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.