Resurrecting Democracy:

Democracy as a work in progress rather than a work of progress

posted by Luke Bretherton

Let me begin by thanking the contributors to this book forum for their respective reviews. I am enormously grateful for the gift of time and attention their reviews represent. It is always instructive to see one’s work through the eyes of others, even if one does not always immediately recognize what one then sees! While finding valuable insights and many points for further reflection in all them, this is something of my reaction to Michael Gillespie’s and Jane Wills’s reviews. In responding to their critiques I will put them in dialogue with the reviews by Andrew Forsyth and Richard Wood, who I read as more directly articulating and speaking to the core foci and concerns of Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life. Situating my own response as an interaction between the two sets of reviews will hopefully clarify and help develop some of the book’s central arguments and positions.

The question of how to conceptualize secularity and the positive or negative role of democratic politics in fostering convivial relations between those of different faiths or no faith is central to the book. Folded within this question is the question of what kinds of common life enable the reality of and respect for people having multiple and often conflicting loyalties. Whether it is for oneself, one’s friends and family, the market, the nation-state, or a cosmopolitan ideal being progressively worked out in history, we all seek something or someone to be faithful to and invest value in. Consequently, given such loyalties, within historically constructed and irreducibly plural polities, conflicts inevitably arise as groups and individuals negotiate their different loyalties and contest which are to be prioritized.

Within this conflict of “faiths,” a particular construction of market relations—which we might loosely label neoliberalism—has made a claim to be the de facto object of devotion around which all other faiths are to be centered.1 The problem is not markets per se, but how an ideologically weaponized, debt-driven form of finance capitalism demands total loyalty and brooks no rival as the means of ordering life together, both at a local and a planetary level.2 But loyalty to a neoliberal form of life is paradoxical, as neoliberalism is an ideology that disavows any notion of loyalty. For the true believers in its orthodoxy there is no such thing as a common life to which one can be faithful and have affection for; there are only individuals, their self-interests (egoistically defined), and the contractual exchanges between them. Within this framework, faithfulness (to one’s family, to a sense of place, to workers, to doing good work, to one’s country, etc.) is a sentimental externality that “realistic” judgments about what to do and how to do it should pay no heed.

As Wood notes, a central focus of the book is an argument about the need to invert this logic and embed market relations in a prior and more basic set of social and political relations so as to allow for a greater plurality of loyalties to intersect and contribute to the formation of a common life. Yet, as I understand it, it is only possible to address this argument meaningfully if one understands it to be intimately connected to a related question: at an empirical level, is a common life possible as people try to navigate their various and sometimes conflicting loyalties/faiths within a world that puts constant pressure on our commitments to be collapsed into a form of commodity exchange? I argue it is possible, but it is very hard work, and requires certain conditions and learning particular kinds of democratic practices.

In a Panglossian fashion, Gillespie thinks I should relax and not be so worried about the ways and means through which finance and debt-driven consumer capitalism is shaping our common life (both discursively and in practice). The benefits of capitalism are said to outweigh its costs, for, as Gillespie reasons, “capitalism and modern science have liberated us from the accidents of nature.” Now I fully recognize capitalism is deeply ambivalent. Like debt, it is a pharmakon, a poison and a remedy (p. 251). But, as with a pharmakon, over-prescription ensures the medicine becomes a toxin that kills the body. Nevertheless, despite the reality of the over-prescription of a particular form of finance capitalism, there is a need to avoid declension narratives. But there is an equal and opposite need to avoid ascension narratives of the kind that Gillespie’s review leans toward. The account of capitalism that underlies Gillespie’s comments has a genealogy and rests on a kind of immanent theology of providence.3  Furthermore, it is anthropocentric, ignoring how current forms of capitalism depend on the destruction of non-human forms of life and render toxic the environment on which all life depends.

The tragic irony of capitalism is that the very means through which humans sought liberation from “the accidents of nature” (e.g. nuclear power and carbon-based energy production) now present the greatest threat to human survival and could, accidentally, generate mass-extinction-level events (e.g. nuclear war, severe climate change). Gillespie’s account of capitalism is also historically myopic. His notion that capitalism liberated humanity from the need for slaves ignores how, as I note in the book, capitalism was built on the Atlantic slave trade and needed slavery as a form of primary accumulation (p. 252). It also renders invisible how the racialized legacies of this history still shape the basic form of social and economic life in the US and elsewhere. In short, capitalism, both historically and now, produces order and prosperity for some by generating disorder and destruction for others (especially non-human others and those judged less than human by the owners of capital).

