Fritz

Is it the case that the left abandoned its revolutionary spirit when it shifted away from the syndicalist vision of decentralized ownership, local virtue, and yes, the family (gasp!), in favor of a politics of consumption, growth, and a capitulation to the wage system? Christopher Lasch paints a convincing picture that this is in fact what happened in the early twentieth century.

Several chapters in Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven recount how state-centered socialist movements quickly overcame the working class tradition of syndicalism. As Lash argues, the state socialists quickly realized that the only way to win the class war was to fight for better wages rather than the democratized ownership of production, as the syndicalists stubbornly insisted. Marxists, state socialists and liberals all rejected the claim to widespread ownership and local responsibility on the grounds that it was pre-scientific. They denounced it as petty-bourgeois and worst of all, utopian rather than evolutionary. The iron laws of historical motion had been set in place and any attempt to undue or question this law was regarded as hopelessly romantic or nostalgic. Growth and progress were the name of the game.

The Marxists and statists went on to advocate for “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” with wage growth opportunities and better access to consumer goods soon becoming the hallmark of future progressive movements. The syndicalists, by marked contrast, attacked the entire notion of the wage system itself and resisted proletarianization in all its forms. They wanted to eliminate the distinction between capital and labor altogether. As such, artisans, yeoman farmers and other working class radicals look far more radical than their Marxists counterparts. Lasch provides a telling quote from Craig Calhoun’s The Question of Class Struggle: “the most potentially revolutionary claims were those which demanded that industrial capitalism be resisted in order to protect craft communities and traditional values” (210).

Lasch goes on to clarify what’s at stake in any historical recounting of syndicalist movement once it bumps up against the inexorable rhetoric of progress:

For those committed to the dogma of progress, the syndicalist sociology of virtue was deplorably regressive and “utopian,” and it found most of its adherents as they never tired of pointing out, in “backward” countries like France and Italy. They could not deny, however, that its adherents displayed an intensity or revolutionary conviction unmatched by any other social movement. Herein lay the scandal of syndicalism: it was retrograde but obviously revolutionary and therefore difficult for people on the left to dismiss. Its existence was particularly embarrassing to revolutionary socialists, because its radicalism made Marxism look tame by comparison and serve to reveal many points of agreement between Marxism and the “new liberalism” (335).

Is Lasch correct? Did he give the Marxist social vision a fair hearing? With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight following the publication of The True and Only Heaven, it seems clear that  Lash was onto something about “the narrowing of political debate” related to the wage system, consumption, and growth. In a telling footnote that appears more true today than ever before, Lash writes,

The growing acceptance of wage labor is only one indication of the narrowing of political debate in the twentieth century. Another indication is the narrowing of the kind of questions asked about work. In the nineteenth century, people asked whether the work was good for the worker. Today we ask whether the workers are satisfied with their jobs (208).

The only downside to Lasch’s reading is that he neglected the early Christian Socialist movement. Ludlow, Maurice, Kingsley, others, did not organize workers for the sake of greater profit sharing or rising wages; rather, they looked to control the enterprise from the bottom up. Like the syndicalist movement, the Christian Socialists rejected mechanical efficiency and centralization in favor of widespread ownership. This put them in the unfortunate position, in the eyes of critics like Sidney Webb, of having to place their trust in the working class along with their religious ideals. This also meant the much more difficult and painstaking task of working for a cultural as well as an economic revolution.

 

Hughes

Sublunary Sublime wanted to take a moment to commemorate the life of the Anglican theologian, Rev Dr. John Hughes, who recently passed into the greater life of God.

Hughes’s work had an immense impact on the author of this blog, especially The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism and his essay in Adrian’s Pabst’s The Crisis of Global Capitalism.

