Creation Waits

Third Party Prospects and Alternatives: A Democratic Socialist Perspective

The following invited speech was delivered at Intersections – Cedar Rapids, hosted by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, on November 3, 2017. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I very much appreciate the mission and work of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Your commitment to providing a forum for people of various faith and non-faith traditions to engage in civil discourse about the role of religion in our public life and explore the often fraught intersections of politics and religion is necessary and a source of hope for those of us who are committed to the promotion of democracy and peace. While my focus today will be on politics, I am speaking as someone who is both professionally and personally engaged in the work of building interfaith solidarity, and my own political commitments flow from my faith commitments.

What I’d like to do today is assess the prospects of third-party efforts within our electoral system and, on that basis, describe an alternative pragmatic approach to partisan politics, which is utilized by the Democratic Socialists of America.

I offer this view with the understanding that many leftists and progressives are currently deeply dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, and they believe that the time is ripe to engage in renewed third-party efforts. Their hopes are buoyed by polling, which suggests broad support in the electorate for progressive policies concerning gun control, universal health care, the decriminalization of drug use, mental health and drug treatment, workers’ rights, and the regulation and taxation of corporations.1 Within the activist left, many believe that it may be time to reorganize disaffected voters under a party that adopts a consensus progressive agenda.

Both proponents and opponents of third-party political efforts often look to the history of minor parties to support their views. On first glance, it seems rather grim. Throughout our history, there have been hundreds of minor parties, but they have almost universally been ephemeral, lasting only for very brief periods of time. Very few have been electorally competitive. But there is another side to that history: minor parties have exerted sometimes profound influence on the broader political landscape than their ephemeral nature might imply. In the 19th Century, for example, the Liberty Party advanced an anti-slavery position on constitutional grounds—that is, they argued that the constitution should be read as an anti-slavery document—and many of its members later joined with northern Whigs in forming the Free Soil Party, which organized around the platform of opposing the western expansion of slavery. Many of those associated with these parties were later folded into a coalition that supported another then-minor party, namely, the Republican Party. As another example, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Socialist Party of America, the Bull Moose Party, and the Progressive Party were instrumental in creating electoral support for many of the progressive successes that we now cherish, including universal suffrage, unemployment insurance, health and safety regulations, the end of child labor, and so forth.

The noteworthy exception to the historical rule that third parties have been unable to secure a path to meaningful power is the one which inspires the most hope for present-day progressives. As I just mentioned, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was, at the time he was elected to the presidency, a minor party. Prior to the 1856 election, in which the first Republican presidential candidate, John Fremont, lost to James Buchanan, the previously dominate Whig Party had disintegrated, opening a space for a legitimate third-party contender. In the election of 1860, Lincoln was able to secure a plurality (but not a majority) of the electoral votes owing to the fact that John Breckinridge, Stephen Douglas, and John Bell split the southern vote.

This year, progressives dissatisfied with the Democratic Party launched a new third-party effort, which they argue is modeled on the success of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. This effort, which is known as Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, argues that other third-party attempts, including those of the Greens and the Libertarians, have pursued an ineffective strategy of attempting to slowly attract members over long periods of time, with the hopes of becoming a true third major party. Leaders of the People’s Party reject this on grounds that I will examine momentary. Rather than looking to the Green Party or Libertarian Party as models, they look to Republican Party of the 1850s and 1860s and recognize that the Republicans succeeded in major part due to three factors: (1) the Whigs failed to articulate an anti-slavery stance, in defiance of a major segment of its electoral base, thereby spurring an exodus from the party and creating a void in the two-party system; (2) the Republicans nominated a candidate who was able to attract a sufficiently diverse electoral coalition in the North; and (3) the other major segment of the electorate, the South, was fractured, and it split its vote. Republican success was, then, not achieved by gradually winning hearts and minds; rather, its rapid ascendancy was a function of the disarray in the existing parties, a mass exodus from the previously dominant party, and the assembling of a coalition around a leader who was responsive to the spurned electorate.

Today, Nick Brana, the founder and director of Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, argues that we are potentially facing an analogous situation. First, as previously alluded to, polling suggests that a significant majority of Americans support a wide variety of progressive policies which neither the Republican nor Democratic Parties are representing, including Medicare for All and corporate regulation. Second, they believe that Bernie Sanders’s campaign demonstrates that a significant portion of the electorate is positioned to support a candidate who runs on these consensus issues. And third, the conservative vote may plausibly split during the next election. The thinking goes that if the Republicans continue to fall into ever greater disarray, then a third party with a progressive, anti-corporate, social democratic platform and a charismatic leader at is helm may be able to garner a plurality of votes.

Against these and other calls for third-party organizing, many in the Democratic Party argue progressives need to maintain party loyalty and work within the existing framework of the Democratic Party. Their worry is that it is not the right wing that will fracture and split the electorate, but rather the left wing.

