On Faith and Citizenship
This text was first delivered as the 2018 Boutwood Lecture at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University on 8 November 2018. We are delighted to have permission from Lord Glasman to share this here.
On Faith and Citizenship
I would like to thank the Master and fellows of Corpus Christi College for the invitation to give the Boutwood Lecture this evening. I join an extremely distinguished list of speakers and I am greatly honoured by it.
I did my undergraduate degree in history 36 years ago at St Catherine’s College and even then I used to think about the meaning of the ‘Body of Christ’ as I stared at the grey dimly lit college over the road, and why that was significant. I have had many years to consider the relationship between citizenship, faith and the body politic. The meaning of being embodied, of incarnation, and I am grateful for the invitation to speak to you tonight.
It is one of the most basic assumptions of Enlightenment thought, whether it be Utilitarian, Marxist or Liberal, deontological or consequentialist, that society is becoming increasingly secular and desacralised and that this is a good thing. It is further assumed that citizenship is a far more rational and just concept than faith as the basis of political community. More rational, in that each citizen is assumed to be a free and equal person capable of working out rules of association on the basis of public reason and more just in that it is based on the equal treatment of each person as a rational being. Faith is seen as an archaic relic of pre-modern societies, and further, it is a source of division within polities that is based upon inherited dogma rather than public reason. Faith is to be considered as at best a private matter which expresses a personal preference or inclination. Faith was wrong and it was bad. This is despite the empirical data that throughout the world faith is an increasingly important political category with a growing number of adherents and that the great crimes of the 20th century were committed by aggressively secular political regimes which delighted in the renunciation of piety and humility and claimed the higher rationality of science and technical power. Relativism and relativity, evolution and revolution, left carnage in their wake.
The suggestion I will be pursuing in this lecture is that the exclusive claim to moral and political authority made by modernist rationality is mistaken and unsustainable as the basis of a democratic political community and that the concepts of faith and citizenship are better conceived as mutually supportive rather than necessarily opposed. Further, I will entertain the idea that faith can redeem the promise of citizenship as it draws on covenantal ideas of sacrifice, solidarity and sacredness that are inconceivable within a contractual framework based upon mutual advantage alone. This was true even of the French Revolution. In 1789, there were only two concepts, Liberty and Equality. They accepted Kant’s argument that individual rights were based upon ‘reciprocal domination’ in that liberty was distributed equally between citizens bound by the golden rule of mutual respect for persons. Reason alone could form the basis of political community, even though its universal claims were best expressed in French.
These two abstract and generalisable concepts, freedom and equality, proved incapable of sustaining the shared ethos required for political association and were challenged in various ways by traditions and institutions that claimed that they were less free and less equal under the new regime. In 1848, the men and women who marched outside the Hotel de Ville under the banners of their banned guilds with Jesus the ‘divine proletarian’ as their common saint were making an argument similar to the one developed here, which is that the commodification of labour and the subordination of the Church to the State had a common cause. An unconstrained rationality that turned out to be unreasonable. In response, Fraternity was added to create the enduring revolutionary trinity.
Fraternity re-articulated the non-contractual relationships that the revolution of reason had claimed to abolish. It referred to the inherited and unchosen obligations of family, the solidarity of Christian community and religious orders as well as the relations of workers in the outlawed guilds and corporations. One hundred and thirty years later the dock workers of Solidarity in Poland walked behind the image of the Virgin Mary to make a similar point to their Communist bosses. Another way of putting all this is that there has been no greater driver of scientific rationality over the past four centuries than Cambridge University, and that was embedded in the institutional network of colleges in which the greatest number in the world were named after Christ and the Saints with a specific Chaplain in each, charged with sustaining the bonds of the corporate body. It really is a delight to be making this argument at Corpus Christi College.
