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Toxic economies, part 1 – charity without community, sovereignty without substance, in the age of pathologized politics

This past few weeks I’ve been reading two relatively recent, semi-popular books, neither of which can be described as academic or necessarily popular, books which nevertheless have stimulated immensely my thinking about what I feel compelled to keep writing about – the reasons, implications, and of course the politico-theological significance of the ongoing upheavals as well as the dysfunctions in the American and global economies. These two books, which on the surface seem to have only minimal bearing on each other, diagnose and prescribe for in radically dissimilar, yet strangely similar, ways what we are now facing.

The first is Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (Harper Collins, 2011), a gripping, incredibly detailed and brilliantly analytical inside look from the vantage point of a veteran community organizer at how the so-called “new philanthropy” as well as the passion of the current millennial generation for civic engagement and social service is ironically and paradoxically destroying the populations and constituencies it is meant to assist.

The second is a funky, but highly readable and challenging little book by Gene Marshall along with Ben Ball, Marsha Buck, Ken Kreutziger, and Alan Richard entitled The Road from Empire to Eco-Democracy (IUniverse Books, 2011).

Although the opening chapters have this strange, pre-Reagan, 1970s sort of feel (invoking a time when inflation was rampant, energy supplies for the first time in history were scarce and growing scarcer, and the “limits to growth” doctrine as popularized by the Club of Rome was all the rage throughout the Western world), the last two-thirds focusing on community-building and political action for a new time of crisis are powerfully suggestive and thought-inducing, even if I have serious quibbles in places with the authors about the fine line between utopian dreaming and gainful strategy.

However, I am not writing a book review here, which defeats my role for this blog anyway. I am, however, personally recommending that people buy their books, not because they fit into some fashionable genre of global affairs, but because both of them have their common fingers on the real problem at hand – the toxic economy we daily live, breath, and are of course vitally dependent upon. I want to discuss how the ideas of these disparate authors can truly stimulate us to reflect deeply and urgently about what is coming down the road, even if we don’t know as Jesus said of the coming of the Son of Man “the day and the hour.”

What do we mean by a “toxic economy”, and why is such a category our starting point for any serious conversation about what lies behind our vague sense that things are not right and becoming less right- as evidenced perhaps in the thickening statistical pessimism offered in response to the familiar American poll question “do you think the country is headed in the right direction”?

Toxic economies

“Toxicity” is a term usually reserved for things we put in our body that have unhealthy consequences, often for the long haul. In the old days it referred to unmistakable types of poison, but nowadays it can imply things that are considered not to be “natural” or “organic” (such as food additives for which the scientific risks have not always been clearly identified, even if dietary purists sternly warn against ingesting them). The dangers of the latter have always to be regarded as speculative, but we know that a steady diet of them in the aggregate produces deteriorating health (e.g., the case of people who eat mostly fast foods) that can have grave secondary effects.

I intend to deploy the term in a sense somewhere between the two ranges of connotation. A “toxic” economy is something which we are slowly coming to understand as bad for us, but about which we are not necessarily inclined to do anything about – not simply because we lack the courage, but because there remains controversy concerning what the problem really amounts to, or where it really stems from.

Even if there is genuine theoretical consensus, the real-world outcomes for treating the problem may be as bad as, or even worse than, the problem itself. Even if by some stroke of legislation we banned food additives all at once, the costs of food would skyrocket and most of the other kinds of health problems – E coli, botulism, and other kinds of biogenic forms of poisoning – would rise to the levels of earlier days, when food additives were introduced to countermand those very kinds of challenges.

What we can do often is find ways to opt personally out of the toxic system and to take organized steps to de-toxify it from the ground up. If we return to the two books mentioned at the beginning, that is what the authors recommend in their own ways we should be doing.

Without going into detail about their respective diagnoses or prescriptions, I would like to encapsulate what I would take away from both in developing a profile of the “toxic economy” and what it broadly signifies.

In my last post on “Democracy and the Debt Crisis” I brought attention to the problem of consumerism, the vanishing of political accountability, and our almost pathological collective nonchalance toward sovereign debt that is developing almost apocalyptic dimensions by the day.
But on this occasion I want to probe deeper and raise questions about the system as a whole.

Toxic giving

Both liberals and conservatives will have something to cheer about, and something at which to take offense, concerning what I am about to say.

Let’s start with Lupton’s book, which will cheer conservatives. Lupton almost inconceivably is intensely critical of the fundamental concept of “charity” as it is often practiced today, whether it be private or public. He also comes down heavily on the unintended consequences of the part-time involvement of churches in “helping the poor,” whether we are talking about food pantries, overseas missions trips, even homeless ministries.

