Inequality, Religion and the Limits of Civil Society

The comments from my last blog entry turned in the direction of civil society and religion. We seem to be living in a new Gilded Age, an era of massive economic inequality with no apparent end in sight. Can the influence of religion – via the indirect influence of civil society – address and perhaps ameliorate this condition? I am pessimistic about this possibility.

My pessimism is informed by a re-reading of James Scott’s masterful work Weapons of the Weak. Scott is a scholar of Political Science, but his work pursues an ethnographic approach. His study of the lives of Indonesian peasants against the backdrop of the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1970s is informative for our purposes, since it shows how civil society provides material that can be forged into a conceptual arsenal for the defense of the poor. For Scott, such weapons are rarely wielded in open rebellion; peasants defend their interests against the rich, but their resistance is for the most part anonymous and subtle. “They reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them” (304), by means of a subtle reframing and redefinition, a reorientation of common beliefs and practices that among other things exposes hypocrisy.

Religion is part of this redefinition. Under economic pressures that presaged some of the neoliberal changes that have occurred under globalization, the rich landowners in Scott’s Indonesian village stopped engaging in customary rituals of compassion like the Islamic tithe, or zakat. From their stance, this was a step forward, a way of bypassing an old form of redistribution that had no rational purpose. For the peasants who relied on the tithe and other expressions of charity, however, the change was disruptive. They appealed to the past and to specifically religious practices that encouraged social solidarity. Civil society here worked to empower the poor; peasants could (and did) argue that ending the post-harvest zakat was a breach of religious obligation.

Scott’s example shows us that religious traditions can aid in exposing the euphemisms that circulate around power wherever it operates. It shows us in a very specific way that civil society can aid in exposing the allegedly “natural” and “inevitable” changes of neoliberalism. This doesn’t mean that the poor will win the battle of ideas; it does suggest that they can under certain circumstances have the power to describe their world in a way that corresponds with their material interests.

Abstract discussions of “civil society” can lead us away from a more straightforward interrogation: does the lived, situated, particular practice of American Catholicism allow for marginalized men and women to see their lives differently? Does it empower them? Does it allow them to (restating the quote above) “reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them”? Does it expose and reject the naturalization of market processes? Does it offer the same kind of symbolic power that the peasants in Scott’s Indonesian village were able to wield?

The difficulty of these questions is nothing in comparison with the difficulty of the lives of the poor. Many of you work with them; I’m interested to hear what you have to say.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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