29 September 2015

Some politically-incorrect truths about East Asia

This started as a Facebook post, but I was on a roll, so here I go:
  1. One cannot understand modern ‘Communist’ China by reading Mao Zedong or even Deng Xiaoping; you have to read John Dewey.
  2. North Korean state ideology of Juche is the brainchild (via Shin Chaeho and Choe Namseon) of Liang Qichao, and thus in turn, Herbert Spencer. Not Stalin.
  3. Mou Zongsan was actually more pro-establishment and authoritarian than Jiang Qing is. Mou (and all the new Ruists, actually) supported Chiang Kai-shek’s government and his work was officially sponsored; Jiang opposes the CCP and his books are officially banned.
  4. Mishima Yukio detested modern Japanese conservatives, seeing them as American flunkies.
  5. The Japanese LDP started off as a money-laundering racket and official ratline. They haven’t really outgrown their roots.
  6. Observant Daoists in Taiwan are actually pro-life and pro-family; Alan Watts has nothing to do with them.
  7. Ai Weiwei is very much a part of all the problems he condemns. So are all such modern ‘artists’.
  8. Liu Xiaobo is a racist neocon. Don’t listen to Salman Rushdie. Ever.
  9. Mo Yan’s books actually aren’t all that bad. See 8.
  10. The Dalai Lama is a supporter of Hindutva in India, which rather undermines his reputation as an Asian peace-builder.
  11. Most estimates of GLF famine deaths are drastically overstated, with the highest tallies including projected deaths of the unborn. But if you are counting the deaths of the unborn, Deng Xiaoping is a far greater mass-murderer, many times over, than Mao Zedong was.

The communitarianism of Ghostwriter

Recently my family have been cleaning out the basement, and especially the boxes of old VHS tapes that we had recorded in the basement. These are from when I was seven or eight years old, the early nineties. Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver were still on the air, and Deep Space Nine had just barely started. My sister and I, on the other hand, were heavily into a children’s programme developed jointly by BBC One and Children’s Television Workshop: Ghostwriter. An educational television show about a benevolent ghost who can communicate with children only through manipulating written words, and who helps them solve various crimes and missing-person cases, would of course be a timepiece, but there are other elements which make it look distinctly retro, even hokey now. The wardrobes, for one thing: Jamal and Lenni routinely dressed in outlandish hip-hop styled outfits which were, at the time, completely unironically meant to be with-it. (And they were awesome.) But there was another distinctly nineties element to Ghostwriter which went significantly deeper.

I’m speaking, of course, of its communitarian moment.

It’s a show in which the setting is as much a character as any of the characters are. Brooklyn, New York is much more than just a backdrop; it’s the matrix out of which each of the young gumshoes arises and understands him- or herself, and as such it’s almost as much of a character as any of the kids are.

Jamal Jenkins’s experience is as the cool-headed analytical younger son of a middle-class black family, who live in one of the old brownstones of the neighbourhood. That house itself has a history as the former home of Irish immigrants and childhood sweethearts (and later married couple) Catherine Canellan and Frank Flynn during the twenties, and as the original haunt of Ghostwriter. Lenni Frasier is the daughter of a widower musician, whose own musical talents, positive attitude and good-natured generosity are heartily appreciated by her school, by the local community organiser and later by a local record company. Alejandro and Gabriela Fernández represent the poor immigrant experience. Their parents are refugees from the civil war in El Salvador (a timely issue in 1992), and their struggles to stay afloat financially with their bodega underneath the Frasiers’ loft are always hanging in the background. We get hints that Alex and Gaby actively retain family ties to the old country, and that at least Gaby is observant in her Catholicism. (The sometimes not-so-neighbourly noise disputes between the Fernández and the Frasier families are also a recurring theme.) Tina Nguyễn, the A/V-savvy daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, often finds herself negotiating a path for herself between her traditional, Confucian-minded parents and her rebellious elder brother Tuan – respecting her parents’ commitments, customs and history yet still wanting her own space. And introverted (though often quite brash and impulsive) Rob Baker struggles with the loneliness and defensive isolation attached to being a military brat who is uprooted every few years by his father’s career.

In short, the Team is (probably deliberately) a cosmopolitan microcosm of the New York cityscape they inhabit, occupying different social strata and different perspectives, facing different problems at home and at school. However, they are united by a set of shared, local commitments. At stake in these mysteries they solve is usually some permutation of ‘our family’, ‘our friends’, ‘our school’, ‘our community garden’. Even though these are often coupled with leftish moral sentiments about pluralism or care for the homeless or education or environmental protection, these commitments are not first-order ideological in the slightest. They relate instead to the concrete expressions of the immediate community they all inhabit and call their own. In Ghostwriter there is a streak which is profoundly conservative in a crunchy, urban, city-block-and-neighbourhood way, and which sees intrinsic value in the institutions and structures which underwrite the lives of the mystery-solvers it follows.

