In the movie Sadhgati(1981), a poor dalit man, Dukhiya, wants to welcome a brahmin to his home to fix his daughters marriage date. Dukhiya doesn’t want to go to the brahmin empty-handed and therefore cuts and carries a bundle of grass with him. The brahmin orders Dukhiya to clean the verandah, to carry heavy bags of husk from storeroom to cowshed and to cut logs of tree, before he could come to Dukhiya’s place for fixing the date. You will also see the brahmin’s wife going about her daily chores.
Meanwhile at Dukhiya’s home you find his wife Jhuria preparing the necessary offerings to the brahmin, his daughter Dhania working on a mat made of mohwa leaves for the brahmin to sit on and a plate made of mohwa leaves for the brahmin to take the offerings from. You will wonder if the brahmin does anything other than marital consultancy.
You will find one scene where the brahmin offers solace to a young bereaving husband by quoting Bhagavad Gita: ‘just as a person sheds his tattered clothes and puts on fresh ones, so does the soul abandon the old body and finds a new one. Though your wife is dead, you must realize that her soul lives on.’ The young man finds this thought most consoling. You can say that the brahmin has taken up the role of a psychiatrist here.
The idea that orthodox religion offers solace is not new. For example, Karl Marx said: Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
As the corona crisis (a real suffering) worsened across the world, the solutions, solaces and salvations from orthodox religion also increased.
If you are an atheist or a member of something like New Atheist movement, you would buy neither the brahmin’s consolation in Sadhgati nor the solutions to the corona crisis offered by managers of various orthodox religions. Moreover, they may even annoy you. You may be tempted to refute the theological arguments and even go as far as calling the masses of individuals looking for solace in orthodox religion as covidiots or something like that.
Marx was neither interested in discrediting theological arguments nor was inclined to call masses of individuals idiots. He was fascinated by the very idea of the existence of religion. For Marx, religions exist not for cognitive understanding of the world but to give consolations for human needs which are otherwise unsatisfied. As long as the needs are not satisfied, you can refute religion all you want, but in the end people either hold on to it or generate new religious ideas. For Marx, the criticism of religion is not an end in itself but only a means to criticize “this state, this society” which produces religion. Marx goes on and says:
The [Aufhebung] of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions of their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.
Consider the prospect of finding something that is similar to orthodox religion (in terms of giving solace, relief etc) and yet isn’t the same. Perhaps a secular religion in which even some of our most vehement atheists of orthodox religion can be seen participating passionately. Is there such a thing(s)? Consider these posts from Markanday Katju, former Chief Justice of India.
Now don’t think Katju is some sort of communist just because he used the metaphor ‘opium’. Before you hasten to such conclusions, see his other posts below.
So, he is a liberal who supports capitalism with some regulation. Perhaps, the honest judge’s liberal world-view explains his propensity for making such sweeping statements such as 98% Indians are fools (blaming masses of individuals) and all communists live in fine style and are frauds.
Katju identifies cricket (sports business broadly), politics (why politics? Perhaps, he meant politics of the sensational image building-cult of personality kind), movies and movie stars and so on as opiums of our contemporary world and implies that these opiums are diverting people from the real socio-economic problems.
I don’t want to be presumptuous and say that only for capitalism, entertainment works as a tool for distracting and diverting people from real issues that capitalism is not able to solve. Because this tactic was employed even by the ruling classes of the past (as Katju mentioned about Roman Emperors).
For instance, the 16th century philosopher Étienne de La Boétie in his essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ offers three answers for the question: Why do the many submit to the tyranny of the few? Why do “a hundred” or “a thousand” “endure the caprice of a single man?”. One of them being entertaining diversions (the other two being custom & habit and patronage: tyrants surround themselves with dependents, who in turn have their own dependents):
Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements, the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naïvely, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.
While it is true that entertaining distractions are as old as history, the scale at which capitalism can deliver such distractions is unprecedented. The magnitude and variety of entertainment that is possible with capitalism would have been a wet dream of the rulers of the past. Hence, I don’t agree with Katju when he says: ‘one opium is not enough to keep the Indian masses in a state of intoxication, so several are required.’ It is not the Indian masses that need several opiums, but it is the capitalism’s capacity to deliver those ‘several’ not only in India but all over the world.
