Over at The Josias I have a new piece on the distinction between radical (or hard) liberalism and moderate liberalism, and to what extent the American Founders can be called liberals. The header image, incidentally, is by N.C. Wyeth and depicts the Lord Advocate Prestongrange from R.L. Stevenson’s David Balfour.
In the midst of the controversy over Charles de Koninck’s book, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Jacques Maritain dismissed de Koninck and those who followed him as reactionary intégristes, unable to meet the true challenges of the age:
I was deeply touched by the article of Fr. Eschman in The Modern Schoolman. He has masterfully exploded Koninck, and we can now enjoy entering a fine period of scholastic controversy worthy of the Baroque age. While the world is in its agony, and Monsieur Sartre offers to the intellectuals an existentialism of nothingness, the integrists of Quebec will doubtless raise the cry of alarm in the presbyteries of the New World against the Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and, as our good friends at the Tablet call it, Neo-Pelagianism menacing the Holy Church.
J ’ai été profondément touché par l’article du Pére Eschmann dans The Modern Schoolman. Il a mouché Koninck de main de maître et nous aurons la joie d’entrer ainsi dans une belle période de controverses scolastiques dignes de l’age baroque. Pendant que le monde agonise et que M. Sartre propose aux intellectuels l’existentialisme du néant, les intégristes de Québec vont sans doute jeter dans les presbytères du nouveau continent le cri d’alarme contre le néolibéralisme, le néo-individualisme et, comme disent nos bons amis du Tablet, le néopélagianisme qui menacent la sainte Église. (Jacques Maritain to Etienne Gilson, November 15, 1945; via Francesca Aran Murphy, to whom I owe part of the translation)
And yet, seven decades later, de Koninck’s book, and those who used it to combat certain forms of “personalism” seem remarkably prescient. There was indeed in the thought of certain Catholic intellectuals eager to speak to the concerns of the age a danger of neo-liberalism, neo-individualism, and, neo-Pelagianism. The effects of it are ever more apparent.
Christian Roy has argued that de Koninck’s book was,
in some ways… a prophetic warning of a notable drift towards hedonistic secular individualism, which progressive Christian personalism unwittingly helped usher in Catholic societies such as Quebec.
That is, it was a warning that the attempt of a certain kind of attempt by Catholic intellectuals to, as it were, co-opt or subvert the spirit of the age was counter productive, and led to the opposite result of that hoped. Instead of a reversal of secularization there was a huge acceleration. But it was also a warning that even among those who remained in the Church a new liberalism and a new Pelagianism would take hold. A candid examination of debates within the Church in the past few decades— especially in Western Europe— show just how prophetic such warnings were. This is one reason, why, to the great annoyance of a certain relation of mine, I have tried to reclaim the (to his mind sinister) term integrist/integralist to name my own approach to thinking about the common good as a Catholic in the modern world.
When the Manifesto of the Tradinistas came out I noted that while I agree with their critique of liberalism— and indeed with most of their political positions— I would never consider myself a Tradinista on account of the cultural and historical associations that they embrace. In other words, I would never consider myself a “leftist.” But what exactly does it mean to be a leftist? I recently had a discussion with Coëmgenus on that question that made me understand more clearly what the Tradinistas mean by it, and where I differ from them. With Coëmgenus’s permission, I reproduce a slightly abridged version of our discussion below.
Coëmgenus: People use the word “left” to mean very stupid things.
Sancrucensis: What should “left” be used to mean?
Coëmgenus: I use “left” to mean the inclusion of social questions and questions of production within the realm of the political. So that a distributist who was sufficiently attentive to these things (and did not imply that they were to be solved extrapolitically through spiritual conversion alone) would count as “left” in my book. I give no credence to the idea of a “cultural left”; I see that as the fantasy of certain capitalists who want to wash their hands of certain capitalist problems.
Sancrucensis: Hmm, by your definition, Coëmgenus, Fascists are leftists.
Coëmgenus: Sort of. That’s the critique that’s often made of them by market liberals anyway. But I should probably add that leftism requires that, once one takes such an analytical approach, one tries to rectify differences in class power (ideally by neutralizing distinctions of class) — most fascists seem to have been more concerned to direct labor to some national end than to protect laborers as a class. What some reactionary critics of fascism notice is that fascism does not hesitate to use the rhetoric of helping the common man, but in practice I think this is just for show. The Trump business with Carrier seems like a fine example.
