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Challenge the Question Itself

Why has political discourse in America broken down and what can be done to revive it? The question presumes much. Indeed, to be transparent from the outset, it is my intention in the following pages to challenge the premise of the question itself. My argument is not so much that there hasn’t been a breakdown, but that this breakdown is not a declension, and that Christian thinking and acting should not seek to reverse it. The breakdown of “political discourse” is a crisis in liberal democracy, part and parcel with a larger crisis of neoliberal capitalism and global empire to which (I take it to be axiomatic) Christians should stand opposed. It is not, however, enough simply to reject liberal capitalist modes of civil discourse (e.g. “free speech”) as proper to a corrupt and death-dealing social system. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” This paper, then, will paint the broad outlines of both. First, it will narrate how liberal democratic ideals of civil discourse and free speech are embedded within capitalist property relations, and how and why those ideals are currently in crisis. Then it will attempt to narrate how these ideals have always been contested by those who were never meant to have “free speech,” and expanded primarily by that contestation. It will close with a mediation on antifascism as a defense of free speech for the poor and working classes against the threat of enclosure posed by white supremacy and the far right.


In his 1962 text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas tracked the emergence and evolution of the main arena in which “political discourse” takes place within liberal capitalist democracy. For Habermas, the “public sphere” was originally a creature of the rising bourgeoisie, evolving out of venues like coffee shops where some of the first newspapers were produced, read, and discussed by merchants and stock brokers, and eventually came to include the theater, book publishers, etc. The birth of the public sphere was a key part of the creation of the modern, bourgeois state, because it guaranteed one of that state’s key features: limited government. The public sphere, as a place where private individuals could gather and discuss matters of common significance, created “the public” as such, a body that could limit the scope and authority of the state and to which the state could be held accountable.

The main significance of Habermas’ argument for our purposes is that “civil discourse” - or any other kind of discourse - does not arise out of the blue. It does not and cannot happen between individuals with nothing standing between them and the state and the market. Rather, “public discourse” and “the public” itself needs to have an institutional existence. At a very basic level, this can and often does mean a physical space, whether that is a coffee shop in renaissance London or union square in New York City. So, on Habermas’ account, if one wanted to look for the cause of the decline of “civil discourse” in contemporary American society, one would look to the decline in the number of genuinely public spaces where people can come together. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community is one text that tracks this decline. As membership in labor unions, churches, mosques, and synagogues, rotary clubs, debating societies, amature sporting leagues, and other voluntary associations continues to plummet, Habermas might argue, we can expect the quality and quantity of “civil discourse” to continue to fall.

This is an extremely powerful argument, and true as far as it goes. But it fails to attend to the deep contradictions with which the bourgeois public sphere has always been riven. The public sphere is, by definition, a sphere for anybody and everybody. But the “everybody” - the “everyman” - that it includes has never really been all human beings. Rather, the bourgeois public sphere has always primarily served as a meeting place for the paradigmatic bourgeois subject - propertied, white, male, and heterosexual. Thus, the primary logic of the public sphere, and of “political discourse,” namely the liberal ideal of free speech, has always been modulated in such a way as to presume that subject. This is why John Locke, arguably the principal “organic intellectual” of the liberal bourgeoisie and the philosophical architect of the modern bourgeois state, argued that basic rights, including the right to free speech, depended on owning property. Rights, in Locke’s formulation, just like “the public” in Habermas’ formulation, are about space. Rights are things that a subject can exercise over a space that he controls, a space that includes both land and bodies. Thus, a Lockean subject, a la the US Bill of Rights, has the right to free speech because he owns his body, and specifically his mouth, just like he has the right not to quarter a soldier in time of peace because he owns his home, and just like he has the right to bear arms to protect his sovereignty over both his home and his body. The public sphere is a meeting place for such subjects. It is a place where they can actualize their rights over their bodies by exercising those rights in public, in the presence of others. Of course, the existence of subjects who own their bodies and therefore have rights is only plausible in a world in which human bodies are property that can be owned, that is, in a world where there are some people who do not own their own bodies. This is why, in American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan shows that the emergence of rights discourse in the commonwealth of Virginia, which pioneered this legal framework for other British colonies and which served as an important model for the later US Constitution, was intrinsically linked to the existence of slavery and indentured servitude. Virginia’s House of Burgesses, both a predecessor to later representative assemblies and a kind of liberal public sphere, was a space where the rights of “free born Englishmen,” including the right to free speech, the right to participate in a “civil discourse,” could be exercised, and was both economically produced and philosophically predicated on the existence of slavery.

