This piece by Luke Bretherton was first published on ABC Religion & Ethics on Tuesday 15 October 2019.
When we say the word “democracy” what do we mean? My hunch is that most people immediately think of voting, party politics and perhaps the rule of law. Few, if any, think about the relational practices through which we transform asymmetries of power and negotiate rival visions of human flourishing. Yet democratic politics lives or dies by the quality and character of the relationships that make it possible. Democratic politics names a set of practices for generating forms of relational power and cooperation.
Democratic politics is not just participation in decision making, but also the capacity of ordinary people to act collectively to reconstitute their common life through shared speech and action.
And yet, in the contemporary moment, it is the very possibility of shared speech and action amid difference and disagreement that is under threat or seems implausible — talk of “culture wars,” “polarisation” and “incivility” are commonplaces of the commentariat. But the lifeblood of democracy is building relationships with people with whom you disagree, or that you don’t like, or even that you find threatening.
Listening and speaking
If politics is to be democratic, its most basic building block is the capacity to listen to others not like oneself.
At its most basic, if we are listening to others we are neither coercing nor killing them. If we are listening, we are not pretending to be in control or trying to determine the outcome before the conversation begins — rather, we are trusting that wisdom is to be found, not just among those I understand or like or who are like me, but also among those I don’t understand and find strange or even scandalous. To listen is to say to others: you are worth listening to, you have value.
Democratic politics is a means through which we learn to listen and thereby discover a shared world of meaning and action — or what I call a common life. Democratic politics understood as a set of relational practices fosters forms of disciplined and active listening, and a way we can discover with and for others just and generous forms of common life.
A condition of hearing when listening is the ability of those speaking to talk freely if they are to speak truthfully. Free speech — in the sense of the freedom to speak our mind — is therefore the complement to the need to listen. Such speech can take the form of passionate cries, stirring lament, polemic, impatient invective and angry speeches, all of which are often vital forms of democratic communication. This is true particularly when agitating those who hold concentrated power or who are acting oppressively but who refuse to listen.
Voicing and enacting (through marches or sit-ins, for example) that for which we grieve or what we are angry about is crucial for generating change. From the Hebrew prophets and Psalms onward, personal lament, anger and grief give birth to public speech and action that contest an unjust status quo.
However, while prophetic jeremiads can be powerful, they suffer from the law of diminishing returns — especially if they are the only form of public speech deployed. Moreover, to be sustained, both listening and free speech need to be anchored in a shared commitment to the formation of a common life in which the thriving of all is the aim.
So while there is a responsibility to listen, and thereby not merely tolerate but honour dissent as a part of democratic politics, dissent itself has responsibilities. One is to communicate in a way that can be heard. Yelling denunciations at those with whom we disagree provides invigorating compensations to the ones shouting, but screaming rarely produces understanding, let alone change. And no one is under any obligation to listen to vitriolic, ad hominem, libellous slurs — a contemporary example of which is online trolling.
Power and relationality
Democratic politics does not only involve listening and talking, rather than killing or coercing. It is politics, and so requires ways and means of organising and reorganising power. That is to say, it requires the agency to speak and act with others.
The ability to speak and act and the question of who can act and speak demands attention to what, in theological terms, is called sin. An account of sin contends that not only is our ability to act rightly impaired, but so is our ability to think rightly about what is true, good and beautiful. In nontheological terms, oppressive structures of power systemically distort processes of decision making and who can act with and for others, and whose actions count as legitimate or authoritative. Any analysis needs to face the reality of sinful power relations — that is, how are certain forms of knowledge and action legitimised and others marginalised, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others?
But the lesson to be learned from taking sin seriously as a political reality — whether we draw on Marx, Foucault or Augustine to develop such an account — is not that all moral claims in politics are hypocrisy. The lesson is rather that the first step to a politics that is more moral, is realizing that we are not. The next step is to take responsibility for our sinfulness and establish the representation of other interests and voices in the decision-making process. We can thereby constructively address the contested nature of knowledge and judgment. But to do so involves having the humility to know that despite our expertise or experience, we do not possess a monopoly on wisdom.
