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Fugitive Democracy: Sheldon Wolin and contemplating the local

April 25th, 2006 by isaac · 16 Comments

In the last chapter of The Epistle to the Hebrews, the author invites his audience into a communal life—a politics—that transgresses political and religious boundaries in order to welcome the world to come, the heavenly city of the Father offered to the church through the way of Jesus. He writes, “Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing denunciation for him, for we have here no abiding city, but seek the one that is to come” (Heb 13:13). What does it mean for the political body called ‘church’ to look for Jesus at the edge of the polis, to walk in the strangeness beyond the established political routes?

The political theory of Sheldon Wolin offers a map of the contemporary political landscape—the polis in all its complexity—that might help us see how the political and economic world of the elite have captured our lives and our imaginations. Although his vision of the present configuration of postmodern power is dark, Wolin leaves us with a possible hope: fugitive democracy. Can Christians receive Wolin’s democratic vision as a gift that illumines a wandering path into a way of experiencing politics—of joining forces with other political bodies—that transfigures the church into a hospitable space for the world to come? Can the church follow Wolin’s lines of sight toward episodic sparks of democracy barely visible to eyes shaped by institutional politics—a fugitive democracy outside the established routes of power…and look there to find the lineaments of God’s face, the face of a stranger, the face of Jesus? For Jesus, according to Hebrews, dwells in the unfamiliar places outside the camp, outside our walled security, outside our well-ordered political spaces.

For Sheldon Wolin, the political theorist’s task is twofold: to engage in a continual investigation of the shape of “the political” over time that (1) supplies the people of the present with resources to discern dangerous paths and (2) supplies sources of light from the past that illumine hopeful possibilities (Politics and Vision, pp. 3-26). Wolin, operating in this first mode of political theory, traces the modern state along a path that seeks to separate its plane of sovereignty from the political power of the citizen. The state has become a political structure with a life of its own, driving a wedge between citizens and power. Through the highly sophisticated organizational apparatuses called ‘bureaucracy,’ significant political activity occurs, for all practical purposes, invisibly from the ordinary lives of modern citizens. Wolin writes, “The emergence of bureaucracy had an enormous impact upon the politics of modern political societies and the prospects of democratization. It introduced permanent, virtually self-perpetuating power structures designed to be independent of regimes of political parties, to be the embodiment of specialized expertise, ‘outside’ politics” (402). Everyday political power no longer rests with the citizens, but takes place among the self-perpetuating power structures apparently disconnected from the activity of ordinary people.

The modern state is the ultimate abstraction that perpetuates a fiction of legitimacy rooted in illusions of political participation that goes by the name ‘constitutionalism.’ Constitutionalism domesticates the power of the masses of ordinary citizens through structures of authority that set the terms for proper avenues of political participation (404).  Rituals, “such as elections and coronations,” eviscerate the citizen of modern self-governance and inscribe their shriveled bodies into the postmodern “political economy” (405).  Wolin writes, “The citizen is shrunk to the voter: periodically courted, warned, and confused but otherwise kept at a distance from actual decision-making and allowed to emerge only ephemerally in a cameo appearance according to a script composed by the opinion takers/makers” (565).  Voting gives shrunken citizens the appearance of political power—the chance every few years ‘to make a difference’—thus pacifying the people. In his essay “Fugitive Democracy” (see Democracy and Difference, pp. 31-44), Sheldon Wolin gives an extended account of how voting, especially in “constitutional democracies” like the United States, is a powerful tool for the elite to use in taming the anarchic movements of the demos:

Voting merges into a fluent process whose illusory connection with the demos is prolonged by the periodic election of senators and representatives and by the continuous commentary manufactured by the media. The result is an illusion of perpetual political motion launched initially by democratic elections. Meanwhile a parallel politics of process—legislative, administrative, judicial, and military—flows continuously of its own accord. Electoral campaigns are preserved as the lessons that consultants huckster. For the demos they are soon forgotten. It must now get its politics vicariously and passively through the pronouncements of television oracles, talk-show babble, and the political burlesque hustled by the pundits. (p. 34) 

As citizens are lulled to sleep through the rituals of modern, constitutional bureaucracy, a newly emerging power transgresses the boundaries of modern power in order to incorporate “all spheres of life” into a political economy where “democracy is viewed warily, for its potential threat to social stability” (Politics and Vision, p. 564). 