Sancrucensis: I think the addition is helpful. Leftists not only see economic power as a political question, but also think that inequality of economic power is per se unjust/exploitative. This is understandable given that they are reacting to a capitalist society in which the unbalance of economic power is unjust. To me, on the hand, a social order is conceivable with a highly gradational distribution of economic power, but in which economic activity would be subordinated to the genuine common good of the whole society, rather than to the private good of the class that has the most economic power. A corollary to my claim about the possibility of a mixed regime with an extremely hierarchical distribution of political power, but fully ordered to the common good. The leftist position seems to still accept to much of the liberal ideal. It’s democratic checks and balances applied to economy. Or as Comrade Stalin put it:
Bourgeois constitutions usually confine themselves to stating the formal rights of citizens, without bothering about the conditions for the exercise of these rights, about the opportunity of exercising them, about the means by which they can be exercised. They speak of the equality of citizens, but forget that there cannot be real equality between employer and workman, between landlord and peasant, if the former possess wealth and political weight in society while the latter are deprived of both – if the former are exploiters while the latter are exploited. Or again: they speak of freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but forget that all these liberties may be merely a hollow sound for the working class, if the latter cannot have access to suitable premises for meetings, good printing shops, a sufficient quantity of printing paper, etc.
What distinguishes the draft of the new Constitution is the fact that it does not confine itself to stating the formal rights of citizens, but stresses the guarantee of these rights, the means by which these rights can be exercised. It does not merely proclaim equality of rights for citizens, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that the regime of exploitation has been abolished, to the fact that the citizens have been emancipated from all exploitation. It does not merely proclaim the right to work, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that there are no crises in Soviet society, and that unemployment has been abolished. It does not merely proclaim democratic liberties, but legislatively ensures them by providing definite material resources. It is clear, therefore, that the democratism of the draft of the new Constitution is not the “ordinary” and “universally recognized” democratism in the abstract, but Socialist democratism.
Coëmgenus: The Stalin quote is good enough as far as it goes. I would not say (differing here from many leftists) that leftism is about eliminating inequality, but about making it subject to politics. This could be the same as your view — a hierarchy in which everything is subordinated to the common good. But most reactionaries who defend hierarchy this way end up wanting parts of the hierarchy to be sui juris — they will admit eg. that the great landowners have a duty to serve the common good, but will either imply that they serve it best through glorifying their houses, or that this duty cannot be enforced by a bunch of filthy peasants. For “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. I have no interest in complete equality (both on account of its impossibility and on account of the critique of proceduralism to which you allude), but I hate an inequality that exempts anyone from answering to the common good. In feudalism as practiced, economic power was explicitly articulated through the state (less liberal than in our polity), but each community tended to be put at the service of the private good of the noble personage in charge of it — of course this story is much complicated by the existence of monastic holdings.
One last thing: checks and balances as such are not bad; this is why I support labor unionism, for example. Not because it’s a guarantee of welfare, but because it addresses what seems to be a frequent failure of negotiation. The error is not to have a procedure but to put one’s hopes for justice in procedure alone.
Sancrucensis: I agree that checks and balances are not bad in themselves; the “mixed” regime with democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements is best. But I think it important that checks and balances don’t tip the regime so far over that one loses the goods of obedience, political piety etc. It is quite true that sovereign and subject are two different things. Even in a democracy there will always be a part that rules and part that is ruled. But in democracy the ruling part has to conceal this fact, and pretend that it is ruling merely as an instrument of the sovereign people. And therefore the goods that are considered most important in a democracy are “vulgar” goods, and the type of human being taken to be the measure is the so-called “common man”. (Leo Strauss has a great discussion of this in ch. 4 of Natural Right and History). In a liberal democracy the ruling part is an oligarchy that rules in the name of the common man, but really for the private advantage of the capitalists. In a “socialist” state it is usually a vanguard party that considers itself to be preparing a post-political future, but really functions as an inefficient oligarchy. So I still think the best solution is one in which the democratic checks and balances are considered secondary, and the greater part of political power is in the hands of an hereditary monarch and an hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy should be composed of a landed gentry that is at the same time an urban patriciate (to use Strauss’s terms again)— that is of “gentlemen” who derive their income from the land, but live for part of the year in the city. Such an aristocracy can of course become corrupt, and seek its own private advantage. But historical experience shows that such an aristocracy— especially when tempered by the monarchical and democratic elements— can cultivate an ethos of true public spirit, and an appreciation for noble goods: for civic friendship and military virtue, for art and philosophy. To the extent that they really pursue such goods they contribute to the common good of every member of the society. To the extent to which natural virtue can dispose men well towards supernatural virtue, I think such a regime does prepare men well for the life of the Church, and conversely the Church can have an ennobling and moderating effect on such an order.
