Mike Davis speaks in tongues

BLDGBLOG recently interviewed Mike Davis. This quote, about the rise of Pentacostal Christianity in South America, fascinates me:

Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.

Davis is a marxist, and most of his analyses are wonderfully creative elaborations of marxian structuralism. Here, I think he hits the thing exactly, which is why I believe there’s still life left in the structuralist carcass. Certainly, the sense of a peripheral health system to address the most basic needs of an underserved population has some of the obvious flaws of all structural analyses: which are the ‘basic’ needs, how powerful are ‘belief systems’ in treating those needs? Yet we can’t help but admit that the lives of the indigent are not so crushing as to make them impossible. There will always be enough food and shelter so that they can go back to work the next day. When there’s not, this is evidence of a crisis which is destructive to the productive cycle of late-capitalism. Yet in the global economic order, this subsistence regimen is incapable of dealing with the predictable but non-daily demands of grinding work.

Many working-class fathers (my grandparents among them) found enough extra cash for a monthly or a weekly binge. Many poor mothers suffer from mental illnesses whose treatments, even for the richest people, involve reflection, medication, and the attention of an expensive expert, and may still be untreatable after all that. Faith-healing and pastoral counseling goes to the root of the problem, and attempts to mobilize the subject against her worst habits. As Davis argues, the improvement in the quality of life of the poor is substantial.

Moreover, this self-discipline is tremendously efficient: for a small tithe, the poor can receive a measure of relief, scaled to their community. Yet as Foucault has pointed out, these disciplinary techniques must be worked out amongst the middle and upper classes. The experimentation around theology, staging, and efficacy all happens in the pentacostal mega-churches of the US Bible Belt, from which it is exported to the more fertile ground of the southern hemisphere. The American middle class finds faith comforting and useful for many of the same reasons as the poor, but the institutions we develop are easily cast off when they become unsatisfying. The global South accepts our cast-offs in this, as in all other things. Yet they also make them uniquely their own.

Just as Catholicism’s liberation theology has been a progressive force in much of Latin America, I predict that Pentacostalism will not long be satisfied with the status quo. Catholicism’s hierarchical design has resisted dictatorial regimes in favor of a growing middle-class, an educated aristocracy. Most marixists admit this is a step in the right direction for countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, or Brazil. Pentacostalism’s personality cults suggests that the political movements that emerge from this “spiritual health delivery system” will have a fascistic tinge, focused on the sovereign healer, his spectacular faith, and his connection to God.

Pentacostalism doesn’t even have the American fundamentalist’s faith that the sacred texts are democratically available to all for literal interpretation. Instead, power and prestige are distributed based on perceived faith, and faith is demonstrated by stunts and miracles. The first political leaders to emerge from this movement will have the force of fanaticism behind them. I do not imagine that this bodes well for the poor men and women seeking a bit of comfort from their dark existence.

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