In the emerging political economy, Wolin discerns an “anti-political” movement that coordinates the corporation and the state in a drive toward Superpower—that is, “an expansive system of power that accepts no limits other than those it chooses to impose on itself” (p. xvi). As this ‘postmodern’ political economy tends toward Superpower, those in positions of authority demand a new form of citizen: the imperial citizen. Sheldon Wolin reminds us of American president George W. Bush during the tense moments after September 11th, 2001, who exhorted the people to show their citizenship through consumption: “unite, spend, and fly” (590). This pastoral concern by the president emblemizes the postmodern power of the political economy as it reconstitutes “civic culture” as a flattened plane detached from the dynamic structures of Superpower’s soveriegn handle of world affairs. The best thing citizens can do is prove their patriotism by submitting to the authority of the established powers without a word of protest or difference (thus the encouragement to “unite”). Rather than spending unnecessary time and energy worrying about the changing shape of common life—of the networks that bind us to near and distant neighbors—the postmodern citizen faces the multiplicity of demands and choices available at the local Starbucks as she scrolls through the latest bids on ebay while listening to music on her iPod as she waits for the latest iTunes song to upload on her iBook.  With so much to do, why worry ourselves with what our representatives are paid to do? This is the imperial citizen according to Superpower—a free-floating, apolitical subject, moved by the television pulse from the security of home to the perpetual satisfaction of shopping malls. “Superpower needs an imperial citizen,” writes Wolin, “one who accepts the necessarily remote relationship between the concerns of the citizen and those of the power-holders, who welcomes being relieved of participatory obligations, and who is fervently patriotic.” (565).

Sheldon Wolin’s careful analysis of the contemporary political landscape shines a light into the dark corners of our society and helps us see how the economic polity of this postmodern age has taken on a life of its own, thus shedding the need for the participation of the people as it heads toward Superpower. Surely a church called out from the city, as Hebrews puts it, must escape the captivating lull of the postmodern political power arrangements that Wolin helps us see. For if churches and other assemblies want to see and live in a better world, they must re-form themselves into a hospitable space that cries out imaginative possibilities that break through the ever-increasing domain of Superpower. But Wolin’s bleak portrait of contemporary society and the flexibility of postmodern power cannot help but put a skeptical question mark to any claims of escape: Can any political movements, any counter-politics, firmly establish themselves in a position outside the seemingly omnipresent reach of postmodern power? At stake in this question is political hope. Wolin offers some ways to think about political renewal in the form of “fugitive democracy.” But is it hopeful? With this question in mind, I will explicate Wolin’s “fugitive democracy” to catch his democratic hope in the local.

To introduce hope into this discussion of democratic politics is not necessarily a Christian imposition. After his bleak account of the rise of Superpower, Sheldon Wolin pauses to consider a modest hope: “If the economic polity represents a drive towards totality implied in Superpower and ever closer to its perverted form, totalitarianism, then the pressing question is whether there are countervailing forces that, while not powerful enough to effect a transformation, may stake out a political place in which to develop a counter-paradigm” (595). For Wolin this struggle of resistance doesn’t escape to other linguistic territory, but stays in the conversation with the demagogues of Superpower—and this conversation operates on the terrain of democracy.

Where the American political rhetoric capitalizes on images of democracy, Wolin argues that they hypocritically manipulate the language to legitimate their systems of power. The trouble with all attempts to use the narrative of democracy to support systems of political power, argues Wolin, is the inherent antagonism between democracy and so-called ‘democratic’ institutions. “As a starting-point it is necessary to reject the classical and modern conception that ascribes to democracy ‘a’ proper or settled form.” Wolin continues: “That kind of institutionalization has the effect of reducing democracy to a system while taming its politics by process” (601). Systems of government and institutions of sovereignty attempt to tame democracy by claiming it as a political process with established modes of participation and legitimacy.

