Don Camillo and Peppone Reloaded: Father Brown and Comrade Slavoj [text]


Update (August 2017) – one text I have overlooked is the very good philosophical reflection on Žižek’s use of Chesterton’s allegorical story by George Fried ‘Where’s the Point: Zizek and the Broken Sword’. I agree with most of what he has to say and would probably have produced a much shorter piece which would have focused more on Father Brown’s methodology.


This post is not meant to be primarily a critique of Žižek, even though he occupies most of the space in it, but to use him as a contrast to bring out what is worth salvaging from Gilbert K. Chesterton’s form of thinking (though not much of its content). The work of deconstructing Žižek’s political rhetoric has already been done successfully by better writers. “Successfully”, that is, in terms of intellectual coherence and conclusiveness – less so in that Žižek still enjoys huge popularity among the academic Left. My favourite is Adam Kirsch’s 2008 ‘The Deadly Jester’ in The New Republic, despite some unjustified claims about the philosophical traditions Žižek draws on.
Further it should be noted that the parallel implied to the two heroes of Giovannino Guareschi’s Mondo Picolo finds its limit in the fact that both the Catholic priest and the Communist mayor are united in their unequivocal antifascism – which can be said of neither Chesterton (who was tempted by Mussolini) and nor Žižek (who congratulates Heidegger on joining the Nazi Party)

The BBC’s favourite “Marxist philosopher” Slavoj Žižek makes ample use of Father-Brown creator Gilbert K. Chesterton’s witticisms and stories in his grand project, the rehabilitation of the Western politico-metaphysical tradition from the Catholic Church to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[1] The title of his magnus opus in political theology In Defence of Lost Causes is taken from a chapter in Chesterton’s What’s Wrong With the World?  where Chesterton suggests that the ‘lost causes are exactly those which might have saved the world’Žižek draws heavily on Chesterton in his reading of Christianity, but the most important thing he gets out of Chesterton is the rhetorical tactic of contradicting obvious truths by way of paradoxical statement. But, while the paradoxes of Chesterton lend themselves to frivolously totalitarian abuse, I will argue that the contrast between the two could not be much greater.



Consumerism into Fascism – Part 2: The Chesterton Slide

I thought I would have a joke, and I have created a passion. I tried to compose a burlesque, and it seems to be turning halfway through into an epic. – King Auberon in G. K. Chesterton’s 1904 The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

In the first part I have highlighted how, despite suggestion to the contrary, consumerism as heir to Romanticism is incompatible with fascist politics in one crucial aspect, namely its anti-heroism and its rejection of immediate reality and realisation which lies at the heart of this anti-heroism. Their, so the damning verdict of fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt, ‘occasionism’ and refusal to act decisively in the world extended even to the reactionary visions of German Romanticism from Novalis’ medievalistic utopia to Wilhelm Hauff’s sycophancy of old Württemberg. But on the other hand it is difficult to deny that fascist propaganda does take inspiration from consumerism, especially from advertising. There are also some uncanny parallels in the mode of expression and the collective effervescences induced by both. And finally, the fundamental opposition of fascism to both Romanticism and consumerism[1] is one that concerns the mode of cultural production and consumption – not necessarily its content.

[footnote: By ‘consumerism’ I do not mean simply mass consumption of industrially produced goods, but the mass use of such products for identity-relevant hedonistic daydreams. I am also not claiming that totalitarian regimes had no such consumer culture at all. Especially Fascism more so than Stalinism allowed and encouraged consumer-cultural escapes by permitting apolitical, non-subversive cultural production for a free consumer market (as long, of course, the producers were not classified to be “racially inferior”). Walter Lacqueur points out that there were consumerist ‘joys of everyday life’ under fascist rule:

‘The less interest a person had in public affairs and the more he or she ignored politics, the freer that person could feel in his or her private world. The authorities in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (and equally in the Soviet Union) used propaganda to an unprecedented extent, but people were still not told what games to play, what movies to watch, what ice cream to eat, or where to spend their holidays. The authorities probably suspected this would be counterproductive.’ (Lacqueur 1996: 72f.)

The point is that this is a concession to the practicalities of governing a country with a developed capitalist economy – a deviation from the dream of an organically integrated, totally mobilised people. The total war which is the vanishing point of all fully-fledged Fascism notoriously makes sure that those private worlds would shrink away in the end and with it all the distractive Neugier, Zweideutigkeit and Gerede. end of footnote]

Wilhelm Hauff, for example, not only created in Georg von Sturmfeder (protagonist in Lichtenstein) the kind of steadfast Tatmensch (man-of-action) and true follower of his national cause the Nazis wrongly thought Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell to be – Hauff also delivered, with his antisemitic novella Jud Süß, a template that Veit Harlan and his team of writers could then further worsen into the script for their even more viciously antisemitic 1940 feature film of the same title, one of the most successful propaganda movies of the Nazi era. The overt ultra-nationalism, racism and misogyny at the core of fascist ideology is alien to consumer cultural products (although racist and sexist undercurrents remain pervasive – and a sublimated form is lived out into fantasies of annihilation when it comes to aliens from outer space).  The motif of the Tatmensch and celebrations of the heroic, the mythological and mechanised war, however, are quite common place. The question I am trying to tackle here, therefore, is whether and how there is a danger of a slide from the romantic consumerist imagination into fascist politics – a slide that was as mentioned envisaged in J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come.


