Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Toward a New Politics

by Lambert Zuidervaart

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

Whereas Jonathan Chaplin’s two posts on Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation raise crucial conceptual issues in reformational social philosophy, many of the other posts on Part Three and the Epilogue raise important questions about political possibilities and implications, from Ben Fulman’s concerns about civil society, to Clinton Stockwell and Ruthanne Crapo’s reflections on cultural pluralism, Farshid Baghai’s reservations about the politics of “patient hope,” and Michael DeMoor’s issues concerning the politics of science. Let me take up each of these in turn.

Civil Society
Approaching chapter 13 from a different intellectual tradition than Jonathan Chaplin, Ben Fulman sees here “the blueprints for the future of critical theory.” What he especially appreciates, in relation to the successive generations of critical theory (from Theodor Adorno through Rainer Forst, one could say), is my combining an emphasis on the transformative potential of civil society with a call for normative critique and redirection of economic and political systems. In this combination he sees the potential for both emancipatory theory and emancipatory praxis. Fulman wonders, however, how agencies in civil society (he mentions art in particular) can stand up to new “nationalistic spirits” that “suffocate any opposing voices” and how civil society can “withstand attacks” from the administrative state, or from the proprietary economy, for that matter.

I have tried to identify “systemic pressures” on the arts (and, more broadly, on civil society) in my book Art in Public, where I also tell the story of one arts organization—the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan—that has tried to negotiate these pressures while promoting a social economy and democratic communication.[1] The story I tell presupposes a setting where civil-societal organizations are relatively robust, where there is a mixed economy (i.e., the economy is not simply proprietary and not simply governmental and also not simply a combination of these two), and where, in at least a modest fashion, the state supports and protects agencies in civil society (e.g., through tax policies and copyright laws). Typically, countries driven by a nationalist spirit or under a dictatorial regime are not like that. Nevertheless, efforts in such countries to counter nationalism or dictatorship require proto-civil-societal agencies, for example in the arts, education, and the media, where resistance and new social visions can take shape. One could see this take place during the so-called Arab Spring, despite the repression that has followed within many countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Perhaps the larger worry in Western countries is that too many agencies in civil society buy into the “objectives” of economic and political systems—on which, of course, they depend—and too many economic and political leaders fail to understand the normative roles of the civic sector and the public sphere in a life-giving society. That provides a larger background to the current Western “crisis in the humanities” and the degeneration of public debate into a bizarre brew of ideological attacks and celebrity politics. And yet; and yet … I remain convinced that such tendencies are not irreversible; that people and institutions can change; and that educators, artists, and public figures—including religious leaders—can make a difference in how society is organized and in the direction society heads. Indeed, as Fulman demonstrates, and as Sweetman notes in his response to Fulman’s post, the architectonic critique sketched in chapter 13 and painted more fully in other writings is not a merely theoretical exercise: it is praxis oriented. Further, because the critique is praxis oriented, ongoing work in social psychology is required, as Fulman indicates, and as Adorno and the Frankfurt School also understood.

I remain convinced that such tendencies are not irreversible; that people and institutions can change; and that educators, artists, and public figures—including religious leaders—can make a difference in how society is organized and in the direction society heads.

Pluralism and Praxis

The posts by Clinton Stockwell and Ruthanne Crapo on chapters 11 and 12, respectively, share this orientation toward praxis. Both of them emphasize the challenges of pursuing justice and solidarity in the context of radical religious and cultural pluralism. Compared with the time and setting in which reformational philosophy first emerged, these are new challenges—or newly visible challenges—and they call for significant revisions in reformational categories and research programs.

I am not convinced, however, that, as Stockwell suggests, an interconnected and holistic “shalom vision for the world” means we should lessen our concern to protect institutional differentiation and to maintain “vestiges of modernism.” Interconnection presupposes differentiation, and holism needs to come to expression via differentiated integration. I retain this social-philosophical understanding from Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, and I am quite wary of any creeping eco-communitarian holism-bolism where, like Hegel’s famous night where all cows are black,[2] all (people, institutions, creatures) become one.