Even though at times he could be mistaken for an anachronistic advocate of the old self-help adage “God helps those who help themselves, ” Lupton is far more sophisticated than that. And he is speaking from one who has seen it all from the very vantage point he takes to task. Been there, done that!

Lupton’s basic algorithm in his very extensive, nuanced, and anecdote-dripping strategy of analysis is as follows: “parity, not charity.”

Charity is a system of largely uncritical – or at least seldom examined – gestures toward people in need on the part of those who have a good deal, which are wittingly or unwittingly designed to give someone personal satisfaction, assuage their guilt, or simply as a reflexive and profoundly instinctive response to another human being we know is in dire trouble. For larger organizations and institutions it is a more “corporatized” means of fulfilling an express charitable mission intended to do primarily for its supporters or benefactors exactly what individual efforts, as outlined in the previous sentence, may fail to accomplish alone.

“Parity”, on the other hand, is not simply about giving. It is about strategic self-giving. It is all about cultivating intentional structures and forms of self-discipline for the contribution of time, resources, and talent aimed at empowering and energizing those who have less, or less to nothing. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was one of the first, public models of this form of “parity-charity”, but Lupton also gives plenty of current, down-to-earth examples of how community-organizers in this mold, who are not doing their job if they are not also community-builders.

The implication of course for our current toxic economy as a whole is that we tend increasingly, even in our age of would-be “social consciousness” and “service-mindedness”, to do – or demand that our public agencies and institutions do – on a larger scale what Lupton is criticizing.

We first identify another social problem, then designate both a victim and an evil-doer, then demand that those responsible somehow “pay” (often in the form of compensation), or all of us pay for our social sins, or we compensate everyone else who might have been affected by our sinfulness. We know how that all works in the legal tort system, and we have heard all about the malefactors, whether they be the trial lawyers or the corporate malefactors themselves.

And we all know what are the economic outcomes. Our mentality is like that of the hillbilly huntsman – spot it, then shoot it. Or, in our case, identify it and pass a law, or perhaps issue an executive order.

But rarely do we ask ourselves how we need to get involved, change our own ways (not that of the malefactor necessarily through legislation), or mess up our lives to genuinely give of ourselves. If a one hundred thousandth of all the PAC funds now targeted toward certain candidates to perhaps blunt the influence of whom we perceive as the opposition were directed into the sorts of grass-roots mobilization that established real relationships with the people we want to do something for (and I am not at all speaking about defining a new sense of “cause”), we might see real change.

We know that serious health disabilities are overcome not by more medications or surgery, but thoroughgoing life-style transformations, and the same goes for our toxic economy.

“Visionary transestablishment”

Which is why I think Marshall et. al. are truly on to something. They are not “liberals” in the standard meaning of the word, but “progressives” with the authentic inflections the expression should have these days. Like Lupton, they are community-organizers by trade and community-builders by profession, though they are unlike the former, far more concerned with context than content.

But first some disclosure: I know one of the authors very well personally and have visited their experimental community known as Realistic Living in rural North Texas, which is very impressive – not only for the way in which they have shepherded most of the real-world wherewithal, including modest and sustainable financial infrastructure, for doing what they say they are doing, but also their community outreach in the form of publishing and public education.

The locution they employ in the book – “visionary transestablishment” – is the key here. They define the visionary transestablishment (I will refer to it here as “VT”) as “those who have been grasped by a viable alternative form of society.” (211). They contrast the VT with the “aloof transestablishment,” (AT) which approximates much of what Lupton is talking about and characterizes the vast majority of the academic, media, and political representatives of our cultural chattering class.

The AT wants to, as I am used to saying in my courses on political theology, “to good without doing justice,” that is, make the hard choices, speak out for the unpopular options, and make the genuine adjustment, if not complete overhaul, in their life-ways to accomplish in a finite way what they want somebody else to do more conveniently for them (e.g., give money or insist on some new policy or tax-levy, or demand simply that “government get out of the way”).

VT types. however, grasp something profound that our highly visible and loud-mouthed politicos and their camp-followers entirely miss: the close conceptual relationship between “ecology” and “economy” derived from the garden variety Greek word oikos for “household”, the secret even in Aristotle’s writings to human solidarity and human thriving that transcended the polis.

It is in the oikos – that is, the immediate, relational and reciprocally accountable community – that the source of transformation lies. That is something Lupton also recognizes, but Marshall et. al. see it less of a matter of how we change the self-declared agents of social change, and more of how each one of us declares ourselves as committed agents of change through life changes.

