Conversation with Keri Day by Nyasha Junior

Nyasha Junior talks with Keri Day about her book Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives

Keri DayDr. Keri Day is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics, and Director of Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America (Orbis Books). Her latest book is Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan).

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your new book builds on your previous work, Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America. Can you explain how this project came about?

Unfinished BusinessMy first book Unfinished Business focuses on American capitalism, particularly the ways in which American capitalism produces and reproduces structural inequities and inequalities for poor Black women. It shows how religious language, ideology, religious institutions—namely the Black church—function as aspects of oppression and potential liberation for poor Black women.

Unfinished Business focuses on domestic issues as it relates to American capitalism and how it disproportionally affects poor Black women. As I was thinking through my second book project, one of the things that I realized is that American capitalism is profoundly connected to the larger conversation of global capitalism, and in particular, neoliberal global capitalism. I was really interested in exploring global capitalism and asking how women of color, particularly poor women of color of African and Caribbean descent, disproportionally experience global capitalism.

So, I wanted to go from American capitalism to global capitalism, but also, I wanted to contextualize the lives of poor Black women and link their lives with those of women of color around the world who are experiencing material and social deprivation. Religious Resistance is an outgrowth of Unfinished Business because Unfinished Business was primarily a structural analysis. For Religious Resistance, I was interested in naming the cultural ways in which human communities are affected by neoliberal capitalist values and norms.

For example, what does it mean to talk about the ways in which capitalist values breed radical social distrust? A sense of lovelessness? A lack of compassion? These cultural issues can also be construed as religious questions. Because, certainly, what it means to talk about capitalist values and the extension of capitalist values to all spheres of life, it certainly raises religious questions of human meaning and human flourishing. Because right now, capitalism is answering a lot of those questions in terms of how we are defining our lives and our social lives together. Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism is really addressing the gaps in Unfinished Business.

How do you define neoliberalism?

Religious ResistanceNeoliberalism is certainly a technical or academic term. It is defined differently across various disciplines, but neoliberalism is grounded in classic economic liberalism, generated by Adam Smith. Classical liberalism was a discussion of free-market mechanisms and the ways in which free-market mechanisms produce wealth within a particular society. According to classic economic liberalism, markets should be able to function within societies unfettered and without any regulation. Classic economic liberalism saw individual hard work and merit as significant to free markets being able to flourish, which also meant minimal government regulation.

With Maynard Keynes’ work surrounding free markets, it includes the need for governmental oversight. We do need social policies that can help free markets along. We saw this sort of logic employed during FDR’s New Deal programs, for example. Moving into the 1960s and 1970s, we see the development of neoliberal thinkers with the Chicago School of Economics, most notably Milton Friedman. But the difference between neoliberal economic thinkers and classical liberal economic thinkers is that with neoliberal economics there was an idea that free markets should be grounded purely in market mechanisms, which meant the total dismantling of the welfare state or the welfare society and doing away with most to all social policies. In line with that would be the privatization of many public institutions such as education. Of course, as you can see, this begins to disproportionally affect women, who are the primary caretakers of children. Neoliberalism is an economic project but also a cultural project. Neoliberalism—that is, global capitalism—is just not attempting to regulate our economic lives together. It is also attempting to regulate our social lives together. The neoliberal project frames how we think about our society and what it means to be human.

How is neoliberalism a religious issue? 

Neoliberalism, that is neoliberal globalization, raises religious questions of human flourishing because at the center of neoliberal globalization is the radical principle of competition. Built on the principle of competition is this idea of rabid individualism as the guiding value of society. Other scholars would call it “atomistic individualism,” seeing ourselves as individuals pursuing our own individual projects divorced from larger responsibilities or larger questions surrounding social responsibility.

Because you have these sorts of values that do not promote social responsibility, it begins to raise religious questions. What is our duty to each other as human beings and as neighbors? What does it mean to have a robust conception and practice of not only justice, but a robust conception and practice of the love ethic? These are central questions within any society, and I would make the argument that these can be construed as religious questions.

At the start of the book you discuss the neoliberal myth of progress. What are some of the elements of this myth of progress?