Concerned to maintain their established power, elites throughout political history attempt to stabilize the anarchic movements of the people by forming “constitutional democracy.” The epigraph for Wolin’s essay “Norm and Form” (see Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, pp. 29-58) posits Aristotle as the champion of constitutional democracy in its ancient Athenian form: “A constitution [is] an organization of offices in a state, by which the method of their distribution is fixed, the sovereign authority is determined, and the nature of the end to be pursued by the association and all its members is prescribed.” Democracy in the vein of Aristotle predetermines what counts as politics by imbuing the constitution with the power to set the bounds of democratic activity. And this version is the usual “mage of ‘normal’ democracy”—that is, “democracy housed within a constitution” (“Norm and Form,” 31). But constitutional democracy, both Aristotle’s version and the American variety, is “an ideological construction designed not to realize democracy but to reconstitute it and, as a consequence, repress it” (32). Thus, constitutionalism names the (repressive) process by which the disruptive potential of the demos (i.e., the multitudes) is stabilized in a form that directs the lawless masses toward the ends of the elite (34).

Wolin wants to give voice to the repressed voices of the demos, the primary movements of ordinary people that fuel secondary projects of containment and imposed formation. “I propose accepting the familiar charges,” states Wolin, “that democracy is inherently unstable, inclined toward anarchy, and identified with revolution and using these traits as the basis for a different, aconstitutional conception of democracy”  (37). It is a mistake to read Wolin at this point as an anarchist as such, or desiring anarchy for anarchy’s sake. Rather, his insight into the political life of ordinary people shows how every movement towards constitutionalism creates an abstraction, a system of governance, beyond the control of the demos and given over to elitist hands. Wolin writes, “A political constitution is not the fulfillment of democracy but its transfiguration into a ‘regime’ and hence a stultified and partial reification” (55). Thus, for Wolin democracy is always the revolutionary activity of the common people as they come together temporarily in an act of resistance against the certain injustices of the imposed established regime, constitutional or otherwise.

If democracy, as Wolin narrates it, is always “a rebellious moment” rather than “a form of government” (54-56), then is there any hope for permanence, for an abiding democracy, a place where one may go in order to participate in democracy? This question, it seems, may lead in the wrong direction. Wolin’s democracy is fugitive—it can’t be tracked, nailed down… It can appear anywhere. It’s “a moment rather than a form,” —an episode exploding beyond fixed centers of power (“Fugitive Democracy,” 39-40). It’s “an ephemeral phenomenon rather than a settled system” (Politics and Vision, 602). As soon as one desires to predict or pattern its appearance, or as soon as one seeks to secure democracy’s permanence, the conditions of its advent cease. Wolin answers the question of permanence bluntly: “Democracy is not about where the political is located but about how it is experienced” (“Fugitive Democracy,” 38). Anxious quests to locate democracy, to feel the embrace of the common, lead our gaze away from the multiplicity of locals converging at our every step where we may experience moments of democratic hope.

But before we take Wolin’s fugitive democracy as a call to flighty engagements with others, momentary interactions content to dance on the surface of things, we must thicken his account of ‘experiencing the local.’ A citizen of Wolin’s fugitive democracy embarks into a way of life that “lives in the ebb-and-flow of everyday activities, responsibilities, and relationships” (Politics and Vision, 604). And in this commitment to the local, to the depth all around us, a fugitive democrat hopes to discover many already gathered in “response to deeply felt grievances or needs on the part of those whose main preoccupation…is to scratch out a decent existence” (603).

Sheldon Wolin’s fugitive democracy offers a strange hope—a hope rooted in the conviction that the world is not as peaceful as it seems. In our age of Superpower, a fugitive democracy must resist the pacifying rhetoric about ‘getting along’ and showing ‘patriotic unity.’ “The central challenge at this moment,” declares Wolin, “is not about reconciliation but about dissonance, not about democracy’s supplying legitimacy to totality but about nurturing a discordant democracy” (605-606). It will be discordant because “it is rooted in the ordinary”—the multiplicity of differences bound together in any given point. And it is stubbornly fixed on the ordinary—the struggles of the everyday—because every point in the networks of relationships around us teems with life, rages with possibilities. Every point in the local, every event of ordinary life, bubbles with deep flows that may take us into undiscovered worlds of promise, into hopeful futures. Fugitive democracy is a call to look deeply into the present and wait for the familiar to grow strange, for that strangeness is the fertile soil where hope grows.

