When crisis and disorder become means of governing

Resurrecting Democracy.jpgI’ve just finished re-reading Luke Bretherton’s wonderful – and very timely – book, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life. I’ll be drawing upon it for a paper that I’ll be giving in Chile later this year. Along the way, I’ve been reflecting on these sentences in light of the deeply-troubling events taking place at various US borders:

When everything is treated as a crisis or an exception, crisis and disorder become means of governing.

Framing something as an exception justifies two parallel responses. The first is the closing down of due process, proper accountability, and collective self-rule: the crisis demands immediate action rather than taking the time to formulate reasoned and collective political judgments. The second is to claim the problems are so overwhelming and so urgent that they are beyond the scope of widespread deliberation and human judgment and instead a “neutral,” topdown procedure must be found to address the crisis. This can involve leaving it all up to the market to decide or trying to find a one-size-fits-all, technocratic, administrative solution … that just eradicate the problem in one go. This second response displays what can be seen as the modernist prejudice: the need to abandon tradition and eviscerate rather than reform existing institutions in order to inaugurate the “new,” “the modern,” or the “progressive” [– or, we might say, the “alternative” –] solution.

But what happens when the ‘exception’ is no longer true to definition but becomes the new norm, literally by the stroke or two of a pen? (I write this as news filters into my ‘alerts’ about the firing of acting Attorney General, Sally Yates.) What happens when one reads the current disorder against a narrative like this one which suggests that the ‘primary aims’ and ‘main organisational goal[s]’ of the new regime are to undermine, eliminate, and replace all existing power structures with ‘a tight inner circle’ hungry for ‘unchallenged power’? That human societies have been here before doesn’t entirely take the sting out of things, although some time reading the Hebrew Bible, for example, does at least help to see that sting in some continuity with the nature of history as shot through with the tragic and violent.

Fuck Trump Sign.jpgThe one thing that is certain in our current political climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’ (Rowan Williams). The other one thing that is certain is that those in liberal democracies are embroiled in a real battle about power, and about what role, if any, the ‘existing rulebook’ (Bretherton) will play, and about the possibility of living a genuinely-shared life (with or without the hassle of all those left-leaning loopheads ‘blocking traffic and causing some travelers to miss their flights’).

It is this, among other things, that makes Bretherton’s work so interesting. Drawing upon insights from Aristotle, Saul Alinsky, and others, and his own involvement with grassroots democracy expressed in the work of Citizens UK, Bretherton’s is a vision of democratic politics and of vibrant civil society expressed in what he calls ‘broad-based community organizing’ in which those of different faiths – and of non – and who carry ‘myriad obligations and commitments’ and identities and practices, coordinate, negotiate, and seek to forge a common life,⁠ a life that will inevitably call into question the kind of arrangements designed to leave economic and political and ecclesiastical elites immune from accountability and responsible participation in a common social, economic, and political space. Bretherton recognises that ‘whereas the medieval city offered one set of political opportunities and challenges, the modern and now world city offers an assemblage of material and social conditions for a different set’.⁠ And rather than shy away from this reality, or rage against it, Bretherton leans into its opportunities:

What community organizing represents is a means of reconstituting, from the ground up, a sensus communis, which can then form the basis of a practical rationality on which shared judgments can be made. It does this through assembling a ‘middle ground’ out of the existing traditions, customs, and habits that have poured into the city. The practices of community organizing create the conditions through which a shared world of meaning and action can emerge – albeit one often based on partial misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Such efforts towards a sensus communis are not without opposition however, as anyone who has been involved in grassroots democratic movements can testify :

Whether on the Left or the Right, those who would seek to do without a shared life and resort instead to technical, bureaucratic, legal, and market-based procedures of control and risk avoidance consistently oppose organizing and thence the creation of a middle ground.

So goes what Bretherton calls ‘the virtuous pursuit of democratic politics’.

Apathy leads to all kinds of death. ‘The body politic is a constructed, fractious, and fragile artifice that requires something like the practices of community organizing in order to constitute and reconstitute it out of its disparate elements. It is a constant work in progress rather than a spontaneous, natural phenomenon’ (Bretherton).

[Image: Verso]

Democracy, responsible citizenship, and the politics of resistance

the-ethics-of-authenticity‘Because the only effective counter to the drift towards atomism and instrumentalism built into market and bureaucratic state is the formation of an effective common purpose through democratic action, fragmentation in fact disables us from resisting this drift. To lose the capacity to build politically effective majorities is to lose your paddle in mid-river. You are carried in eluctably downstream, which here means further and further into a culture enframed by atomism and instrumentalism.

The politics of resistance is the politics of democratic will-formation. As against those adversaries of technological civilization who have felt drawn to an elitist stance, we must see that a serious attempt to engage in the cultural struggle of our time requires the promotion of a politics of democratic empowerment. The political attempt to re-enframe technology crucially involves resisting and reversing fragmentation.

But how do you fight fragmentation? It’s not easy, and there are no universal prescriptions. It depends very much on the particular situation. But fragmentation grows to the extent that people no longer identify with their political community, that their sense of corporate belonging is transferred elsewhere or atrophies altogether. And it is fed, too, by the experience of political powerlessness. And these two developments mutually reinforce each other. A fading political identity makes it harder to mobilize effectively, and a sense of helplessness breeds alienation. There is a potential vicious circle here, but we can see how it could also be a virtuous circle. Successful common action can bring a sense of empowerment and also strengthen identification with the political community.

This sounds like saying that the way to succeed here is to succeed, which is true if perhaps unhelpful. But we can say a little more. One of the important sources of the sense of powerlessness is that we are governed by large scale, centralized, bureaucratic states. What can help mitigate this sense is decentralisation of power, as Tocqueville saw. And so in general devolution, or a division of power, as in a federal system, particularly one based on the principle of subsidiarity, can be good for democratic empowerment. And this is the more so if the units to which power is devolved already figure as communities in the lives of their members.

In this respect, Canada has been fortunate. We have had a federal system, which has been prevented from evolving towards greater centralization on the model of the United States by our very diversity, while the provincial units generally correspond with regional societies with which their members identify. What we seem to have failed to do is create a common understanding that can hold these regional societies together, and so we face the prospect of another kind of loss of power, not that we experience when big government seems utterly unresponsive, but rather the fate of smaller societies living in the shadow of major powers.