This central contradiction in the public sphere is the basis of innumerable conflicts, and of the current crisis in “civil discourse” in America. Women, slaves, and working class people have always contested the boundaries of the public sphere and demanded entry into it. This is, for example, what Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and other formerly enslaved people were doing when they took to the lecture circuit to contest chattel slavery and call for abolition. It is also what working people - particularly “unskilled,” industrial workers - were doing when they formed voluntary associations that evolved into the first labor unions. Because of the bourgeois character of the public sphere, these interventions have always been contentious. And so the shape and scope of the public sphere, and of what counts as “civil discourse” have always been negotiated and renegotiated in a necessarily messy and conflictual process. A catalogue of modern examples of this process might include the defense of gay bars like Stonewall and the growing levels of participation in civil disobedience by undocumented people under the banner sin papeles, sin miedo! - no papers, no fear! Michael Warner’s 2002 volume Counterpublics and the State has pointed out that a concomitant process with this has been the creation of alternative “publics” by marginalized groups, which can fester underneath the surface of a “civil society” characterized by “civil discourse” for years before erupting into open revolt. To continue with the example of LGBTQ struggles, Sherry Wolf argues that working class queer communities not only flourished in urban areas but actively struggled to protect their members long before Stonewall - at least as far back as the second world war, if not further - and that this was the condition for Stonewall’s possibility.

Yet, even as workers, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have contested the scope of the bourgeois public sphere and thus broadened it, countervailing forces have also sought to narrow it. As common spaces have cropped up where exploited and oppressed people can appear publicly to one another and organize and contest their immiseration, the neoliberal capitalist order has responded with strategies of enclosure and containment. In this light, we can reconceptualize the decline of public spaces tracked by Habermas and Putnam. It is not something that has happened naturally, but something that has been engineered, a basic feature of neoliberalism. Libraries get defunded. Churches, particularly in poor neighborhoods, get closed. Town greens get paved over, or people get moved to suburban and exurban areas with no community centers other than a local strip mall, if that. This is Luke Bretherton’s argument in Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life, and he submits that churches, together with mosques, synagogues, unions, LGBTQ community centers, and student groups, have a crucial role to play in “reweaving” civil society by organizing together around common goods.

I propose that the decline of “political discourse” be traced to the institutional decline of the public sphere, and that this be thought of as what Silvia Federici, following a long tradition of autonomous Marxists, calls “enclosure.” The “public sphere” has never been public in the sense of everyone being included. It must always be modified, as Habermas modifies it, with the adjective “bourgeois.” But this adjective has never been uncontested. The commons, the demos (the last, the least, and the lost whom Jesus Christ came to serve and to save) have always sought to seize space within the public sphere, or to make public spheres of their own - at union halls, gay bars, pride centers, anarchist infoshops, punk venues, black churches, and alternative religious spaces - in order to meet one another, to identify common concerns, to organize and fight the ruling classes, and/or just to survive. In order to preserve itself from the real threat that these reclaimed “common” spaces pose, the state and the capitalist class has consistently attempted to crack down on them, to “enclose the commons” not just economically but politically, even if it means violating the bourgeois public sphere’s norms of “civil discourse” and “free speech.” This is why free speech, from union organizers standing on soap boxes in the early 1900s and 1910s to Mario Savio delivering his “machine speech” on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1964, has always been a subaltern, working class concern. In the closing section of this paper, I will argue that, media portrayals to the contrary, it still is.


The state and the market have many ways of enclosing common spaces to prevent the entry of subaltern voices into the public sphere and shut down subaltern counterpublics. For example, in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Nonprofit Industrial Complex, the members of the INCITE! collective argue that the creation of 501(c)3 organizations has detached social service provision from social movements, and thereby taken away places that people met and organized by depoliticizing food sovereignty programs (often replacing them with food banks and soup kitchens), rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, sexual health services for LGBTQ people, community gardens, etc. Moreover, the massification of indebtedness and the growth of jobs without fixed hours or even specific job sites that can be organized (see: the replacement of taxis by uber and lyft, for example) has deprived a whole generation of workers of the time and space to organize together. Sometimes, common spaces are shut down through sheer acts of state violence. COINTELPRO, for example, did not just put many of the leaders of the Black Panther Party and other racial justice groups in jail. It also shut down the party as an institution, depriving the communities it had served of a common space. Perhaps the most striking and recent example has been the use of surveillance, raids, and outright attacks to break the Occupy movement, which was nothing if not an alternative public space in almost every major city in America. The more recent crackdown on those who protested the inauguration, including felony charges carrying upwards of 70-75 years in prison for more than two hundred activists, is also an attempt to make the risks of protesting in Washington, DC too high to be worth it to any political organization.

