Christian Democracy for the Secular Left

by Elias Blum

Today I had the pleasure of attending a lecture on ‘Transforming Capitalism through Real Utopias’, given by Prof. Erik Olim Wright, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The lecture was both insightful and inspiring. Prof. Wright opened with a statement that the social sciences have no moral purpose if they are not engaged in the process of making the world a better place – understood in terms of reducing suffering and increasing human flourishing. A ‘critical and engaged’ social science, he argued, must first accept that many causes of suffering and many deficits in human flourishing are caused by economic, political and social structures, and then acknowledge that these structures could – and so should – be changed for the better. All music to my soul.

This moral call-to-arms issued, the speaker then proceeded to outline his main argument: that capitalism, in its ceaseless push for ‘growth’, causes gross inequalities of wealth and power, undermining democracy, destroying the environment, and stunting the lives of many people. He acknowledged that ameliorative reforms, such as those carried out by European Social Democrats in the 20th century, could go a long way to taming and moderating capitalism, restraining its bad effects and providing the conditions for a more flourishing life for many, but argued that these reforms were external to capitalism; capitalism itself offers no succour to any but the winners. Ultimately, capitalism needed to be replaced, or at least relegated to the position of no longer being the ‘only game in town’. This replacement, he argued, should not come about as a result of a sudden revolutionary rupture, since that tended to produce violence and tyranny – adding to, rather than reducing, humanity’s woes. Rather, it should come about through a gradual change in the economic balance, away from an economy of corporations and wage-debt serfs, and towards a more variegated economic model – one in which mutuals, co-operatives, non-profit organisations, social enterprises, and other such non-capitalist forms of economy activity would co-exist alongside, and in many areas displace, capitalist forms.

What struck me most profoundly was that the speaker – both in his critique of capitalism and his proposed way forward to a better society – seemed to have very much in common with Christian Democratic ideas. There was the same desire for pluralism, co-operative solidarity and subsidiarity. The same use the interventionist democratic state to create the frameworks of flourishing through ameliorative reform to capitalism, whilst also encouraging non-state institutions (like co-operatives, mutuals, social finance etc) that would ‘be the change we want to see’ – the shoots of a non-capitalist sector, incipiently decommodifying the economy.

Yet the speaker did not acknowledge any intellectual connection to the Christian Democratic tradition. He had not engaged with Christian Democratic thought at all – and seemed, when questioned, to be unable to conceive of a Christian approach to politics which was anything other than reactionary.

This is symptomatic of a general lack of familiarity with the Christian Democratic tradition in the English-speaking world. The vocabulary and conceptual frameworks draw on unfamiliar biblical and Aristotelian themes which have been lost under the shadow of Hobbesian liberalism. This is a shame, because the Christian Democratic tradition offers much that we are desperately seeking: a compelling and timely critique of the evils of neo-liberal capitalism, together with a better alternative which is practical, achievable and sustainable, rooted in a more balanced and fully humane way of thinking about ourselves, our society, our work, our consumption, our needs and our obligations. And, at the heart of it all, is a commitment to love, to right relationships, and to human dignity, that connects with our very highest and best aspirations.

Those on the secular left – Civic Republicans, Left-Liberals, Social Democrats, Ecologists – have much to learn from Christian Democracy, just as Christian Democrats have much to learn from these ideologies of the secular left. Great progressive change in Europe was achieved by the pragmatic cooperation of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in the middle decades of the 20th century – in consolidating democracy after the second world war, and in building-up the welfare state and the social-market economy.

Today, all those on the left, and all those who side with the ‘99%’, need to stick together in order to achieve political and programmatic victories. Even if there are differences of fundamental internal philosophy amongst us, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, and ‘Faith, Hope, Love’ are not so very far apart when it comes to the brass tacks of economic reform – both necessarily stand on the side of the little guy, and against the powerful and privileged.

So consider this the prologue to a series of short introductory articles on Christian Democracy, aimed specifically (although not exclusively) at those on the secular left. These will outline the nature of Christian Democracy (as an ideology and a political and social movement), cover some basic definitions and concepts, and perhaps also compare and contrast Christian Democracy to other, better known, ideological traditions.