Wolin’s fugitive democracy is a gift to the church as it looks for Jesus outside the city, as Hebrews puts it. Wolin’s call to consider democracy as a mode of experience that digs into the deeps of democratic hope all around us may remind Christians of the contemplative tradition. Rowan Williams gives an account of the contemplative life that calls for habits of presence amidst a world of fantasies of escape. We are called “to a particular kind of stillness” where we put ourselves “in the presence of the present.”  (Christ on Trial, 21)Like Wolin’s localism, Williams’ contemplative Christianity is a call to a certain kind of experience of the present, a mode of life that gazes into the strange depths of life flowing from every ordinary point in the world. Williams writes, “the beginning of stillness is a patient attention to where you are and to what is going on within you. Observe the rhythms of your heart and breath; try to look at or to name the preoccupations, fears, desires, that are around in your mind and heart; feel the texture of the chair or the floor. Arrive. The hardest thing in the world, they say, is to be where you are” (ibid). Through habits of stillness we learn to arrive in the world, not to escape to some fantasy of the heavenly throne room. “Contemplation,” writes Williams, “cannot properly be a prostration before a power outside us; it is a being present to ourselves in our world” (On Christian Theology, 76).

When Rowan William’s contemplative Christianity is read with Sheldon Wolin’s fugitive democracy, the church may come to see political activity in the vein of radical democratic movements as sites where God’s hope arrives—but the question for the church is, will you be there to welcome it? Since “the welcoming reality of God breaks through the network of human transactions” (Christ on Trial, 137), as Williams writes, then the church may learn that Wolin’s contemplative vision of the local is the network of human transactions where the depths of God flow forth.

Tags: papers

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Apr 25, 2006 at 8:44 am

    If someone wants sources for all the quotes, email me: isv2@duke.edu

  • 2 Jason // Apr 25, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    Nice fusion of political theory and contemplative Christianity, Isaac. A few question, of course, are in order :). Who are the “elites” you refer to? The Superpower seems to be a non-human entity on the one hand and yet these “elites” seem to have some part in steering it, using its power, etc. If these elites are actually directing the Superpower is there any theoretical reason why every citizen couldn’t be an “elite” who is directly involved in this power? Maybe that is what occurs in local politics?

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the link between contemplation and fugitive democracy. Is it that in being present to ourselves, God, and the world we will be enabled to noticed “deeply felt grievances and needs”?

  • 3 David // Apr 27, 2006 at 7:53 am

    Interesting take on political theory – I very much enjoyed your blog essay. I was especially drawn to your reference to the now “Unrecognized Superpower Postulants” whose overall participation in a constitutional democratization has been “pacified” and “severed.” I would readily agree with this statement in large part. However, I do hold a few questions if you get the chance to reply.

    1. The political world of the elite (i.e. Superpower) – Would you perceive it as more an unconscious political and democratic movement, or a conscious move on the part of whomever the Superpower makes up (specifically in United States)? Is it a demanding of Wolin’s so-called “imperial citizenship” as much as it is a democratic narrative whose past and present insufficiencies are unfortunately glossed over because a new polis – a Church- has not stepped up to become the countertype Church? Has it (i.e. the Church), in effect, failed in to educate both unrecognized Superpower elites as well as a definitive Christian cohort – some of whose members still relish comfortably in the shopping malls and multiple Starbucks?

    Furthermore, taking Wolin’s fugitive democracy coupled with William’s contemplative Christianity is insightful, but seems to me vastly incomplete. I will concede that it is a novel beginning to form a revolutionized mindset, but the practicality issues would undoubtedly need to be revisited (What does such a discordant democracy ultimately lead to for Christians? A Hauerwasian “Radical Theocracy?” – Would this Thearchy ultimately turn into another form of Unrecognized Thearchic Superpower?) Interested in seeing your reply, particularly if Wolin had any other insights on the matter.

  • 4 Eric Lee // Apr 27, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    Isaac,

    Wow—really, really cool essay. Really thought-provoking as well as masterfully written, if I say so myself. I think I am perhaps as fascinated by the juxtaposition of Wolin and Williams as Jason is. Let’s see, he said:

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the link between contemplation and fugitive democracy. Is it that in being present to ourselves, God, and the world we will be enabled to noticed “deeply felt grievances and needs”?

    If I may wager a guess at clarifying this link, I would say that contemplation, in “being present to ourselves, God, and the world,” is the radical embodiment of a commitment to the local. It’s this locality that meshes so well with the contemplative aspect, which in itself is a radical thing in the way in which it is talked about, because at least when I think about contemplation, I think about meditating on other- worldly things to put myself at ease, as opposed to this -worldly things—the local.