Yet, while they are the most common means, economic restructuring and state repression are not the only means of enclosure used against these sorts of political commons. The violence of the far right, and specifically white supremacist violence, has always been specifically targeted at subaltern counterpublics and at keeping subaltern voices out of the public sphere. This is exactly how we must think about Dylann Roof’s attack on Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC in 2015 and Omar Mateen’s attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL in 2016. Without commenting on the individual motivations of Roof and Mateen, it is crucial to stress that black churches and gay bars (particularly those serving people of color) have been two of the most important institutions where working class people have come together as a public over the course of the twentieth century. They are places where black folks and LGBTQ folks have been able to appear to one another as “somebody” and, out of that experience, to identify and organize around common goods. In this way, black churches helped birth the civil rights movement in the south and black power in the north and gay bars were ground zero for the emergence of Pride as a modern social movement. To attack these spaces is an act of enclosure, and Roof and Mateen, whatever they thought they were doing, were, also, acting as unofficial agents of the white supremacist state and the capitalist market in shutting off an important point of common people’s access to the public sphere.

These are not isolated examples. The violence of the far right has always played an auxiliary role to the state and the market in the process of enclosure. The two greatest periods in the history of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, the 1920s and the 1960s, corresponded to the height of the labor movement and the civil rights movement, respectively. The two most notorious massacres by the Klan in North Carolina, where I live and organize, occurred in Gastonia in 1929 and in Greensboro in 1979. In both instances, the people that the Klan murdered were labor rights activists trying to organize textile workers interracially. In the wake of both attacks, organizing collapsed in the area.

Similarly, the rise of the “boneheads” and other right wing skinhead groups in the 1980s was a deliberate attempt to push queer people and people of color out of the punk scene, one of the most important working class counterpublics in the North. Unlike in the case of the labor movement, however, nazi punks were met with significant resistance from Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs), the “baldies” (an organization of antiracist skinheads in Minneapolis), and, later, from national organizations like Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and Love and Rage that grew out of these efforts. Thus, antifa was born in the United States as an effort to preserve common spaces, the institutions of a particular part of the public sphere (bars, concert scenes, etc.), from attack by the far right, for the sake of working class people whose presence in the bourgeois public sphere presents a fundamental contradiction for the Lockean framework on which it is organized, and therefore a real threat to capitalist conditions. “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off!” is a revolutionary slogan that stands for working people’s access to spaces where they can drink, talk, enjoy music, and share a common life - and also where they can plot the overthrow of American Empire.

Antifa, then, so commonly criticized for violating the “free speech” rights of Nazis, is, in its origins - and, I would argue, its present praxis - in the defense of free speech’s most basic precondition, i.e. physical and institutional space where people can appear to one another as public actors - particularly if they are marginalized along the lines of race, class, and gender. It is on this basis that it becomes possible to answer the oft-posed objection to antifa, “if you take away the free speech of nazis, don’t you worry that your free speech will be threatened?!” The answer is “it already has been.” Indeed, working class people, queer people, people of color - people who make up a disproportionate number of “the antifa” at events like Charlottesville - were never meant to have “free speech.” They are explicitly excluded from the framework of “political discourse” along the lines of which the bourgeois public sphere operates. Indeed, it is clear that contemporary neoliberalism would rather destroy the public sphere than allow these groups the opportunity to appear as genuine public actors.

This paper, then, has attempted, in a short space, to deconstruct at least one of the questions that prompted it. The question “why is political discourse on the decline and how can we revive it?” is the wrong question. The correct question is “how is the public sphere in crisis and how can working class people organize to seize and reinvent it as a commons?” The desire for a civil society, one in which people can genuinely talk to and listen to one another about issues of common concern, cannot be separated from the economic and political processes by which civil institutions are produced. These institutions are in crisis, but there also exist, now as ever before, countervailing forces that seek to create a public sphere that genuinely is for everyone, one not dominated by the one, the few, or the many. Contrary to media portrayals, not the greatest enemies, but the greatest defenders of free speech are black clad masked activists yelling “Alerta! Alerta! Antifascista!”

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Reader Comments (1)

I stand in full agreement with you, but I wonder if you are prepared to say how much the church, especially the American church today, is implicated and deeply entrenched in denying all of this, and of nurturing its own ur-fascist spirits and unleashing the chthonic, lordless powers Barth warned us about.

The lexicon of the left does not make it easier for those of us raised on the soft, sentimentalized versions of Christian Herrschaft. We have justified American Herrenvolk democracy from an early age, romanticized the midwestern populist's affection for Blut und Boden, excused the Complementarian's sense of patriarchy as patrimony. How do we mount an immanent critique and communicate it in ways that help our families, friends, and neighbors come to see their anti-revolutionary traditions and atavistic, anti-modernist fears and fantasies align or run parallel with open racism, misogyny, and every other denial of their brothers' and sisters' equal humanity?

December 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterWheeler Catlett

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