Breast feeding and Elliot Roger

Originally posted on renegade~betty:

I realize that the topic of this post is a bit of a departure from my norm. I also realize that I haven’t blogged in a very long time. Things have been crazy lately with the end of the semester coming and going and preparing to move across the country for graduate school. Also, I feel as if lately I have been in a position of learning rather than speaking. There are a lot of personal questions I have been trying to sift through, and over the last couple of months, I haven’t felt like I was ready to share my partially formed thoughts. That being said, with news breaking over the shooting in Isla Vista, and the twittersphere a flutter with controversy and activism, the feminist in me has been rather active lately in terms of the things I have been turning over in my head and attempting to…

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“Human Nature”?

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.[1]

It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.

I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ‘em, we may as well feed ‘em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!

However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”[2], “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”[3], and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[4] “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[5]

We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,

that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[6]

The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,

There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.[7]

“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[8] This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[9] Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation

is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.[10]

So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.

According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.”[11] Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,

Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.[12]

The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.”[13] The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.

To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.”[14] We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.”[15] (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,”[16] whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)

Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?

 

Notes

[1] Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.

[7] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.

[8] De Waal, 36.

[9] Qtd., De Waal, 38.

[10] Graeber, 320.

[11] Ibid., 331.

[12] Ibid., 331.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] De Waal, 106.

[15] Ibid., 221.

[16] Ibid., 197.

On Consumer Choice

It is often said that one of the great merits of capitalism is that it allows retailers to respond to consumer desires, so that when a consumer wants, for example, shoes, a retailer is there to sell her said shoes, and a nice little exchange happens and everyone’s a winner. Furthermore, if the consumer is displeased with the service she receives (poor quality shoes, for example), she is free to “take her business elsewhere”, as the saying goes.

However, things are not this simple in the real world.

Let’s start from the beginning. The goal of a business in capitalism is maximization of profit, plain and simple. Selling things for which there is a high demand seems like the easiest way to achieve this goal. Not only is profit maximized, but consumer needs/desires are fulfilled. Again, everyone’s a winner. Unfortunately, when the business’s primary goal is to make profit for itself, the most obvious implication is that we can expect lies and deceitful tactics to be employed in order to sell products. A quick look into present-day advertisement shows this to be the case. Look at Monsanto, for example. They are unloading literally billions of dollars into lobbying against bills that would require its food products to carry labeling when–as is overwhelmingly the case–they contain GMOs. Why is this a problem? Well, what the consumer wants is healthful food. What Monsanto wants is profit. And if using GMOs is cheaper, then from the standpoint of capitalism, the obvious choice for the corporation is to continue using GMOs, regardless of the health risk to its consumers, and, as much as possible, to prevent the consumers from even finding out about these health risks so that they continue to buy the product!

Some will object that it is better business to not deceive one’s consumers, as upon finding out, they will “take their business elsewhere” and you will lose your profit. But again, look at Monsanto–or, better yet, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sells food and clothing (among other things) at very low prices, so that low-income people can buy them. However, it is no secret that much (if not all) of Wal-Mart’s clothing is produced by slave labor in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. Is that what consumers want? Presumably not. Why do so many people still shop there? Because it’s the only place they can afford! Do you really expect consumers to boycott the only place at which they can afford to shop, even if they know that its products aren’t healthful or are produced in morally outrageous working conditions? Of course not!

And besides that, capitalism is necessarily short-sighted. What is important is not the perceived long-term effects of the product being sold (whether on the consumer, the environment, or one’s grandchildren), but the short-term effect of ensuring profit for the next quarter. One might say that in theory this is not how capitalism is supposed to work, but in practice it very obviously is exactly how capitalism works.

Maximizing profit and meeting consumer needs–truly meeting consumer needs–simply do not go hand in hand. Next time you’re in an outlet store (or any kind of store for that matter), think about whether all of the manipulative and deceitful methods that are used in attempts to convince you to purchase expensive, superfluous things (that are often unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and produced by slaves, to boot) truly reflects a system that is as free and mutually beneficial as free market advocates say it is.

