This is second in a series of posts based on papers delivered at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. Inquiries may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the elections in Spain two weeks ago, the first modern government to explicitly model itself on the work of an academic political philosopher was voted out of office. The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, had become a devotee of the Princeton political philosopher Philip Pettit in 2000, when Zapatero was leader of the opposition searching for how to envision left-liberal politics distinct from the Clinton-Blair “third way.” As a Zapatero associate put it, “Philip Pettit provided us with the appropriate grammar to furnish our political intuitions, to express the kind of proposals and dreams we had in mind for Spain. Pettit’s republicanism has been our north star.” Does the political philosophy that Zapatero found so compelling, civic republicanism, leave a role for faith?
Civic republicanism presents itself as a novel alternative to liberalism, communitarianism, and Marxism – or rather newly thematized, but with a longstanding history in Europe and America. It presents itself as a robust, positive project for left-liberals that differentiates them from, most notably, the libertarian elements in modern conservatism which modern liberalism has too often and too easily embraced, or so civic republicans charge. Yes, freedom should be our most cherished political value, the civic republican affirms, but we need to reconsider what we mean by freedom.
In a slogan: we should understand freedom as non-domination rather than as non-interference. What is domination? In a slogan: the inability to look someone in the eye. In other words, domination occurs when a person, or group, or organization “has mastery in the life of another,” when one can arbitrarily coerce another. Let’s consider two problems for the civic republican that bear on the issue of faith.
First, it’s unclear what resources the civic republican has to deal with, for example, the police violence against students in the last couple weeks in the University of California system, at Berkeley and Davis. In those cases, students were organizing, building power for themselves to prevent domination at the hands of California elites in the state legislature. The students chose to use unsanctioned tools for that dissent. The state’s response was not arbitrary at all: they beat and pepper-sprayed students exactly as the police manual dictated should be done when laws were being broken (it was perhaps the students’ protests that appeared arbitrary). The praxis of faith frequently motivates social movements that do not stay within the confines of dissent authorized by the civic republican, such as government consultations and human rights letter-writing.
Second, the civic republican portrays domination as intentional coercion. Yet is this responsive to the compelling – especially from a religious perspective – “Hegelian” notion that freedom is made possible by norms? To be free to write poetry you must have mastered the vocabulary and grammar of a language; or, to be free one needs to be trained into the world described in the bible, needs to allow that text to envelop your world.
Imagine, for example, a committee with only one female or racial minority member. When that individual is subtly coerced to make choices that she would not make in a more diverse committee, that seems like domination, and we could easily imagine that she would metaphorically (at the very least) not be able to look others in the eye. But in such a case there is no individual or group agent that is doing the dominating. Rather, the domination is caused by the exclusions affected by the norms of the community. Perhaps a rough analogy would be conducting a meeting in English with ten native speakers and one person with limited fluency. Even if accommodations are made – speaking more slowly, writing important points on a board, even simultaneous translation – they will be made out of charity, and so will not curb the domination involved.
It is in the exclusions created by norms, exclusions necessarily accompanying the freedom made possibly by norms, that we find the deepest forms of domination. In religious terms, perhaps, acknowledging these failures marks recognition of sin, recognition that is a prerequisite to faith – to the practice of faith.