What I refer to as the myth of progress is the idea that global capitalism promises material abundance for all. This promise of material abundance for all functions, I argue, as a secular “telos.” Within global capitalism there is a promise of material abundance for all, and within that is the argument that capitalist history has a linear progression toward a better society. It is the notion that if different nation-states around the world would just implement capitalist structures and systems, over time, this would produce unprecedented wealth for all.

One huge aspect that drives that myth within neoliberal economic studies is the idea of creative destruction. This idea of creative destruction is this notion that a part of capitalism is about making economic enterprises more efficient and effective in order to enlarge profits and to secure greater economic growth and wealth. The idea of creative destruction says that in order to have greater efficiency, greater profit, and greater growth, you’ll have the vanishing of certain industries, and jobs, and so forth, in order to make room for other industries that are more efficient and effective, and more profitable.

This is what economists refer to as a kind of creative destruction. It is destructive when you think about the vanishing of jobs and industry, because that means job losses. It means poverty in the short term, as well as the long term, perhaps. The idea of creative destruction is seen as neutral. It’s not seen as morally right, or morally wrong, it’s seen as simply the inevitable process that any capitalist society has, on the way to unprecedented wealth and progress. Therefore, poverty is not seen as morally wrong within this narrative of creative destruction, Poverty as seen as the natural outgrowth of becoming more efficient and profitable and more wealthy as a society.

And, of course, you can see immediately that as a womanist/Black feminist myself, I would have problems with that line of thinking because it doesn’t show the ways in which poverty is present, and actually, even within industrial nations, actually increases, both in the short term and long term. It doesn’t secure material abundance for all because even in America, the majority of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. So this idea of creative destruction actually is not honest about exactly what poverty is about. It does not admit that poverty is due to radical exploitation of markets and that poverty not only remains present over the short term and long term within society but is actually exacerbated by capitalist structures or globalization especially without social policies or safety nets for the poor.

In chapter two you talk about resisting the “acquiring mode.” This sounds almost un-American. What is the “acquiring mode” and why is it problematic? 

I simply define the acquiring mode as things we acquire throughout life. In our society, consumerism equates to human worth. Again, this acquiring is about material things. If we’re talking about how much money one has that gives one a sense of social status. It means the ways in which material things gives us our sense of human meaning and how that extends as well to human beings, to people within our own community. I was also interested in exploring the dialectical relationship between structures and institutions on the one hand, and individuals—or individuals within communities is what I like to say—on the other hand. We need to consider how we think about the transformation of individual consciousness within the context of capitalist values.

You draw on several different theorists in your discussion of the importance of recovering the erotic. What do you mean by the power of the erotic?

The idea of the erotic, the idea of Eros has been deeply castigated and rejected within traditional theological literature. It is seen as profane and not sacred. In the book, I discuss the way in which Paul Tillich employs the idea of the erotic, but most of my discussion draws on Audre Lorde. The erotic is not only how we might think of the profound sacrality or sacredness of the body and of sexuality. More broadly, the erotic encompasses that particular life force within every individual that gives us the power to connect most deeply to ourselves, to others, and to the broader creation.

So the idea of the erotic in that chapter is this notion of this powerful, unifying life force that gives us a sense of connection to ourselves and to each other. So what it means to be erotic is not just what it means to experience ourselves and our bodies as central. It is not only what it means to experience ourselves as close to God or to experience divinity in the act of lovemaking. The erotic is not only a sense of what it means to hold a body as sacred, but what it means to hold sensuality and sexuality as sacred.

But the erotic also extends. If we’re talking about the erotic as that unifying and connecting force that connects us to ourselves and the wider creation, and to other human beings, that the erotic shows up in a painter who paints. The erotic shows up in the poem that we write. The erotic shows up when we dance. In other words, the erotic shows up in how we are experiencing the world and our desire to connect with the world, to experience the world and ourselves fully.

The erotic also gives us personal insight about ourselves, which is something that traditional theological discourse denies—that our bodies can’t give us knowledge or insight into ourselves or into the world. But the erotic also provides us with political knowledge about injustice, about what it means as individuals who are seeking to transform our societies and our world, what it means to exactly do that. That part of the power of the erotic is to actually connect within our own bodies, to what’s wrong with the world, in effort to transform the world. So for me, the erotic is not just about the power of it, is not just about a personal knowledge about ourselves and being connected to that knowledge, but the power of the erotic is also about fostering political knowledge.