If we see each of these opiums as a commodity (as defined in Marx’s Capital): ‘an external object, a thing which satisfies through its qualities human needs of one kind or another. The nature of these needs is irrelevant, e.g., whether their origin is in the stomach or in the fancy’, then even Marx, capitalism’s fiercest critic, praised its capacity to produce commodities:
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together…. what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
Nothing would validate my idea of similarities between entertainment and orthodox religion as providers of (fake) solace-relief and distraction from real conditions than the tweets of movie star NTR and movie director S.S. Rajamouli made during the beginning of the corona crisis lockdown in India.
Similar to the brahmin consoling the young bereaving husband in Sadgathi and other orthodox religion managers providing unreal solutions to corona crisis, both director SSR and star NTR are providing us with their movie poster to ‘lift our spirits’ and to ‘get thrilled’ during this crisis. It is not the case that for every ‘like’ the poster gets on social media, a ventilator is added to our hospitals.
Sure, the fans of NTR and SSR must have felt a relief and courage after seeing the poster and watching the teaser, as was expressed by one such fan in the comments (below). But my focus is not on the fake relief/solace the fans had, but on the similarities between orthodox religion and entertainment (it is defined as ‘fake solace’ because neither the poster nor the teaser has any effect on improving the actual crisis situation).
I think it is fair to call SSR and NTR priests of capitalism in this instance. How did they turn themselves into such priests? The answer is: by the method of market. My speculation is that they have sensed a good market in this lockdown with people staying at homes. Because under the logic of market, nothing is sacred and everything is marketable (even orthodox religion is a commodity to be sold in the market). By this logic, the people staying at home are potential viewers. To seize this market of potential viewers they released the poster and teaser and thereby entered the reign of market, which turned them into priests of capitalism.
Along with the functions of catering bogus relief and distracting from real issues, entertainment also helps in inculcating hysteria(see the audience response to Bahubali in the above video) and paranoia. For instance, consider what Noam Chomsky says:
Now there are other media. Their basic social role is different: it’s diversion. There is this real mass media, the kinds that are aimed at the Joe Sixpack. The purpose of those media is to dull people’s brains. This is an oversimplification, but for the 80% or whatever they are, the main thing for them is to divert them, to get them to watch National Football League and to worry about mother with child with six heads or whatever you pick up in the super market or look at astrology or get involved in fundamentalist stuff and just get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.
Take, say, sports. That’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system. It offers people something to pay attention to that is of no importance. Keep them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea about doing something about. Its striking to see the intelligence that is used by ordinary people in sports. You listen to radio stations where people call in. They have the most exotic information understanding all kinds of arcane(sports) issues. When I was in high school, I asked myself at one point: “Why do I care if my high school’s team wins the football game? I don’t know anybody on the team, they have nothing to do with me. Why am I here and applaud? It does not make any sense.” But the point is, it does make sense: It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements. In fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. If you look closely at these things, typically, they do have functions and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
If Chomsky thinks cheering for his high school football team makes no sense, then what are we to make of cheering maniacally for a team of cricket players bought by some billionaire, with usually no connection between the players and the place they are apparently representing, and presenting this entire madness as encouraging sports?
You may ask: to many life is tough, can’t they have a respite in the form of entertainment? But the trouble is, it is not merely a respite from tribulations. It is like a drug that alleviates the pain of your war wounds. But along with alleviating the pain it is also blinding you from seeing the causes of the war. Besides, it is developing in you ‘submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements and irrational jingoism’, the very qualities that make you disposed to war.
Do not underestimate the power of practice. If you practice playing piano regularly, may be you won’t become the greatest piano player, but you would sure keep getting better at playing piano. Likewise if you are engaged in some form of hysteria, jingoism, slavish activity week after week, month after month, year after year, you would only become better at these things. You become what you practice.
Further, these opiums with their distracting abilities and irrationalities inducing capabilities are a godsend for authoritarian governments. Neil Postman in his book, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business’, comparing the dystopian visions in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World says:
Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
Or think of Alan Moore, a comic book writer, amusing line: Orwell was almost exactly wrong in a strange way. He thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother.