One of the arguments being made here is that politics draws upon what my late friend, political philosopher and graduate from Jesus College Glen Newey called ‘pre-political matter’ and that political science and political philosophy wilfully excludes that ‘stuff’ from its analysis and thus is incapable of both prediction and moral intervention. To witness the combination of confusion and contempt that characterised the academic response to the Brexit vote is a case in point. The reverence for the liberties of the free-born English that united Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson was entirely absent from the progressive academic left. I would suggest that the inability to interpret or act effectively in the world is not the fault of the world, but of the theory.
This argument about the mutually re-enforcing role of Faith and Citizenship is born out of my life experience which led me to change my mind on this issue and was fundamental to the development and articulation of Blue Labour as a form of paradoxical politics. Religious and secular, traditional and modern, radical and conservative, it sought to resist the domination of both capitalism and the administrative state by reconciling estranged interests and traditions in a broad-based democratic politics of the Common Good. Central to this is the tradition of Catholic Social Thought with its notion of decentralised institutions that constrain commodification and state centralised through upholding solidarity, subsidiarity and status.
One of the fundamental assumptions made here is that one of the constitutive features of our contemporary culture and society is that it is constituted by a plurality of faiths. It is also the case that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to our country consider their dignity and ethics to derive from their faith and their number grows. They are also considerably poorer than longer settled communities. They do not make a public-private distinction between their conception of public life and ethics, between citizenship and faith. Faith is now definitively plural, and that changes the dynamics of the ethical argument concerning the reconciliation of the relationship between citizenship and faith because the fear is not one of domination but of exclusion and the depletion of a vital democratic politics in which the poor play a leading role.
The first example I will give you is that of Living Wage Campaign led by The East London Communities Organisation, known as TELCO, which then became London Citizens and which is now Citizens UK. During the first decade of this century I was centrally involved in this campaign in which the contracted out cooks, security guards and cleaners, who were no longer part of the corpus of modern corporations, the ones who were no longer invited to the Christmas Party and belonged to no union, the ones who came in after you finished and who had left before you started, played a leading role.
TELCO was distinctive because it was based upon broad-based community organising, overwhelmingly between faith congregations who would join as institutions. It turned out that the poor immigrant workers had far greater trust in their faith institutions than in the political and civic institutions that were the main carriers of politics, such as the political parties or the trade unions. Based on the political method of organising developed by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the 1940’s it built relationships between faith communities and developed leaders within them. It did this through a combination of extensive one-to-one conversations and leadership training which taught the importance of relational power as a means through which poor people could negotiate a better life and resist the domination of money and the State.
I came across them because, between 1996 and 2012, I was lecturer and then Reader in political theory at London Metropolitan University, which was previously London Guildhall University and before that City of London Poly. My students were mostly Muslim, overwhelmingly religious and entirely uninterested in my second year lectures on the History of Political Thought which went through Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Marx and Mill and even less interested in my third year course on contemporary Theories of Justice. In the seminars, Crusades and Jihad were far more vivid concepts than the categorical imperative or the original position. My students did have a strong concept of justice and of politics but it was not expressed in liberal political philosophy. As someone who was far more interested in democracy as a practice of self-government than in constitutions and policy, I wished to find a local form of politics through which my students could do a politics that sought to find a common ground rather than repeat unresolvable arguments in a polarised and often angry environment.
Democratic politics is precisely the way we live together under conditions of civic peace and community, and organising offered a way in which religious people could actively engage in politics without renouncing their faith and resist conforming to the secular demand of the liberal polity that this be renounced in favour of abstract general reasoning. I thought that the kind of community organising developed by TELCO offered a means through which my students could actively participate in politics, do a politics that was not a party politics and that this could be a part of their degree. I affiliated my University department to TELCO.
It was a transformative experience. Not, unfortunately, for my students, but for me. What was initially an instrumental motivation became an ethical one.