Coëmgenus: I simply cannot imagine an aristocracy that does not degenerate into a faction. The aristocracies of Europe were born as a kind of mafia, and seem to have discovered the common good as a last-ditch effort to win some support when the bourgeoisie was finally about to wipe them out. “Popular sovereignty” can be an idol, but whoever rules rules on behalf of the whole community, and is in a sense their delegate.
The classical throne-and-altar view is that an aristocracy ought to rule while the commoners pray pay and obey, so that the common people are not troubled by the demands of political life. Against that ideal, I want to maintain that the subject never ceases to be a citizen. It is not my vote that creates the common good: even a purely autocratic system is not inevitably unjust. But if I am part of a community its political life is very much my business.
I was one of those who was surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I had not even expected it too be close. I had thought Clinton would win by a mile. I thought that, when push came to shove, voters would not go for a man so evidently a slave of base passion— a man of intemperance, imprudence, lust, vainglory, and avarice; a liar, a cheat, a bully, and an egoist; a cartoon billionaire and a Twitter troll. I should have known better. The election helps to raise a lot of questions about the relation of politics and virtue within the horizons of liberalism. To what extent will voters in a liberal society demand virtue of their politicians? And what sort of virtue? Or to what extent does liberalism really reduce politics into a technique, rendering virtue irrelevant? Was the victory of Trump more a rejection of liberalism, or more a triumph of liberalism? These are some of the questions that have been thinking about since the result became clear. Continue reading
I have posted an expanded version of the talk on freedom that I gave at a recent Catholic-Shi’a conference to the ViQo website, and The Josias. I attempt to give an account of freedom as understood in the Catholic tradition, and contrast it with the modern, liberal account. Here’s a snip from the introduction:
One can consider freedom on many different levels. For the sake of clarity I shall distinguish between three such levels: 1) exterior or political freedom, 2) interior or natural freedom, 3) moral freedom. The secular and Christian concepts of freedom differ on all three levels. I shall summarize the differences briefly before considering each view more closely.
1) For the Christian tradition external freedom means not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good— a good that is truly good for them. For the secular tradition of the Enlightenment in contrast, external freedom means not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. Negatively this kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good. Positively it is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule— so that everyone can claim to be “self-ruled.”
2) Interior or natural freedom is taken in the mainstream of the Christian tradition to mean the ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions. On the secular view, however, internal or natural freedom is taken to mean a completely undetermined self-movement of will. On the secular view man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.
3) Moral freedom, according to the Christian tradition, means knowing what the true good for man is, and what means are necessary to attain it, and being able to make use of those means. Moral freedom means being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us— it is to be virtuous and wise. For secular culture on the other hand, moral freedom means not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of “authenticity” and “originality” deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own “freely chosen” (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) “values.” (Read the rest here or here).
Ross Douthat of the New York Times is one of the most consistently interesting newspaper columnists. While remaining within the tradition of classical liberalism, he nonetheless understands the problems of liberalism more than most, and is more sympathetic to anti-liberal thinkers. In his latest column, he discusses various kinds of resistance to liberalism among “young writers” who “regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.” He points out the weaknesses of the liberal system, which,
…delivered peace and order and prosperity, but … attenuated pre-liberal forces – tribal, familial, religious — that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.
He thens gives a sort of taxonomy of post-liberals. “New radicals” on the left “infused with an exasperation with procedural liberalism, an eagerness to purge and police and shame our way toward a more perfect justice.” And “neo reactionaries” on the right, “a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.” Finally he looks at “religious dissenters” from the liberal consensus, who consider that liberalism’s “professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief.” In the online version of the column he links Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option here, along with (I was glad to see) one of my own recent posts here on Sancrucensis, The Josias, and Tradinista!
At the end of the column though, he raises a discouraging possibility: namely that the post-liberal movements that he mentions might paradoxically end up helping the liberal order to preserve itself by supplying it with “forces that a merely procedural order can’t generate… radical and religious correctives to a flattened view of human life.” I think that he is right to see that the resilience of the liberal order rests in part on its perennial ability to co-opt and assimilate its enemies. Douthat would see that as a good thing, I think, because he is not truly anti-liberal. But to me it is a discouraging thought.