Quite concretely, in modern differentiated societies and complex urban environments such as many readers of this blog likely inhabit, efforts at institutional de-differentiation would have two results that no shalom vision could want: one kind of institution (whether religious, political, or economic—most likely economic, and most likely proprietary) would come to dominate the others, and one sociopolitical grouping would secure or reinforce its hegemony. In other words, both institutional and cultural pluralism would suffer, at the price of both public injustice and a lack of intercultural solidarity. For me, then, the question to ask is not whether we should set aside or downplay modern differentiation. Rather, given modern differentiation, what would be the normatively appropriate way to transform it for the sake of interconnected flourishing—for the sake of shalom? As is obvious by now, my answer is what I call differential transformation.

Commenting eloquently on the experiences of her own highly diverse students, Ruthanne Crapo raises several questions about the intersections among spirituality, religion, and cultural pluralism. She also suggests that cooperative efforts within the social economy of civil society might be the best way for her millennial students to either learn religious practices or work out the social and political implications of such practices. I suspect one reason why civil society feels like a safe space, even a “religious space,” for younger people is that it is less highly structured and more informal than either traditional social institutions such as religion, family, and marriage or contemporary economic and political systems. Civil society is attractive to people who share an anti-institutional ethos. This ethos poses a challenge not only for traditional religions but also for established educational, political, and ethical institutions.[3]

Here it is crucial, however, to sort out the differences and connections between genuine cultural pluralism and good ole-fashioned individualism and consumerism. It is one thing for a student to say, for example, I am a Muslim immigrant woman protesting “gender injustice, Islamophobia, and institutionalized racism,” and quite another to say, I think I’ll try out some practices of mindfulness, yoga, and Ramadan fasting—they might give me more grit, align my chakras, and help out some poor people to boot. Without wishing to cast aspersions, I’d say the first of these probably involves a struggle over cultural identity; the second could very well be simply another consumerist pursuit of individual self-fulfillment.

Here it is crucial, however, to sort out the differences and connections between genuine cultural pluralism and good ole-fashioned individualism and consumerism.

If my hasty diagnosis is on the right track, then the challenge for the first student will be to find a sufficiently flexible sense of cultural identity. The challenge for the second student will be to find any sense of cultural identity at all. And the challenge for both students will be to reflect on the spiritual orientation that comes to expression in their searches for cultural identity, recognizing, for example, that even individualistic consumerism is a spiritually directed way of life.[4] If religious adherents support young people in such quests, then traditional religions will contribute to the development of genuine cultural pluralism and intercultural solidarity, and their houses of worship might, just might, become safe spaces, houses of refuge and renewal, where disenchanted young people experience, as Crapo says, “the joys, intimacy, and justice that religious communities … ought to offer.”

Politics of Hope

Farshid Baghai’s commentary on the Epilogue “Earth’s Lament” raises two other sets of questions concerning the orientation of a transformational philosophy toward praxis. One has to do with whether what I call “patient hope” for “God’s future” compromises “our openness to the singular character of suffering.” If I understand Baghai’s concern correctly, it seems as if having an assurance that God will usher in a new Earth would make us complacent toward real suffering and toward those who really suffer. If everything will work out fine in the end, why bother with lending a voice to suffering and resisting the sources of suffering? Don’t we need some sense of hopelessness to take suffering seriously?