[As an aside, I have known people in commission-based sales careers who often truly seek the customer's best interest, and consequently--and I think this is telling--often end up losing money by doing so. I think it's great when this happens, but it's not so good from the capitalist point of view wherein, quite simply, profit maximization takes precedence over everything--including the best interest of the customer. It is worth noting that markets do not necessarily equal capitalism. For example, mutualism, the form of anarchism advocated by the first political philosopher to call himself an anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is a type of anti-capitalist market anarchism.]

Notes On Anarchism: “Don’t People Need Incentives In Order to Work?”

This is a common objection to anarchism (and socialism more generally): without incentive (i.e., the promise of more money, or the threat of no money), no one will do any work! According to this line of thinking, then, the carrot must be dangled in front of our faces in order for us to pull our master’s load a little faster and a little farther. In a certain sense, this is true. We do not sell ourselves to capitalists because we want to–we do it because we must eat! However, the idea that this is the only possible way that any necessary work could ever be done strikes me as incredibly problematic. It perpetuates the idea that human beings are too stupid and selfish to do anything for the benefit of others without the carrot and stick that the beneficent state so graciously hold before us. (Somehow, apparently, we have figured out that we should work together and help each other out, but that we can’t and/or won’t without someone to offer us cookies when we do and the stick when we don’t.)

Furthermore, I think this mindset can serve to dehumanize those who take jobs that supposedly no one else wants to. Essentially, this thinking seems to imply that these jobs, though certainly valuable and necessary for the successful functioning of society, are not respectable jobs. Nevertheless, in order for a privileged few to do what they love, some poor schmucks have to get stuck with the so-called “dirty jobs.” And, again, the thinking goes, without some sort of incentive (i.e., do this or else you don’t eat), these jobs would never be done (because apparently the privileged few simply cannot be bothered to pick up their own trash and clean their toilets).

On the contrary, it seems that things tend to go better in society when people are free to follow their passions without fear that doing so will not put bread on the table. And when people are free to follow their passions, they give the world the best they have to offer–whether it be through artistic, educational, mechanical, medical, or any other skill. I think that is a world worth fighting for. Let’s quit devaluing ourselves with all this talk about needing incentives to do anything. We are social creatures and we never would have survived this long without mutual aid and community.

A Pacifist and A Utilitarian Walk Into A Bar

Often when discussing utilitarian ethics, the following sort of hypothetical scenario will be posed as an interesting thought experiment: Say you are at a dinner party with twenty friends and family and suddenly a group of goons bursts in, guns drawn, and informs the group that they will all be killed.  However, if you agree to take one of their guns and kill your closest family member in the room–say, your spouse–the other nineteen people will be spared.  What should you do?

More interesting for my own purposes is the question, what could a pacifist possibly do in this situation to emerge with her pacifist principles intact and unscathed?

I hope that I can safely begin with the assumption that in order for an action to have moral weight, it must be freely chosen.  After all, how can I be accused of acting immorally when I could not freely choose to do otherwise?  And it is precisely upon this assumption that my response–as a pacifist–to this problem depends.

Put simply, I’m not sure how we can meaningfully speak of either one of the possible choices in the above situation as moral or immoral.  As a pacifist, I take human life to be inviolable–never to be destroyed except in the most extreme of cases.  And this, I think, is precisely one such case.  

What, after all, is the real choice in this scenario?  It seems that it is a choice between death and death.  And if, furthermore, human life is inviolable, we could say that the choice is more specifically between two evils of equal measure.  In other words, it is not a choice!  And if there is no choice, I would submit that neither decision can meaningfully be seen as moral or immoral.  

Now, presumably, the utilitarian would say that you should kill your spouse and spare the others, as according to utilitarian logic we must not give preference to our loved ones in choosing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  However, I would take issue with utilitarianism on two points.

First, it’s unclear to me how utilitarians can maintain the inviolability of human life.  And perhaps this is simply not a problem from a utilitarian perspective, but, quite simply, I vehemently disagree with any moral theory that puts the greatest value in anything other than human life–whether that be happiness, money, or anything else.  Without human life, none of these things can possibly hold any value.

