Category Archives: Democracy

Occupy This Blog?!

Occupy Wall Street! Occupy Together! Occupy The Pasture! Occupy Religion! Occupy This Blog?!

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The slogan has become pervasive over the last two months, but what does it mean to “occupy” Wall Street? Or your town? Or something else, like food, the church or this blog? The relevant definition of the word means to “take control of (a place, esp. a country) by military conquest or settlement” and to “enter, take control of, and stay in (a building) illegally and often forcibly, esp. as a form of protest”. In the past decade the word “occupy” has most often been used to described the activities of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As frequently happens with movements of resistance words are re-appropriated or co-opted to shed light on other meanings and strip them of their destructive power.

So, in the case of this movement the critics make it clear that occupying other countries is acceptable, but occupying your own country is unacceptable and unpatriotic. In another example, the U.S. government (sometimes reluctantly) supported the Arab Spring protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but has been uncomfortable with precisely these principles of participatory democracy and protest coming to its own cities. The converse is that the violence acted upon protesters in Arab countries was categorically denounced by the U.S., while similar violence in our own country (even against an Iraq War veteran) is excused, justified and ignored.

Yet, there is another layer to this talk of occupation. In reaction to this movement Native Americans reminded us that while we argue about the 99% and the 1%, they are the “un%”, unaccounted for and ignored. The movement in Albequerque declared theirs an (Un)Occupy movement, recognizing that the land from Wall Street to Oakland is already occupied by the descendants of colonizers and immigrants. While the movement has co-opted the idea of occupation to give power to the frustrations of the majority of Americans, it has not come to terms with the fundamental violence of the idea of occupation itself. I have previously written that in order to move forward we will eventually have to deal with the original sin of church and state.

I agree that this is an important critique of the Occupy movement and not to be dismissed. However, I also see a lot of hope in what this particular occupation has done. Instead of occupying a space with predetermined goals, demands and agenda, this movement has instead simply occupied a space in order to claim it somehow apart, holy even (which means set apart), from the dominant order of things. In the best article I’ve read yet on this movement Douglas Rushkoff said that the protestors are occupying spaces in order to “beta test for a new way of living”. He describes one of these experiments:

In just one example, Occupy’s General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features…Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments…They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.”

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So, the intention of this occupation is not simply to take power or make demands the way that many revolutions and movements of the past have done. The intention is to carve out a space where we can experiment with new ways of living together based on certain principles and values, like participation, inclusion and consensus. This is akin to the Anabaptist vision for the vocation of the church (which admittedly takes many diverse and divergent forms from Old Colony Mennonites to the advocacy of Mennonite Central Committee) as a place where we attempt to embody and faithfully live out the reign of God as revealed in Jesus. This is what the church attempted in Acts 2 and often throughout its history by beta testing this other way of life that had radically transformed them personally and communally.

Like the above protest sign, the space occupied by this protest movement and perhaps by the church should be intentionally left blank. As the Body of Christ, this allows room for the Spirit to fill in those blanks. Certainly our theology should not be empty, available to be filled by any and every whim or idea, but in a concrete way Jesus’ life, death and resurrection creates space for a new way of living. As we attempt to hold this space and allow our principles and values to fill it in, we should be mindful of the caution our indigenous brothers and sisters shared to be radically inclusive. This means indigenous, Tea Party members, capitalists, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, unions, activists, environmentalists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats participating and practicing consensus-building to fill in this sacred space with a new, better way to live together.

