THE BLOG
08/03/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2016

The Pope, Civic Studies and Public Work

Civic studies is an emerging intellectual and civic movement focused on human agency and citizens as co-creators. As I argued recently ("The Pope and Civic Studies") civic studies shares with Pope Francis' climate encyclical and his recent speeches a strong emphasis on the problem of what Francis calls "the technocratic paradigm."

Technocracy and its theory of knowledge, positivism -- the belief that value-free observers outside social and human contexts are the best creators of sound knowledge -- lead to control by detached elites claiming the mantle of science and technology, whether in government, economics, higher education, medicine, or race relations. Such control replaces relational cultures of dealing with human challenges with informational cultures. It results in the enormous concentrations of power described in the climate encyclical, Laudato Si'.''

There is also a difference between the pope and civic studies on what can be public work, work by a mix of people who create shared civic resources.

Pope Francis' treatments of public work are full of insights. "A countless array of organizations...work to promote the common good and to defend the environment," he writes. "Some show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve, or beautify it as something belonging to everyone." Such public work in his view reverses privatizing dynamics. "A community [engaged in such work] can break out of the indifference induced by consumerism. These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on." They also create a stake in those things tended to.

On his Latin American trip in July, 2015, Pope Francis spoke to the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. "Here, in this university setting, it would be worthwhile reflecting on the way we educate students of ours about this earth of ours," he said. "My question to you, as educators, is this: Do you watch over your students, helping them to develop... a spirit capable of seeking new answers to the varied challenges that society sets before us?"

Francis draws on traditions of Catholic social thought which emphasize both the products of public work and the process of work which cultivates connection to public things. "God does not only give us life," he says. God also "gives human beings a task...to be a part of [God's] creative work... 'Cultivate it!...the space that God gives us to build up with one another, to build a 'we'." The work generates the connection. "As Genesis recounts, after the word 'cultivate,' another word immediately follows: 'care.' Each explains the other. They go hand in hand. Those who do not cultivate do not care; those who do not care do not cultivate."

The encyclical also continues a distinction between politics and work dating from the Greeks which continues in the today's main currents of political theory. Francis thus distinguishes "political life" from public work, the "countless array of organizations" he describes as creating and tending to public things. The civic movement associated with civic studies, in contrast, treats public work as political.

Politics is from the Greek root, politikos, meaning "of the citizen." Until very modern times the word had no explicit associations with the state, as the intellectual historian Giovanni Sartori detailed in "What Is Politics?", in the first issue of the journal Political Theory. Politics conveyed the idea of the polis, public, horizontal relationships among citizens, not the vertical, state-centered, and partisan political relationships with which politics came to be associated.

The British theorist Bernard Crick, in his 1962 work In Defense of Politics, written as a warning to nations newly emerging from colonial domination not to be taken in by western ideas of politics, challenged the modern partisan, state-centered view by drawing on this older history. Crick argued that politics is about plurality, not similarity. As far back as the Greeks, Aristotle had proposed that emphasizing the "unity" of the political community destroyed its defining quality. He contrasted politics with military alliance, based on "similarity" of aim. Crick defended politics against a list of forces which he saw as obliterating recognition of plurality, including nationalism, technology, and mass democracy, as well as partisans of conservative, liberal, and socialist ideologies.

In contrast, "the new civic politics," the framing statement of civic studies, revives the method that humans have developed to negotiate different, often conflicting interests and views in order to get things done and to create what Luke Bretherton, in Resurrecting Democracy, calls "a common life." Sometimes diverse interests can be integrated through politics, but the aim is not to do away with conflict--sometimes politics surfaces submerged clashes of interest. Civic politics aims rather to avoid violence, contain conflicts, generate common work on common challenges, and achieve beneficial public outcomes. Civic politics, building on the Greek view argued by Crick, also draws on the concept of public work which highlights politics' constructive, world-building dimensions.

Public work is a normative, democratizing ideal of citizenship generalized especially from communal labors which involve making and tending the commons, or collective resources. It is cooperative, egalitarian, practical labor across differences like status, gender, income, age, sometimes ethnicity, partisanship, and religion on public projects. It has self-organizing decision-making, as discovered through the collaborative research which won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.

Public work also accents co-creation. Finally, public work highlights politics. It involves negotiation and deliberation among diverse interests, unmasking those idealized discourses of citizenship which stress harmony and similarity.

In my essay "Constructive Politics as Public Work," in Political Theory, I shorten the definition to mean self-organized efforts by a mix of people who solve common problems and create things, material or symbolic, of lasting civic value determined through deliberation.

Public work can be found in cultures across the world. In my next blog I describe its African roots and the ways a civic politics of public work holds potential to challenge elite power in South Africa and elsewhere.