And then there is Ghostwriter himself – the one who actively brings these kids together through a shared experience, who is strengthened by their friendship, and who works together with them to defend his home against ‘injustice, intolerance and people with bad attitudes’. Ghostwriter is a fount of wisdom, much of it old-fashioned and even platitudinous, and he routinely comforts and appeals to the better nature of his young friends among the living when they are struggling emotionally. But there is an element to Ghostwriter which, to a mind conditioned to cost-benefit analytical individualism, ought to come as frighteningly pre-rational or even downright irrational. Ghostwriter chooses to trust and reach out to these youths based on what appears to be a leap of faith; it is common when a new member sees Ghostwriter for the first time to ask: ‘Why me? Why did you choose me?’

And Ghostwriter practically never answers this question in a straightforward way. To Jamal, he writes: ‘Some things, you just feel’. When he shows himself to Tina, he says simply, ‘I like your stories’, though for Rob he waxes slightly more philosophical: ‘We chose each other’.

Part of this can and should be chalked up to a storytelling choice. Ghostwriter is meant to be mysterious, and his past is a blank other than his gender and that he was a person – just enough for us to build a human empathy with him. His decisions are not meant to be available, though, to us the viewers, partly because it would spoil the story. But it does put a further communitarian gloss on the story, since he doesn’t invest himself in abstractions or in causes or in contractual, ‘voluntary associations’. As we see as the stories progress, his associations with the Team are never fully-voluntary for him: he is invested heavily in this group of friends, in these particular people, and their lives in this neighbourhood. And he is never able or willing to fully, rationally explain why this is so.

Even though with Alex, Gaby and Tina especially, the immigrant experience was at the front of Kermit Frazier’s mind when he came up with the concept and wrote the story for Ghostwriter, and even though the writers are occasionally able to talk with some measure of sympathy (in Tina’s family’s case) about the Asian values that were then ascendant in American immigrant discourse, it’s doubtful whether either philosophical communitarianism or the communitarianism of broader policy discussions at the time was at the forefront of their minds as they wrote the show. Even so, the signs of the times seem to have left a powerful mark, even if it was not a deliberate one.

25 September 2015

A slightly disappointing speech

It is probably bad form to compare the pastoral styles of two different ecclesiarchs serving two highly different flocks, but it is what I intend to do here – briefly, anyway – and so I shall endeavour to do so with care and with caritas. I was in Saint George Cathedral in Worcester, Massachusetts on the 19th of July this year, when our Patriarch, His Beatitude John X of Antioch and All the East, came to visit the United States from Syria. I confess to having been awed at the presence of His Beatitude, who has already borne so much spiritual responsibility for a profoundly endangered flock, and who, living as he has done in Syria in the midst of the political turmoil, has already seen so much of the fear, flight, need, bloodshed and material wrack of the civil war – and yet faced it without growing bitter or cynical. In light of this spiritual strength he showed, I made it a point to listen with care to his homily.

He spoke to us both in English and in Arabic. His homily was concise, pointed and direct, having very much to do with the specific geopolitical situation from which he had emerged. Even in the midst of killings, repressions and abductions (including those of Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo and Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim), he bore both words of hope – that Christians through Christ are the light of the world even in the midst of such darkness – and of exhortation, of challenge. Christians must stay in the Middle East; ‘we cannot imagine the Middle East without the existence of Christians’. The hopeful message, that of familial and organic oneness in Christ, even throughout the world; and the challenge, an unpopular message to hear in some quarters (including official ones) who would rather that Middle Eastern Christians did not exist, that Christ’s family must be rooted in its own homeland – both were delivered in gravitas, in a language which bore the full weight of the subject.

On the other hand, Pope Francis’s speech to Congress (of which the full text may be found here, courtesy of Mark Shea), though longer and more wide-ranging, was mildly disappointing and, I dare say, overly-diplomatic. I must first caution, that I do not have that many problems with Pope Francis’s stated anthropology and politics, on the occasions where he does state them clearly and unambiguously. I have absolutely no problem with his care for immigrants and refugees, with his advocacy for the environment, with his solidarity with the poor. I was delighted when he mentioned, in particular, Dorothy Day. Yet the diplomatic way, even the America-centric way, in which he delivered his remarks, offered little but flattery to the Senate he was addressing. In no sense, listening to his remarks, would one be called to mind that there might be a moral crisis of any kind facing that same chamber! Pope Francis came close, so infuriatingly close, on two points: on abolishing the death penalty and on ending the arms trade. On other evils, like homelessness, hunger, unemployment, abortion… his address was, shall we say, more oblique.