Small Is Beautiful: Resources

I ended the first post on E.F. Schumacher’s classic text Small is Beautiful considering his deconstruction of our dualistic ways of thinking. In his section “Resources” he continues this theme grounding his work in the idea that economics is a means that must be beholden to higher values and ideas which guide and shape it. His illustration of this idea is illuminating,

“the nature of our thinking is such that we cannot help thinking in opposites…The typical problems of life are insoluble on the level of being on which we normally find ourselves. How can one reconcile the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended–the power of love.” (97)

The question is how to bring into the situation of our current context a higher level force that can bring reconciliation to what we typically experience as diametrically opposed. For the religious this sounds somewhat like the vague divine language favored by Alcoholics Anonymous, but for the non-religious it sounds equally foreign and exclusive. Some of my friends like to claim that religion is the problem. Other fundamentalists might see a coming one world religion as the problem. I think they are both right, but neither sees consumerism as the one-world religion at the heart of the problem. Our solutions must be able to incorporate the whole of humanity, while maintaining and honoring the diversity within that whole. I believe what Schumacher is describing is a basic reality of human existence, regardless of how it is formulated by either the religious or non-religious. Our discomfort with the modern world is a symptom of the absence of this higher level force at work in our lives, relationships and societies.

It seems that this first diatribe is a tangent from the topic of resources, but I think that it is actually these higher level resources of love and values that transcend our tendency to think in opposites that is most needed. If we view the world without these resources it becomes easier to exploit nature or human beings or to dehumanize those we see as the exploiters. In this way both conservatives and liberals, capitalists and environmentalists find themselves subject to the same problem of dualistic thinking. The problems faced in Appalachia are a perfect illustration of this problem.

Tobacco farming and mining are the two main industries in the region. On one side you have a system that has made tobacco farming and mining the most profitable things to do in this region. Infrastructure, subsidies and numerous other factors have made these industries embedded in Appalachia. On the other side you have the environmentalists who deplore both industries. They attempt to stop the destructive practice of mountain top mining and the production of a raw material which causes the deaths of millions of Americans every year. In the middle are the people whose lives are dependent on these industries, the farmers and miners. For the most part, the environmentalists and capitalists simply ignore the people in the middle and hash out their ideological battles on cable news without solutions that are actually beneficial and possible to implement.

Schumacher goes further in peeling back the layers of our perspective on natural resources. He poses a more basic question about the nature of agriculture and industry.

The question arises of whether agriculture is, in fact, an industry, or whether it might be something essentially different. Not surprisingly, as this is a metaphysical–or metaeconomic–question, it is never raised by economists…The ideal of industry is the elimination of living substances. Man-made materials are preferable to natural materials, because we can make them to measure and apply perfect quality control. Man-made machines work more reliably and more predictably than do such living substances as men…In other words, there can be no doubt that the fundamental ‘principles’ of agriculture and of industry, far from being compatible with each other, are in opposition. Real life consists of the tensions produced by the incompatibility of opposites, each of which is needed…It remains true, however, that agriculture is primary, whereas industry is secondary, which means that human life can continue without industry, whereas it cannot continue without agriculture. (110-11)

In the case of Appalachia, both tobacco farming and mining, though producers of primary raw commodities, must be considered industries, because they are in truth not necessary. Nobody needs to smoke or make things from minerals the way that we need to eat. Even as we have attempted to create an “industrial agriculture” built on the principles stated above, conforming lifeforms to rigid standards of appearance and size, and the increased mechanization and synthetic basis of growing food, Mother Nature continues to defy our attempts to impose an industrial way of thinking. It turns out that this industrialization of agriculture into monocultures creates problems by selectively breeding super-pests, super-weeds and, in CAFOs, super-diseases. The agribusiness industry then turns to these same methods and ways of thinking to try and simply produce new and better chemicals, genetically modified organisms and better antibiotics, instead of recognizing that the problem is that agriculture is “something essentially different” than industry. It must be understood on its own terms if there is any hope of finding ways to live on this planet that do not continue to point the loaded pistol of our own intellects at our proverbial feet.

While the picture often seems bleak, even in Schumacher’s 1975 tome, there are rays of hope that with shifts in our thinking we will be able to harness the powers of economics, industry and technology in ways that can benefit us.