Secondly, it seems that utilitarianism–and consequentialist theories more generally–has another fatal flaw in regard to knowledge.  If whether or not my action is moral or immoral depends on the consequences of that action, unless I can look into the future and know with certainty what said actions will be, I will never actually know beyond a guess whether or not my action will be moral or not!  In the above scenario, for example, I could as a faithful utilitarian kill my spouse in order to save the others only to discover that the goons–being goons–were lying and are going to kill everyone else anyway!

Utilitarianism may be practical in certain every day situations, but as a moral theory I think it fails.  At a certain point, we must put aside speculations and hedonic calculii regarding the possible consequences of our actions and do what is right regardless.  

Some Further Thoughts On the Im/Possibility of Anarchy

A few months back, I took a stab at responding to one of the most commonly asked questions about anarchy and anarchism–namely, is it really possible?  I tried to engage some of the scholarship surrounding the issue in order to answer the question, but in every day conversation, my response essentially consists of two basic points that I think are worth elucidating.

First–and this is a point on which many anarchists might disagree with me–I’m not sure that the question of possibility is the best question to be asking.  Quite simply, I don’t know if anarchy is possible.  As I noted in the previous post, it has been attempted with relative success on a small scale in the past, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it would or could ever happen on a global scale (and by global I mean a world comprised of many, many small anarchist communities and federations).  However, I’m not really interested in speculating on whether or to what extent it is possible.  Possibility and impossibility are, I think, largely contingent on what we take to be possible or impossible.  (More on this below.)  As I mentioned before, the most important aspect of anarchism for me is that it is the endless pursuit of justice and freedom from all forms of oppression, coercion, domination, etc., whether in the form of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, or other forms.  In short, it is the pursuit of a society in which the inherent value, dignity, and equality of every human person is radically affirmed.  Is such a world possible?  I don’t know, but it would be foolish not to try for it.

And secondly, I think it’s important to remember that we have a say in what is possible and so long as we continue to convince ourselves that certain social, political, and economic ways of organizing are impossible, they will be.  So long as we stubbornly hold on to the belief that “human nature” (an oppressive, fictitious concept, in my view) just is such a way that it will never allow us to live in a radically antiauthoritarian, radically egalitarian society, it will be impossible–we’ll never even bother to try!  How fatalistic!  How nihilistic.  And yet, it seems that, the same folks who talk this way about anarchism, will in the next breath praise the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and our Constitution as great leaps forward in human history.  If the democratic (read: bourgeois) revolutionaries of the 18th century could achieve what was at the time considered by many to be utopian, why must we assume that we can’t do the same–and maybe even more–in the 21st century?

All of this to say: I’m not interested in discussing the “possibility” of anarchy; I’m interested in action*.  And I’d rather fail in the pursuit of justice and equality than to never try at all.  It would be an experiment, of course, but the American government was an experiment as well!  Why should we not continue trying to do better?

*As should be abundantly clear to anyone who reads this blog, the action I advocate is nonviolent action.

Markets, Meritocracy, and Human Rights

So far as I understand it, one of the chief arguments in favor of unfettered free markets is that they would allow for a true meritocracy.  All who were willing would be able to find work and, as a result, be able to eat, purchase healthcare, have a home, etc.  Putting aside the fact that I do not think that “leaving it to the free market” would in any way result in a meritocratic society—on the contrary, it is plutocracy—I think there is a deeper moral problem with this line of reasoning.

The idea that one’s basic needs (food, water, shelter, healthcare, etc.) should be earned for oneself on the basis of merit—which, in this case, means one’s ability to sell oneself on the market and bring profit to her employer—is, I think, extremely problematic.  First of all, it is unclear to me how this situation is in any way one of freedom.  If one must sell oneself in order to survive, one is not free; one’s labor is forced.  And as David Graeber writes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, “It is the great scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”[1]

But, furthermore, (and more to the point), it must be asked: Why does not the simple fact of being human constitute sufficient “merit” to not starve because one cannot afford food, or to live on the streets because one cannot afford a home, or to die in an ambulance because one cannot afford healthcare?  It seems to me that however lazy or unproductive someone happens to be, however little monetary value she may have—which, I should add, is at least as often a result of the “free market” deciding her particular skillset is not presently profitable as it is laziness—one still has the right, in virtue of being human, to have her basic needs met.