I wonder if part of this diplomatic approach may be an attempt to ward off certain popular conceptions of his political agenda. Certainly misconceptions about Pope Francis abound, as does ridiculously stupid commentary on the same (most of it from The Federalist and First Things). But these are ultimately surface-level problems. The big problem is an ecclesiological one. Listen to how he is introduced to Congress by the Speaker: ‘Pope Francis of the Holy See’. He is not presented in his religious capacity; he is speaking to them as the political sovereign and head of the nation-city-state of the Vatican. We shouldn’t be surprised that he is speaking with the eggshell caution of a diplomat, when those are in fact the terms on which he is engaging Congress – as a visiting, secular head of state to a foreign nation! (Thanks be, though it’s hardly a surprise, that his sense of decorum and respect clearly exceed those of Benjamin Netanyahu.)

This is one of the dangers that haunts the unbalancing of relations between Church and state. Praxis follows from doxa: if the Church takes on the powers and privileges of the state, and organises itself along the same lines as the state, we should not be surprised when it begins to act like a state amongst other states. A millennium ago, when the ‘reforming’ Popes of post-Schismatic Rome began to see themselves as the head of their own state, in the same capacity as feudal kings, they began to wrangle with kings over rights of episcopal nomination and investiture. (The reverse danger, of course, is what has historically haunted the Orthodox clerics: the abdication of powers over Church matters to secular authorities.) But papocæsarism, as can be seen, does not always embolden the clerical authorities which assume the secular authority of states.

None of this is meant to bash Pope Francis, of course. As I said, when he explicates clearly his views on society and politics I find I agree with him far more often than not. At the same time, after his speech to Congress, as such a supporter I found my expectations somewhat deflated.

22 September 2015

Sam Crane and the ‘village people’

… No, I don’t mean those Village People, macho man. If there is one ideal type for which Confucius and his follower Mencius reserve their most unsparing and scathing commentary, it is that of the xiangyuan 鄉原, which translates loosely to ‘village worthy’, or as Legge puts it in his rather more prolix fashion, ‘good, careful people of the villages’. Mencius says of them (in the Legge translation):
They are those who say, “Why are they so magniloquent? Their words have not respect to their actions and their actions have not respect to their words, but they say, ‘The ancients! The ancients!’ Why do they act so peculiarly, and are so cold and distant? Born in this age, we should be of this age, to be good is all that is needed.” Eunuch-like, flattering their generation – such are your good careful men of the villages…

If you would blame them, you find nothing to allege. If you would criticise them, you have nothing to criticise. They agree with the current customs. They consent with an impure age. Their principles have a semblance of right-heartedness and truth. Their conduct has a semblance of disinterestedness and purity. All men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right, so that it is impossible to proceed with them to the principles of Yao and Shun. On this account they are called “thieves of virtue”.


Dr. Sam Crane’s working paper, which he seems to be revisiting, comes very, very close to ‘thieving virtue’ in a sense that Mencius would have deplored. Once again, in it, one sees a certain degree of worry over Confucianism’s irrelevance in modern American life. ‘Confucianism is not catching on the United States,’ reads the very first sentence. This is a concern that I tend to share, if only on account of the fact that Americans need to expand their philosophical horizons to encompass something deeper than the thin but all-permeating cultural demands and expectations of personal self-gratification, self-serving ‘rights’ paradigms and consequentialism. Americans desperately need to let go of their lusts for wealth and war and material comfort, and Confucianism was (at least my own) first step into a much broader philosophical world, even though I didn’t ultimately stay there. So I do have some personal stake in this project.

It seems, to his credit, that some of these issues are not lost on Dr. Crane. The United States, as ‘the global hegemon, the core of the world-economy and the frontrunner in military might… engendered, in the minds of many of its citizens, a certain cultural and ideological self-satisfaction … an “arrogance of power” narrowed the national focus’. But that is exactly what makes the sequel so frustrating. None of this cultural or ideological self-satisfaction, none of this arrogance of power, none of this narrow national focus in American life goes questioned further, let alone challenged, in the entire course of this paper. Globalism is praised as bringing ideas into contact with each other, and as bringing about a heightened consciousness of China as a geopolitical competitor and trading partner, but the centrality and the privileged hegemonic position of American political and economic ideologies are never questioned, only assumed.

The crux and conclusion of the essay is precisely the single biggest intellectual complaint I have had against Dr. Crane from the very beginning, and that is that he is not interested in bringing Confucian voices into interlocution with American liberalism, but rather making Confucianism synonymous with and supportive of American liberal values, practice and zeitgeist. He champions the Kantian democrat Mou Zongsan, the man who denied the possibility of a distinctively-Confucian metaphysics, and rejects the comprehensive and radical Confucian Jiang Qing. He wants to strip Confucianism of its entire critique of institutions and politics, seeing in such a predilection for ‘centralized political power and authoritarian pre-modern social practices’ which might make it uncomfortable to sheltered American ears. The political aspect of Confucian thinking must be cut out and thrown away, to leave space for an entirely individualised understanding of Confucian role-ethics, which in the end is a self-defeating proposition. A communitarian question presents itself: how does one even get as far as understanding social roles and responsibilities in such a context? If all individuals are self-defining, infinitely malleable, and not answerable to authorities outside themselves, how can we even say they are interdependent? In short, Confucianism, in order to render itself agreeable to American audiences and their sensibilities, must cut off its own balls. ‘Eunuch-like, flattering their own generation – such are your good careful men of the villages.’