This has ultimately been a failure to understand and accept the real nature of Canadian diversity. Canadians have been very good at accepting their own images of difference, but these have tragically failed to correspond to what is really there . It is perhaps not an accident that this failure comes just when an important feature of the American model begins to take hold in this country, in the form of judicial review around a charter of rights. In fact, it can be argued that the insistence on uniform application of a charter that had become one of the symbols of Canadian citizenship was an important cause of the demise of the Meech Lake agreement, and hence of the impending break-up of the country.

But the general point I want to draw from this is the interweaving of the different strands of concern about modernity. The effective re-enframing of technology requires common political action to reverse the drift that market and bureaucratic state engender towards greater atomism and instrumentalism. And this common action requires that we overcome fragmentation and powerlessness – that is, that we address the worry that Tocqueville first defined, the slide in democracy towards tutelary power. At the same time, atomist and instrumentalist stances are prime generating factors of the more debased and shallow modes of authenticity, and so a vigorous democratic life, engaged in a project of re-enframing, would also have a positive impact here.

What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-levelled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.

But to engage effectively in this many-faceted debate, one has to see what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous. As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge’.

– Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

On recognising folly for what it is, and standing against it

in-consceince-i-must-break-the-lawAlmost 50 years ago, at the height of and in direct response to his own government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, one courageous theologian by the name of Robert McAfee Brown, compelled by a conscience captive to the freedom of the love and justice of God, and having ‘utterly lost confidence in the Johnson Administration’, explained why he had moved from ‘curiosity, to study, to mild concern, to deep concern, to signing statements, to genteel protest, to marching, to moral outrage, to increasingly vigorous protest, to civil disobedience’. His words are as relevant and as timely today as ever, and that not only in the United States:

With each act of military escalation, the moral horror of the war is escalated. We have been killing women and children all along; now, we kill more of them. We have been destroying the villages of civilians all along; now, we destroy more of them. We have been breaking almost every one of the rules that civilized men have agreed constitute the minimal standards of decency men must maintain even in the indecency of war; now, we break them more often.

This escalation of military power demands the escalation of moral protest. Those of us who condemn this war, who are repulsed by it and who realize that history is going to judge our nation very harshly for its part in it, must see more and more clearly that it is not enough any longer to sign another advertisement or send another telegram or give another speech or write another article. The ways of genteel, legal protest have shown themselves to be ineffective. During the time of their impact, escalation has not lessened, it has increased …

Military escalation has become our Government’s stock response to every problem, and in its exercise, our leaders have demonstrated themselves incapable of change. Their only response, now no more than a conditioned reflex, is to hit a little harder. They have become prisoners of their own propaganda. Their rationalizations of their policy become more frantic, their attacks on their critics more strident, their defense of their actions more removed from the realm of reality …

The decision to cast no vote at all cannot be justified by those who believe in the democratic process. All that is left, then, is to vote for a protest candidate who will not win … There comes a time when it is important for the future of a nation that it be recorded that in an era of great folly, there were at least some within that nation who recognized the folly for what it was and were willing, at personal cost, to stand against it. There comes a time when, in the words of Father Pius-Raymond Regamey, one has to oppose evil even if one cannot prevent it, when one has to choose to be a victim rather than an accomplice. There comes a time when thinking people must give some indication for their children and their children’s children that the national conscience was not totally numbed by Washington rhetoric into supporting a policy that is evil, vicious and morally intolerable.

If such language sounds harsh and judgmental, it is meant precisely to be such. The time is past for gentility, pretty speeches and coy evasions of blunt truth. Evil deeds must be called evil. Deliberate killing of civilians – by the tens of thousands – must be called murder. Forcible removal of people from their homes must be called inhumane and brutal. A country that permits such things to be done in its name deserves to be condemned, not only by the decent people of other countries but particularly by the decent people who are its citizens, who will call things what they are and who recognize finally and irrevocably that the most evil deed of all is not to do bestial things but to do bestial things and call them humane.

You can read the full article here. [Many thanks to George Hunsinger for drawing my attention to this article.]

How democracy produced a monster

‘[He] came to power in a democracy with a highly liberal constitution, and in part by using democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself …

[His party’s] surge in popular support … reflected the anger, frustration and resentment – but also hope – that [he] was able to tap among millions of [his countrymen]. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed …

Mercifully, what happened [then] … will remain a uniquely [sic] terrible episode in history. What took place then reminds us even so of the illusory assumption that democracy will always be a favored choice of a population torn apart by war, facing enormous privations and burning with resentment at national humiliation through perceived foreign interference. It also reminds us of the need for international cooperation to restrain potential “mad dogs” in world politics before they are dangerous enough to bite’.

– Ian Kershaw, How democracy produced a monster (3 February, 2008)

Jonathan Sacks on one gift that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies

Sacks - The Dignity of DifferenceJonathan Sacks has described the public commons as ‘the places you go where you do not have to pay’. Such places are becoming increasingly rare in the world’s cities; they are being converted into shopping centres and entertainment complexes. ‘But these are not civic spaces. We go there as consumers, not as fellow citizens’. And so we are formed. Relationships once based on neighbourliness and the shared bonds of citizenship have become commercialised and disembodied. And exposed here, Sacks argues, is one of the real gifts that religion bequeaths to liberal democracies – that they can help such societies ‘to acquire the habits of co-operation which form the basis of trust on which the economics and politics of a free society depend’. He continues:

One of the classic roles of religion has been to preserve a space – physical and metaphysical – immune to the pressures of the market. When we stand before God we do so regardless of what we earn, what we own, what we buy, what we can afford. We do so as beings of ultimate, non-transactional value, here because someone – some force at the heart of being – called us into existence and summoned us to be a blessing. The power of the great world religions is that they are not mere philosophical systems, abstract truths strung together in strictly logical configurations. They are embodied truths, made vividly real in lives, homes, congregations, rituals, narratives, songs and prayers – in covenantal communities whose power is precisely that they are not subject to economic forces. They value people for what they are; they value actions for the ideals that brought them forth; they preserve relationships by endowing them with the charisma of eternity made real in the here-and-now.

Voting

I Vote

Source: The Age, 3 December 2014.

Robert Fisk: ‘Why does life in the Middle East remain rooted in the Middle Ages?’

