The following essay is a revised version of the talk given by Anthony Resnick to the IDP Conference in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Mr. Resnick took part in the “Bowling Alone” panel, which discussed how to re-build grassroots institutions.
In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher calls on orthodox Christians to radically reconsider their engagement with the dominant institutions of mainstream culture, and to instead create new forms of civic engagement more conducive to an orthodox Christian life. But is it only orthodox Christians who need to create new forms of civic engagement? And should such alternative forms of engagement be considered a rejection of politics, or a different (and more robust) method of practicing politics?
Dreher devotes one chapter of The Benedict Option explicitly to politics. In it, he argues that Christians have given too much focus to partisan and electoral politics, seeking counterproductively to advance the interests of Christians through helping Republican politicians win elections. Dreher argues that Christians should instead practice what he calls “anti-political politics,” reinvigorating church communities, creating institutions outside of the state such as classical Christian schools, and perhaps even experimenting with intentional communities.
For his conception of anti-political politics, Dreher draws heavily on the work of Czech dissidents living under Communist rule, specifically Vaclav Benda and Vaclav Havel. Benda advocated for the creation of a “parallel polis,” consisting of alternative institutions of press, education, and culture not dominated by the totalitarian state.
Havel, in his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” advanced the notion of “living within truth,” resisting Communist propaganda even at the cost of personal comfort and security. Havel saw living within the truth as crucial to retaining one’s humanity under the pressure of totalitarianism. “Living within the truth” can perhaps most easily be understood through contrast with its opposite: living within a lie. A person who is living within a lie is “succumbing to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. . . . In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd, to flow comfortably along with it down the river of a pseudolife.”
Havel and Benda were writing (and acting) while subjects of a Communist dictatorship. Dreher wrote The Benedict Option because he views orthodox Christians in America as being increasingly analogous to the subjects of a totalitarian state. Do the concepts of living within the truth and parallel polis have any importance to Americans who are not orthodox Christians, or who do not see their condition as being as dire as Dreher does?
I contend that all Americans should endeavor to live within the truth and build something like a parallel polis. Havel himself did not see these concepts as limited to the subjects of totalitarianism. Havel considered it a question “equally relevant to all”:
whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human “I,” responsible for ourselves because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life . . . for the sake of that which gives life meaning.
It really is not all that important whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power.
The need for an alternative approach to civic engagement is also found in the work of Sheldon Wolin, particularly his last book Democracy Inc. Wolin was a political theorist of the late 20th and early 21st century, and a proponent of radical democracy. A major theme in Wolin’s work was an effort to reinvigorate the words “politics” and “democracy.” For Wolin, politics, in the broadest sense of seeking, and often failing, to reconcile differences with other flawed human beings and find common good, is a fundamental part of human existence. Any attempt to outsource the difficult work of politics to experts or replace it with market interactions or cost-benefit analysis is not only doomed to fail but is robbing ourselves of our own humanity. Thus, Wolin conceived of democracy as a “recurrent aspiration . . . to find room in which people can join freely with others to take responsibility for solving their common problems and thereby sharing the modest fate which is the lot of mortals.”
In Democracy Inc., Wolin warned that America was in danger of falling into a state of inverted totalitarianism, achieved through the use of managed democracy. Managed democracy is the application of managerial skill to politics, whereby real power is so consolidated that politics exists mostly as spectacle, the power of the citizenry constrained by a narrow set of choices that pose little threat to entrenched (mostly corporate) power. Rather than the state dominating media, elections, and free speech, as in a classical totalitarian state, under inverted totalitarianism those structure remain in place but are sucked dry of actual political content, of the ability of the populace to seek the common good.
What can we do to avoid falling further into inverted totalitarianism? First, we must recognize that living within the truth requires us to steel ourselves against marketing and advertising, in both political and commercial forms. Manipulative marketing poses a threat to human dignity similar to that of totalitarian propaganda. As James Baldwin wrote:
It will be a great day for America when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous now either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own instincts as deeply as they do here and become as joyless as they have become.
There is something deeply unhealthy about a society that not only tolerates but celebrates artful dishonesty. Only a diseased society would think a person should be well-compensated for being able to convince others that what is in his (or his employer’s) interest is in their interest as well, without knowing or caring if it actually is in their interest (or even if he knows it is not).
