Stephen D’Arcy is a professor of philosophy. In fact, he is the Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Huron University College, the oldest affiliated college at the prestigious University of Western Ontario in London. It is home to an Anglican Seminary that dates back to 1863. It offers degrees in Theology and a rigorous Liberal Arts program. Professor D’Arcy teaches morals and ethics. He also teaches an advanced undergraduate course in Asian Philosophy wherein students learn about Taoism and Buddhism. He has written a new book.
Languages of the Unheard discusses civil disobedience, sabotage, rioting and armed struggle. In passing, it speaks approvingly of historians who, in turn, spoke approvingly of violent insurrections two centuries ago. It mentions some brilliant writers. One was E. P. Thompson (1924-1993), whose The Making of the English Working Class (1963) sought to rescue the Luddites and other proto-proletarians from what he famously called “the enormous condescension of posterity.” Thompson was a member of the Communist Party who broke ranks in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but who declined the temptation to become an apostate. Unlike others who promptly distanced themselves from their past principles and, in some cases, became the eager ideological founders of the neoliberal right-wing in North America and parts of Europe, Thompson remained doggedly committed to nuclear disarmament and social justice. Another is Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), whose Primitive Rebels (1959), Bandits (1969) and Captain Swing (with George Rudé, 1975) sought to elevate the social importance and perceived rectitude of social bandits and insurrectionists as diverse as the legendary Robin Hood, Hungarian and Balkan haiduks, Andalusian anarchists, radical English agricultural labourers in 1830 and the not-so-legendary and rather less righteous Sicilian Mafia of the more contemporary era. Hobsbawm was a member of the Communist Party and remained so until his recent death.
The previous two paragraphs do not seem to fit. A philosopher at a university college with a living tradition of Christian teaching and a trend in social history in which illegal activity is explained and often justified by unrepentantly leftist intellectuals. Perhaps counterintuitively, they match and they do so splendidly.
Languages of the Unheard is a rather precious gem. It is written from a philosopher’s perspective, but it is so elegant in its conceptual and rhetorical simplicity that it cannot fail to be understood by any reasonably intelligent adult. It is a pity that it will not become a runaway success. What’s worse, although it will be read—and I heartily encourage anyone with a whit of interest in current events, democracy, the ethical issues of injustice and rebellion to obtain and read it thoroughly, perhaps twice—I fear that it will not be read extensively by the people who need to read it the most.
I am not speaking here of the political, juridical and law enforcement authorities who would find it discomfiting and do not want to have their ideologies disturbed. I am certainly not referring to the yeastily rebellious youth or the crusty old-time rebels who require no additional encouragement in their politics of dissent. Instead, I have in mind the vast number of Canadian citizens who might feel empathy toward the visibly dispossessed and oppressed, but who are horrified by the violence, the rumours of violence and the false or distorted media reports of violence by frequently noisy people who have gathered the courage to act both in the interest of democracy and in the interest of the community against the power of what is fashionably known as the “1%” and their minions in the surveillance and security state.
The topics that D’Arcy discusses will be immediately familiar to all Canadians who have not been either comatose or in thrall to the current federal government’s abuses of authority. They include the brutal suppression of civil rights during the G-20 fiasco in Toronto in 2010 and the Mohawk land defence at Kanesatà:ke in 1990. They also add in the Arab Spring uprisings, the Mexico’s Zapatistas, the Occupy and Idle No more movements and the European anti-austerity “Indignatos.” Of interest, too, is Stephen D’Arcy’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., not as a sanitized culture hero to be sanctified with an American national holiday and conveniently embalmed in the museum of American national history, but as an ongoing, growing, and restlessly evolving symbol whose contrarianism began with his opposition to racism, but who was developing a much more comprehensive class analysis of the United States—both domestically and globally—when he was assassinated in 1968.
The reason that the people who need to read this book will not do so is partly that they prefer not to read at all; but, when they do, they are not drawn to the outlets where books by authors and publishers of this sort are apt to be offered for sale (it’s a free market, but not all the goods are on display). I suspect that Languages of the Unheard will not be widely reviewed by the major newspapers and magazines, in case anyone still cares about them. It will, however, find its way into those colleges and universities that still offer courses in critical thought and political conflict. It will doubtless be snapped up by students and activists who will benefit from its clarity and its concise exploration of serious philosophical and practical issues—matters with which they are already familiar, but about which they may not have considered as thoughtfully as they should. It will not become a best-seller, though I’d be charmed to think that the positive comments made here will entice at least a few readers of The College Quarterly to order a copy directly from the publisher.
