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Are Calls For “Sanctuaries” Well-Intentioned Masks For A Neoliberal Agenda? (Roger Green)

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The post-election discussions on campuses with respect to DACA policies, or “Dreamers”, in the United States employ the potentially loaded theologically term “sanctuary”.  As Shannon Najmabadi pointed out in a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, while some advocate declaring “sanctuary” campuses, others worry about the conflict between the philosophical idea of sanctuary and U.S. Federal Law.

According to Christopher Eisguber, President of Princeton University,  his university “will invoke that principle in courts and elsewhere to protect the rights of its community and the individuals within it,” However, he added, “we jeopardize our ability to make those arguments effectively, and may even put our DACA students at greater risk, if we suggest that our campus is beyond the law’s reach.”

Similar concerns have been brought up at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where I teach.  Even so, the class divisions between poorly funded state schools like Metro and Ivy League Institutions make it certainly easier for privileged campuses to make claims about their campuses being separate from the State.

As a philosophical idea, the notion of sanctuary campuses cuts across ways we perceive education in the United States, in which we often hear uncritical language of academic institutions being an “ivory tower” applied to four-year state and two-year community colleges and universities, which receive little State funding and which often have to compete with R1 institutions while serving much larger and diverse populations of students.

A political idea that education is in some way inherently “sacred” is often expressed as a public good but, as Scott Carlson notes, it has also become increasingly limited as previously marginalized communities have gained access to higher education in the U.S.  Emory University has already seen threats of losing state funding if it declares itself to be a sanctuary campus.

We well know that the theological underpinnings of the Ph.D. are rooted in the Classical Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and the Early Modern Quadrivium, which founded the Liberal Arts and Humanities.  We know also that philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas has in recent years noted the necessity the necessity to “translate” theological ideas. Habermas’s discussions with Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope) in the volume The Dialectics of Secularization evidence this when he says: “Indeed, a liberal political culture can expect that the secularized citizens play their part in the endeavors to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a language that is accessible to the public as a whole.” (51-2)

More recently, for example, Habermas has written:

the expression “postsecular” is not a genealogical but a sociological predicate. I use this expression to describe modern societies that have to reckon with the continuing existence of religious groups and the continuing relevance of the different religious traditions, even if the societies themselves are largely secularized. Insofar as I describe as “postsecular,” not society itself, but a corresponding change of consciousness in it, the predicate can also be used to refer to an altered self-understanding of the largely secularized societies of Western Europe, Canada, or Australia . . . In this case, “postsecular” refers, like “postmetaphysical,” to a caesura in the history of mentality. But the difference is that we use the sociological predicate as a description from the observer’s perspective, whereas we use the genealogical predicate from the perspective of a one who shares in the goal of self-understanding.

Despite Habermas’s qualification of the postsecular frame being situated within the sociological observer’s theory, scholars such as Aakash Singh has duly noted that the frame of postsecular is already entrenched in Western political sensibilities and histories.

In “Is Who Postsecular: A Post-Postcolonial Response,” Singh locates the post-postcolonial era with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  The distinction with the postcolonial era exists in the necessity for both existing and newly emerging political entities to confront “[n]ew patterns of immigration grounded in grooves worn by other aspects of globalization (movements of capital, goods, services, etc.).”

According to Singh,

What is crucial about the post-postcolonial … is that the movement of persons, the new immigration, cannot be folded back into the same processes of assimilization / ghettoization that were sustainable throughout the twentieth century.  In 2010 we heard this in another way from Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, and later from other European leaders: multiculturalism is dead.  This is an awareness of the postsecular situation. It is one among so many recent admissions of crisis.(37)

Emergent crises demand critique, and political theology has concerned itself with increasing states of exception.

In their recent opening editorial for the journal Political Theology, Vincent Lloyd and David True note the murky strains of political theology between secular academics and Christian theologians, and call for broader perspectives: “We look forward to intentionally exploring the relevance of political theology in other regions, traditions, and disciplines that have not as yet been fully represented, such as Africa, Islam, and intellectual history.”(506)  As Singh’s critique notes, the historical relationship between debates over secularization is the product of Western perspectives and governmental practices.

While political theological discourses attend to more global perspectives, the DACA situation in the U.S. hinges on tensions between the expressed public values and the questions about the limits of governance.  Brutal ironies emerge when we see that the U.S. has seen record high levels of immigrants deported for non-criminal reasons under Obama at the same time that protective measures like DACA were introduced.

Or, closer to home, we might consider the irony that when Americans celebrate their civic “Thanksgiving” holiday, indigenous people are hosed down in freezing temperatures and shot at with rubber bullets.  The polarizing politics of this election year exacerbate these ironies, and they certainly call for perspectives that reach beyond binary political moral frames.  For protestors at Standing Rock, it has taken the intervention military veterans to stall plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Will the same vets defend our campuses as “alt-right” speakers make national tours and Dreamers dream in fear of deportation?

