Professionalization and Community

13 10 2011

I start with a quote that is at tangent to what I want to talk about here, since the quote is what kicked off this line of thought. This is Glenn Greenwald in reference to the ongoing Wall Street protests and the reason why they are steadily gaining serious (instead of dismissive) attention and not petering out:

…and in part because their refusal to adhere to the demands from the political and media class for Power Point professionalization and organizational hierarchies has enabled the protests to remain real, organic, independent, and passionate.

There is much packed into this well-chosen phrasing. It strips away the neutrality professionalism usually enjoys and highlights the ways in which it is implicated in the system the protesters oppose. It makes professionalism a problem to be dealt with rather than a simple way of acting.

Now, I don’t think Greenwald is strictly opposed to professionalism; I surely am not. It is useful to see professionalism in this light, though, as one strategy among many. There are situations where it is likely to be useful and others where it is not, depending on your goals and resources.

For those firmly within the Wall Street system, professionalism is a great strategy, one they can game to their benefit. For the protesters, though, not so much.

It’s not politics per se that I want to talk about here. I want to talk about a little about professionalism as a prominent cultural value and some of the problems I see in that. I have religious communities especially in mind, but the discussion isn’t constrained to them.

[I have a broader discussion about capital and professionalism on a separate page, to keep this post more clearly focused.]

On a very basic level, professionalism and its attendant rhythms are alien to the rhythms of many forms of communal life. At the same time, the pervasiveness of capital makes it necessary for communities to negotiate with it. A large church, for example, must confront the fact that proper management of its resources demands some contact with bankers and businessmen who are immersed in capital’s time. Protecting the political freedoms of their religion, too, might entail dealing with civil systems which are more or less integrated into the time of capital.

However, communities also need to be wary about those compromises, which means they have to be both (1) aware of them and (2) conscious of possible alternatives to them. They need to draw clear boundaries between community and capital in order to protect communal life even as they adapt to the world capital has made.

Key to that preservation is the conscious education of its members of the relative value of professionalism. Professionalism needs to be seen for what it is, a strategy for navigating the world of capital, and contrasted with the values of the community.

This contrast doesn’t need to be dramatic, it just needs to be clear. The courtesy of the professional isn’t opposed to the kindness of the priest, but it isn’t identical to it, either. There is an intimacy to the priest’s kindness that is alien to the professional’s courtesy.

Maintaining the difference without turning it into an opposition is important. Deliberate use of professionalism can, for example, help the community. The cultivation of a professional persona by community members allows them to better engage political and economic resources for communal life. The courtesy of the professional can also help keep capital’s influence at arm’s length. As long as members meet the professional obligations, they often have a good deal of freedom in their private lives.

An understanding of that difference should be present at each point where the religious community has to negotiate with that world. Steps taken to secure a community’s stability in the sphere of capital should be motivated by the values proper to the community rather than be a way for the community to ‘live up to’ the values of capital.

That is a subtle difference, to be sure, but a very important one. When it is not maintained, it becomes easier for the community to idealize the professionalism of members and confuse that professionalism with the community’s values more generally.

In this, professionalism can be akin to soldiering. Both employ means for sustaining their communities which can be destructive of their community. Things like non-profit church status, university-style clergy programs, and business offices are all means toward the end of protecting and strengthening communal bonds but ought not be conflated with the ways of life that define those bonds.

The ‘business’ of the a community should not be the most prominent aspect of it for its members, though it will surely have to be prominent for at least a few. The more heavily the community’s resources are invested into maintaining a business face, the more deeply they open the community as a whole to being consumed by capital. While, perhaps, it gains more resources for survival, often what survives is just professionalism in slightly different dress.

With all this said, I want to end by pointing out the advantages of the world that things like professionalism create. The neutrality of the professional helps support* a public sphere where many sorts of communities can coexist and communicate with each other. Where this may be done freely, each community is confronted with ideas and situations that can sustain and enrich them. While communities may dissolve into this, they may also be born from it. With the danger also comes a horizon of hope and possibility.

*And the ‘helps support’ language is important. Professionalism is not identical with this public sphere, it is just one element that can contribute to it.

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