These are profound questions, and I don’t have ready answers. But let me make two comments. First, whatever the brief Epilogue suggests, I would not equate having hope with having assurance. If you make me a promise, I might hope you will keep it. I might even trust you to keep it. Yet I might not be assured you will keep it. Even though fellow religionists might disagree, that is how I understand and experience the promise of a new Earth. I hope this promise will be kept and, on my less desperate days, I even trust that it will be kept. But I do not have assurance about this and, on my more desperate days, I do wonder whether we are fooling ourselves, whether, as Baghai worries, we simply block our philosophical ears with false consolations. Perhaps this unsettled mixture of hope and doubt helps explain why, in chapter 12, I describe faith as “hopeful trust” (239) and not as assurance, confidence, or belief. God’s future is promised; it is not assured.

My second comment concerns how this future would arrive. A new Earth, in which, as the psalmist says, justice and peace embrace, would not arrive without human efforts. Yet it also would not arrive because of human effort. Perhaps this is where Baghai’s “primary hopelessness” comes in. For, try as we might, human beings cannot rid the world of all sources of suffering, and yet we are called to keep trying. The patience of hope is to keep trying even though the object of hope—a new Earth—seems unachievable.

Baghai’s other set of questions has to do with the relation between patient hope and politics. He is right that the Epilogue says little about politics, although I would not agree that a concept of the political is completely absent. I mentioned in an earlier post my call in Social Philosophy after Adorno for “a democratic politics of global transformation.” Such a politics would aim at the long-term structural transformation and normative redirection of the three societal macrostructures that organize much of social life in Western countries and, arguably, in many other countries as well. What the Epilogue calls “societal evil” largely nests in the mutually reinforcing dynamics within and across these macrostructures, as sustained by a spirit of exploitation, domination, and boundless consumption. I think this calls for a new form of politics, one aimed at wresting economic control from the “one percent” while building a global civil society and strengthening or establishing democratic forms of suprastate legislation and governance. Such a politics would not preclude or supersede existing forms of environmental activism, struggles for recognition, and fights for economic equality, to mention a few examples. It would, however, provide a larger context and rationale for such local, regional, and national political efforts. I do not spell any of this out in the Epilogue, which began as a brief public address, but I think it is compatible with the social vision the Epilogue sets forth.

Would this new form of politics be revolutionary? In one sense, yes: it would aim at the thorough transformation of society as a whole. In another sense, however, the proposed politics would not be revolutionary, for it would not pretend that overthrowing one class or institution or systemic complex would suffice. I do not deny that political revolutions might be required in countries controlled by dictatorial regimes or ruthless corporations—provided the conditions for revolution are in fact in place. Yet I do not think political revolutions are enough in our highly globalized world. To put this as a paradox: by themselves, political revolutions might not be sufficiently revolutionary.

I do not deny that political revolutions might be required in countries controlled by dictatorial regimes or ruthless corporations—provided the conditions for revolution are in fact in place. Yet I do not think political revolutions are enough in our highly globalized world.

Science and Politics

Michael DeMoor also asks about the politics implied by a transformational philosophy, specifically about the politics of science. His questions arise from the essay “Science, Society, and Culture” (chapter 15) where, after criticizing Joseph Rouse’s pragmatic and deflationary approach, I propose a robust conception of scientific truth as one social domain within a more comprehensive and multidimensional process of truth. What prompts DeMoor’s questions is my call for the “normative rather than systemic” (311) integration of science with society. This leads to two sorts of questions. First, what would such normative integration look like, and would it lead to an overburdening of civil society? Second, how exactly should scientific knowledge and expertise “be integrated into the working of our various social institutions and practices,” especially in the field of public policy? These are pertinent and perceptive questions, and I’d like to take a shot at addressing them.

When I first gave various versions of the lecture (in 2004 – 2007) from which chapter 15 stems, I had not yet worked out the architectonic critique sketched in chapter 13. Nor had I written the long study on Dooyeweerd’s conception of truth that resulted in the essays reproduced as chapters 3 and 14. The architectonic critique took shape in my subsequent work on the book Art in Public, which appeared in 2011. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that the formulation in chapter 15 concerning the normative integration of science is incomplete. For there are two different but interlinked issues of integration here. One is the relation between normative and structural integration. The other is the relation between civil-societal and systemic integration.