In chapter four you argue that love is not merely an ideal sentiment, but a concrete revolutionary practice. What’s revolutionary about love? 

What’s revolutionary about love, at least in my book, is first the idea that love is not a mere sentiment. Love is a practice, actually. It’s embodied in a set of practices that has to do with compassion, and care, and justice, and so forth. Some that would interpret love as a regulative ideal, as something that measures our actions. They regard it an ideal that we can’t quite achieve. I want to counter that argument. I contend that love can be understood as a practice, a set of practices and that it can be revolutionary. What has been central to womanist and Black feminist perspectives is this idea that love is not only a strategy for the formation of the self but that love is also a strategy for the construction of just political communities.

So for me, what becomes revolutionary about love is when it’s understood as a practice that grounds strategies for just, compassionate, political communities. So in chapter four, I talk about love as an affective politics. An affective politics is a cultural politics of emotions that connects emotions to some of the deepest political justice causes that we have. We have intellectual commitments to political causes, but we also need to connect emotionally to those causes—what I refer to as an affective politics. To me, that’s what makes love revolutionary. It’s when we can see love as a practice. And when we can see that love as a practice can ground an affective politics that then can be used as a way to emotionally connect people to some of the deepest intellectual commitments that they have in relationship to social justice causes.

In Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism you highlight the experiences of the Mothers of the Disappeared. Why did you focus on this movement? 

The Mothers of the Disappeared is also known as Madres de Desaparecidos in Argentina. Three things about this movement really caught my attention, and I wanted to present this as a case study of how women resist neoliberal globalization.

In the 1970’s, these women start protesting the abduction and in some cases the killing of their children who were resisting the government at that time. The “Dirty War” and the disappearance of their children were grounded in the shifts in economy that were happening in Argentina in the middle of the twentieth century, particularly the rise of neoliberal global capitalism, or globalization within Argentina. So, these women were certainly protesting the political disappearances of their children, but they were also protesting the neoliberal values and the capitalist values that undergirded and made possible the military dictatorship rising to power and many of the tactics that were used after that.

Second, I thought that this movement was really powerful is because it is a movement that reflects the lived experiences of women of color using their form of spirituality as a way to protest the antidemocratic projects within their particular government. I think that that’s really important. We speak of hope because that’s what the chapter is really about–hope as social practice. We speak of hope, but we don’t have to turn to a theorization of hope as some otherworldly hope or some force breaking in to history. We can turn to women who are, through their protest and their lived experiences, showing what hope actually is. And for these women, hope is protesting the horrible capitalist values as well as the antidemocratic tendencies of their government. And what they are hoping, as they protest, is that they will not only be able to bring the memory of their children back to the national discussion, in their country of Argentina, but their also hoping that they can resituate a real conversation of democracy and why democracy matters.

Third, I really wanted to include of Mothers of the Disappeared because these women are mothers. I think that’s a really important point. Again, women experience disproportionately the fallout of neoliberal globalization processes. Since most of these women are mothers, I thought it would be really important to situate motherhood as central. Also, I wanted to highlight the assault that motherhood is especially for women color due to globalization processes.

Your book concludes with radicalizing hope toward beloved communities. What is your vision for beloved communities?  

My vision of beloved communities moves from the particular to the universal. Within the last chapter of Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism, I don’t use the term “beloved community.” Instead, I use the term “beloved communities” because I think that beloved communities are shaped and fashioned at a local level first. And so it is necessarily a turn to the ways in which local communities are inviting in the poor, the dispossessed, those who are radically different, and those who sit on the margins of society. But not only are they inviting them in but allowing folks who are dispossessed (such as women of color that I’ve talked about throughout this interview) to help shape leadership in terms of justice projects. Beloved communities is about the ways in which these marginalized subjects are able to lead within these local contexts and to move towards greater justice and human flourishing within those communities.

You’ve written Unfinished Business and now Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism. What new things are you working on? 

In Unfinished Business, I talk about the Poor People’s Campaign. I’ve started doing some research on the initial idea of the Poor People’s March. It is not the male clergy within SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] who have the idea. Marian Wright Edelman, a twenty-nine-year-old Black woman lawyer, is actually responsible for bringing the idea to King.