The cloying embrace of the New Age
The criticism of religion ends with the doctrine that man is the highest being for man, that is, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised”. (Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
In the last thirty or so years there has sprung up a set of ideas, loosely related in content but closely tied by form, referred to collectively as the ‘New Age’ Aquarianism, Wicca, crystal healing, aromatherapy, holistic remedies, along with a host of offshoots from more conventional religions whether Christian or otherwise. These institutions themselves are internal to a general ‘change of consciousness’, in the main anti-technological and pro-‘spiritual’, or ‘Green’.
We as Socialists often appear alone in standing against this seeming tide of goodwill, good vibrations, and wholesomeness, as if slaughtermen at a refuge for foundling woodland animals. People know, and usually respect, our position on organised religion; that religion is debilitating to the mind of the worker and thus to the progress which we wish to make as workers in advancing our interests. But the New Age? What could be bad about ‘healing’? Who could protest against a Green utopia? Or, indeed, the benefits of goddess worship in empowering women? Surely this New Age is at worst harmless fun and at best a route to a new, gentler society?
Our answer is that the New Age religion is merely the old age religion in a new, consistently modern form. For example, it follows all the rules of modern science, often becoming a cult of scientism itself, demanding (usually)? no virgin births or flat earths, and steps between the cracks of this modern science where it fails to tread, in the subjective part of human experience; the New Age’s powers are all developed on the side of ‘spiritual energy’, ‘psychic transformation’, etc. If the old religion was the opium of the people, then this is the heroin; no longer extracted by chance from nature but refined, even artificially manufactured, and all the stronger for the process. The chants and prayers of the old religion have become commodified into tarot cards, crystals, massage and healing workshops, incense burners, and scented candles.
How did this come to pass? How could a modern working class, far more capable at mental labour than our forebears, sink so low as to fall in love with our own mental chains instead of merely bearing them in guilt and shame? The answer is to be found in considering what religious alienation is.
Religion is not a set of monotheistic doctrines, whether Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, etc., but an ideal world where the problems of society are transcended in thought. The underlying cause, the system of society, capitalist social relations, which alienates us as humans from our material powers, remains intact, in fact, unchecked; it reproduces the problem. The New Age is not different from religion as anciently conceived; it is the perfection of it.
The old religions are dying in the West not because of a lack of proselytisation, the loss of God’s favour, or any other cause which religions might claim, but because actual experience of the modern world has ripped them asunder, and as dogmas they must break instead of bowing to this change. The Pope cannot end the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, for example, even though every Catholic with a rudimentary scientific education knows that there is no divine spark at conception, unseeable until nine months later; the entire process of human reproduction is now well known and it would be expected in any doctor’s surgery that in practice no-one would hold such a belief.
Protestantism instead is the basis of the New Age religion, even though virtually unrecognisable once it has cast off its particular historical cloak of inherited catholic ideas, adapting new materials to its needs. What remains is that ‘each man and woman is their own priest’. As Marx put it, “Luther freed the body from its chains in order to put the heart in chains”; rather than obeying a priest, we choose the form of our own mental domination, just as in work we no longer slave for one master but can choose from hundreds to slave for. The pagan backdrop of Catholicism is filled by that of Hinduism, Buddhism, even Islam, removed from their own social contexts of native exploitation; all are grist to this mill, generating a thousand and one cults, sects, and aquarian societies.
What all these have in common is the form they take; the flight from reality into a magical world where the evils of the material world are transcended in thought. They are not revolutionary, as some might suppose, from their content of peace, love and contentment; they are escape, the only escape of the life prisoner staring from their cell window, and the form is the acceptance of their existence only as an ideal life, never as a fully material one. They are the product of personal inspiration, mental focussing, or good vibrations, not the actual powers of human beings living and breathing in and out all of the powers of nature.
So what is the socialist answer? Quite simply that we wish to abolish alienation at its root; rather than fleeing from its effects we wish to tackle its causes. These causes are, briefly put, the forces behind the capitalist mode of production.
To expand a little, the capitalist mode of production involves a division of the productive process into the production of two kinds of values; use values, which the capitalist later sells to make more capital, and exchange value, which is the labour cost, including reproducing our labour-power, of producing them. Note that there is no need to invoke Dickensian poverty or the lash of the Pharaohs in order to explain the reproduction of the working class; we are not necessarily materially impoverished by the process, that would be like failing to put oil in a car engine or charge the radiator with antifreeze. Instead, like the car, we are objects of use, means rather than ends, and as the productive process accelerates, as capitalism has come to predominate, mere cogs in a machine, and our creative powers of producing values appear irrevocably transferred to the objects we have made. As Marx put it, “in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse”. Contrary to popular apprehension, therefore, we as socialists are primarily concerned not with becoming better fed workers, but ending our existence as the ciphers of our own life process. Our immiseration, which we wish to overcome, is precisely that which the New Ager recognises at one remove, as the world of other people who have not heard of healing, spiritual crystal workshops, or whatever, which has transformed their life: we as socialists (or, the same thing, communists) do not have the luxury of such self-delusion, whether through an inability to be so hypnotised, an allergic reaction to religion, or sheer bloody-mindedness, and must therefore instead overthrow the conditions which give rise to the pain from which New Agers flee.
We are not fighting blindly. We have a theory of society, of our history, which explains how we have come to this pass and how we can escape it – a theory explained further throughout this journal and in books, pamphlets, in fact every time you stop a socialist and ask them the time of day. We have the vast mass of society potentially as allies, and stand at the end of society’s historical alienation process, with no further worlds to be won but our own. Moreover, the process itself is liberatory; again, as Marx put it, “Communism is the actual movement which abolishes the state of affairs” and anyone who has been to a big rally or demonstration will know a small part of the power that is to be had through participation in one’s own liberation, be the goal seemingly ever so far off.
These are the things which we offer instead of the New Age, and why we consider it to be such an enemy and attack it with such determination. It is a trap for our kind, all the more pernicious because of our potential to transcend its petty gifts were all its prisoners released and their energies devoted to socialism. Its supposed similarity to socialism at isolated points are invariably arrived at from opposite directions; ‘world peace’ from a sense of passivity as to world affairs rather than a wish to participate in world affairs; ‘communalism’ from an inability to conceive of social action above the level of the commune, a retreat rather than an advance; ‘abolish money’ in order to live the passive existence of a lotus eater rather than to produce and consume with abandon.
We would thus urge anyone who would see themselves as a ‘New Ager’ – and is probably now just angry enough from reading the above to have started thinking – to free themself from an imaginary world; there is a real world to be transformed, and that transformation itself contains within it the realisation of our social powers.