FiskHere’s Robert Fisk, deservedly one of the most reputable journalists in the world, on why the ground beneath Arab feet may have become ‘too saturated to build on’. It’s a thought-provoking piece of commentary:

‘Why is the Arab world – let us speak with terrible sharpness – so backward? Why so many dictators, so few human rights, so much state security and torture, so terrible a literacy rate?

Why does this wretched place, so rich in oil, have to produce, even in the age of the computer, a population so poorly educated, so undernourished, so corrupt? Yes, I know the history of Western colonialism, the dark conspiracies of the West, the Arab argument that you cannot upset the sheikhs and the kings and the autocrats, the imams and the emirs when the “enemy is at the gates”. There is some truth to that. But not enough truth.

Once more the United Nations Development Programme has popped up with yet one more, its fifth, report that catalogues – via Arab analysts and academics, mark you – the retarded state of much of the Middle East. It talks of “the fragility of the region’s political, social, economic and environmental structures… its vulnerability to outside intervention”. But does this account for desertification, for illiteracy – especially among women – and the Arab state which, as the report admits, is often turned “into a threat to human security, instead of its chief support”?

As Arab journalist Rami Khouri stated bleakly last week: “How we tackle the underlying causes of our mediocrity and bring about real change anchored in solid citizenship, productive economies and stable statehood, remains the riddle that has defied three generations of Arabs.” Real GDP per capita in the region – one of the statistics which truly shocked Khouri – grew by only 6.4 per cent between 1980 and 2004. That’s just 0.5 per cent annually, a rate which 198 of 217 countries analysed by the CIA World Factbook bettered in 2008. Yet the Arab population – which stood at 150 million in 1980 – will reach 400 million in 2015.

I notice much of this myself. When I first came to the Middle East in 1976, it was crowded enough. Cairo’s steaming, fetid streets were already jam-packed, night and day, with up to a million homeless living in the great Ottoman cemeteries. Arab homes are spotlessly clean but their streets are often repulsive, dirt and ordure spilling on to the pavements. Even in beautiful Lebanon, where a kind of democracy does exist and whose people are among the most educated and cultured in the Middle East, you find a similar phenomenon. In the rough hill villages of the south, the same cleanliness exists in every home. But why are the streets and the hills so dirty?

I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Arabs; they do not feel that they own their countries. Constantly coaxed into effusions of enthusiasm for Arab or national “unity”, I think they do not feel that sense of belonging which Westerners feel. Unable, for the most part, to elect real representatives – even in Lebanon, outside the tribal or sectarian context – they feel “ruled over”. The street, the country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course, the moment a movement comes along and – even worse – becomes popular, emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or “terrorist”. Thus it is always someone else’s responsibility to look after the gardens and the hills and the streets.

And those who work within the state system – who work directly for the state and its corrupt autarchies – also feel that their existence depends on the same corruption upon which the state itself thrives. The people become part of the corruption. I shall always remember an Arab landlord, many years ago, bemoaning an anti-corruption drive by his government. “In the old days, I paid bribes and we got the phone mended and the water pipes mended and the electricity restored,” he complained. “But what can I do now, Mr, Robert? I can’t bribe anyone – so nothing gets done!”

Even the first UNDP report, back in 2002, was deeply depressing. It identified three cardinal obstacles to human development in the Arab world: the widening “deficit” in freedom, women’s rights and knowledge. George W Bush – he of enduring freedom, democracy, etc etc amid the slaughter of Iraq – drew attention to this. Understandably miffed at being lectured to by the man who gave “terror” a new name, even Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (he of the constantly more than 90 per cent electoral success rate), told Tony Blair in 2004 that modernisation had to stem from “the traditions and culture of the region”.

Will a solution to the Arab-Israeli war resolve all this? Some of it, perhaps. Without the constant challenge of crisis, it would be much more difficult to constantly renew emergency laws, to avoid constitutionality, to distract populations who might otherwise demand overwhelming political change. Yet I sometimes fear that the problems have sunk too deep, that like a persistently leaking sewer, the ground beneath Arab feet has become too saturated to build on.

I was delighted some months ago, while speaking at Cairo University – yes, the same academy which Barack Obama used to play softball with the Muslim world – to find how bright its students were, how many female students crowded the classes and how, compared to previous visits, well-educated they were. Yet far too many wanted to move to the West. The Koran may be an invaluable document – but so is a Green Card. And who can blame them when Cairo is awash with PhD engineering graduates who have to drive taxis?

And on balance, yes, a serious peace between Palestinians and Israelis would help redress the appalling imbalances that plague Arab society. If you can no longer bellyache about the outrageous injustice that this war represents, then perhaps there are other injustices to be addressed. One of them is domestic violence, which – despite the evident love of family which all Arabs demonstrate – is far more prevalent in the Arab world than Westerners might realise (or Arabs want to admit).

But I also think that, militarily, we have got to abandon the Middle East. By all means, send the Arabs our teachers, our economists, our agronomists. But bring our soldiers home. They do not defend us. They spread the same chaos that breeds the injustice upon which the al-Qa’idas of this world feed. No, the Arabs – or, outside the Arab world, the Iranians or the Afghans – will not produce the eco-loving, gender-equal, happy-clappy democracies that we would like to see. But freed from “our” tutelage, they might develop their societies to the advantage of the people who live in them. Maybe the Arabs would even come to believe that they owned their own countries’.

[Source: The Independent, 28 July 2009]

Oliver O’Donovan on democracy

 

Two quotes from Oliver O’Donovan that arose out of this discussion on voting:

‘One could almost say that there is only one political question worth asking about liberal democracy: how firmly are the two elements, political freedom and and electoral legitimation, bound together? Is their conjunction a matter of necessity? Or is it merely the product of a peculiar socio-ecological niche, perhaps too fragile or too specialized to transplant?’ – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 168.

