The Perils of Democracy

This … This explains exactly where we are:

But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies. Liberal progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power. It helped them to ignore the apparent wishes of the voters. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these wishes — by keeping them out of politics. Immigration and ‘Europe’ are examples. Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers and became merely one player in the system. Majoritarian democracy mutated into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.

Here’s my theory. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people.

On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short,’ as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.’ The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. The answer is to discuss the issues at their heart.

When I speak of elite failure, this capitulation to “post-democracy” is a large part of what I mean. The promise of democratic governance in the West has always lived uneasily with the human reality of elite rule. Elites want to manage relatively stable and predictable societies and want to ensure certain kinds of outcomes. They also want to move societies in certain directions, along specific lines and towards very certain ends. Actual democratic government can get in the way of this. Mass democracies were then managed things, in which elites carefully guided and arranged mass social and political activities in ways that mostly worked in concert with elite desires for the societies they governed.

And elites broadly understood their role. They were inside their societies, but they could see above them.

Three things happened to slowly undo this. First, mass politics was discredited with World War II. Or rather, mass politics was seen to cause the war (actually, both world wars), to create the governments that caused the war, so in the West at least, mass participatory politics was replaced with a consumerist politics, in which citizens would no longer be expected or mobilized on behalf of the state. Instead, they would increasingly become passive consumers of politics produced by others.

Second, a broad and widely shared material prosperity (again, in the West) made this consumption possible. It’s easy to become passive, to accept passivity, when life is easy.

Third, history intervened. The economic conditions of the post-WWII world could not hold. And they didn’t, for a zillion reasons I won’t go through here. The broadly based prosperity came to an end, and as it did, Western elites stopped being able to act as people both within and above the system they governed. They came to see themselves as solely inside that system. Perhaps the neoliberals who embraced financialization of the economy saw themselves as above the fray, but if they did, it was a cynical oversight, or an ignorant one, and one they kept to themselves.

As it became clear to Western voters that the prosperity they had come to expect was no longer working for them, they sought political answers, but action was limited because they had very purposefully been deprived of the tools of mass politics. Their outrage at the failures of liberal democracy prompted them to support for the only critique in town, neoliberalism, which further damaged the system that had worked so well to their benefit. And further impoverishes them.

Seeking blame, they have only one target — the liberal order. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Democracy focuses on popular will and promises majority rule. Well organized, confident, and thoughtful elites can direct, manage, and focus majorities and their will, and they did successfully in the United States for much of the 20th century. Note well, however, that elite guidance of the masses is an effective betrayal of the promise of democracy, no matter how well elites govern and how well they guide majority opinion. We, however, are no longer governed by such elites, and we haven’t been since sometime in the 1990s. Self-righteousness and arrogance are not confidence. In the midst of this elite failure, when majorities realize that despite what they will they are not allowed to rule, that the promises of democratic governance are hollow and empty, they will revolt. And a democratic revolt looks just like Brexit and just like Trump.

(And yes, I realize the “majority” in the case of Trump is only regional, and not national.)

This is the future. Even if we could remake the West of 1958, the economic conditions that made a broadly shared prosperity possible no longer exist. For lots of people in the West, a return to 1958 is hardly desirable anyway, given that they weren’t allowed to share in that prosperity. It may be some will learn from the coming failure of the Trump regime that his critique is not the answer, but given the past, I think that unlikely.

I suspect the failure to deliver on the promises will not cause people to rethink their desires, but instead, to double down. When Brexit fails, when Trump fails, there will be no soul searching. Only a lot more anger.

The God That Is Failing

I was reading an otherwise uninspiring interview in The Atlantic with Michael Wear, a theologically and socially conservative Christian who was also an advisor to President Obama, when I cam across this:

One of the things I found at the White House and since I left is this class of people who aren’t driving the political decisions right now, and have significant forces against them, but who are not satisfied with the political tribalism that we have right now. I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Politics, particularly ideology, has come to provide a meaning and purpose in our lives that I don’t believe it was ever intended. Ideology crowds out the human, makes us strangers, and insists we rule over others for our own protection (and their enlightenment).

