Politicising the messy middle and the fight against dark populism

By Chris Baker, William Temple Professor of Religion and Public Life, Goldsmiths, University of London

In a recently published book entitled Geographies of Postsecularity re-envisioning politics, subjectivity and ethicswritten with British political geographers Paul Cloke, Callum Sutherland and Andy Williams, I explore the political and civic potential of emerging spaces of cross-over narrative and engagement between religions, spiritual and no-religion actors. We emphasise postsecularity, as opposed to the postsecular, because we want to move away from the rather abstract and zero-sum game arguments that term has generated since it first emerged at the turn of the millennium. Postsecularity, we argue, is the increasingly lived and often mundane materiality by which ‘the religious and the secular are being co-assembled in new and interesting ways’.  We describe it as a ‘condition of being’, that is concerned to ‘do something together on an acceptance of the unknowns and the unknowables in particular contexts, and being open to what could emerge from a mutual action based on ethical negotiation’. 

We call these geographies of postsecularity – emerging in places such as food banks, addiction therapy centres, migrant camps, cities of sanctuary, homeless shelters, environmental and climate change protests, local currencies, ethical business start-ups, mental health projects and community allotments – the messy middle. This ‘middle’ is messy in a number of ways. Messy in the sense that it is usually hard to identify a traditional political ideology. Manual Castells in his book Networks of Outrage and Hope, suggests that the political energy that led to the heady events of 2011 – the so-called Arab Spring, and Occupy movements across Europe and North America – was primarily based on existential needs rather than the meta-scripts of ideological movements.  These new ‘rhizomatic’ political gatherings, despite the technological brilliance of their formation and subversion, were primarily emotional, not digital networks. They were addressing basic human needs  that the internet and modern structures of society struggle to meet: ‘the creation of community and togetherness as a fundamental mechanism for overcoming fear; the creation of spaces of symbolic meaning that evoke memories of previous uprisings and the attempts to regain back control; the creation of a space of deliberation, which can lead to a more enhanced and permanent sense of power and confidence, and a heightened sense of communal, as opposed to individual, autonomy.’ (2011; 10-11) 

But also messy in the sense of transcending traditional religious vs secular boundaries. I have written in more detail on this elsewhere, but essentially, I think that what is driving a lot of the new spaces and politics of postsecularity is a growing ‘disenchantment with disenchantment’. This represents a search for a much deeper sense of (re)connection with something ‘other’ that lies beyond the material and consumable, and which is greater than our individuality. Those in the West who define themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, or ‘no-religion’ nevertheless inhabit an increasingly complex and dense hinterland of beliefs, values and worldviews (Baker and Power 2018) as they seek to be newly enchanted by the world. They are joined in this quest for re-enchantment by increasing numbers of religious people who are disenchanted with the material and hierarchical structures of their religion, and who are seeking new spaces beyond the curtilage of their places of worship, for authentic and stripped-back, practical faith.

 So the messy middle is the place of affective politics and spiritual activism where a deformalized ‘religious’ and a deformalized ‘secular’ meet in compelling and hopeful ways. 

Of course, there is an increasing energy in these complex and turbulent times to generate the opposite of this potentially hopeful messy middle; namely, in the hardening of core identities as a response to diversity and otherness. In these new spaces of intolerance and hatred, from both the far right and the far left, religion and beliefs become enmeshed in suspect narratives of purity and populism, usually based on nationalism. 

Thus it becomes ever more vital that we steer this messy middle towards becoming an increasingly mainstream political alternative, without losing its inherent new ability to synthesise the spiritual and the affective with the material and the strategic. We already have countless spaces and examples of geographies of postsecularity; namely progressive and creative partnerships and alliances between different social actors across the religious, spiritual and no-religion spectrum. 

But how to join up these dots and archipelagos of hope and turn them into a new and alternative political movement requires not only courage and determination, but a creative ability to think beyond existing paradigms. In other words, it is a task of political and organising will. But it is above all else, a task of political and spiritual imagination. 

2 thoughts on “Politicising the messy middle and the fight against dark populism

  1. How to politicise hope: pilot (experimental) inspiring & convincing narratives and organise people around them and/or find inspiring initiatives that already organise people and provide with more effective narratives.
    Examples: http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/Blogs/Another-perspective/Joining-forces-sharing-power
    Some more personal contributions:
    – “Secularization for the sake of religion”, presented at the “Christianity and the future of our societies” conference, Leuven August 2016
    – “Economics as meant”, presented at the “Driven by hope” conference, Leuven, February 2017

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