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Monday, February 3, 2014

Framework for Thinking

Here is a framework I am using to think about organizing, politics, and the next revolution:

Using and modifying Hannah Arendt's political thinking, I consider three dimensions of human being: The basic being that of life itself, the realm of necessity and self-interest, the private realm of household affairs or economy; the second being that of meaning and value expressed in ideas; the third being that of power, the ability to act in concert, where speech and action create the public realm of freedom.  All lead to dignity and respect, which is the highest of self-interests, meanings, and powers. Each has its own institutions, e.g. the family, the business, the school, the church, the government, the community organization.  While there are distinctions, e.g. public and private, self and other, there are also relationships and interactions among them, e.g. personal and civil religion, voluntary and necessary organizations, non-governmental and governmental agencies. 

I don’t mean to imply by this framework a hierarchy of needs (Mazlow) but more a hierarchy of human existence and behavior. These dimensions are not stages one goes through; and all are important to being human and are marks of being human whether in prehistoric or postmodern times, in Eastern, Western, Northern, and Southern lands, in rural or urban societies. I don’t mean to imply that one is more important than the other in some absolute way.

I do mean to imply a hierarchy on an ethical scale so that while politics (the polis or freely organized society) should assure what is necessary to life for all (economy), freedom/power (politics) is worth dying for and is not to be subjected to household affairs or economy--as it is largely the case in the US today. I think that politics should guarantee cultural liberalism but not economic liberalism. 

I also think that not making these distinctions promotes confusion in our way of speaking and acting. One example of this confusion is the liberal/progressive vs. conservative/libertarian argument that dominates political thinking in the US. Another is the use of capitalism vs socialism as if there are simply two alternatives to economic justice. The right to life vs freedom of choice discussion gets confused as if these are two contrary options (and shows why Pope Francis has his priorities correct). So many divisions among ordinary Americans are the result of the wrong framework often spurred by those whose interests are to keep American's divided on cultural and political matters without seeing how the economy is structured to create and sustain losers and how the culture and politics are being controlled by those with the most economic wealth.

This framework also shows an interrelation, limitation, and hierarchy of rights and responsibilities. For example, the right to speak and act and organize (politics) is most important but should never be used to deny the right to enjoy one’s own values, as long as those values do not undermine the right to speak, act, and decide together the shape of the community including its governance structure. It helps explain the difference between household, denominational, and civil religion and how I can be a religious atheist or have an understanding of God different from most of the denominations or how we can embrace the separation of church and state and still respect religious values in influencing state policies.

All these dimensions are important but in different ways. We can’t have political freedom or culture without life. But life (and making a living) without values is pretty meaningless—“an unexamined life is not worth living”.  And life without politics denies us the highest values of freedom and power, which are worth ending life or abandoning one's culture for. 

Also this framework helps me separate and promote politics apart from government and shows that the public sphere is not at all confined to government agencies. So you can have a public school and agency that is not under or paid for by or through government. Leninism’s big mistake was indentifying socialism with state control and of the state with the Party. Just as the church (synogogue, mosque) is one important institution of the cultural/religious sphere, and the corporation (including businesses, unions, coops) an important institution of the economic sphere, so is government (including parties and state agencies) one important institution of the public sphere.

The reason this is a helpful framework to think about organizing the next American revolution is its multi-dimensional understand of humanity—all of which have to be attended to in the organizing process: self-interest for a thriving life, values coming from and rooted in many cultures/religions, and affiliation, brother and sisterhood, comradeship, that crosses racial, cultural, and jurisdictional boundaries. I know all these can be-considered self-interest as when Alinsky says that when you push self-interest far enough if means love of neighbor; and all can be considered values; and all can be considered rights and responsibilities or matters of social justice. 

But I remember Chairman Charlie Baker’s talk with the Contract Buyers League in Chicago when he said: “I’m now glad that I bought my house on contract (i.e. was cheated and robbed) because it brought us all together.” He was making a huge transition from economic self-interest to political affiliation. That’s when I started really probing for values and relationships in my listening processes and my analyses. 

Indeed, contrary to Alinsky, some pastors do care about values and relationships as much as the Sunday collections. Faith and transcendence also belong to political action and the coming of the next revolution.

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