Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rowan and his shadow

Rowan Williams' Royal Courts Lecture and the BBC4 interview on sharia law, which preceded it, really threw me for some reason. I did my best to critique them here (links at sidebar), but I felt like I was missing someone or something critical. Well, it turns out I did.

His name is Phillip Bobbitt, professor of constitutional law, formerly at the University of Texas Law School, currently at Columbia University Law School, former member of the Modern History faculty at Oxford in the 1980's and the War Studies Department of King's College London from 1994-1997, and long-time counsel and defense consultant for the U.S. government, including the Clinton Administration, in which he served as Director for Intelligence, Senior Director for Critical Infrastructure and Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council. Bobbitt is also the author of the apocalyptic The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (Knopf, 2002) and the soon to be released, Terror and Consent: The Wars of the Twenty-First Century (Knopf, 2008).

There is nothing new or secret about Bobbitt's influence on Rowan Williams. Bobbitt's thesis concerning the collapse of the nation-state and rise of what he calls the "market state" was the focus of the first major speech Williams gave after becoming Archbishop -- the Richard Dimbleby Lecture of 2002. He was also mentioned by name recently in the Archbishop's January 2008 Liverpool lecture, "Europe, Faith and Culture."

For those paying close attention, Rowan William's remarks concerning the possibility of "supplementary jurisdiction" based on sharia law within the British judicial system, should have come as no surprise in light of the following article written by Bobbitt in 2004:
In earlier essays, I have speculated that the nation state, whose legitimacy is based on its undertaking to improve the material well-being of its people through law, would be superseded by a market state, which claimed power on the basis that it would maximise the opportunities of societies and individuals. It would do so less through law and regulation and more through the use of market incentives and private action. This evolution has already begun.

Market states would adopt techniques such as replacing conscription with an all-volunteer force; deregulating not just industrial practices, but women's reproduction; auctioning off the electronic spectrum; reducing welfare and unemployment benefits and replacing them with job training programmes aimed at re-entry into the labour market; and introducing vouchers into public school choice. Above all, the hallmark of the market state is the use of incentives to induce voluntary compliance, as opposed to the use of legal regulation to enforce compliance.

In international relations, I have imagined that the creation of "umbrella states" would reflect this general movement in the change of constitutional orders. An umbrella state is a free-trade and/or defence zone that allows for a common legal jurisdiction on some, but not all, constitutive issues. Societies too small to be viable as separate states can shelter within such umbrellas, retaining for themselves control over essentially cultural matters - education, language, religion, gender and sexual relations. Such umbrellas offer a constitutional mechanism for ameliorating one of the most significant shortcomings of the market state, its indifference to community and to culture. Under a multicultural umbrella, many subcultures can dwell, maximising the advantages of larger markets and revenue bases while retaining the ability to develop different legal regimes within each specific domain. These subcultures will not be states, at least as we have understood the term. Let us call them "provinces". These may include provinces where feminists or fundamentalist Christians or ethnic Chinese congregate, all within a larger sheltering area of trade and defence.
(from "Better than empire," March 14, 2004, Financial Times).

Speaking of supplemental jurisdictional schemes for family and property disputes in 2008, Rowan Williams said:
It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits. But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.
(Royal Courts lecture, 2/07/08).

