Social Justice Discourse and the Congregational Form

My friend Alex wrote a very good blog post about the ways in which anti-oppression discourse have been put to use by the powerful, or as she puts it, left-wing language being put to right-wing purposes. She cites the example of the concept of “safe space” being deployed by campus Zionists (and their friends in college administrations) to hound pro-Palestine students, Teach for America’s enthusiastic post-Katrina rebranding as hashtag-happy civil rights organization, Hillary Clinton’s almost admirably shameless appropriation of anti-racist/anti-sexist rhetoric to bash proponents of economic justice. These people and other powerful figures are taking effective advantage of anti-oppression rhetoric. The sorts of people who first developed and promulgated it – activists in an oppositional relationship to oppressive power, or those who would take up the activist role – are not; the anti-oppression left is confused and scattered. Anyone who has been in left or liberal activism in the last decade or so will know these issues. Alex’s post is a fine piece on a topic that can be difficult to find the right words for, and well worth reading. In discussing it on facebook, she suggested that I write something on how this dynamic came about, knowing that I have an interest in the history of the right. Is there something there that can help explain how all of this well-meaning discourse became so muddled?

As far as I understand it, the issue from a left perspective is two-fold. First, an asset has been seized. Pointing to the oppressive aspects of everyday structures was a thing that could be used to challenge power and now powerful oppressive forces from Wells Fargo to the Clinton campaign have taken advantage of this tactic, and being considerably more powerful than small groups of activists, can use it more broadly. Second, this appropriation has created a muddle. This dynamic would be much less of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that use of the language itself is understood as being weighty in and of itself. Much of what distinguishes contemporary anti-oppression discourse – a central reason why we see it as distinct from earlier generations of struggles against structural bigotry – is the priority it gives to representation, imagery, private group dynamics, and personal comportment. So Hillary Clinton seizing upon this language and insisting that “breaking up the big banks won’t end sexism,” as though either goal actually matters worth a damn to her, may be transparently insincere and an obvious strawman. But within the discourse itself, there are few resources beyond “I don’t trust Clinton, here’s why” to reject what the candidate said.

It gets still more muddled in situations with people who haven’t got Clinton’s awful record but who also attempt to pit the priorities of what’s called “social justice” against class solidarity – and that popular discourse understands the two as separate categories is a major part of the problem. The continued careers of a range of figures from DeRay McKesson to Tim Wise to Amanda Marcotte bear this out. Depending on where you stand, they may come off as more or less insincere or more or less useful (typically less- this post won’t be useful to you if Amanda Marcotte is), but as far as social justice discourse is concerned, that’s just, like, your opinion, man- and quite possibly a “problematic” one revealing of deep personal flaws. And so, well-meaning leftists (especially left-liberals) don’t know what to do. Hence the paralysis Alex talks about, the frustration from which inspired her post.

A man who did not die that long ago but who writes as though he lived on another planet entirely from the effervescent froth of the political internet can shed some light on this muddle, I think. His name was Carl Schmitt, and he was a lawyer and one of the great political philosophers of the twentieth century. He was also a Nazi. He joined the party late (a story goes he stood in line to register with his good friend Martin Heidegger), and was never popular with the party, but join he did. Unlike Heidegger, Schmitt never recanted, never underwent denazification, and lived much of his postwar life in exile in Franco’s Spain. Nazi or not, his work – limpid, lucid prose that gets right to the philosophical essence of politics – enjoyed a renaissance in critical circles after his death, including use by leftist political theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Susan Buck-Morss.

Before he joined the Nazis, Schmitt was a member of the Catholic Center Party (something that helped make Himmler and other Nazi chiefs suspicious of him). Many of his works bear the stamp of his interest in theology and ecclesiastical governance concepts. In one of his most famous essays, “Political Theology” (written in 1922, before joining the Nazis), Schmitt argues that all theories of the state – his main focus as a lawyer and political theorist – are in fact “secularized theological concepts.” “The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of political organization.” It’s not that the absolute monarchs of the Enlightenment decided that Descartes’ model of God was worth emulating, or that the monarchs who retook the thrones of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon thought that Catholic theology would make good bolstering rhetoric for their power moves, though both might be true. It’s that at a basic structural level, both the metaphysical religious ideas and the political ideas of a given time are isomorphic to each other.

The only examples Schmitt gives – it’s a short essay – are Catholic philosophers (Bonald, de Maistre, Donoso Cortes) and authoritarian governments. He does not extend his argument to the functioning of non-authoritarian states or his arguments about theology to a non-Catholic context; one gets the distinct impression he didn’t take democracy or Protestantism seriously. I’ve long wondered what it’d look like if he did. Maybe if the US government had scooped him up in Operation Paperclip and dumped him in Ann Arbor, instead of him winding up in Spain… but alas, political theory doesn’t build ICBMs, directly anyway.