Precisely those loci of ideas (including political and institutional ideas) where a Confucian interlocution might have the most positive impact: these are the ideas and subjects Dr. Crane would prefer Confucians not to touch. Confucians must be made to ‘agree with the current customs’ and ‘consent with an impure age’. ‘Philosophies and religions’, he argues, ‘must flow with the political-economic tide’: a tide which is ‘inexorable’, a tide which is globalist, capitalist and atomising. Even though a Mouist-Confucian concept of an interdependent self might be allowable, in Dr. Crane’s view, if it pays sufficient tribute to a libertarian understanding of government. Dr. Crane inveighs against any kind of Confucian political commitment in typically vulgar right-libertarian terms, repeatedly invoking permutations of a Rothbardian language of ‘coercion’ and ‘force’ to polemicise against Jiang’s constitutional proposals. Anything which questions the political ‘presumptions of personal independence and autonomy’ is to be thrown out a priori for its ‘unsuitability’. ‘Born in this age, we should be of this age.’

And this is ironic. Dr. Crane likes to use the language of fate when describing globalism. But we are seeing, worldwide – not only in the BRICS countries and the Third World, but in Western Europe as well – a growing grassroots resistance to the demands of capitalist globalism, both on the political left and on the political right. In Eastern and Southern Europe, in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia, there is a growing dissatisfaction with: the unfairness of the global economy; the growing gap between a transnational, jet-setting, obscenely-wealthy elite and an increasingly-uprooted global poor; the realities of climate change; the immense human failures and tragic devastations of NATO-led foreign policy. All of it bespeaks a deep crisis in the very institutions which Dr. Crane refuses to allow Confucianism to examine in-depth. Jiang Qing’s deep institutional dismantling of both Chinese and global modernity, motivated as it is by concerns for the world’s ecology as well as concerns of economic fairness, may in fact have far more intellectual firepower behind it for the moral needs of our age, than the eunuch-like flattery of a faux-Confucian ‘village-people’ ideology which serves as a handmaiden to Western politics.

21 September 2015

On the dangers of money

Cross-posted from Christian Democracy Magazine:

On Labour Day I began to write up the beginnings of an exploration of the thoughts of the Fathers on political economy. I started with a reflection on the nature of work and wealth, referring to the Early Church Fathers and the social teachings of the Orthodox Church. In light of one quote from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, I promised I would then write another essay, expanding somewhat on a Patristic understanding of money. As I mentioned in that essay, the topic of money is a rather difficult one to broach. When attempting to mount a Patristic treatment of the subject, one is immediately confronted with a vast array of quotes on the dangers of money to souls, especially those of the rich! The exhortation in the Didache to ‘not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own’ – money being very much included in this – is echoed repeatedly, incessantly, by the holy Fathers and Saints of the Church.

Says S. Augustine of Hippo, ‘That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy.’

Says S. Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Grasping after money and superiority engenders either anger with his kith and kin, or pride towards his inferiors, or envy of those above him; then hypocrisy comes in after this envy; a soured temper after that; a misanthropical spirit after that; and behind them all a state of condemnation which ends in the dark fires of hell.’

Says S. Aurelius Ambrosius, Archbishop of Milan: ‘Nature, which begets all poor, does not know the rich. For we are neither born with raiment nor are we begotten with gold and silver.’

And once again, S. John Chrysostom puts things in the starkest possible way: ‘The desire of money, when it is set before one, permits not to hear the word concerning almsgiving; and malice when it is present raises a wall against the teaching concerning love; and some other malady falling on in its turn, makes the soul yet more dull to all things.’

The first way money is talked about amongst the Fathers is as a danger and a ‘tyranny’ to the soul, and that desire for it arises from, again in the words of S. John Chrysostom, ‘vainglory and extreme slackmindedness’. But what is it about money that makes it so dangerous to the health of the soul? The key to this question lies in understanding what money does and what it is used for. Many people – indeed, many Christians – will say that money is harmless in itself, that it is a mere medium of exchange, a measuring-tool meant to stand in for wealth, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with or wicked about a person having wealth. This line of argumentation is particularly popular on the American political right, when seeking to provide not so much a theological justification as an excuse (often assumed rather than defended) for various existing forms of inequality.

In some sense it is true that there is nothing wrong, first-order, with being a wealthy person; the Fathers did not condemn anyone solely for being wealthy. But we must bear in mind the Fathers’ understanding that, in a post-Edenic reality, all of man’s senses and abilities are darkened by sin, and even the nature of wealth itself has changed. In the wake of the Fall, the nature of work shifted from a primary emphasis on glorifying and praising God, to a primary emphasis on self-preservation and sustenance – ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. We may therefore also say that the nature of wealth has shifted along with it. Because work and wealth are teleologically related to each other, when work became something primarily earthly, wealth did so as well. When work is undertaken for the sake of bodily survival, wealth becomes that which sustains, enriches or pleases the bodily human life, ‘the flesh’ (σάρξ).