Now, I don’t wish to comment on the question of whether the aforementioned hopes and aspirations—nor the objections to them—are well-founded or not, nor do I wish to endorse either perspective. Rather, I take the fact that these organizing efforts and debates concerning third parties are underway to be an occasion for considering the broader question of how progressives and leftists in particular (but really voters in general) ought to think about partisan politics and third party prospects. Doing so requires that we understand some of the key dynamics of our electoral system.

As we all know, our electoral system is one which features only two major parties at any given time. There are reasons for that. Whereas many countries use a proportional voting system in which parties are awarded seats in parliament in proportion to the votes they receive, in our country, most of our elections—including those for both houses of our legislature—are winner-take-all elections for single-member districts. In other words, candidates compete for a single seat and the winner is the candidate that garners a mere plurality (that is, the most) votes.

When the goal is to win a plurality of votes, a party has a strong motivation to engage in a number of strategies, which together make two-party dominance basically inevitable, particularly at the highest levels of government. First, to expand their appeal, a party will attempt to position itself as a “big tent” that is sufficiently, if not perfectly, responsive to a broad coalition of interests, with a platform that appeases a wide variety of constituencies. This is particularly necessary when it comes to the presidential election, since the presidency is a massively large single-member district in which all voters reside. The party has a related incentive to neutralize or convert potential minor-party voters by appropriating key elements of the platforms and positions of those minor parties.

Both of these factors played a role in the development of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1930s, there was renewed anti-capitalist sentiment and demands for social democratic reforms. While Roosevelt’s New Deal was ultimately aimed at saving capitalism, it was sufficiently appealing to many leftists and progressives, including some in the Socialist Party of America and other minor parties, to convince them to join the New Deal coalition.

Beyond coalition building and neutralizing minor party challengers, the electoral system also incentivizes a number of morally objectionable strategies and tactics, such as disenfranchising groups that constitute an opposing voting bloc, or using redistricting to either diluting the impact of opposing votes or concentrate friendly votes. Gerrymandering of this last sort has been credited with securing the Democrats’ decades-long control of Congress in the period from 1955 to 1995.2 In recent years, the Republicans have rightly drawn the ire of voting rights advocates for their partisan redistricting efforts and for successfully implementing voter ID laws.

Funding constitutes another salient factor. Since the presidency is a massively large single-district election, staging an effective campaign requires a vast amount of capital, and this serves as an incentive to build a coalition that includes large-dollar donors, such as corporations, national labor unions, industry groups, etc.

In light of these factors, it is very difficult for candidates from minor parties, and particularly progressive or leftist minor parties, to have a real shot at winning federal and state elections outside of the major party structure. There are structural hurdles and strategy incentives which more or less guarantee that we will never have a viable third party. That having been said, if the optimistic speculations offered by Brana and those involved in the People’s Party effort are correct, there may be a way forward for replacing a now dominant party with a new dominant party. But that is very different than imagining a party system with three or more major parties.

The above considerations also suggest a further point. The major parties are, in some sense, essentially coalition-building and electoral-controlling organizations. As the sociologist G. William Domhoff has explained, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Parties are political parties in the traditional sense. What he means is that they do not have substantive missions; they are not structured around a manifesto, support of which is a criterion for membership. Rather, each of the two dominant parties constitutes what he calls “a government controlled pathway into government. [Each] is just a structural shell, and the label ‘Democrat’ [for instance] is merely the name for one of two government-mandated avenues into elected office.”3

So, here is where we are at: in light of both these challenges and the past successes I’ve surveyed, the question can be fairly put as to whether minor-party efforts are worthy of our support and if so, to what degree and in what manner? It may seem that the answer is clearly “no.” As I just mentioned, it is practically impossible for us to ever have a system with three or more major parties. But here’s the main point I want to make today: that doesn’t really settle the question at hand. There are many reasons people might engage in what we call “third-party” efforts; we assume they are in it to win—that is to become a third major party. Some Greens and Libertarians, for example, undoubtedly do have this goal, however misplaced it might be. But what I want to draw attention to is the fact that there are other reasons that can motivate and justify support of third parties. Most obviously, third parties can serve to place external pressure on the major parties. In fact, this is what they have historically been good at. So, again, the question is, “Is it worth it and to what degree and in what manner?”

These questions are particularly salient for people like me. I am the chair of the Dubuque Local of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a national activist organization that seeks to facilitate the transition to a more democratic and socialist society. We are egalitarians and “small ‘d’” democrats, which means that we value democracy, or participatory decision-making, as an end in itself, since such forms of self-governance are both reflective of, and a fulfillment of, our equal dignity as persons. We are socialists insofar as we believe that the productive capacity of society should be immediately ordered toward the promotion of human well-being or welfare, not toward producing profits for owners. Unlike certain kinds of other socialists, we reject totalitarian means of implementing or achieving social ownership and control.

