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Book Review: The Subject and the Law

by Werner Ratz Sunday, Aug. 03, 2008 at 11:44 AM

The church since the second century began distorting the original message without changing the words. If Jesus' proclamation was unconditionally "You shall not kill," it was soon said: "If you do this, we will kill you."


A new book by liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert

By Werner Ratz

[This book review of Franz Hinkelammert’s “Das Subjekt und das Gesetz: Die Ruckkehr des verdrangten Subjekts,” Institut fur Theologie und Politik, Munster 2007, 464 pages, 24.80 euro is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Liberation theologian Franz Hinkelammert born in Germany but living and teaching in Latin America since 1963 has been occupied for decades with the question how the modern age determines the thinking of people so they lose sight of their own physical humanliness. Against submission under the total market, he champions an ethic of concrete and finite physical subjects as the editors of his new book emphasize in their foreword.

In his earlier book “The Cry of the Subject,” Hinkelammert with the help of an interpretation of the Gospel of John underscored that the central omission of Christianity (theologically expressed, the “sin”) is that the church since the second century began distorting the original message without changing the words. If Jesus’ proclamation was unconditionally “you shall not kill,” it was soon said: “And if you do this, we will kill you!”

In his new book, Hinkelammert intensifies this. Violating the law should certainly be criticized. However the use of the law to kill repeats the Cain fratricide as explained in the chapter “The Rebellion on Earth and the Rebellion in Heaven: The Person as Subject.” There is no way out from “whoever kills must be killed.” Since everyone violates the law, everyone is culpable. The murder of others becomes the collective suicide of people and thus the destruction of the world since “there is no objective world without people… Objective reality is both the presupposition and consequence of human life and does not first exist and then the person.” (p.58).

No one needs to feel scared off by these theological ideas. Hinkelammert develops his train of thought as a theologian but without direct appeals to the Bible and proclamation. He takes up reflections from the 1980s and presents thoughts of several “fathers of the modern age” in a detailed chapter.

John Locke lived and wrote at the end of the 17th century in England. In 1688 the Glorious Revolution limited the universal idea of human rights of the revolution of 1648 to citizens and their property. Locke supplied the proper theoretical concept for this: Human rights are valid for everyone who as an (contract) equal submits voluntarily to an implicit contract. Whoever refuses (like the Indians of North America who do not acknowledge any property) explicitly renounces on the authority of human rights for themselves, “declares war on all humanity and therefore may be annihilated like a lion, tiger, wild animal or predator with whom persons cannot live in community or security.” (p.74) In the 18th century, Adam Smith redeveloped the idea of contractual equality.

When individuals only calculate their own interests and exchange on the market as equals on this basis, they promote the well being of everyone. Whatever their intentions, the “invisible hand” by itself creates the public welfare. David Hume explained convincingly why human societies need an order that regulates how and under what presuppositions access to resources is possible and what is protected from third parties. He deduced a specific property system, namely the capitalist system.” (p.186)

In contrast, Karl Marx emphasized the destructiveness of the market as a “self-regulating system and the necessity of conscious socially-planned interruptions. The picture of a society without human sacrifice – a “capitalism with a human face” (p.226) – can never be realized. This destructiveness intensifies more and more today. Hinkelammert sees the appropriate supporting theory in Friedrich Nietzsche’s proposals. He understands Nietzsche as the great radical thinker on account of this destructiveness that makes positive all the negative developments of capitalism and transfigures human sacrifice. The author understands the modern age as a whole that includes its criticism (as in Marx) and its exaggeration in the boundless (in Nietzsche) and post-modern attempts to rethink them.

Hinkelammert also swims in vacuousness. He reduces the post-modern to Jean-Francois Lyotard. His own description of Nietzsche fades out the contradictions of this thinker. He doesn’t grasp effective leftist history although he often quotes Emanuel Levinas… Nevertheless his presentation of classical economic authors is helpful. His substantiation for the necessary return to Marxist criticism is pressing. His book deserves a wide readership in an age when fundamentalist letter-worship and instrumentalist fear-mongering threaten faith, philosophy, language, community, inclusiveness and creativity.

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