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction…We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worthwhile: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear. (159)

Again, we need a reorientation of things around their proper order and relationship. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the proper ordering of everything in creation. William Cavanaugh draws on Augustine, as well, to deconstruct our consumer religion in his book Being Consumed. Augustine claimed that we could only properly relate to everything else in creation when our love was properly ordered in God. Then we could rightly see resources, property, possessions and people through the eyes of our first love, God. In Augustine’s logic, it also rightly places human beings as the small, insignificant creatures that we are. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” This serves to dethrone the idol of “giantism” that is what many theologians throughout Christian history considered the original and origin of sin, pride, the idea that we could become gods and transcend the limits of our creaturely nature. This right ordering then leads us to also recognize the role of technology and economics to serve humanity, as well as the planet. Only with this rightly ordered way of thinking can we create a future that is sustainable.

The key that Schumacher and others point to is “the imagination and an abandonment of fear”. I often hear the argument that capitalism and democracy are the “best that we’ve got.” I’m not saying we should tear up the “best we’ve got” tomorrow, throw it in the fire and start over, but this kind of argument belies how captive our imaginations are to the current system and the fear that holds the status quo in place. The greatest leaps forward in human history have been from people that went against prevailing ways of thinking and questioned our assumptions. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the next leap forward will force us to return to some of the lessons we previously learned (and are continuing to learn) about things like nature, evolution and ecosystems. My hope is that this next leap forward is not one of a linear progression, in which technology like artificial intelligence just makes more of the same way of life possible, but a radical shift in the understanding of what life is and means.

Small Is Beautiful: The Modern World

Not only is small beautiful, but old is beautiful too (see Old is the New New). Schumacher wrote his classic Small is Beautiful in 1975, but it still rings true and continues to speak prophetically to our modern context. His book is divided into four sections: 1) The Modern World 2) Resources 3) Development and 4) Organization and Ownership. I love a series of posts. So, I will take each section in turn. The first section attempts to describe the state of our modern world in economic terms, but also in terms of meaning and values. This first quote, I think, sums up Schumacher general view of our modern economic system and the world it creates.

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence… Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be “growth” towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth…The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace…Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war. (33)

As you can see, Schumacher take a wide lens to the effects of our economics, and, I think, accurately describes the cause of conflicts as economic. I don’t think Schumacher or I intend to reduce conflicts to solely economic causes, but it is clear that ethnic, religious or cultural differences are exacerbated where there are conflicts over resources, perceived needs, distribution of wealth or other economic inequalities. The idea that growth and needs can expand infinitely continually creates conflict as it runs up against the walls of limitations due to natural resources, population pressures and unequal distribution of wealth and resources. As I have said before, we must understand the purpose, or end, toward which we desire our economic system to lead us and compare it to the actual trajectory of the course we’re on. Schumacher points out this quote from Lord Keynes, of Keynesian economics, on how the ends justify the means.

“But beware!” he continued. “The time for all this is not yet. For at least a hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” (24)

It seems silly to me, and perhaps you, that this way of thinking gains any traction and is followed by intelligent men and women, much less the leaders of governments, corporations, etc. Yet, this thinking seems to dominate our economics and our imaginations. “The rising tide of globalization will lift all boats.” This future paradise that our economists continue to promise, if we will just follow their advice, buying more stuff, and going further into debt, is an ever-fading horizon that moves further away as we approach. The means must be congruent with the ends if we have any hope of reaching our goal. If we want peace, we must use the tools of peace, not of violence. If we want economic equality, then we cannot live based on fundamental inequalities. If we want sustainability, then we must begin to act, consume and live in a way that “can be projected without running into absurdities”.

Part of the picture Schumacher paints of our world is one in which we have misunderstood in very basic ways what this life is, indeed, about.

