The 2008 Kyoto Laureate Symposium: Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah

On March 18th-20th, 2009, the Inamori Foundation, a Japanese humanitarian organization, recognized the distinguised contributions of Charles Margrave Taylor to the field of philosophy and ethics by awarding him the internationally acclaimed Kyoto Prize (according to the event pamphlet, the prize consists of “academic honors, a commemorative gold medal and a cash gift of 50 million yen [approx. $500,000]” and it is also “Japan’s highest private award for lifetime achievement”). The Symposium was hosted by several universities throughout San Diego. I had the pleasure of attending the final session at the USD where Taylor gave a lecture entitled: “Democracy and Exclusion: The Darker Side of Political Identity.” In response, Robert Bellah presented a paper on “The Fragility of Political Identities.” A complete, high-quality video of the event can be found here.

Taylor’s talk was indeed excellent. His bold critique struck at the core of the frequently invoked narrative of progress and enlightened rationality that presumably undergirds modernity in general and the democratic nation-state in particular. By exposing both the totalitarian logic veiled behind the language of tolerance and the artificial mythos employed to legitimize political collectivity (i.e. the “general will” of “the people”), Taylor neatly laid bare the systemic violence against dissenting outliers that such national political identities inevitably engender. This counter-narrative, so brilliantly displayed in A Secular Age, was made all the more engaging when condensed into a sharp and succinct rhetorical performance aimed at the very roots of political and theological liberalism – foundations especially cherished among many of the social and corporate elite in attendance – namely, the unquestionable necessity of human rights, democratic freedom, universal rationality, and a collective (that is, politically mediated) social solidarity. 

That being said, it seems to me that while Taylor’s critique of the origins of modernity and the state are sound and deeply compelling, his overall discussion of political identity remained opaque. This happened at several levels. On one hand, Taylor talked about how our modern “age of mobilization” threatens to dislocate formal political identity in contemporary western societies. In fact, Taylor hinted that this disintegration of trust, mutual commitment, and political participation is already well underway. However, by limiting his discussion to explicitly political and social analysis, Taylor ignored perhaps the greatest mobilizing and identity shaping forces at play in the world before us, namely the pervasiveness of global capital and the oversaturation of “civil society” by the market. Whether Taylor is reaching for a new articulation of multicultural identity that would exists outside or beyond the bounds of the nation-state, or whether he is trying to preserve levels of thick particularity that seek to flourish somewhat within existing power-structures, either move will inevitably be faced with the challenge posed by corporate hegemony. The reality is that most people in this country find their lives and social identities, their orientation to time, their feasts and festivals, and even their needs and desires more deeply shaped by marketing, strategic annual spending cycles (aka “holidays”), brand loyalty, debt, and discounts than by either a strictly nationalist or even religious sense of belonging. In other words, economic powers de-center social moorings as well. This raises several points regarding the question of identity.

First, how might this analysis deepen Taylor’s exposition on the darker side of democracy? I think the work of William Cavanaugh, Stephen Long, Žižek, and others demonstrate that point clearly enough. Not only are state, market, and civil society empirically inseparable – sustained only through a constant economic growth that remains ecologically perilous and insidiously linked to the military industrial complex – but  each mutually legitimizes the other through the totalizing discourses of universality, globalization, and insistent appeals to an ambiguously defined notion of the common good. Taylor’s challenge to a state-sanctioned freedom could just as easily be levied against this understanding of economic good: whosegood and at whose detriment? To list evidence of the economic exclusions of modern democracy (in particular democratic systems on the scale of the United States, Britain, or the European Union), one need only mention institutions such as the WTO and their “egalitarian” management of the global south.

