04 February 2011

A neo-Baroque theological-political programme

Contained herein are some loosely related thoughts through which I hope to honestly convey my own political convictions, and perhaps some justifications thereof. As my readers will probably be aware, I dislike the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and what they have come to mean. I do identify quite favourably with the modern democratic-socialist ‘left’, insofar as it goes, but for reasons which have more to do with the ‘conservative’ writings of Bp Richard Hooker, Fr Jonathan Swift, Dr Samuel Johnson, Mr Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mr Richard Oastler than with those of Mr Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though the motives of the modern left are attributed so often to envy (a true charge in some cases), there is a current which is existentially healthy, which takes an almost religious joy in small things and rejoices in the colourful vibrancy of the pagan traditions. I equate this tendency from my own perspective with the social Catholicism of the sort which equates a fully-sensory worship, a wild soul brimming with pagan energy beneath all of the bells and smells and trappings, with a desire to spread the same joy as broadly as possible among the people. Such a faith must see something profoundly offensive in human suffering, counselling not sullen forbearance and weak resignation to fate as the Calvinists did, but swift direct action against the sources of suffering. Though I don’t believe such a colourful and exuberant faith is exclusive to Christianity in the slightest – for example, I am convinced that Confucian thinking carries with it many of the same tendencies. My girlfriend, Jessie, certainly wouldn’t describe herself as ‘religious’, but I find she lives by many of the most admirable tendencies of Confucianism in her own life; as a result, she values herself and her friends very highly and has a very well-developed sense of justice and fair play. I very much admire and love her for it.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev, the Russian Orthodox existentialist whose writings and thought had a profound effect on my own, once compared the Western church to an imperial army – indeed equating it with Imperial Rome – with its formal hierarchies of the priesthood and the regimenting of thought ‘for battle, defence and attack’ under the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas. Of course, since writing that article I have grown more familiar with the thinking of St Thomas, and find that my own thinking is very much in accord with his. Now, following GK Chesterton, I might answer Berdyaev that perhaps Western Christendom’s blossoming of rules and formal institutions of the Church has been more an expression of our vital and creative energies than a need born of a frightened, corrupt hierarchy (both Church and secular) to stifle it. After all, the Catholic discipline has somehow managed to maintain itself in spite of many Popes and priests who did very many shady, nasty, ill-tempered, undisciplined and atrocious things. Even in England (where the Catholic Church was attacked by the gluttonous, adulterous and murderous King Henry VIII and his sycophantic nobles, where its early defenders were put to the torch and where its later defenders, like said King’s eldest daughter Queen Mary, responded with similar atrocities) the Catholic discipline has been maintained in the Church – even if as just a dissenting voice crying out in the wilderness.

So, what would this neo-Baroque programme for modern politics (as I implied in the title) involve? It is broadly inspired by Catholic social teaching and distributism, Confucianism, the work of Christian socialists such as Mr John Ruskin, Fr F D Maurice and Dr John Milbank, and of course the second-generation Tories I alluded to above.

On foreign policy, the self-determination of people within communities would need to be stressed. Cultural and economic imperialism – that is, the systematic imposition of structures, institutions and practices on one community by another for the material and political benefit of the imposing community – are to be completely disavowed. Violence, whether incidental or systemic, is to be avoided wherever possible; take non-intervention as the starting point with possible space for just war addenda in Bonhoefferian worst-case conditions. Insofar as discussion of ‘human rights’ and ‘free trade’ are insincere political ploys by which the global North can impose and further hegemony over the global South, such discussion is to be avoided. The conditions of global capitalism are to be either disrupted or fundamentally altered in the interests of the most impoverished.