The Living Wage Campaign itself emerged out of conversations between different faith congregations; Catholic, Muslim and a variety of Protestant denominations. I was invited to a ‘retreat’ on family life. As someone who was recently divorced and who assumed sole responsibility for the breakdown of my marriage I had grave reservations about what family life could even mean. I was a reluctant participant in the retreat which took place in an ‘urban convent’ that looked like a Brezhnev era Department of Energy in Minsk. When I entered the room a found three nuns, several lay members of Catholic congregations, a handful of Muslims from the East London Mosque, three men and two women, four members of a local black church who were all women and a member of Unison. As each gave their reflection on family life it became clear that their shared sentiment was that there were enormous pressures on the family ranging from the attraction of money and drugs, and a lack of time with their children to care for their parents, which was their definition of ‘family life’. This was due, they said, to low wages and the need to either take two jobs or work long hours just to put food on the table and pay the bills and rent. Out of this emerged a common commitment between different Christian and Muslim representatives to the Living Wage, to the idea that getting paid enough to live doing one job would give more time to attend to the relational responsibilities of being an adult. They asserted that if you worked, you should be paid enough to live.
The dignity of labour, the obligations of love, the need for rest were carried within each of the faith traditions and they found common cause on an issue that directly affected their lives, namely the compulsion of finance capital to turn what was not produced for sale on the market, human beings, into a commodity, a factor of production, to be exploited and discarded due to the imperative of maximising returns on investment at the highest rate and the greatest speed. The conversation between the faiths had led to a radical political economy based upon conservative social assumptions, the importance of family, work and the preservation of a human status for workers.
To my surprise, at that time, sex was never mentioned, nor was abortion, or the immaculate conception, but what was held sacred between the communities was the dignity of work which was being degraded, a recognition of contribution by those who had been excluded from permanent employment and from any recognition by their employer. Faith gave an ethical form to a demoralised life based on short term contracts with no negotiating power. The battle between isolated people and concentrated capital was a no contest. Through the commitments of faith they began to organise, to build their relationships, build their power and act in the world to change things. A classical conception of citizenship shared between many different secular political traditions was renewed through an affirmation of common citizenship by people of faith.
While I should have been writing research papers on the distinction between neutrality and impartiality in liberal theory I was enjoying myself out on the streets of East London working out how to win these battles which we took to universities, hospitals, banks and retail outlets. And over time we started to win. The universities were the worst. Paying the cleaners enough to live, was, apparently, an impediment to their development as world class research centres. If you want to know, LSE was the worst.
One of the rules of organising is make your opponent live up to their rule book, and thankfully, most mission statements written by contemporary institutions are a genre of self-regarding fatuous fantasy that are entirely at odds with their actions. The banks, universities and accountancy firms were invariably committed to diversity, inclusivity, accessibility and building a relationship with the local community. A great deal of the negotiating strategy consisted in workers reading out sections of this stuff to their employers and asking in what way earning 15 times what they earned was consistent with those aspirations? In the case of the LSE we dug up their founding statement and it turns out the Webbs actively stated that the university should pay its workers enough to live. It is the only time I have ever been grateful to the Fabians.
What was considered when it started as a weird and doomed attempt to defy the laws of globalisation grew so strong that in a slightly compromised form it has become a national law and I ended up in the House of Lords. Sometimes it is more rational to believe in miracles. The terrible conclusion is that if I had done my research as I should, I would never have been invited to give this lecture this afternoon.
The key features I wish to stress from the Living Wage Campaign are the following. The first is that faith provided a resource to resist the domination of capital. Second that it took the form of a political economy and not a desire to impose religious laws. Third, that it was pluralist and any attempt to impose a particular religious view was resisted from within. Fourth, it facilitated citizen participation. Fifth, that it generated relationships between, and a shared commitment to, a Common Good between estranged communities that were otherwise competing for scarce resources in poor areas. Sixth that it developed leaders from within those communities who had a following and whose lives were transformed by the experience. Seventh, that it almost invariably led to the end of contracting out and the restoration of the corporate body within institutions so that cooks, cleaners and security guards could expect some kind of meaningful pathway within the firm or institution. It restored some sense of a body to a corporation, and some kind of balance between its component parts. And finally it was led, and conceived of, by the faith communities themselves, working within their own traditions. This is what I meant when I said that faith could redeem the lost promise of citizenship based upon participation, political coalitions and action.
