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The Cry of the Subject: Book Review

The institution of modern universal competition is elevated into a law by the ideology of practical neces-sities.. Every institution dies when its preservation is made an end-in-itself. The totalitarianism of the market threatens the destruction of humanity.

By Michael Brie

[This book review of: Franz Hinkelammert's The Cry of the Subject. From the World Theater of the Gospel of John to the Dog Years of Globalization, Exodus publishers, Luzern, 2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.rosalux.de/cms/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/Utopie_kreativ/136/136_rezensionen.pdf.]

Was Jesus the victim of a judicial crime? Did Pilate act out of mere lust for power? Were the high priests of the temple in Jerusalem only petty types with a murderous lust and envious of Jesus' following? Or did Pilate and the priests fulfill their laws conscientiously and zealously? Why did Jesus reproach his own followers that they would kill him if they only wanted to hear a new law? What are the works of God that Jesus intended to do? Why was he convinced that God was in him as God could be in all persons?

Such questions could be dismissed as meaningless or left to theologians. A new expression of an inverted religious consciousness could also be discovered in them. However one could be inquisitive enough to seek new forms of emancipation in language, thought and praxis on the traces of the theology of liberation. Franz Hinkelammert's new book could be urgently recommended to them.

The tragedy of many emancipatory movements is that they only seem successful when they change into a new project of rule. The price of power was the suppression of their own original claim. Friedrich Nietzsche shrewdly predicted the same fate to socialists and early Christianity..

Franz Hinkelammert develops elements of a practical theology and philosophy of liberation that seeks to escape the tragedy and crime of transforming the means of emancipation into instruments of rule, exploitation and oppression, the tools of love into weapons of murder. The starting point is the Gospel of John that - according to Hinkelammert - proclaims Jesus' true message like no other gospel. The death of Jesus is a scandal. "Jesus' death is not the scandal of the high priests but the scandal of the law and the scandal of the cross. Something is revealed. The law in its logic condemns to death Jesus, the word of life for John. Even worse, the law given by God did this. Every law fulfilled for its own sake bears this scandal in itself." (p.58) God's law was fulfilled by the murder of the Son of man! A more radical criticism against every theology of estrangement is inconceivable.

Every civilization - including the civilization invoked again and again after September 11, 2001 - rests on the monopoly of force and thus on killing. Unlike barbarism, civilization is orderly murder that legitimates itself as making possible controlled life. Franz Hinkelammert turns against this legitimization and emphasizes its problematic. He also knows that killing can be unavoidable even if there are "no good reasons." "If violence is unavoidable, it is still illegitimate. Violence never has justice on its side. Understood this way, violence even if it is unavoidable is always a failure that doesn't know culprits and innocent. The failure is always the responsibility of both. Violence means the loss of the highest human goods (Hoffner). Violence announces that cooperative human life has failed on all sides - not because there is an evil that the `good' had to eliminate." (p.99)

The importance of Franz Hinkelammert's work goes far beyond the emancipative re-conquest of Christian liberation theology from grand imperial Christianity enforced since the times of Augustine. From his interpretation of the Gospel of John, Hinkelammert develops a radical criticism of all estranged forms of thought in which killing is legitimated. The arc spans from Plato and Nietzsche to modern neo-liberalism, from the inquisition to the totalitarianism of universal competition. His book urges not seeking freedom in institutions since every institution taken by itself and maintained for its own sake is murderous.

The institution of modern universal competition is elevated into a law by the ideology of practical necessities. Ethical conduct is seen in the fulfillment of these laws. A "functional ethic" arose that refuses any separation between the system and values and thus removes the possibility of free moral conduct at its root. From the standpoint of a total market, the conditions of human life appear as mere outward disturbing factors whose removal is an unintended consequence of conduct oriented in practical necessities.

Every institution dies when its preservation is made an end-in-itself. The replacement of the totalitarianism of the state by the totalitarianism of the market would threaten the destruction of humanity. The "death of commodity relations" lies simultaneously in the inevitability and danger of the totalization of commodity relations. "Human life and the conditions of its possibility cannot be secured without these relations. But as soon as they are totalized, the same human life is destroyed in its logic that would not be possible without it." (p.383)

Again and again Franz Hinkelammert successfully escapes the pathos of a mere criticism, the seduction of denouncing all institutions as "of the devil." He knows that anti-institutional utopias can be gateways to unbridled violence. In contrast, he develops an "ethic of public interest" based on the contradiction between the indispensable institutions on one hand and the resistance and intervention of people as self-assured subjects of their own life over against these institutions on the other hand. Without institutions, there is no controlled human life together. Without resistance against the institution that transforms itself into a totalizing end-in-itself, there is no human life. Both poles must be redirected again and again to human life. "The pole of institutionality must necessarily be subsidiary to the other pole that contrasts institutionality with the conditions of the possibility of human life." (p.386). The ethic of public interest arises out of reality and points beyond it.

Hinkelammert develops an independent approach of an emancipative praxis and humane ethic starting from theological and philosophical arguments and in conversation with the historical ideological forms of capitalism in the modern age. This approach was gained in many discussions with pastors anchored in the life of their communities who sought guidelines of concrete action at the Ecumenical Research Center in San Jose, Costa Rica. The whole book breathes a spirit of lively discursive immediacy so strange to many German works. Hinkelammert successfully finds a support against the moral relativism of the neo-liberal ideology of practical necessities and against every fetishization of an institutional justification of good conduct.

Hinkelammert's work is one of the important books of the present. He expresses the "cry of the subject" without which we are not human but degenerate again and again to functionaries of a system. This courageous book disturbs the foundations of our civilized self-image and knows no cheap excuses by which one refuses responsibility by appealing to higher powers like God or the world market. This book should be read, discussed and explored and can help avert distress and awaken hope.

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