From The Theology of Work:

For the life of faith, lived liturgically, everything is superfluity, grace, and yet, when we have done everything, offered all our work, we must still say, ‘we are unprofitable servants’, precisely because all true work, inasmuch as it participates in God’s work, is not ours but is given to us. Likewise, while we can have no control over the issue of labour in this life, cannot secure it against being thwarted; nevertheless, we trust, in the hope of the Resurrection, that no good work will ultimately be lost (228). 

In paradisum deducant angeli.

Notes for an upcoming research paper on the Anglo-Catholic Socialists 

That the record of the reformations of Israel, the social preaching of Amos or Isaiah, the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the history of the little band who turned the world upside down could ever have been used to bolster the doctrine of laissez-faire and the righteousness of unrestricted competition, is a paradox which no cynic would dare to invent, had it not in fact happened in the story of Evangelical Christianity in the first half of the last century.

~From Charles E. Raven’s 1920 Christian Socialism 1848-1854

Tawney

What is wrong with the modern world is that having ceased to believe in the greatness of God, and therefore the infinite smallness (or greatness – the same thing!) of man, it has to invent or emphasize the distinctions between men. It does not say, “I have said, Ye are Gods!” Nor does it say “All flesh is grass.” It can neither rise to the heights or descend to the depths (these meet in a spiritual exaltation which may be called either optimism or pessimisim). What it does say is that some men are Gods, and that some flesh is grass, and that the former should live on the latter (combined with pate fois gras and champagne). And this is false.

Quoted in Ross Terrill, R.H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship, 124.

 

 

Lasch

Christopher Lasch would have celebrated his eighty-second birthday today. Despite having passed away twenty years ago, it’s clear that his work still remains “an indispensable aid to bullshit detection” for both left and right orthodoxies, as The Baffler recently noted.

The problem with Conservatives is easy enough to pinpoint:

Conservatives assume that deregulation and a return to the free market will solve everything, promoting a revival of the work ethic and a resurgence of ‘traditional values.’  Not only do they provide an inadequate explanation of the destruction of those values but they unwittingly side with the social forces that have contributed to their destruction, for example in their advocacy of unlimited growth. The poverty of contemporary conservatism reveals itself most fully in this championship of economic growth the underlying premise of the consumer culture by products of which conservatives deplore [sic].  A vital conservatism would identify itself with the demand for limits not only on economic growth but on the conquest of space, the technological conquest of the environment, and the human ambition to acquire godlike powers over nature. A vital conservatism would see in the environmental movement the quintessential conservative cause, since environmentalism opposes reckless innovation and makes conservation the central order of business.  Instead of taking environmentalism away from the left, however, conservatives condemn it as a counsel of doom.

The New Left suffers from its own share of cultural myopia:

Stale polemics, full of moral outrage and theoretical hot air, inadvertently show why the Left has no future.  Unable to explain the persistence of religion, pro-family attitudes, and an ethic of personal accountability except as an expression of false consciousness—as the product of brainwashing or of an irrational attachment to “simple and easy answers” after “two decades of social upheaval”—the Left finds itself without a following. Since it refuses to take popular attitudes seriously, to “pander” to “the existing popular consciousness,” in Lillian Rubin’s curious and revealing phrase, it can hope to reform society only in the face of popular opposition or indifference.

Lasch recognizes that his rejection of both left and right ideologies (in favor of old-school radicalism or conservative socialism, it should be noted) puts him in awkward position:

Readers will find my position confusing only if they persist in thinking that any position not immediately assimilable to left-wing orthodoxy belongs automatically to the Right… “Which side are you on, boys?”  When the sides were more clearly drawn, the question made some sense.  It still makes sense if it means that people who profess a disinterested love of truth and justice ought to be skeptical, on principle, of the claims of wealth and power and predisposed to side with the underdog.  But the Left long ago lost any vivid interest in underdogs.  It is allergic to anything that looks like a lost cause.  Such moral authority as the Left enjoyed in the past derived from its identification with the oppressed; but its appeal to intellectuals, unfortunately, has usually rested on its claim to stand on the side of history and progress.  What added to the thrill of choosing sides was the certainty that in socialism one chose he winning side, the “cooperative commonwealth” lure to prevail in the long run. The only morally defensible choice, however, is the choice of mercy, charity, and forgiveness over the world’s principalities and powers, the choice of truth against ideology.  To make that choice today means to reject Left and Right alike.

