Pope Francis and Citizen Politics

We need a Copernican Revolution in political thinking. Pope Francis can help.

In Laudato Si', the climate encyclical, Francis has a good deal to say about politics different than "a politics concerned [only] with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population... driven to produce short-term growth." As in his Latin trip, he argues for popular organizing. "Public pressure has to be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action. Society through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments... unless citizens control political power - national, regional, and municipal - it will not be possible to control damage to the environment."

As I earlier argued in "The Pope, Civic Studies, and Public Work," in my view Pope Francis also mistakenly separates politics from civic life where public work takes place.

Since the beginning of our work through the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (now merged into the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College), we have seen the importance and usefulness of highlighting the political qualities of public work, not only in addressing issues of injustices, but also in creating things of lasting public value. Citizen politics, not ideological or party politics, is crucial for effective "world building" action. When co-creating the world, not simply fighting over its resources, is named in political terms, it affects a Copernican Revolution in political thinking -- politics revolves around citizens not politicians.

Laudato Si's implications for the public work of building democracy itself if we effect such a reframing of politics is illustrated by kindred political developments. In Great Britain over the past several years the Blue Labour movement represents a new democratic political project which redresses Francis' mistake, while having parallels with Laudato Si'.

Blue Labour grows from the broad-based community organizing group London Citizen. It was first articulated by the political theorist Maurice Glasman, working with Luke Bretherton, both long active in London Citizen, as a way to generalize community organizing themes. Glasman and Bretherton saw such politics as an alternative to the technocratic, centralizing, deregulatory "Third Way" politics of Tony Blair in the Labour Party and the "Red Tory" agenda of the Conservatives which touted agency without politics.

Blue Labour, many of whose leaders are drawn from Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities, draws strongly on Catholic social teachings, especially the concepts of subsidiarity and a civic economy. Subsidiarity is the principal that power needs to be dispersed downwards to communities and institutions best suited to exercise it - locally run schools, housing, hospitals, municipal authorities.

The "civic economy" seeks to transcend debates between the left and the right about the market, arguing that the market must operate within a moral framework and that profit and public benefit can coincide if rewards, risks, and responsibilities are shared among all stakeholders including owners, managers, workers, consumers, suppliers, and communities where businesses are located.

Bretherton argues for a citizen politics of public work in his chapter in the collection, Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics. "The political vision... holds that if a group is directly contributing to the common work of defending, tending and creating the commonweal then they deserve recognition as a vital part and co-labourer within the broader body politics," says Bretherton. "It is the very emphasis on participation and contribution to the building up of a common life that allows for a greater plurality and affirmation of distinct identities and traditions, as each is able to play a part in this common work." Put differently, while "Blue Labour" has implications for electoral politics, its fundamental aim is reframing politics as the activity of the people acting as citizens, not politicians or voters.

Blue Labour, allied with Pope Francis' wing of the Catholic Church, can be seen as a sign of an epochal shift in the project of democracy. Through the modern period, "democracy" was mainly a modernizing project led by highly educated secular groups who took science as their touchstone. The new citizen politics of public work aims at a relational politics of civic agency, collective capacities to work across differences to address common challenges and negotiate a common life. In such citizen politics religious groups with a pluralist orientation often take key leadership. Indeed, this democratic project confounds conventional distinctions such as "modern" and "traditional," "secular" and "religious," "scientific" and "cultural."

I saw such a democratic politics with religious leadership in the civil rights movement. It also appeared in the anti-apartheid struggle. But such religious leadership has been more generally submerged in democratic struggles of the modern era, as the political theorist Michael Walzer makes clear in The Paradox of Liberation.

Looking at three democratic liberation movements - in India, Israel, and Algeria - Walzer shows that such movements "imitate the politics of the European left... a secularizing, modernizing, and developmental creed." Walzer argues that the modernist creed was at some distance from the common people. "Leaders of these movements, when they exercised political power, did so with a sure sense that they knew what was best for their backward and often recalcitrant peoples."

Popular cultural continued to exert a stubborn resistance. "The old ways were sustained in temples, synagogues, and mosques... in interpersonal relations, in families, and in life-cycle celebrations, where the sustaining behaviors were hardly visible" to leaders "busily at work on the big project of modernization."

Over time, in each of these societies, such resistance led to religiously-based counterrevolutions. In other societies led by parties descending from the secular left, there are now also strong anti-democratic trends. A recent article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood details the new controls on independent civic groups in almost half the nations of the world. "Over the past three years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of non-governmental and civil society organisations," writes Sherwood. "Ninety-six countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity, in what the Carnegie Endowment calls a 'viral-like spread of new laws' under which international aid groups and their local partners are vilified, harassed, closed down and sometimes expelled."

In South Africa, where I live part of the year, the dominant faction of the ruling party, the African National Congress, now touts anti-democratic China as its model. South Africa needs a democratic project that can reactivate the great wells of democratic energy like the religious communities which once played such central roles in the struggle for a "nonracial democracy."

In such a context, Laudato Si' provides a politics of hope.