However, I think both Orwell and Huxley are right. Authoritarian governments(Big Brothers) watch us and they also prefer us watching (and thereby distracted by) Big Brother TV shows. In fact, I think Big Brothers are watching us to precisely see whether we are consuming Big Brother and not stepping out of line. Orwell was not wrong in predicting Big Brother would watch us. The whistle-blowing affair of Edward Snowden vindicates Orwell. And everything I have written so far falls in line with Huxley’s dystopian vision.
Also it is a misunderstanding of state, if you attribute it the sole responsibility for authoritarianism and exclude corporations from any blame. For example, in the preface to the essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ by philosopher Étienne de La Boétie, Murray Rothbard, a libertarian economist, praised Boétie for his acuity in understanding tyranny and says:
LA BOÉTIE’S DISCOURSE HAS A vital importance for the modern reader… for the libertarian… For La Boétie speaks most sharply to the problem which all libertarians—indeed, all opponents of despotism—find particularly difficult: the problem of strategy. Facing the devastating and seemingly overwhelming power of the modern State, how can a free and very different world be brought about? …La Boétie offers vital insights into this eternal problem.
While I share Rothbard’s concern about devastating and overwhelming power of the state, I would say (Rothbard’s favorite) free market needs state. As the free market worsens inequality, the state has to intervene to quell the accompanying anxieties and chaos in society. The corporations need state. The bourgeoisie needs state. As Marx says: The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. When we say Big Brother is watching us, you have to not just include NSA, but also Facebook because here the line distinguishing state and corporations need not be distinct and can be blurry. The default position is : state for corporations and corporations for state. Political campaigns such as Bernie Sanders ‘Our Revolution’ are only attempts to tilt this default position slightly towards working people and such attempts are highly unlikely to succeed and usually fail (under normal circumstances).
So if Katju is right in saying that various opiums are distracting people from actual socio-economic problems, then is he right in calling 98% of Indians idiots? The answer is NO. Because people indulge in these activities for lack of real alternatives, the powerlessness to resist or act otherwise. We have a system where so called ‘enlightened’ gurus can shamelessly declare that the very idea of protest is wrong. Chomsky says it is the way the system is set up:
When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.
In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.
Now it seems to me that the same intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used — would be used — under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life.
It is not accurate to say that people get what they deserve, but rather it is people get what the existing power systems impose on them.
Lastly, I am not saying that since cinema, dance, music, sport etc have predominantly become ideological tools, they have to be abolished. It would be absurd to do such thing because they are not inherently evil. After all, they can be used against the system and to expose the system and there are examples doing this. However, such examples are less popular and popular examples are usually ideological. These cultural forms are not to be abolished or destroyed but to be aufhebung. The German word aufhebung is complex and has contradictory meanings such as ‘to abolish’, ‘to preserve’ and ‘to transcend’. For Engels aufhebung suggests ‘Overcome and Preserved’, i.e. a dialectical overcoming: ‘Overcome with respect to form, and preserved as real content’. Form here means the existing social relations. Therefore, for us, these cultural forms need to overcome the existing capitalist relations while preserving their real content. (For a detailed explanation on Marx’s metaphor opium, and his dialectical analysis of religion, see this paper, it is very interesting).
Puroorava Chakravarthy (8th May, 2020)
Updates on this article added on 11th May, 2020:
My friend Sreekanth Reddy Gondipalle asked me to respond to certain areas that are not clear in the above article. The following has my friend’s questions or responses in red and my responses in blue.
Sreekanth’s question: Do you have a solution for how we can achieve the state of “aufhebung” for the cultural forms?
My response: I don’t think it is about achieving exclusively aufhebung of cultural forms. I think by ‘overcome with respect to form, and preserved as real content’, Engels meant overcoming/abolishing the capitalist relations as a whole, or overcoming (or abolition) of classes themselves. It is more about a revolution that changes the entire social order. For Marx and Engels when we overcome/abolish the form (i.e. capitalist relations), that is when our true freedom begins. And this would be achieved through a proletariat revolution. Proletariat class is working class, which owns no property (i.e. means of production, more on this below) and has only its labour power (i.e. capacity to work for a wage) to offer.