‘Electoral forms, then, not only fail to guarantee a just, or liberal, government; they are no guarantee of material representation either. The defense of Western democracy must, it seems, be even more modest than the most modest defense current among apologists. Perhaps it may take some form such as this: Modes of representation cannot be chosen in a vacuum; they are dependent upon the conditions of society and on the forms of spontaneous representation that arise unbidden. In a society that has lost most of its traditional representative forms to the unstable and shifting relations built on individualism and technology, but which can count on economic wealth, good communications, and general literacy, there is not serious alternative to the ballot box. Attempts to revive lost forms of loyalty are liable to be Ersatz and morally hollow; we had better secure ourselves against the temptations they present by setting a high procedural threshold for movement of spontaneous popular identity, and this electoral democracy provides. The case for democracy is that it is specifically appropriate to Western society at this juncture. It is a moment in the Western tradition; it has it own ecological niche. This allows us no universal claims of the “best regime” kind, nor does it permit the imperialist view that the history of democracy is the history of progress. Yet within its own terms it allows us to be positive about democracy’s strengths. The best regime is precisely that regimne that plays to the virtues and skills of those who are governed by it; and this one serves us well in demanding and developing certain virtues of bureaucratic and public discourse that the Western tradition has instilled. It is our tradition; we are bred in it; we can, if we are sensible about it, make it work’.  – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 178 .

Thirteen Propositions on Voting: a repost

I rarely do this, but some time ago, I posted Thirteen Propositions on Voting. Looking over them again today in light of tomorrow’s US elections, I thought that it was worth a repost:

A preamble: this is not an exhaustive list.

1. Remember, if you are a Christian then you are part of a pilgrim people who ought never really feel at home in this world because we have been made for another.

2. No matter which government is in power, the Church’s charge remains the same – to preach the Gospel. This will include, among other things, at least a 4-fold word: (i) challenging the structures of our society that demean humanity made in the image of God; (ii) challenging the agendas of our society that leave the poor and the widows and the orphans without a voice; (iii) challenging the complacency of a people who refuse to think, or can’t be bothered thinking, about the consequences of the decisions we are making (this has obvious international consequences); and (iv) challenging the selfishness of those who get fatter and fatter at the expense of others, and at the expense of the creation.

3. God’s people receive their identity not from earthly governments, but from the knowledge that they belong to the Lord Jesus and live under his government, and by his word.

4. Regardless of what’s going on in the fleeting world of politics, the Gospel will always have something to say to the world, and to a Church that must continuously strive to keep itself from ever thinking that the Gospel of the Cross is not enough.

5. We must beware lest we fall into the trap that so many Christians throughout history have fallen into of believing that there is such a thing as the only and true Christian form of government. No political party can be baptised, nor any political system. The radical call of Jesus remains regardless of what the government of the day is doing. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to bring about godly reforms and laws in the land, but it does mean that we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can create a heaven on earth.

6. The temptation to deny Christ exists no matter what the political situation and culture is.

7. Don’t be among those who see voting as a chore and as a painful waste of time. Remember that it is a privilege to vote. God has placed many of us in countries where we have the opportunity to take part in decision making as well as in the keeping of our elected leaders accountable. Thank God that some of God’s people live in such places. [I have always struggled to understand how a democracy can encourage non-compulsory voting, not least given the claim of support for democracy-making in other parts of the world!]

8. Thank God for democracy, but never trust it. ‘Democracy’, wrote Forsyth, ‘is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith’. At the end of the day, ‘democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E. B. White). Recall the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true … I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation … The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters’.

9. Remember that even secular leadership comes under the domain of God’s sovereignty, and that God uses non-Christians, as well as Christians, to bring about his purposes. The Bible assures us that all those who serve the people well are servants of God. So thank God for his own sovereign governing of the world (Rom 13:1-7).

10. Pray diligently for the leaders and all those in responsibilities of power and decision making. We are commanded by God to pray for all our leaders. Pray that they would make wise and just decisions and govern with mercy as well as strength. Pray for those who do not know Christ, that they would become Christians.

11. Pray for wisdom about your vote. Make your vote count. Make your vote a wise vote.

12. Don’t vote for the party who will best serve your pocket and own interests, but vote for the government or person who you prayerfully and honestly believe can best think through the necessary and complex issues with an attitude of serving others within their own country, and beyond.

13. Once the election has taken place, don’t grumble if your choice of party or person is not elected, for Peter tells us to, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king (1 Peter 2:12-17).

The Cost of War: Funding International War Crimes

The National Priorities Project of Washington DC has introduced a timely new function to their site, CostOfWar.com. Through the Individual Cost of War Calculator, U.S. taxpayers can see what portion they owe of the $590 billion and counting on the Iraq war.

www.CostOfWar.com has long provided the most accurate tally of the budget expenditures on the Iraq war with their War Cost Calculator. They have also allowed users to break down that total cost to their state or local area.

Now CostOfWar.com shows what portion of that 1/2 a trillion dollars each individual is responsible for. Users simply (and anonymously) input their income or taxes over the course of the Iraq war to see how much they personally paid, and will continue to pay.

For households making $75,000 a year, their cost of Iraq equates to approximately $20,000 to be paid toward the Iraq war right out of that family’s check book. Considering the failing economy, eye-opening information like this is sure to be a major issue in the U.S. Presidential race.

These calculations were originally launched in 2007 as MyWarTax.org. The founders, Jim Cousins and Don Raleigh of Minnesota, recently donated it to the National Priorities Project’s site, CostOfWar.com. The intent was to provide this information to a mass audience, and CostOfWar.com receives more than 100K hits each month.

Democracy fails without an informed citizenry, and CostOfWar.com is now informing people of their financial contributions to the Iraq War on an individual level.

[Source: Scoop]

Chomsky: Resonant and Unwavering

Today’s Bangkok Post includes this fascinating interview with Noam Chomsky by  Stuart Alan Becker in which they discuss the Vietnam War, Burma, and the greatest dangers currently facing humanity:

BECKER: You opposed the Vietnam War long before it was fashionable. When and why did you make that decision? Do you feel you made a difference?

CHOMSKY: I opposed the Vietnam war from the mid-1940s, when the French invaded, a few years later receiving direct US support. But I did not do much beyond signing statements and the like until 1962, when the back pages of the New York Times casually reported that the US Air Force was flying a large proportion of the bombing missions against South Vietnam, with the planes disguised with SVN markings. At that point I realised that I had better learn more about this, began to look into it more carefully, and had to make a hard decision. I had enough experience with political activism to know that if I became involved, it would soon grow to be a major undertaking, with few limits, and I would have to give up a lot that meant a great deal to me. I decided to plunge in, not without reluctance. It took years of hard and painful work of protest and resistance before a real anti-war movement developed. There is no doubt that it made a difference. One illustration comes from the Pentagon Papers, the final section, dealing with the immediate reaction to the Tet revolt; in imperial terminology, it is called the “Tet offensive”, on the tacit assumption that a revolt against our military occupation is aggression. The government considered sending several hundred thousand more troops to South Vietnam, but decided not to because of concern that they would need the troops for civil disorder control at home in the likely event of a mass uprising of unprecedented proportions. We also know that by then 70 per cent of the US population felt that the war was “fundamentally wrong and immoral”, not “a mistake” – while intellectual elites debated whether Washington’s “bungling efforts to do good” were a “mistake” that was becoming too costly to us (Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, at the outer limits of dissidence within the mainstream).

