A Short Lecture on the Book: Kingdom Vs. Empire

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to begin by reading the first words of my book, Kingdom Vs. Empire. It begins like this:

In this age beyond gods and masters we find that public space, along with almost every other, is nevertheless dominated by two powers: the invisible hand and the phallic gaze. These two strange members hover over us like the hand and the eye of some phantom, some demi-god… the formless being that sits over us like an emperor… like a deity.

So yes, we begin with visions of the cycloptic goul that haunts British cities with his invisible hand. If you’ve never seen it, I’ve drawn a picture for you…

0 phantom

There is an ancient Hebrew tradition of associating different impulses, ideas or feelings to different parts of the human body, such as the heart, or the gut, or the tongue. The hand and the eye, in particular, they often associated with power and corruption: the greedy impulse of the lustful eye and the shrewd scheming of the grasping hand. They aimed this imagery at bad kings and crooked politicians. It was in this tradition that Jesus made His strange remarks about it being better to cut one’s own hand off or pull one’s own eye out than to fall into that kind of business, or into that kind of company.

This imagery carries similar meaning today. Who’s face do we see on the 20 note?

1 smith.jpeg

It’s Adam Smith’s face, the author of capitalism’s finest accolade An Inquiry Into the Wealth of the Nations. He famously described a mystery: that our economics seem to function best when we each approach life in a self-interested manner. Ayn Rand would later call this The Virtue of Selfishness, but Smith used the image of an invisible hand that seemed to be at work, harmonising our selfish interests to the common good, to stable economics and to the progress of the modern world.

Two hundred years or so after Smith had professed his belief in a giant invisible hand that graced western civilisation, feminists began to talk about a great invisible eye that also seemed to be everywhere you went. The desirous gaze towards woman’s body is probably as old as the human penis, but in the age of mass culture – of the billboard, the screen and the camera – it seemed to manifest itself in a new way, and with a new tyranny. Suddenly the imagery of the gaze had an external and non-human presence in society. And that presence was managed by a minority of powerful men. The feminists called it the pornographic gaze, or the patriarchal gaze, or the phallic gaze.

Two things interest me about the invisible hand and the phallic gaze. Firstly that they support and maintain each other. They’re two members of the same beast. The invisible hand rejoices in the profiteering that comes of all the fear and desire that the phallic gaze cultivates (that is to say that images of women’s bodies seem to be instrumental in selling us all kinds of things). And secondly, while we participate in them, they seem to have developed an existence of their own, apart from us. They haunt Western life, and we’re swept up in them.

* * *

Thomas Hobbes’ book Leviathan was originally (I think) published with this remarkable image on the front, of one great beast made up of all the people of the English nation, and with the King’s head at the top.

2 Hobbes

It is very difficult for us to think this way in an individualistic age. We tend to think of the beast as being a Rupert Murdoch… a David Cameron… some individual, other than ourselves. But it is an interesting question: if we look at the whole… if we add up ourselves and our ways of living, what kind of form do we see? What kind of constitution? What kind of beast or leviathan are we a part of? And how are we part of it?

I think this kind of vision is particularly necessary now that we’re almost incapable of it. What if, without really noticing it, we’re part of some earth destroying, diabolical monster? How could there be any hope of rearranging life to dismantle such a beast without our first beholding the beast that needs to be dismantled?

So I’ve tried to describe the form of this leviathan as I see it today. I’ve described it as empire. We are no longer part of a political empire, but still, the economics, ethics, politics and spirituality of empire are ubiquitous to Western life. An empire’s reason for being is to expand, to grow in power and wealth, and to acquire control over what doesn’t yet belong to it. This strikes me as being a general ethos of life for today’s individuals, businesses, political parties, religious movements, rock bands and everything else. This is the spirit of the invisible hand and the phallic gaze: self interest and conquest. At the centre of all Western life is the self. It is the god of our capitalist economics and our neo-liberal ethics. This is the spirit of empire, and I take it to be the destroyer of worlds.

* * * 

The concept of Kingdom is not same as empire, because a King rules over only his own realm. Only when he begins to rule elsewhere does he become an emperor. In the biblical story the Kingdom is used to describe the empire’s nemesis. It is an unexpected peace that works through the historical process without the violence of the shrewd hand and coveting eye.

How then is the Kingdom different to the empire? The answer may be seen most vividly in the following image: in the crucifix.

3a crucifix

What is a crucifix? It is a piece of religious art, or paraphernalia. An object of worship. But what does the image depict, in general terms? It is a scene of capital punishment. It is a man on the gallows, or in an electric chair. It’s strange, or even absurd, that people would revere such an pitiable scene, of the demise of some poor self. So what is the image of in particular? What is the story it tells? We are all, I expect, aware that the man on the cross is supposed to be Jesus Christ the Son of God: God incarnate. In an age of empire this is beyond the horizon of absurdity. What kind of god dies? And who would bother following him? And more still, what kind of god dies for the mistakes and evils of this little ant farm of humanity that he’s been keeping?

Whether a person believes in the story or not is not the issue. The issue, in the age of empire, is how anyone has ever come to follow such an absurd god… to revere this scene that is nothing but failure in the empire’s eyes. Indeed, the first crucifix we have is a piece of Roman graffiti, which depicts this god as a donkey.

3b crucifix

The fact that such a god has ever been revered is incomputable to the invisible hand. It suggests that an order besides the empire we all know and love is not only imaginable, or even possible, but that it has existed… that such a consciousness can, and maybe even does, exist.

The image of empire is centered on the masculine self in relation to some fast car, a doll like woman, or a moment of sporting glory. In the image of the God (I’ll now drop the lower case ‘g’) who empties Himself out for the love of the other, we see the doom of the empire we live in. Our economics would collapse immediately if we all truly followed this self-emptying God. And the only genuine kind of revolution in this order of self, is the radical displacement of self from the throne, and the radical orientation towards the beloved Other.

This image, if it can be taken seriously, is unavoidably a portal to a totally different kind of order… one that the hand and the eye of late capitalism couldn’t survive in for one day.

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