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Counterreformation as counterinsurgency

Published on 27 December 2014
Updated on 06 March 2023

Human society, I have argued, is driven by enablers (see my 99 and 100). The Counterreformation is a good example of a “complex” enabler for counterinsurgency. It is worth visiting.

Faced with the “heretic” ideas of Martin Luther, the Catholic Church scrambled for a response. Two polar positions developed. Proponents of the “soft” or “irenic” and compromising approach squared off against the intransigents. The theological details are of little interest in this context. The “softies” came within one vote of gaining the Papacy after the death of Paul III in 1550. They lost.

One of the main reasons for the defeat was the successful battle Cardinal Carafa fought in the Conclave against the British Cardinal Pole, whom he accused of heresy. Carafa was the first head of the Inquisition, which had been created in 1542. Whether Pole, had he become pope, could have pursued the “soft” position is a matter for counter-factual speculation. Personally, I have doubts. “Soft” also means “unfocused:” the very readiness to compromise and accommodate makes for weak “coalitions.” Internal wrangling, or lack or commitment would have allowed the “intransigents” to have their way in the event.

The Inquisition, however, was the crucial enabler for the “intransigents.” It was a modern structure with powers to penetrate the thicket of conflicting jurisdictions and privileges which provided “heretics” with safe havens. Carafa had also created a “troop” to assist him in his task, the Teatin order. The Inquisition worked in secrecy. It relied on informers. Its accusations were as vague as they were perceived as threatening. Like security nowadays, heresy was in the eye of the beholder.

Though an intransigent himself, Pope Julius III, the successor to Paul III, tried to control the Inquisition, and stopped some of Carafa’s more egregious machinations. The pope was soon dead, and his successors came from the Inquisition stables, including Carafa himself, who reigned as Paul IV. For the next half a century, one would become pope after having earned his spurs with the Inquisition.

The Inquisition became a career path. Ambitious clerics without family connections could achieve advancement. No wonder that the instrument of the Inquisition attracted the sharpest minds, looking for “heretics.” What true unbelievers may have existed, they were soon gone – some fled, some were caught, most accommodated. Having run out of heretics, the Inquisition needed new targets to keep the machinery going (it also needed confiscations to fund itself). It went after all sorts of deviant behavior. Having “cleansed” the elite, the Inquisition cast its suspicious eye on ordinary folk, using the confessional as a means to ferret out mystics, low mechanics, witches, and dissenters. A pall of conformism soon descended on Italian society.

Conformism was not enough, for it was based on repression. Power based on repression never sleeps easily. Rebellion lurks in the shadowy minds of the oppressed. Social control is the solution: a society of believers ready to accept conformity as the “truth” and self-cleansing itself of dissent. To this end, a set of tools – enablers – developed overseas for the conversion of heathens was brought back to the homelands. The missionary techniques of indoctrination were applied: religious rallies, uplifting rituals, prayers, processions, devotions to saints and places – you name it. At the end of this process, a self-policing a self-replicating social system was in place. People’s deeply felt need for spiritual uplift in the face of adversity and the chaotic and contingent character of reality was harnessed to the goal of social control. It works every time: people want to believe, no matter the content, for belief yields meaning.

Faith may have been the goal; the Inquisition and tools were the enablers. These soon took over: they gave advantage to people who knew how to use them. Having made a career of it, and gained recognition, these people were loath to call for a halt. Goals were interpreted expansively; new goals were added, soon overshadowing the old ones. Despicable carrierists? Evil men like EICHMANN? No. TROTSKY quipped that 95 % of the Party commissars were opportunists, and the rest true believers. His was not a moralistic but a realistic judgment. He knew how a structure or enabler functions. In an enabler, goal and instrument are separate: “have a hammer, will bang nails; tell me where.” The strength of the opportunist – the person fixated on the process rather than the ideological goal – lies in his whole-hearted focusing on the skillful banging of nails, rather than the asking (and judging) whether these nails should be hit. The opportunists’ weakness is his intent to keep the system going well past its disposal date in order to justify his actions. With no commitment to the goal, only process (of which they are masters) they’ll go on unless recalled. Just as in a market system, overshoot is the rule. What saves the market system from its doom is the material context: the scarcity of resources, which allocates everything to the highest demand. Banging the wrong nails promptly leads to bankruptcy. There is no bankruptcy in virtual matters like “security,” so the machine goes on forever.

Yesterday’s search for orthodoxy is today’s drive for security: goals so vague as to allow enablers – structures created to achieve them – to take over. In the longue durée, the logic of the enablers overrules the original goals and creates path-dependent outcomes.

The power of analogy is the points of similarity, which allows telling if incomplete predictions. One is only to look at the attire of the contemporary cop on the beat to see the creeping infiltration into the streets of a civilian society of a counterinsurgency mentality on the way back from “missionary work” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attire is a silent, yet powerful signifier that one lives in a world of urban guerrilla (legitimizing by opposition such behavior). Whether a society can survive such creeping militarization is anyone’s guess. The tragedy is that it is a diffusive phenomenon. As the tools spread, no one is in charge of saying “stop it.”

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