Radicalism and the Civil Sphere

Volume co-edited by Jeffrey Alexander (Yale) and Trevor Stack (CISRUL) for Cambridge University Press, 2018 forthcomingwebpageMembers of white nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 12, 2017. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The book focuses on modes of political action usually condemned not only by government but by organizations from churches and charities to voluntary associations and social movements, as well as in the press. And not without reason. The acts that interest us are intend to disrupt, confront, and subvert public order. Their protagonists are not afraid to offend or to damage property, reputations or persons. Examples mentioned in the volume include hacktivism, road or highway blocking, occupying public buildings, inflammatory cartoons, graffiti, querying the Holocaust, suicide bombing, setting oneself alight, calling for revolution, rioting and looting, wearing masks and refusing to remove them, leaking large amounts of sensitive data, organising marches without giving notice, mooning in public, and hunger striking. Radical acts, in this sense, physically disrupt expectations for civil-political action, so as to prevent ongoing activities and/or to demand fundamental shifts in public opinion: blocking passages or cars, buses, trains, or people; acting uncivilly — making lots of noise, pushing and shoving; wearing “shocking” garments in public, or not wearing them; engaging in performances that avow violence or in the thing itself. Some such acts involve breaking the law, but they need not. They may employ violence but this is not essential. Radical discourses—speech acts, proclamations, pamphlets, aesthetic objects and performances, journalism, social science—can be just as disruptive. Such acts are censured because of the disruption and damage they cause, all the more so where it is believed there are other established modes of political expression – such as voting for the opposition, resolution through the courts, representation in the media, making petitions on office holders, and legal modes of protest such as policed street demonstrations and legally-protected strikes. We ask in this volume why people court condemnation by choosing to go beyond the established modes of political action, and what happens when they do. This includes the moments in which, whether at the time or decades later, there is a measure of sympathy or solidarity amid the condemnation.

The volume is unique in bringing to bear insights on radical political action from Civil Sphere Theory (CST) as developed by Alexander and others. CST draws our attention to the institutions and organizations that usually condemn such political strategies, and the terms in which they do so. CST goes beyond theories of “civil society” as associational life beyond the state, beginning instead by identifying across diverse contexts a public discourse or symbolic code that appeals to principles of universal solidarity, stretching beyond any political community and sustaining a sense of justice for all, although it varies across societies and can be hybridised with other public discourses such as nationalism. The discourse is a kind of meta-ideology deployed by actors as different as US Democrats and Republicans, although it is inflected variously by them. Civil discourse may feature in rational debate of the kind that authors like Habermas envisage, but it is just as often used in theatrical as well as confrontational ways, and to pollute opponents and their acts as evil or barbaric. It is argued that the discourse underwrites a “civil sphere” which can be differentiated from the spheres to which social scientists have long devoted attention, notably politics, the market, religion and family. Those other spheres may help to sustain the civil sphere, for example by generating the prosperity that enables civil autonomy or the power that protects it, but may also encroach on civil spheres when the pursuit of power, wealth or creed ends up trumping justice. Actors may in turn bring civil discourse to bear on politics and the market, for example by denouncing the abuse of office, discrimination in voter registration, exploitation of workers, or financial speculation. Their success will depend not only on how well they “translate” such practices into the terms of civil justice, but also on whether their claims are taken up by civil sphere champions, occupying leading positions in powerful organizations and in institutions like law courts, and indeed whether variants on civil discourse are written into law itself as well as dominant in the media and similar fora. Civil spheres can be said to traverse these organizations and institutions, in the sense that laws for example may reflect the values of civil codes and may be interpreted by judges in consonant ways, but may equally be pulled into the orbit of politics, the market, religion or family. Constitutional democracy is designed to enshrine principles of justice irreducible to politics, the market or religion, and to ensure that institutions such as law do not deviate too far from them, thus serving as a kind of infrastructure for civil spheres. Yet civil spheres can be found part-formed outside constitutional democracy, for example under dictatorship, and elements of them long precede the democracies of recent centuries. Historically, it needs to be added, empires have been justified in terms of universal justice. The Spanish claimed to bring salvation to the souls of distant lands, while the British promised civilization and enlightenment for all. Thus, it is important to recognize that the principle of universal justice has underwritten many an injustice, and at home groups like the Jews and in the United States the descendants of slaves were long considered on the outer reaches of the civil. Even under constitutional democracy, civil spheres are always fragmented and at times at loggerheads—in the US, both North and South developed civil spheres that were relatively autonomous of each other. As well as local civil spheres there are global civil spheres, and the global reach of human rights with its assorted institutions is a compelling example. All are partial in the sense that their universalizing promises are always brought down to earth, for example by modelling “civil” qualities on those of a dominant group—such as the heroic autonomy of the Anglo-American male. Civil spheres develop traction as they are embedded in powerful organizations and institutions, but the same organizations and institutions can end up remaking civil spheres in their image. Actually-existing civil spheres can end up looking like a House of Lords select committee with bishops together with Amnesty and Oxfam in attendance, not to forget the next day’s leader in The Times or The Guardian.