While manipulative marketing is evil on the part of those doing the marketing, it also requires an abdication of responsibility on the part of those being marketed to. To succumb to marketing is to be willing to believe comforting lies, the worst myths of meritocracy. To succumb to marketing is to believe that somewhere out there the experts are solving all the problems, and all we have to do is to sit back and wait to be told what products to buy and whom to vote for.
Second, if we want to build anything like a parallel polis, we need to build an ethic and practice of democracy that takes proper account of both our power and our responsibility to collectively shape the world in which we live. It is a common cliché of political rallies that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” While I have heard this line uttered by activists and organizers who meant it in its best possible sense, it is also a line you will hear from the people who seek to manage our democracy. These managers of democracy would prefer that all of our political activity and attention be focused on the major leagues of politics, on the two major parties and federal and statewide elections.
If all of our political activity and attention is focused on the major leagues, then the vast majority of us are effectively reduced to the role of spectators, of fans. We choose our team, and we find ways to support it monetarily. We show up and make noise, and hope we make enough noise to sway the outcome. But we don’t get to play, and we have very little say over who does.
For a healthy politics, we need more players. We need a YMCA rec league approach to politics, not a major leagues approach. We need to organize unions, form co-ops, reinvigorate service organizations and fraternal orders, start sporting associations for both children and adults, join committees and boards (public and private) wherever they’re at work in our communities. Picking next month’s book for a book club is more deliberative democratic decision-making than most Americans participate in. More of our attention than ever before is devoted to politics, and yet we are woefully out of practice when it comes to democracy.
Democracy requires skill that can either be cultivated or allowed to atrophy. My professional background is in the labor movement. While the economic benefits that are the main selling point of unions are certainly important, we – including we in the labor movement – do not place enough emphasis on the importance of unions as one of the few remaining places where Americans can practice democracy in a meaningful way.
I have had the privilege of working with some truly excellent union leaders, at the local, district, and international leadership level. These leaders are responsible for multimillion dollar organizations with thousands of members, are responsible for the working conditions of their co-workers, have close relationships with their elected officials and influence legislation, sit across the table from CEOs and thousand dollar an hour lawyers and quite often outmaneuver them.
These union leaders, for the most part, have little in the way of the traditional credentials. They got to where they are, and got as good as they are at what they do, because in their late teens or early 20s they began attending union meetings. They took on responsibility for advocating for co-workers, filing and processing grievances, bargaining contracts. The better they proved themselves at those functions, the more responsibility they were given.
No matter how democratic and egalitarian we manage to make our institutions, leadership will always be important. Some people have better judgment than others, better temperament, better communication skills, better problem solving. But the way to sort for democratic leadership is through democratic practice, not through the credentialing of higher education. Unfortunately, we have far too few venues for democratic practice.
One way to think about how to build a democratic practice and ethic is to ask whether our actions have a centralizing tendency or a decentralizing tendency. Are we moving power, money, and attention towards or away from the largest and most powerful institutions? Are we supporting the major leagues of business and politics, or the rec leagues? Shopping from Amazon has a centralizing tendency. Shopping at a local small business has a decentralizing tendency. Donating to a major party has a centralizing tendency. Running an independent campaign for town council has a decentralizing tendency. Watching the NFL on Fox has a centralizing tendency. Coaching a little league team has a decentralizing tendency. The goal is not to decentralize to the point of atomization, but to create enough disparate centers of economic and political power for ordinary people to practice democracy in a meaningful way.
None of this is to dismiss the importance of electoral politics. Voting matters, government is incredibly powerful, and what it does affects millions of people. However, our conception of politics has grown too narrow, and to our great detriment. Shopping at Amazon is very similar to casting a vote for president. In both cases, nothing changes if our individual action is removed from the equation. When our individual action is aggregated with the actions of millions of others, the result is world shifting. Yet, even though Amazon is shaping our world as much (or more) than Donald Trump, we treat one’s vote as a matter of great moral significance (indeed, as a proxy for whether or not one is a good person) while continuing to treat how we shop as a matter of personal preference and convenience.
Everything we do is to some degree political. Everything – our votes, our consumption, even how polite we are to strangers we pass on the streets – is a small drop is a very large bucket that determines what kind of world we live in. We cannot accomplish anything of great significance without organizing, without solidarity. But, we need to expand the areas in which political action takes place and where we see our actions as political. We need to constantly ask ourselves “what kind of world do I want to live in, and are my actions making that world more or less likely?” rather than asking “what kind of world do I want to live in, and who can I give money to to make it happen?”