Abaraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, often portrayed as a pyramid with the more basic material needs at the bottom, haunts much of the contemporary discourse in both religion and political science (and, perhaps, long before Maslow articulated it, the pyramid has been in the backs of everyone’s minds since time immemorial). In simplest terms, for the political, democracy and liberty can easily be undermined by a careful calculation of keeping the majority of society on the brink of physiological and psychological starvation. The religious almost seem to tacitly agree, as they counter-act by either outright denying the importance of the pyramid’s bottom tier (asceticism), sharply separating the apex from the lower tiers (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”), or asserting the apex’s dictatorship over the lower tiers (fundamentalism, theocracy). However, Maslow’s shadow is much more intricate and dark.
My friend Maarten, a student and aspiring activist in peace and conflict studies, and I share what could be called a Maslowian obsession, mine religious, his political: the relationship, and often conflict, between body and soul, this world and the next, or put another way, resources and rights, stability and liberty. At root, it is really about, both individually or collectively, the clash of desires, heteronomy’s limits upon self-actualization and self-determination, and the struggle with contingency. We’ve been thinking about these issues as they appear under the light of material crisis — such as the one going on right now in the Great Recession and the deepening of the neo-liberal order — when history very much casts entire swathes of human beings into the seeming positions of winner and loser, successful and failure, celebrated and forgotten, survival or extinction.