At present, DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States, and our membership has more than tripled in the past year, due in major part to Bernie Sanders’s identification as a democratic socialist. (I should note: when Sanders says this, it is a bit like a Republican saying they are a conservative or a Democrat saying they are a liberal. In other words, it doesn’t name his party or even straightforwardly indicate how his votes will align. It is, rather, a way of expressing his underlying political values.) Unlike other socialist and progressive organizations, such as the Socialist Party USA (1973-present) and the Green Party (1991-present), the Democratic Socialists of America is not a political party. Rather, we have, since our founding in 1982, utilized an “inside/outside” strategy with respect to the Democratic Party. In other words, we are independent of the Democratic Party (something the DNC really wants you to know!), but we support Democratic Party candidates who are democratic socialists or who favor reforms consistent with our mission, while also endorsing and supporting independent or minor party candidates who do so.

At present, DSA’s long-standing “inside/outside” strategy is being robustly discussed and evaluated at both the local and national levels of our organization. With the influx of thousands of new members, many of whom are millennials who have a deep distrust of the Democratic Party, there is renewed interest in the possibility of pursuing a new, independent left party. Some of my comrades advocate DSA becoming a political party itself. Others want to see us join the People’s Party effort. Many at least want us to stop working with the Democratic Party.

Taking stock of the structural issues surveyed above, I believe that the “inside/outside” strategy of DSA is appropriate. Domhoff is correct to claim that the Democratic and Republican Parties aren’t really parties in the traditional sense, and I believe we need to take him seriously when he encourages us to think of them as “structural shells” that form coalitions and establish pathways into government. Even if one of the parties was replaced with a new party, as happened in the 1850s and 1860s, eventually, that party would, itself, come to serve as a structural shell.

If that is the case, it seems that the proper approach to take with respect to the parties is that they are structures that can be modified, tweaked, and fixed. Like a machine, they can potentially be harnessed and used in some cases and for some purposes, but they can be set aside in others. And as with other machines, we can and should relate to them on purely pragmatic grounds; that is to say, we can use them to the extent that we are able and tinker with them to make them more productive to our ends. But they are not the object of loyalty or fidelity. To the contrary, I believe that we are justified in being a bit promiscuous in our partisan political efforts, particularly if and when supporting minor parties has the potential to place external pressure on the parties to realign or undergo restructuring.

Of course, it wouldn’t do for each of us, individually, to adopt a pragmatic, functionalist stance toward the political parties. In the absence of coordination and collective action, such a stance would simply result in an ineffectual disengagement with the party machine. What we need, instead, is to subsume our party politics and party involvements—however promiscuous they may be—under a much broader and more expansive movement, part of which will involve tinkering with the party machine and trying to make it more responsive.

This is the approach we take in the Democratic Socialists of America. For us, electoral action is only a part of what we do. The bulk of our work is ordered toward education, incubating alternative socialist economic arrangements, and building solidarity on the part of those who are marginalized.

Let me illustrate what I have in mind with some examples of our work in Dubuque. Since part of our mission is to both educate and empower ordinary people, we organize and offer a free school, which is modeled on the Freedom Schools that were established during the civil rights movement. Free School is a place where ordinary people can teach or take classes for free. We also founded the Dubuque Area Timebank, which is a non-monetary reciprocal exchange network in which people exchange time rather than money. One person spends an hour doing something for another, and she earns an hour credit. She can then credit that hour to someone else who helps her at a later time. The timebank is an example of what we call “socialism in the cracks of capitalism.” It is socialist, since it is a form of production without profit. But it isn’t revolutionary in the normal sense; it exists alongside the traditional economy. Our local is also presently involved in forming a Renters’ Union in Dubuque. The landlords in our city are eligible to be members of the Dubuque Area Landlords Association, which advocates for their interests. We believe that renters should be similarly organized and engaging in self-advocacy.

Beyond these major initiatives, our strategic plan also involves placing our members in party, union, and government organizations. We now have four members serving on city council-appointed boards and commissions in the City of Dubuque. Three are members of, and interested in establishing a branch of, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). At the same time, a number of our members serve on the Dubuque Democratic Party Central Committee as precinct delegates, while others have connections with the Green Party, the Socialist Party, and the Peoples’ Party movement.

All of these efforts are mission-driven; they are part of the broader egalitarian, democratic socialist movement that we are seeking to revitalize. Our hope—admittedly somewhat ambitious and not in any sense assured of success—is to attract enough people to our movement and into our organization that we will become a constituency that the major parties—realistically, the Democratic Party—will need to cater to. But we don’t simply wait for them to come to us. We are working both within the party and outside of it to try to force it to change.

