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.