    Isaac wrote, And in this commitment to the local, to the depth all around us, a fugitive democrat hopes to discover many already gathered in “response to deeply felt grievances or needs on the part of those whose main preoccupation…is to scratch out a decent existence.”

    Although it’s not mentioned, this is a far cry from contemplating the abstractions that take place at the ‘national’ level. Because abstraction on this level only takes place, there is no depth, no well of locality from which to draw. Depth is found within one’s own story and the particular stories of those around us.

    I dunno, maybe I was just repeating what Isaac already wrote. Thoughts?

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 5 isaac // Apr 27, 2006 at 6:56 pm

    First of all, thank ya’ll for reading such a long post! And, not just skimming, but reading it carefully enough to make some engaging comments.

    I think Jason’s comments are a great place to start: Who are the elites? And, What’s this Superpower? For Wolin, the elites are those who are invested in the project of the state. They are the ones who’ve got some power, some share of the soveriegnty, and must work to sustain the systems of the government to keep their power, or to keep their vision of the common good at the front of the national agenda. So, in his important essay on Athenian democracy, Wolin shows how Aristotle and Plato are driven to theorize for the sake of making permanent what they discern to be the goods of society (see “Norm and Form” in Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy). I think the point about the antagonism between democracy and systems of government Wolin makes is a pretty simple one. It’s like this: Every once in a while we experience something so good that we want make sure it happens the same way over and again. So, there are these democratic experiences throughout history that emerge and capture everyone’s imagination—people living under the control of soveriegnties are set free and feel their freedom and power. But then there is a secondary move, a consolidation project—the state project. The folks with the best skills in persuasion, or the most money, or the few with the most guns, get everyone’s attention and claim to know how to make sure everything will keep on going the same direction. And that secondary move begins the abstraction of power, the dislocation of ‘the political’ from the ordinary lives of the citizens to the power-brokers, the representatives, the select few chosen to walk the hallowed halls of centralized power.

    Now, how does this thing called Superpower fit into the picture? (David, I hope this gets at some of your questions about “Superpower”). Well, Wolin develops this concept to articulate the apparant tendencies of postmodern power. Where the Modern state birthed big government with lots of bureaucracy that facilitated the abstraction of power from the everyday, the power in the postmodern age seeks ‘lighter’ or ‘leaner’ modes of dominion or control. As Wolin puts it, “Government bureaucracies are encouraged to become ‘leaner,’ to delegate more authority to sub-units, to ‘privatize’ their services and functions, and to govern as much as possible by executive orders rather than by the time-honored but time-consuming and unpredictable legislative process” (Politics and Vision, p. xviii). In Wolin’s account, this postmodern state-form takes on a lighter and leaner apparatus to state-form in order to transgress limits, to reach beyond national boundaries and take hold of global powers. And the complex network of private corporations and government programs (including the military, of course) that constantly find new territory to invade, new markets to exploit, new resources to mine—this is the Superpower. The Superpower is, Wolin writes, “an expansive system of power that accepts no limits other than those it chooses to impose on itself”. In another place, he writes, “It is a furious drive for the innovations that promise greater rewards and expanded opportunities for exploitation. That drive is remarkable for its ability to keep extending the limits of the possible: the idea of limits becomes an incitement, new ‘challenges.’ Its state-form, Superpower, incorporates technological innovations and increasing productivity so that it strains at limits as it projects power throughout the world in pursuit of elusive terrorists, new markets, and new sources of energy” (Politics and Vision, p. 595).

    David and Jason, let me know if all that got at some of your questions and concerns about Superpower and democratic movement. As far as Jason and David’s concerns about contemplative politics, I think Eric Lee said what I tried to say better than I did. Does his comment make things clearer? David, could you say a little more about your worry about this thing you call “a Hauerwasian radical theocracy” and how a contemplative christianity that digs into the local figures into that? Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “Unrecognized Superpower Postulants” at the beginning of your comment. I think you are quoting me, but I couldn’t find those words in my post.

  • 6 David // Apr 28, 2006 at 8:44 am

    Thanks so much for the quick reply. For the record, I stumbled onto your blog recently and realized that its sound contents were very much worth reading and enjoying. I personally read and write quite a bit as a MA Theology student, but this was the first time I felt compelled to add a comment on any website mostly in part because 1.) I find myself agreeing more than disagreeing from the little I have read and 2.) It is always good to discuss theological, political, moral issues with engaging Christian brothers and sisters.

