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Harry Boyte Reframing politics, developing agency, and growing hope

I welcome the questions in this Colossian Forum, “What is politics?” and "What are the aims of politics?", just as I welcome the idea of "respectful conversations." Such conversations across our bitter divides are a starting point, in my experience, for people developing a sense of agency and renewed hope in a world which often seems hopeless and out of control. In this essay I argue the need to reframe politics by shifting the center of politics, from politicians and parties at the center to citizens at the center. To develop this argument requires adding several elements to the discussion.

Today people in every group feel devalued, victimized, powerless and hopeless about making broader change. Such sense of diminishment and hopelessness grows from what Pope Francis calls “the technocratic paradigm," a way of thinking which priviledges a narrow understanding of science and scientifically trained experts as the authoritative decision makers and problem solvers.

Technocratic triumphalism has old roots. John Lukacs, a Catholic Hungarian intellectual, took refuge in the US in 1957 and observed the devaluation of people’s talents and intelligence decades ago. In his 1984 book Outgrowing Democracy, Lukacs said that he arrived believing that America overestimated the capacities of “the democratic masses.”  He found instead that in the 1950s America came to vastly underestimate people’s capacities as it shifted from a democratic order to a bureaucratic state dominated by experts. Virtually every institution – the media, schools, higher education, foundations, businesses embodied the pattern. Most people were undervalued.

Human diminishment is accelerating in the age of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, whose promiscuous uses are justified by the efficiency principle, employed by professionals detached from the civic life of communities, aimed at reaching narrowly defined and usually unexamined goals faster and faster. The title of a cover piece in Scientific American last February by nine computer scientists documenting the replacement of humans by robots and the spread of new mechanisms of technocratic control raises the question: “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?”

“Citizen politics,” centered on citizens’ needs, values, aspirations, and capacities, embodying a nonviolent philosophy of “public love,” pushes back against devaluation and holds potential to transform the logic that gives primacy to efficient technological systems. My views of such politics grow from experiences first in the freedom movement of the 1960s, working for Martin Luther King’s organization, then in community organizing among poor whites in Durham, and for the last 30 years in a network of public work/citizen politics organizers and engaged intellectuals working to democratize schools, colleges, health settings, professions, and government. The forthcoming Pedagogy of the Powered (Boyte et al, Vanderbilt University Press, 2018), has many examples.  The Video, "We the (Young) People," gives a sense of the hope young people gain in citizen politics.

Here, after treating the technocratic paradigm and its effects, I describe elements of citizen politics and compare such politics with arguments of Harold Heie and Greg Williams. I am delighted that there is opportunity to explore these themes in more detail through the month.

Human devaluation in a technocratic age

Pope Francis' Laudato Si’, drawing on Catholic and other religious traditions and social theory, affirms humans as meaning-makers and story tellers, not reducible to the categories of the sciences. The encyclical combines an embrace of climate science with a trenchant critique of technocracy that brilliantly articulates the limits of scientific and technological modes of thought, insisting on the urgent need to embed scientific and technological ways of thinking in a larger, pluralist understanding of the purposes and practices of knowledge-making. Francis also shows the damage produced by triumphalist positivism that prioritizes informational approaches for dealing with human problems – “Big Data” - over relational and cultural approaches. “The basic problem goes even deeper” than concentrated economic and knowledge power, he argues. “It is the way that humanity has taken up . . . an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.”

Francis names the unselfconscious way of seeing across professional systems. “Many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society.” Technocracy works in combination with economic power. “The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.”

These insights grow from in part from an Argentinian theological movement which shaped him, “Theology of the People,” described by Paul Vallely in Pope Francis: Untying the Knots.  It shares with Liberation Theology a “preferential option for the poor” but it has developed a critique of rationalist, reductionist elements in Liberation Theology. As Humberto Miguel Yáñez puts it, Theology of the People differs from “those who embraced aspects of Marxist thinking [and] saw elements like culture and religion as tools of alienation rather than liberation. . . .[In Theology of the people] both philosophically and theologically, there was a strong appreciation of culture.”

The technocratic paradigm appears in professional preparation, destruction of mediating structures, and Manichean politics.

Professional preparation. Over decades, in a process described by Thomas Bender in Intellectuals and Public Life, professional identities shifted from “civic” to “disciplinary.” For instance, in “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education,” published in Science, Technology and Human Values, Erin Cech reports on a study of the impact of engineering education programs, ranging from MIT to Smith College. She finds that despite strong statements of the profession that engineers are “to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties,” in fact “students’ public welfare concerns decline significantly over the course of their engineering education.” In her view, “engineering education fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering.” She traces this culture to three invisible “ideological pillars” including the idea that engineering is apolitical; that assumption that technical knowledge is far superior to “soft” skills of human interaction; and meritocratic models of success. Such pillars, with variations, can be found across all of professional education. Professionals see themselves as servicing citizens or at the most engaging citizens – not as citizens themselves.