Theologically speaking, then, there is something very, very dangerous about wealth, and this danger is tied, again teleologically, to the wrongness of understanding work as only that which is undertaken for personal gain, rather than that which is undertaken for the glory of God. This attitude is best demonstrated by S. Isaac the Syrian when he says, ‘These are the causes of sin: wine, women, riches, and robust health of body. Not that by their nature these things are sins, but that nature readily inclines towards the sinful passions on their account, and for this reason man must guard himself against them with great care.’ The kind of moral neutrality, even nonchalance, evinced by all too many American religious about wealth – the glib, convenient gloss that it is not wealth that is dangerous but rather overvaluing it emotionally – is simply not in line with Patristic thinking on the subject. Once again, S. John Chrysostom puts it best: ‘in the matter of piety… wealth becomes an obstacle even for those who do not devote themselves to it’.

This is the first of money’s spiritual dangers. But, some clarification must be made before explaining the second. It must be rightly understood that Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians use visual representations – ikons and statuary – to give glory to Our Lord Christ and with him the Holy Trinity, to the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, to the Saints and Mothers and Fathers of the Church; we use these representations of the holy image and likeness of God to help us do the work of God in prayer. As S. John of Damascus says in defence of the use of holy images: ‘with the material picture before our eyes we see the invisible God through the visible representation, and glorify Him as if present, not as a God without reality, but as a God who is the essence of being.’ We honour God not only through thought and idea, but also through the senses, through sight, touch, smell and taste. This is not idolatry, because we direct our prayers and veneration not to the wood and paint of the ikons, nor the stone of the statuary, but to the real persons which are represented by them. The senses are the windows of the soul, and worship happens through the senses.

The same senses, though, and the same propensity for worship through them, can be turned to wrong uses. ‘In like manner thou, though thou worship not the gold, yet thou worshipest that devil who springeth on thy soul, from the sight of the gold and thy lust for it. For more grievous than an evil spirit is the lust of money-loving, and many obey it more than others do idols,’ so preaches S. John Chrysostom, who knows full well the idolatrous uses to which money could be put. Money is indeed a medium of exchange, but it is also a visual representation of wealth, and is therefore dangerous in another way. As a visual and tangible representation of earthly wealth, which for all its worldly power is still something more conceptual than tangible, money has the danger of being used as an idol of wealth, and being ascribed an a priori ontological weight, a fetishism of ‘intrinsic value’, which it does not deserve. The same goes for the material from which money is derived. Again, as S. John Chrysostom said: ‘the value of a substance does not come from its name but from what we think about it… gold brings nothing useful into our lives, but iron serves countless arts and supplies many of our needs’.

The idolatries of money and wealth are, unfortunately, heavily embedded in all too much of present-day economic thinking and theory; and these idolatries obscure wealth’s teleological connexion to work, warp our understanding of what money and wealth actually are, and pervert them to serve ends other than those they should rightfully serve. It is important to note that when we speak of questions of work and wealth, we are not speaking only of matters of private concern, or of choices between morally-neutral options to be made from behind a veil of ignorance. We are speaking of whom (or what) we individually and as a society choose to worship and glorify, and Our Master Himself said that we cannot serve two at once.

12 September 2015

Pointless video post – ‘Drowning in a Daydream’ by Corrosion of Conformity

More Corrosion of Conformity for y’all, gentle readers. Hempy, sludgy, bluesy, whisky-fuelled Southern rock from some of the true masters of the genre. In this case, though, the lyrics aren’t the usual pro-Third World, anti-neoliberal thrashy revolutionary political anger one might expect – there’s a psychedelic, introspective, oddly religious lyricism to this song in particular. The riffing is there, of course, but this song rides much more on the rhythm, such that it catches up to you and you start headbanging before you know what you’re about. Weird how they do that, eh? As always, do enjoy!

07 September 2015

On work and wealth: a Labour Day post

One of the dangers I have sometimes attempted to address here is the attempt to graft an ersatz of Christian moralism onto a framework of quasi-Christian or even anti-Christian economic concepts. Invariably, these concepts are presented as irreducibly ‘sound’, and thus pre-emptively exempted from any Christian critique. The Acton Institute seems to be one organisation which makes an art of this kind of wallpapering. I should note up front once again, that I have nothing in particular against the members of the Acton Institute themselves; only against their distortions, wilful or otherwise, of the Christian witness as it applies to questions of the material realm. And, of course, their distortions of the views of various Christian authors ranging from Vladimir Solovyov and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov to Clive Staples Lewis.