Second, how might communities sustain genuine difference in the face of such homogenizing cross-pressures? This of course raises the issue of practice, narrative, virtue, and memory. Taylor briefly hinted at this toward the end of his paper when he talked about how language and discursive matrices of meaning challenge mere biology as the site of moral formation. The question I would have liked to have asked is what sort of practices, what sort of habits engender the type of identity Taylor has in mind? It’s a teleological question really, because as soon as we qualify identity with the word “good,” we immediately invoke a deeper frame. This is a very important point to keep in mind. I suggest that the truer question is not “identity” as such, but “loyalty” or “allegiance.” Democracy might be a system of governance that “allows” for multiple identities to coexist. But it does so insofar as those identities adhere or give their deepest allegiance (pejoratively labeled “tacit consent”), to the good as defined by the state and the market. Local particularity is allowed so long as difference does not come on the level of loyalty. Hence Alain Badiou’s critique of democratic tolerance:

“Our suspicions are first aroused when we see that the self-declared apostles of ethics of the ‘right to difference’ are clearly horrified by any vigorously sustained difference. For them, African customs are barbaric, Muslims are dreadful, the Chinese are totalitarian, and so on. As a matter of fact, this celebrated ‘other’ is acceptable only if he is a good other – which is to say what, exactly, if not the same as us?” (Ethics, p. 24)

In its incapacity to accept the inexorable public and political difference of (so-called “sectarian”) religious communities that maintain levels of indifference or autonomy from the “good” as defined by the politics of power, liberalism exposes its own masked tendency towards cultural totalitarianism; this being further evidenced by its panoptical policing of that which might challenge its fictive right to political authority.

So when Taylor hints at the possibility of moving beyond the narrowing confines of current (violent) manifestations of identity, how do these new formations resist co-option, either directly into the service of the ends of the market or indirectly through an (albeit tacit) allegiance to the (false) good determined by power? What keeps us from “backsliding” into a desire for Badiou’s good other?

These question bring me then to Robert Bellah’s paper. Here’s where the event got especially interesting. Prior to launching a very powerful and compelling critique of the monolithic identity of nationalism, Bellah began his response to Taylor by underscoring the fact that we all have multiple identities shaped by our participation in varying local and particular social interactions. Our communities overlap. The identities that these communities create are as fragile as they are contingent. Yet Bellahwas quick to note that this all takes place within the context of a transnational globalism, both political and economic. Having said this, Bellah then hammered out a brilliant critique of the widespread ideological “belief” in the market. Citing Harvey Cox’s essay, “Mammon and the Culture of the Market,” Bellah noted that this belief carries with it disturbingly religious overtones. Framed by “an identifiable, value-laden, religious worldview,” the market is touted as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Of course, the recent collapse of the global market has radically called this parody into question.

In my opinion, this was a very helpful correction, or perhaps simply a flushing out, of Taylor’s wider theme. In light of what I have written above, it should be clear that I think that Bellah’s critique of the market’s impact on identity cannot be ignored.

As somewhat of a side comment, Bellah’s alternatives to this problem were not nearly as developed as his polemic. Interestingly, Bellah suggested at this point the need for a global level of governance (aka global civil society) to manage the forces of global capitalism. He coined this necessary forward move the development of a “world legal system.” This global governance, it seems, would be necessary to sustain a degree of human universality. He said,

“[. . .] global culture is not the same thing as global civil society or global governance, which it is our present task to forge if we are not to be overwhelmed by global forces that no nation, even the strongest – our own – can control. With the emergence of transnational corporations in the 20th century it was widely recognized that the economy has transcended the nation-state and the rapid growth of the global economy in the last few decades has made it clear that no nation alone can control it. [. . .] Now that it has collapsed, it is clear that a global economy without a global civil society, and to some degree, global governance, is simply not viable.”

For Bellah, sparking global identities is a key solution to the identity crisis posed by nationalism.

I cannot help but think of Cavanaugh at this point. I would guess that Cavanaugh would quickly retort that such a political global agenda demonstrates yet another secular parody of the Christian church, namely an artificial catholicity that is rooted in our common capacity to consume and be managed by bureaucratic experts for the financial benefit of those in power, rather than a genuine catholicity of participation in Christ’s body as creatures bearing God’s image; that is a catholicity rooted in the ministry of word, sacrament, and the works of charity (see Theopolitical Imagination, chapter 3).