The second example I will give is far more recent.
I returned last Monday from two weeks in Iraq participating in the pilgrimage of the Arbaeen. In this, up to 20 million Shia Muslims walk to the city of Karbala on the anniversary of the 40th day of the murder of their beloved Imam Hussein by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid, 1,338 years ago.
I cannot say that I have even begun to fully understand what I witnessed walking from Najaf and Imam Ali’s Shrine to those of Hussein and Abbas forty miles away in Karbala. All I can say is that a part of me is still stranded on that desert road and the awe I sensed in the pilgrims as the golden domes came into view. I met families who had walked from Iran and Lebanon, from Azerbaijan and Bahrain but overwhelmingly they walked from the 38 corners of Iraq, from Basra and Baghdad, Babylon and Kirkuk. It is the biggest foot pilgrimage in the world and according to the government statistics, almost half the Shia population of Iraq make the journey. It was an old story in more ways than one. While I should have been writing this lecture I was walking and talking with pilgrims about the relationship between citizenship and faith.
I will first give a brief outline of the story that is being commemorated in the Arbaeen pilgrimage. I will then give an account of the practices I witnessed on the road and finally I will reflect on its political meaning and the relevance to the argument I am making here.
The historical account I will present is that which was told to me by the Iraqi Shia, which they believe to be historically true. It is neither a scholarly nor an impartial rendering.
The story begins with the death of Muhammad and the rightful succession to the leadership of the expanding Caliphate which he bequeathed. For the Shia, Ali was not only the Prophet’s son-in-law, married to his daughter Fatima and anointed by Muhammad as his successor, but also a virtuous, brave and pious man worthy of being an Imam, of leading the faithful. His speeches and sayings indicate an opposition to the territorial expansion of Islam, a concern with justice and inequality and an almost Aristotelian concern for moderation. Ali was not appointed Caliph and the Islamic Empire continued to expand westward with its capital moving to Damascus and with it the riches and conquests associated with maritime trade. The Caliphate had moved a long way from the desert with its slow trains of laden camels. The empire of the sea brought with it not only the bounty of conquest but the lavish rewards connected to the control of maritime rather than landed trade routes. It created a volume and velocity of wealth accumulation that we would associate with the Atlantic trade of the City of London in the 18th Century. Damascus inherited the maritime trade of Athens and Phoenicia. It was a dramatic transformation from the nomadic to the settled, from the agricultural to the urban, from the desert to the sea.
Ali, in contrast, became a farmer, wrote his own copy of the Koran and preached in Medina of the purity of the old ways, of the nobility of humility and honour. Passed over three times for the caliphate he became the leader of the desert Arabs in defiance of the decadence of Damascus. When he did become Caliph at the fourth attempt he moved the capital to Kufa, a desert town as far from the sea as could be. He called a halt to territorial expansion and named corruption and wealth as the principle enemies of the Muslim community, or Umma. The cultural, geographical, class and spiritual differences between the family of Muhammad in the East and the Umayyads in Damascus turned into armed conflict as the Governor of Sham, of which Damascus was capital, Muaviya, refused to pledge his loyalty to Ali. Battles were fought which turned out to be indecisive but which revealed a great deal about the virtues and vices of each side.
For the Shia, Muaviya fought through bribery, intrigue and intimidation, Ali through open conflict, a mighty double bladed sword, white Arabian stallions and a spirit of accommodation to the defeated. In the Battle of Saffin, for example, he allowed Muaviya’s forces access to the water of the Euphrates which were under his control. This was because it would be dishonourable to use thirst as a weapon of war. This gesture was to prove of considerable importance. Imam Ali was killed by a blow to the head from a poisoned sword while making his morning prayers at the Grand Mosque in Kufa. He asked to be put on a camel and to be buried wherever the camel took him and that place was Najaf.