    To begin, Isaac I apologize for the parenthesis around Unrecognized Superpower Postulants…understandably you did not say those exact words in your text. I was merely highlighting your perceived references to Wolin’s “imperial citizens.” The Unrecognized Superpower Postulants was a term meant to further that mindset in which the postmodern individual does not worry about “what his/her representatives are paid to do” and that he/she is not conscious of the harm this mindset unfortunately bestows.

    Perhaps I may sound a little too Rahnerian here with all the hoopla on conscious and unconscious. My intent was to try to understand if the Superpower you explained so eloquently was doing this because 1.) They are caught up in a certain contingent democratic process, unconscious as to the ramifications of the “no-limits” mindset and its inevitable “exploitation” or 2.) Understand exactly what they are doing with their drive for unlimited innovation and hence their power and control. Perhaps the above is too simplified. However, with that being said, if it is an unconscious Superpower could one simply whip out Wolin’s argument to change minds in the Superpower structure itself, or is it ultimately worthless to preach to the Superpower and instead familiarize the Church with its own political understanding? It seems to me that the latter happens regardless, but what about the former? Does Wolin (and you) believe that such a fugitive democratic vision can take place in our society at large and not with just a few political bodies?

    I guess the way you ultimately answer that question might affect what I see as a possible Wolin Democracy / Hauerwasian Theocracy (from what I understand SH favors, Theocracy), especially if one in fact finds themselves in a political reality called a Church. If those in the Superpower consciously control power, want to exert it, and find no problems with an unchecked capitalism or bureaucracy, does the Church itself then become this fugitive democracy “outside the established routes of power?” If they do, would it might not lead to a subtle or not so subtle draw towards Theocracy? Finally, if the contemplative Church is simply one of many political bodies (any suggestions on whom these “others” may be?) coming together behind the Wolin’s “power route”, could this not also lead by change to a religious power control within the Church?

    In other words, I was wondering your take on where exactly the Church fits into Wolin’s political theory? Although I agree with much of what Wolin may be saying, I am having a hard time finding the real life consequences for the Church. Any thoughts for this non-Wolin scholar?

  • 7 Mel // Apr 28, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks for the post Isaac. It’s almost like being there….

    I am aware that I am the only person posting who isn’t in grad school. And, as you can imagine, the people who are most present to me as I read this are those with disabilities in the l’Arche community where I now live. This year we received new Medicare plans which means all the core members have co-pays for the many, many meds they take. We advocacted against this, wrote letters, sent money to organizations who lobbied this issue. We still lost. It’s still too early to know the ramifications this will have on the folks.

    My question, what does Wolin bring them? And you? Contemplation? Perhaps you will say the very witness of l’Arche communities acts in Williams/Wolin’s vein. After all, l’Arche is meant to be a “sign of hope in the world.” Our lives are disarmingly simple, seeping and infecting in the best way. There’s nothing particularly fugitive about it, however. Our common life looks a bit more like formation through practices. Yet, I can imagine some imagined similarities from the outside.

    But still, we are completely dependent on hospitals, medical companies, state certification, federal grants and legislative measures if we are, quite literally, going to keep the disabled alive. These are ties that cannot be severed. thoughts?

  • 8 isaac // May 1, 2006 at 4:30 am

    David, thank you for the kind comments. I’m grateful for your time in posting your thoughts here. You questions are great and I want to continue the conversation, but I have some pressing work that will occupy me till thursday. I ask for you patience.

    Mel, thanks for bringing all this Wolin stuff down to everyday concerns, and specifically calling our attention to the margins and marginalized, those who so easily fall off the political radar screen. I share some of your same concerns. I’ve spent the past year working with the developmentally disabled and mentally ‘handicapped’ in a state facility. So, I have faces and bodies to attach to your concerns. But like I said to David, I have some stuff that will be taking up all my thoughts and time till thursday. But I will be sure to think through some of these issues after that.