Through acting in concert, the weak can resist the unilateral actions of money-power and state-power to establish goods in common — better working conditions or cleaner air — on which the flourishing of everyone depends. The early labour, civil rights, women’s and environmental movements are all examples of such relational power in action. Overly deterministic accounts of unilateral power, or the domination of structural forces such as capitalism, can be antipolitical. They do not allow for the reality of the kinds of agency constituted by relational power and shrewdness and which in turn can form the basis of a more just and compassionate common life. Thus David (possessor of dexterity, sureness of eye and sharp-wittedness) can beat Goliath (possessor of overwhelming force).
In democratic politics, building power takes four interrelated forms: organised knowledge, organised money, organised people and organised action.
The first, organised knowledge, generates the frameworks of analysis and understanding through which to re-narrate and reimagine the world, thereby destabilising the dominant scripts and ideas that legitimate oppression. It entails informal, self-organised forms of “popular education” that aim to help those involved to discern and describe their political, economic and social conditions, enabling them to move toward alternative ways of understanding themselves and their situation. In the civil rights movement, “citizenship education” pioneered by Septima Clark, Ella Baker and Dorothy Cotton was a vital if often over looked element of the movement’s success. Crucial to this process of discernment is enabling people to reflect on their conditions through broader frameworks of interpretation. Such “consciousness raising” is essential for generating an alternative community of interpretation, one with the organised knowledge to identify and analyse an issue and articulate a position or set of demands.
The second form, organised money, is shorthand for generating the material and economic resources and conditions to act independently from the state, one’s employer, or the patronage of elites.
The third form, organised people, then builds the relational ties, networks, trust, affective registers and cooperation that sustain relational power over time. Such ties and networks are necessary to generate movement from the world as it is, to a more just and compassionate one. One strand of such work is place-based — for instance, community organising, community development, burial societies, neighbourhood associations — and the other is work-based forms of economic democracy — such as cooperatives and unions. And in the contemporary context, online forms of mobilising alongside on-the-ground forms of organising contribute to this work.
The fourth form, organised action, entails two things, either separately or combined. First, it is action that symbolically and physically contests oppressive, corrupt or unresponsive structures, groups and practices. This contestation aims at delegitimising existing arrangements through various kinds of direct action: marches, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies, boycotts and the like. Second, it is the formation of practices and institutional arrangements that prefiguratively embody and exemplify the change that is sought.
Some combination of organised knowledge, money, people and action is the engine of democratic politics. How they are combined and performed depends in part on the context, but also on how what it means to be a good democratic citizen is imagined and narrated.
Covenant and confederalism
To build and sustain relational power and forms of democratic organising take discipline and loyalty. Loyalty or faithfulness is vital both to developing any kind of common life and to the shared action necessary for dismantling corrupt or oppressive structures. Faithfulness denotes reliability, commitment and trustworthiness. Without it, promises are broken, relations of trust dissolve and so the ability to deliberate and act together and the long-term reciprocal relations needed to sustain relational power evaporate.
Faithfulness, by definition, is orientated to the specific. We cannot keep faith with everyone all at once in every place. We can only be faithful to these people, in this place, at this time. To modern cosmopolitan ears, faithfulness provokes a scandal of particularity: it demands boundaries and limits. However, faithfulness and the solidarity it generates are vital if democratic politics is to hold in check or change the overconcentration of either economic or political power, and the monopolisation of resources by a narrow range of interests.
In the American and British contexts, forms of popular, local self-organisation and common action emerged within such movements as the abolitionist movement, the Chartists, the suffragists, the temperance movement and the civil rights movement. These were aligned and had a symbiotic relationship with popular religion. A good example is the nineteenth-century Populists in the United States, whose critique of monopolistic forms of power combined with the language of the Methodist camp meetings and Baptist revivals to generate a powerful rhetoric with which to challenge the status quo.
