There’s a sort of “poor man’s” Horkheimer and Adorno that denounces– based on The Dialectic of Enlightenment —the spirit of the Enlightenment, claiming that it was responsible for the Holocaust, the horrors of the Soviet gulags, as well as the colonial genocides. Indeed, discussions along these lines have often occurred here on the blog. In particular, I’ve often heard this line of deployed by the religiously inclined as a way of calling for a spiritual or divine supplement to keep beastly humans from killing others. I call this a “poor man’s” version of Horkheimer and Adorno because, being dialectical thinkers, I think they’re position is far more sophisticated than this and that they aren’t calling for abandoning the Enlightenment project– which just is the project of critique and emancipation –but a new type of Enlightenment project. That aside, I was thus intrigued when I came across the following passages in Nicholas Tampio’s Kantian Courage this morning:
The human and material costs of the Thirty Years War were astonishing. Though figures are difficult to calculate precisely, approximately five to eight million people died in the conflict, 20 – 32 percent of the Holy Roman Empire’s prewar population. The raw numbers of Europeans killed during major conflicts between 1914 – 18 (27 million) and 1939 – 45 (33.8) were much higher, but the percentage of the population was much smaller (5.5 and 6 percent, respectively). The causes of the death were manifold– soldiers killed in battle, civilians slaughtered in massacres, everyone decimated by the war’s spread of Bubonic plague, typhus, starvation, governmental breakdown, ecological devastation, and forced migration. Losses around Prague reached at least 50 percent, and certain towns in the bishopric of Halberstadt lost between seven- and nine-tenths of their inhabitants. Europe’s population levels in 1618 were not reached again for nearly a century. Those who survived the war watched the old world disintegrate before their eyes. Hyperinflation led people to abandon industry and agriculture, despondent about their futures and fearful that soldiers would steal whatever they produced. Ancient structures of authority collapsed, as numerous lordsh9ips, abbeys and manors were appropriated and redistributed. Once esteemed families became bankrupt and destroyed, and new men such as the Habsburg general Wallenstein climbed the social ranks. The Catholic Church was left in a fundamentally altered state, as, for instance, the ratio of clergy to parishioners in Habsburg Sundgau in Alsace fell from 1:345 to 1:1,177. (2 – 3)
Confronted with numbers such as this, my conclusions aren’t what my readers might expect. To be sure, I do think that these numbers show that we can’t lay the Holocaust and the Gulag at the feet of the Enlightenment, for here we see precisely the same sort of devastation unfolding within a religious framework. It would seem to follow from this that religion can’t save us. If that’s true, then both the religious critique of the Enlightenment and the call for a religious supplement to prevent things like the Holocaust both fail.
However, I think matters are more complex than this. In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius lays human violence, cruelty, and unethical behavior at the feet of religion. One could easily point at the Thirty Years War and say “See! Lucretius was right! Religion is the source of human barbarism!” However, with the advocates of the poor man’s version of Adorno and Horkheimer, it has to be conceded that we haven’t seen a decline in political violence with the secularization of culture. Rather, we have witnessed heated political violence just as we did before.
This suggests that we can’t look to the content of belief-systems to explain this sort of violence. Formally or structurally, don’t Stalin’s purges and trials look a lot like the Spanish Inquisition? As I’ve argued elsewhere– in an article I wrote years ago entitled “The Other Face of God” (.pdf) –this suggests that it is not so much the content of a particular politics that generates this sort of violence, as a particular structure that generates or invites this sort of politics. While I’ve called that structure “theological”, it can be secular or religious, involve the supernatural or be purely materialist, and still invite these sorts of effects. If this is true, then it would follow that the real question becomes one of what sort of politics might be adopted that targets structure itself, rather than particular contents. I argued this in the first article I ever published, “The Politics of the Virtual” around 2003. While I don’t have a link to the .pdf of that article, an earlier version of the argument can be found here.