michea-1

In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michea looks to revive the original socialist critique of liberalism in both its cultural or economic forms. For a person on the left, such as Michea, to attack economic liberalism is about par for the course; for a person on the left to attack cultural liberalism – that which rejects tradition, virtue, moral values, and “common decency” – is to be labeled “reactionary.” Michea’s work is of interest to “Sublunary Sublime” in that he echoes the ethos of the Christian Socialist tradition, beginning with F.D. Maurice.

According to Michea, cultural and economic forms of liberalism are governed by the same underlying logic, and the misguided attempt to disentangle the two only serves to reinforce the worst ravages of economic liberalism.  The foundation of liberalism rests on a pessimistic anthropology – despite the best intentions of Smith or Hobbes – and the political desire to secure peace through the market. Government’s role is somewhat secondary, tasked to play the disinterested arbitrator, except that the market’s logic always triumphs over the state’s empty form. “Political liberalism always ends up finding its natural centre of gravity in economic liberalism,” writes Michea (32). This is because, as Michea goes on to argue, Law and Market are structurally and substantially identical (64 – 70). Michea delivers a bit of damning evidence here, quoting Milton Friedman, “who has described most precisely (or cynically) the real nature of this liberal tolerance, when he celebrates the Market as the magic mechanism enabling ‘millions of individuals to come together on a daily basis without any need to love one another, or even to speak to one another’” (54).

From the outset Michea recognizes that his argument will be a hard pill to swallow for many on the left, who typically like “to distinguish between a ‘good’ political and cultural liberalism and a ‘bad’ economic liberalism” (1). In truth, however, “the soulless world of contemporary capitalism is the only historical form in which this original liberal doctrine could be realized in practices. It is, in other words, actually existing liberalism” (2).

If there is no difference between good and bad liberalism, what then is to be done? For Michea, the task is then to revive the spirit of original socialism, as opposed to Marx, who is but “the direct heir of ‘English economic science’, i.e. of original liberalism” (41). As Anca Simitopol states about Michea’s work, “the rediscovery of the political philosophy of the first socialist thinkers is highly important because it represents the only way out of the all-embracing capitalism (italics mine).” Early socialism, according to Michea, was directly opposed to liberalism: at the heart of all early socialist manifestos is “the critique of egoism and the liberal atomization of society” (139). Standing at odds with liberalism, Michea wants “to anchor the fundamentals of socialists practices in basic human virtues”; that is, to revive the Orwellian sense of “common decency”: trust, generosity, working-on-oneself, and, most importantly perhaps, holding to a sense of limits as opposed to unending economic growth. Pace Marx, the reviving of virtuous socialistic practice is not reactionary. Orwellian socialism, as Michea clarifies, “is less the nostalgia for a vanished world than a determined opposition to the moral pessimism of the Moderns. It is the constant refusal to drown the ‘common people’ in the icy waters of egoistic calculation” of both liberalism and totalitarianism (113).

Although Michea presents a controversial thesis, he is absolutely right to point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of liberalism out from under the all-mighty market. What’s worse, it is quickly becoming the case that liberalism is no longer content to cast itself as the least bad option. As Michea writes, “the realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over, one by one, all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds” (140).

Rieger

Rich man and poor man stood there, looking at each other. And the poor man said, pale in the face: “If I would not be poor, you would not be rich.” Bertolt Brecht, quoted in Rieger, 197

In his introduction to Religion, Theology, and Class, Joerg Rieger discusses how liberal theological discourse has undervalued or ignored the issue of class division. Although progressive religious communities in the US have drawn appropriate attention to questions of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, the reality of class conflict has remained “underreflected.” Why is this?