At a more detailed level, Gillespie, using a consequentialist argument, suggests that given the benefits capitalism has brought, the number of those subject to debt bondage within situations of forced labor today is trivial. Even if one accepts his argument, which I don’t, his felling of this tree entirely misses how my focus is the vast forest of debt bondage that pervades our economic system and how debt is a primary means of governance, both of individuals and countries. This is a problem that anyone concerned with the vibrancy of democratic life should be very worried about for two key reasons that the book sets out: first, debt as a means of governance is outside of political accountability and so is able to serve as a primary means of domination; and second, the structures of economic debt as we have them erode and fragilize the forms of sociality necessary for democratic politics to be sustained.

Related to my account of debt, and contrary to what Gillespie contends, I explicitly refuse the notion of the good life as one of leisure built off the domination of others. The good or flourishing life is in part one lived with and for others, particularly others not like oneself (strangers and enemies). And no form of life can be good if it does not have in its institutional forms and its ends the pursuit of justice and generosity for all, especially the weak and the dependent. My rejection of leisured freedom as the good life (and consequently, such freedom as the basis of political freedom) is in part based on an argument against an Aristotelian view of work as contrary to political freedom (pp. 197–200), a rejection of a Neoplatonic view of “nature” (pp. 106–109), my conception of practical reason as the basis of a truly political rationality, and a “bio-political” conception of the body politic (pp. 213–14). Constructively, I argue for the dignity of labor, how work is central to any form of common life (good or otherwise), and how economic democracy needs to be seen as a crucial part of democratic politics (pp. 294–97) and thence the pursuit of freedom as non-domination. Having said all of that, and as Forsyth so helpfully outlines, my view of “earthly” politics is a tragic one. Given conditions of finitude and fallenness, we must be alive to the limits and inevitable failures of democratic politics to achieve enduring forms of a just and generous common life. Democracy is always a work in progress rather than a work of progress.

Given its tragedies and failures, those committed to democracy must contend with the key challenge of sustaining faith in democracy.  For the work of democratic politics to go on it depends in large part on the kinds and qualities of faith that lead people to take the risk of keeping faith with democracy as a means of addressing shared problems rather than seeking one or other form of domination and/or exclusion. The current wave of Caesarism in the US and across Europe and the kind of anti-political populism I analyze in the book, which is exemplified in the rise of Trump, are signs of a lack of faith in democracy. At the heart of the book is an exploration of how the kind of faith (and hope and love) on which democratic politics depends cannot be generated by democracy itself but, paradoxically, as Wood notes, often draws on religious forms of life that can be illiberal and intolerant. Moreover, faith in democracy cannot be messianic. It must be modest and, to a large extent, ironic, if democracy is to remain democratic (p. 286).

The book looks at broad-based community organizing (BBCO) as exemplifying something of what might be involved in generating a more just and generous common life today. As Wills recognizes in her own work, organizing is a generative and concrete approach that helps us understand the conditions and possibilities of forging a common life, particularly in contexts of radical diversity that are under intense pressures of commodification. Community organizing, whether in mid-twentieth-century Chicago or twenty-first-century London, was explicitly developed to help address exactly this kind of context. The contemporary social movements around the world that have emerged within populous conurbations and that, in terms of sheer numbers, successfully address the urban poor are religious: namely, Pentecostalism and popular forms of Roman Catholicism and Islam. A central feature of the book is how BBCO interacts with and helps mediate relationships between the kinds of religious groups that constitute these social movements, helping to generate a common life both between these groups and with those of no faith. BBCO is one of the few—if not the only—actual forms of democratic politics with a consistent track record for so doing. Yet for all the attention given to the intersection of religion and politics in political and social theory in recent years, BBCO as a practice has been largely ignored. The book lays out how organizing mediates and reconfigures these relationships and asks what insights might be gleaned for political theory and public policy from how it does so. Given the conflicts that arise at the intersection of religion, public policy, and the delivery of social services in the West, it seems oddly legalistic to chastise me, as Wills does, for asking what lessons might be learned from the practice of organizing for other institutional configurations, such as the delivery of healthcare, education, and welfare services, all of which, in the U.S. and U.K., use forms of co-production and co-governance involving non-state actors, many of whom are religious.

