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States of Exception

Religion and Civil Society: From Alienation to Constitutive Resistance

This is the fourth post in a series on religion and political thought in Australia.  See introduction here.

Is religion part of civil society (“public sphere” in American English) or does it challenge the structural limitations of civil society? I will argue that it does indeed challenge civil society, acting as a constitutive resistance to which civil society seeks to respond and control. But let me begin with a specific example from Australia, since that is the context to which my reflections are primarily directed: Aboriginal Islam.

Almost four centuries ago the people of north-eastern Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, and the Cobourg Peninsula interacted and exchanged with the Muslim Makassans searching for trepangs (sea-slugs). Items exchanged included turtle-shell, pearls, and cypress pine, as well as metal axes and knives, rice, cloth, tobacco – and religion. The local Aborigines did not generally regard the seasonal appearance of the Makassans as a threat, even travelling to Makassar in marriage arrangements.[1] Linguistic, cultural, artistic, technological, ritual and religious traces run deep even today, when the Muslim influence is more openly claimed among the Yolngu of Elcho Island.[2] When they first became aware of such long-established contact, the colonial governments outlawed interactions between Asian and Aboriginal people, so as to benefit colonial enterprises.[3] Yet Aborigines and Indonesians continued their interactions, in what may be designated as “shared political strategies of resistance.”[4] This shared resistance also appeared with the central Asian (“Afghan”) cameleers to Central Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. They were simultaneously vital for transporting supplies to colonial outposts in the deserts and shunned by the white communities. Indeed, these cameleers found more in common with Aboriginal communities.[5] Just as interactions between Aborigines and Makassans were outlawed, “Afghan”-Aboriginal relationships were strictly prohibited by many state governments. Despite this, descendants of such relationships are part of the more than 1000 members (a conservative estimate) of the Australian Aboriginal Muslim community.[6] Nonetheless, most Aboriginal Muslims are recent converts. Rather than being drawn into the overwhelming Christianised nature of indigenous religiosity, some Aborigines in Australia are drawn to the militantly anti-racist ethos of Islam. While many convert while in prison,[7] the suburban Lakemba mosque is the spiritual home of a diverse community of Middle Eastern, South Asian and indigenous Muslims. Perhaps the most high-profile convert to Islam is the former Rugby League star turned boxer, Anthony Mundine,[8] who converted in 1999. For my purposes, Mundine captures what I will call the constitutive resistance inherent in such a combination: “being indigenous and being Muslim, you know, are not really two good combinations in this society.”[9]

Civil Society

What are we to make of such a phenomenon, especially when it is clearly outside the accepted norms of what counts in Australian civil society? Is not civil society meant to be the foundation of freedom and democracy? Outside the reach of the state individuals may speak freely, gather and organise, express their wishes, dreams and hopes. In recent decades, many have evoked civil society in this way: the opposition movements against socialist governments in Eastern Europe during the 1980s; the source of “democracy” in “totalitarian’ China; the Arab “spring”; the means for achieving global environmental action.[10] Civil society is thus regarded as an irrepressible good, which cannot be questioned. Or rather, if questions are raised they concern the ways that civil society may function to include new voices. This is particularly the case with the renewed presence of religion in global politics.

Let me give a significant example: Jürgen Habermas has recently turned to argue that religions may be engaged in civil society on the condition that “the potential truth contents of religious utterances must be translated into a generally accessible language before they can find their way into the agendas of parliaments, courts, or administrative bodies and influence their decisions.”[11] In other words, he seeks to shore up the “liberal goal” that all enforceable and publically sanctioned decisions “can be formulated and justified in a universally accessible language.”[12] As ever, he engages in determining and policing the boundaries of civil society, openly admitting that this sphere is a liberal and indeed bourgeois project that must exclude the fanaticism that always lurks within religions. Tellingly, Habermas deploys the term Zivilgesellschaft, a translation back into German from the English “civil society.” The catch is that “civil society” was originally the translation of the German bürgerliche Gesellschaft, a term that indicates clearly the class connections with the bourgeoisie. However, Zivilgesellschaft conveniently conceals such class associations, thereby enabling civil society to appear as a benign, classless and well-nigh universal term. Habermas provides one example among many, but throughout his statements he never questions civil society itself. It may be reshaped slightly, even strengthened in the process, but should never be discarded.[13]

