The Flag of the Demos: Catholic Social Teaching as the Antidote to Neoliberalism

August 2, 2015

We live in an age dominated by narratives of discontinuity, precarity and collapse.

We careen from crisis to crisis amid a decomposing culture, disintegrating families and a deindustrializing economy in a thoroughly desacralized world.

Our politics have proven inadequate to the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. Our public discourse is trapped, held prisoner by outmoded orthodoxies and enthralled by discredited visions of the future.

For more than three decades, neoliberalism has been our reigning political and economic paradigm. It has been the engine driving both globalization (which has been a disaster for so many American workers) and the financialization of the economy. As a political philosophy, neoliberalism favors an extreme laissez-faire approach to markets and capital flows, prioritizes private property rights and has a largely negative view of liberty (freedom from, as opposed to freedom for).

From a public policy standpoint in the United States and elsewhere, neoliberalism has been characterized by zealous free market dogmatism expressed through deregulation, particularly of the financial sector, privatization, reduced taxation of the rich and cuts to public social benefit programs for the poor in the name of balanced budgets and fiscal austerity. Under its aegis, big business and big government have merged into one menacing monolith - the neoliberal market-state.

But as Wendy Brown, one of neoliberalism's fiercest and most perceptive critics, has observed, neoliberalism is more than a mere economic theory or political program; it is a totalizing "form of political reason and governing that reaches from the state to the soul." Under neoliberalism, the agora subsumes the polis - everything, including politics, social relations, education, religion and the environment is commodified, commercialized and subjected to the utilitarian analysis of the market.

At the same time, it reduces human beings to mere economic actors focused on their own narrow self-interests that draw their only value from what they produce or consume. It preferences the immediate over the long-term, growth over justice, and has no vision of the common good.

As a result, our problems go deeper than politics and economics. Consumerism breeds an anarchic individualism that reigns across all cultural domains that is disdainful of tradition, contemptuous of limits and indifferent to the fate of others. This is no accident. Our neoliberal elites are right-liberal/libertarian on economic matters and left-liberal/libertine on social issues. In practice, this marriage between the economic right and the cultural left serves elite interests, leaving us isolated and exposed to various forms of economic and social predation and insecurity. This essential contradiction at the heart of neoliberal modernity was best illustrated by Zygmunt Bauman: "Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless."

Powerlessness, however, is no mere subjective feeling; it is our objective reality.

by Forumlitfest
In neoliberal America, money rules and the people serve. We are experiencing what Pope Francis has described as "the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."

Neoliberalism has ushered in an era of unprecedented inequality, entrenched poverty, crony capitalism, political and economic monopolies, and various forms of destructive rent-seeking behavior by the elite. It has led to the concentration of enormous wealth in a very small number of hands. Obviously, concentrated wealth equals concentrated power, and that power has been consistently deployed on behalf of the interests of the rich and the large corporations and banks they control. Under the dominion of the rich, our government has devolved into a mechanism for privatizing gains, socializing risks and losses and extracting new rents and tolls from the demos.

Under neoliberalism, the demos, the common people of America's middle and working classes, have been effectively politically disenfranchised and economically disempowered. The great heyday of broadly-shared prosperity, of Americans growing together, has passed into history. Instead, for most of the last forty years, Americans have been growing apart.

The demos has experienced neoliberalism as a race to the bottom - an era in which rootless impersonal corporations wander the globe in search of lower taxes, reduced labor costs, less stringent environmental regulations and the absence of other forms of scrutiny so as to maximize their profits. Its fruits are stagnating wages, reduced benefits, rising expenses, offshored jobs, declining social mobility, foreclosed homes and a new form of chronic insecurity.

Indeed, the defining characteristic of life for the demos has become the experience of precariousness as a shared social condition that manifests itself in different ways, such as in employment and retirement insecurity, or tenuous access to healthcare. However, this insecurity isn't confined to the economic realm - precariousness and instability are features of many of our family and interpersonal relationships as well.