How much any one individual contributed to the radical change of consciousness and understanding, and the willingness to do something about state crimes, it is hard to say.

BECKER: You have said the US played a significant role in actions that led to the installation of the Burmese junta back in 1962. What’s the subtext, the background we’re not understanding: What are the consequences of the enormous UK investment in Burma, of earlier US weapons sales, of recent Israeli weapons sales to the junta – and of Chevron Oil’s continued supply of millions and millions of dollars in oil money to the junta?

CHOMSKY: Burma had one of the few elected governments in the region in the 1950s, and was intent on pursuing a neutralist course. The Eisenhower administration was carrying out vigorous efforts to enlist the governments in the region into its Cold War crusades. As part of this broad campaign of subversion and violence, Washington installed thousands of heavily armed Chinese Nationalist troops in northern Burma to carry out cross-border operations into China. Burma vigorously objected, but in vain. The China forces began arming and supporting insurgent minorities in that turbulent region. In reaction, power within Burma began to shift to the military, leading finally to the 1962 coup. The matter is discussed by Audrey and George Kahin, Subversion as Foreign Policy. George Kahin was one of the leading Southeast Asian scholars, virtually the founder of the academic discipline in the US. The consequences of the US-UK-Israeli operations you describe are, of course, to strengthen the military junta. These matters are unreported and unknown in the US, apart from specialists and activists, because they interfere too dramatically with the doctrine that “we are good” and “they are evil”, the foundation of virtually every state propaganda system.

BECKER: Do you think there’s any chance of a popular uprising being successful in Burma, or do you think those who rise up will only be slaughtered because there’s no advantage for the generals to give up their power?

CHOMSKY: I do not know enough to be able to answer with any confidence, but I suspect that now it would be a slaughter. On the other hand, the military leaders are ageing, and there may be popular forces developing that can erode their power from within.

BECKER: Was the Kingdom of Thailand morally justified to host US military bases during the Vietnam War? What lasting effects did the Vietnam War have for Thailand and the region? Is that part of why Thailand is an island of relative easy life, compared to neighbours with more severe problems?

CHOMSKY: Thailand’s involvement in the US wars in Indochina was a disgrace. I presume Thais, at least some of them, made profit from their participation in the destruction of Indochina. I know that Japan and particularly South Korea gained very substantially. It helped spur their “economic miracles”. To evaluate the lasting effects we have to imagine what Southeast Asia would have been without the sadistic Western (mostly US) interventions of the postwar period – not to speak of what happened before. That’s a topic for a carefully researched book, not a brief discussion – and it would still be highly speculative, by necessity.

BECKER: Do you find George W. Bush and his wife Laura calling for change in Burma insincere? Do you think the US president’s action on behalf of the suffering and the marginalised in Burma in the wake of Cyclone Nargis would be more justifiable on moral grounds than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?

CHOMSKY: Bush likes to posture as a deeply religious Christian. Perhaps he has even looked at the Gospels. If so, he knows that the famous definition of the hypocrite in the Gospels could have been written with him in mind. One can think of all kinds of ways in which the Bush couple could show their sincerity, were it to exist.

If Saddam Hussein had given some money to hungry children it would have been more justifiable on moral grounds than his gassing of Kurds in Halabja. The same principles hold in the case of Negris vs Iraq-Afghanistan.

BECKER: What do you think China’s reaction would be if an internal uprising in Burma was successful?

CHOMSKY: China would likely tolerate, maybe even welcome, the overthrowing of the junta. There was, of course, a significant US role in actions that elicited the military coup that installed the still-ruling tyranny. But I don’t know how much that bears on the present situation either.

BECKER: Can you offer any insight into the behaviour of the Burmese generals, their motivations and how things are likely to work out for the people of Burma?

CHOMSKY: The rulers have a good thing going for themselves, nothing to gain by yielding power and no major risks in using it violently. So that’s what they’ll probably do, until the military erodes from within. Mass non-violent protest is predicated on the humanity of the oppressor. Quite often it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does, in unexpected ways. But judgements about that would have to be based on intimate knowledge of the society and its various strands.

BECKER: If a regime is so terrible that its generals loot the wealth of the country’s resources for their personal gain, carry out murders, political imprisonment and forced labour, is there a moral justification for an armed uprising of the suffering people?

CHOMSKY: There certainly is, in my view, with one qualification: An armed uprising would have to evaluate with care the likely consequences for the people who are suffering. I think it’s appropriate for people to rise up, but it’s not for me to tell people to risk mass murder. As for assassinating leaders, the question is very much like asking whether it is appropriate to kill murderers. They should be apprehended by non-violent means, if possible. If they pull a gun and start shooting, it’s legitimate to kill them in self-defence, if there is no lesser option.

BECKER: Would you give any examples of what could happen if the principle of universality were applied in the world today, between nations that are in conflict?

CHOMSKY: One example is that Bush, Cheney, Blair, and a host of others would be facing Nuremberg-style tribunals. And the observation generalises very broadly.

BECKER: What are the greatest dangers facing our human species in the world today and what can we most effectively do about them?

CHOMSKY: There are two dangers that could reach as far as survival of the species: Nuclear war and environmental disaster.

About nuclear war, we know exactly what to do. In fact, the World Court has ruled that it is a legal obligation of the signers of the non-proliferation treaty to live up to their obligation to eliminate all nuclear weapons. And the non-signers can be brought in as well. To give an example that is highly relevant right now, the US population is overwhelmingly in favour of establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel. The US and the UK are formally committed to this policy. When they tried to construct a thin legal cover for their invasion of Iraq, they appealed to Security Council resolution 687, which calls upon Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. The US-UK invaders claimed that it had not done so. Resolution 687 also commits the signers to establish an NWFZ in the region. If the US were a functioning democracy, in which public opinion influenced policy, the exceedingly hazardous confrontation between the US and Iran could be mitigated, perhaps terminated.