Evisceration of mediating structures: Jane Addams, in Democracy and Social Ethics, warned about the consequence of a new class of experts who saw themselves outside the life of the people. In her view, detached expertise reinforces existing hierarchies based on wealth and power and creates new forms of hierarchical power that threaten to unravel communities. Addams’ warnings anticipated the erosion of the civic fabric as mediating structures such as religious congregations, schools, union locals, local businesses, and civic groups of all kinds turned into service operations to customers and clients.

The effects are immense. For instance, many thousands of local schools have been closed by school consolidation driven by outside experts using the efficiency principle to achieve results (like standardized test scores and cost-saving) with little attention to broad purposes of education.  A review of the research by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson, and Jennifer Petrie for the National Education Policy Center, What the Research Shows, demonstrates the damage. “A sizable body of research investigating school size has consistently found larger size (after moving beyond the smallest schools) to be associated with reduced rates of student participation in co-curricular and extracurricular activities, more dangerous school environments, lower graduation rates, lower achievement levels for impoverished students, and larger achievement gaps related to poverty, race, and gender.” Impact on communities is often devastating. “The influence of school and district consolidations on the vitality and well-being of communities may be the most dramatic result, if the one least often discussed by politicians or education leaders,” they say. “Put simply, the loss of a school erodes a community’s social and economic base—its sense of community, identity and democracy—and the loss permanently diminishes the community itself, sometimes to the verge of abandonment.”

Manichean politics: The efficiency creed has shaped conventional understandings and practices of politics in elections and citizen activism. In 1974 Citizens for a Better Environment invented the modern canvass powered by a formula. The canvass involves staff going door to door on an issue, raising money and collecting signatures. The formula identifies an enemy and defines the issue in reductionist, good-versus-evil terms. It is efficient because hatred and anger are relatively uncomplicated emotions to manipulate. “We’ve discovered how to sell progressive politics door to door, like selling encyclopedias,” was the boast.

For years I defended the canvass and the formula which makes it efficient, co-authoring Citizen Action and the New American Populism, with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy, the hub for spreading the method. I remember well the urgency we felt in the face of massive mobilization by large corporate interests to roll back environmental, consumer, affirmative action, progressive tax and other legislation in the early 1970s. Veterans of the sixties movements, we saw ourselves as political realists, breaking with the rhetorical hyperbole of the new left, fighting a good fight against corporate power. We had successes even during the Reagan presidency. We estimated that canvassers reached 12 million households a year in the mid-eighties. Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, including environmental and consumer organizations and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network on college campuses.

When I began teaching at the Humphrey Institute in 1987, I discovered many of my students had canvassed and had experienced burn out. Many were cynical and disillusioned about politics. In addition I became aware of a larger problem: the Manichean formula objectifies “the enemy,” radically erodes common citizenship, and communicates that politics is warfare.

The formula spread across the spectrum and new technologies dramatically increase its reach. It is used in robo-calls, internet mobilizations, talk radio, Michael Moore’s documentaries, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” after 9-11. A report by Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann, “How Big Data Broke American Politics,” details the increasingly polarized campaigns and politics over the last two decades. Donald Trump’s tweets find parallel on the left in a handbook and website called “Heroes Narrative,” used by progressive groups around the country, which describes how to frame any issue as a struggle of heroes against villains.

Citizen politics of public work

Citizen-centered politics and public work constitute a crucial alternative to Manichean politics.  Citizen politics attends to the concerns voiced by Harold Heie for humility, courage and love in a time of polarization and demonization. But it distinguishes between “private” and “public” love. I agree with Gregory Williams and Luke Bretherton that citizen politics is about negotiating a common life, a process full of tension and conflict, addressing large differences in class, race, faith, gender, and culture. Today, citizen politics must also recognize the rising dangers of authoritarianism around the world as well as “enclosure of the commons,” understood as a kind of space, as Williams argues. But “spaces” where powerless groups develop civic agency are better understood as “free spaces” than as the bourgeois public sphere which Williams excoriates or as the resistance spaces which he champions.

Free spaces are settings where people have room to self-organize, to develop intellectual life, and to learn relational and political skills. Sara Evans and I developed the concept to name our profound experiences in the freedom movement of the sixties, in places like the Methodist Student Center at Duke. The larger movement was full of frees spaces, from black churches and schools to beauty parlors. What generated their freedom was relative autonomy from the norms and power relations of segregated white society. Their democratic qualities grew from their “publicness,” the interplay of diverse views and interests beyond friends and family that grew people’s ways of thinking. Sara and I found analogous spaces for open intellectual life and civic and political learning at the heart of democratic movements throughout American history including the black freedom struggle from the time of slavery, women’s organizations that championed domestic roles in the public square, community rooted unions, and farmers cooperatives, the foundation of the populist movement, described in Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America.