But our neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Neoliberalism's bankruptcy was exposed by the financial crash of 2008-2009 and the long recession that followed. And yet, American politics hasn't generated an alternative to neoliberalism's discredited free market fundamentalism. Indeed, domestically, neoliberalism has largely avoided serious systemic scrutiny.

by Jwh
This isn't surprising. Neoliberalism has been a thoroughly bipartisan project; it is as much the legacy of Bill Clinton as Ronald Reagan. So too, both our major parties have become financially beholden to the beneficiaries of neoliberalism - namely, the rich. The corrosive effect of money in our politics ensures that dissonant voices have difficulty even being heard.

The same cannot be said internationally. Pope Francis has emerged as a powerful critic of neoliberalism and a champion of social justice. In Evangelii Gaudium, he condemned "the idolatry of money" and the dominion of a global financial system that "rules rather than serves," linked it to the emergence of a "throw-away culture" in which "human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded" and taught that ethics and a re-moralization of the economy - and the financial sector, in particular - are essential in order to bring about "a more humane social order." He has continued to emphasize these themes in his subsequent public statements, including in his most recent encyclical, Laudato Si'. Today, he has become the banner-holder of the global demos around whom discontent with neoliberalism is cohering.

And in the United Kingdom, a nuanced and sophisticated debate incorporating themes from Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and cognate ideas drawn from the Radical Orthodoxy school within the Anglican Communion, is occurring that has no counterpart on this side of the Atlantic. There, the reigning neoliberal paradigm is facing challenges from both the left, Blue Labour, and the right, the Red Tories, that seek to establish, in the words of John Milbank, "a new sort of politics which links egalitarianism to the pursuit of objective values and virtues."

The recent publication of the anthology Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, which further develops these ideas, provides an opportunity for reflection about the domestic applicability of principles drawn from CST. The stage has been set for a British intellectual invasion of our moribund public discourse whereby the insights of post-neoliberal thinkers like John Milbank, Phillip Blond, Maurice Glasman and Adrian Pabst are translated and applied to an American context.

Although, in the United Kingdom, David Cameron has essentially ended his flirtation with Red Toryism, and Labour, Blue or otherwise, was soundly trounced in the most recent elections, there is good reason to believe that the ideas animating Red Toryism and Blue Labour might find more fertile soil in which to take root in America. After all, Britain is a far more thoroughly secular society than America, where Christian faith still informs the public discourse in innumerable ways. It's time we put down Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, and began studying Rerum Novarum and its progeny - Caritas in VeritateEvangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si' - instead.

As Glasman, a Labour peer who recently visited Australia, has correctly noted, CST "provides a firm secular footing for thinking about how to strengthen the institutions of society, of constraining the destructive power of states and markets while harnessing their necessity" and building "a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity." Like neoliberalism, CST offers a comprehensive worldview that can serve as the basis for a corresponding praxis. As such, it provides a viable alternative to neoliberalism's marriage of an empty, soulless, consumerism and an isolating self-centered autonomy. Above all, CST offers a vision of the common good, which, as Glasman recognizes, is something that is more than the sum of our own individual private interests and represents "a negotiated ethical position that is built upon institutions, interests and practices in which the balance between tension and co-operation is always alive." As such, CST is a vehicle for remoralizing the economy, decommodifying the rest of society, and fostering a renewal of civic and personal virtue.

CST is the perfect antidote to our poisonous neoliberal hegemony. It charts a middle course between statist collectivism and neoliberal individualism (Pope Pius XI's proverbial "twin rocks of shipwreck"). As both the Red Tories and Blue Labour have recognized, a political philosophy and economy grounded in CST would be broadly communitarian in approach, recognizing the social and cultural dimensions of human existence, and would emphasize positive rights, such as access to affordable adequate healthcare, high-quality education, employment opportunities and a healthy environment in which to live. In general, it would combine aspects of social conservatism, distributism, environmentalism and an egalitarian approach to economics and finance.

CST lays the foundation for a politics of empowerment that addresses our vital interests through concepts such as social solidarity, subsidiarity and the universal destination of goods which, as Pope Francis put it in Laudato Si', means that private property rights are neither "absolute or inviolable" but rather always subject to a social mortgage. It is characterized by compassion for the poor and other marginalized groups, distributive justice, an emphasis on the dignity of work, recognition of the importance of the family as the basic building block of society, and of the value of the mediating structures and institutions that are constitutive of civil society.

