Monday, October 14, 2013

Still and Still Moving: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 6.

Democracy is indeterminate. Its ends are open to a risky acknowledgement that we don’t know where everything is going. Real democracy is on the run from the suffocating tentacles of institutionalization, aware that the “emergent irregularities” along the road suggest that what we get may not even be called democracy. In this telling, democracy is always followed by a question mark addressed to itself and a curiosity addressed to others and the future. So says Sheldon Wolin. Rom Coles leads a dizzying chase after Wolin’s fugitive democracy, following it from its inception through its development. This chapter is the longest in the book and probably the most complex and convoluted.

According to Coles, Wolin offers a vision of “radical democratic theory, judgment, virtues, power, and practices that is at once synoptic, nuanced, and ordinary in the most profound senses” (114). Wolin corrects a regrettable reluctance on the part of radical democrats to theorize about their practices, an effort needed to overcome the anti-democratic trends of most political theory, obsessed with patriarchal heroism (115). Wolin believes that the New Left failed to articulate a radical theory beyond liberalism and socialism because it lacked a deep and diverse language; they even lacked vision and theory regarding their own practices (119).


A coordinator for Christian Peacemaker Teams told me that a main difference between how old CPTers and new ones react to trauma is that newer activists are often unmoored from constructive and supportive communities. Perhaps activists lack a deep and diverse language because they are not practicing these alternatives with others in place for a long time. Jean Vanier writes that “To struggle for a cause it is best for people to be rooted in a community where they are learning reconciliation, acceptance of difference and of their own darkness, and how to celebrate.” Some sense of place should matter for radical theory so it resists the hyper-mobility of industrial capitalism and recognizes the importance of human scale to see the effects of our actions. This sense might also help establish the positive vision of what we’re struggling for. Anarchists, and probably radical democrats, are often accused of having a crippling case of the “antis”: against the state, against hierarchy, against capitalism. But, when they posit alternative visions or small achievements, they get lambasted as na├»ve, sectarian, or hypocrites. So maybe we’re damned if we do and if we don’t. Wolin’s work tries to brick-and-mortar that gap between under-theorized activists and lazy theorists. Using the (male-oriented) words of Kwame Nkrumah, Wolin’s radical democratic revolution is brought about “by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought.”

The Zapatistas recently convened their first organizing school to theorize about their revolutionary actions. Almost 2,000 people attended the first la escuelita de libertad, the little school of liberty, which explores, as Subcomandante Marcos said, how to “govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.” In an open letter for potential students, Marcos asked: “Would you attend a school taught by indigenous teachers, whose mother tongue is typified as ‘dialect’? Could you overcome the temptation to study them as anthropological subjects, psychological subjects, subjects of law or esoterism, or history? Would you overcome the urge to write a report, interview them, tell them your opinion, give them advice, orders? Would you see them, that is to say, would you listen to them?”

The little school drafted four textbooks explaining the autonomous government, women’s participation in governance, and resistance. Students lived with families in the indigenous communities and assisted with the practices of daily life. The little school has a trickster quality because it gathers people around the supposedly mundane in order to inspire practices and attitudes necessary for transformative culture and power (143). These radical experiments are not another attempt to rule by replacing a few leaders; they are attempting to replace ruling with a different understanding of power (139). According to Coles, “Democracy is not about having ‘a share’ of power as rule, but is rather about a mode of sharing power that tends as, with, and to the emergent irregularities we are” (141). A form of shared power without rule smells curiously like anarchism.

Like the Zapatistas, Wolin also focuses on the radical ordinary, a term I fancy. I can’t really see the radical (critiquing and dismantling oppressive systems and energizing toward alternative imaginations) and the ordinary (the daily rituals of life) as two opposite poles on a spectrum, but they are instead rhythms that necessarily influence one another: the radical should shape our ordinary and the ordinary makes the radical livable and viable. I’m usually frustrated by the way both words are tossed around, mostly because radical becomes a synonym for idealistic extremism and ordinary is a surrogate for high-energy middle class lifestyles. Radical democracy yearns for big changes but locates energies in relational care for the ordinary.

