Rushed thoughts on political theory…

I am not sure I have proper post here, but I am pursuing some thoughts and it seems they might benefit from publicity. In the midst of “fieldwork” – a word I hate… Let’s scratch that – in the midst of a learning experience, in which I have been granted the opportunity to share in the struggle of some very brave people in Washington DC’s Shaw neighbourhood, I have stumbled over what seems a vital point about political theory. So vital in fact that it seems obvious now.

I spent yesterday in the Shaw neighbourhood of DC. Shaw is a historically black area, with a cultural and intellectual history that rivals Harlem or Bronzeville (in Chicago). It is also a neighbourhood in the midst of “gentrification”… wait, that’s the wrong word too. It is a neighbourhood in the midst of a campaign of displacement, moving long terms residents (mostly poor and Black – though also Latino and Asian) out of their homes and community. These people are being displaced to make way for “development” and “urban renewal” – which is a polite way of saying they are being moved for profit, because the investors and the city of Washington DC have found a way to make money off their homes and community.

Walking around the area you can see the transformation in process, as the old and new visions of the area meet like ocean currents. I sat in a park and while a young white woman jogged with her dog, a young and destitute black man watching from a nearby bench complained to himself that her dog needed to run free, not be stuck on a leash, and that the woman should have stayed in the suburbs rather than moving into his neighbourhood. And in Shaw, the writing is literally on the wall, as I walk past a former public housing complex that is now being advertised as a luxury apartment complex by a new owner keen to move out the current residence, renovate the building and move in new more profitable tenants.

I was fortunate to meet a group of local long time residents, mostly black women, who are trying to protect their homes and their place in the Shaw community. I won’t provide details here, but I will say that these people are incredibly brave and they face an absolutely monumental task. To oppose their own displacement requires them to fight against powerful adversaries using a system and a set of rules that is balanced against them. And this is where I started thinking about political theory…

As a student (and even as a teacher) of political theory, I started with the “social contract”. Whether we are asked to imagine a state of nature or a veil of ignorance the starting point is the same, as students and readers of political theory we are asked to consider what a just society should be from the perspective of power and privilege. Traditional political theory is not insensitive to the political realities of the age, we can understand the classics of the tradition (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) as responses and justifications for the emerging power of the middle class in opposition to nobility. We can also see the Rawlsian return to and reformulation of the social contract as a response and justification of democratic representation. So, in a very direct way this tradition of thought in political theory is concerned with transformation, with new realities of political life – it is not only an idealism. And this is why so many avowed “realists” in political theory make a similar mistake as their supposedly “idealist” opponents – whether one is concerned with an ideal justification for the social order or understanding the reality of our order, political theory has tended to view the problem from the perspective of the already empowered or the newly empowered, rather than those systematically and intentionally disempowered and oppressed.

And even more critical traditions in political theory run afoul of this – there are so many masterful deconstructions of canonical texts and thinkers, revealing their limitations, biases and violence, but never enough reconstructions starting from some where else – abandoning the old vantage points and asking new questions.

I don’t exempt myself from any of these criticisms.

Yesterday, sitting in a church basement with a small group of committed activist, learning about the challenges they face, listening to their plan for action, I realised that political theory fails every time it does not start from that basement or some similar political space. Now this insight isn’t completely new to me, or to political theory as a collective intellectual endeavour, but it came to me with greater clarity last night, opening up a more vivid vision of what political theory should be about.

We must start with the question of justice as it is faced by those who are intentionally disempowered, exploited and oppressed. They are not powerless – far from it – rather they are used by society, by the powerful especially, and they are ignored when they are no longer useful. The fundamental question of justice is, how can we reconstruct society so that this kind of exploitation is impossible. And that importantly involves the very practical question of how the exploited can do this work under the conditions they find themselves in, with the rules and structures balanced against them. How can they change the rules and structures of society, so that they have a public presence and voice.

For academic political theory this means one of our most vital questions is one of solidarity, how can we assist in this struggle. Part of that assistance is to stop holding up the political theory of the empowered as a sacred cultural artefact. Another part of that is beginning from a new vantage point and asking new questions. I’m tempted to say we’d all do well to throw away our copies of the “canon” and spend more nights in church basements… I haven’t the time to consider this proposal very carefully, but for now that seems like a solid plan.

8 thoughts on “Rushed thoughts on political theory…

  1. I’m not sure why social contract theory necessarily involves starting from the position of the already-empowered, but given your direction of thought you would probably find Jacques Ranciere’s stuff useful because he insists that politics is defined by a focus on the “part with no part”, i.e. the bit of society that isn’t included/ empowered, while the bits that are included are actually not really political but just “policed” or administered. This idea pops up a lot in his work, e.g. in “Disagreements”, but also his “10 Theses on Politics”. You probably know this already but it seemed relevant.