The point is not the similarity in conception about legal schemes (in fact Williams draws from different sources, including Islamic jurists, for his Royal Courts lecture), but rather the conviction that culture and morality needs to be derived from local, quite possibly non-secular, institutions. And this, in turn, comes from what appears to be a wholesale embrace of Bobbitt's theory of the "market state":
This reading of our present situation is spelled out in great detail by the American strategist and historian Philip Bobbitt. He sees our present context as one where the nation state's inability to deliver in the terms we have become used to, its inability to meet the expectations we now bring, has led to a shift into a new political mode, the market state, in which the function of government - and the thing that makes government worth obeying is to clear a space for individuals or groups to do their own negotiating, to secure the best deal or the best value for money in pursuing what they want. It involves deregulation; the 'franchising' of various sorts of provision - from private prisons to private pensions - and the withdrawal of the state from many of those areas where it used to bring some kind of moral pressure to bear. It means that government is free to encourage enterprise but not to protect against risk; to try and increase the literal and metaphorical purchasing power of citizens, but not to take for granted anything much in the way of agreement about common goals or social good.
. . . .
So socially and culturally, the last couple of decades have been a period in which physical mobility and the homogenising of the entertainment media have weakened some kinds of local solidarity in speech and habit; and the social bonds that once existed in the territory between individual and state have been seriously eroded - voluntary associations of different kinds, churches, the family itself. There may be more for them to do, but the volunteer base is seriously eroded. It isn't surprising, then, if the unspoken model of political expectation now is increasingly the consumerist one: the individual confronts the state, asking for what is promised - maximal choice, purchasing power to determine a lifestyle. It isn't surprising if the attitude of many to national and local elections is apathy, with a disturbingly high percentage of younger people failing to vote.
. . . .
So the problem of the market state looks rather like this. By pushing politics towards a consumerist model, with the state as the guarantor of 'purchasing power', it raises short-term expectations. By raising short-term expectations, it invites instability, reactive administration, rule by opinion poll and pressure. To facilitate some of its goals and to avoid chaos, government inevitably relies more on centralised managerial authority. So there will be a dangerous tension between excessive government and the paralysis that can result from trying to respond adequately to consumer demand. To put it in another way, government and culture drift apart: government abandons the attempt to give shape to society.
(Richard Dimbleby Lecture of 2002).

The longing for the supposed coherency of local culture, with its integration of religious beliefs and cultural norms, is further apparent in the January 2008 lecture on "Europe, Faith and Culture" which includes the following:
[W]hat is different about modern Europe and its post-colonial legacy across the Atlantic and elsewhere is the belief that what is most uniquely human is a capacity for 'self-creation' – for the making of choices that will establish a secure place in the world and shape an identity that is not determined from outside, determined by social power that acknowledges no accountability or by doctrines and models that have no public evidence to support them. If an individual decides to allow their identity to be so determined, that is no doubt their business, but it isn't something that anyone can rightly expect public authorities, governments, to support or enforce. Public life organises the aspirations of individuals in such a way that they don't interfere with each other too dramatically, and leaves what is supposed to be a reasonable amount of private space in which various individual preferences can be exercised.

It is this sense that the essence of the human task is defining yourself that is at the heart of the modern European enterprise; and it is what sets it apart from both traditional societies and modern ideologically defined societies. In traditional societies, a human being would be defined in relation to other human beings and their given roles and tasks, and the whole complex of human relations defined in relation to a 'sacred order', the balance of things as defined by the will of God or the gods or the eternal harmony of all beings, the Tao of Chinese philosophy or the logos of the ancient Stoics. Within such a framework, there might well be a strong affirmation of the person's freedom to adopt or reject this or that way of living out the given order in which they existed; but there would be no assumption that each person would have to decide who and what they were and work out that decision more or less from scratch. And insofar as the project of 'self-creation' challenges the priority of an eternal creating purpose outside this universe, it looks as though European modernity is basically hostile to any religious sense of the world and of human destiny.
The lecture goes on with more about self-creation and story-telling, from the standpoint of a distinctively Christian perspective as well as how the struggle for "self-creation" plays out in the history of the European novel.

What probably does not come through in just these few excerpts is the extent of gloom and almost despair about Western civilization and all forms of government that might contain it. Human rights are viewed in terms of a "model of individuals as endowed with the right to win control of their environment as far as possible" (EF&C). "Modern democracy brings with it a pluralist assumption about personal morality." (EF&C). There are "irreversible" changes in our international environment," and the soulless, amoral "market state ... seems here to stay." (RDL).

The style of jeremiad perhaps befits a 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury coming after 9/11/01. But the distortions both he and Bobbitt make in their historical, legal, and sociological analysis are troubling when used as guide for creating, modifying, and/or responding to political and social structures. [For one of many critiques of Bobbitt, see Algorithms of War.] If, in fact, Williams is of a mind to support and, indeed, further entrench, local religious cultures, without regard to national territorial boundaries, and, at the same, resist all efforts to foster, nurture, and sustain larger cultural identities and beliefs, even within existing boundaries, all in the name of resisting the influence of the "market state" and its supposed materialistic, self-centered, individualistic values, then the result may be further fragmentation, isolation, and balkanization of religious and social subcultures.