Production and Alienation

By contrast, my argument is that civil society is the problem and not “wayward” religious voices such as Aboriginal Islam. This argument requires three steps, which draws upon and yet goes European theorists in order to develop a specific framework for understanding such challenges. The first comes from Hegel’s thorough reinterpretation of the idea of civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft).[14] For Hegel, civil society is new, is produced and is thoroughly alienated. It involves all that is outside the state – economics, voluntary associations, religion, education, health, the law and even the police. Civil society is clearly a product of the new forms of social relations fostered by the bourgeoisie and capitalism, forms he was already seeing around him. Primary is the individual, so any social connections are those formed by individuals. The problem is that such an individual is deeply alienated, for this individual must negotiate the tension between being an individual in association with other individuals (civil society) and an individual subject to a given entity (the state).[15] Hegel’s nervousness at this new form of human existence – of rampant individuality in a dog-eat-dog world[16] – is reflected in the variety of his attempted solutions. Although he enlists the family, estates and corporations in an effort to provide cohesion, they are not up to the task. So he falls back on the abstract and ideal state. Indeed, the state pre-exists its historical appearance, being nothing less than the Idea itself and embodiment of reason (even really existing bad states). For Hegel, the state must overcome what he fears and what the family and the corporations are ultimately unable to do – unite a people in response to the individualism he sees emerging everywhere around him. Yet the very need to attribute so much to the state indicates the unresolvable problem he tries to solve.

Hegel’s formulations warn us to be wary of seeing civil society as the space for freedom of expression and association, if not for liberal democracy itself. Instead, civil society is inescapably alienated, torn between the demands of the private individual and the abstract state.

Exclusive Universal

The second contribution is drawn from Domenico Losurdo’s insights into the nature of liberalism, for which civil society is crucial.[17] Losurdo draws out the implications of the alienation Hegel identified, now in terms of the exclusive universal. The much-touted “freedom for all” of civil society relies on a definition of “all” that excludes a majority. In other words, civil society restricts who counts as part of the universal. If you do not fit its definition of “all,” then you do not count. For religion, this means that only some forms of religion are included, but certainly not those that claim a radical alterity.

In a little more detail, Losurdo points out that liberal freedom is not merely limited in extent (which would then simply entail an extension of such freedom) but that it is structurally geared to exclude significant groups from “freedom,” indeed that it requires such exclusions in order to constitute “freedom” and “democracy.” This position is voiced by the ideologues of liberalism, such as John Stuart Mill, who opines in On Liberty, that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians,” for liberty is only for “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.”[18] As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. In other words, liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin; “freedom” and “democracy” are inseparable from exclusion and dispossession, for the former relies on the latter to function.

Losurdo explores this contradiction throughout the troubled history of liberalism.[19] These include the slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in The Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and in the process excluding vast numbers in his understanding of “all men” – such as slaves, women and indigenous peoples. Or in English liberal society he notes the necessary role of beggars, vagrants, workhouses, white servants, kidnapping of poor children for the army and for colonial labour, and even the tendency towards eugenics. He traces the oppression inherent in liberalism’s focus on the individual and the growth of master-race democracy in Europe as it engaged in colonial expansion. In our own time, he also notes Israel, supposedly the only “true democracy” in the Middle East, where “freedom of expression and association” exist. But this can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: “government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily.”[20] Many of these details are reasonably well known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they do not live up to their ideals. Losurdo’s point is that the very possibility of bourgeois “democracy” and “freedom” is directly dependent upon systemic dispossession of the majority: “the community of the free and its dictatorship over peoples unworthy of liberty.”[21]

Given that “freedom” is meant to be the core of civil society, where all – religions included – are supposed to be able to express themselves without hindrance, Losurdo’s argument has profound ramifications for religion and civil society. Does civil society’s universal by exclusion also keep religion outside its borders? One may object that significant aspects of religion are included within civil society. Religious bodies often have social justice departments that make frequent contributions on issues relating to poverty, refugees, child and elderly abuse, and so on. These bodies have also become significant providers of services, such as education, youth organization, aged care and medical facilities. Indeed, governments attempt to foster such a civil society in the name of privatisation. Religious bodies thus play a double game, both challenging civil society and seeking acceptance. Thereby, they attempt to reshape the established terms and boundaries of civil society. At the same time, other groups are systematically excluded. Only certain religious voices are admitted, such as moderate Muslims, liberal Christians and genteel Hindus. By contrast, those dubbed “extremist” are excluded. Islamic militants are not welcome, as are Christian revolutionaries, as are Muslim Marxists, as are … Due to their radical alterity, they do not wish to enter civil society, but to see its demise.