What such movements represent, and what they offer democratic politics, is the assertion of the priority of covenantal forms of social relationships — and the loyalty and solidarity such relations generate. By prioritising society over state or market, covenantal forms of association are vital to upholding common values and a common life over and against their instrumentalisation, commodification or destruction through state-driven and economic processes.
A powerful contemporary example of this kind of covenantal politics in action is the polity established by the Kurds in Northern Syria. Originally established by the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan (who was arrested two decades ago and is now held as a political prisoner in Turkey), its form was influenced by the work of the radical democrat and ecologist, Murray Bookchin. The “Rojava Revolution” established a fully confederal polity. It is organised and structured from the bottom up into communes, neighbourhoods of communes and cantons or districts, constituted by a city and its surrounding area which can then be federated. This democratic confederal structure explicitly eschews any commitment to an ethnically or religiously homogenous nation-state and allows for a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, internally differentiated polity — and it is one in which women have full equality in leadership. Other civic, non-placed based associations such as youth organizations and women’s groups also have a say in the deliberative assemblies. Betrayed by US President Donald Trump, it is now subject to the ruthless and authoritarian impulses of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who cannot abide such an experiment in genuine democracy on his doorstep.
Agitation and participation
The account of democratic politics I’ve developed is distinct from a liberal constitutional order — that is, a commitment to the rule of law and a self-limiting state. A liberal legal-constitutional order guarantees certain positive and negative liberties and equality before the law. It also sets out various procedures and institutions, such as a legal system and judiciary, for buttressing these liberties.
But the rule of law is not self-creating or self-subsisting. Rather, like its equally precious cousin — the notion of a loyal opposition — the rule of law is itself a convention dependent on social trust and forms of shared understanding. If its enactment is wholly coercive and reliant on the exercise of state power, then it has ceased to be the rule of law. Informal, bottom up forms of relational democratic politics are vital to ensure the rule of law does not fall prey to Thomas Hobbes’s pronouncement, “Power, not truth, makes law.”
Such a politics is also vital to prevent the fragilisation of society by generating and sustaining practices that enable communication and relationship across divides and without which the rule of law either collapses (as in the demise of Weimar Germany) or becomes a charade (as in contemporary mainland China). This is precisely what the citizens of Hong Kong fear and so they are engaging in highly agitational and participatory forms of democratic politics in order to uphold the law and the mechanisms of the state as an arena of proximate justice.
Without agitational and participatory forms of democratic politics, we see a shift from the rule of law to rule by law — that is, dictatorial or totalitarian regimes that use laws to victimise and oppress but which are themselves arbitrary. Examples include the apartheid regime in South Africa, Jim Crow and the Soviet system. Such regimes subvert and destroy the rule of law. The informal relational politics of the anti-apartheid struggle or the civil rights movements were vital to put in place the rule of law for those judged outside the law or subject to separate and unequal regimes of rule by law. As exemplified in numerous social movements — such as the sanctuary movement in the United States and the protesters in Hong Kong — acts of civil disobedience as expressions of democratic politics appeal to a “higher law” in order to challenge the morality and legitimacy of existing human legal structures. In singing Christian choruses, protestors in Hong Kong invoke God and thereby demote the Communist Party: it is not the highest authority, God is.
Democratic politics entails a commitment to freedom and justice being achieved first and foremost through the quality and character of relations between people. It is surprising and perhaps ludicrous to say this, but it is not legal and bureaucratic procedures, market mechanisms, a historical dialectic, revolutionary vanguard, or ideological program of social engineering that generate democratic change. It is virtues such as humility, patience, courage and hope. When understood as a way of fostering a shared realm of meaning and action through the quality of our relationships with others, then democratic politics — even when highly agitational — can be conceived of as a work of love. But absent love, and it does not work.
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics as Duke University. His most recent book is Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy.
Image credit: When understood as a way of fostering a shared realm of meaning and action through the quality of our relationships with others, then democratic politics can be conceived of as a work of love. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)