It’s worth noting that Bellah acknowledges that empirically most of us don’t think and act globally or nationally (except in times of crisis or festival). We think and act locally. We go to parks, schools, churches, shops in the places we live. That occupies most of our energy. However, he invests a deep sense of normativity into this vision of global civil society. This is necessary to further cultivate “transnational identities.” My question would be: What would those identities look like? If we are to take Bellah’s analysis seriously, we must recognize that this global civil society is first and foremost responding to the crisis of global capital. This society and governance would seek to harness the force of global capital to what end? Or in support of whose understanding of the good? Again, such a sweeping global appeal smacks of the same totalizing universality that created the very violence that Taylor is reacting against in the first place. What happens to those who cannot or choose not to participate in this system? Is not this vague global governance controlled by the powerful simply a hyper-version of the nation-state without clearly defined borders, perhaps more aptly defined as empire? To what extent would this “global” civil society be any freer from both political and economic coercion than civil society in its current, more local permutations (see Hardt’s essay “The Withering of Civil Society”)? And lastly, in terms of the question of loyalty to a transcendent good beyond the particularities of these multiple identities, is not the deep loyalty to a state-like polity still preserved, only now globalized?

Perhaps it’s uncharitable of me to push these questions on a few marginal lines of Bellah’s talk. However, Bellah’s own concluding analysis demands such attention to the underlying presuppositions that are framing his thinking. Having laid out a critique of global capitalism and an appeal to global civil society, Bellah returned to the question of nationalism. Again his critique was impressive in its rhetorical power. That is until he gave his hand away at the end.

In the last several minutes of his talk, Bellah decided to exalt Obama in a cloud of “messianicity” (to borrow John Wright’s appropriate description of the event). For Bellah, Obama embodies the model of hope, unity, reconciliation, destiny. He represents this precisely in that he appeals to the genuine roots of American ideology and the spirit of the founders. Bellah went on to say,

“Yet in spite of all that [previous opposition], Americans by a 7.5 percent majority elected Barack Hussein Obama president of the United States on November 4, 2008. That provedthat Americans by a considerable majority could look beyond black and white, beyond even Christian and Muslim to see Obama as a singularly gifted human being capable of leading this country in a new direction. I think Obama can stand as a kind of metaphor for what we need now.”

And he continued.

It doesn’t take much to see such a strong appeal as this deeply ironic. On one hand, while Bellah is citing Obama for his multiculturalism and his transnational appeal, the reality is that the uninhibited praise is deeply nationalisticat precisely the same point! On the other, it again raises the deeper teleological question of loyalty. Loyalty to Obama in real terms means loyalty to the “toward the left” side of the Democratic party, which is to suggest nothing other than that it is still loyalty to (1) a national agenda, and (2) to one that still fundamentally necessitates the mutually formation of state, market, civil society. At best, Bellah seems to hold out the possibility of global governance, global capital, and global civil society. However, none of this seems to get at the question of how identities are sustained and which identities ought to be prioritized. Ultimately, the transcendent good guiding those decisions remains an opaque cipher. It is clear that what soon occupies this determinative space is exactly the same logic of violence and exclusion upon which so many aspects of these structures depend.

To sum up this unnecessarily long and winding reflection, the exchanges between Taylor and Bellah were deep, profound, and provoking. Widely speaking, Taylor’s approach opens numerous helpful avenues for further exploration. Bellah’s response, while very helpful at certain levels, ultimately exposes the very logic of civil religion, even in its liberal form; that is, a therapeutic buttress to the will of the state and the market. Unfortunately, such a state of things only binds the Church deeper to the implicit violence these structures require to legitimize their own existence.


About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

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