: they are the “white supremacists”! They are the “white nativists” who blindly and reprehensibly insist on having a Somewhere that they can call their own, a home where they belong: Yes, - God banish the thought – an “Identity”! How dare these white supremacists and nativists – all fascists, of course! – to claim that they have the right to their own Identity when their entire history is about subjugating or suppressing the Identities of others? They insist perversely that their true identity is a superior, universal, ecumenical identity – that their culture and civilization is unique in this regard – “that all men are created equal”. Well, to hell with their equality – the only equality identitarians seek is the resolute preservation and affirmation of identity as a “human right”. Little does it matter, of course, that any legal definition of “right” requires the erection of laws and institutions that are able to homologate, and so “to equate”, disparate “rights”. There are no rights without laws; and there is no Law without “equality before the Law”. And therefore there can be no Law without “equal rights”. But equality of rights implies the supersession of separate “identities”, in direct contradiction with the insane tenets of Identity Politics.

So finally the Western sense of guilt that has given rise to the millenary search for human equality is reviled and another virulent remedy is sought in the exacerbation and indeed the exasperation of “identities” that will inevitably give rise to more inequality in a degenerating spiral that will end inevitably in violent and irresolvable conflict.

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