Now, I don’t say this in an effort to recruit you. Rather, I mention our work as a potential model for others who are dissatisfied with the major parties and wary of third party prospects, which by all indications is a majority of Americans. If we want to fix our broken party system, I believe this is a strategy worth replicating. It has certainly been used by the right wing with success. The Moral Majority in the 1980s exemplified subsuming partisan politics under a broader movement, and they very successfully reshaped the Republican Party to align with their vision.

I believe a proliferation of social movements that seek to make our party machines responsive to their demands is very much needed. To the extent that the parties stay in place, but become more responsive to active social movements the better. That would be a win for democracy. Should one or both major parties falter and disintegrate, those involved in the social movements would be a ready constituency for coalition building. And that, too, would be a win for democracy.

In the absence of such coordinated external pressure and internal tinkering, I worry that we will continue to see both parties used as vehicles for celebrity candidates to forge a pathway to power. And that would not be a win for democracy.





Perichoretic Oikeiosis

What Augustine says concerning God—namely, that “the Father is not God without the Son, nor the Son God without the Father” (On the Trinity, Book VI, Ch. 2)—can be said about two aspects (for lack of a better term) of all real beings: that is, the virtual and the manifest. These ontological terms, like the theological terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, are relational terms. The virtual qua virtual can be understood only in relation to the manifest, for to speak of the virtual is to speak of that which has the power to give rise to a manifestation. And the manifest is that which processes from the virtual. Putting a spin on Maximus the Confessor (see Ambiguum 26 in Edward Jeanneau, ed., Amnigua ad Iohannem, 153), we can say: the name ‘virtual’ is neither a name of essence nor a name of energy. It is a name of one of the constitutive relationships in the perichoretic unity that is a real being; ‘manifest’ names the other.

To speak of the substance of a being is to speak about the virtual. This accounts for the identity of substance, notwithstanding the plurality of manifestations and diverse relationships into which a being can enter. As Levi Bryant has argued, we cannot speak of “the manifestation” of a thing in an absolute and unqualified sense; rather, all manifestations are local manifestations (The Democracy of Objects, 2011, p. 69). Hence, the manifest, which is often taken as the most real, is ontologically dependent on the virtual. For this reason, substance is ontologically prior to the manifest. However, for real material beings, there is an interplay, a perichoresis, between the virtual and the manifest, and it cannot be any other way. ‘Perichoresis’ denotes the process through which a being that is, in one sense, withdrawn from and other-than any of its actualizations or local manifestations nevertheless “others” itself through relation, thereby becoming manifest.

But this interplay can proceed in various ways. When the interplay preserves the virtual and the manifest as a perichoretic unity—when the dance, so to speak, continues to play itself out in a mutually affirming manner—the being achieves a kind of oikeiosis, an “at-homeness”, or form of dwelling, that is normative. How else, indeed, could we meaningfully frame a normative judgment concerning a thing, except by reference to what allegedly constitutes a productive and preserving interplay between the virtual and the manifest of a being?

This is not to be understood as permitting the application of normative judgments to all things. We must recognize that for some beings there is no possibility that the interplay between the virtual and the manifest can be raised as a matter of concern, or as a legitimate question. For beings such as us, however, it is a question; the form of interplay between what is virtual and what is manifest is always open to question.

The use of the word ‘aspect’ in the first paragraph, above, isn’t quite right, as I’ve indicated in an earlier post. The problems associated with this term lead me to want to appropriate and employ another concept from Trinitarian theology—viz., the concept of person, as it is used with regard to the Father and the Son. Of course, ‘person’ is a term of art in theology (and hence, an equivocal term from a broader perspective), which is widely misunderstood outside of  theological contexts. Using it here would only cause confusion. (Though perhaps a more detailed explication of the perichoretic ontology that I have in mind could serve as a useful occasion to rehabilitate the theological term in philosophical circles.) I’ve kicked around various possible alternatives (including ‘differentiator’), but I keep returning to a fundamental question: is it even appropriate to use a universal term to cover both the virtual and manifest? I recognize that ‘aspect’ has the wrong connotation, and every other possibility that I consider seems similarly inadequate. Perhaps, when dealing with speculative matters of fundamental ontology, this is par for the course.

I suggest above that a being can fail to achieve oikeiosis, which is in keeping with the original Stoic use of the term that inspired me to appropriate it. I’ll need to consider carefully whether this is coherent. Certainly, I want to maintain that all things dwell; to the extent that they are, they dwell in some way. If oikeiosis is a form of dwelling, all of this is coherent, but it is incoherent if ‘oikeiosis’ is simply a nominalized form of ‘dwell’.

Perichoresis as a Useful Concept for OOO

In Christian Trinitarian theology, the term perichoresis is used to denote the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit while avoiding the traditional heresies of modalism (viz., that these are three modes or aspects of the Godhead) and tritheism (viz., that each are distinct gods). The doctrine of perichoresis avoids these heresies by affirming the “mutual indwelling” of the three persons (An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church).