It may be that as human beings, we crave meaning and purpose. I know I do, and I know I am flopping about right now (and have been for a few years) with meaninglessness and purposelessness and a deep loneliness born of an isolation from community. To an extent, the imaginary community in my head I form from this blog and meet in my ministry help, but those are highly mediated interactions (and I doubt their reality half the time), and my work as a reporter is also deeply isolating because I am a permanent spectator, and I rather like being a participant in the work of the community.

(It does not help being nearly 50, knowing that I am called to be a pastor, a shepherd of God’s people, also knowing no church will let me do that.)

Our current poverty doesn’t help either. It is hard to be connected to other people in a capitalist society structured to have us live atomized lives alone.

So I appreciate why politics, why ideology, takes up so much space. It connects us when nothing else does, creates shared purposed when nothing else can, gives life meaning when nothing else does. But Wear is right, this focus on politics, on the ability for human beings to save ourselves through political actions, does a “deep spiritual harm.” It fills us with false meaning and false hope and creates false connections. It substitutes an ideal humanity for a real one.

I have no answers. But I think part of the problem is our focus on greatness here. On world saving. I spend a lot of time covering local government, and it is the unglamorous part of government. It paves roads, pumps water, treats sewage. We miss the local because we no longer realize we all, mostly, live small lives together. Yes, the market has atomized us, turned us into consumers who aim for self-contained lives in which we share nothing. We no longer have the ability to think in terms of the small collective, the place in which we live, which has a town council and a school board and a noxious weed district.

This smallness is terribly unideological. In the recent election, a former NFL star and Tea Party type running for Congress called Barack Obama “a tyrant” in a public forum. No one countered him, but no one echoed his sentiment either. It was out of place, and did not belong, to the things that more or less matter even here as issues even in our degraded elections.

The people and the places that can hold on to that small collective will manage to weather the coming awfulness. It won’t always be pretty, and there will be hierarchies of human value — some people will always matter more than others. But survival won’t be found in attaching one’s self to a great cause and riding it to triumph. It will be found in the small things, and the small places, where it is possible to break through to each other and be human.

The Future Means Misery and Struggle

This’ll cheer you up.

There is no sign that 2017 will be much different from 2016.

Under Israeli occupation for decades, Gaza will still be the biggest open prison on Earth.

In the United States, the killing of black people at the hands of the police will proceed unabated and hundreds of thousands more will join those already housed in the prison-industrial complex that came on the heels of plantation slavery and Jim Crow laws.

Europe will continue its slow descent into liberal authoritarianism or what cultural theorist Stuart Hall called authoritarian populism. Despite complex agreements reached at international forums, the ecological destruction of the Earth will continue and the war on terror will increasingly morph into a war of extermination between various forms of nihilism.

Inequalities will keep growing worldwide. But far from fuelling a renewed cycle of class struggles, social conflicts will increasingly take the form of racism, ultra nationalism, sexism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other deadly passions.

The denigration of virtues such as care, compassion and kindness will go hand in hand with the belief, especially among the poor, that winning is all that matters and who wins — by whatever means necessary — is ultimately right.

(Methinks that, based on recent comments, longtime reader wellandnobucket has likely met a kindred spirit in South African columnist Achille Mbembe.)

But I think Mbembe is right — the future that lies in front of us is bleak and brutal, largely because finance capital now rules the world and it doesn’t how to do that gently or well. Finance also doesn’t know how to reflect on its own power, its own limits, and its own cruelties.

And the political trends of deliberate nihilism (reflected in the election of Donald J. Trump), which have emerged because elites across the world have failed spectacularly to govern or lead or even understand who they are anymore, will only accelerate this brutal immiseration, the desperate insecurity felt by so many, which will in turn bring about more desire for safety and security, which the nihilists will campaign on even more ferociously.

The spiral downward will be ugly. Unpleasant. Inhuman.

I was thinking on the short drive home from work the other day about so many of Trump’s cabinet picks, and about a piece I recently read in The London Review of Book about the demise of municipal government in the United Kingdom (particularly England). The author of the piece talked about how central outsourcing and privatization have become to the provision of government services.