    On Shaw specifically, there’s a irony here, which is that gentrification of that area of DC around U Street has brought large numbers of gay people into the area; therefore the “inclusion” of a former “part with no part” actually further marginalises another “part with no part”. (Which wouldn’t surprise Ranciere, since there’s always some part of society that’s excluded.)


    • On Social Contract – and much of political theory – the issue is the kind of question that is assumed to be important. It is a question essentially of a privileged and empowered person considering how to order the world – as if the world doesn’t already exist and changing it isn’t a struggle. But this is more than the standard criticism of idealism in political theory, because the key issue is why is this the starting point, why is it the relevant question? I’d want to claim (but it would require a lot more to establish it) that social contract thinking (and political theory) is a way of justifying and defending emergent empowered groups. It is puts a seal of approval on change rather than looking at political theory as a way of understanding and provoking needed change.

      Ranciere is interesting and I really like his stuff – and his vantage point and questions are certainly better. One of the big questions I’m wrestling with is how does one do political theory from a different vantage point – and I feel like it requires a different kind of engagement and learning than just informed reflection. But in truth I don’t know what it might require.

      Shaw, like most “gentrifying” areas, is full of interesting tensions and contradiction – I think the really damaging dynamic is that marginal groups with greater privilege enter – students, artists, in the case of Shaw the gay community, but act as wedge that opens the space up to more wealth and privilege – even though this is often not the intent. I think a big challenge is thinking in terms of displacement and solidarity in such spaces – if I move into a poorer area (which I’ve done moving into Camberwell), how do I relate to long term residents…


      • Awesome post Joe, The political theory you are feeling towards won’t be found in Political Theory, or most Political Theory. You’ll find it in poems, prayers, music, reasoning traditions, and pedagogies of the oppressed. Or, you won’t “find” it, because it is often not public; and if it is, political theory won’t find it because it doesn’t consider it political nor theoretical. It’s not that there aren’t resonances between these traditions and what you’ll find in textual Political Theory. There are. And sometimes the terms are shared, but are placed in very different constellations of meaning. But the framing, starting points and intentions are always massively different.

        You’ll find that political theorists think you are doing ethnography. But really you are cultivating your ability to think politically as you feel your way through working with – and occasionally for – the people you are talking about. I have given up on political theory as a project, although sometimes some thinkers sometimes are interesting. Most of political theory is a disavowal and deferral of meaningful engagement with power relations. even the more “critical” stuff.

        One of my favorites is Walter Rodney, Grounding with my Brothers, last chapter. Unfashionable as it might be, Friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed is still fundamental.


  2. Hey Robbie – thanks for the comment.

    “Most of political theory is a disavowal and deferral of meaningful engagement with power relations. even the more “critical” stuff.” – Exactly!

    It’s been a good experience trying to do some kind of engaged ethics/politics learning/theorising – what’s been striking is remembering/seeing how much my time as a student of political philosophy and international politics has embedded me in “political theory” and taken me away from the experience of politics that initially sparked my interest/passion. In mastering (or at least gaining competence in) the tradition/language, I’ve drifted from exactly those sources you mention – “poems, prayers, music, reasoning traditions, and pedagogies of the oppressed” – but nonetheless my own political sensibility begins with music (especially music) and poetry and stories. I guess what I’m trying to get at is, however different my life is from the people I’m meeting in the Shaw neighbourhood, listening and learning in the context of their struggle for a voice (both a medium of expression and the act of expression) has shown me how far my own voice is compromised by the tradition/profession I’m in. That feels like a slightly solipsistic insight but it also seems like a precondition for solidarity.


  3. Fantastic post. And probably all the better for being ‘rushed’. I’m not a theorist or an academic, I couldn’t critique Rousseau or anyone, but I know from my own observations and experience, working with people where they’re ‘at’ is the best way of helping them/us get to where we’re going. Looking from the outside, via theory or whatever, at a ‘group/class’ of people misses the individual people, with their individual, and collective, needs. Yes, they/we are a collective, but only formed from the ground up. Or atleast, that’s where the strength is. Any other grouping is an exercise of power done to them from above. Good on you for getting involved. We need the theory, the strategy, the outside thinking, but sit and form it amongst us and with us. Thank you.


  4. Um, what about the democratic socialist tradition? (not going to name specific names here b/c I’m tired and it’s late). Isn’t that part of ‘political theory,’ if not ‘the canon’?


    • A funny thing this post has generated is numerous suggestion for some political theorist/philosopher who doesn’t run afoul of the concerns/criticisms I outline… But I’m struggling to know why/how it matters to the broader insight I’ve been chasing down. That’s a real thing I’m struggling with – not a piece of rhetoric. There are many names we could come up with who maybe are or are not less problematically positioned in the knowledge/politics power game that is theory – I have my own candidates – but at the moment I don’t feel the importance of finding those names.

      For now it seems to me that church basements and other common and daily spaces of political and social life do not need to prove their importance, it’s rather (for me) that those of us wanting to maintain a theoretical orientation who need to prove our importance.


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