Constitutive Resistance

In light of this radical religious alterity, I can move to the next step of my argument, which is that civil society is not only an alienated product of bourgeois social formations, not only a zone that operates by means of a universal of exclusion, but also a response to resistance. Civil society is an attempt to manage and control resistance. This position draws upon the idea of constitutive resistance, which was first developed by Antonio Negri and his comrades. The nub of that theory is that resistance does not take place in response to oppressive power, but is constitutive of that power: “Even though common use of the term might suggest the opposite – that resistance is a response or reaction – resistance is primary with respect to power.”[22] The dominant and driving reality of history is precisely this resistance, which can never be contained and harnessed by the powers that be – hence the efforts by the latter at ever-new ways of attempting to do so.

Negri develops the theory of constitutive resistance from his earlier discovery of operaismo (workerism), in which working class resistance is both outside and against capitalism. While it can never be absorbed by capitalism, and while it holds out the perpetual threat of subversion and revolution, its sheer creativity is also constitutive of a capitalism than can never absorb it: “Operaismo builds on Marx’s claim that capital reacts to the struggles of the working class; the working class is active and capital reactive … Operaismo takes this as its fundamental axiom: the struggles of the working class precede and prefigure the successive re-structurations of capital.”[23]

This constitutive resistance can now be applied to understanding religion and civil society. Before I do so, it is necessary to identify an axiological shift in Negri’s formulations, between the focus on operaismo in the work of the 1970s and constitutive resistance in later works in relation to the multitude. Operaismo is clearly connected to working class resistance and its consequent oppression, with a political option for that type of resistance as both external to and the creative driver of capitalism. However, constitutive resistance marks a subtle shift, not only away from the category of the working class but also from the explicit axiological dimensions. He does not explicitly identify whether this resistance is progressive or reactionary, but restricts his analysis to the fact of resistance. We are thus faced with a suspension of the ideological question.

This axiological suspension becomes important for the way constitutive resistance relates to religion and civil society. The former becomes a mode of resistance against which civil society constantly sets itself. Or, to gloss Negri from my earlier quotation, “the struggles of religion precede and prefigure the successive re-structurations of civil society.” Religion’s alterity, its claim to a primary commitment above everything else, its sustained criticism of the status quo, its perpetual adherence to nothing less than a radical religious approach that dispenses with the status quo, and its continued practices of modes of living that negate all that is valued in civil society – these elements challenge the very assumptions of civil society. In response to this resistance, civil society continues to reshape itself to counter such resistance. Note that I have not determined whether such resistance is reactionary or revolutionary, whether it involves various dimensions of the religious right (homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and so on) or of the religious left (liberation from oppression and communistic forms of living). The reason is that such a determination happens only when one engages with resistance over the struggle for the direction resistance may take. By contrast, my argument here is to identify constitutive resistance itself, against which civil society constantly reshapes its responses.

Constitutive resistance enables us to cast the strategies of civil society in relation to religion in a new way. Earlier, I characterised such strategies in terms of a universal by exclusion (Losurdo), but in light of Negri’s approach these strategies may now be regarded as secondary responses to resistance. Thus the restriction of religion to being a private concern, a matter of “the heart,” is an effort to block the challenge posed by religion. So also are the “wedge” tactics, which designate some defanged versions – the tolerant, liberal and moderate forms – acceptable and the dangerous ones unacceptable. At the same time, religions may also engage in this process, or at least some sectors may do so for a variety of reasons, seeking legitimacy for their actions and doctrines, or in order to deal with internal conflicts. To this impulse too civil society responds, reshaping its boundary markers of speech, engagement and organisation to draw in those seeking legitimation. Radical forms of religion, however, need not apply – should they in a moment of weakness ponder doing so.