Naturally, none of this can be reported or discussed, and it is inconceivable that any viable political candidate would even hint at the stand of the overwhelming majority of the population. One may recall a remark of Gandhi’s when he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation. His response was that it might be a good idea. The same is true of “democracy promotion”, which, if sincere, would begin at home.

How to stave off the threat of severe environmental catastrophe is less clear, though some measures are obvious: Conservation, research and development of renewable energy, measures to cut back emissions sharply, and others. What is eminently clear is that the longer we delay in addressing these problems, the more grave will be the consequences for future generations.

Empire or Democracy?: Mikhail Gorbachev poses some questions for US Presidential candidates

There has been unusual interest throughout the world in the U.S. presidential race.

Skeptics, of whom there are quite a few, say the campaign is just a marathon show that has little to do with real policymaking. Even if there’s a grain of truth in that, in an interdependent world the statements of the contenders for the White House are more than just rhetoric addressed to American voters.

Major policy problems today cannot be solved without America – and America cannot solve them alone.

Even the domestic problems of the United States are no longer purely internal. I am referring first of all to the economy. The problem of the huge U.S. budget deficit can be managed, for a time, by continuing to flood the world with “greenbacks,” whose rate is declining along with the value of U.S. securities. But such a system cannot work forever.

Of course, the average American is not concerned with the complexities of global finance. But as I talk to ordinary Americans, and I visit the United States once or twice a year, I sense their anxiety about the state of the economy. The irony, they have said to me, is that the middle class felt little benefit from economic growth when the official indicators were pointing upward, but once the downturn started, it hit them immediately, and it hit them hard.

No one can offer a simple fix for America’s economic problems, but it is hard not to see their connection to U.S. foreign policies. Over the past eight years the rapid rise in military spending has been the main factor in increasing the federal budget deficit. The United States spends more money on the military today than at the height of the Cold War.

Yet no candidate has made that clear. “Defense spending” is a subject that seems to be surrounded by a wall of silence. But that wall will have to fall one day.

We can expect a serious debate about foreign policy issues, including the role of the United States in the world; America’s claim to global leadership; fighting terrorism; nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the problems caused by the invasion of Iraq.

Of course I am not pretending to write the script for the presidential candidates’ debates. But I would add to this list of issues two more: the size of America’s defense budget and the militarization of its foreign policy. I am afraid these two questions will not be asked by the moderators. But sooner or later they will have to be answered.

The present administration, particularly during George W. Bush’s first presidential term, was bent on trying to solve many foreign policy issues primarily by military means, through threats and pressure. The big question today is whether the presidential nominees will propose a different approach to the world’s most urgent problems.

I am extremely alarmed by the increasing tendency to militarize policymaking and thinking. The fact is that the military option has again and again led to a dead end.

One doesn’t have to go very far to find an alternative. Take the recent developments on nonproliferation issues, where the focus has been on two countries – North Korea and Iran.

After several years of saber-rattling, the United States finally got around to serious talks with the North Koreans, involving South Korea and other neighboring countries. And though it took time to achieve results, the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program has now begun.

It’s true that nuclear issues in Iran encompass some unique features and may be more difficult to solve. But clearly threats and delusions of “regime change” are not the way to do it.

We have to look even deeper for a solution. “Horizontal” proliferation will only get worse unless we solve the “vertical” problem, i.e. the continued existence of huge arsenals of sophisticated nuclear weapons held by major powers, particularly the United States and Russia.

In recent months there seems to have been a conceptual breakthrough on this issue, with influential Americans calling for revitalizing efforts aimed at the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have now endorsed that goal.

I have always been in favor of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction. On my watch, the Soviet Union and the United States concluded treaties on the elimination of a whole class of nuclear weapons – Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) missiles – and on A 50 percent reduction of strategic weapons, which led to the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads.

But when we proposed complete nuclear disarmament, our Western partners raised the issue of the Soviet Union’s advantage in conventional forces. So we agreed to negotiate major cuts in non-nuclear weapons, signing a treaty on this issue in Vienna.

Today, I see a similar and even bigger problem, but the roles have been reversed. Let us imagine that 10 or 15 years down the road the world has abolished nuclear weapons. What would remain? Huge stockpiles of conventional arms, including the newest types, some so devastating as to be comparable to weapons of mass destruction.

And the lion’s share of those stockpiles would be in the hands of one country, the United States, giving it an overwhelming advantage. Such a state of affairs would block the road to nuclear disarmament.

Today the United States produces about half of the world’s military hardware and has over 700 military bases, from Europe to the most remote corners of the world. Those are just the officially recognized bases, with more being planned. It is as if the Cold War is still raging, as if the United States is surrounded by enemies who can only be fought with tanks, missiles and bombers. Historically, only empires had such an expansive approach to assuring their security.

So the candidates, and the next president, will have to decide and state clearly whether America wants to be an empire or a democracy, whether it seeks global dominance or international cooperation. They will have to choose, because this is an either-or proposition: The two things don’t mix, like oil and water.

Source: Gorby.ru

Faith, law and democracy

In light of Rowan Williams’ recent lecture – and the reaction it brought to the surface – there’s an interesting piece in today’s Economist on ‘Defining the Limits of Exceptionalism’. Here’s a taste:

In every democratic and more-or-less secular country, similar questions arise about the precise extent to which religious sub-cultures should be allowed to live by their own rules and “laws”. One set of questions emerges when believers demand, and often get, an opt-out from the law of the land … What has upset the old equilibrium, say law pundits in several countries, is the emergence all over the world of Muslim minorities who, regardless of what they actually want, are suspected by the rest of society of preparing to establish a “state within a state” in which the writ of secular legislation hardly runs at all. The very word sharia … is now political dynamite.

Full article here. And I have written more on this here.

Also, NT Wright offers a helpful contribution to the post-lecture here in this Washington Post article.

Thirteen Propositions on Voting

 

A preamble: this is not an exhaustive list.

 

1. Remember, if you are a Christian then you are part of a pilgrim people who ought never really feel at home in this world because we have been made for another.