Chapter 15 did not intend to suggest that systemic integration is completely illegitimate and to be avoided. Rather, given the high degree of systemic integration that is already in effect, contemporary attempts “to open science for public discussion” must aim at normative integration, and for this “a proper conception of scientific truth is crucial” (311). My background understanding was that many of the sciences are already deeply embedded in our economic and political systems, and that public discussion of the sciences currently tends not to ask broadly normative questions but rather narrower questions about systemic integration—roughly, how can we better insure that the sciences “pay off” economically and advance the agenda of administrative states? Public discussion about the sciences, and about university-level research and education, needs to break out of this straightjacket.

What chapter 15 fails to say is that systemic integration should also be normative. In other words, how scientific research and applications feed into economic and political systems should help redirect these systems toward genuine resourcefulness and justice; they should not simply grease “the flywheels of turbocapitalism” (311). Conversely, the economic support and administrative regulation of science provided by these systems should encourage science’s own normative redirection, toward a robust and life-giving pursuit of scientific truth. So the choice at this level does not lie between either normative or systemic integration, but rather between normatively deficient or normatively redirected systemic integration.

Similarly, with respect to civil society, it would be a mistake to think that a stronger integration of science with civil society would, in and of itself, lead to a genuine “democratization” of science. The simple reason for this is that civil society itself suffers from internal normative deficits, especially with respect to robust solidarity. So any attempt to strengthen the structural integration of science with civil society—for example, through new forms of education that raise public literacy in science or through not-for-profit centers of public deliberation about science—would also need to pursue a normative redirection of both science and civil society.

I am not sure what all of this means in practice, although I have tried elsewhere to offer a general vision of what I call social-ethical scholarship for the common good.[5] I definitely do not intend to “unduly burden civil-society institutions” or to “prevent political and economic actors and agencies from doing necessary work that only they can do,” as DeMoor puts it. Yet I do think civil society should have a greater role in shaping the scientific enterprise than universities and governments have been ready to acknowledge, especially when it comes to the priorities of government-funded research and the social-ethical assumptions and implications of the latest scientific discoveries.

Conversely, I also think scientific expertise, when properly oriented toward the common good and not simply toward maintaining science for its own sake, needs to inform public deliberation to a greater extent than populist politicians of various stripes seem willing to allow. That would be my initial response to DeMoor’s second question, about the integration of science into how various social institution and practices work. I would be the last to affirm that only scientific experts have the authority to make assertoric truth claims in a public setting. This is the responsibility of all communicative actors in a society and especially all citizens in a democratic polity. Yet I also would want to affirm that, because of the gifts, training, and professional standing scientists have received, they have a special responsibility, and thereby a specific authority, to pursue, uphold, and disseminate scientific truth. So I would describe the relation between scientific expertise and public deliberation as one of “directed co-responsibility,” a phrase I first developed to describe the relation between artists and their publics.[6]

I would describe the relation between scientific expertise and public deliberation as one of “directed co-responsibility,” a phrase I first developed to describe the relation between artists and their publics.

At the same time, as I have claimed in my “Living at the Crossroads” address, scientists have “an obligation to be trustworthy, accountable, and responsive in their work: trustworthy with respect to the tasks of learning, inquiry, and exploration; accountable for the significance and worth of their contributions; and responsive to the opportunities, issues, and contexts that deserve their attention. Although nonacademic institutions cannot prescribe what this means for any individual or group, socially responsible scholars will acknowledge the obligation to be trustworthy, accountable, and responsive, and they will constantly ask whether they are meeting it in their work.”[7]

Accordingly, when there is public deliberation about, say, climate change or the causes of poverty or the long-range impact of genetically modifying plants and animals, we need to take seriously the theories and findings of scientific experts and not dismiss them as simply one set of opinions among others or as ideologically motivated from the get-go. But we also should not immunize them against serious public deliberation. I am not sure whether the current political climate in North America and the operations of our legislative assemblies permit such a nuanced weighing of matters, but they should. Perhaps livelier engagements between scientists and citizens in the informal spaces of civil society would encourage this. Our colleges and universities, to the extent that they remain “centers within civil society for dialogical learning, critical inquiry, and creative exploration,”[8] should be at the forefront in promoting such engagements.


