War and Unbelief

Joseph W.H. Lough

It is common for us to assume that, among more thoughtful survivors, religious wars reinforce unbelief. And for the most part I think this is correct. When combatants credit their Gods for the violence they are inflicting on one another, it makes sense for survivors to challenge the validity not only of the Gods who have inspired such mortality on such a grand scale, but also, more generally, to challenge the validity of any inspiration no matter what its source that might inflict such terrible wounds upon a society. And so it is throughout Bosnia that the outward signs of religious devotion – minarets spread across the horizon, women in burkas (not full, but partial), and an abundance of grave yards and memorials everywhere one looks – are accompanied by an overall distrust and even hostility to all things religious.

And, yet, I am reminded in this regard of Max Weber’s 1915 essay awkwardly titled in English “Religious Rejections of the World and their Directions.” I am reminded of this essay because Weber, who was no slouch when it came to social theory, is credited with having shown why modern social actors may be increasingly inclined to shed traditional religious beliefs and spiritual practices. They do so, according to Weber, not only because scientific, rational explanations convince them that the world is not really governed by magic; not only because scientific explanations enjoy greater rational coherence and logical soundness. They also do so, according to Weber, because the technological, industrial world, along with its legal, administrative, and institutional forms, fits together into a rational, coherent, practical whole whose individual parts would scarcely work together with one another were the world governed by magic instead of law.

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In ...
Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In background: Ernst Toller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, yet, Weber was neither naive nor blind. Which is where Weber’s awkwardly titled essay comes into play. For it was in this essay, penned in the midst of one of the most horrific wars ever fought, World War I, that Weber began to flesh out what could be called an alternative understanding of contemporary religion – not a religion grounded in magic, but a religion grounded in family and community relationships, allegiance to political and national organizations, and most productively and ominously, a devotion to the war dead and to their surviving families. None of which invites me to believe in magic or tradition or even a dogmatic set of beliefs.

Weber put it this way:

The mutual strangeness of religion and politics, when they are both completely rationalized, is all the more the case because, in contrast to economics, politics may come into direct competition with religious ethics at decisive points. As the consummated threat of violence among modern polities, war creates a pathos and a sentiment of community. War thereby makes for an unconditionally devoted and sacrificial community among the combatants and releases an active mass compassion and love for those who are in need. And, as a mass phenomenon, these feelings break down all the naturally given barriers of association. In general, religions can show comparable achievements only in heroic communities professing an ethic of brotherliness.

Moreover, war does something to the warrior which, in its concrete meaning, is unique: it makes him experience a consecrated meaning of death which is characteristic only of death in war. The community of the army standing in the field today feels itself – as in the times of the war lords ‘following’ – to be a community unto death, and the greatest of its kind. Death on the field of battle differs from death that is only man’s common lot. Since death is a fate that comes to everyone, nobody can ever say why it comes precisely to him and why it comes just when it does. As the values of culture increasingly unfold and are sublimated to immeasurable heights, such ordinary death marks an end where only a beginning seems to make sense. Death on the field of battle differs from this merely unavoidable dying in that in war, and in this massiveness only in war, the individual can believe that he knows he is dying ‘for’ something. The why and the wherefore of his facing death can, as a rule, be So indubitable to him that the problem of the ‘meaning’ of death does not even occur to him. At least there may be no presuppositions for the emergence of the problem in its universal significance, which is the form in which religions of salvation are impelled to be concerned with the meaning of death. Only those who perish ‘in their callings’ are in the same situation as the soldier who faces death on the battlefield.

This location of death within a series of meaningful and consecrated events ultimately lies at the base of all endeavors to support the autonomous dignity of the polity resting on force (From Max Weber Oxford 1958, 335).

This is a significant passage and it deserves serious reflection. It helps to explain, in part, why soldiers count combat to be among their most meaningful and formative experiences. It would therefore have been all the more interesting to read Weber’s interpretation of the post-war climate in Germany, where religious devotion of the sort that he describes here seemed everywhere to be in retreat, but where camaraderie among surviving soldiers and victims of war continued to draw individuals and families together in communities that defied the categories of traditional religion. Atheism was widespread. Even bourgeois Germans avoided all but the most significant religious holidays – and even then only as the expected cultural obligation. After all, what would they believe in? What could they believe in?

Memorial Outside our Building
Memorial Outside our Building

To say that Germans felt empty would not only be an understatement. It would also be mistaken. They did feel empty, but they also felt filled – bursting – with the memories of war. War dominated absolutely everything, so that even in their assiduous avoidance of all thoughts of war, Germans were aware that war colored quite simply everything.

Which is why, even eighteen years out, I find the pronounced “atheism” of the Bosnians I meet terribly disturbing. Not because I feel one way or the other about atheism in general, but because I am doubtful that the empty world of instrumental, means-ends rationality and technical, scientific rationality can supply the coping therapies that all genuinely social animals need and eventually find or create. Something extraordinarily powerful encompassed the lives of all Bosnians for three horrific years. And that this encounter should induce widespread disbelief in the traditional Gods is hardly surprising. Many in my parents’ generation have never forgiven the Gods for allowing the Holocaust.

Religious-map-of-Bosnia-Herzegovina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, however, a haunting question remains. Why did Germans so lustily embrace a new wholly manufactured religion in 1932 if, in 1918, they were so thoroughly done with the Gods? Here is my suspicion. I think that traditional religion may provide us with precisely the tools we need to resist the new wholly manufactured religions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; not automatically and not without thoughtful appropriation. But I worry that such widespread trauma, subsequently glossed over by such widespread malaise and emptiness, may prevent us from appreciating how and why individuals and groups must and actually do put the pieces of their lives back together, just as Germans did in 1932, after more than a decade of neglecting that trauma.

No I am not suggesting that Bosnians must decide between Tito or God. Rather am I inviting a more thoughtful and perhaps more painful interrogation of the social, psychological, and cultural causes for atheism in Bosnia. Such an interrogation might not only help Bosnians to face more openly the very real trauma they have experienced, but also might help them to more carefully and thoughtfully discriminate between a wholesale rejection of the Gods, which can have no cause other than trauma, and a critical embrace of those features within our traditions that aim to heal and make whole.

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Joseph W.H. Lough

One cannot walk more than a block in Tuzla without finding a memorial identifying soldiers who perished defending the city and region. That is because out of a population prior to the war of 130,000, some 1,200 were killed (JN Weiss). Which means that it is virtually impossible to walk through the city without being reminded every few steps what happened here. It is also impossible because that is what scholars study here; they study genocide and death and violence. And then there are the abandoned buildings, which, we are told, will probably continue to crumble and decay in lieu of their owners returning or being located or otherwise accounted for. And there are the exteriors of buildings that still bear the scars of war.

Memorial Outside our Building
Memorial Outside our Building

But then there are the walking memorials, the people themselves, many of whom endured the ten-month siege of Tuzla in 1993 and 1994, during which nearly 60 people died each day due to starvation and exposure. And, of course, there are those living today who lost children in the horrendous shelling of the town square, where Tuzla’s youth were celebrating the victory of their basketball team. There, on May 25, 1995, seventy-one celebrating young people lost their lives. And I can only think as I walk from my home to the University that I am passing the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters of these young people.

Memorial outside BH, the local office of the postal and phone company
Memorial outside BH, the local office of the postal and phone company

It is not as though I want these survivors to again or continuously face what they have lost. Somehow they have gotten on with their lives. They go to the market place or to their jobs or to school. They go to the Pannonian Lakes. They sit in restaurants and bars. They have gotten on with their lives. But they are as much memorials to me as are the plaques that line the streets of Tuzla.

Memorials of what though? They are memorials I think of where I might be and of where I – where we – might be going. Which is why, unlike all of the other scholars I have met here, I am not studying the dead. Nor am I studying the living, the survivors. Rather am I studying the dying, those of us who do not yet comprehend that the dead in Tuzla and elsewhere in the Balkans did not die either because of who they were – Bosniaks, or Croats, or Serbs in a multi-ethnic society – or because of where they were – in the Balkans, but because of what the world around them was becoming, is still becoming.

For, it was not long ago that the world was becoming a place where difference enjoyed the safety and security of comprehensive integration into a universal system of law, regulation, culture and history. This comprehensive integration was premised first on British imperialism, which made British Sterling and British Law the universal global language, and second on the successor US empire, which finished what the British could not complete. Even those nations that challenged US hegemony knew and therefore aspired to the universal global integration that they could not themselves master.

But then in the late 1960s – a half century ago – rates of private profit began to suffer setbacks and the owners of capital began to challenge the authority of public institutions to enact and enforce universal global integration, since such integration required private capital to help defray the costs for its maintenance. Private capital not only claimed that it was better positioned and more competent to achieve comprehensive integration. It also challenged the validity of such integration, since this integration in their view detracted from the freedom that individuals should and could exercise on their own behalf. Disintegration of public institutions could go hand in hand with the successful and peaceful integration of private agencies of all kinds. Resources that formerly had been allotted for the maintenance and strengthening of public institutions would increasingly be reallocated to private agents, private enterprise.