I think about this when I look at the muddle between social justice discourse and leftist politics. What sort of religious concepts could we map what we’re seeing on to? I believe it can map on to many of the concerns and practices of congregational Protestantism. People are trapped by oppression much like they’re trapped by sin. There is a way out, but it is a single, hard, narrow path, and one can never be sure whether one is actually on it; indeed, as in Calvinism, one of the surest ways to know that you’re not on the right path in social justice circles is to pridefully assume that you are (anyone hear from Suey Park lately?). Only your personal rectitude could reflect — not earn — redemption and grace… and so personal rectitude became very important to the believer’s sense of their place in the universe. In congregational denominations, the community of believers carries with it both the glory and the burden of steering their own path to the state of grace- there’s little or none in the way of an ecclesiastical organization (or a left party) to correct them. In this context, any backsliding is understood as both an affront to the source of all truth in the universe and a metaphysical danger to the community as a whole. If the community is sinful and/or “fucked up” (gotta say- the King James sounds a lot better than tumblr… sorry fam), then the people in it are in grave danger of falling from grace. And moreover, unlike Catholicism and more hierarchical forms of Protestantism like Lutheranism or Anglicanism, there’s no accepted, formalized ritual of contrition. No priest is going to let you off the hook with a few hail marys! No, you need to go before the community and perform your contrition. Explain yourself in whatever métier the congregation expects – cry, if needs be – and rededicate yourself to your faith. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any of disgraced former social justice celebrity Hugo Schwyzer’s many mea culpas for being a sleazy, sexually-manipulative piece of shit. Change out the references, and they could be any televangelist going before his flock to tearfully admit to ripping them off and having affairs with his office workers, complete with notionally confessional but actually pornographic details of how awful (read: awfully fun) his wicked ways were. At least Schwyzer’s congregation was smart enough to refuse to take him back.

The forms of congregational Protestantism are in many respects the ur-organizational form of civil society in the United States. The problem set of Calvinism – wringing grace and assurance from an angry inscrutable God and managing complex issues of community trust without a formal established hierarchy – mapped on to the problem set of early capitalism (as Max Weber so famously demonstrated) and of establishing trust boundaries in frontier communities freshly conquered from Native Americans (as Weber less famously demonstrated). Immigrants from other religious traditions integrated into a civil society structured by the assumptions of this Protestant-bourgeois complex- Catholics and Jews adapted it, changed it some ways, but mostly were changed by it. As Schmitt would tell you, it’s not a matter of belief or unbelief. It’s a matter of structural imagination.

Opportunists like Wells Fargo or the Clinton campaign will attempt to seize hold of any tool they can grab. But the way that anti-oppression discourse became a desirable tool in the first place is also the thing that makes its use so muddled and makes it harder to shake opportunists off. Personal comportment is important. The way things were before my generation and the one after started taking this stuff seriously – with everyone acting as though a mediocre South Park writer lived in their head and fed them lines – was shitty. The left isn’t free from internalized oppressive attitudes and should address that. But especially in the lack of other big organizing projects – the state of affairs as anti-oppression gelled as a discourse, in the wake of the failure of the New Left and the socialist countries – the logic of community self-regulation becomes the reigning logic, and judgments brought in from other value systems are not welcome, are seen as a challenge. Challenging any reigning logic in an organizational culture is hard enough. Challenging one that insists, as part of its ideology and its practice, that its enshrinement is key to a given individual’s effort to redeem their lives? That’s a very dicey proposition and adds accelerant to the ferocious, highly personal fights you see surrounding this stuff.

Let me end on a hopeful note. Maybe one of the reasons Schmitt didn’t talk about Protestantism is because belief made him uncomfortable. One of the big lacunae in “Political Theology” is that it doesn’t describe how metaphysical images and their attendant political concepts change (it is, as I said, quite short). I wonder if they don’t sometimes change because people take their beliefs seriously, and when their organizing concepts no longer are in congruence with their values, sometimes, the organizing concepts change. Schmitt wasn’t big on the capacity of everyday people to change- reactionaries usually aren’t. I look around me and see people very genuinely dedicated to challenging the oppressive power structures around them- much more than there was when I was first gaining political consciousness. And while it won’t necessarily be easy, I think enough people believe in the struggle to seriously think about the forms their resistance will take, keep what works and change what needs changing.

Social Justice Discourse and the Congregational Form