Local government will soon be brought into line with its national counterpart: both limited in their essential functions, outsourcing the greater part of their responsibilities to the private sector. Private companies are now partly or fully responsible for the parole service, schools, roads, prisons, GP surgeries and walk-in centres, hospital services, the Royal Mail, tax credits, care homes, welfare assessments, refugee and detention centres, deportations, the provision of court interpreters, government pay rolls, broadband roll-out, IT programmes and government security. Most of these outsourced services are handled by four firms: Atos, Serco, Capita and G4S, who between them receive around £4 billion a year from taxpayers.

Once upon a time, firms aimed to market products broadly to a mass customer base of those earning wages (that would be expected to rise). But wages haven’t risen demonstrably in decades for most people. In the 1990s, “wealth” was created in the housing and asset markets, where it appears inflation was channeled, but people with stagnant wages cannot borrow forever, not even on increasingly equity, and eventually banks got themselves sideways with their cleverness.

In this environment, it makes sense that capital — I speak here in Marxists terms of the abstraction that is business — would seek captive clients, given that wages have not kept pace for most people. So, why not contract with governments to “provide services”?

As the piece notes, however, this has come at a price — citizen is now a meaningless term. These firms are not accountable because their customers aren’t the people they serve, they are the handful of bureaucrats and elected officials who sign the contracts. And they remain pleased with the provision.

Gone is any sense of solidarity — communal, social, national. And the trend to further privatize will only keep this going. It will continue as long as governments can rig markets at the top and can purchase enough security for those in charge.

This isn’t feudalism — with ownership comes some sense of obligation, and everyone remains nominally free, and on their own, here. Those who manage this society have long lost that sense of obligation to fellow citizens — that’s why we’re thigh-deep in this muddy pool of nihilism right now. At some point, we may get there, after millions have suffered and many have died, when the survival of many will demand some kind of slavery with a set of brutal but somewhat mutual obligations.

But the relatively kind, social democratic world of the mid-20th century, one which saw ordinary human beings (at least in the West) acquire wealth and stability such people had never been able to acquire in history, is gone.

We will probably never see anything like it again.

Taking it Personally

This is about where I am right now.

Personal

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal—
the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,
the wet hair of women in the rain—
And I cursed what hurt me
and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.
The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,
and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.
Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk
Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts
but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;
I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,
I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back
and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries
like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.
Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?
You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.
I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:
trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.

Merry Christmas!

Before you read this posting, a few personal thoughts.

I have a job — a REAL job — for the first time in years. I pay rent. I have made arrangements with all my creditors, because two years of unemployment will wreck your credit, and am paying my bills. There’s not much left after, and we have no money to get the rest of our stuff in storage in Chicago. And insurance co-pays are beginning to pile up, what with Jennifer needed a couple of tests to set the level of her thyroid med and me needing liver and kidney screening for this fungicide I’m taking to obliterate the scum that has been living in my toenails since sometime in late 1986.

But we have a home. We pay rent. We are managing. Jennifer and I know how to.

We have each other for Christmas. No tree, no presents, just a simple meal currently bubbling away in the crock pot. The work I do, well, it’s writing, and I have to remember I was willing to do worse for less. All the same, I’d rather be a pastor — it is my calling — rather be anxiously dealing with multiple worship services this weekend than wondering how the heating bill is going to be paid in January.

But I am grateful. Jennifer is grateful. We are managing. We have God.

And we have a pestle of kids. I love this ministry that has found me, these wounded kids who need me for a day or a week or a season or, as a couple have decided, forever. I am grateful for the gifts of God — an editor willing to take a chance on me, a landlord willing to overlook terrible credit, ministry supporters who help keep us going.

There are days when it feels like poverty and desperation will be forever. And maybe they will be. America today has little mercy for failures, and I am a pretty stunning failure, falling all the way from grad school at Georgetown to a basement hovel in the middle of the desert.

But I am loved. And I love. Thank you Jennifer. Thank you Karen. Thank you Scott. Thank you all who read this blog. Because love is what matters.

Love is all that matters.

Psalm 10 Ministries

To all who might be reading this — kids, adults, whoever — Merry Christmas.