Header Image: Michael Fuchs ©.
A group with the strange name Tradinista has published a manifesto, and a defense of Catholic “socialism” in three parts (part I, part II, part III). To understand the background of the tradinistas it is helpful to look back at Patrick Deneen’s 2014 essay in The American Conservative, A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching. Deneen argued that the really interesting controversy among American Catholics is not that between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but rather between two sorts of Catholics who could both be termed “conservative” in the conventional sense: firmly believing in Catholic doctrine and staunchly pro-life. On the one hand Deneen put “neoconservatives” such as George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, who followed the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., in proclaiming the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal democracy. On the other hand he described a group of “radical” Catholics, followers of Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. The “radical” Catholics, Deneen writes, “[reject] the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible.” Liberalism, they claim is not the value-neutral procedural framework that its proponents would have us to believe. Rather it is the political and cultural embodiment of certain substantive philosophical views. Liberalism bases itself on an individualistic view of human beings, in which political and social community of all kinds are formed by voluntary— as it were contractual— agreement of sovereign individuals. The radical Catholics thus claim that liberalism is fundamentally at odds with Catholicism, which holds rather that human persons are,
by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is certainly not an ‘integralist’ in my sense of the word, but there are moments when he comes very close. Consider the following passage of The Yes of Jesus Christ, written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:
the greatness of soul of the human vocation reaches beyond the individual aspect of human existence and cannot be squashed back into the merely private sphere. A society that turns what is specifically human into something purely private and defines itself in terms of a complete secularity (which moreover inevitably becomes a pseudo-religion and a new all-embracing system that enslaves people)— this kind of society will of its nature be sorrowful, a place of despair: it rests on a diminution of human dignity. A society whose public order is consistently determined by agnosticism is not a society that has become free but a society that has despaired, marked by the sorrow of man who is fleeing from God and in contradiction with himself. A Church that did not have the courage to underline the public status of its image of man would no longer be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city set on a hill. (p. 76)
In a recent post at The Josias, Petrus Hispanus criticized what he called the “strategy” of Catholic Action, as a form of Catholic political and social engagement that concedes too much to liberal institutions, and is thus quasi inevitably corrupted by their spirit. Gabriel Sanchez responded at Opus Publicum, arguing that Catholic Action is a core principle of the Church’s social magisterium, and that it is nothing other than social action of Catholics aimed at restoring the sovereignty of Christ in social life. Hispanus then responded to Sanchez, doubling down on his condemnation of Catholic Action. He argues that it was a strategy of using liberal institutions against liberalism, favored by some popes for prudential reasons, but that Catholic’s are not bound to find those reasons actually prudent, and that the results have indeed shown them to be imprudent. The debate is somewhat confused by equivocation on the term “Catholic Action,” but it nevertheless raises an important question. The question could be re-formulated as a question about Pope Leo XIII policy of ralliement— encouraging French Catholics to abandon loyalty to the Ancien Régime— and take part in republican politics, in order to Christianize the Republic. Was ralliement a prudent strategy? There is no agreement about the answer to this question among serious proponents of Catholic Social Teaching, and yet the answer must have far-reaching consequences. I think that both Hispanus and Sanchez would fall on the side of those who argue that it was not prudent, and to some extent I am inclined to agree with them. Continue reading
Christopher Zehnder has written an excellent post comparing Pope Gregory XVI’s anti-modernism and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. I took a similar approach in my own appreciation of Laudato Si’, praising it for its clear eyed opposition to technocratic modernity. I did, however, also write that I thought Pope Francis ignored “some elements of Catholic Social Teaching that ought really to follow from his own position on human society as a part of the order of creation, and his rejection of technocratic liberalism.” What exactly are those elements that I think he ignores? An answer can be found in the concluding statement of the Symposium of the Roman Forum in Gardone in northern Italy, which I have just finished attending.
The main point is that it is necessary to insist on the integralist thesis. Universal brotherhood among men can only be founded on an explicit ordering of society to God. Pope Francis certainly wants to convert the world to God, but his silence on integralist themes in his teaching is counter-productive in this regard; it encourages the illusion that it would be sufficient for the Church be contributor to a sort of neo-Sillonist universal brotherhood not based on the subordination of natural society to the supernatural society of the Catholic Church. This is what The Lake Garda Statement argues with great force. The statement follows in full below. Continue reading