Of course, setting the record straight on what these authors actually said and thought is very much a necessity. But as the Orthodox Church is beginning to build a corpus of social thought – the most prominent of the documents in this corpus being the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, written in 2000 – it seems the more important and daunting task will be to begin asking and exploring the depth of the inquiries begun by this document in the light of the Patristic witness. This task becomes even more urgent as the necessities of economic involvement begin to spur ideas and initiatives like the alternative Orthodox financial system recently proposed by the Moscow Patriarchate. Instead of presuming the ‘soundness’ of the regnant principles of a de-personalised, globalist, secular economy, should we not instead be scrutinising the ethical and anthropological assumptions that underlie these principles? Should we not be looking instead to harmonise our economic praxis with beliefs that accord with the ethics and anthropology of the Church?

What do the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Church have to say, in short, about the nature of man’s labour – both as it exists in a fallen world, and as it should be as we strive for union with God? What do the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Church have to say about wealth, its acquisition, its purpose and its disposal? And what role do both Church and state play in this process?

Firstly, the purpose of labour. When the Church Fathers speak of honest labour, of labour in a morally positive sense, they do not speak of it as being aimed firstly toward self-enrichment or toward acquisition of wealth. The basic and fundamental character of work, in the words of S. Basil the Great, takes ‘the good pleasure of God’ as its goal, and seeks to ‘satisfy our debt of gratitude to Him who gave us the power to do the work’; or in the negative, as S. Mark the Ascetic puts it, labour which is not ‘done for God’, is ‘in vain’. We are called to imitate God in our work, who as S. Justin Martyr says, ‘created in His goodness everything out of shapeless matter for the sake of men’: we are therefore meant to work as co-creators with God, having been fashioned in the image and likeness of God. Just as God created all things for our benefit, so must our creative activity be ultimately aimed at the benefit of others, to thus participate in the creative work of God.

Indeed, this is the general thrust of the Basis of the Social Concept’s teaching on labour. ‘Labour is the creative fulfilment of man who was called to be the co-creator and co-worker of the Lord by virtue of his original likeness of God.’ But in a post-Edenic world, in a fallen world wherein man is mortal and sinful, man must labour in order to sustain himself: ‘the creative component of labour weakened to become mostly a means of sustenance for the fallen man’ (VI.1). Labour is tied to the need to eat, to survive – there are ‘two moral motives of labour: work to sustain oneself without being a burden for others and work to give to the needy’ (VI.4). Labour which runs against this need, or which denies it to others, is not morally sanctioned; as S. Augustine says, ‘whatever work men perform without guilt and trickery is good’. S. John Chrysostom goes still further in his Homilies, when he tells the wealthy people listening to him: ‘If thou tellest one of money-getting, and of traffick, and of the increase of thy goods; I would also say unto thee, Not these, but alms, and prayers, and the protection of the injured, and all such things, are truly works’. Likewise, labour which does not meet the standard of provision for oneself and for one’s family points to a moral failing, but not of the labourer: ‘refusal to pay for honest work is not only a crime against man, but also a sin before God’ (VI.6) – and again, ‘every one should have resources sufficient for life in dignity’ (VII.1).

There is always the exhortation to the labourer, in reading the Fathers, that labour must be honest, that it must be creative, that it must be done in a way which pays honour to God. But on the other hand, we can already begin to see a connexion in Patristic and Orthodox thinking – a meaningful moral connexion, in fact – between the question of labour and the question of wealth. Not the ideal, but the baseline moral standard in a post-Edenic economy, is that a labourer must be given the means to work honestly, and in so doing, provide for himself. The necessities of consumption must match in some direct and meaningful way the capacity for production. If the fruits of a labourer’s productivity do not allow him the wealth sufficient to live a dignified life – including basic necessities (food, clothes, shelter), social well-being (family), and the opportunity for rest and for worship of God – there is a moral and spiritual failure within the system wherein he works.

Such a moral and spiritual failure becomes evident when, for example, in the American economy productivity has steadily increased, but compensation has largely stayed stagnant, with the gains from the productivity increase accruing to the top percentiles of earners. Such a moral and spiritual failure is made clear when a worker must spend between 53 and 100 hours a week working honestly at the minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rental rates, in any state in the United States. We are living in a society wherein the productivity of the worker has been thoroughly and systemically detached from the wealth he creates. This goes directly against the wisdom of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Lest one be tempted to think or argue that this Patristic connexion between work and wealth is a problem which is relegated to the past and can have no relevance to the present, wherein questions of scarcity have been solved or made irrelevant: this connexion has been made, explicitly and urgently, in our own day, by the Church hierarchs. In 2010, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia made the following statement (italics mine):
The modern economy is built largely on fraud, creating money out of thin air. [Money is] equivalent to human work and the riches God has given us: namely coal, ore, oil, our intellect, our physical labour, our culture and our spirituality. [But today,] every company produces its own money in the form of shares, which in the secondary market, rather than acting as simple securities, are used as items of trade and speculation. If these spectres earn billions, not being backed by real labour or capital, how can such an economy exist? And what becomes of the simple worker, who produces the value behind this entire bubble! [We need] a fair economic system, where money and capital are equivalent and are the expression of real work.
This quote gets into a discussion of money, which is connected with but distinct from wealth; and the Patristic and Orthodox approach to money is perhaps a topic for another essay. However, His Holiness’s basic point is that an economy cannot be just or fair that decouples wealth, or rather the markers of wealth, from the real value produced by work. Additionally, an economic system in which private banks or corporations create markers of wealth for themselves, which fail to represent the full scope of the creative work of God – whether in natural or human riches – is in essence a form of fraud, and falls under the condemnation of S. Augustine.