In order to understand the challenge posed by Aboriginal Islam in Australia, my argument has drawn on and then moved beyond Hegel’s proposal that civil society is not an ahistorical given but is a distinct bourgeois product (hence bürgerliche Gesellschaft), and beyond Losurdo’s exploration of the universal by exclusion characteristic of civil society. Negri helps us to take a step further, for religion – especially its more radical forms – now becomes a form of resistance that precedes and prefigures a reactive civil society. Let me close by reiterating the need to suspend the axiological moment, when these types of resistance may be assessed in terms as to whether they are progressive or reactionary. This suspension really entails a shift, for such assessment should take place not in the terms of civil society but outside that alienated space, among the various forms of resistance themselves. At that point one can take sides and foster progressive and revolutionary forms of resistance.


[1] Ian McIntosh, “Islam and Australia’s Aborigines? A Perspective from North-East Arnhem Land,” Journal of Religious History 21, no. 1 (1995): 62. See also Campbell MacKnight, “The View from Marege’: Australian Knowledge of Makassar and the Impact of the Trepang Industry Across Two Centuries,” Aboriginal History 35. http://press.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/Aboriginal+History+Volume+35%2C+2011/7171/Text/S02%20Macknight.html; Denise Rusell, “Aboriginal-Makassan Interactions in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in Northern Australia and Contemporary Sea Rights Claims,” Australian Aboriginal Studies 1(2004). http://lryb.aiatsis.gov.au/PDFs/aasj04.1_%20makassan.pdf; Helena Onnudotir, Adam Possomai, and Bryan S. Turner, “Islam: A New Religious Vehicle for Aboriginal Self-Empowerment in Australia?,” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 1, no. 1 (2010).

[2] Regina Ganter, “Muslim Australians: The Deep Histories of Contact,” Journal of Australian Studies 32, no. 4 (2008). http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/58309/Ganter.pdf.

[3] Peta Stephenson, “Islam in Indigenous Australia: Historic Relic or Contemporary Reality?,” Politics and Culture 4(2004). http://www.politicsandculture.org/2010/08/10/islam-in-indigenous-australia-historic-relic-or-c-3/.

[4] Stephenson, “Islam in Indigenous Australia: Historic Relic or Contemporary Reality?.” For more detail, see Peta Stephenson, The Outsiders Within: Telling Australia’s Indigenous-Asian Story  (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2007); Peta Stephenson, Islam Dreaming: Indigenous Muslims in Australia  (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2010). Stephenson also discusses the Malays, who were brought to Queensland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to work in the pearl industry.

[5] Stephenson, Islam Dreaminga, 21-58.

[6] Ganter, “Muslim Australians.”

[7] On prison conversions Stephenson, Islam Dreaming, 243-75.

[8] Other football stars have since converted as well, such as Sonny Bill Williams and Blake Ferguson. Caroline Meng-Yee, “Sonny Bill Williams Embraces Islam,” The New Zealand Herald, 13 February. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10705928; Glen Jackson, “Blake Ferguson Turns to Islam en Route to Redemption,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2013. http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/blake-ferguson-turns-to-islam-en-route-to-redemption-20131109-2x8nk.html.

[9] Julie Nimmo, Islam Dreaming, SBS Insight (SBS Television, 2003). Note also: “you talk to any stereotype upper-class, middle class Caucasian or what not, they’re going to think aboriginals are no goods. They’re going to think aboriginals are alcoholics; they’re going to think aboriginals are druggos or petrol sniffers, and that’s the same mental message they’re trying to send about Islam: That it’s evil, that it’s the worst thing that you could ever be involved in, how could people be that savage or barbaric, but you learn about Islam you are the only and you seek out your own truth and you’ll see Islam is nothing but peaceful. In Islam you’re never allowed to be aggressor, you know, you’re never allowed to be aggressor.” Julia Baird, Anthony Mundine: The Man, Sunday Profile (ABC Radio, 2006). Perhaps the most potent form of religious resistance to civil society has yet to find a voice in Australia. I think here of Muslim Marxism, which is at the beginning of a most fascinating and possibly important revival. The voices of Tan Malaka from Indonesia, Hussein Mroué from Lebanon, Sadik Jalal al-Azm from Syria, and Hikmet Kıvılcımlı from Turkey are slowly beginning to be heard. For instance, see the Turkish website Iştirakî at http://istiraki.blogspot.com.tr.

[10] For a general, if somewhat benign survey, see Jürgen Kocha, “Civil Society from a Historical Perspective,” European Review 12, no. 1 (2004).