Some radicals are “preoccupied with remaining at the liminal edge of the not yet speakable in ways that greatly impede theoretical work” (120), leaving an anemic democratic vision inattentive to lived experience (121). The delicate task is taking the risk of remembering democracy, but not too well, not in a way that remembers a conclusive stance that ignores the complexity of caring for life (121). In a way, the Zapatista villages and councils align themselves with Wolin when he accepts “‘the familiar charges that democracy is inherently unstable, inclined toward anarchy, and identified with revolution” (138). The Zapatistas give Wolin’s fugitive democracy a home.

For Wolin, radical democracy counters what he calls “methodism,” a behavioral technique that trains objective and detached observers who can quickly communicate empirical facts, unencumbered by culture and language (122). Methodism produces subjects best suited for homogenized technological societies in which the world is settled, certain, and efficient. Instead, Wolin seeks a meditative culture whose playful imagination tends to the subtle variety in neighborhoods, schools, unions, and watersheds (129). Radical democracy is not monochromatic; it is diverse and colorful (138). But one of methodism’s greatest deceptions is that it often wears colorful guises. Wendell Berry unmasks these pretenses: “Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best.” Furthermore:
The social and cultural pluralism that some now see as a goal is a public of destroyed communities. Wherever it exists, it is the result of centuries of imperialism. The modern industrial urban centers are ‘pluralistic’ because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems. The pluralists who see this state of affairs as some sort of improvement or as the beginning of “global culture” are being historically perverse, as well as politically naive.
Cosmopolitan pluralism tolerates difference as long as global corporate power and the megastate are the lowest common denominators. Berry and Wolin insist on transformative care for commonality and difference (147). Inclusion without discerning and tending succumbs to totalizing forces, just as tending does when it stops questioning who it might be excluding (146). Wolin thinks this is what happened in ancient Athens when the demos took power (145). Tending and inclusion would have eventually required Athenian democracy to confront itself instead of diverting attention to external enemies (145), which sounds like a summary of the history of state democracy. The frontier allowed America to avoid confronting itself because there was always somewhere else to go. Daniel Kemmis notes that Americans found two new escape valves when the frontier closed: extracontinental imperialism and the regulatory bureaucracy. Just before the U.S. government shutdown over infighting, President Obama told the UN General Assembly that the U.S. will use its military to defend its access to oil in the Middle East. Daniel Kemmis poignantly writes that one of the “unspoken purposes of imperial expansion is often to postpone the necessity of facing, head-on and decisively, the task of accommodating indigenous social and economic forces to each other.”

Wolin believes that the possibility of radical democracy is through traditional localism and postmodern centrifugalism (150). The former is the most practical site for tending, for “active care of things close at hand” (151), while the latter reminds us that our localism is not pure and is always contingent and connected (and Berry argues that cities and nations are as susceptible as small places to xenophobia and chauvinism). We always already live somewhere together, in this place and with these people and creatures. I have been influenced by certain postmodern tropes, but some postmodern types still want to cling to the possibility of a universal metanarrative: the European Enlightenment provides the neutral space from which to judge. At times, postmodern thinkers still fetishize unity (147) partly because they’re immensely influenced by Marxism, which, like capitalism, imposes a universal order onto diverse cultures and places. Osage theologian George Tinker maintains that indigenous people would be doomed just as much by Marxism as by democratic capitalism, both of which destroy cultural and ecological differences. A better postmodernism achieves universality through particularity like good literature, the best of which depicts distinctive places, times, and characters. Or like a watershed.

An ecological localism achieves the same purpose as postmodern centrifugalism. Wolin says that difference “‘is not about a unified collective self but about the biography of a place in which different beings are trying to live’” (151). Several weeks ago, I sat by the South Fork of the Shenandoah near Elkton. The town began when poor white farmers and foresters were forcibly relocated from Shenandoah Mountain when it was designated a national park. I sat on the riverbank scribbling notes for an essay I want to write called “Soil and Water,” which I find more useful than Coles’ roots and routes, which might too easily encourage uprooting when the routes look more enticing. A watershed is a place defined by movement and relation, circulation and grounding. I waded out and stood on the rocky riverbed as the cold current rushed around me.
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.
(from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets")
I want to organize my life as soil, building fertility in place over time, and as water, connecting the world to itself through disturbance and dynamism. In some way, when I tend to this watershed I tend to the world.

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