His eldest son Hassan, also known as the peacemaker and the bridge-builder, a Shia Pontifex Maximus, was declared Caliph. This was disputed in Damascus and Hasan relinquished the crown in a deal with Muaviya, which stated that when Muaviya died Hassan would become Caliph on the grounds that it avoided bloodshed. He was much younger than Muaviya but died of poisoning, commonly believed to be at the hand of his wife, who had struck a deal with Muaviya. When Muaviya died he welched on the deal, saying it was with Hassan and not his younger brother Hussein and passed the caliphate onto his own son, Yazid.
Yazid is the archetypal villain in this foundational story. His first act as the new Caliph, was to demand the pledge of allegiance from Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson and Ali’s son. This Hussein refused to do saying that he could not pledge allegiance to someone who flouted the laws of Islam, ruled like a tyrant and governed through bribery and deception. Followed by a small group of 72 followers and his family, he left Medina so as not to be the cause of bloodshed in the holy city and trekked towards Kufa and was then surrounded by an army of tens of thousands led by Yazid’s representative within sight of the Euphrates. The place of their doom became known as Karbala.
Deprived of food and water Yazid’s tactic was to wait for Hussein’s camp to either surrender or die of thirst. The blockade became known as the days of the Ashura and the children were the first to die. Hussein took his infant son out in front of the besieging army and held him up saying that the great grandson of The Prophet was dying for lack of water and their response was to shoot off an arrow into the baby’s heart. This is played out on the pilgrimage through the construction of many reverse nativity scenes. There is a baby in a crib, there is a mother, there are three wise men, but they’re all dead. Hussein’s half-brother Abbas, unable to bear the crying of the children made a run to the Euphrates on his white steed to get a pitcher of water but had both his hands, and then his head chopped off on his way back. Abbas is a particular hero of the Arab Shia, a great horseman, a loyal brother and a true friend. I was in his shrine on the day of Arbaeen and the devotions to him were remarkable.
Hussein’s response was to engage the enemy in man to man combat. The response of Yazid was to rain down arrows until all his followers were killed. Hussein came out to fight alone and was eventually slain by a blow from behind. He was beheaded and his head was taken to Damascus as proof of mission accomplished, much like the fingers of the dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi were to be taken to the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as proof of his death. Hussein died saying his prayers with one tear for Muhammad and the other for Jesus, who the Shia regard as one of the three all-time great Prophets, along with Moses and Muhammad. There is much that is Christ-like about the depiction of the life and death of Hussein but there aren’t many images of Jesus pondering his death and sharpening his sword, as was recounted by his surviving sister Zainab when visiting him in his tent the night before he died. The army sacked the camp of Hussein, raping and stealing from the family of Muhammad and taking his sister Zainab in chains to Damascus. That day is Ashura and the place it happened was Karbala. Zainab managed to preserve the life of Hussein’s elder son, who became the fourth Imam and she got her brother’s head back from Yazid. Forty days after his death, the head was reunited with the body and the unity of the Corpus Husseini was restored. That day is known as the Arbaeen and that was the pilgrimage to Karbala that I participated in last week.
All this happened 1,338 years ago but the ideas of wickedness and heroism it embodies are annually renewed in the collective memory of the Shia through the pilgrimage.
The practices of the Arbaeen are meant to embody the virtues of Hussein and to honour the stand he took against the usurpation of Islam by Yazid. Pilgrims are urged to begin their walk, wherever they are walking from, with no money. They are to trust in the hospitality of strangers and the Shia along the way are urged to share their homes, their food and their water with the pilgrims. Many millions of people are housed and fed along the way. It was the most extraordinary act of trust and hospitality that I have ever witnessed.
Throughout Najaf and all the way along to road to Karbala I witnessed hundreds of makeshift food kitchens, pots the size of tables bubbling with rice and meat, a constant supply of tea and water. People told me that they save all year in order to buy the food and utensils in order to feed the pilgrims along the way. I saw millions of people walking and I also saw hundreds of thousands of people working and serving them and it was all voluntary. I thought of David Cameron and the Big Society and I thought we had a lot to learn from the Iraqi Shia.