This gap between the economic praxis of the modern world on the one hand, and the moral needs of the human beings who live in it on the other, ought to deeply trouble all Christians, and Orthodox Christians not least of all. It ought to trouble us that the modern ideology of homo œconomicus on which market behaviour is theorised, is not Patristic, but instead ultimately based on the neo-paganism of the Renaissance, beginning with Machiavelli and Hobbes. In light of these considerations, the Russian Church must be applauded for having the boldness to begin a serious exploration of the wealth of Patristic wisdom and the Apostolic deposit, to answer questions of persisting importance in our own times – and for doing it in a sane, measured and humane way. However, much work (so to speak) yet remains to be done.

This article was cross-posted to Christian Democracy Magazine.

04 September 2015

Radical politics of anachronism

Last month, the Washington Examiner upbraided two Democratic contenders for the Presidency, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, for wanting to ‘turn back the clock’i. It would seem a rather strange assertion to make, Democrats tending to think of themselves as ‘progressive’; the proposal for which they’d earned the charge of being backward-looking was, in fact, the reinstatement of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act aimed at reregulating the banking system and possibly undoing the poisonous effects of those ‘too big to fail’.

Shortly afterward, Jeremy Corbyn – the left-leaning, anti-war MP currently running for the Labour leadership – has been accused of trying to ‘cling to the past’ii by his own party-mates and competitors for the leadership. Again, the reactionary proposal which earned him such scorn was not anything which can remotely be regarded as in any sense right-leaning: the anachronism of which he stands accused is that of reaffirming public ownership of, among other things, the Royal Mail, the railway system and Britain’s energy infrastructureiii.

It would appear a strange charge coming from conservatives that they would attempt to attack those to their left – O’Malley, Sanders and Corbyn – as being reactionary in some way. However, it is interesting to note that these candidates (in an American context, at least) are appealing, albeit rather haphazardly and from within institutions where their views are marginal, to an idiosyncratically conservative set of perspectives and policy priorities, in a language that may indeed seem out-of-step with the times. The fact is that they are appealing to at least that much: the language at least, if not the substance, of a movement belonging to a bygone age.

The 1890’s saw, in the rural America which is now thought of as the Republican heartland, one of the most sweeping and most radical movements in our history was taking place: the agrarian revolt which found expression in the People’s Party. This agrarian revolt, reacting to an inhumane crop-lien system which placed hundreds of thousands of farmers, white and black, into permanent and degrading economic dependence on ‘furnishing merchants’ (that is to say, loan sharks), issued a resounding call for: currency reform to broaden access to credit for the ‘industrial millions’; a graduated income tax; the establishment of a public postal savings banking system; and public ownership of – what else? – the railways, telecommunications infrastructure and postal systemiv.

This agrarian movement, the Farmers’ Alliance, was based on both the idea and the practice of collective self-help: farmers involved in the revolt gradually found that they had to organise marketing cooperatives to get decent prices on their crops and fair terms on shipment and taxation, as well as consumer cooperatives to bargain collectively for the capital they needed to grow them. However, they soon found that merchants and financiers were conspiring to undermine their cooperative efforts, and that these efforts themselves were on shaky ground thanks to the hard-money currency system favoured by large banks. Under gold-standard induced currency contraction throughout the 1870’s and ‘80’s, farmers found their crops decreasing in value and their mortgages getting harder to bear under rising rates. The educational trial-and-error experiences of the farmers involved in these cooperatives convinced them that a wholesale overhaul of the nation’s financial system in favour of the indebted masses, and a nationalisation scheme to forestall speculation and abusive tolls on the new shipping infrastructure, were necessary to relieve the farmers’ debt burden.