Practically, these themes could be expressed in public policies such as additional protections for associational rights, a living wage or national guaranteed basic income, a more progressive income tax structure, and the strengthening of social insurance programs that provide security against the chronic precarity of the market and ensure access to adequate food, clothing, healthcare and housing for all Americans. It could also involve old-fashioned Teddy Roosevelt-style trust-busting to break up the monopolies that dominate our economy, measures to reign in the financial sector such as separating commercial and investment banking and reinstituting capital controls, various forms of debt relief that target predatory and exploitative lending practices, and the recapitalization of blighted rural and urban areas through the creation of industrial and other types of local development banks.

At the same time, CST provides a vehicle for exploring more exotic ideas such as German-style co-determinism as a viable model of corporate governance, fostering the development of cooperative and employee-owned businesses, and pursuing renewable energy initiatives that empower local communities and families.

by Rvin88
The embrace of CST as the basis for a new post-neoliberal political philosophy and economy is theoretically open to both conservatives and progressives. But it will require each to discard sacred shibboleths.

As Luke Bretherton has argued, "traditionalism can often provide the basis for a challenge to the power of money over our common life." The same point has been demonstrated by Pope Francis's compelling critiques of the economic injustices and inequalities inherent in the neoliberal settlement. But traditionalism's importance goes beyond serving as a mere mechanism - there is also a strong correlation between the loss of traditional moral values, the undermining of social structures like the family, and poverty. Thus, the left must confront the poisonous legacy of the so-called "Sexual Revolution" and recognize that some aspects of social conservativism concern practices that protect the vulnerable and open pathways out of the underclass.

So too, CST exposes the right's embrace of both social conservatism and neoliberal economics as schizophrenic. This isn't a novel intuition. As George Will presciently observed at the dawn of the neoliberal era, "[c]apitalism undermines traditional social structures and values," but "Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify." CST makes such obtuseness untenable.

Thus, a left determined to confine virtue and morality to corporate boardrooms, and a right intent on limiting their scope to private bedrooms, will both find their preconceptions challenged.

However, many on the left may be hesitant to consider a Blue Labour-style embrace of CST simply because it is Catholic. Within recent memory, religion in American public discourse has been a culture war weapon wielded by conservatives. That legacy lingers. But a secular politics rooted in CST principles does not require the acceptance of all Catholic doctrines.

by Prasanna Welangoda
For example, although the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage is well-known, overturning the Supreme Court's recent Obergefell decision recognizing it as a constitutional right is not a nonnegotiable position required of any politician or intellectual interested in applying CST to the problems our society is facing. Instead, such a politics might express its preference for the stability and security offered by the traditional family by focusing less on who can marry, and more on ensuring that couples marry in the first place rather than cohabitate, and then remain that way. It might also propose public policies that develop what Dylan Corbett of the USCCB has termed "a preferential option for the family" such as additional paid maternity and paternity leave for new parents, expanded child tax credits, and affordable post-secondary education.

If there is a conflict between God and Mammon, then neoliberalism represents the latter's triumph. But Mammon's victory is fleeting, it will be overthrown.

Politicians, like everyone else, must learn to read the signs of the times. Continuing the current neoliberal trajectory offers no hope of a better future; instead, the reverse is true. But modernity needn't be a maw. Today, Pope Francis's popularity among non-Catholics is an indicator of CST's broad appeal and of the deep yearning for connectedness, mutuality and meaning. The embrace of a political philosophy and economy grounded in CST represents both a full-throated rejection of what Francis terms our "economy of exclusion and inequality" and a transformative opportunity for anyone with the vision and courage to seize it and begin charting a path toward a more humane and just post-neoliberal tomorrow.

Michael Stafford

Michael Stafford works as an attorney in Wilmington, Delaware, and is a syndicated Catholic political columnist. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

This article previously appeared in ABC