[11] Judith Butler et al., The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendietta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 25-26.

[12] Butler et al., The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, 26. This position merely reiterates earlier statements by Habermas, now gathered in Religion and Rationality and Between Naturalism and Religion. Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God and Modernity  (Cambridge: MIT, 2002); Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge: Polity, 2008). See also his lecture from 2001 entitled “Faith and Knowledge” in Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature  (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 101-15.

[13] See also the contributions by Judith Butler, Charles Taylor and Cornell West in Butler et al., The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. See further David Herbert, Religion and Civil Society: Rethinking Public Religion in the Contemporary World  (Farnham: Ashgate, 2003); Mark Juergensmeyer, Religion in Global Civil Society  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Helen James, ed. Civil Society, Religion and Global Governance: Paradigms of Power and Persuasion (London: Routledge, 2007); Joep de Hart, Paul Dekker, and Loek Halman, eds., Religion and Civil Society in Europe (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013). Occasionally one encounters some questioning concerning civil society itself, in light of its implicit ethnocentrism and its tendency to foster conflicts and war, but these do not explore the internal dynamic of civil society itself. For instance, see Ireneusz Karolewski, “Civil Society and its Discontents,” Polish Sociological Review 154(2006).

[14] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 [1820]).

[15] The best study of Hegel’s political and social thought, with a distinct focus on alienation, remains Shlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972). See also the astute depiction of the alienating dimension of civil society in Hegel’s thought in Anders Bartonek, “Labour Against Capitalism? Hegel’s Concept of Labour in Between Civil Society and the State,” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 6(2014): 115-19.

[16] As an example of his nervousness, see Hegel’s comments on the family: “But civil society tears the individual [Individuum] away from family ties, alienates the members of the family from one another, and recognizes them as self-sufficient persons. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 263; #238.

[17] Dominico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011 [2006]). The specific moment of the appearance of liberalism with marked by a shift of “liberal” from adjective to substantive in the late eighteenth century. It “was generated by a proud self-consciousness, which has a simultaneously political, social and even ethnic connotation.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, 244.

[18] John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J.M. Robson, vol. 18, 213-310 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1859 [1977]), 224. Similar sentiments are found in the earlier champions of liberalism, Hugo Grotius and John Locke. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, ed. Richard Tuck, trans. John Clarke, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005 [1625]), I.3.8; II.5; III.7. John Locke, Political Essays, ed. Mark Goldie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 180.

[19] The initial impetus for the development of the ideology of liberalism was threefold: the revolution of the Dutch against Philip II of Spain (1655-1648), the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the American Revolution (1765-83). It is no surprise that the prime ideologues of what became liberalism are to be found in these places.

[20] Dominico Losurdo, “Lenin and Herrnvolk Democracy,” in Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, ed. Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Žižek, 239-52 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 245.

[21] Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, 248.

[22] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire  (New York: Penguin, 2004), 64.

[23] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, “Marx’s Mole is Dead! Globalisation and Communication,”  Eurozine, no. February 13 (2002), http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2002-02-13-hardtnegri-en.html. For an excellent account of the development of the theory and practice of operaismo, see Yann Moulier, “Introduction,” in The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, 1-44 (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).

One thought on “Religion and Civil Society: From Alienation to Constitutive Resistance

  1. Very interesting. This chimes very much with my frustration with secularism and the neglected appreciation of the meaning and effects of secularization on evangelism, beliefs and ecclesiology, but also political theology, since conceding the terminology of secular vs religion inherently excludes the realisation of Christian eschatological hopes, and living Christianly, rather than as alienated units of labour and addictional and deluded consumers. Secularisation is bourgeois and capital-valorisation-via-advertising-trained-consumption led. It serves addictional consumerism, required for on-going capital valorization, for people to believe as advertising cumulatively tells them, rather than as pre-existing and natural faith and scripture might. The further that practical exposure to scripture, faith-tradition and church communities can be removed from people’s daily experience, the easier it is for advertising (commodity fetishism and bourgeois ideological indoctrination) to dominate public consciousness, and indoctrinate values of greed, selfishness, snobbery, self-dislike, the view of oneself and others as disposable commodities to be sold cunningly and dumped when no longer fun, and so on, in place of scriptural values (including Judeao-Christian humanism and anticapitalism).

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