I think I can understand the greater fear of the influence of the secular state in Europe, where religious beliefs and practices appear to have eroded much further than in the U.S. But the notion I get from reading Williams is that it is the secular state itself and the collapse of the socialist welfare model, which he and Bobbitt see in both Europe and the U.S. , which have caused institutionalized religion to decline. This seems rather far-fetched, at least to the extremes they seem to take it. While Charles Taylor has recently reminded us historians that "secular" has various meanings in Western history, the initial one was the absence of church officials in positions of power and influence in government. "Secular" does not necessarily mean godless in the sense of anti-religion. Instead, it means first and foremost the religionists are not in charge of everyday affairs.

I do not fundamentally disagree with Williams or anyone else who finds contemporary Western culture disturbing in its materialism and consumerism, the economic and political forces exerted by transnational corporations and markets, and the increasing inequality in resources and quality of living throughout the world. Nor do I doubt that religion has a continuing and greater role to play in our communities, as well as our individual lives. But I am fearful of the neoconservative and neoliberal mindset that somehow couples a romantic embrace of non-Western cultures, with their perceived "coherent" social and religious structures, and a desire to avoid imposing Western market structures and secularism on them, with a deconstruction and abandonment of traditional Western liberal values and institutions.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this. Maybe the real need for concern is with Bobbitt's influence on U.S. and British foreign policy, especially with regard to the propagation of further hysteria about the War on Terror. But suddenly I am no longer seeing Rowan Williams as the wonderful, sometimes mystical theologian who recently stumbled upon political theory when confronted with anti-discrimination and blasphemy laws and problems with Muslim immigrants. He has clearly been thinking deeply about how government and the economy works, locally, nationally, and internationally, for some time and sees some kind of role he should play as a religious leader in terms of creating or responding to major structural changes. While that sounds like a proper enterprise for such a great intellect, the engagement of that intellect with the great story of Bobbitt's Long War and the collapse of the nation-state, together with the stories he finds in European art and literature, seems to be taking him further from reality.

While the Archbishop may well feel there is no vital local or national culture, nevertheless, the backlash from many quarters in Britain to his BBC interview on sharia law suggests that it may well be alive and kicking. Maybe the hope for Christianity is not that it dig in its heels in local pockets of hegemony but rather challenge the greed and waste of Western culture and work towards global changes in values, markets, and allocation of resources. While it may be true that the nation-state is not going to save us, under old-style fascist, socialist, or communist systems, neither is the kind of loose federation of cultural "market states" with the U.S. policing terrorists as envisioned by Bobbitt, and with the close-knit family and community structures envisioned by Williams, which somehow will share a concern for "human rights" (well, maybe not "full" rights for women, children, and GLBTs if they "choose" not to have them).

I, for one, am no optimist. I have no faith in the old secular beliefs in progress or modernity. And yet, I wonder if in terms of local human relations, family and social structures, that things are as bad as Rowan Williams makes them out to be. Yes, materialism and self-centeredness is rampant in Western culture, and there is much pain and confusion over divorce and too much sexualization of youth. Yes, there are huge problems with economic structures and government, including Western so-called democracies. But the underlying problem is what it has always been -- human nature, a.k.a. Original Sin. I honestly do not think that human beings have begun to behave any worse since the rise of the secular state than they did in the high Middle Ages or whatever time or culture one wants to point to as the epitome of strong religious belief and practices interwoven with social, economic, and political life. There may even be some improvements in terms of the abolition of legal slavery and basic human rights, notwithstanding continued practice of torture, warfare, and genocide. We still do not know when and how the Kingdom of God will be at hand and can do nothing more than continue our best to work for it, day in and day out, including spreading the Good News that there is goodness and justice and light, which has triumphed and will triumph over darkness and evil.

So why not just simply roll up our sleeves and just get to the business of working with each other the best we can? Isn't that what we all need most from Canterbury right now? Do we need to have someone tell us what it means to be a lonely, "homeless" soul of the 21st century and how to start searching for our "stories"? Or do we need to have someone knock a few primates' and bishops' heads together and tell them they are all part of the same family whether they like it or not?

Whatever we need, it is Rowan whom we have. Maybe it is just as well he's not knocking heads; maybe his intellectual wanderings will buy time and space to better preserve faith and community. Time will tell. Lord have mercy.

(photo above from St. Paul's Cathedral, "How should the world be governed?" featuring Professor Philip Bobbitt, Lord David Owen, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, in the 2004 series "The Worlds We Live In")

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