On campuses in the U.S., liberal democratic rights-based claims are vigorously defended with policies of “inclusive excellence”, but critical theory has long taught us to be suspicious of the ways once progressive values become used for alternative purposes and rhetorics.

About the same time as the Iranian Revolution, Michel Foucault’s was giving his lectures at the Collège de France collected as The Birth of Biopolitics and the rise of neoliberalism in its various European and American forms.  For Foucault, the rise of homo œconomicus displaced the rights-bearing subjects. “In its new regime, government is basically no longer to be exercised over subjects and other things subjected through these subjects. Government is now to be exercised over what we could call the phenomenal republic of interests.”(47)

While we hear loud cries for rights of “dreamers”, indigenous peoples, black lives, and women and express the value of inclusion, neoliberal politics sees demographic differences in terms of producing market competition.  So, while from a rights-based perspective of inclusivity for, say, African Americans, any kind of nodding toward human rights perpetuates existing inequities in localized American communities through an “all lives matter rhetoric,” a neoliberal regime is incapable of seeing anything “human” as other than biopolitical power.

Hillary Clinton’s well-intentioned and manifestly stated classical liberalism in terms of rights came across as insincere for those who see it as neoliberalism masked as rights-based values.  The problem is that simultaneously existing sets of values operate in two distinct forms of power.  Inclusive excellence, which I myself value as a professor, is also what Louis Althusser long ago called part of the Ideological state apparatus.

The ideological apparatus is a feel-good anodyne for those who live in a world empire.  As a former professor of mine, Miguel De La Torre, was fond of telling his mostly liberal students with reference to Nietzsche, you and me, we are the wolves. But we want to see ourselves as righteous and innocent lambs.

Considering ideology, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write in Declaration that during Occupy in 2011, many “traditional political thinkers and organizers on the left” were displeased with a lack of ideology underwriting the fire of the movements: “The streets are full but the churches are empty.”[7]

Hardt and Negri optimistically counter such traditionalists, saying the opposite: “we need to empty the churches of the Left even more, and bar their doors, and burn them down! These movements are powerful not despite their lack of leaders but because of it.  They are organized horizontally as multitudes, and their insistence on democracy at all levels is more than a virtue but key to their power.”

What do these church burning claims with respect to the left mean in the face of the manifest values of an ideological state apparatus of liberal democrats, explicitly stated by The Association of American Colleges and Universities in their policy on inclusive excellence?  What do they mean for a nation that, barring Russian tampering, legitimately (if not popularly) elected someone manifestly against these values?  What do they mean in the face of the theologically-charged proclamation of sanctuary campuses?

As Foucault writes in the The Birth of Biopolitics, the overcoming of rights-based subjectivity by neoliberalism creates a dialectic in which a rights-bearing subject obtains positive legalistic rights only when he agrees to ceding those rights: “The dialectic mechanism of the subject of right is characterized by the division of the subject, the existence of a transcendence of the second subject, and a relationship of negativity, renunciation, and limitation between them, and it is in this movement that law and prohibition emerge.(274)

Accepting the negativity of the divided subjectivity which introduces the possession of immediate “natural” rights while agreeing to the limitation of a governmentality of economic interests that adheres to an entirely different logic, and one that neoliberal government does not seek to limit in any way.  The result is a mind-manifestation of mass consumption and exploitation while playing Pollyanna to liberal democratic values.

Of course, people who see themselves as outside the “liberal elite” or libertarian may express themselves with sentiment similar to Mikhail Bakunin’s materialism in The Political Theology of Mazzini and the International, adhering to the side of the “revolution, the audacious deniers of God, of the divine order and the principle of authority, but, on the other hand, and for that reason, the believers in humanity, the affirmers of a human order and a human liberty.”

But the tempting romance of this humanistic claim also overlaps with the ideology of our campuses, which are politically and militarily too weak and overly neoliberal to put up a fight, much less create true sanctuaries.  At the same time, Bakunin’s materialism by the end of his essay smacks of a globalized materialism too commensurate with the infinite and unregulated idea of neo-liberal economics and thereby perpetuates the divine father it seeks to dismiss (and my critique differs from Carl Schmitt’s counter to Bakunin in Political Theology).  Foucault importantly notes the lack of socialist governmentality in The Birth of Biopolitics.

Even so, and you may be more optimistic than I am here, the meaning of sanctuary, even if it is in some ways nostalgic, certainly invites a theological angle to the discussion, to what Foucault calls at the end of his 1978-79 lectures, civic society.

But I will say that if we are to offer sanctuary, our efforts must exceed the well-intentioned place that Inclusivity has within our higher education systems.  I say this in terms of tactical strategy, not a critique of those values, for sanctuary will require militancy, even if it will aim to be a non-violent one, and we must remember that in all battles, the less privileged are likely to suffer the most violence.

Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado.  His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles.  In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn.  He is also a performing musician and a composer.

One Comment

  1. Such confusing hair splitting rhetoric makes no sense whatsoever. Have you ever looked at Wilberian Aqual model to at least help you sort through and categorize the very many strands your attempting to weave in to comprehensive picture?

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