“Spirit of Power” 2/4/2018

READING: from The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

Democratic freedom can certainly be used to enhance social justice and a better and fairer politics. The process, however, is not automatic and requires activism on the part of politically engaged citizens. …

[T]he secularism of democratic India has broadly speaking survived intact, despite occasional strains, with mutual tolerance and respect. That … has not … prevented periodic outbursts of sectarian violence, often fed by political groups that benefit from such divisiveness. The effect of sectarian demagoguery can be overcome only through … championing … broader values … The recognition of the multiple identities of each person, of which religious identity is only one, is crucially important in this respect; for example, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians in India not only share a nationality, but, depending on the individual, can share other identities, such as a language, a literature, a profession, a location and many other bases of categorization. Democratic politics allows the opportunity to discuss these non-sectarian affiliations and their rival claims over religious divisions. … The practice of democracy can certainly assist in bringing out a greater recognition of the plural identities of human beings. …

The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of. It depends inescapably on our actual behavior patterns and the working of political and social interactions. There is no chance of resting the matter in the ‘safe’ hands of purely institutional virtuosity. The working of democratic institutions … depends on the activities of human agents …


SERMON: “Spirit of Power” Rev. Paul Beedle

When he says, “The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of,” Amartya Sen states concisely his chief criticism of philosophical theories about justice.

I remember taking a class in Ethics from the Philosophy department at Cornell University. The professor was Terry Irwin, who had taught at Harvard before coming to Cornell, was making the transition from associate to full professor around the time he taught me; he went on to teach at Oxford about ten years ago. What I most remember about him is his Scottish* accent, to which I had to tune my ear. I remember a part of the class when the philosopher we were studying talked a lot about “states of the world” – meaning the conditions under which we make ethical choices – and Professor Irwin would speak of “stay-uts.” Also, he had a way of pausing at the end of a sentence occasionally, holding his head perfectly still, and shifting his eyes back and forth, as if he were either searching for his next thought or else checking to see if we were following him. [LONG PAUSE] I’d be sitting with my pen poised, like you might sit with your fingers above the keyboard, waiting for the little pinwheel to stop spinning.

It was a good class. I remember liking it, f’r a’ that. And we spent a lot of time there talking about a philosophy of justice worked out by an American philosopher named John Rawls. (As it happens, Rawls also taught at Harvard, Cornell, and Oxford.) Little did I know that Rawls was the dominant philosophical theorist on justice. His theory was that justice was something an assembly of people would reasonably agree on, especially if they didn’t know what social position they would occupy going forward. They would agree, he asserted, that justice was fairness. He imagined such an assembly deliberating about a perfect system of justice before having to live under it, a situation he called “the original position.” If you can credit it, this theory has become the touchstone for academic ideas about justice, at least in philosophy departments, starting in the early 1970s.

It’s worth noting that this theory was how Rawls expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War. In political circumstances not unlike our own, when the reigning conception of justice promoted from the White House was punishment, Rawls asserted instead that justice was fairness. And he conceived fairness in terms of a perfectly designed system of institutional justice. To which Amartya Sen objects: “The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of.”

Their disagreement reminds me again of that moment in the 2016 presidential campaign, when Black Lives Matter activists spoke of changing hearts, and Hillary Clinton replied, “I don’t believe you change hearts; I believe you change laws.” Changing laws can move us toward a more perfect system – as Martin Luther King put it, “laws can restrain the heartless” – but Sen is saying there’s more to it than that. Where is he coming from?

At the beginning of 1943, after victories in battle at Stalingrad and El Alamein, the Allied powers had begun to reverse the Axis occupations in Europe and Africa. In May, they would defeat Axis forces in North Africa. Their summer invasion of Sicily would lead by September to Italy’s surrender. During this season of success in battle, a tragedy was unfolding in the Indian state of Bengal: a famine that by July was claiming some 26,000 lives each week.

As a child, Amartya Sen witnessed this tragedy. His subsequent study of famines earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics, twenty years ago this year. Among his findings were that famines rarely affect more than about 5% of the population, and are easily prevented by redistributing the food on hand. Having more food is not an absolute necessity for successful famine relief. It turns out that democratic accountability in the affected community is more important. Indeed, Sen says, “no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech, and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation).”

What caused the famine in Bengal in 1943 was the presence of soldiers and war personnel, which increased the demand for food, causing food prices to rise, and pricing low-income Bengalis out of the food market. Bengal was actually exporting food during the famine, per policy of the British colonial government. The facts of the situation were suppressed by a combination of government censorship and voluntary media self-censorship, out of concern to keep up public morale in wartime. The government made the famine worse by moving food from the countryside to the cities, in order to avoid urban unrest. Also, the government banned transfer of food between the Indian states. Even with all these harmful policies in place, the famine could have been prevented or stopped by providing purchasing power (in other words, access) to people with low income – whether through subsidies or a jobs program or direct distribution of food or something else. The government believed that famine was not possible in Bengal, because it produced so much food. But it wasn’t about having, it was about sharing. The government took no action for ten months as thousands died every week. Finally one newspaper, the Calcutta Statesman, broke the silence and forced public discussion of the problem. After that, action was soon taken and the famine was ended.

