Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Questions for political theology

"The questions that confront the Northern democracies require detailed attention to the structures of authority which undergird their unruly democratic culture: can democracy avoid corruption by mass communication? Can individual liberty be protected from technological manipulation? Can civil rights be safeguarded without surrendering democratic control to arbitrarily appointed courts? Or stable market-conditions without surrending control to arbitrarily appointed bankers? Can punishment be humane and still satisfy the social conscience? Can international justice be protected by threat of nuclear devastation? Can ethnic, cultural and linguistic communities assert their identities without oppressing individual freedoms? Can a democracy contain the urge to excessive consumption of natural resources? Can the handicapped, the elderly and the unborn be protected against the exercise of liberty demanded by the strong, the articulate and the middle-aged? Should the nation-state yield place to large, market-defined governmental conglomerates? These are the questions that political theology, in its self-conscious forms, is most notable for never addressing."

Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (CUP, 1996), 14.

Putting to one side the typical northern bias in calling these "Northern" issues, O'Donovan seems to have identified a number of the key pressure points in contemporary politics. I doubt this list is intended to be exhaustive, but it is certainly exhausting to consider them all. Are there particular questions that grab your attention and hold your interest?

For me, one abiding interest of the last few years has been the question of over-consumption of "natural resources", a.k.a "food" (and water and shelter and the means of producing them). This question - the sustainability of the material bases of society - is part of what has led me to Edinburgh to study.

What is the relationship between surviving and thriving? Bertold Brecht once said "food first, then ethics", thereby prioritising survival over lesser ethical concerns. Everything is justified in order to stay alive. Is this true? Is it true for individuals? For groups? For nation-states? When the chips are down, is it every man for himself? Is the Joker right: when the chips are down, will civilised people eat each other?


Julio said...

"Any society is only three meals away from revolution. Deprive a nation of food for free meals and you'll have anarchy."

I didn't really believe this until I was elbowed out of the way when trying to get on a train. When things run short (food, transport) people get pushy.

Sin is alive and well in this world.

stephenmac said...

There is a growing amount of literature that considers that "environmental" concerns are becoming "security" concerns. The concern is not conflict over finite resources (oil for example) but over renewable resources like freshwater and farming-viable land. In particular, the security concern is that things like erosion or rising sea levels can actually cause both interstate and now intrastate wars.

I believe that Environment, Scarcity and Violence by Thomas Homer-Dixon is the author who explores this issue.

stephenmac said...

One other point: Charles Beitz writes

Surveying the tradition of international political theory, Martin Wight commented that it is marked "not only by paucity but also by intellectual and moral poverty."'

This is one project that I would love to address: A theory of international relations that takes seriously morality. Realism dismisses it as naive, constructivism believes that it is the construct of the international community. Just war theory uses it, but does not develop it. This is one area where political theology can really build bridges in political science

byron smith said...

Julio - The perception of scarcity leads to fear since we assume the number one priority (and overriding) is to survive. So get out of my way!

Stephen - thanks for the suggestion (and great to stumble across your blog too!). Yes, there is more and more talk about "food security" or "water security". I'll chase up that book.

Mister Tim said...

You asked about questions that grab and hold our interest. Given what I do for a crust, questions about the working of a democracy/government are very interesting. So, the question of "Can civil rights be safeguarded without surrendering democratic control to arbitrarily appointed courts?" is interesting.

But the answer is actually fairly easy. 'Yes'. Or rather, this is true globally, but not always at the individual level.

In modern Western democracies, the Courts are one arm of Government and are balanced by the judiciary and the legislature (and the executive, where that is separate). So courts aren't arbitrary - they are appointed by a Government, which in turn is democratically elected. Also, governments can pass laws that give or remove certain powers from Courts.

This tends to work fairly well over time and when viewed more generally. However, there is a tendency for discrepancies, where an individual may be denied justice for one reason or another. This then raises another question about the role of democracies, whether they operate to guarantee civil rights (and many other things) for individuals or for the population as a whole.

And the other aspect is that it would normally be a government elected by the people that defines what the civil rights are, rather than a court. The court can simply enforce that definition.

Just my $0.02. Your questions about food and resources are more interesting.