In his examination of the concept, Oliver D. Crisp argues that perichoresis should be understood as follows:

The persons of the Trinity share all their properties in a common divine essence apart from those properties that serve to individuate one of the persons of the Trinity, or express a relation between only two persons of the Trinity. (“Problems with Perichoresis,” Tyndale Bulletin 56.1, 2005, p. 139.)

I am entertaining the idea that the concept of perichoresis could be usefully appropriated to address the actuality of beings (objects) in general. Let me briefly explain.

Within Levi Bryant’s version of object-oriented ontology, objects are described as “split” between their local manifestations and their virtual proper being. (Here “virtual” is directly derived from the Latin virtus, with its connotations of potency and power.) This allows us to distinguish between those powers which are properly constitutive of an object—i.e., the capacities it has owing to its constitution—and the products of those capacities or powers, which are always manifested locally, in some specific way, as a result of being in relation with other things. The constitutive powers of a being are the “operations” which that being is capable of performing, even if it fails to exercise them, and these powers are a function of that being’s internal structure—i.e., the way in which the objects or entities that compose it relate and tend to interact, giving rise to an irreducible existent. For example, the virtual proper being of a specific human being, which is itself an irreducible being, is a function of the organization of the various beings that compose it, including all of its organs, cells, colonies of microflora, and so on. The organization of these beings is what gives rise to the various powers that the human person has, including the powers of locomotion, digestion, imagination, logical reasoning, and so on. To consider a being as an “assemblage” of other beings is the precondition for understanding the virtues proper to its being, for it is owing to its internal structure that a being has the capacities that it has. In exercising some, but not others, of the powers of which it is capable, an existent object manifests itself in various specific ways. (Levi Bryant, Onto-Cartography, pp. 40–41 and 75.)

As I understand it, the actuality of an object is a function of the dynamic mediation between these two distinct ontological dimensions (for lack of a better term; see below): (1) internal material structure and (2) external relations. Put slightly differently, an understanding of the actuality of a particular being needs to encompass both its virtual proper being and its various local manifestations. Here, we want to avoid two analogies from theology; viz., modalism and dualism. We should neither claim that the virtual proper being or various local manifestations are mere modes of a being, nor that a being is a composite of two types of beings (the virtual and the manifest).

What I am considering is that the relation between the virtual and the manifest is something like a perichoresis, since this suggests dynamic circulation (perí) and going forth (khōréō). It is, I suppose, the connoted dynamism which I find most attractive about this term. I’ve heard it said that “perichoresis” could be understood as a Greek term for “dance.” I like that: the actuality of a being is the dance or interplay between the virtual and the manifest. Both the virtual and the manifest are real, yet neither alone accounts for the actuality of an object.Only in the dance do we locate the actuality of an object.

As in theology, this term may be useful as a means of avoiding certain locutions which would otherwise be inconsistent with the ontology in which we are working. If we’re being consistent, it seems to me that we don’t want to say that the virtual and the manifest are two parts, aspects, or even dimensions of an object. “Dimension” is arguably the least inconsistent turn of phrase, but even that borrowed term fails to connote the dynamism that the ontology demands.

Furthermore, the term allows us to think of the layers of perichoretic relations that exist between things. I’ve been focusing on the relation between the virtual and manifest of a single object, but we must remember that, according to this version of OOO, all objects are assemblages of objects. Hence, objects, which are themselves constituted perichoretically, enter into perichoretic relation with other objects.

This point reminds me of a passage from John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, in which he states (as an interpretation of a point from Peter Damain’s theology), “a body is less an extended mass ruled by laws of gravity and displacement than a field of happenings in which one event can overtake another” (The Weakness of God, p. 204).

On “Nature” and “Society”

​In his encyclical Laudato Si’ Francis proposes an “integral ecology,” which conceives of our relationships to God, nature, and each other as equally fundamental, thereby affirming that the human and the natural are inescapably integrated. 

I suspect that this approach is too intimately wedded to our existing, technocratically inflected ways of speaking and thinking. In particular, I worry that it makes use of a faulty society-nature dichotomy, since it seems to assume that society and nature are two different things.

If, indeed, Francis’s integral ecology is premised on such a supposition, the objects that it integrates are chimeras. Outside of our imagination, there is no thing that is “Nature” or is “Society.” There are, I grant, non-artificial beings (i.e., beings not produced by human artifice), and there are societies and individuals, but there is not some monolithic thing outside of our minds that is Nature or is Society. If by “integral ecology,” we mean an ecological framework in which Nature and Society are to be integrated, we are operating at the level of fantasy. 