    blessings

  • 9 isaac // May 6, 2006 at 7:55 am

    David, thanks again for the questions. From my reading of Wolin (and I’m no “Wolin scholar” either), it seems like he isn’t too hopeful for “democracy” to take place in the superstructures of government and the tendencies toward Superpower of the newly emerging “economic polity” (the inter-connected web of multi-national corporations and governments—think along the lines of that recent movie, Syriana). Wolin does not seem to be so interested in “changing the minds in the Superpower structure itself,” as you put it. The hope for democracy occurs on the local level, in neighborhoods. The image Wolin harkens back to what Tocqueville’s sees when he comes to America: township meeting. Those town meetings are the center of democratic hope for America. Wolin calls them “the school-houses of democracy.” Democracy is birthed in the deep roots of the local, as working folks gather together and construct a common by resisting the totalitarian forces of political absraction. But, for Wolin, there is also a modest hope that these local democratic moments might explode into a wild fire that spreads to the superstructures, to the centers of power, to the powers of government. He is not opposed to that, but he has his doubts that those who hold so much power will willingly abdicate their thrones.

    So, as David appropriately presses, what does all this mean for the church? That’s a great question. If you talk to those among the camp of Radical Democracy (like Rom Coles), the church may serve as part of the movements of fugitive democracy. He would point to the Industrial Areas Foundation (check out this book) and the local affiliate Durham CAN and how chuches play an vital part in democratic organizing. And, if radical democrats like Coles and others think about the church as important to fugitive democracy, and if Stanley Hauerwas can think of himself as among the ranks of “radical democracy” (see this Cross Currents essay), then I have a hard time figuring out how this might be a “subtle draw towards Theocracy”, as you put it. I’m not seeing the connection just yet. Maybe you can say a little bit more, though.

    I think the reason why Wolin may help the church is because he gives us a way to think about “democracy” and politics that doesn’t have to play the political game of the powerful, of the elites, of the aristocracy. And I think it’s a decidedly Christian move to look toward those spaces outside the established lines of political power. That’s what I pick up on in Hebrews: we are called outside the camp, outside the city (Heb 13:13f). Attempts at erecting “lasting cities” or quests for political permanence on earth not only work against the call of Hebrews 11, but those concerns to sustain counties or nations or states distract us from our Christians calling to care for the neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner, the prisoner, the needy. Sure, those concerns may lead us into national debates, but what Wolin helps Christians see is that democracy starts in the local, in the neighborhoods, in those corners of the cities that we don’t want to drive through (let alone walk through), among the cheap laborers sustaining our common life. So, all that to say, I think Wolin gives the church a way to be political, to even care about “democracy,” that doesn’t buy into the logic of Empire or Superpower or political elitism (rule by the rich and powerful).

    All that is true and good for the church, I think. But I think the contemplative tradition of Christianity calls us even a bit further. And that’s what Rowan Williams helps us see. Here’s the last paragraph of my post again: “When Rowan William’s contemplative Christianity is read with Sheldon Wolin’s fugitive democracy, the church may come to see political activity in the vein of radical democratic movements as sites where God’s hope arrives—but the question for the church is, will you be there to welcome it? Since ‘the welcoming reality of God breaks through the network of human transactions’ (Christ on Trial, 137), as Williams writes, then the church may learn that Wolin’s contemplative vision of the local is the network of human transactions where the depths of God flow forth.” Contemplative Christianity is a call to be present to the present and there discover a creation that is sustained by the love of God. And Wolin’s politial gaze at the local echoes Williams call to experience the present network of human transactions as the site where God’s depths are discovered. This is a vision of a decidedly Christian political engagement that ventures outside the establishmentarian avenues of power to see Jesus: “let us go to him ouside the camp,” outside the complex structures of legitimate configurations of political power (Heb 13:13-14). But this way of seeing is in the mode of a contemplative gaze that is learned through the liturgy of the church, the place where we learn the story of the Father, revealed in Jesus, as we abide in the Spirit. We learn how to see and participate (or experience, to use Wolin’s terms) in Wolin’s fugitive democracy through our formation in Christ’s body.

    As to David’s question about how Sheldon Wolin’s description of political power relates to the way we think about “religious power control within the church,” I’m not sure what to say. Radical democracy makes sense to me because I’m a Mennonite and it seems to me that Wolin’s vision of the political echoes how we practice church—especially our commitment to listen to others, especially the enemy, and our way of decision-making that locates authority in consensus. I don’t know what Wolin’s description of political power would mesh with how other churches conceive of political power.

  • 10 isaac // May 21, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    If you are interested in getting a taste of Sheldon Wolin without having to buy one of his books, I recently stumbled across a piece he wrote that is available online: Inverted Totalitarianism. It’s a great essay.