Why is it so good?
In my more than fifty years’ experience in and around organizations (and occasional disorganizations) involved with international peace, civil rights, free speech and working-class militancy, I am no stranger to moral indignation. It is plain for all to see both among those who viscerally feel the outrage that arises out of the experience of repression and, in the alternative, among those whose sympathies are sternly on the side of an orderly society, especially if they also sincerely believe that those in positions of domination somehow deserve to be in charge, whether on the basis of race, gender or allegedly legitimate class privilege. Stephen D’Arcy requires his readers to go beyond passion and into reason.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Although I know nothing of Professor D’Arcy’s personal political involvements and associations, it is clear to me that his heart is on the side of the ruled and not the rulers. And, to be sure, he writes of these matters with a controlled passion. What is important, however, is that he insists on carefully and calmly dissecting the social and ethical reasons why often escalating levels of militancy, conflict and even violence are sometimes justifiable. He also methodically and meticulously breaks down the counter-arguments of those fervently committed to ridding the streets of the unkempt, uncouth and occasionally unrepentant members of the now infamous “black bloc” rhetoricians of revolution. Best of all, he does it in an engaging manner, ensuring that his well-considered arguments do not come to the reader as dry, dogmatic exercises in deductive logic removed from authentic human sensations and sentiments. If the phrase is not too snooty, he has made a substantial down-payment on the claim to the honourific of “public intellectual.” What’s more, he does all this in a small eight-by-six inch volume of well under 200 pages—not including notes, index and limited front matter.
The title of the book is taken from a quote from the martyred Martin Luther King. It is easy to imagine him sounding out the words in full threnody: “What we must see is that a riot is the language of the unheard.” This is not news to historians who, for example, cut their professional teeth on Thompson’s eloquent essays on the “moral economy of the English crowd” (1993) or George Rudé’s The Crowd in History (1964). What is different about this book is that it trades in higher learning, but it opens the door to all with the desire to learn. Languages of the Unheard is not, however, entirely about the claims and counter-claims of people in the streets occasionally waving placards, knocking heads or, far more often, having their heads knocked. True, the morality, ethics and strategic effectiveness of particular tactics are discussed; but attention must also be placed on the last word in the subtitle, “democracy.”
Democracy is what W. E. Gallie (1956) once called an “essentially contested concept.” Debates about it often get stuck on the preliminary issue of its definition. Worrying about what democracy really means may strike the impatient as “just semantics”; but, unless we define our terms we literally don’t know what we’re talking about. D’Arcy does not treat it lightly.
A little over sixty years ago, when analytic philosophy and the concentration on “ordinary language” were all the rage in the United Kingdom, T. D. Weldon (1953) tried to finesse the question of the meaning of normative concepts in an influential book entitled The Vocabulary of Politics. He contended that words such as “democracy” were empirically indefinable and therefore philosophically useless. They were merely terms of approval or, in the alternative, of opprobrium. Others weren’t so sure. In fact, wholly within the liberal tradition, two opposing camps set up positions and, at least within the disciplines of political science and sociology, fought heated academic battles over the meaning of democracy and the responsibilities of intellectuals toward it.
On the one hand, there were “revisionists,” a small sample of whom included Almond & Verba, (1965), Dahl (1956), Mayo (1960), Milbrath (1965), and Plamanatz (1958). They claimed that the ideal of an active, engaged and well-informed citizenry, largely but somewhat uncertainly derived from Rousseau and J. S. Mill, was a pipedream. The burdens of citizenship were simply too onerous for ordinary people to bear. So, they lowered their sites and argued that the test of democracy should not be high participation levels which, some insisted, were evidence of discontent and actually portended a threat to democracy (Bell, 1960; Talmon, 1952). Instead, they said that the main criteria of democratic governance should be considered satisfied by the existence of a plurality of elites which aggregated rival interests and regularly engaged in a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.