2. No matter which government is in power, the Church’s charge remains the same – to preach the Gospel. This will include, among other things, at least a 4-fold word: (i) challenging the structures of our society that demean humanity made in the image of God; (ii) challenging the agendas of our society that leave the poor and the widows and the orphans without a voice; (iii) challenging the complacency of a people who refuse to think, or can’t be bothered thinking, about the consequences of the decisions we are making (this has obvious international consequences); and (iv) challenging the selfishness of those who get fatter and fatter at the expense of others, and at the expense of the creation.

3. God’s people receive their identity not from earthly governments, but from the knowledge that they belong to the Lord Jesus and live under his government, and by his word. 

4. Regardless of what’s going on in the fleeting world of politics, the Gospel will always have something to say to the world, and to a Church that must continuously strive to keep itself from ever thinking that the Gospel of the Cross is not enough.

5. We must beware lest we fall into the trap that so many Christians throughout history have fallen into of believing that there is such a thing as the only and true Christian form of government. No political party can be baptised, nor any political system. The radical call of Jesus remains regardless of what the government of the day is doing. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to bring about godly reforms and laws in the land, but it does mean that we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can create a heaven on earth.

6. The temptation to deny Christ exists no matter what the political situation and culture is.

7. Don’t be among those who see voting as a chore and as a painful waste of time. Remember that it is a privilege to vote. God has placed many of us in countries where we have the opportunity to take part in decision making as well as in the keeping of our elected leaders accountable. Thank God that some of God’s people live in such places. [I have always struggled to understand how a democracy can encourage non-compulsory voting, not least given the claim of support for democracy-making in other parts of the world!]

8. Thank God for democracy, but never trust it. ‘Democracy’, wrote Forsyth, ‘is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith’. At the end of the day, ‘democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E. B. White). Recall the words of C.S. Lewis: ‘I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true … I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation … The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters’.

9. Remember that even secular leadership comes under the domain of God’s sovereignty, and that God uses non-Christians, as well as Christians, to bring about his purposes. The Bible assures us that all those who serve the people well are servants of God. So thank God for his own sovereign governing of the world (Rom 13:1-7).

10. Pray diligently for the leaders and all those in responsibilities of power and decision making. We are commanded by God to pray for all our leaders. Pray that they would make wise and just decisions and govern with mercy as well as strength. Pray for those who do not know Christ, that they would become Christians.

11. Pray for wisdom about your vote. Make your vote count. Make your vote a wise vote.

12. Don’t vote for the party who will best serve your pocket and own interests, but vote for the government or person who you prayerfully and honestly believe can best think through the necessary and complex issues with an attitude of serving others within their own country, and beyond.

13. Once the election has taken place, don’t grumble if your choice of party or person is not elected, for Peter tells us to, ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the king (1 Peter 2:12-17).

Resistance Is Surrender

Today’s London Review of Books includes a provocative and challenging (for all who value democracy) essay by Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek entitled ‘Resistance Is Surrender’. I reproduce it here:

One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

Today’s Left reacts in a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal democracy. It might, for example, accept the hegemony, but continue to fight for reform within its rules (this is Third Way social democracy).

Or, it accepts that the hegemony is here to stay, but should nonetheless be resisted from its ‘interstices’.

Or, it accepts the futility of all struggle, since the hegemony is so all-encompassing that nothing can really be done except wait for an outburst of ‘divine violence’ – a revolutionary version of Heidegger’s ‘only God can save us.’

Or, it recognises the temporary futility of the struggle. In today’s triumph of global capitalism, the argument goes, true resistance is not possible, so all we can do till the revolutionary spirit of the global working class is renewed is defend what remains of the welfare state, confronting those in power with demands we know they cannot fulfil, and otherwise withdraw into cultural studies, where one can quietly pursue the work of criticism.

Or, it emphasises the fact that the problem is a more fundamental one, that global capitalism is ultimately an effect of the underlying principles of technology or ‘instrumental reason’.

Or, it posits that one can undermine global capitalism and state power, not by directly attacking them, but by refocusing the field of struggle on everyday practices, where one can ‘build a new world’; in this way, the foundations of the power of capital and the state will be gradually undermined, and, at some point, the state will collapse (the exemplar of this approach is the Zapatista movement).

Or, it takes the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive re-articulation.

Or, it wagers that one can repeat at the postmodern level the classical Marxist gesture of enacting the ‘determinate negation’ of capitalism: with today’s rise of ‘cognitive work’, the contradiction between social production and capitalist relations has become starker than ever, rendering possible for the first time ‘absolute democracy’ (this would be Hardt and Negri’s position).

These positions are not presented as a way of avoiding some ‘true’ radical Left politics – what they are trying to get around is, indeed, the lack of such a position. This defeat of the Left is not the whole story of the last thirty years, however. There is another, no less surprising, lesson to be learned from the Chinese Communists’ presiding over arguably the most explosive development of capitalism in history, and from the growth of West European Third Way social democracy. It is, in short: we can do it better. In the UK, the Thatcher revolution was, at the time, chaotic and impulsive, marked by unpredictable contingencies. It was Tony Blair who was able to institutionalise it, or, in Hegel’s terms, to raise (what first appeared as) a contingency, a historical accident, into a necessity. Thatcher wasn’t a Thatcherite, she was merely herself; it was Blair (more than Major) who truly gave form to Thatcherism.

The response of some critics on the postmodern Left to this predicament is to call for a new politics of resistance. Those who still insist on fighting state power, let alone seizing it, are accused of remaining stuck within the ‘old paradigm’: the task today, their critics say, is to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control. This is, of course, the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism. The politics of resistance is nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left.

Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding, is an almost perfect embodiment of this position. For Critchley, the liberal-democratic state is here to stay. Attempts to abolish the state failed miserably; consequently, the new politics has to be located at a distance from it: anti-war movements, ecological organisations, groups protesting against racist or sexist abuses, and other forms of local self-organisation. It must be a politics of resistance to the state, of bombarding the state with impossible demands, of denouncing the limitations of state mechanisms. The main argument for conducting the politics of resistance at a distance from the state hinges on the ethical dimension of the ‘infinitely demanding’ call for justice: no state can heed this call, since its ultimate goal is the ‘real-political’ one of ensuring its own reproduction (its economic growth, public safety, etc). ‘Of course,’ Critchley writes,

‘history is habitually written by the people with the guns and sticks and one cannot expect to defeat them with mocking satire and feather dusters. Yet, as the history of ultra-leftist active nihilism eloquently shows, one is lost the moment one picks up the guns and sticks. Anarchic political resistance should not seek to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes’.

