IN MONDAY’S Guardian Gary Younge attacked the ineptitude of the “liberal left” in Europe when confronted with religious faith, whether among evangelical Christians in the United States or Muslims in Europe:
“The influence of religion in politics provokes in them not a thoughtful response but a mixture of ridicule and contempt… Even as the Catholic church became ever more mired in child sex abuse scandals, Islam remained the principal target of Western—especially European—intellectual disdain.”
I think Younge mounts too blanket an attack on the European left. One of the most exciting things to have happened in Britain in recent years has been the emergence, first in the Stop the War Coalition and then in Respect, of an alliance against neo-liberalism, racism and war that unites secular socialists and Muslim activists.
But it’s true that this is fairly exceptional and widely criticised, especially elsewhere in Europe. In France much of the left have defended a secular definition of the state that refuses to acknowledge that millions of the victims of French imperialism now live in France, and are deeply and legitimately attached to their Muslim faith.
Moreover, here in Britain the uncomprehending reaction to the American presidential election has a lot to do with the refusal of many people on the left to look behind the fundamentalist religious beliefs that were undoubtedly an important factor in mobilising the vote for George W Bush.
Thus the historian Simon Schama immediately after the election contrasted “worldly America”, the cosmopolitan coastal states open either to Europe or to Asia that voted Democrat, with “godly America”, the parochial Republican Christian heartland that voted Bush in.
It would be silly to imagine that there are no differences between the US and Europe. America is a vast continental state populated by wave after wave of immigrants and with a strong tradition of Protestant individualism. Europe is a patchwork of densely populated nation-states with long histories of continuous settlement.
But the contrast between worldly and godly America is hugely oversimplified. For one thing, four Midwestern states—Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—all voted Democrat.
Scattered not just across these states, but elsewhere in the Midwest and the Prairies, are often quite longstanding traditions of trade union struggle and also of anti big business populism that have helped to shape the American left over the past century or so. Progressive virtue is not only to be found perched on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Understanding why religious faith has a greater hold in the US than it does in Europe is a huge and complicated historical question. It’s easier to focus on the narrower issue of why the political influence of the religious right has grown in the past 20 or 30 years.
One reason has to do with what is a real American peculiarity. Last weekend I attended an excellent dayschool on the analysis of capitalism developed by the Marxist economic historian Robert Brenner.
One thing that emerges very clearly from Brenner’s work is what he calls the “repression of wages” in the US since the late 1970s. For more than 20 years real wages didn’t rise at all.
Another Marxist economist, Simon Mohun, pointed out that this is quite unprecedented in the history of advanced capitalism. American capitalists have been able to increase their profits—and vastly to expand their personal income and wealth—by squeezing the workers they exploit brutally.
This stark economic reality—and the failure of working class organisation to defend jobs and living standards that it reflects—would have huge ramifications for people’s outlook on the world.
There’s nothing specially American about the fact that many would react to their deeply demoralising economic experience with an intensified religiosity.
This suggests that the real answer to the right is for working class people, whatever their faith or lack of it, to rebuild class organisation. And that’s not just a solution for Americans.