Marx’s formula of religion as the opium of the people needs some serious rethinking today. It is true that radical Islam is an exemplary case of religion as the opium of the people: a false confrontation with capitalist modernity which allows some fundamentalist Muslims to dwell in their ideological dream while their countries are ravaged by the effects of global capitalism – and exactly the same holds for Christian fundamentalism. However, there are today, in our Western world, two other versions of the opium of the people: the opium and the people.
As Laurent de Sutter demonstrated, chemistry (in its scientific version) is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterised by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers; our very emotions are “outsourced” to chemical stimulation.
The stakes of this chemical intervention are double and contradictory: we use drugs to keep external excitement (shocks, anxieties and so on) under control, i.e., to desensitise us for them, and to generate artificial excitement if we are depressed and lack desire.
As the rise of populism demonstrates, the opium of the people is “the people” itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms. However, I want to add to this series: anti-fascism itself.
A new spectre is haunting progressive politics in Europe and the US, the spectre of fascism. Trump in the US, le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary – they are all demonised as the new evil towards which we should unite all our force. Every minimal doubt and reserve is immediately proclaimed a sign of secret collaboration with fascism.
[Extract. Appeared in Independent on December 7th 2017.]