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The writing is not on the wall

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
ALEX CALLINICOS looks at why belief in superstition has grown
Issue 1864

BURIED AMID the largely vacuous coverage of Tony Blair overtaking Clement Attlee as the longest serving Labour prime minister were a couple of interesting facts. The Independent on Sunday put together a mass of figures to try to establish whether or not we are better off now than we were in 1950, when Attlee was prime minister.

Predictably enough, most of the figures recorded considerable material progress. Real average household income, for example, is twice the level it was 50 years ago. But then there was this titbit:

‘Attlee’s Britain evidently felt less need to believe in the fantastic. In 1950, Gallup found that only 10 percent said they believed in ghosts; by 1998 this was 40 percent. In 1951, only 13 percent said they believed in telling the future by cards or astrology; now it is 56 percent.’ These are remarkable figures.

Living standards have risen thanks to the application of scientific knowledge to raise the productivity of labour. To a far greater extent than in 1950 everyday life is permeated by complex technologies that are materialisations of difficult to understand theories-think of mobile phones and personal computers.

Yet this has been accompanied by a huge growth in belief in the idea that our lives are ruled by the stars and in a world of spirits unknown to the sciences. There are others signs of the same kind of superstition. Popular television programmes revel in the existence of vampires, demons, witches, werewolves and all sorts of other beasts and ghouls.

And when TV fiction purports to take science seriously, as in CSI Crime Scene Investigation, it is reduced to a kind of magic that mechanically extracts the truth from the evidence.

Leading politicians display the same kind of schizophrenia, oscillating between blind superstition and a fetishised science. George W Bush goes from prayer meetings in the White House to ordering high-tech bombing missions.

Tony Blair combines earnest Christianity with attempts to win support for genetically modified foods. And his personal court seems to be ruled increasingly by Carole Caplin, Cherie Booth’s ‘lifestyle’ guru and a specialist in New Age fads.

The Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins put the growth in this kind of mumbo-jumbo down to ignorance about science. But we have enormous numbers of excellent popularisations of different kinds of scientific knowledge. Richard Dawkins is an old-fashioned 19th century materialist who wants to reduce everything to different combinations of DNA.

He doesn’t see that the social world has its laws that need to be understood in their own right. Why do people need to believe in supernatural forces? One answer is disillusionment with science after disasters like Chernobyl. This doesn’t really explain why superstition has grown so much in the past 50 years.

Maybe there was more naive faith in the liberating powers of science in the late 1940s, but it would be a mistake to push this too far. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was a cliche that science could destroy as well as liberate.

It was moreover in this era that the Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno made a pioneering study of astrology. In The Stars Down to Earth, an analysis of the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times in 1952-3, he stressed the similarity between believing in the stars and paranoia.

Adorno wrote that, ‘Most people…feel that everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand the reason for its existence. Even more, they suspect that this closed and systematic organisation of society does not really serve their wants and needs, but has a fetishistic, self perpetuating ‘irrational’ quality, strangely alienated from the life that is thus being structured.’

In a nutshell-living under an irrational system encourages belief in the irrational. Certainly paranoia in the shape of conspiracy theories is another striking feature of contemporary mass culture.

In The X-Files paranoia was married to the most gigantic credulity about every conceivable superstition and folk myth. More recently 24 has woven conspiracy within conspiracy like a set of Russian dolls.

Our experience since the 1950s has been one of great material progress that has not made the world any easier to understand or control. On the contrary, higher productivity is accompanied by growing inequality and poverty.

Even the weather is changing thanks to human actions, but no one seems to be doing anything about it. No wonder many take refuge in belief in supernatural forces. Under capitalism, progress and regression are bound together.

The only escape is to win people to the recognition that collective action can create a world that does make sense.

Alex Callinicos is the author of An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx.

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