There are temporary medical stands to serve the pilgrims manned by doctors, many of them trained in Cardiff, who leave work for a month to stand by the side of the road healing the sick and attending to the exhausted. For a week I saw no money exchanged between anyone for anything. It was not until I got to Karbala that stalls emerged selling Hussein merch but the food, the tea and coffee was still free. There were buggy fixing stalls to mend the strollers that bounced along the stony sandy path that ran parallel to the packed road. I saw millions of people, walking from all directions to Karbala to show their love for Hussein. I saw young men staying up all night to prepare food having served all day. They washed up the enormous pots, they chopped the meat and soaked the rice. As I sat, drinking the tea they had made me and smoking my cigarettes I asked them why they did it. The answer was always the same, ‘for Hussein’.
When I pushed for an underlying principle, or maxim that they derived from Hussein, the answer was ‘sharing the water’. It became a distinctive feature of Shia thought, given the experience of Hussein, his family and his followers, that the highest value is given to ‘sharing the water’. When you sit down to eat people will immediately give you their water. The behaviour of Ali at the battle of Saffin, in contrast to that of Yazid at Karbala, is constantly raised.
That week I witnessed a sustained act of solidarity built around the practices of the world as it should be. Karbala, I must say, felt like a much more comfortable place to be a Jew than my constituency Labour Party but that is another story. You might say that by the Rivers of Babylon, I sat down and I wept when I remembered exile. The pilgrimage was an assertion, led overwhelmingly by the poor, for whom Hussein is seen as a champion, of the world as it should be in defiance of the world as it is.
And that leads to the politics and its relevance to this reflection on the relationship between citizenship and faith.
I spoke to two of the four Grand Ayatollahs, Hakim and Fayed; with several of the leading scholars of Najaf as well as with many pilgrims and servers on the road and all agreed on the meaning of Yazid. He embodied the vices of the world as it is, the realities of power. There are four components to this. The first is the monopoly of power, or of tyranny. A refusal to share and a will to dominate. He could not share power with Hussein who had to surrender or die. The second is the use of violence, particularly the calculated use of rape and murder, in order to enforce that domination. The third is the systematic use of corruption as means of sustaining power. The best definition of corruption was given by Machiavelli in The Discourses, the private use of public goods. As far as the Shia are concerned, Yazid and Muaviya stole the wealth of the community for their own personal gain. The fourth component is that of hypocrisy, the compliment that vice always gives to virtue, the contradiction between the political discourse and practice. I thought of Stalin and Pinochet, above all I thought of ISIS, or Da’esh as they are known out there. They were Yazid reborn.
That is why I was on the pilgrimage, to honour the sacrifice of the Shia in making their stand against ISIS who refused to share power with anyone in the oneness of their hate, who used rape and violence to impose their domination, who claimed to represent the authentic meaning of Islam while stealing and looting and grabbing the land of anyone who was not them. They were the enemies of all of us, a real living menace to human life, democracy, liberty and justice and they were beaten. For that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and an awareness that this could not have been done on the basis of rational self-interest alone, and the ethics of that resistance were to be found within the traditions of the Shia Religion. In this case, faith did redeem the promise of citizenship.
When ISIS exploded into life in 2014 as the latest incarnation of Sunni domination, the Shia required no explanation as to who they were. They were Yazid, and like Hussein they were obligated to make their stand. It was the dirtiest war of modern times with crucifixions, child suicide bombers, booby traps and yet the Shia endured and defeated them. After more than a thousand years of subjugation the Shia are finally free to practise their religion and participate in the political life of their society. They are no longer in exile in their own home. They have emerged from occultation.
The Arbaeen was banned by the Ottomans, it was discouraged by the Hashemite Monarchy, it was banned again by Saddam Hussein, who bombed the shrines of Karbala in the 1991 uprising. It has been consistently attacked and bombed by ISIS and other Islamist groups but it grows each year as an assertion of freedom and of the public ethos of the Iraqi Shia community.