I propose that we treat “Nature” and “Society” in a way that is analogous to how Bruno Latour treats the term “Science.” He argues, persuasively, that there is no such thing as Science. When we use that term as if it denotes an entity, we speak sloppily. There are, to be sure, scientists, scientific hypotheses, scientific theories, scientific practices, and so forth. But there is no such thing as Science. In like manner, there are societies, social practices, etc., and there are humans and non-humans (just as there are squirrels and non-squirrels), but we speak sloppily when we speak of Society and Nature as denoting two distinct, massively large entities in relation.

Particular—nay, singular—beings or objects are the things that are integrated, that are in relation with each other, even as they remain withdrawn from those relations. And various objects can be (are!) parts of other objects. But the objects of the world do not give rise to or constitute two massive objects—Nature and Society—that may be (or may fail to be) integrated.

Weak v. Strong Power

I recently attended the College Theology Society Annual Convention, which was held at Rockhurst University. The theme was Liturgy + Power, and the topic of weak power was raised in a number of sessions, as well as Susan Ross’s plenary address. Ever since beginning John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, I’ve been thinking about the distinction between weak and strong power, so the conference was very illuminating.

At the request of a friend, I put together the following reflections concerning the difference.

I think of weak power as the sort of power manifested when one makes a gratuitous gift or sacrifice of one’s self, thereby investing responsibility in and demonstrating trust in the other in a surprising and powerful way. It is essentially self-giving and sacrificial, and I think it is most authentically manifest when one has no hope that some strong force will intercede to rectify the situation. For example, imagine a horrific situation in which a gunman is threatening the lives of others and where they have no hope of overpowering him. If the victims would offer themselves up to the shooter (e.g., present themselves en masse to be shot), that would be an example of weak power. It might not be efficacious weak power—the shooter might not experience the affective response we desire—but it has the potential to be efficacious in a qualitatively different way (a weak way) than an aggressive response.

One of the problematic risks associated with believing that God is a strong force rather than a weak force—i.e., believing God is the omnipotent deity that doles out justice or avenges injustice through a show of overwhelming aggressive force—is that it undermines the ability of believers to manifest authentic weak power. If they believe that God will avenge injustice through a show of awesome aggressive force, their seemingly meek displays of power become forms of vicarious strong power.

One of the reasons I believe that God’s power is weak power is that I believe weak power is the only form of power that has (as a virtue proper to its very nature) the potential to authentically raise awareness of sin and lead to the way of being that we associate with redemption and salvation. Aggressive or strong power brings about submission; it over-powers, but it does not essentially challenge the underlying sinfulness that precipitates an act of aggression and domination. (I should note that I am aware that strong power can, as a matter of fact, precipitate genuine awareness of sin, redemption, and salvation—as when one, after being beaten into submission, hears and receives the good news—but it’s not a virtue proper to strong power per se to do so.)

Weak power has the potential to tap into what I believe is an innate ability on our part to recognize agapic self-gift as the presence of God. Strong power has no such essential ability to do so; if and when it does precipitate a proper love of others, it is always accidental.

The danger of preaching weak power, as Susan Ross alluded to in her address, is that such preaching can further forms of domination. For example, it would be inappropriate, to say the least, to wax poetic about weak power in the face of police brutality—even though it has a legitimate place in such discussions. As she also noted, part of the way to respond to this problem is to recognize and insist that weak power is not a substitute for the reform of institutions. The creation of just laws and the proper administration of those laws are also important. (For what it’s worth, I grant that aggression or the threat of aggression does have the virtue of bringing about obedience to law. That’s a function of the fact that obedience to law is a matter of action, or bodily comportment, not immediately spiritual rectitude.)

Forthcoming publication

I just received word that an essay I composed about the nature of facts and opinions, as well as the erroneous way in which they are commonly thought to stand in a dichotomous relationship, will be published in the August/September issue of Philosophy Now, an international bimonthly magazine. Look for it on newsstands and in bookstores in the coming months.

Is “To Dwell” a Success Term?

Last month, a colleague and I delivered back-to-back papers at our institution’s annual symposium. He happened to address Heidegger’s use of the term “to dwell,” and I happened to address Levi Bryant’s use of the same term. It became apparent that whereas I (following Bryant) conceive of dwelling as a term that describes the way in which all beings exist, my colleague (following Heidegger) interprets it as a success term: to dwell is to achieve a particular way of being.

The discussion highlighted the extent to which I need to further familiarize myself with Heidegger, but it will be awhile before I have the opportunity to do so. In the meantime, I’ve been reflecting on the tension between our perspectives.

The obvious benefit of interpreting dwelling as a success term is that it straightforwardly serves as a kind of moral telos—that is, something to aim at. But I wonder whether my interpretation of it as ontologically descriptive, rather than prescriptive, can also be put to moral use?