  • 11 Andy Alexis-Baker // Oct 16, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    I recently picked up reading Wolin. As a Mennonite myself, I am interested in what he has to say. And I affirm what Isaac is writing about here. Too much Mennonite focus is on Washington D.C. How Wolin can help us is by focusing us back on the local, back on building up first of all our Mennonite structures and congregations so that we have real community there, rather than imitating the sham we get from the media.

    Isaac, this post is belated, but if you see it, we should be in contact I think.

    peace
    Andy Alexis-Baker

  • 12 isaac // Nov 2, 2006 at 3:32 am

    Andy,
    Thanks for visiting the site, and thanks for the positive response. I am also glad to hear that there are other Mennonites out there reading Wolin.

    Now that I’m a pastor, it’s been very interesting to hear how the folks I serve talk and think about church and politics. “Politics” names something that happens in government offices (yes, Washington D.C.). Every once in a while I’ll try to make some mention in my sermons of the church as political, and how the local activities of the church are also very important and political.

    Andy, thanks again and I’d enjoy dialogue.

  • 13 Inverted Totalitarianism and the Corporate State | OzHouse Alt News // Feb 27, 2012 at 7:10 am

    [...] From Fugitive Democracy: Sheldon Wolin and contemplating the local, the following quote offers an insight on the nature of political apathy that relegates one to accept a mad culture which is devoid from reality. “In the emerging political economy, Wolin discerns an “anti-political” movement that coordinates the corporation and the state in a drive toward Superpower—that is, “an expansive system of power that accepts no limits other than those it chooses to impose on itself” (p. xvi). As this ‘postmodern’ political economy tends toward Superpower, those in positions of authority demand a new form of citizen: the imperial citizen. Sheldon Wolin reminds us of American president George W. Bush during the tense moments after September 11th, 2001, who exhorted the people to show their citizenship through consumption: “unite, spend, and fly” (590). This pastoral concern by the president emblemizes the postmodern power of the political economy as it reconstitutes “civic culture” as a flattened plane detached from the dynamic structures of Superpower’s soveriegn handle of world affairs. The best thing citizens can do is prove their patriotism by submitting to the authority of the established powers without a word of protest or difference (thus the encouragement to “unite”). Rather than spending unnecessary time and energy worrying about the changing shape of common life—of the networks that bind us to near and distant neighbors—the postmodern citizen faces the multiplicity of demands and choices available at the local Starbucks as she scrolls through the latest bids on ebay while listening to music on her iPod as she waits for the latest iTunes song to upload on her iBook. With so much to do, why worry ourselves with what our representatives are paid to do? This is the imperial citizen according to Superpower—a free-floating, apolitical subject, moved by the television pulse from the security of home to the perpetual satisfaction of shopping malls. “Superpower needs an imperial citizen,” writes Wolin, “one who accepts the necessarily remote relationship between the concerns of the citizen and those of the power-holders, who welcomes being relieved of participatory obligations, and who is fervently patriotic.” (565).” [...]

  • 14 Inverted Totalitarianism and the Corporate State | TaJnB | TheAverageJoeNewsBlogg // Feb 27, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    [...] Fugitive Democracy: Sheldon Wolin and contemplating the local, the following quote offers an insight on the nature of political apathy that relegates one to [...]

  • 15 Nikolai // Jun 12, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    There is also an “active” if not activist form of the imperial citizen. Because inverted totalitarianism in its essence is an economic and commercial structure, political participation from below takes the form of disruptive commerce. There are varieties of disruptive commerce: 1) entrepreneurial exercises that temporarily threaten the multinational network but which might be incorporated into it by acquisition or, more likely, mimicry; 2) the truly disruptive but small; and, 3) the underground, with the potential to subvert the ecology and the dominance of the alpha simulators at the apex. The future unfolds from the underground, of course, as with Wikileaks, which shattered the easy distinction between the private and the public by suggesting (or at least demonstrating) that legitimate private interests lurk within public spaces.

  • 16 Inverted Totalitarianism and the Corporate State | Intellihub.com // Mar 20, 2013 at 11:14 am

    [...] From Fugitive Democracy: Sheldon Wolin and contemplating the local, the following quote offers an insight on the nature of political apathy that relegates one to accept a mad culture which is devoid from reality. [...]