This is the third article in the series, ‘Ten Years After 9/11,’ which is also the theme of Political Theology 12.5.
September 11th brought evil into the national conversation, and the tenor of the discourse that ensued was notoriously bad, often verging on if not plunging into the Manichean. Of course, it is hardly surprising that people were at the time possibly a little too affected emotionally to be entirely objective. “Evil” was perhaps, along the lines of C. L. Stevenson, more a way of registering repulsion than a cognitive claim to be sifted and sorted. This somewhat more charitable interpretation would seem to be verified by the diminishment of such talk ten years later, after the initial rage has cooled. Still, doesn’t the topic represent some unfinished business? Isn’t there theological work to be done trying to grapple with the enormity of the event?
I am intrigued by the recent work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in this respect. They do not dwell on the idea of “evil,” though there is a clear sense in their work of forces working for good confronting malevolent forces defending the dominance of empire. In their book, Multitude, they identify a type of power capable of resisting empire and actualizing an alternative, radically democratic, politics. They attribute to this “network power” a sort of swarm intelligence in which political decisions can be made non-hierarchically and in the interests of the entire global commonwealth. Aside from its optimism, an obvious rejoinder to this view would be to point out that the formal characteristics of networks (i.e., their “swarming” features) do not guarantee felicitous outcomes. Anticipating this line of criticism, Hardt and Negri differentiate the network form of terrorist groups from that of genuine revolutionaries. The former, they argue, make use of network potential to disseminate command and control—in other words, they are actually deeply hierarchical in terms of strategy as well as tactical decision-making. For Hardt and Negri, the democratic network form and its emancipatory potential are intrinsically connected—reactionary networks will always in the end be hierarchical.
Again, this is optimistic, to say the least. Concentrate on developing networks characterized by democratic form, and you have a revolutionary force for radical democracy. This kind of argument, of course, has a parallel in theology today, especially in postliberalism and radical orthodoxy, where the the primary political act is to enact a distinctive, revolutionary political form dubbed ecclesia. In this view, the forces of good are embodied in an alternative polity that is organized by and oriented toward a particular vision of the good, and forces which oppose or oppress this polity are construed as embodiments of evil, sin, or at least corruption.
While I would not want to deny the political importance of forms, I would add to this analysis the importance of the kinds of spirit or inner drive (desire) which may be astir in them. An essential part of the explanation for the enormity of 9/11 is that the terrorist network responsible for them was not animated by a drive to produce new configurations of value and meaning so much as by a reactionary desire to bring judgment upon forces of modernity which were perceived to be a threat to established (traditional religious) values. The animating spirit of terrorist networks is a spirit of ressentiment. If we are to speak of evil in this context, then, we would do well to invoke the Augustinian refusal to speak of evil as creative or productive. Rather, evil is parasitic and reactionary—it is a lack, a negation, a wound.
Of course, the paradox about terror networks is that they are designed precisely to resist the crushing dominance of empire. This animus looks productive and creative, at least at first. But what is the nature of the animating drive? What is its orientation? To invoke a fairly recent Augustinian (H. Richard Niebuhr), is it loyalty to the commonwealth of being or is it rather some lesser, more constricted loyalty? If the spirit or inner drive is not loyalty to being itself, or at least to life, then it is not a creative, productive force, but a reactive one. Constricted loyalties are protective—they do not venture to create, but are armed to guard the treasure of the past, and hence are by nature jealous, vindictive, and cruel.
The spirit of God in the world is creative, productive, an animus toward liberation and life. It is the spirit of the multitude, mobilizing humanity’s aspirations for freedom and justice. Spirits which appear to resist empire but only reinscribe its anti-democratic logic represent the tragic strangling of the spirit of the multitude. I would urge that they aren’t so much demonic oppositions , however, as sorry corruptions. The spirit of the multitude is the desire which animates struggle for freedom from empire, but in the insidious power of empire to co-opt subjectivity, this desire gets channeled into fixed, static, ethnic and/or religious loyalties and so becomes something wholly and catastrophically different.
Watching Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC documentary on the decade after 9/11 recently, I’m reminded of the fact that terrorism and nationalism are locked in an unholy embrace. The decade since September 11th has been a decade of profoundly uncreative reaction in American foreign and domestic policy (with some exceptions, of course). Stoked by fear of unholy spirits, we have allowed the same spirits to animate our own fearsome efforts to command and control.
Both Augustine and the recent work of Hardt and Negri give me measured hope that this cycle of reaction is not inevitable because it does not express the fundamental character of political life. Deeper than our reciprocal reactions there is the desire of the multitude, a constant, ineluctable, creative aspiration for the expression of life. Still, it is not clear when and how this spirit will find a voice in our politics.
Thomas A. James is Assistant Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.