On economic policy, the push should be for scale-free markets and for scale-free government, and a radical form of workplace democracy is to be encouraged. In a workplace democracy, small ventures are to be protected in their access to capital; while large ventures are to be structured such that all employees are automatically shareholders with decision-making power. Independent, trade- and industry-specific cooperatives (modelled on the mediaeval guild) are to be given greater legal protection and encouragement. The price mechanism is to be subject to executive adjustment to account for environmental and social externalities (with the well-being and self-sufficiency of the poorest families being the prime consideration). Institutions are to be structured such that small businesses and big businesses play by the same set of economic rules; also, executive power should be proportionally divided between local, state and federal levels as transaction costs and spread of externalities dictate, according to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Local politics should be as important, if not more, in the lives of the citizenry as national politics. (In addition to these Christian-socialist principles, I view the localist economic proposals as being in line with the Confucian principle of 推爱, and the concept of workplace democracy with the rectification of the four common occupations 仕农工商.)

My proposed social policies are likely to meet with the greatest resistance, at least in the United States, on account of their being philosophically alien to the American ethos. One idea is that independent landowners should be given, in accordance with their presence on and stewardship of a contiguous land holding, and contribution to a community of similar landowners, a token of social respect, perhaps in the form of formal titles (tied to the physical land itself rather than an abstraction such as an agribusiness or a system of credit). Small farmers are the lifeblood of the primary economy: vital to both food production and the sustenance of people and the economy, and to the conservation of the environment. Not only does the humble agricultural worker figure heavily and positively (in contrast to large-scale landlords) in the parables of Jesus; in traditional Confucian thinking, the small farmer 农 as a producer of food was second in importance (at least rhetorically) only to the gentleman-scholar 仕 as a producer of tradition and culture.

Ideally, a (constitutional) monarchy would also be established. Though this does seem to clash drastically with the egalitarian populism I have thus far described in my neo-Baroque system, I believe this to be a necessary step. I do observe that people have a psychological need to worship something greater than themselves; this need has not diminished in any way even under the great levelling of the liberal Enlightenment, and I believe this need must come under some kind of regulation. In the absence of a hereditary nobility with ties to the traditional duties of defence and service, we have witnessed instead the rise of hero-worship of the rich and famous (okay; I risk total self-defeating irony on this, but I seriously can’t resist now – a gratuitous Gamma Ray interlude!). Donald Trump, Paris Hilton and any number of popular entertainers (Tom Cruise? Angelina Jolie? Miley Cyrus? Shia LaBeouf?) elevated to millionaire status mystifyingly remain objects of our popular fascination and envy. Even more disturbing to me is that in the absence of traditional elites, charismatic elites take their place, who hold sway not by any kind of merit or obligation but by the force of their personality and by an ‘image’ that is elevated to cultic status (I’m thinking here of talk-show hosts and televangelists, though Ms Sarah Palin and her ‘fanbase’ might certainly qualify). I think CS Lewis truly put paid to this desire when he remarked:

Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked’; but watch the faces, mark the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach - men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

On other social issues, I have much to say, but it does attempt to thread a careful moderation between the two warring species of liberalism in our present age. As I have explained elsewhere, I subscribe to neither the ‘pro-life’ nor the ‘pro-choice’ ideology; I believe both contain errors. However, I believe that homosexuals are to be treated equally under the law and within society; full stop, no further elaboration needed.

On the question of women in the priesthood and on feminism in the broader sense… I stand with Ms Mary Astell and Ms Dorothy Sayers in the conviction that women are people and should be treated as such. Because women are, logically, created in imago Dei, there should be no bar to them serving as the heads of congregations and as representatives before God. Jesus argued with a Syrophoenician woman (also a foreigner!), and healed her daughter, in the Gospel of St Mark – something no other rabbi in that day would even have considered. St Mary Magdalene was among those teaching and casting out demons in Jesus’ name. In addition, we owe our integrity and honour as a branch of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the valour, intellectual prowess and generosity of one woman, the Head of the Church in England, Her Royal Highness Elizabeth I Tudor. Feminism must continue to be careful and self-critical, however, so as not to degenerate into mere ressentiment against men or against the liberating tendencies of the Abrahamic faiths, or to sell out to a neoliberal modernity which instrumentalises women and pits them against each other.

More to follow; for now I need to take a break.

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