But even at the time they were most active, they were derided and ignored as backwards, as economic illiterates, as people who wanted to ‘turn back the clock’ rather than progress boldly into the future. ‘Populists in their own time derived their most incisive power’, Duke historian Lawrence Goodwyn writes, ‘from the simple fact that they declined to participate in a central element of the emerging American faith. In an age of progress and forward motion, they had come to suspect that Horatio Alger was not real.’ Tragically, the Populists were thwarted by the triangulations of their own elected officials. The gold standard was, for some while, retained. A system of popular credit which would distribute the ownership and productive power of the nation’s agriculture and industry into as many private hands as possible was never so much as considered. Instead, the Federal Reserve was created to shield from view the activities of the shakers and movers of the Gilded Age, the consolidating financiers. And the future into which a forward-looking, progressive, Republican-led nation boldly strode, beginning with the election of 1896, was one of penury, humiliation and crushing debt for millions of rural Southern farmers, spanning three full generationsv.

But still deeper among the tragedies of the Populists, according to Goodwyn, is that their defeat presaged a new society and a new set of cultural expectations which were entirely structured according to the interests of the financial elites. These corporate and financial elites did not, of course, object to ‘progressive’ reforms, as long as they were carefully stage-managed from within the political class they controlled, and as long as they were approached in timid, incremental terms which left these same elites unthreatened. But it was progress that came at a cost. In Goodwyn’s words, by the twentieth century, ‘a consensus thus came to be silently ratified: reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society. This conclusion… had the effect of removing from mainstream reform politics the idea of people in an industrial society gaining significant degrees of autonomy in the structure of their own lives.’

Even nowadays, as both the Sanders campaign in America and the Corbyn campaign in Britain show, challenging certain prevailing ‘economic customs’ of the neoliberal corporate society is a remarkably easy way of being branded as out-of-step with the times. It is worthwhile to note, though, that the candidates who are using populistic language and appealing to a populistic worldview in the United States, are not doing so in the organised way that the Alliance and Populist statesmen of 125 years ago did.

To be fair to him, Sanders (along with sympathetic libertarians like Ron Paulvi) has raised the issue of auditing the Federal Reserve in the pastvii, and indeed has followed up on it some with, for example, the aforementioned proposal to break up the ‘too big to fail’ banksviii. And Corbyn is tapping into a common set of cultural complaints among particularly the disaffected youth of Britain. But proposals like theirs come from the top down and require a specialised knowledge of policy, the likes of which the original Farmers’ Alliance and the Populist movement inculcated in all of its members through the experience of the cooperatives. As Goodwyn points out quite astutely, such proposals cannot become the basis for a broad-based movement (and indeed, will often fall prey to other, divisive and sectarian, forms of symbolic politics along the way) unless they are accompanied by an equally broad-based collective experience of the logic of the credit market.

The sophisticated critiques of credit which they adapted from the Yankee greenbackers would in some important ways presage the slightly-later critiques of British thinkers like Gilbert Chesterton, Arthur Penty and especially Alfred Orage and Cecil Douglas – whose ideas, like those of the Alliancemen, were also adapted into various cooperative and social-credit movements in Britain and Canadaix. But the Alliancemen of Texas, Georgia, Kansas and Arkansas showed, perhaps, a distinctively North American faith in the democratic idea, and they followed it as far as it would lead. In their own day, that faith was downtrodden by the forces of progress – particularly as they coopted the democratic language and used it to justify a culture which severed the lives and livelihoods of the plain folk from the knowledge of the systems that governed them. But if Sanders and Corbyn are indeed facing backwards on a Populist-light platform, they would do well to take heed while they have full view: the history of the original Populists would seem to suggest that, for better or for worse, the question which governs their success or failure will in all likelihood lie in the educative potential of the grassroots.

i Lawler, Joseph. ‘Progressives try to turn back the clock’, Washington Examiner, 20 July 2015. Hyperlink: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/progressives-try-to-turn-back-the-clock/article/2568394 (accessed 25 August 2015).
ii The Telegraph. ‘Jeremy Corbyn accused of turning back clock to 1970s over Clause IV’, 9 August 2015. Hyperlink: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/11793177/Jeremy-Corbyn-accused-of-turning-back-clock-to-1970s-over-Clause-IV.html (accessed 22 August 2015).
iii BBC News. ‘Jeremy Corbyn backs greater public ownership for Labour’, 11 August 2015. Hyperlink: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-33839819 (accessed 22 August 2015).
iv George Mason University. ‘The Omaha Platform: launching the Populist Party’. Hyperlink: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5361/ (accessed 22 August 2015).
v Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic promise: the Populist moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
vi Paul, Ronald E. ‘Audit the Federal Reserve’, last updated June 2010. Hyperlink: http://www.ronpaul.com/audit-the-federal-reserve-hr-1207/ (accessed 30 August 2015).
vii Sanders, Bernard. ‘The Fed audit’, 21 July 2011. Hyperlink: http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/the-fed-audit (accessed 30 August 2015).
viii Sanders, Bernard. ‘Sanders files bill to break up big banks’, 6 May 2015. Hyperlink: http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/sanders-files-bill-to-break-up-big-banks (accessed 30 August 2015).
ix MacPherson, Crawford B. Democracy in Alberta: the theory and practice of a quasi-party system. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953.