Above anything else there is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul.'” (37)

As a Christian, you often hear overtones of Schumacher’s faith in his writing (though one famous chapter in this book is titled “Buddhist Economics”). In our economy work is the means to the end of weekends, vacations and retirement, where we seem to believe real, authentic life is lived. An alternative perspective (and a biblical one) is to see creative, productive work as part of what makes us human. When work is degrading, detached from the product and mechanical, whether it’s in a factory or a cubicle, it detracts from our humanity. In our hyper-capitalist world the entrepreneur is one of the most celebrated individuals. Yet the conditions for people to be entrepreneurs are kept at a minimum. They are the exceptions that keep alive the dream that our lives and work can be productive and meaningful in this system. The truth is that they are the exceptions and the cubicle, the assembly line, the fields and the mines are the rule for the great majority of humanity. Schumacher quotes Dorothy Sayers along these lines,

“War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.” (37)

The idea that wars and conflicts are the result of forces extraneous to the system, that they are anomalies, allows us to continue perpetuating the system that is the cause of these conflicts. Our modern world is built on systems in direct conflict with nature, human and non-human. We are getting the results, violence, conflict, inequality, etc. that the system is designed to get. I know I often sound all doom and gloom, but I do recognize that where values like democracy (or even better consensus), human dignity, individual rights and the kind of wisdom Schumacher mentioned above are upheld, honored and practiced we have seen great strides toward the kind of world envisioned by the Bible, most world religions and many great thinkers of justice, equality, happiness and meaningful existence. I just believe that these have been bright spots in spite of the system of exploitation, extraction and oppression to which we have become so accustomed.

If a buyer refused a good bargain because he suspected that the cheapness of the goods in question stemmed from exploitation or other despicable practices (except theft), he would be open to the criticism of behaving “uneconomically,” which is viewed as nothing less than a fall from grace…The religion of economics has its own code of ethics, and the First Commandment is to behave ‘economically’…To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price.” (45)

While there are certainly other factors at play in shaping our modern world, it seems clear to me that economics has succeeded in establishing itself as the trump card, as Schumacher claims in this quote. While many of us long for more than just a job at an individual level, on a government level (community,local, regional, state, federal and international) are made with economics as the primary criteria and motivator. We would look down on any governing body that used other priorities or criteria. In other words, we believe that the other values and priorities we have (family, faith, meaning, time, education, etc.) are best served by putting the value of economics and development first. Surveys and statistics paint a very different picture. The more our economy has grown and the wealthier we have become in the United States the less time we have for these other activities that we claim to value.

There are ways in which economics tries to incorporate aspects of value and meaning outside of the usual parameters of profit and loss statements. Schumacher has this to say about such cost/benefit analysis, “In fact, however, it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” (46) In other words, what is beyond and higher than economics is absorbed into the values and parameters of economics and thereby reduced to the level of economics where it does not pose a threat or dictate to economics the way that things should be ordered. If economics is not an end, but rather a means, then this is exactly the reverse of the way it should be. Economics must be made to serve our values and vision of the way the world should be.

Finally, I think Schumacher admirably deconstructs dualisms that continue to perpetuate dichotomous rather than more holistic ways of thinking about human needs and values.

We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination. When it comes to action, we obviously need small units, because action is a highly personal affair, and one cannot be in touch with more than a very limited number of persons at any one time. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to principles or to ethics, to the indivisibility of peace and also of ecology, we need to recognise the unity of mankind and base our actions upon this recognition. (65)

This way of thinking provides a foundation for future vision based on human needs and ecological limitations. It also breaks through some of the arguments about scale (which is particularly interesting from a book titled Small is Beautiful). Schumacher’s point seems to be that there is a proper place for large-scale thinking and names it, the problems of peace and ecology that humanity faces as a whole. In terms of organizing our lives together (which is the realm of economics) we need the freedom of smallness to adapt and connect in the ways in which we are wired. (I wonder how social networking affects the evolutionary reality of the limited connections our brains are able to make and maintain which Malcolm Gladwell puts at about 150 in The Tipping Point.) I believe the idea that there is a proper space for both large-scale and small-scale thinking is helpful in reaching a way forward. Our problems stem in large part from confusing the proper space for each way of thinking and organizing.

This naturally transitions to an understanding of our human and non-human resources, their nature and limitations, which is the subject of the second part of Schumacher’s book.

You Have Heard It Said

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”

-Ben Franklin

“Much violence is based on the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not to be shared.”  

-Henri Nouwen

A couple good quotes about violence, democracy and economics to ponder. How do those three weave together in our lives, relationships and systems? It seems to me they are always at play together.