Consumerism into Fascism? Part 1: Carl Schmitt v. Novalis

In this first part I will argue that romantic consumerism is decidedly non-heroic and intuitively anti-totalitarian – I will try and explore the potential for totalitarian reversals in the second part.

I have argued that the now habitual condemnation of consumer culture as the central evil of contemporary capitalism is misguided and potentially reactionary. But there are proposed linkages between consumerism and a new postmodern fascism that have to be taken seriously. The most realistic scenario is given in J D Ballard’s novel Kingdom Come (as Alan Bradshaw argues) – which was an especially frightening read when EDL activism and international football events conspired to reproduce the imagery of St.-George-crossed suburban shopper fascism of the book. It is the dystopic version of the more playful Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton. But the message is the same – at one point the bored citizens of a dull consumer society will turn the violent fantasies of the stories and imageries they absorb into bloody realities. (more…)

Rousseau as puritan?

Not really – but his Calvinist background clearly shows – as for example in his seemingly square and unromantic condemnation of unproductivity he deploys in his prize-winning rant against the arts and sciences that  kick-started his career as a writer

« Si nos sciences sont vaines dans l’objet qu’elles se proposent, elles sont encore plus dangereuses par les effets qu’elles produisent. Nées dans l’oisiveté, elles la nourrissent à leur tour ; et la perte irréparable du temps est le premier préjudice qu’elles causent nécessairement à la société. En politique comme en morale, c’est un grand mal que de ne point faire de bien ; et tout citoyen inutile peut être regardé comme un homme pernicieux. »

How does this tally with the fact that Rousseau went on to become the patron saint of the Romantic movement? Certainly not in that the Discourse was taken off the Romantic reading list – to the contrary: it’s uncompromising turn to Nature set the tone.

What is more likely that this is an anachronistic occurrence in which Romanticism’s Puritan legacy surfaces. In his genealogy of modern consumerism Colin Campbell argues that the fact that the most avid consumers came from the the same Protestant middle classes which, some generations before, had produced the pioneers of industrial capitalism is linked to the transformations Protestant spirituality underwent – transformations that started with cold Calvinism and ended with emotional Romanticism.

So can we see Rousseau’s Franklinesque condemnation of idleness and inefficient time use as a lapse – a use of a familiar argument out of the Calvinist repertoire which Rousseau had picked up growing up in Calvin’s old city which is slightly misplaced in a Romantic context? I don’t think so.

What the Romantics share with the Puritans is an intuitive belief in election and grace. While there are various ways of getting there – the status of being among the elect, of having grace is not one that can be achieved by following set rules, by performing well-defined good deeds. It must be a state of being – an inner state. For the Puritan this would be true belief – for the Romantic it is inspiration or even genius. Both can be longed for and found – but they can’t be acquired by taking lessons, reading up recipe knowledge etc. And both need external confirmation, need to prove themselves. The Puritan, who could never be sure of their state of grace, was on the lookout for external signs of grace – and, as Max Weber’s famous argument goes, capitalism provided a handy mechanism in that the odd admixture of meritocratic and random distribution it afforded could be interpreted as one of God’s ways to favour those he elected for eternal life in the beyond already in this world. While the Puritan was aware that the reprobate could reap great returns from immoral business practices and this was one of God’s ways to lull him in false security on his way to damnation – and that as in the story of Job God may test the believer by not granting him success, the (ideal-typical) answer was to commit to an ascetic, frugal and economically productive life and hope for the best. Being lazy was not an option since, while economic success could not be a sure sign of election, a propensity to idleness was a sure sign of reprobation.

The Romantic, too, had to validate his version of grace: inspiration. God has been replaced by Nature and the reward of eternal life has been replaced by a cult of infinity, but how do you know whether you’re inspired and creative if you don’t create? Charles Taylor(1989: 374) speaks of an ‘expressive turn’ – he claims that

‘the idea of nature as an intrinsic source goes along with an expressive view of human life. Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice of impulse. And this makes what was hidden manifest for both myself and others.’

The Romantic must produce just like the Puritan must produce. The modes of production are as different as the inner natures to be proved are – but both need to be at work relentlessly. And there are overlaps and cross-fertilisations Campbell (1989: 185) points out that Wesley had read Rousseau… and I have previously highlighted that imagination is a key ingredient in post-Puritan entrepreneurship. Both come together in Blake’s famous line that ‘my business is to create’ which, as Eric Wilson (2011) argues, very much sums up the frantic productivity of this Romantic par excellence.

So even when Jean-Jacques is hanging out meditating in the park – as in this painting by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy – he’s working, really…

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discours qui a remporté le prix a l’académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette Question propoſée par la même Académie : Si le rétabliſſement des Sciences & des Arts a contribué a épurer les mœurs. Par un Citoyen de Genève, in: Oeuvres complètes de J J Rousseau, Tome quatrième, Paris: Chez Lefèvre, 1839, p.14

Taylor, Charles (1989): Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wilson, Eric G. (2011): My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Sufi consumerism?

Varul, Matthias Zick (2013): The Sufi ethics and the spirits of consumerism: A preliminary suggestion for further research, in: Marketing Theory, Vol.13, no.4, pp.505-512


In this speculative comment I will suggest that, in analogy with Colin Campbell’s argument regarding the Romantic Ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism, there isprima facie evidence that there is also an elective affinity between Sufi-infused Islamic religiosity and the emergent Muslim consumerisms, particularly in Turkey and among Turkish (and Kurdish) diasporas in Europe. The main relevant features of Sufi spirituality in this context are identified as continuous creation, creative imagination and longing.

pre-publication open access version