The authors reserve their harshest reproof for radical “disestablishment” types who have given up on historical transformation. We cannot escape history, as the world-deniers and life-style rejectionists do, according to the authors in an echo of their own historical roots as urban activists from the Sixties, thereby hoping that somehow it will all come crashing down and we will somehow gather up the pieces, refashioning them in a manner to our liking, or we can as quasi-monastic “spiritual” conquistadors carve out our own little empires of self-satisfied bliss during the reign of chaos.

Survivalists of all types are a plague to visionary change-agents, regardless of whether they have guns.

In a broad way, however, Marshall et. al. focus in my estimation far too much on consumerism and corporate predatory behavior as something we need be most aware of and fight in our own conscience as the “enemy within.” In some ways that is old-school.

Our brand new postmillennial “Bohemian bourgeois” urban professional culture, which currently dominates national politics, has already infused into our society a privatized ethic of “responsible” and “socially aware” consumerism. It is only the outliers, the culturally backward, the rural folk and the urban poor, who have not signed on for both cultural and economic reasons.

Furthermore, one could argue that the whole current industry of simply trying to “save the planet” or “make a difference” by eating expensive, organic store brands, faithfully composting and recycling, and shopping at thrift stores is doing exactly that. And of course it breeds a kind of hyperlegalism and pharisaism that still exemplifes Lupton’s warning about gesturing rather than self-giving, or mine about doing good without doing justice, let alone the familiar libertarian and oppositional complaints about “green Nazis” or “food fascists.”

After all, we now have serious allegations that the well-known, global, “hip” computer company, which the whole “alternative” establishment now favors over its predatory rival by long reputation, is actually one of the biggest exploiters of low-wage workers overseas. Hypocrisy always far more deadly than outward evil-doing, and “progressives” of all stripes are usually the biggest malefactors on that score.

The politics of compelling vision

What the authors remind us, perhaps without them even realizing it fully, is that radical and significant social transformation as the precursor to political transformation comes from a compelling and historically motivating ethico-spiritual vision of what it means to live together that in the end will actually make an historical difference. And this ethico-spiritual vision cannot be merely a utopian cultural experiment. It has to engage people’s lives to their marrow, and it has to have outreach, much in the same way religious movements from the early Church to the early Muslims commandeered the tides of history.

In her unpublished papers, some of which have been brought together in the untranslated volume Was ist Politik?, or What is Politics? (Piper, 2010), German philosopher Hannah Arendt makes the telling point that the “concept” of the political always emanates from an intentional formulation the meaning of life together codified in laws, pedagogy, and of course the philosophical and religious literature that today we know as “political philosophy” or “political theology.”

The same argument can be found in Claude Lefort’s later definition of the political as the symbolic infrastructure serving to organize a common purpose, system of loyalties, and norms of social conduct. The political is breathes the power of signifying motivation into rudimentary social existence, what Heidegger would term simple Mitsein (“Being-with”), Arendt our mere state of Zusammenleben (“Living together”).

In subsequent posts I will seek to perform a more detailed and clinical anatomy of our current toxic economy, which is highly charged with “symbols” (perhaps Baudrillard’s simulacra would be a better analogue) that do not serve as a motivating framework for the political other than to inflame desire, envy, resentment, and pathological fantasy toward the boundary of sustainability. The insights of both books orient us for why that is the case.

As Arendt stresses in one of her final fragments, composed in contemplation of the potential apocalyptic prospects of nuclear weaponry, the political “concerns not only freedom, but life – the continued existence of humanity and perhaps all organic life on the planet.” (29, translation mine). Giorgio Agamben in his Homo Sacer opens us to the fundamental realization that what he terms “bare life” – life without the political – is always the grave peril of sovereignty without substance.

Our toxic economy is increasingly that – sovereignty without substance. Our sense of “sovereignty” is the yawning abyss of the indefinable and insatiable Me, Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” which pathologizes both the politics of the right and of the left.

These two books are a start on how we are already well down that dismal road.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and Senior Editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory). He is author of many books on cultural theory, philosophy of religion, and contemporary Continental philosophy. His most recent is Postmodernism and the Revolution in Religious Theory (University of Virginia Press, 2012). His latest work Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy is forthcoming.

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Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion and theory of culture. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. His latest book, entitled The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012), looks at the ways in which major trends in Continental philosophy over the past two decades have radically altered how we understand what we call “religion” in general. He is a regular contributor to Political Theology Today. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. A full bio and current activities can be found on his website at www.carlraschke.com.