The first quote points out that democracy is always less than perfect. Consensus is the only model that is able to serve the entire community. Democracy always results in the majority (whether in numbers or power) oppressing the minority. Franklin, as we should expect, seems to think that freedom and violence will keep an imperfect democracy in check. I’m not sure how well that has worked out for the American experiment.

Nouwen adds the dimension of economics to the mix, connecting the basic premise of property to violence and oppression. This connects directly with what I shared Monday about the foundational passage concerning Israel. They were a people without possessions, but possessed by the God who owned everything. Because we belong to God everything is ours. But Nouwen reminds us that our possession of everything as we relate to God is for the purpose of sharing it, not defending or hoarding it.

So, taken together we can say on the pessimistic side that democracy and economics are both fueled and maintained by violence. In light of who we are as the people of God, however, we know that this is an illusion. As a community of saints we live out our calling and purpose by revealing God’s reality in the way we give and share freely all that God possesses, which is everything. This way of being is in direct competition with the way of being that relies on violence and coercion, but we believe that it will prevail in the end.

What is Empire?

This may seem a digression from the topic of this blog, but if the question of what we should eat ultimately involves issues of justice then the answer must involve the church’s relationship to the state. There…now I’m justified in discussing this topic here.

I will be teaching the Netzer Co-op May 17th on “Relocation to Abandoned Places of Empire.” Some of you may recognize that this is one of the 12 “marks” of new monasticism. I’m in the early stages thinking through what I will talk about and how the evening will go. I thought it worth processing some of these thoughts here, particularly as they intersect my theology of food in numerous ways. I think I will organize the evening around three questions 1) What is Empire? 2) Where are the abandoned places of Empire? and 3) What does relocation mean? I’ll consider each of these questions in separate posts.

So, what is empire? Many call America an empire, but historians debate the accuracy of that description. In God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan defines empire as an entity that dominates in four areas military, economic, political and ideological.

Walter Wink calls empire a domination system. In order for this system to perpetuate its military dominance it must rely on the “myth of redemptive violence.” This is the idea that violence will be bring about peace and stability. This story so permeates our culture that we almost don’t see it. It is in almost every action movie, news story, cartoon, TV show and novel that we consume. It is the air we breathe. In fact the idea that violence can somehow achieve peace is so pervasive that we cannot even imagine the alternative, that nonviolence is a better way. We create elaborate “what if” scenarios to debunk the possibility of nonviolence. Empire dominates our imagination and molds us into a particular way of thinking, seeing and understanding the world.

Empire also controls economic power. This may be more difficult to put our finger on today than it was for Rome or other empires. Nevertheless, a shrinking number of companies and people control the flow of the world’s goods and capital. This could be an entire series of posts, but suffice it to say that the majority of the world’s people are not in control of the economic forces that run their lives. We have already considered how “free” the free market really is.

There is also the myth of democracy. In America this is most evident by looking closely at the two choices we seem to have in every election, Republican or Democrat. Both would have us believe that they are diametrically opposed to each other, yet they so often vote similarly and have similar agendas. The tell-tale sign is the money trail. All of the largest contributors to political campaigns and parties play both sides. Both Republicans and Democrats are beholden to the same corporate interests that finance them. It helps for people to believe that they have choices and can participate in the system, so that they can be co-opted to perpetuate as little change as possible.

Finally, empires dominate through ideology. Pax Romana or the American dream, what’s the difference? The thing that got the earliest Christians on the wrong side of Rome was not that they chose the wrong religion. Rome could care less who you worshipped…so long as you bowed down to Caesar as Lord. Imperial theology is the glue that holds the thing together. Propaganda is what allows empires to continue to dominate people and stay in power. The earliest Christians, indeed Jesus himself, got on Rome’s bad side because their message undermined the very glue that kept them in power.

After considering all of these elements I would like to suggest a definition of empire as that which defines the framework for thought and life and orders our lives over against the alternative imagination of the reign of God.