The condemnation of political acts deemed beyond the pale, together with the elevation of those considered sacred, is common within civil spheres. Despised are acts that prioritize wealth, family, creed or the pursuit of power for its own sake. Equally disparaged are acts seen to breach the civil order, however that is understood. Civil spheres are not reducible to democracy, which in any case has become a controversial concept—across the world electoral competition has lost much of its civil halo. Yet democracy is an obvious example of how enshrining one set of political acts—voting and seeking election—is accompanied by condemning those that go beyond them. Rather than assume a set of criteria, CST looks to identify within particular civil spheres what criteria are being used to determine the scope of warranted political action, including what if anything they owe to law. Where law is a primary referent of social life, it is likely that actors within civil spheres will use law as the criterion for whether political acts are or are not legitimate. In the many contexts where law has less of a monopoly on the normative, broader criteria may be applied such as proportionality or peacefulness or appeal to universal principles of justice. Donning a mask is stigmatized as a lack of honesty, seen to undermine the precious values of autonomy in our society. Rioting is abhorred as a perversion of rage, almost akin to lynching, understandable only as blind frustration but otherwise beyond the pale. Suicide bombing is depicted as the manipulation of vulnerable people into the murder of innocent bystanders. Querying the Holocaust is derided as insensitive attention-seeking, showing how discourse itself can be deemed offensive. Cartoons appearing to depict Muslims as suicide bombers—those of Jyllands-Posten—are more controversial in that they can also be defended as free speech. Much the same applies to the ends of political acts, which are in any case mainly made known through discourse. Calling for revolution in most contexts will not only attract attention from security agencies but will also meet with the disdain of mainstream media, civil society organizations, religious institutions and so on. Calling for a ban all refugees, even if demanded by legally-sanctioned means, will be received in similar terms. It is also widely assumed, within and beyond constitutional democracies, that solidarity and justice require limit to the range of what is said and done politically. Otherwise put, there is a limit to what acts can be translated into civil terms, especially when those acts damage persons or property, or create acute offense, or disrupt pubic order, or undermine democratic institutions. All the more when it is considered that other modes of political action are available, and protected effectively by constitutional orders.

Yet people continue to engage in such acts, which we understand as “radical” in going beyond the modes established within civil spheres. The IRA waged over two decades of urban guerrilla warfare within the context of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. The #BlackLivesMatter movement grew out of widespread riots. Pegida calls for a ban on refugees in a country that has long made hospitality an axiom. We believe that CST offers clues to help understand why they do so, as well as what happens when they do, not least because those engaging in “radical” acts often appeal to civil spheres as they do so. In addition, CST may help us to understand those moments at which such acts generate a degree of sympathy or solidarity.

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