One of the broader lessons to be learned from BBCO is that religious groups should not be instrumentalized for a business-as-usual form of “secular democratic politics” as Wills contends. Rather, there is a need to reimagine the very nature of secularity and the role of religious institutions and discourses within democratic politics—hence, as Forsyth lays out, the importance of “faithful secularity” as a framework within the book, and why, as Wood notes, a consociational vision of democracy suggests itself as a way forward. Wills calls for more detail to show how a consociational form of democracy would work, yet this misses the relationship between the first and second halves of the book. Contrary to what Wills says, the first five chapters explicitly set out how the practice evolved, adapted to, and innovated within the changing contexts of the U.S. and London. My analysis emphasizes the necessity of greater experimentation and innovation in the practice of BBCO and the need for new institutional forms (pp. 290–92), and recognizes the problem organizers face through having to work with weak institutions. But none of this undermines the intrinsic value of BBCO or what might be learned from it.

This brings me to how the ethnographic elements of the book function. The ethnography is a granular case study from which the theoretical claims of the book emerge and which renders these claims plausible. The case study is thus a kind of icon pointing beyond itself to a particular vision and practice of a faithfully secular democratic politics. The idea of an ethnography as a form of iconographic writing draws on a conception of writing history as both about the events in themselves and about how any particular event can symbolize and represent practices and concepts that spatially and temporally transcend their cultural-historical situation.

A case study can be iconic, exceeding its immediate representational conditions in such a way that it can germinate new ways of understanding other historical and contemporary contexts. This does not necessarily subsume the particular within the universal, or the part within the whole; rather, an iconic case study invites and allows for a dynamic and imaginative interplay between its particularity and other contexts. The kind of iconic deployment of ethnography in relation to theory generation and the articulation of normative commitments that the book attempts is in the spirit of Bruno Latour’s call for criticism that moves beyond iconoclasm. Truth telling is not reducible to critique understood as exposing falsehoods. It can also entail bearing witness. And the form of the witness is not only that of the testis or “third party” who impartially observes and speaks out on behalf of another. There is also the testimony of the superstes or martyr: the person who has lived through the events described and challenges others to come together with them to create something new or tend something of worth. The ideal critic, for Latour, is a kind of superstes who shows forth “arenas in which to gather” and offers constructive ways to care for fragile matters of concern.

Community organizing as a worthwhile form of democratic politics is one such fragile matter of concern that provides a meaningful and significant way of assembling a common life. The ethnographic elements of the book are constitutive of my attempt to bear witness to it. Yet reading Gillespie and Wills’s reviews one would be hard pressed to know that the first half of the book was an ethnographic study or have any sense of what role the inductive, ethnographic analysis played in relation to the generation of the normative theoretical moves made in the second part of the book. Likewise, contrary to Gillespie’s reading of my treatment of Athens, Jerusalem and Vienna in chapter 8, the particular historical moments I narrate there are not given as blueprints or models to be followed in a literalist way. Rather, they are explicitly read as allegories for and symbols of (p. 243) responses to the challenge of how to reconfigure and reimagine the relationship between money-power and democratic citizenship in contexts of hyperplurality.

Forsyth raises a penetrating question about the book when he asks whether it lives up to its own advocacy of a “faithfully secular” form of political and social theory. Does the book, like the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Charles Taylor, in its critique of modernist liberal binaries between what is considered secular and what is defined as religious end up reinscribing this binary through its textual performance? The most I can say is, some parts do and some parts do not. My hope is that the book might help others do a better job of not reinscribing this binary by enabling an interpenetration of explicitly religious and non-religious frames of interpretation in the description and analysis of a form of life. Forsyth’s question calls attention to what writing a thoroughgoing faithfully secular text means for the genre and as a basis of critique—a question that lies beyond the scope of the book but which I believe The Immanent Frame is eminently well placed to take up.

  1. For my definition of neoliberalism see Resurrecting Democracy, p. 336.

  2. This process is discussed in detail in chapters 6 and 8 of the book.

  3. On this see Johnathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman, Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Reviewed on The Immanent Frame here.

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