Sen takes from this experience the obvious lesson that we do not live in perfect systems, that public discourse is essential for addressing their flaws. His critique of Rawls’s theory of justice is that it offers no guidance about how to move from our imperfect state toward a more just condition. He accepts Rawls’s assertion that justice is fairness, and recommends democratic institutions, not perfect ones, as vehicles that let us move toward justice.

What features of democratic systems make them effective vehicles for realizing, not perfect justice, but more justice? Sen named some of them in relation to preventing famines: regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech, and a relatively free media. What is it that these features achieve? Together, they support public reasoning.

Sen offers actual democratic institutions as a replacement for the imaginary assembly in Rawls’s “original position.” Letting go of the perfect, he embraces best practices. This, too, is informed by his experience of democracy in India. Through democracy, India has found a way to hold together a vastly diverse population – ethnically, religiously, economically, socially, culturally – with occasional lapses into violence but also steady progress toward greater justice for all – across categories of gender, caste, and other traditional grounds for oppression. He lifts up the importance of public reasoning in this political achievement. Through democratic institutions, he says, “the secularism of democratic India has, broadly speaking, survived intact, despite occasional strains, with mutual tolerance and respect.” And by “secularism,” he means a common ground that includes religious identities and viewpoints, not (as we commonly conceive) some kind of exclusion of religious ideas. That inclusion of religious identities and views in public discourse has made meaningful mutual tolerance and respect possible across deep differences and divisions.

In place of the perfect system, Sen offers an ideal discipline for human agents working within an imperfect system. Borrowing an idea from Adam Smith, the 18th-century founder of modern economic theory, he invokes the ideal of “the impartial spectator.” Rather than imagining an assembly of people ignorant of their future situation, he imagines people aware of their current situation, and able to step outside it to consider what an outsider – someone impartial, without a stake in the system and free of its pressures – might observe about it. We know it is possible for a person to do that. Sen identifies the real human power of imagination as a resource for justice work. He moves the role of imagination from some hypothetical past to the real, immediate present. Equipped with this tool, participants in a system can create space for passions to cool. Individual participants can imagine the limits of their own views, not merely the limits – or the insults – of others’. Following this best practice, participants prepare themselves for dialogue aimed at public reasoning – not argument against each other, but finding common agreement and mutual understanding – that can lead to shared perceptions and collaboration toward building a more just society.

Instead of the oppression of perfection, Sen argues for the liberation of empowerment – a self-disciplined, accountable use of power by all, for the common good – a messy, imperfect means toward more justice, with a track record of success when a critical mass of us practice it.

We have an opportunity now to test Sen’s theory: Rev. William Barber and his group, Repairers of the Breach, are reviving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign on its 50th anniversary.

The Poor People’s Campaign is focusing on four broad issues: poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation. From now through April, its activities will include outreach, issues education, organizer trainings, and events planning. Then from May 13th until June 21st will be “Forty Days of Action” – mass meetings, arts and cultural events, faith services, and nonviolent civil disobedience – all aimed at changing the national narratives about poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation; changing hearts and minds; amplifying work already happening by coordinated action. And after the Forty Days, the hope is that the leadership and relationships forged will continue to build and sustain a broad movement for resistance and reform.

The Poor People’s Campaign is like the Calcutta Statesman, breaking silence about crises that have resulted from systemic problems that need remedy and reform. Locally, organizations like the Together New Orleans, the People’s Assembly, Take ‘Em Down NOLA, Step Up Louisiana, and others, have taken on this kind of role – not only calling attention to crises and injustices, but also getting elected officials to commit to address them, and then holding them publicly accountable. All their work can be amplified by the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign means to help them be not competing organizations, but complementary ones, providing support for people in each organization to talk to each other and coordinate action where they can. And since some of us have been involved in several of these groups, the campaign also gives us a framework for imagining how we can best help connect them for effective democratic action.

Next month, local organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign are putting together listening sessions, like the one Together New Orleans held last fall. And on April 4th, a Wednesday, they will provide buses for us to go together to Memphis for the Martin Luther King commemoration there, where Rev. Barber will speak. These are excellent opportunities for us to join our neighbors to resist hate and promote love and justice, and to show up as a bridge connecting local needs to a statewide and national movement.

As Amartya Sen has said: “Democratic freedom can certainly be used to enhance social justice and a better and fairer politics. The process, however, is not automatic and requires activism on the part of politically engaged citizens. … “The working of democratic institutions … depends on the activities of human agents.”

May our activities move our society toward more justice. Amen.


* Subsequent to delivering this sermon, I learned that Prof. Irwin is, in fact, Irish, not Scottish. (My error is another example of imperfection in the world…)


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