Why Faith, Belief and Conviction Still Matter in Politics

By Pablo de Orellana

Against the assertion that we live in financial times and that all policy, national and international, must yield to the commonsensical gods of finance, we must not forget that a lot is still dictated and informed by religious and political belief. To say that we are all animated by the same absolute truths and resulting interests is to forgo humanity, freedom and choice in favour of a single subjectivity. Navigating the new world order is about finance and trade, Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne asserted at a recent Chatham House conference on foreign policy. Because we live in financial times, he reiterated for close to 90 minutes, Britain's international relations must focus on economic diplomacy. He went as far as arguing that a foreign policy based on the promotion of free trade is not a “zero sum game”. One is to understand that for the British government free trade will  bring about greater freedom and promote “universal values” as a consequence of its resulting social dynamics.

This seems to me a contradiction in universal beliefs. On the one hand, free trade will resolve social, economic and political problems and injustices worldwide; the laws of economics are the only attainable truth and common sense. Presumably the rest of the world also sees the universal truth of this common sense. On the other hand, the British Government is pursuing an aggressive security policy as well as three wars on several fronts in the name of defending human rights. Wasn't free trade supposed to resolve those?

The contradiction of these two universalities brings us to the problem of belief. It seems illusory to me that a foreign policy could ever be value-free and scientifically monetary and financial. Events in Europe over the past century point not only to the increasing predominance of financial interests, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to a polarised conflict of faiths and political beliefs. I sincerely doubt that figures such as Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden could have been bought off with trade incentives.

Although international observers often point to what is "fact", "real" and "scientific", we cannot forget that politics are essentially a battleground of subjectivities. These can cover just about everything: should we distribute more of the national income or not; should we support freedom fighters; should we fight evil; should we cut the welfare budget. All of these depend not only on personal convictions, but also on a world view based precisely on those convictions. .

This world view dictates who the evil "other" is, whose interest is more just, what is righteous and even the religious requirements of an individual. They in turn inform action. Belief affects how we see the world and how we respond to it. It would be preposterous to think that bin Laden, Gaddafi and Anders Behring Breivik were all animated by Jeremy Browne's "common sense" economic worldview.

Therein lies the fundamental problem: to assert an absolute truth or political common sense. To assert that devastating fiscal cuts, a war or a crusade against evil or jihad are absolute truths, based on common sense, is to depoliticise politics. Paradoxically, in such a process a value, faith or political belief claiming to be value-free and unpartisan, common sense itself becomes a dogma.

In the last British elections, all three main parties agreed on three "absolute" truths: budget cuts, less immigration, war in Afghanistan. They clearly disagreed on how to deal with these issues: Gordon Brown, for instance, would have coupled maintaining economic stimulus with cuts at a later date; on immigration the Lib Dems proposed quotas based on UK regional needs and some resolution for existing illegal residents, whilst Labour and Conservatives proposed cuts in immigrant numbers. In any case, the view that the UK, ,one of the world's largest economies, was on the brink of Greek-style default and misery; that immigration was undesirable, harmful and needed curtailing and that peace, democracy and security in the UK are warranted by the war in Afghanistan went largely uncontested. I am not arguing that any of these propositions are in themselves untrue, but I find that their uncontested preponderance is itself a sign they are now universally true and part of a political common sense. This worship of an accepted common sense means that political debate is stifled by only one of the available subjectivities of belief. To dissent could mean electoral catastrophe for a party.

Belief, therefore, still matters to life in society, as well as in national and international politics. Depending on your own world view, beliefs can be good or bad, but they still exist. Only to a limited extent can one rely on universally accepted common senses such as Jeremy Browne's financial world view. People believe in different gods, prompting different ways of seeing the world; sometimes even in their most extreme forms. To expect that all human beliefs yield to a common sense, be it secular, apolitical, unpartisan, scientific, statistic or financial is to impose a dogma. To expect all to see into the same common sense, especially in domestic and international politics, is folly.

By ignoring the role of beliefs we risk becoming acquiescent victims of "common sense" truths and their no less subjective proponents. To ignore the power of beliefs, to ignore how they can animate all aspects of life, whether social or political, is to ignore that we are human and not laboratory samples.


Pablo de Orellana is a PhD candidate in International Relations at King's College London, specialising in diplomatic discourse and policy-making.


19 October 2011