It happens that I recently finished teaching a course pertaining to ancient Stoicism, and as I’ve puzzled over this question, I hit on an analogy from the Stoics. They held that all things have a logos, which accounts for each thing being what it is. Human beings, for example, are matter with a human logos and an oak tree is matter with an oak logos. But all things also are part of greater wholes, which themselves have logoi of their own, which impinge on the being of the things that constitute the whole. The universe, the “one that contains the many,” is itself structured according to the supreme Logos, which Seneca refers to as “Creative Reason” (Letter 65) and the existence of various particular things unfolds in accordance with this Logos. The relevant point is that this doesn’t prevent the Stoics from having a robust ethic: although we never really fail to live in accordance with the Logos (Creative Reason), we can do so more or less consciously and in ways that contribute or fail to contribute to the achievement of oikeiosis—a sense of “being at home” with other beings, and especially other human beings.

Perhaps what I’ve been struggling with is the distinction between conceiving of dwelling as the inescapable “always already” aspect of our being, on the one hand, and the conception of it as something analogous to oikeiosis, on the other hand. Perhaps an object-oriented ontology could benefit from rehabilitating this Stoic notion.

“The Otherness of God and the Bodies of Others” by Theresa Sanders

I recently came across the following interesting article, which I will be examining in more depth when time permits:

Theresa Sanders, “The Otherness of God and the Bodies of Others,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 572-587. (Available on JSTOR; requires subscription or institutional access.)

Sanders offers a postmodern account of the real presence and a reaffirmation of the Eucharistic call to meet and care for the other. On both points, her argument seems potentially relevant to those of us interested in dialogue between Christian faith and practice and the new materialist ontologies, such as OOO.

Integral Ecology Without Nature

A few weeks ago, I attended an ecumenical prayer service and panel discussion concerning Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment. The service included prayers for “nature,” and involved specifically praying for various natural habitats or ecosystems, such as savannahs, desserts, and so forth. Notably absent from the prayers was any mention of human habitats, such as urban neighborhoods, industrial parks, farming communities, slums, or suburbs. This is reflective of the fact that we conceive of nature as something distinct from ourselves. At best, we think of nature as a context, which we then modify. At worst, we think of it as something outside of and other than our habitats.

One of my chief criticisms of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is that, despite calling into question the culture-nature dichotomy, it succumbs to it. Despite reaffirming our creatureliness, its message is couched in the language of a human/nature rupture. Consider, for instance, the following passage:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. (Francis 2015, sec. 106)

This passage is ordered toward a legitimate point. Francis is encouraging us to give up the subject-object dichotomy, which leads us to think of things purely in terms of their use-value. Here, he is acknowledging that we have always used that which is non-human in pursuing our human interests. But he suggests that our contemporary technocratic paradigm blind us to the realities of non-human beings and their unique worth and dignity.

And yet nature is framed as something in which we intervene, thereby suggesting that we (or our interventions) are unnatural or non-natural. This stands in conflict with the overarching theme of the encyclical, which is that “we are not disconnected  from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion” (Francis 2015, sec. 220). As Timothy Morton has written on his blog, Ecology Without Nature, “When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can’t hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand thing ‘over there’ called Nature.”

Francis’s “integral ecology” seems intended to be an ecology which overcomes the culture-nature dichotomy; the very term suggests this. But he has not presented this integral ecology consistently and thoroughly. He has, true to his word, only begun to sketch out the alternative. We ought to carry this project along, asking what it would be to affirm a Christian integral ecology without nature. Morton and others have much to teach us in this regard.

Works Cited

Francis. 2015. Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Morton, Timothy. n.d. “About.” Ecology Without Nature.

Zombies as Paradigmatic Contemporary Monsters

Last week, Levi Bryant posted an interesting reflection on his blog, Larval Subjects, titled, “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” He proposes that we can identify at least three ages of monsters, beginning with the classical age, moving into the modern age, and culminating in the contemporary age. The classical age monster is the interstitial aberration: the being which falls between our categories, thus constituting the perversion of the natural order, as we understand it. The modern monster is man himself, and the contemporary monster is that being spawned of human ingenuity but having a life of its own.

