Beyond Left and Right

One of the more maddening features of contemporary political discourse is its unimaginative and irrational rigidity. Essentially, you have your choice of three categories: liberal or leftwing, conservative or rightwing, and moderate. There is a fourth, sort of, which could be called “fringe” or “crackpot” or “muddleheaded,” but serious people are one of the three. Identifying with either liberal or conservative commits you to definite positions on the issues, with some latitude over minor ones. The views of the moderates are simply defined by the extremes.

This “spectrum” is supposed to exhaust the range of possible positions on issues of political philosophy, both theoretical and practical. And as far as our elected representatives, the mainstream media, as well as a good  part of academia (especially elite academia) are concerned, it is exhaustive, unfortunately—you won’t find a single congressman who is anti-capitalist, for instance, even though a large and growing section of the population could be described this way.

Now, it is a simple matter to demonstrate that positions on issues outside this spectrum are possible, in many instances plausible, and in some cases surely correct. But for now I want to point out what is highly likely to be the explanation for this conformity among Americans who tend to fancy themselves non-conformists. In the US, big business and the banks, the capitalist elite, run the show—we all know that. As in any country with a small, privileged ruling class, whether of aristocrats or the military, allowable political expression is limited to what either furthers or preserves the interests of that class. This comes about fairly straightforwardly in the case of, say, a fascist dictatorship and in more complex ways in the case of a capitalist democracy such as ours. But left/liberal, right/conservative, and moderate—from Ted Cruz to Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders—are all united in their commitment to the defense of the capitalist system and to serving the interests of the capitalists themselves.

Within these extremely narrow ideological confines, opinions may differ, reflecting disagreements among the elites themselves. Thus, if you go to business school, you’ll need to take a course in economics, and in that course, you’ll be taught that there are two, just two, serious models for an economy, the Keynesian and the neoclassical. This reflects a basic split in the business community, although both theories are of course equally theories of capitalism. The important point, though, is that this minor disagreement about the best way to run a capitalist economy is then further reflected among our elected representatives and in the news media, coming to represent in fact the whole range of allowable opinion: On one end of the spectrum, you have dangerous liberal radicals like Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid (both Keynesians who advocate mere reform of capitalism but both totally acceptable to big business), dangerous conservative ideologues like Rand Paul (actually just a tame supporter of neoclassical economics, threatening perhaps only to government-dependent industry such as defense contractors; but as his endorsement in 2012 of Mitt Romney shows, not all that threatening), and the center-left, center, and center-right crowd who are for a mixture of reform and market freedoms. And as I said, this same split not surprisingly characterizes the media too. Fox News: basically pure capitalism; MSNBC: a reformed capitalism; and the rest of the outlets fall between these extremes. The same largely applies to academia.

Besides this basic, though relatively minor, split within the business community, there are also, of course, differences over moral matters. The above analysis shows why economic differences among elites are not serious enough to qualify anyone as a conservative/rightist or a liberal/leftist: those differences amount to a distinction without a difference. This is signified by the fact that there are both big government conservatives and small government conservatives. Both are committed to the end of preserving capitalism with a mere difference in means. (With the left, it’s a bit more complicated, though the generalization still holds true; an adequate analysis would take us too far afield here.) What sets them apart is their moral stance.
In a way, this false dichotomy is also an accident of history. Probably unhelpfully, I refer to myself as a socially conservative leftist; people on the both the right and the left tell me that this is impossible. I find this interesting because I am, in fact, a socially conservative leftist. But what is happening here is that people are just expressing assumptions growing not out of rational thought but out of inherited prejudice. To take an illustration from history, before the French Revolution, the Ancien Regime granted Catholic clergy enormous privileges, and the French Church collected tithes by law and held about ten percent of all land. Since throne and altar were so tightly connected, in rebelling against the existing order, the revolutionaries rebelled against the Church too, and all that she stood for, including morals. This is why the idea of empowering the masses, characteristic of the left, became separated from authentic ethics. There is no conceptual connection between left politics and permissive morality though; it’s just history. And the same thing has happened many times. A national church allows itself to get tangled up with politics, and when the masses revolt, they revolt against the Church too.  Think of Franco’s Spain where civil servants in the fascist regime were required to be Catholic and, in order for a Spanish citizen to get certain jobs, a priest had to write him a note. How could you not connect the Church and her teachings with repression?  Thus, even today, we irrationally think that leftists cannot hold to traditional morality, and if you believe in right and wrong, you have to be on the right.

Now, all of this matters to Catholics because Catholic Social Teaching (CST) does not even come close to fitting within the spectrum. Some of the best Catholic minds of the last century, such as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Dorothy Day, saw in Rerum Novarum a repudiation of capitalism and the outlines of an alternative (distributism). This is completely plausible when one considers that capitalism tends to make more and more people into (more and more impoverished) employees versus owners, while Leo XIII called for a maximum distribution of ownership of the means of production—the exact opposite of what tends to happen in capitalism. John XXIII, in Mater et Magistra, taught remuneration on the basis of justice, not the market.[1] Grounding economic life on a foundation of moral virtue could hardly be called capitalist (or socialist for that matter), even in the case of reformism (like tinkering with a minimum wage, which is still basically set by the market—insofar as market values determine what we think a minimum wage should be, even roughly). Pope Francis, in last year’s Evangelii Gaudium,[2] certainly condemns neoclassical economics but arguably goes much further when he calls on us not only to “eliminate the structural causes of poverty” (188) and condemns poverty as a scandal “because we know that there is enough food for everyone” (191), but also to go beyond this and ensure for each person “education, access to healthcare, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives” (192). As is well-known, poverty, for wide swaths of the world’s population, is a natural outcome of capitalism; not even serious reforms to the system came remotely close to eliminating it in the 1960s in the US, and market forces (like global competition) are busy undoing those reforms today, throwing more and more people into poverty. The same system is dismantling the social-democratic gains of earlier generations—access to education, healthcare, employment, among others. Again, this is the opposite of what the pope is calling for. And does “free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive” describe labor under a capitalist regime? Decidedly, no. These are just a few examples, but they show the general thrust of Catholic Social Teaching on these matters.

Many, both on the right and the left, saw Evangelium Gaudium as somehow moving the Church leftward. I think that they are right to see it as generally more left than right; personally, I would go beyond that and say that it is not only left but also anti-capitalist, and many would agree with me—though others might reasonably disagree with this last point. What they are wrong about for sure is that it represents a leftward shift. As reflected in its 217 endnotes, the document is based entirely on the constant teaching of the Church, from Scripture, to the Doctors, to his papal predecessors.

The extremely limiting left-right conceptual scheme prevents many American Catholics from being properly formed by CST. For the reasons given above, there is place for it on the spectrum. Cafeteria-style, conservatives ignore or downplay the economic teachings while mainstream liberals reject both this and the condemnations of abortion, gay marriage, contraception, and the rest of the better-known moral teachings. This is a point not often appreciated, I think, so it bears emphasis: the real nature of the Church’s economic teachings is unappreciated by either the right or the vast majority of the left because of a common commitment to capitalism. On some moral issues, like abortion, the right is closer to the Church, while on others, like the death penalty or war, the left is closer; but neither could be said to represent the views of those who are trying to live their Catholic faith.  Instead, they are thrust to the fringe. But I suppose that the thirteen faithful in the upper room at Pentecost might have felt the same way. We just need to be strong enough to swim against the current and think beyond both the assumptions of our pagan society and our inherited prejudices. As always, entering into Church teaching in its fullness is always liberating.  

Doran Hunter



[1] Paragraph 18,