Now as to answer why Marx considered proletariat class, let me quote from his ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, the text from which I also took the Marx’s quotes on religion that I used in the article.
Marx asks: “So where is the real possibility of German emancipation?”
Answer: in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in civil society that is not a class of civil society, of a social group that is the dissolution [Auflösung] of all social groups, of a sphere that has a universal character because of its universal sufferings and lays claim to no particular right, because it is the object of no particular injustice but of injustice in general. . . It is . . . a sphere that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating these other spheres themselves. In a word, it is the complete loss of humanity and thus can only recover itself by a complete redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat. . . . When the proletariat declares the dissolution of the hitherto existing world order, it merely declares the secret of its own existence, since it is in fact the dissolution of this order. When it demands the negation of private property, it is only laying down as a principle for society what society has laid down as a principle for the proletariat, what has already been incorporated in itself without its consent as the negative result of society.
Before our right-wing libertarian friends come and attack the ‘unholy’ line: ‘negation of private property’, let me explain what Marx meant by ‘abolition(negation) of private property’. Here private property doesn’t mean your tooth brush, your TV remote, or your car keys or whatever. Here he is describing the negation of private ownership of means of production, i.e. negation of the owning of means of production as a private property of the few.
Say, you, me and our other engineering friends work for some industry by offering our labour power for some wage. We spend most of our adult life at our workplace and yet we don’t own anything there (sure you can buy some stock here and there, but that doesn’t make you much of an owner). We all come together and work there to produce something that satisfies some human need. And yet we have no say in where to produce, what to produce or how to produce. We don’t have a say in whether the plant should be in USA or China or India. We don’t have a say in whether we can have the job or not have the job. All these major decisions are made by the owners. We produce things that satisfy our human needs collectively and yet the major decisions are made by a select few.
So, Marx, to put it simply, is addressing this contradiction. Marx’s line: ‘negation of private property, i.e. negation of private ownership of means of production’, can be in modern parlance roughly translated to democracy at work place, i.e. democracy extended to the economic sphere. And it has nothing to do with taking away your favourite tooth brush, as some of our libertarian friends may claim.
Now that we dealt with the ambiguity surrounding the words ‘private property’, let us apply Engels phrase ‘Overcome with respect to form, and preserved as real content’ to the idea of negation of private property. Proletariat is propertyless and this propertylessness is imposed on the proletariat by this (capitalist) society. When the proletariat abolishes private property and establishes a new society, it changes its propertylessness into something quite different (When proletariat demands the negation of private property, it is only laying down as a principle for society what society has laid down as a principle for the proletariat). The proletariat is propertyless in both capitalist and new societies. But it is one thing to be propertyless in capitalist society and it is quite something else to be propertyless in new society (which is formed through abolition of private property (i.e. capitalist relations)). The real content of the proletariat, that is being propertyless, is preserved and yet it is changed into something very different by overcoming the form (i.e. capitalist relations). Now you may ask me if such a proletariat revolution can ever happen. Seeing the world as it is now, I am pessimistic. But looking at history gives me hope. Capitalism itself emerged overthrowing feudal social order through bourgeois revolutions. Though the defenders of the existing system vehemently propagate the idea that liberal democracies in their capitalist form as the end of history, that we have achieved the final form of organizing ourselves, I think history says otherwise: the only constant is change and everything is in flux.
Sreekanth’s response: You seem to vehemently diss the idea of people devouring distractions (“watching movies”) as a form of entertainment.
My response: “Vehemently dissing”, not really. I actually empathize with people. I am not making these observations as a neutral observer from mars. I myself participate in this society and you can blame me for seeking these entertainment pleasures, though the level at which I engage with them may be very low compared to normal standards, for example I don’t care about IPL and most other things that are popular, but I do watch an occasional movie for entertainment. So, I am not vehemently dissing, rather I think I tried to explain why we spend so much of our energy on these trivial things and why we are so helpless: because of lack of real alternatives etc.