On the other hand, there were “participatory democrats” who saw pluralism as a false competition among elites which put on a show of democratic politics reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum who, we must recall, agreed to have a battle. Or, as the late Kurt Vonnegut (1972) put it in an article in Harpers’s Magazine shortly after the US Republican convention that nominated Richard Nixon for his second term in office, there are two imaginary parties in the United States, the Republicans and the Democrats, but there are also two real parties, the Winners and the Losers; and, since both imaginary parties are run by Winners, in every election this much is certain—the Winners will win. In other words, critics of American pluralism such as Bachrach (1967), Bay (1965), Davis (1964), Kariel (1961, 1966), Mills (1956), Pateman (1970) and many, many more discerned a “power elite” (if not quite a “ruling class”) which, for most practical purposes, was able to govern without the informed consent of the governed. Elections, it was said, were mainly political rituals meant more to bind the electorate to the government and ensure its legitimacy than to permit the wishes, needs and demands of the lower orders to upset the priorities of the people on top (Edelman, 1964, pp. 2-3).
Stephen D’Arcy makes a distinctly twenty-first century contribution to this venerable discussion. Among others, he offers pithy and sometimes penetrating comments and criticisms of some of the foremost liberal dissenters and liberty theorists of our day. This book is not the place for detailed critiques of legal and social philosophers such as Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, nor of journalist-adventurers such as Chris Hedges. Each one, however, has been a stalwart advocate not merely of pallid pluralism, but of a theory and sometimes a practical program for achieving a more satisfying domain of public life; so, I would like to believe that, in addition to explicating his views on iconic figures such as Marx and Bakunin, D’Arcy will one day set himself the task of analyzing and assessing some of the prominent ostensibly progressive thinkers of our time. Meanwhile, his interim contribution is to refresh the rhetoric of radicalism by reintroducing a discussion of principles such as the almost alliterative ideas of opportunity, agency, autonomy and accountability and daring, as well, to disclose the logic of disruption.
The value of such brief and, perhaps to some, seemingly discursive commentaries is that D’Arcy may provide a welcome relief from the frenetic discourse that comes from critics and conservatives alike. Some earlier social critics were castigated because they offered compelling diagnoses of social ills, but few workable therapies. An actionable plan for change was often requested, but seldom provided. Today, we seem to have an abundance of activists, but without a coherent account of what is wrong with neoliberal ideology and corporate hegemony. I am raising, of course, the old theory-practice dichotomy and D’Arcy, if he doesn’t fully resolve it into a satisfying dialectical form of praxis , at least reminds us that it is something that needs to be done.
Many important writers are speaking out in support of democracy. Some take pains to unveil the hypocrisies and perjuries that disguise patterns of social control, obfuscate economic exploitation and ensure that words such as “emancipation” are blocked from college syllabi or turned, like the once meaningful concept of “critical thinking” into a cruel collegiate joke. Personally, I rely on thinkers older than myself, notably Sheldon Wolin (2008), to provide insight and a measure of wisdom. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer of them every year. Wolin, for example, is approaching his 92nd birthday and cannot be expected to speak with clarity and a sense of justice forever. It is therefore reassuring to discover keen and connected minds such as D’Arcy’s which seem on the cusp of taking over from my generation and capable of continuing to speak truth to the powerless.
The need to update is vital. In the 1960s, it was possible to imagine fundamental progressive change through the exercise of the franchise. Poverty, it was thought, could be reduced if not eliminated by constructive government intervention in the economy. Racism and misogyny could be reduced and ameliorated. Though no one expected to “legislate morality,” it did seem possible to regulate some of the more egregious forms of discriminatory behaviour. It did not seem absurd to suggest that even imperial wars could be brought to an end by electing peace candidates. Today, the pervasive controls exercised through (il)legal information systems, the militarization of local police forces now eager for armoured vehicles, helicopters and drones, and the systemic “dumbing down” of political discourse in the corporate media combine with the astonishing power and reach of private-sector corporations against the background of a devastatingly degraded natural environment to create a more dangerous and dispiriting political ecology. We are experiencing what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Jeremiads have become as common as discarded cell phones. More incisive and focused political understanding is no longer a luxury to be enjoyed in graduate seminars or over sherry in the faculty lounge. It is no less than a necessity of life.
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Kariel, H. S. (1961). The decline of American pluralism. Standford: Stanford University Press.
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Thompson, E. P. (1968). The making of the English working class. New York: Penguin, 1968.
Vonnegut, K. (1985). “In a manner that must shame God, himself,” in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (Opinions). New York: Delta, 1985, pp. 185-206.
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Wolin, S. (2008). Democracy incorporated: Managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism.Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political thought at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.