And that leads to what was constantly referred to in Iraq, by clerics and politicians and by the people on the street as the ‘Hussein Revolution’. The meaning of that is up for grabs but there seemed to be a consensus on fundamental points between the Ayatollahs, politicians and pilgrims on the road, whether secular or religious, conservative or communist. The first is to a politics of non-domination. They are committed to a Federal Constitution which would give considerable democratic autonomy to the Kurds and the Sunni, and protect the religious freedoms to the Yezidis and Christians as well as the many other treasures of the inherited culture of Mesopotamia. In terms of Catholic Social Thought they are committed to subsidiarity; in terms of civic republicanism they support federalism. There is also a widespread commitment to democracy as the best form of accountability of political leaders. The view of the religious authorities of Najaf, and most particularly Ayatollah Sistani, who is revered across all of Shia society, is that there should be no religious imposition in religion and no interference by the state in the internal governance of faiths. They constantly contrasted their teachings with those of Iran and the rule of the Jurists. The fourth lies in the political economy implied by ‘sharing the water’.
The best way to describe this is to use the three authors described in Tim Rogan’s superb book, The Moral Economists, that was published this year. R.H. Tawney, who was a previous speaker in this lecture series, argued that the concept of incarnation, of the embodiment of virtue in Jesus, led to the necessity of embedding virtue in the body politic, in the institutions of society that uphold a non-pecuniary good in defiance of the incentives to greed and vice pursued by capitalism. I could see in the Arbaeen that the incarnation of virtue in Hussein, in the re-uniting of his body, gave form to the resistance to Yazid and the assertion of a different moral practice that was reconstituted each year through the pilgrimage. In terms of the second author, Karl Polanyi, the resonance is clear. Polanyi argued that the essence of capitalism was the attempt to turn creation itself, human beings and nature into commodities in the form of labour, energy, land and food markets with fluctuating prices. When I informed my hosts that we had privatised water in Britain and it was a source of profit they were aghast. The privatisation of water is certainly not on the agenda in Iraq. Polanyi argued that a social democracy, a decentralised form of vocational and locational self-government, was the alternative to statist nationalism as the political response to the menace that the pressures of commodification brings as people seek shelter from the market storm. It is the clearest expression of what E.P Thompson described as a ‘moral economy’ that was covenantal and not contractual, that was not based on the immediate satisfaction of self-interest but a sense of mutual concern and solidarity.
The renunciation of the sacred is not a requirement of reason. Proof of that is the way that nature is commodified, exploited and degraded in the present economic system in which, in the words of Marx, ‘everything sacred is profaned’. A sense of the sacred in relation to the status and nature of human beings and how we should treat each other is a condition of a humane society and these are held across faith communities with far greater durability than in secular or materialist theories. What I described as the politics of the Common Good in terms of London Citizens and the Living Wage, and in the Arbaeen, in terms of resistance to ISIS and the political possibilities of contemporary Iraq are an attempt to indicate the ways in which faith and citizenship require each other. Christian and Islamic, as well as socialist and civic republican thought, need each other in order to preserve their sense of the sacred in preserving the integrity of society and the practice of reciprocity from the instrumental reason of markets and the state.
We live in what the Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, called an interregnum. A time in between times, during which ‘the old is dead and the new cannot be born, when there is fraternisation of opposites and all manner of morbid symptoms pertain’. As I travel through the country in a further attempt to not do my homework, I encounter fear and confusion, polarisation and a culture of denunciation and hate. That is not the way I think about it. This is a moment of great political promise as well as peril and the good outcome is tied to the renewal and reconciliation of citizenship and faith through building a diverse and robust body politic based on democratic self-government, locational and vocational. The faith communities of East London and the experience of the Arbaeen in Iraq indicate the ways in which faith strengthens citizenship within a framework of non-domination. It offers a way out of the interregnum.
© Maurice Glasman
Maurice Glasman is a political theorist, academic, social commentator and Labour life peer in the House of Lords. He is Director of the Common Good Foundation and is best known as a founder of Blue Labour, a term he coined in 2009.