Have hope. As a child, tiny and helpless, God come into the world, to be one of us, to share our lives, and all that means. It is a wonderful thing, this coming, the fulfillment of promises that we shall be saved. That the poor will be lifted up, the weak protected, the hungry will be fed, the rich brought down, and those who have enough will be sent away.

I know, my eyes tell me a different story. One of sorrow and hunger and fear.

But today, we hope.

I started this ministry as an inspired act, a holy accident, a gift of the Holy Spirit as she blew through the world. I have not shared your lives — I have not been in foster care, not been that kind of abandoned, not been raped…

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Demanding Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Caleb Bernacchio over at Ethikapolitika notes something important about Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the Benedict Option — it lacks an understanding that we are called to follow Jesus in order to do works of mercy.

Dreher has this all wrong [about Pope Francis]. The Benedict Option is only viable insofar as its proponents are able to learn from Pope Francis. Dreher has been unable to the do this and as a result he has not been able to present an account of the Benedict Option that avoids the mistakes of previous Christian elites.

What are those mistakes? Believing that the Gospel is a “reform movement” capable of holding society to higher moral and ethical standards and of remaking the world in the image of the Gospel.

The Benedict Option is another reform movement, another attempt to hold society to the higher standards of the Gospel, even if it is strategically focused in a narrow scope. [Charles] Taylor [author of the A Secular Age] argues that these movements have lead to the modern “buffered” self, the self that treats the world (including his or her body) as inert material to be made over to the self’s preferred ideals. One commentator notes, “[T]the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging… and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” This is precisely the attitude that Dreher laments.

In addition to being an act of will intended to compel the world to conform to the truth that is the teaching of the church, many who support the Benedict Option do so believing the role of the church is only to hold on to and teach right faith and to judge and condemn the world’s failure to hold or adhere to orthodoxy. In short, according to Bernacchio, Benedict Option supporters really want the church — and the pope — to be the world’s Grand Inquisitor. (One reason they miss Benedict XVI, having seen in him a kindred spirit.)

Francis refuses to be the Grand Inquisitor; this attitude underlies his much ridiculed rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of the Judge, the Doctor of the Law, or the Grand Inquisitor, Francis’s paradigm of the ideal Christian is the Good Samaritan. This ideal shifts the gaze of reformer inwardly, from the world that needs to be remade in the image of the ideal, to the reformer himself. The paradigm of the Good Samaritan demands that every Christian look inwardly, asking if one has been a Neighbor to those encountered in daily life and especially to those in dire need. Francis, following the tradition, links this with the notion mercy, which has become the theme of his pontificate, calling mercy “what is most essential and definitive.”

This desire for a Grand Inquisitor is probably a reflection of the deep roots the Benedict Option has among disaffected, conservative bourgeois Christians who wish, more than anything, to preserve their children from the sin and degradation of a corrupt, decadent, secular world. Theirs is a stern church of bourgeois Western order, and they forget — Francis did not come from that world.

Because the Benedict Option creates a Christian life that ooks both inward and backward, it has no idea how to approach the world without condemning it or what to do with that world except for keeping it arms length. (Because there are children in need of protecting.) This is not how Francis sees living as a faithful Christian in a post-Christian, non-Christian world:

But for Francis it is not possible to discuss Christian life practically without recognizing the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized. And if Brad Gregory is correct, one reason why medieval Christendom fractured is because the elite failed to acknowledge the injustice that they were responsible for and thus failed to mitigate the tensions that finally boiled over during the Reformation. Dreher recommends that BenOpers put their children in “authentic Christian school[s],” disregarding the fact that such schools often come with a hefty price tag rendering them unimaginable for many. What should people do who can’t afford the Benedict Option? If Gregory is right, proponents of the Benedict Option are repeating the mistakes of past Christians, preaching justice and mercy, but leaving this as a mere afterthought that does not affect their vision of Christian life. As Gregory has shown, this is no way to build a sustainable Christian social order.

In effect, the Benedict Option as conceived in North America is just another effort by bourgeois white Christians to create an ersatz collective movement that lacks any real sense of solidarity — particularly with those who aren’t bourgeois. (Solidarity is something white people shorn of their ethnic identities are very, very, very bad at, especially bourgeois whites, who have become hyper-autonomous whether liberal or conservative, secular or religious, tending to see connection only in and through the state and its institutions.) The focus on a dry and pitiless orthodoxy will create more of the same kind of church that cannot be a meaningful presence of God in the world.

