Müntzer, Engels, and Seeing Through the Ideology of “Theonomics”
If you have taken classes dealing with the Protestant Reformation, chances are it was explained to you in generally theological terms, centered on the figure of Martin Luther. Of course we all know that on Halloween of 1517 (they loved Halloween back then, trust me), Martin Luther dressed up like a friar in a weird hat (or something) and instead of a asking for a treat, pinned his infamous “95 Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Luther, we are told (not wrongly, just simply) was protesting the sale of indulgences, and of of course had other concerns about particular Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. From that point of the story on, we are regaled with the theological disputes not only between Luther and the Church authorities, but with fellow dissidents like Zwingli, whom he spared over the theological significance of the Eucharist. The real issues, many are led to think, were theological. Of course theological differences were both acute and real, but Friedrich Engels tells a different story when he writes about the Peasant War in Germany. Taking up the kind of analysis he and his partner Marx are famous for, Engels looks at the social conditions and relations leading up to the Reformation, and inflects not Luther’s theses, but rather the Peasant Revolt and another radical protesting figure, Thomas Müntzer.
Church dogma, Engels explains, was also a matter of jurisprudence for the feudal order in the 16th century. Theology, at least in name, was used as a foundation for laws and various taxes everyone from feudal lord to burghers had to pay to the Church. Therefore, “existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.” In this sense, theological challenge becomes a kind of instrument for power plays within the existing social order. Protest against the feudal order had always been alive in radical mystical movements/heresies like the Waldenses and Albigenses, but the “town heresies,” which Engels says are the “official heresies of the Middle Ages… were directed primarily against clergy, whose wealth and political station they attacked.” Crucially, and especially relevant today, the bourgeoisie demanded (and continues to demand) a cheap government. In the 16th century, as we have already noted, matters of jurisprudence and theology were inextricably linked. A theological or biblical defense that could cut off the authority of well paid priests and church structures in the name of something like the “priesthood of all believers” would be a direct method of cutting the most expensive element of the church. This is the primary “burgher heresy.” This heresy, Engels continues to explain, while initially in
the name of diminishing the economic and social power of the church those in upper feudal society had to support, found unintended, more radical expression in the Peasant War and the idea of the equality of the children of God. A figure like Müntzer shows well how Christianity can thus be a radical starting point for radical social change.
Žižek’s method of ideological critique comes to mind, when he explains that the most effective method of criticizing dominant ideological thought can sometimes be to take it more seriously than it takes itself. Žižek recounts:
In early 1980s, a half-dissident student weekly newspaper in ex-Yugoslavia wanted to protest the fake “free” elections; aware of the limitations of the slogan “speak truth to power” (“The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and that the people already know the truth as they make clear in their jokes.”), instead of directly denouncing the elections as un-free, they decided to treat them as if they are really free, as if their result really was undecided, so, on the elections eve, they printed an extra-edition of the journal with large headline: “Latest election results: it looks that Communists will remain in power!” This simple intervention broke the unwritten “habit” (we “all know” that elections are not free, we just do not talk publicly about it…): by way of treating elections as free, it reminded the people publicly of their non-freedom.
So in a way, figures like Müntzer and the phenomenon of the Peasant Revolt took challenges to ecclesial authority in the form of populist theology more seriously than the burghers intended. This is the distinction, for Engels, between Luther and Müntzer. Muntzer, by analogy, stepped into the role of Žižek’s student newspaper editor while Luther stepped into a position of ideological authority . In Luther, we see the same kind of disavowal of the popular elements of his thought as many communist leaders in Žižek’s youth (as he tells the story). Luther put powerful tools in the hands of the plebeians, as Engels points out, not least of which was a Bible they could read, but when the peasants began to take Luther and the Bible more seriously, or at least literally, than Luther and his bourgeois supporters did , violent upheaval became inevitable between moderates (wanting to challenge the official Church on economic grounds) and the “extremists” who challenged the logic by which the burghers and their noble supporters tried to gain an upper hand on the clergy. Luther, of course, played the part of the “liberal,” and eventually sold out the peasants at the behest of the princes whom he owed his life. Luther’s rage at the peasants, fervently advocating for their defeat, even went as far as to seem to revel in the prospect of strangling, stabbing, and knocking them to pieces. Liberals get quite upset when material conditions present the possibility of actual change. It is here, Engels points out, that Luther totally disavows his mutiny against religious authority, selling out not only the peasants but the burghers as well in the name of the princes.
Müntzer, in refusing to engage Luther on theological grounds, insisted, crucially, on bypassing the pretense of theology as a discourse of ideology. This realization that the approved or sanctioned mode of discourse is founded on bypassing the real cause of alienation (social relations) is an important step, even in our current situation of economic downturn and class oppression. Today, one might think of “economics,” rather than theology, as an abstract, in many ways fideistic discipline and carrier of so-called inherited, unchallengeable knowledge as the turf by which the bourgeoisie insist the debate take place. Today, economics, if not quite the equivalent of theology in the 16th century, at least has taken up many of its qualities so that we might call it, more appropriately, “theonomics.”
In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber describes the current state of economics thusly:
Part of the problem is the extraordinary place that economics currently holds in the social sciences. In many ways it is treated as a kind of master discipline. Just about anyone who runs anything important in America is expected to have some training in economic theory, or at least to be familiar with its basic tenets. As a result, those tenets have come to be treated as received wisdom, as basically beyond question (one knows one is in the presence of received wisdom when, if one challenges it, the first reaction is to treat one as simply ignorant “You obviously have never heard of the Laffer Curve”; “Clearly you need a course in Economics 101”-the theory is seen as so obviously true that no one who understands it could possibly disagree.) (90)
Graeber goes on to say that the problem with the “empiricism” of these forms of economics is that they start with the fallacious idea that human beings are “self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment.” The issue here is not disproving rational choice theorists and conventional economists wrong, per se, given the evidence we now have from experimental psychologists. The point is that the way economics (its tenets largely resting on faith in such “received wisdom” and assumptions about human pyschology and sociology) is situated in our society seems at least comparable to theology in the time of Luther and Müntzer. In the same way scholastic debates about theology were instrumental in matters of taxation and jurisprudence, today economic theory, infamously like that of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogof, is influential in political decisions that effect millions, such as European and American austerity measures (based in part on their models). This is what I’m calling, tongue in cheek, “theonomics,” both for its similarity to the role theology played in the past, but also the way in which it is taken on faith in many spheres of influence. This “theonomic” mentality of the established departments also resembles medieval theology in so far as its political power is great, and is apparently unquestionable by the laity. In Luther’s time peasants couldn’t read their scriptures and had no theological education, whereas today, even the educated cannot question the inherited technical wisdom of so-called economists (no matter how unreliable their models and predictions turn out to be empirically). I might not understand the ins and outs of high level economics, but neither do those who these economists are advising…