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The Spirit of Political Participation
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In the wake of populism, Timothy Stacey’s book critically reflects on what is missing from the liberal project with the aim of saving liberalism.

It explains that populists have harnessed myth, ritual, magic and tradition to advance their ambitions, and why opponents need to embrace rather than eschew them. Via examples of liberally-minded activists in Vancouver, it presents an accessible theorisation of these quasi-religious concepts in secular life.

The result is to provide both a new theoretical understanding of why liberalism fails to engage people, and a toolkit for campaigners, policymakers and academics seeking to bridge the gap between liberal aspirations and lived experiences, to promote political engagement and to create unity out of division.

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The last ten years has seen the rise of populist forces across the globe from both the right and the left. While often read in the context of the perceived rise of, and reactions to populist and potentially violent Islam, this analysis is excessively focused on observations of the right, and ignores similarities between the populist right and the populist left. By way of an alternative, this article draws together political theology, original ethnography and observations of contemporary politics in the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent the United States and Canada) to offer a broader lens involving: the rise of liberalism, the consequent construction of politics as technocratic management, and the neglect and resultant disillusionment of ordinary people. In particular, the paper draws on my recent research on the role of myths of solidarity in developing civic engagement. It argues that myths of solidarity have been undermined by the rise of liberalism, and that restoring such myths to the center of contemporary politics is vital to challenging the myths of division that fuel populist politics. Finally, it explores possibilities for restoring myths to the center of contemporary politics, suggesting that while avenues for such reform are emerging, politics as technocratic management remains the dominant paradigm.

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After the end of history and amidst a culture of ‘there is no alternative’, this chapter reflects on the sources of alternative imaginaries that can inspire people to take action collectively. It then addresses key terms (liberalism, secularism, imaginaries, spirit) and introduces the book’s key arguments, most important among which is the idea that while the liberal quest to secure equal dignity for all regardless of background and positionality is noble, liberalism fails to deliver. It then introduces the book’s theoretical framework and methods. It distinguishes itself from other approaches in cultural sociology and the sociology of religion, including those focused on drama and the emotions. It also outlines the book’s approach: it is positioned as a middle ground between liberalism and post-liberalism and, as such, a starting point for reconciliation. It closes by offering concise summaries of each subsequent chapter.

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This chapter connects theoretical and empirical studies of liberalism to explore how key pillars of the liberal project have made it difficult for people to collectively imagine and enact alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. It highlights four ideas (individualism, the severing of head and heart, the social contract and public rationality); three mechanisms (the state, the market and civil society); and four consequences (meaning fatigue, the social as contract, political fragmentation and the turn to the populist right). The chapter critically engages with a number of liberal pillars, seeking, from a position of sympathy with liberal values, to be honest about the shortcomings of liberal political culture.

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This chapter offers a ‘critique of critiques’ of liberalism, followed by my own alternative. Four responses to liberalism’s shortcomings are addressed: the post-liberal response, which is dominated by religiously inclined social conservatives and populists for whom the only way forward is to revalorize the past; the parochialization of liberalism response, which is dominated by anthropologists and activists who insist that liberalism is just one culture among others; the ongoing Enlightenment response, dominated by political centrists and sociologists for whom disillusionment with liberalism is primarily a consequence of losing out on globalization, or else a failure of education; and the civil religion response, which seeks to tack spirited elements onto a preconceived liberal framework. My own alternative can be conceived as civil religion from the ground up. I begin with the myths, rituals, magic and traditions of liberally oriented people seeking to build solidarity across differences in their local communities.

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The first half of this chapter exemplifies what I have been calling a ‘varieties of liberalism’ approach. It does so by exploring how the broad theoretical ideas discussed thus far play out in the city of Vancouver, Canada. It subsequently introduces Metro Vancouver Alliance (MVA), the ethnographic centrepiece of the book. MVA is just one among a global network of broad-based community organizations across the liberal world, from the US to Australia and many places in between. I explain how such institutions are able to position themselves between universal liberal ideals and the shortcomings of liberalism arising in particular places. I expand on the notion of a pre-contractual ‘we’ of place, whereby we owe things to people simply by virtue of being caught in a web of reciprocal relations.

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The term myth has historically been used to separate ‘primitive’ religions from Christianity, and later religion generally from a rational worldview. In liberal societies, the term myth conjures either images of ancient stories about muscular demigods, or else the lies spread by politicians and influencers seeking to sow division. In this chapter I characterize myths as stories of great events and characters that defy our expectations of what is possible and inspire us to take action in the world. Understood in this way, we all live by myths; it’s just that some people are better at spinning them than others. Liberals have spent the last few hundred years seeking to quash myths at their peril. As a result, populists now have all the good myths, and no amount of fact checking will dispel them. Liberals need to rediscover myths that champion their principles while building communities characterized by compassion. I offer frameworks for doing this. For those worried that they must choose between myths and facts, I argue that myths are not alternatives to moral logics but supplements to them.

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Far more than myth, ritual has been unharnessed from religion and is widely understood as something in which all humans engage. Yet there is much confusion about what role ritual plays in political life. In this chapter I explore the role that rituals can play in building solidarity across differences and, with this, the power to act collectively. I suggest that rituals for radicals have three qualities: they are performative (they are engaged in consciously with the aim of eliciting a response), normative (they have a moral aim), and subversive (they challenge some other way of acting in the world). And I explore three different kinds of ritual: subtle gestures, solidarity games and public dramas.

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Magic, much like myth, has long been ridiculed by rationalists. In this chapter I understand magic as a feeling that an extraordinary power resides within an object, person, way of being, or political process such that it is especially meaningful and, as such, especially able to transform reality. When we deny magic, we are doomed to the world of ‘there is no alternative’. Ironically, precisely at the same time as the powerful were labelling certain practices as magical and thus either dangerous or ridiculous, they were using their own conjuring tricks to whip up faith in the nation and capitalism. So strong is the spell of these behemoths that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In this chapter I argue that breaking the spell requires imbuing alternative people and objects with magical qualities. I stress that magic can be found in many places, from raves to rebellions, and that as an activist, one must strike a balance between authenticity and efficacy.

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In this chapter I explain that myths, rituals and magic are each threads within an overall canopy of meaning that tradition provides. But liberals struggle to simply step into a tradition. The past is often present to them, but normally as something they have escaped from. Any particular tradition that they may wish to step into ends up being either riddled with exclusion, or else appears so watered down as to be hardly a tradition at all. I offer an alternative conceptualization that may help: tradition is not simply a fixed idea, practice or object from the past that we inherit and pass on unchanged. Tradition is also something we do: it is a process of choosing what to inherit, how to reshape it for the present, and how to pass it on to the future.

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