Or as Bernacchio notes:

What Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis is, first and foremost, that orthodoxy is pointless unless it contributes to a life of charity and mercy. As Taylor has argued, reformist efforts to promote (or enforce) orthodox beliefs can backfire – Francis provides an alternative to the reformist model, not by denying orthodoxy but by emphasizing solidarity and mercy. Where Dreher has seen the Benedict Option as a means of distinguishing orthodox believers from liberal Christians and secular society, more generally, Francis maintains that Christians must primarily be distinguished by acts of mercy. In practice this means building communities that are not isolated from the rest of society but which are instead linked through bonds of solidarity even to people with radically different beliefs. The best examples of this are the Catholic Worker Movement and L’Arche communities.

At the heart of this, I think, is a notion among many – including me — that the hard times ahead for the church in Christendom mean that only a remnant will be saved. For the conservative and orthodox, given what they see as the collapse of the theologically, politically, and culturally liberal churches of the American mainline, that remnant is self-evident — them, orthodox believers who hold tight to the true teaching of the church in all things, who change not one jot or tittle of it.

This is one reason I think the story Benedit Option Christians is impoverished without the story of Israel and its conquest and exile. God saved a faithful remnant, but was that remnant saved because it was faithful and found favor with God (like Noah), or did God save a remnant and in its salvation did that remnant realize its salvation and become faithful?

In short, we’re asking the same old questions that Christians have always argued about — does one obey the rules first in order to become part of the community, or does one learn to obey the rules only by becoming part of the community first?

It’s no small question. Because the first is entirely dependent on an act of human will. In effect, it says what religion always comes to say in the face of modernity — “If God isn’t going to save us, we’ll have to save ourselves.” The results of this are usually bad. It’s an effective act of faithlessness because it doesn’t trust in God. As in the books of Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra, God is an add-on, a thing from the past we reference but who doesn’t live with us in our midst today.

Who doesn’t do great things right here and right now.

I’m more inclined to trust God, in part because I believe the Good Samaritan story and what it tells us about how to love and be grace in the world. In general, the story of Jesus is the story of how live faithfully under occupation, and not a guide to the use of power, something that Christendom Christians have completely forgotten. I may or may not be in this remnant that goes into exile, that weeps at the river bank and tries mightily to pass its faith and practice on to its children. But I’m trying not to care, because my calling is to love the wounded neighbor right in front of me. Yes, it’s hard to trust God, because there’s no obvious return, because too often God stays silent, and because it is hard to see the great things God is doing in our midst. Especially in a faithless, fallen, decadent world.

Honestly, I cannot end this essay any better than Bernacchio ends his. He notes that too many BenOpers deal with “solidarity” and the poor as after thoughts, things to deal with only once correct doctrine and teaching have been settled. But mercy is a first thing, an essential thing, and not an add-on. It is not a luxury of faith once we’re secure in our homes and our children are protected, but an essential, something without which we have no meaningful faith to begin with.

Francis … suggests that solidarity with the poor is the sine qua non of authentic Christian community. Thus Francis challenges proponents of the Benedict Option, and the Church more generally to give up the dangerous fantasy of the Grand Inquisitor whose power will remake the world in the image of our ideals and instead to build bonds of charity and mercy in the manner of the Good Samaritan.

ADVENT 28 / God in Our Midst

Our final #RendTheHeavens / #FuckThisShit devotional for Advent.

Psalm 10 Ministries

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.

This is the end of our Advent devotionals. I’d like to thank every one of you for reading these, for passing them on (if you did), and I would especially like to thank my fellow devotees – Stephanie Johnson, Michaela Besedova, Bob Lesher, and Kaylie Mendoza.

And the Holy Spirit, for inspiring us as she does when a blank screen and a Bible verse seemed more than any of us could bear.


And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. (Luke 2:16 ESV)

They had become parents in the worst way possible.

They weren’t even married, had been talking about it and had set a date, when fate intervened.

When God intervened.

God’s intervention was difficult…

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