When we say the word “democracy” what do we mean? My hunch is that most people immediately think of voting, party politics and perhaps the rule of law. Few, if any, think about the relational practices through which we transform asymmetries of power and negotiate rival visions of human flourishing.
Yet democratic politics lives or dies by the quality and character of the relationships that make it possible. Democratic politics names a set of practices for generating forms of relational power and cooperation.
Democratic politics is not just participation in decision making, but also the capacity of ordinary people to act collectively to reconstitute their common life through shared speech and action.
And yet, in the contemporary moment, it is the very possibility of shared speech and action amid difference and disagreement that is under threat or seems implausible — talk of “culture wars,” “polarization” and “incivility” are commonplaces of the commentariat. But the lifeblood of democracy is building relationships with people with whom you disagree, or that you don’t like, or even that you find threatening.
Listening and speaking
If politics is to be democratic, its most basic building block is the capacity to listen to others, not like oneself.
At its most basic, if we are listening to others we are neither coercing nor killing them. If we are listening, we are not pretending to be in control or trying to determine the outcome before the conversation begins — rather, we are trusting that wisdom is to be found, not just among those I understand or like or who are like me, but also among those I don’t understand and find strange or even scandalous. To listen is to say to others: you are worth listening to, you have value.
Democratic politics is a means through which we learn to listen and thereby discover a shared world of meaning and action — or what I call a common life. Democratic politics understood as a set of relational practices fosters forms of disciplined and active listening, and a way we can discover with and for others just and generous forms of common life.
A condition of hearing when listening is the ability of those speaking to talk freely if they are to speak truthfully. Free speech — in the sense of the freedom to speak our mind — is therefore the complement to the need to listen. Such speech can take the form of passionate cries, stirring lament, polemic, impatient invective and angry speeches, all of which are often vital forms of democratic communication. This is true particularly when agitating those who hold concentrated power or who are acting oppressively but who refuse to listen.
Voicing and enacting (through marches or sit-ins, for example) that for which we grieve or what we are angry about is crucial for generating change. From the Hebrew prophets and Psalms onward, personal lament, anger and grief give birth to public speech and action that contest an unjust status quo.
However, while prophetic jeremiads can be powerful, they suffer from the law of diminishing returns — especially if they are the only form of public speech deployed. Moreover, to be sustained, both listening and free speech need to be anchored in a shared commitment to the formation of a common life in which the thriving of all is the aim.
So while there is a responsibility to listen, and thereby not merely tolerate but honour dissent as a part of democratic politics, dissent itself has responsibilities. One is to communicate in a way that can be heard. Yelling denunciations at those with whom we disagree provides invigorating compensations to the ones shouting, but screaming rarely produces understanding, let alone change. And no one is under any obligation to listen to vitriolic, ad hominem, libellous slurs — a contemporary example of which is online trolling.
Power and relationality
Democratic politics does not only involve listening and talking, rather than killing or coercing. It is politics, and so requires ways and means of organising and reorganising power. That is to say, it requires the agency to speak and act with others.
The ability to speak and act and the question of who can act and speak demands attention to what, in theological terms, is called sin. An account of sin contends that not only is our ability to act rightly impaired, but so is our ability to think rightly about what is true, good and beautiful. In nontheological terms, oppressive structures of power systemically distort processes of decision making and who can act with and for others, and whose actions count as legitimate or authoritative. Any analysis needs to face the reality of sinful power relations — that is, how are certain forms of knowledge and action legitimised and others marginalised, to the benefit of some and the detriment of others?
But the lesson to be learned from taking sin seriously as a political reality — whether we draw on Marx, Foucault or Augustine to develop such an account — is not that all moral claims in politics are hypocrisy. The lesson is rather that the first step to a politics that is more moral, is realizing that we are not. The next step is to take responsibility for our sinfulness and establish the representation of other interests and voices in the decision-making process. We can thereby constructively address the contested nature of knowledge and judgment. But to do so involves having the humility to know that despite our expertise or experience, we do not possess a monopoly on wisdom.
Through acting in concert, the weak can resist the unilateral actions of money-power and state-power to establish goods in common — better working conditions or cleaner air — on which the flourishing of everyone depends. The early labour, civil rights, women’s and environmental movements are all examples of such relational power in action. Overly deterministic accounts of unilateral power, or the domination of structural forces such as capitalism, can be antipolitical. They do not allow for the reality of the kinds of agency constituted by relational power and shrewdness and which in turn can form the basis of a more just and compassionate common life. Thus David (possessor of dexterity, sureness of eye and sharp-wittedness) can beat Goliath (possessor of overwhelming force).
In democratic politics, building power takes four interrelated forms: organised knowledge, organised money, organised people and organised action.
The first, organised knowledge, generates the frameworks of analysis and understanding through which to re-narrate and reimagine the world, thereby destabilising the dominant scripts and ideas that legitimate oppression. It entails informal, self-organised forms of “popular education” that aim to help those involved to discern and describe their political, economic and social conditions, enabling them to move toward alternative ways of understanding themselves and their situation. In the civil rights movement, “citizenship education” pioneered by Septima Clark, Ella Baker and Dorothy Cotton was a vital if often overlooked element of the movement’s success.
Crucial to this process of discernment is enabling people to reflect on their conditions through broader frameworks of interpretation. Such “consciousness-raising” is essential for generating an alternative community of interpretation, one with the organised knowledge to identify and analyse an issue and articulate a position or set of demands.
The second form, organised money, is shorthand for generating the material and economic resources and conditions to act independently from the state, one’s employer, or the patronage of elites.
The third form, organised people, then builds the relational ties, networks, trust, affective registers and cooperation that sustain relational power over time. Such ties and networks are necessary to generate movement from the world as it is, to a more just and compassionate one. One strand of such work is place-based — for instance, community organising, community development, burial societies, neighbourhood associations — and the other is work-based forms of economic democracy — such as cooperatives and unions. And in the contemporary context, online forms of mobilising alongside on-the-ground forms of organising contribute to this work.
The fourth form, organised action, entails two things, either separately or combined. First, it is action that symbolically and physically contests oppressive, corrupt or unresponsive structures, groups and practices. This contestation aims at delegitimising existing arrangements through various kinds of direct action: marches, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies, boycotts and the like. Second, it is the formation of practices and institutional arrangements that prefiguratively embody and exemplify the change that is sought.
Some combination of organised knowledge, money, people and action is the engine of democratic politics. How they are combined and performed depends in part on the context, but also on how what it means to be a good democratic citizen is imagined and narrated… continue reading here.
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. His most recent book is Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy.