A new "declaration of independence" for the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Portrait of Jefferson in my Cambridge study 
Readings: 

John 10.10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.

Words by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) that, in a slightly altered form became part of the Declaration of Independence (1776):

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

The Useful Member by Ernst Bloch (Traces, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 14):

As Bernhard and Simon visited their coffee house again to play chess, all the boards were taken. They therefore went over to two proven players. Suddenly Bernhard, growing bored, shouted, “I bet five marks on Westfal!” Simon bet the same on Dyssel. At first the two outstanding players noticed nothing of the bet; only others’ encouragement grew louder, and their reproofs harsher. Yet soon the men became racehorses to be bet on, and they not only became but felt themselves to be such. Finally, bit by bit diverted from the noble disinterestedness of the game, they saw themselves as wage slaves, harnessed to capitalism, spilling their toil and their wits. The winner’s anger was perfectly clear as Simon wanted to buy him a coffee with a fraction of his winnings; his labor power was already sufficiently exploited in life. Business is pleasure for some, but pleasure easily became business again. So exactly is even play subject to the forms in which the earnestness of life flows away; one cannot flee it, nor even in flight. Even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s wings; to some, this actually seems an elevation. 

Booked #3: What Exactly Is Neoliberalism? — An interview with Wendy Brown about her book, “Undoing the Demos”, April 2, 2015

In [my] book [Undoing the Demos], I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.
          Moreover, because neoliberalism came of age with (and abetted) financialization, the form of marketization at stake does not always concern products or commodities, let alone their exchange. Today, market actors—from individuals to firms, universities to states, restaurants to magazines—are more often concerned with their speculatively determined value, their ratings and rankings that shape future value, than with immediate profit. All are tasked with enhancing present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings, or Moody’s bond ratings.
          [. . .]
          [N]eoliberalism also does profound damage to democratic practices, cultures, institutions, and imaginaries. Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.
          The promise of democracy depends upon concrete institutions and practices, but also on an understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us. Once the economization of democracy’s terms and elements is enacted in law, culture, and society, popular sovereignty becomes flatly incoherent. In markets, the good is generated by individual activity, not by shared political deliberation and rule. And, where there are only individual capitals and marketplaces, the demos, the people, do not exist. 

—o0o—

A new "declaration of independence" for the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness 

The writer of the Gospel of John has Jesus say that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10) — remember that in this Unitarian church Jesus is not understood to be saying this not as a god but as a mortal human being just like you and me.

This basic, human message, although incredibly vague in terms of substantive content, comes across to us as a genuinely joyous one and I’m sure we can hear echoes of Jesus’ words in the very famous, Epicurean inspired words penned for the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), unitarian, epicurean and third President of the United States that, in their first version, read as follows:

“We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.”

Sacred and undeniable though Jefferson thought these truths were, as a great admirer of the human Jesus he also knew only too well that one of the tragedies of Christianity was that, contrary to Jesus’ teaching, Christianity itself so often became a thief; a thief stealing life and, both literally and metaphorically, capable of killing and destroying so many of the abundant pleasures we, as embodied material creatures, might otherwise be perfectly able to experience in this, our glorious, awesome, sacred, natural and material world.

Today, in the twenty-first century, we face other thieves that are also intent upon stealing life and its abundant pleasures. The one I want to point to today is the doctrine that believes abundant life is best achieved by “economisation” of everything. It’s a doctrine that is central to the highly complex phenomenon known as “neoliberalism”.

It’s the word “everything” that is important to note here. Let me be clear, I’m not talking today about commercialisation in the sense we have tended to understand it in, say, the commercialisation of Christmas — though this tendency is bad enough. The truth is, of course, that the commercialisation of Christmas began when the festival we now call Christmas was first invented in the Victorian age, an age that definately saw the rise of what we now call “commercialisation”.  

Despite it’s pervasiveness it has remained possible to avoid a great deal of this commercialisation simply by keeping physically away from the commercial centres of our towns and avoiding all the advertising in the media (by, say, turning off the telly) and to go on and celebrate a Christmas as free from the commercial glitz as possible — just as, in fact, as we try to do in this church each year.

But I’m not talking today about this straightforward and somewhat old-school, even naive commercialisation, instead I’m talking about the disturbing tendency to “economize” absolutely everything, including those deep areas of human concern where, until now, financially derived measures have had no place. I’m talking about deep existential things such as our basic understanding of what it is to be a human being and our associated “mutual or intergenerational commitments, on which the institutions of ‘society’ or ‘nation’ are dependent.” Today, these are increasingly “become[ing] reconfigured in monetary terms as debts” and they are being rendered “explicit and quantitative in the process.” As William Davies, a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and Director of the Political Economy Research Centre, says:

“One way of understanding [neoliberalism] is as an effort to anchor modernity in the market, that is, to make economics the main measure of progress and reason.” 

This anchoring or rooting in the market means that social institutions concerned with progress and reason such as schools, universities, libraries, political parties, countless voluntary social organisations and, importantly today, some religious bodies, increasingly become tasked, not with measuring their success in terms of their philosophical, theological or political ideals but with, as Wendy Brown succinctly puts it,

“. . . enhancing [their] present and future value through self-investments that in turn attract investors. Financialized market conduct entails increasing or maintaining one’s ratings, whether through blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings, or Moody’s bond ratings.”

I do not exaggerate when I say that, to me, this tendency seems to be like a thief that is slowly, and very effectively, stealing, killing and destroying from the inside almost everything I have found capable of giving me and others the hope of achieving a genuinely abundant life experiencing both liberty and happiness.

Perhaps some of you now share with me a dread of receiving reports from many of the kinds of organisations I’ve just mentioned because I know I’m highly likely to read about how they believe they have enhanced their present and future value through self-investments that have, in turn, attracted investors and they will illustrate how successful they have been in this by quoting many economised measures its USPs (unique selling points), it’s use of SEOs (search engine optimisations), and how many blog hits, retweets, Yelp stars, college rankings it has accumulated thanks to these things.

When the continuing value of the enabling, foundational philosophical, theological or political vision of any of the organisations I’ve mentioned is no longer being measured by reference to real, existential human concerns, but by highly abstract, “economised” metrics we are surely heading in a very dangerous and undemocratic direction. It means, for example, as long as Jesus’ appeal to help the injured man by the roadside, regardless of his country of origin or religion, is clearly a self-investment that will enhance you or your organisation’s present and future value, then all well and good. But if it does not obviously do this then, well, really you should think about refusing to listen any more to Jesus’ appeal to your existential, human heart.

(Whilst giving this address I ad-libbed a point here about the current crisis in Germany following the dreadful events in Cologne on New Years's Eve. I noted how much of the political debate in the current liberal democratic setting about whether to allow or not refugees into Europe had been centred on almost solely economic terms i.e. about whether or not economic benefits for Europe would follow  the answer has generally been that, yes, these benefits would follow. However, when a moment of real human crisis came on New Year's Eve that was connected to the issue of refugees such economicized language simply fails any longer to be of use and this, in turn, has left a democratic vacuum which right-wing groups are perfectly placed to fill with a powerfully persuasive, non-economised, passionate, political language. Naturally, I detest their particular political language but I am fearful that our liberal democratic politicians (and structures) have by now lost their own version of this, colonised as they have been, by the stealth revolution of neoliberalism.)

Anyway . . . in short what is deemed good in our society is increasingly being ultimately decided by “economised” metrics.

I was, at first, tempted to unpack line by line Wendy Brown’s words you heard earlier which try to communicate something of what this process means. This could be done I assure you, but it would have produced a somewhat dry, analytic lecture. However, I was saved from this when I recalled a powerful little parable told by the German philosopher, Ernst Bloch in the early years of the twentieth century. It speaks directly and comprehensibly to the matter in hand.