Friend’s question: What do you suggest the bourgeoisie to do in a time like this (COVID-19 Lockdowns)?
My response: I’m assuming there is a little confusion over the word ‘bourgeoisie’ here.
From the second definition in the above image, you can see bourgeoisie means the capitalist class, i.e. the current ruling class. It also has the meaning ‘middle class’ for historical reasons. In 18th and 19th century the term ‘middle class’ was used for capitalists, since the upper class at that time meant aristocrats or nobles. So for our purposes, bourgeoisie isn’t middle classes, but includes people like Bill Gates, Ambani, Jeff Bezos, Tata etc and may be extended to their friends such as Obama, Trump, Modi, Sonia Gandhi etc in a broad sense. So, what can we ‘suggest the bourgeoisie’? NOTHING. They will do what they have to do, to preserve their privileged positions.
Friend’s question: Why do you think it is a bad idea to completely abolish several forms of entertainment like sports, movies etc. when you see them as mere distractions or means to numbing the brains of the general public?
My answer: It is not true I saw them merely or only as distractions, but yes, I think, I am guilty of not elaborating on it. And thank you for pushing me in this direction.
Because it would be absurd to abolish them. What would human life be without art, music, dance, cinema or sports etc. For example, we all have a natural tendency for sports, i.e. to play. Not just humans, but even in other animals you see this tendency. We see dogs and puppies playing freely and they don’t need a market of audience to do it or even worse, they don’t have to be bought by some billionaire in order to play.
These are necessary for humans’ natural urge for expression or play etc. It is only in certain social relations they turn into ideological tools. Take another example such as sex. If we agree sex is a human urge for intimacy and affection, see what our capitalist relations has done to it. Intimacy is removed and in exchange we are offered porn to consume it as a commodity. I am not being moralistic here. I’m not saying porn is immoral and every penis that watches it should be punished and so on. Only that things have to preserve their real content, while overcoming the form (existing social relations).
In the last paragraph I said: ‘After all, they can be used against the system and to expose the system and there are examples doing this. However, such examples are less popular and popular examples are usually ideological’. Though I didn’t elaborate on it, what I was trying to say was, in every cultural form both ideological and utopian (revolutionary) dimensions need to be seen.
Consider religion. Theodore Adorno, a German philosopher and sociologist, on religion becoming a commodity in capitalist society says: Religion is on sale, as it were. It is cheaply marketed in order to provide one more so-called irrational stimulus among many others by which the members of a calculating society are calculatingly made to forget the calculation under which they suffer.
But see what Max Horkheimer, a philosopher and sociologist belonging to the same school of thought as Adorno, says on the utopian aspect of religion: The concept of God was for a long time the place where the idea was kept alive that there are other norms besides those to which nature and society give expression in their operation . . . Religion is the record of the wishes, desires and accusations of countless generations.
And from Mckinnon (2005): While it is true that in Marx’s text, religion is an “illusory happiness”, there is still a kernel of happiness there, happiness in promised form. The history of religion records the “wishes, desires and accusations” of oppressed human beings. When they are not sui generis dreams, these visions of another reality are designed as the promise of a blissful hereafter for obedient slaves. Do they not nonetheless, in their vision of another reality, also open up new possibilities for imagining “real happiness”?
Frederic Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, in his work The Political Unconscious asks us to see the interplay between the ideological and Utopian(revolutionary) dimensions of a cultural form : a process of compensatory exchange must be involved . . . in which the henceforth manipulated viewer is offered specific gratifications in return for his or her consent to passivity. In other words, if the ideological function of mass culture is understood as a process whereby otherwise dangerous and protopolitical impulses are ‘managed’ and defused, rechanneled and offered spurious objects, then some preliminary step must also be theorized in which these same impulses – the raw material upon which the process works – are initially awakened within the very text that seeks to still them.
All these examples are taken from Mckinnon (2005) paper, which I also mentioned at the end of the article. It is a very interesting paper that describes Marx’s dialectical analysis of religion and how this analysis averts narrow instrumentalism (or functionalism). Please check it. I have focused more on the ideological dimension in my article because I think that is the dominant one at this stage of our history. And I thank you for asking these questions which led me to detail other dimensions.