Sunday, February 1, 2009


I have recently been thinking about Karl Marx' famous line about religion being the opiate of the masses. Opiate suggests a dulling of the senses and a state of being unaware of ones real condition. Marx of course saw this state as an impediment to the development of class consciousness and revolution that should follow. Religion of any kind seems to have something to do with dealing with an unpredictable world and the absence of direct control. Through religion one can believe one is exercising some control over events in your life. Before the arrival of Christianity to Mexico peoples believed in deities of various kinds and these could be invoked to deal with the unpredictable - help ensure that it rained, save a sick child, deal with natural disasters, improve human and crop fertility and deal with that great unknown, death.

The other line that keeps entering my mind is the social science claim that religiosity declines as the welfare state increases. The welfare state helps deal with some of the unpredictability of life: it provides a way to deal with illness, crop failure, safety rules to protect your children, and so on. In some way the states substitutes for the deities. If Marx was correct then both the welfare state and religion are opiates.

Let's look briefly at some events in Mexico. Any observer is shocked by the degree of risk in life and the number of young people in graves. As you drive along you notice many small trucks on the highway with small children sitting in the open box of the truck, ready to be thrown to injury and death at the smallest accident. If you need a truck to make a living and to transport goods to your pueblo and can't afford two vehicles, what choices do you have but to put the kids in the back? You also notice that highways and intersections are not engineered as well as they might be, increasing the likelihood of accident. If there is little you can do about these things why not hang an image of the Virgin in your window! If illness is around every corner and affordable health care is unavailable, why not entreat the Virgin to look after you. What do you do if you know that water quality is not always high? What do you do if your doctor recommends a drug to help with your child's sickness and yet the drug costs more than you are able to pay? Why not believe in miracles! In a land of the welfare state there is usually a mechanism of appeal to a tribunal of some kind and if not directly to a local politician. Mexico has a weak but developing welfare state but it is particularly weak as far as the poor and indigenous populations are concerned. So it appears to be among these groups that religion still has a strong hold. But does this leave them in a semi-aware state? It appears not.

In a land of structured corruption what do you do to gain some control over governments that do not appear to respond to your voice or your needs? No miracles here: People take to the streets in protest. In my area young students at a rural teachers college who were experiencing declining financial support for the college began to block the highway, handing out information sheets and asking for donations. They eventually took to hijacking buses on the highway and demanding financial aid for their return. This resulted in death and destruction and many young people taken to jail. During fiestas in our pueblo many people set up small stalls to sell foods or goods and as there is a rich festival life here this becomes an important source of income for many poor or indigenous families. The government recently decided to clean up the streets (perhaps for the tourists, or for those store owners with regular businesses). The small vendors did not take this sitting down. Local buses blocked the streets in support of their friends and the riot squad was called in to ensure that people did not act independently and set up their stalls.

So there appears to be a substantial contradiction between the ways people deal with areas of no control. In the most nebulous areas where it appears to be an individual problem (although everyone goes through these events eventually) you turn to religion. But when it is the government that you have elected to serve you, you take to the streets. There is class consciousness in some areas and not in others. Marx, however, is every where even in a somewhat traditional land. The newspaper recently talked about the "pulverization"
of the middle class; the "proletarianization" of the middle class; and the "pauperization" of the poor - terms you would never find in a newspaper of Canada or the USA. This land also came very close (some would say they won) to electing a very left wing government.

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