The contemporary monster, our monster, is perhaps culture that has become natural or material.  With the modern monster, reason, culture, is still cerebral, a matter of thought.  It culminates in acts, but acts that are conceived in thought. With the modern monster, we are the ones doing it (as Kant said, we’re calling the shots). With the contemporary monster, by contrast, thought and reason become natural or material. The contemporary monster is the golem. With the contemporary monster thought, reason, and culture achieve what Hegel called “objective spirit”. In Hegel objective spirit consists of the objectivization of thought through labor. Our thought is given material form, objective form, through forming the world about us through, for example, the building of architecture and infrastructure. However, objective spirit becomes monstrous insofar as it takes on a life of its own. (Bryant 2015)

Reading this, I found myself reflecting on a course I’m teaching, which is about zombie films. The zombie is often said to be the paradigmatic contemporary monster, owing to its colonial origins and its appropriation by those wishing to engage in commentary on advanced corporate capitalism. Bryant’s framework provides another means by which we can affirm the same conclusion. The zombie horde is composed of beings that were once us; they are our creation (in many zombie tales, the plague is of human origin), and the horde is our future; moreover, the horde has a “life” of its own, albeit one which resists classification according to our living/dead binary. More damning is the realization that the zombie horde, though devoid of higher ordered consciousness and rational reflection, achieves a level of spontaneous organization and efficiency that rivals the political communities of their living counterparts. The zombie form of “life” is one of pure and spontaneous labor: they reproduce their “society” by obeying their only desire (to eat brains/flesh), thereby killing humans and creating more zombies.

In his essay, “Undead is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology,” Greg Pollock (2011) argues that the threat of zombies in zombie tales and how zombie apocalypses affect human society can be used as a model for thinking about how the ecological crisis threatens us. He’s not suggesting that zombies represent the ecological crisis, but rather that the fictional portrayals of zombie apocalypses end up having certain similarities to our present ecological crisis.

Like the ecological crisis, a zombie apocalypse is unusual as far as apocalypses go, since it isn’t a sudden end of time. Traditionally, apocalypses have been described as a sudden and destructive event that brings time to an end. But most fictional zombie apocalypses are portrayed as events that unfold over time and do not bring about extinction but rather a radical change in context. Society doesn’t survive as it was; rather, human beings are forced to develop new forms of life suitable to their new circumstances, their relative lack of resources, and the persistent threat posed by the zombie horde. In some films, human beings are portrayed as survivalists, foraging among the wreckage of the old society. In others, they form new and different and smaller political communities in which they isolate themselves from the zombies, adopting a more communal form of life. The point is that the apocalypse happens in time and brings about a change, but not extinction.

The most horrifying predictions concerning the ecological crisis are similar. The future that seems like an ever increasing possibility is one in which life as we know it will undergo such drastic change that it will be true to say that everything is different, and although there will be massive disruption and destruction, the human species will persist. Of all the creatures of earth, we are the most capable of surviving an ecological crisis. But this isn’t to suggest that everything would be sunshine and roses. If climate change accelerates, and brings with it increasingly destructive weather events, changes in global temperatures and growing seasons, etc., millions and millions of people will suffer. And as the pope has written, the poor, who constitute the vast majority of the world’s population, will probably suffer the most.

This is apocalypse, but it is apocalypse of a particular sort: it is the destructive upheaval of our form of life, but not the end of life itself. Just as the survivors of a zombie apocalypse could have a new future after the reality of the zombie menace has been normalized, so, too, could human beings find a new life following massive ecological change.

Pollock argues that the possibility of this new life is premised on the zombie plague survivors readjusting their conception of life. The reality of zombies forces them to give up their living/dead dichotomy, and fashion a new life for themselves in the brave new world where the barrier between life and death has been blurred and the distinction invalidated. Focusing on Max Brooks’s World War Z, Pollock writes,

The appeal to think more carefully and caringly about the ecological blowback of our actions is strong within World War Z, but it is important to recognize how it transforms our concepts of ecology and politics. Zombies are not symbols for environmental “other” that it will be our political task to pacify or patronize. Rather, zombies fundamentally overturn the dialectic of a politics of suffrage, and it is this lesson for political ecology that we stand to learn from them. There environment is not “out there” any more than zombies are: both are fully continuous with the embodied human. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The zombie is a peculiarly contemporary monster in Bryant’s sense insofar as it is “the meme that has created a body of its own, that no longer requires us to exist and that develops aims of its own” (Bryant 2015). But thinking about how humans might respond to the zombie monster provides a means by which we can begin to think about how we might respond when confronted with climate change, another uniquely contemporary monster (as Bryant himself describes it). Pollock argues that within World War Z, humanity is depicted “as an ecological being that survives the end of the political” (Pollock, p. 181). He goes on to write,

World War Z arrives at something like political ecology without nature that Latour advocates. “Nature” dies when the first zombie crawls from its grave, and in the aftermath of that temporal confusion the lines of politics and ecology can and must be redrawn for a plausible narrative of human survival. (Pollock 2011, p. 181)

The monstrous, whether fictional or real, always speaks to us as we are, but it forces us also to think what we might become. After spawning a monster like global climate change, our very idea of political ecology needs to be revised.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi, 2015. “Ages of Monsters: Of Gods and Monsters.” Larval Subjects. November 19.

Pollock, Greg, 2011. “Undead Is the New Green: Zombies and Political Ecology.” In Moreman and Rushton (ed.), Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 169-182.