It was this disintegration that was widely celebrated first in the 1980s in Great Britain and the US, and then in the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Asia. And so two centuries of global integration were, in the space of three decades, completely laid waste to.

And we are continuing on this destructive and self-destructive course. One commonly used definition of a tragedy holds that it is “as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.” What was the flaw or moral weakness of the former Yugoslavians? What accounts for their inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances?

If in answer to these questions we reply that their weakness was to have believed in a universal law that was exposed when that law began to unravel – indeed when that universal law was deliberately and knowingly unravelled – then we can hardly fault former Yugoslavians from believing in this law. If on the other hand their weakness was to lustily embrace the spirit of disintegration trumpeted by (among others) the academic gurus at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, then, again, who can fault them? Were they in any way masters of the circumstances – the declining rates of profit – that required the atrophy and disabling of the once universal regulatory state? Does some hidden flaw account for their inability to cope with Great Britain’s and the United States’ assault upon the once universal state?

And so as I observe these living memorials in Tuzla, I am reminded that we are all tending toward the same kind of disintegration that precipitated their tragedy. For me they are memorials of where I am going unless we can identify some other grounds for integration other than global capital.

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Some Economic and Social Observations #1

One of the more interesting and disturbing features of the post-Fordist global economy brilliantly on display in the former Yugoslavia is the concentration of conspicuous wealth and consumption among social actors who, as far as we can tell, have no interest in creating an economy that might benefit other post-Yugoslavians. On the one hand, we observe a conspicuously dense and broad grouping of government bureaucrats, administrators, whose exceedingly modest incomes and pensions give rise to what there is of a middle class. On the other hand, we observe a considerable fleet of shiny, spanking new BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes occupied – we are told – by beneficiaries of international, official and unofficial, finance. And, yet, by conservative estimates, Tuzla shoulders an unemployment rate in excess of fifty percent; entirely believable when we consider the employment condition and purchasing power of the Bosnians we have met so far. And, there simply is no industry – no goods that Bosnians are producing that Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrins, much less other members of the EU are purchasing and consuming. And, yet, the balance of trade is not, for all of this, ballooning. To the contrary, it even enjoyed a slight improvement over the last quarter.
So, how might we account for this seeming inconsistency? One source in Tuzla suggests that the purchasing power of social actors connected to international finance (official and unofficial) account for the lion’s share of spending. Average un- and under-employed Tuzlans simply do not spend their modest earnings on anything beyond their daily bread. In effect, this means that Tuzlans who derive their income from international finance end up spending most of their earnings on consumer goods and services that come from elsewhere.
Of course, this is not entirely dissimilar from the way that neoliberal economic policy plays out elsewhere in the world and particularly in the US, where the income of the 1% has ballooned, while that of the 99% has shrunk.
In Tuzla, one conspicuous example of this trend is the monstrous Safet Bašić building project in the heart of downtown Tuzla. Safet Bašić is a Rusian-owned company. The wings of the high-rise will house offices and flats for the hyper-wealthy international class. The center building will house a resort spa and hotel for the same class, with restaurant, pool, etc. Tuzlans employed by the international giant will no doubt earn wages in line with local rates. They will neither live here nor vacation here. The costs of living, renting, or vacationing in the new building will be prohibitive except for the international class. Profits will also be carted out of the city and country.

SB Highrise in Tuzla
SB Highrise in Tuzla

So, why doesn’t Tuzla (or BiH) tax Safet Bašić at such a rate that might benefit local consumption and production? My source in Tuzla suggests that the local politicians have already been paid off; indeed, my source suggests that this payment constitutes on a vastly reduced scale their entrance into – or rather their aspiration to enter into – the international consumer class. In return Safet Bašić is relieved of its responsibility to support the local economy beyond the low wage ephemeral service jobs they may offer to a handful of Tuzlans.
But, lest it be suggested that there is anything criminal to such dealings, we must remember that this kind of public-private partnership in which private international capital feeds upon public goods illustrates precisely how the economy is supposed to work. For, we must remember that, by this theory, the very notion of a public good implies a public seizure of formerly private property. When therefore SB appropriates public land or public goods, or when political leaders benefit from such reappropriation, the argument could be made that they are merely restoring property formerly seized by the public to the private market place where it belongs. From there we can now allow the international marketplace to perform its magic; which in this instance in the near term means that average under- and unemployed Tuzlans will stand witness on their doorstep to an explosion in consumption in which they themselves can have no share.