So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it? And what would Critchley do if he were facing an adversary like Hitler? Surely in such a case one should ‘mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty’ one opposes? Shouldn’t the Left draw a distinction between the circumstances in which one would resort to violence in confronting the state, and those in which all one can and should do is use ‘mocking satire and feather dusters’? The ambiguity of Critchley’s position resides in a strange non sequitur: if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way? Why limit oneself to a politics which, as Critchley puts it, ‘calls the state into question and calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effect’?

These words simply demonstrate that today’s liberal-democratic state and the dream of an ‘infinitely demanding’ anarchic politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism: anarchic agents do the ethical thinking, and the state does the work of running and regulating society. Critchley’s anarchic ethico-political agent acts like a superego, comfortably bombarding the state with demands; and the more the state tries to satisfy these demands, the more guilty it is seen to be. In compliance with this logic, the anarchic agents focus their protest not on open dictatorships, but on the hypocrisy of liberal democracies, who are accused of betraying their own professed principles.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

It is striking that the course on which Hugo Chávez has embarked since 2006 is the exact opposite of the one chosen by the postmodern Left: far from resisting state power, he grabbed it (first by an attempted coup, then democratically), ruthlessly using the Venezuelan state apparatuses to promote his goals. Furthermore, he is militarising the barrios, and organising the training of armed units there. And, the ultimate scare: now that he is feeling the economic effects of capital’s ‘resistance’ to his rule (temporary shortages of some goods in the state-subsidised supermarkets), he has announced plans to consolidate the 24 parties that support him into a single party. Even some of his allies are sceptical about this move: will it come at the expense of the popular movements that have given the Venezuelan revolution its élan? However, this choice, though risky, should be fully endorsed: the task is to make the new party function not as a typical state socialist (or Peronist) party, but as a vehicle for the mobilisation of new forms of politics (like the grass roots slum committees). What should we say to someone like Chávez? ‘No, do not grab state power, just withdraw, leave the state and the current situation in place’? Chávez is often dismissed as a clown – but wouldn’t such a withdrawal just reduce him to a version of Subcomandante Marcos, whom many Mexican leftists now refer to as ‘Subcomediante Marcos’? Today, it is the great capitalists – Bill Gates, corporate polluters, fox hunters – who ‘resist’ the state.

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil. Since they know that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude presents no problem for those in power: ‘So wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where we have to make do with what is possible.’ The thing to do is, on the contrary, to bombard those in power with strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands, which can’t be met with the same excuse.

Is God democratic?

In his essay, Why Democracy, Stanley Fish explores, among other things, the relationship between God and democracy. He writes: “Is God democratic?” That one’s easy. God, like Hobbes’ sovereign, requires obedience, and those who worship him must subordinate their personal desires to his will. (Here the Abraham/Isaac story is paradigmatic.) His rule, therefore, is the antithesis of democracy, which elevates individual choice to a position of primacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that God frowns on democratic states or requires a theocratic one or has any political opinions at all. (On the other hand, someone who, like Walt Whitman, believes that God is not a separate being but resides in each of us might conclude that democracy is the deity’s favored form of government).’

I am reminded here of two words: one from CS Lewis and the other from (surprise, surprise) PT Forsyth. Lewis writes,

I am a democrat [believer in democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation. . . .The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

And from Forsyth:

Democracy is but a half-truth. It must have a King. Aristocracy is just as true and as needful. It builds on an authority in things no less than democracy builds on an equality. The free personality of democracy is only possible under a free authority. The free soul is only possible in a free King … There must always be a House of Moral Lords. There must always be leaders and led, prophets and people, apostles and members, genius and its circle, and elect and a called. Ah! democratic and aristocratic principles are both deep in the foundations of our Christian faith.

Democracy is, after all, only ‘the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time’ (E.B. White)

Chomsky and Interventions

In this characteristically punchy article, Noam Chomsky speaks about the status of democracy and the US’s responsibility in Iraq, U.S. imperialism over Latin America, and the media’s shallow coverage of foreign affairs. These topics, and more, are all explored in his latest book, Interventions.

Some Chomsky quotes:


‘you can’t really have a functioning democracy under military occupation. You can have some elements of it but not much. Military occupation is too harsh’.

‘if the United States was occupied by Iran, would we be able to run a democratic society?’

‘The responsibilities are to, first of all, pay enormous reparations, not just for the war but for the murderous, sanctioned regime that preceded it and fatuous support for Saddam Hussein during the ’80s.’

‘The presupposition is “We own the world.” … Because we’re there by right. And everything we do is right by necessity and there maybe some mistakes here and there but basically, it’s ours, we’re there. And if anyone’s interfering, it’s their problem, they’re the ones who are the criminals’.

I am reminded here of Forsyth’s words addressed to another (Christian) nation:

When the capitalist stops his charities because his property is threatened by legislation we learn how short in the fibre is the charity which is not rounded on the love and pity of God. The real test of the love of man does not come till we love our enemies. The love of our enemy is only the love of our neighbour true to itself through everything. For an employer to love the strikers that have ruined his business after a long and bitter war is not in nature.. Yet that is the kind of tax to which the love of man is at last exposed. And there is only one source in the world to feed it and keep it alive—which is God’s love of His bitter enemies, and His grace to them in repaying their wrong by Himself atoning for them on the cross. Central to all our humane kindness at last is the grace of the cross. (Cruciality of the Cross, 1667)


Protecting Democracy?

‘More than half of the members of Iraq’s parliament rejected for the first time on Tuesday the continuing occupation of their country. The U.S. media ignored the story.’ Read on

It reminds me of Capt. Frank Ramsey’s (played by Gene Hackman) great line in Crimson Tide (1995) : ‘We’re here to protect democracy, not enforce it’.

The irony never ends …

The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

The New York Times calls Noam Chomsky ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive.’ The Boston Globe calls him ‘America’s most useful citize’. He was recently voted the world’s number one intellectual in a poll by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. Chomsky is professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the foremost critics of U.S. foreign policy. He has just released a new book titled Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. I have been listening profitably to Chomsky for years now. I suggest that he’s too important to ignore. To listen, watch and/or read more go to http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/03/31/148254. Does anyone know of any theological reflections done on Chomsky? Does anyone want to offer one here?