Citizen politics is citizen-centered, not state-centered. It recognizes the importance of elections and constructive roles of government, but the focus is not “governing well,” Heie’s emphasis which puts politicians at the center. Citizen politics is also not ideological. It is democratic but draws on both progressive and conservative values. In contrast, I would argue that Williams’ AntiFa slogan “Every Nation, Every Race, Punch a Nazi in the Face!” embodies the kind of Manichean politics we must transform. We need a cross-partisan politics that builds relations across the Red and Blue divide, infused with nonviolence, woven into the fabric of everyday life.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi. His view of nonviolence, satyagraha, “soul force,” inspired Martin Luther King and others in the freedom movement. King stressed nonviolence’s transformative power in Stride Toward Freedom. “The nonviolent approach…first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it,” he said. “It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

King argued for seeking to understand opponents, not to defeat or humiliate them and to separate the sin from the sinner. He insisted that nonviolence is a kind of love aiming at “a neighborly concern for others,” whether friend or enemy, recognizing their aspiration “for belonging to the best in the human family.”

Such love can be distinguished from appraisal respect, appreciation for achievements or character, or recognition respect, the intrinsic value of another human being, which Harold Heie espouses. Public love teaches a possibility respect for the immense potential of others including our enemies, for co-creative work that builds a world of shared material and cultural goods. Others have contributed to what I call public love.

In her book, Newer Ideals of Peace, Jane Addams challenged sentimental peace-making. Nonresistance “is much too feeble and inadequate,” she said. She proposed as an alternative “forming new centers of spiritual energy.” She saw their stirrings in “strenuous forces at work,” among “the huge mass” of people marginalized and invisible like immigrants flooding into Chicago, in settlements like Hull House, John Dewey’s famous model for schools as civic centers.

Another contribution comes from the religiously based Mexican-American community organization Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, Texas, described in CommonWealth: A Return to Citizen Politics. By the late 1970s, COPS leaders faced the challenge of impacting economic development and other issues beyond their neighborhoods. They developed “public relationships” with Anglo business leaders whom Mexican Americans viewed as oppressive racists. This required their inventing a new concept of public life in which the point of action is not intimacy or personal friendship. Rather, public life is an arena for creating productive working relationships across radical differences among those who may dislike each other for the sake of building a more just and flourishing community. I see this concept as a great political invention and a way to operationalize public love for disadvantaged groups and others.

Finally, nonviolent citizen politics is best expressed through the concept of public work. The overall aim in my view was put well by Septima Clark, architect of the freedom movement’s grassroots citizenship schools: “broadening the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepening the concept to include every relationship.”

in the early 1990s a network of our colleagues began to translate the citizen politics of broad-based community organizing into institutional and cultural change in schools, colleges, health institutions, and cooperative extension. One important statement of what this looks like is the splendid new book Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing, by Maria Avila, a former IAF organizer who works for democratization of higher education.

Over time public work emerged through this work as a framework which sees citizens as co-creators, not simply voters and volunteers. Power involves ideas and cultural dynamics, not only “people and money.” Public work emphasizes civic possibilities of work and workplaces. It involves efforts by citizens working across differences to solve common problems, advance justice, and create community wealth, from schools, public spaces, libraries and local businesses to art, music and healthy lifestyles – a commonwealth of public usefulness and beauty. An example is transforming special education through Public Achievement (PA).

In PA, teams of young people work on issues of their choice in real world settings. Projects are undertaken in nonviolent ways and make a public contribution. Teams are coached by adults, often college students, who help them develop achievable goals, learn to navigate local environments, develop political skills, and treat others with respect. Projects range widely, from campaigns against bullying, sexual harassment, racism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence to building playgrounds, championing healthy life styles, and making curriculum changes.

The Special Education pre-service program at Augsburg adopted PA as an answer to the critique of special education as a technocratic approach. “Special Education generally still uses a medical model, based on how to fix kids,” explains Susan O’Connor, director of Special Education. Faculty at Augsburg wanted to try something different. They partnered with a middle school in Fridley.

Over three years the results were dramatic. ”Problem students,” mostly low-income and minority, became “problem solvers” on issues like school bullying, health lifestyles, animal cruelty, and supporting terminally ill children. They got recognition in the school, in the larger community, and across the state. The process also transformed the teachers, Michael Ricci and Alissa Blood into “citizen teachers.” “My role is not to fix things for the kids but to say, ‘this is your class, your mission, how are you going to do the work?” explained Ricci.

After this experience, all preservice special education teachers at Augsburg University now coach in PA as part of their preparation. Interviews show striking increase in their understanding of special education students’ intelligence and talents, expansion of their pedagogical repertory to give students far more room for co-creative activity, and hopefulness about their own careers.  

This is a hologram for transformation of technocracy across society. It points toward what we call “civic science,” in which scientifically trained professionals see themselves as citizens and science as civic.

It intimates a democratic renaissance in which citizens are at the center.


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