[1] See chapter 6 in Lambert Zuidervaart, Art in Public: Politics, Economics, and a Democratic Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 170-203.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 9.

[3] See in this connection two talks given in 2008 by my colleague Bob Sweetman at Another Brick in the Wall, an ICS Worldview Conference: “Why We Don’t Join Institutions Anymore” and “Will This Church Have Children?"

[4] I addressed this topic years ago in an essay titled “Consuming Visions,” chapter 5 in Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media, co-authored by Quentin J. Schultze, Roy M. Anker, James D. Bratt, William D. Romanowski, John William Worst, and Lambert Zuidervaart (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991).

[5] Lambert Zuidervaart, “Living at the Crossroads: Ethical Scholarship and the Common Good,” my Inaugural Address as founding Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics, Faculty Club, University of Toronto, October 24, 2011. It will appear as a chapter in Lambert Zuidervaart, Art, Education, and Cultural Renewal: Essays in Reformational Philosophy, Volume 2 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming), a companion volume to Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation.

[6] See Art in Public, 263-6.

[7] Zuidervaart, “Living at the Crossroads.”

[8] Ibid.

Lambert Zuidervaart is Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto and Professor of Philosophy, status only, at the University of Toronto. He and his wife Joyce Recker live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Philosophy at Calvin College. Recognized as a leading Adorno scholar, and widely published in aesthetics and social philosophy, he is currently developing a comprehensive and transformative conception of truth. His other interests include singing, hiking, and hanging out with friends and his Golden Retriever Hannah Estelle. In 2010 he published the literary memoir Dog-Kissed Tears: Songs of Friendship, Loss, and Healing (Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications). More information about his scholarship and teaching is at his faculty web page.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that one thing that cities like Toronto and Chicago have in common is cultural diversity. Speaking from my context, the "city of neighborhoods" is where that diversity can be found in earnest, and this is true especially for the North side of the city. In short, on my block I can find, metaphorically, brown, black, white cows, and even cows that are black or brown with white stripes in between (Asians, Hispanics, Anglos, African Americans and not a few of mixed ancestry). This diversity can be found in the restaurants on Montrose (Hispanic) or Devon Street (Indian/Pakistani and Jewish), though few with Reformational traditions or backgrounds, which is our challenge. I am not the first person to state this, but it seems that the least diverse, and perhaps the least communal place in the city is the downtown and the Loop. There 500,000 persons come into work each day by Metra trains from the Northern and Western Suburbs; and then they are replaced by an equal number of workers who come in from the neighborhood immigrant communities each evening to clean up, sweep and change the sheets, making the downtown ready for work each day. As in many critiques of globalization, the global culture that is downtown is owned and managed by a mostly white, professional caste of managers and knowledge workers who seem to embody a similarity of cultural forms, including similar grey and black suits, and almost identical tan raincoats on cloudy days. Sociologist Saskia Sassen has argued that for the most part, the "diversity" of cultures that embody most of the city has been expelled to the margins. For her, it is on the margins that one finds, in contrast, the hope, diversity, and human connections that provide a living alternative to the pressed conformity of globalized culture and her institutions. Sassen goes on to say that even as cities must be understood in their ecological contexts, that much of our challenge that we face today are in fact ecological. Abraham Kuyper himself argued that the diversity of the city was found in its uniquely manufactured housing types found along the canals of Amsterdam, even as he rejected the conformity of housing types similar to what we find today in mass produced condos or planned "New Urbanist" utopias.