“Leaving it to the free market” essentially means, at best, leaving it to luck, and at worst, to the all-too-often merciless greed perpetuated by the religion of profit maximization.  That is no place for human rights.  Human life is not a commodity.  And the fact that we have to sell ourselves to employers, who profit by stealing as much as labor laws will allow from the value of our commoditized labor—and by extension, commoditized lives—simply in order to survive, is ludicrous, unnecessary, and immoral.

And it is not enough to simply advocate regulated capitalism either, which seems to me to be analogous to patching the roof on a home with a faulty foundation and calling it good (the foundation of capitalism being the maximization of profit which, both in theory and practice, seems to necessarily imply a skirting of human rights where there is profit to made.  If, therefore, one values—no economic pun intended—human rights over profit, rather than the other way around, it seems that one has already betrayed the basic logic of capitalism).  The foundation itself must be changed.


[1] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), 350.

Jayaprakash Narayan: From Socialism to Sarvodaya (1957)

In a passage that is as relevant today as it was in 1957, Jayaprakash Narayan writes,

The party system with the corroding and corrupting struggle for power inherent in it, disturbed me more and more.  I saw how parties backed by finance, organization and the means of propaganda could impose themselves on the people; how people’s rule became in effect party rule; how party rule in turn became the rule of a caucus or coterie; how democracy was reduced to mere casting of votes; how even the right to vote was restricted severely by the system of powerful parties setting up their candidates from whom alone, for all practical purposes, the voters had to make their choice; how even this limited choice was made unreal by the fact that the issues posed before the electorate were by and large incomprehensible to it.

The party system as I saw it was emasculating the people.  It did not function so as to develop their strength and initiative, nor to help them establish their self-rule and to manage their affairs themselves.  All that parties were concerned with was to capture power for themselves so as to rule over the people, no doubt, with their consent!  The party system, so it appeared to me, was seeking to reduce the people to the position of sheep whose only function of sovereignty would be to choose periodically the shepherds who would look after their welfare.  This to me did not spell freedom–the freedom, the swaraj (I), for which I fought and for which the people of this country fought. (II)

_____

Notes

(I) Vinoba Bhave, in “Sarvodaya: Freedom From Government”, writes that, “These two things together make swaraj–no submission and no exploitation.”

(II) Both excerpts taken from Robert Graham’s Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977).  (Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Books, 2009), pp. 183-192.

Radical Democracy and Theopoetry

In the following passage from “Theopoetic/Theopolitic,” John D. Caputo writes the following:

 What would a political order look like, were the Kingdom able to be reinvented and transformed into a political structure? What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like were there a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top–down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where ta me onta  (I Cor 1:28) enjoy pride of place and a special privilege? What would a political order look like if the last are first, if everything turned on lifting up the lowliest instead of letting relief trickle down from the top? What would it look like if there were a politics of loving one’s enemies, not of war, let alone, God forbid, of preemptive war?

Would it not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus? Are not the figures who publicly parade their self-righteousness, their love of power, and their hatred of the other under the name of Jesus singled out in advance by Jesus under the name of the whited sepulchers and long robes whose fathers killed the prophets? In this connection, it would be amusing—were it not so tragic—to recall that the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”, which provides a cover for the arrogance, militancy, greed and hatred of the Christian Right, is taken from an immensely popular book written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”  Sheldon was an early leader of the Social Gospel movement, and his answer to this question was, in brief, that Jesus would be found in the worst neighbors in the poorest cities serving the wretched of the earth. To do what Jesus would do, would mean to make everything turn on peace not war, forgiveness not retribution, on loving one’s enemies not a preemptive war, on all the paradoxes and reversals that can be summarized under the name of “radical democracy.”

A politics of the Kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity, mercy and hospitality. The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organized around the disastrous concept of power, something that is reflected today in the widespread critique of the concept of “sovereignty”—of the sovereignty of autonomous subjects and the sovereignty of nations powerful enough to get away with acting unilaterally and in their own self-interests. The call that issues from the Cross threatens what Derrida calls the “unavowed theologism” of the political concept of sovereignty by returning us to its root, to its understanding of God, to its underlying or archi–theology. The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics, but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as an unconditional claim or solicitation without power, as a weak force or power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty.