It is slightly more than an hour, mostly by autobahn, from the glitzy, high-end tourist neighborhood on the west side of Berlin known as Kurfürstendam (Ku’damm for short) to the small, historically famous city of Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and launched the Protestant Reformation just a little over a half millennium ago.
The scenery along the way is inconsequential aside from the realization striking any traveler immediately after passing beyond the city limits of Berlin itself that the countryside in between the two historical Denkmäler of Western history is largely depopulated and economically marginal, even over a quarter century after German unification and only a partial day’s drive from the burgeoning urban metropoles that drive the long-entrenched prosperity of Europe’s richest nation.
An eerie, densely wooded desertedness, broken occasionally by unfenced and untended fields, of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) that one encounters just outside the formerly divided city long emblematic of the Cold War, evokes reveries of the fathomless, haunted forests of Teutonic fairy tales. On such a cold, misty, thickly overcast December morning it becomes easy somehow to fantasize about a latter day Hansel and Gretel suddenly appearing along the side of the road and pleading for a ride back to civilization in their frantic flight from the house of the wicked witch.
But it was only three decades ago that a different sort of fantasy – that of escape from the dreary witch’s hovel of the Soviet controlled East Germany to a capitalist, consumerist fairyland just on the other side of an ugly, fear-inspiring brick wall strung with tangles of barbed wire and patrolled by merciless sentry armed with machine guns – that impelled the “captive peoples”, as the Western rhetoric of the day characterized them, suddenly to rally by the thousands unexpectedly one memorable November day and within a very short time force not only the reunification of the country itself, but a termination of the very hegemony of global Communism.
The swiftness and magnitude of the collapse of the Soviet empire between 1989 and 1991 can easily be compared to the sudden demolition of Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe between 1517 and 1525, which Luther’s “protestations” unleashed. Both eras were revolutionary ones that changed the face of Europe, and much of the rest of the world, in the blink of an eye and for centuries to come.
It was the spirit of Protestantism which eventually morphed, as Max Weber famously noted, into the “spirit of capitalism.” It was a renewed, reinvented, capitalist spirit – which later came to be known by academics as “neoliberalism” – that manifest itself in the mid-1990s and brought about a set of historical tensions that were as much in evidence throughout the sixteenth century as they are today – i.e., perspicuous and persistent struggles over economic and political inequality.
Within a decade Luther’s passionate advocacy for the “freedom of a Christian man” and his polemical assaults on the Roman Catholic hierarchy led to the demand on the part of the long-oppressed rural folk to demand political freedoms as well as economic redress. The result was a widespread, violent rebellion on the part of the “landed folk” that was brutally crushed by the German nobility, with whom Luther out of both temperament and expediency regrettably ended up siding. Luther’s legacy, therefore, was fixed for all time as a paradoxical fusion of religious radicalism with political reaction, a curious pathos within which some historians have discerned the demon’s seed of later Nazi totalitarianism.
At the same time, Marx and Engels saw the peasant wars as the first true manifestation of the revolutionary class struggle that would spell the eventual doom of the nascent capitalist order.
The twenty mile trek from the autobahn via narrow country roads to Wittenberg gives one an odd feeling that perhaps Germany never really recovered from the peasant wars. The scattered towns along the way are bereft of any sign of commerce, let alone affluence. The homes themselves seem to have barely survived the twentieth century, let along the forty-three years of a socialist command economy.
Even on arrival finally in Wittenberg, one is afforded the distinct impression that the place has been able to pull itself out of its recent past because of some outsized devotion to Luther tourism, which were it not for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 would have probably been a lost cause.
The city has been successful in restoring and locally publicizing along with souvenir production its historical landmarks. But the de rigueur holidays shops and restaurants that normally should accompany any decent tourist initiative are nowhere in evidence. One eventually learns that even the former Communist government went out of its way to promote Luther, insofar as it considered him as a genuine icon of the “bourgeois” revolutionary tradition.
Meanwhile, something has been happening in not only the last month, but the last few years that might provide some perspective concerning what happened five centuries ago in the misty Teutonic woods. This past weekend all of France was aflame once again with protests of over 50,000 strong by the so-called gilets jaunes, or “Yellow Vests”, a name derived from the high-visibility jackets all French motorists are required to carry in their vehicles.
The Yellow Vest (or “Yellow Jacket”, as the French phrase is alternately translated) protests began late last fall as a spontaneous uprising against President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to hike the price on gasoline in seeking to position France as a global leader for combating climate change. However, it quickly morphed into a broader insurrection on the part of France’s working and middle classes against Macron’s neoliberal policies of economic “reform” at the same time the cost of living has been rising and wages stagnating.
The Yellow Vest movement seemed to be losing steam in December, especially once Macron professed to offer concessions. Yet his reversion to a “get tough” stance right after the New Year and his vow to move ahead with his austerity plans fired up the protesters once again and set off even more violent confrontations. Increasingly, protesters are invoking romantic memories of the French Revolution in 1789 and reportedly comparing the weekend assault on a government ministry compound with a stolen forklift to the storming of the Bastille.
However, the source of discontent behind the general uprising can be linked straightaway to the kinds of neoliberal regimes that have entrenched themselves over the past few decades throughout the Western world. France may in fact simply be a bellwether of what is really in the offing. As a French advocate for the movement writes, “we are fed up with a state that seems to exist only for the benefit of the wealthy, the established, and elite. More than fuel prices, the Yellow Vests are now defending their dignity and insisting on a new social and fiscal agenda through demonstrations, slogans and rocks.”
The growing global demographic and economic divide between increasingly wealthy urban hubs and declining rural regions has been at the heart of the Yellow Vest rebellion. The gas tax, which would have hit those least able to afford it the hardest, has been emblematic of the kind of economic dislocations and social disconnections that have propelled populist movements in recent months around the world from countries as diverse as Brazil, Italy, India, and Canada.
These populist movements, drawing on energies from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, have found what the famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would call a “quilting point” – an unstable zone of convergence – in the French gilets jaunes phenomenon.
As Jacob Hamburger writing in Dissent magazine notes, the seemingly unorthodox and often contradictory profile of the average French protester, is largely because a “visceral sense of unfairness has resonated across demographic, regional, and political differences. It is also highly amorphous and often ambiguous, leading to demands that might otherwise appear incoherent: protecting French business owners while also making taxes more progressive; or treating asylum seekers with dignity while also swiftly deporting those whose claims are rejected.”
Despite the reactionary zeal of mainline, “progressive” opinion outlets such as The New Republic to discredit the yellow vests as saddled down with the usual bogeymen of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia (a common propaganda tactic among current neoliberal regimes in general), certain Marxist theorists are more presciently realizing that “a revolutionary situation is developing in France” and that “all that is now lacking is leadership and a clear programme of action, rooted in the working class, involving a campaign towards an all-out general strike to deliver the coup de grace to Macron.”
In short, the spirit of “Protestantism” is alive and well in guises that may be divided by five centuries, but are seamlessly sewn together by a revulsion on the part of ordinary people against economic injustice and unfair taxation enforced by cosmopolitan elites hypocritically appealing to a certain higher spiritual purpose.
In fact, this debauched formula not only describes the system of “indulgences” against which Luther’s own protestations were directed and which set off a century of social and political upheaval, it also epitomizes the moral, psychological, and even “theological” scam at the core of neoliberalism which demands that all of us become, as Michel Foucault put it, “entrepreneurs of the self” who sacrifice our lives and livelihoods for a “greater good” that ultimately enriches only the world’s most powerful and the wealthiest.
In my forthcoming book Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), I expose the inner workings of such an all-pervasive scam engineered so many of our cultural and intellectual elites on both the working and professional classes.
Driving back to Berlin along the rain-slicked, narrow country roads of the former GDR, it occurs to me that the “fall of the wall” in 1989 was the result of a similar public awakening by the an emergent, but largely incoherent “populist internationale” of dispossessed workers that may be, as Ernesto Laclau calls it, an “empty signifier” that yet remains a specter stalking the neoliberal ruling classes and at any time could do much more than simply rattle its chains.
As we are seeing right now in France, it could end up sooner than we think be shaking the foundations of world order. A new spirit of “post-capitalism” may indeed be aborning.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His newest book entitled Neoliberalism and Political Theology: From Kant to Identity Politics, will be published by Edinburgh University Press later this year. He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.