Playing chess in a café by G. Bakmanson (1903)
As you heard, we begin with two friends, Bernhard and Simon, visiting their favourite coffee house to play a convivial game of chess. This scene may be taken as being a snapshot of two people living an abundant life. They need not be this, but I tend to imagine Bernard and Simon to be a couple of old boys with time, pleasurably on their hands. Alas, on this occasion, when they arrive at the coffee house all the boards are taken and so they take themselves over to the table of two excellent players, Westfal and Dyssel. For whatever reason Bernard gets a little bored with watching rather than playing and he decides to inject a little excitement into things by betting five marks on Westfal and Simon responds by betting the same amount upon Dyssel.

Notice straightaway the beginning of the dynamic I want us to observe, Bernard and Simon have suddenly begun to judge the value of the game of chess not by their original, existential, human standards but by an “economised” metric.

Bloch tells us that this shift in metrics did not, at first, have any effect upon Westfal and Dyssel—they were, as yet, unaware of what was going on and they were able to carry on with their existential delight and passion for the game of chess. However, Bernard and Simon begin to become more vocal in urging on their preferred players. We may imagine that other people were also now gathering around Westfal and Dyssel’s board and laying their own bets as the general excitement increased. In parallel with the increase in excitement there also arises unabashed competition which results in the making of harsh reproofs as the gamblers now harangue or praise Westfal and Dyssel for making what they believe are stupid or brilliant moves, moves which may now win or lose them increasing  amounts of money. Notice how the mood is now no longer convivial at all

By this stage Westfal and Dyssel have not only clearly ceased to be free-men and become racehorses to be bet on, they are also now slowly being transformed in themselves as persons. As selves they have ceased to be humans enjoying the free existential play, challenge and value of chess and have become, instead, “economized” actors. As Bloch says, “Finally, bit by bit diverted from the noble disinterestedness of the game, [Westfal and Dyssel see] themselves as wage slaves, harnessed to capitalism, spilling their toil and their wits.”

Dyssel eventually turns out to be the winner but he is very angry with Simon who put his bet upon him. This anger becomes visible at the moment Simon offers to buy Dyssel a coffee to say thank you for winning; a meagre thank you that Dyssel knows costs a fraction of Simon’s winnings. Dyssel feels that his labour power is already “sufficiently exploited in life” and so he resents, rightly in my opinion, this “economization” of his existential life, his life of pleasure, of the place where genuine human abundance and non-monetary meaning can be found — in this case amongst old friends playing chess and drinking coffee together for the sheer joy of playing chess and drinking coffee together.

Bloch notes in conclusion that: “Business is pleasure for some, but pleasure easily became business again. So exactly is even play subject to the forms in which the earnestness of life flows away; one cannot flee it, nor even in flight. Even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s wings; to some, this actually seems an elevation.”

It is true that even the most resistant are taken on capitalism’s, or more properly, neoliberalism’s, wings and in the past thirty years this has included many religious organisations such as our own. Fortunately I happen to think that in this congregation we are a fairly resistant body of people (the demos is still in our democracy) but we need to be aware we are far from being immune to the pressures all around us. We are very much in the position of Westfal and Dyssel.

It seems to me that one of our chief tasks as a dissenting, liberal, free-religious community is to continue our resistance to this pervasive dynamic of economisation and to keep the neoliberal thief as far away from our house of being as is humanly possible. It is continually to make our own declarations of independence and to commit to remaining a cultural space where we do all kinds of things that are the equivalent of playing chess and drink coffee for the sheer pleasure of doing them and without any reference to “economized” metrics (unless without doubt such a reference is absolutely necessary and/or appropriate). It means that we should continue to take seriously both Jesus’ suggestion that an abundant life is possible for all people (and I mean for ALL people) and to continue to affirm along with our forebear, Thomas Jefferson, his inspiring words written for that earlier Declaration of Independence.

So in the coming year, may pleasurable, non “economized” things remain the metric by which we here choose to judge what is good, true and beautiful and what will best lead to the abundant life Jesus, and Jefferson, promised remains possible for all.
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