Rieger claims that the issue has to do in part with progressive religion’s use of the language of inclusion, along with “celebrating diversity.” Class, by contrast, is inherently non-inclusive; it implies division, conflict, dualism, and taking sides. In contemporary religious and theological studies, influenced by poststructuralist and postcolonial discourse, a focus on binaries and dualisms is considered outdated – despite the fact that socio-economic binaries continue to grow.

As Rieger explains,

One of the biggest hurdles to understanding class is progressive religion’s concern for inclusion, which is theologically supported by portraying the divine as inclusive of all humanity. However, while inclusion is a common way to address matters of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, it makes little sense when dealing with issues of class. If class is not a matter of God-given diversity or other natural differences between people but produced in a conflictual relationship, whereby the power and success of one class is built on the back of the other, “celebrating diversity” would be counterproductive. Celebrating diversity in terms of class would make things worse by endorsing differences that are produced and conflictual, and which benefit some more than others (11).

As Rieger makes clear, even the inclusive God has limits.

What’s more, the plea for inclusion tends to surface among conservatives when the issue concerns economics. For a concrete example, one need only look at a recent David Brooks column. Brooks takes it upon himself to respond to The Piketty Phenomenon, arguing that the best way to reduce inequality (rather than class division) is to lift the bottom rather than punish the top through taxation. We should, as Brooks argues, “counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift” and take up the banner of inclusivity – “we’re all in this together.” For the proponents of inclusively – wither liberal religion or defenders of capitalism – talk of class division is a real downer.

Julian

I saw quite clearly that it is easier for us to attain knowledge of God than to know our own soul; for our soul is so deeply grounded in God, and so eternally treasured, that we cannot attain knowledge of it until we first know God, the Maker to whom it is united. But in spite of this, I saw that for complete understanding we have to long to know our own soul wisely and truly; and for this reason we are taught to search for it where it is to be found, and that is in God. And so by the gracious guidance of the Holy Ghost we should know them both at once, whether we are moved to know God or our soul; they are both good and true. 

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, 56.

According to several news outlets, yesterday marked a historic day for Seattle. Labor leaders, business leaders and city officials reached a deal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, as announced by Mayor Ed Murray.

In speaking about yesterday’s decision, Murray, regarded as a “social gospel Catholic,” quoted Pope Francis on social justice and income inequality.

Although the measure’s outcome is uncertain, it still is very interesting to note that Pope Francis’s rejection of market ideology has found some real world traction.

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (Evangelii Gaudium).

Pope Francis Pursues Sinner Across Vatican City Rooftops - The Onion

Pope Francis Pursues Sinner Across Vatican City Rooftops – The Onion

15

Notes for an upcoming research paper on the Anglo-Catholic Socialists 

In The Autobiography of a Christian Socialist, John Malcom Ludlow recalls one of his parish visits to a poverty stricken London neighborhood:

Another case placed under my charge was that of a slop-tailor in Duke Street, working with his family for Messrs Moses. He was a very decent man, and strange to say, whilst telling me of the low prices he received, and how he could only get on by putting his children to work on his garments as soon as they possibly could, and before they ought to do so, he bore no grudge to his employers, and according to the most orthodox doctrines of competitive plutonomy said he knew they could not pay more, or they would be cut out by their rivals. Although already a socialist at heart, and by this time in full intellectual and moral revolt against plutocracy, I could not find it in my heart to disturb the poor fellow’s faith in the Mammonite gospel, so long as I had nothing else to offer him. But as I went down those Duke Street stairs, I felt somewhat like the Scots Laird, about Charles the First’s execution, and wished that kings of slop work too might be taught that they ‘had a thirl in their necks’… (106).

More than one hundred years later, the battle against the “most orthodox doctrines of competitive plutonomy” are still with us today – Seattle’s 15 Now campaign comes to mind.

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