Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: September, 2013

The Principles of a Radical Alternative

In a previous post, I discussed the futility of the Labour Party and the absence of both bold policies and sound principles on the left.

This post does not discuss policies. It does, however, set out to elucidate some principles, some basic ideological foundations on which a critique of neo-liberal capitalism can be articulated and a better alternative built.

So here goes:

(1) The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation

(2) Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.

(3) The choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens. The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them.

(4) Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.

(5) Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.

(6) It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.

(7) In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person.

(8) By common good is to be understood “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

(9) The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority. It consists of three essential elements:

(a) First, the common good presupposes respect for the person as such. In the name of the common good, public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. Society should permit each of its members to fulfill his vocation.

(b) Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.

(c) Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means thesecurity of society and its members. It is the basis of the right to legitimate personal and collective defense.

(10) Each human community possesses a common good which permits it to be recognized as such; it is in the political community that its most complete realization is found. It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.

(11) Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to “provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education, . . . and certain situations arising here and there, as for example . . . alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families.”

(12) The common good is always oriented towards the progress of persons: “The order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around.” This order is founded on truth, built up in justice, and animated by love.

(13) “Participation” is the voluntary and generous engagement of a person in social interchange. It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person.

(14) Participation is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society.

(15) As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life. The manner of this participation may vary from one country or culture to another. “One must pay tribute to those nations whose systems permit the largest possible number of the citizens to take part in public life in a climate of genuine freedom.”

(16) As with any ethical obligation, the participation of all in realizing the common good calls for a continually renewed conversion of the social partners. Fraud and other subterfuges, by which some people evade the constraints of the law and the prescriptions of societal obligation, must be firmly condemned because they are incompatible with the requirements of justice. Much care should be taken to promote institutions that improve the conditions of human life.

(17) It is incumbent on those who exercise authority to strengthen the values that inspire the confidence of the members of the group and encourage them to put themselves at the service of others. Participation begins with education and culture. “One is entitled to think that the future of humanity is in the hands of those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism.”

(18) Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

(19) Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society.

(20) Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy. If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects.

(21) Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.

(22) The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be.

(23) This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us.

(24) The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated.

(25) Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.

(26) Solidarity is manifested in the first place by the distribution of goods and remuneration for work. It also presupposes the effort for a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation.

(27)  Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples. International solidarity is a requirement of the moral order; world peace depends in part upon this.

Not a bad place to start, I think.

Now, anyone know where I got this from?


I’m in a preachin’ mood tonight…

When people talk about ‘biblical values’, what they generally mean is ‘being beastly to the gays’ and, if they are a particularly ignorant type of fundamentalist, trying to get creationism taught in school.

This is a great pity. It makes me want to cry out, “Ye blind guides, ye hypocrites!” If there is a great arc of biblical values, it is this: “All people are precious and fragile, treat them with care and compassion” – otherwise known as ‘neighbour loving’. And if there’s one subject that the biblical narratives concentrate on more than any other – yes, even more than what gay men do with their willies – it is wealth, the just distribution thereof, and the duty of the haves to the have-nots.

If only those who shout “BIBLE!” at people would actually read it, and think about it, and study it critically and historically, maybe – just maybe – they could stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution; that is, they could share in the healing and transformation of a deeply scarred world.

But that would involve stripping away many layers of Christian thought going back to Paul, the first corrupter of Jesus’ teachings. It would require us to be honest about the role of myth, legend and Greco-Roman and Egyptian paganisms in the development of Christian ideas such as the incarnation, the resurrection and the trinity. We’d have to see Jesus not as a dead and resurrecting zombie-demigod, who died to satisfy the wrath of an angry anthropomorphic Sky-Daddy so that we would be saved from an eternity of sentient torment after we die, but as the greatest of the great Jewish social-justice prophets, who died as a martyr at the hands of the rich, the powerful and (worst of all) the religious.

And he wants followers. He wants people who will sacrifice their relative ease and comfort within an evil, exploitative, oppressive system in order to oppose and change that system in the name of love. He wants people who feel the heel of that system, the millions of people across the globe for whom ease and comfort are distant dreams, to experience – no, not just to experience, but to achieve – liberation.

Some people think that the ‘End’ of the Christian life is to ‘get to heaven’, or to be raptured into glory when American Jesus comes riding back from Glory in a golden Cadillac with G. W. Bush at the wheel. But that’s not how the bible seems to tell it. Instead it hints, in mystical and exaggerated language, of a non-exploitative society, governed by love and freedom. It makes us look to restoration of an Edenic promise: a world in which we shall sit under our own fig trees and enjoy the fruit thereof, not tilling for another’s gain, nor reaping for another’s harvest while our children go without.

In other words, Christianity is a social mission committed to a profound revolution: a revolution that starts in the heart and branches out into the transformation of society.

This revolution is the business of the church – the called, gathered and sent community of those who accept Jesus’ challenge to dedicate their lives to the healing and restoring of the world. This truly universal church, as I understand it, includes all who hear and respond to the promptings of love, life and light in their hearts – regardless of their religion, or lack thereof.

The revolution is gradual. We push onwards towards an unfolding End (not as finality, but as objective, purpose, and telos) without knowing when it shall be accomplished. But one thing is very clear: there will be a great levelling. The last will be first and the first will be last. Those who have gathered much will be commanded to share out of their abundance, that those who have gathered little shall have enough. Chains will be cut. Captives sent free.  And, first of all, the blind shall see.

So our calling as those who have committed to the revolution of love is two-fold. In working within the world as it is, we are called to provide charity – to hold up candles of hope and succour to those in distress. As we work for the world as it should be, we are called to shine searing light into the darkness of systemic evil, even into the darkness of boardrooms and war-rooms.

Isn’t that a glorious calling?

Futile Labours

Four-fifths of Scotland’s MPs, most of whom are Labour, voted against the privatisation of Royal Mail. These selfsame Labour MPs are obstinate in their opposition to Scottish independence. This means, in effect, that they are supporting the political union that makes privatisation of Scotland’s mail services inevitable. Their opposition to privatisation is just for show. If they really cared, they’d be fighting to ensure that Scotland retains a publicly owned postal service – even if it takes independence to get it. Unfortunately, as it is, the Labour party, by their dogged defence of the UK-state and the constitutional status-quo, are the biggest obstacle to social democracy in Scotland. What a parcel of rogues!

It doesn’t have to be this way. If the Labour party would show an ounce of principle, courage and initiative; if it would stop its obstinate British nationalism and start engaging with the question of how to build a better Scotland after independence; if it would set aside, just for a few years, its visceral hatred of the SNP and work with them on the transformational project; if it would stop being a gravy train for corrupt numpty councillors and put forward some people with real conviction and ability; if it would look to the future instead of being obsessed with the past – then it might, just might, actually do some good to build a ‘commonweal’ alternative to neo-liberalism.

Sadly, I’ve rarely met a Labour activist or member who is willing to acknowledge this. I’ve met no-one who is able to engage honestly with the failings of their party and to think creatively about what the Labour movement could be doing to develop and achieve a form of social democracy fit for the 21st century.  Instead of a frank discussion about the Labour party, its identity, principles and purpose, one invariably encounters tribalism and stonewalling.

Many Labour members, I’m sure, have their hearts in the right place. I have no doubt that many are deeply moved by an ethical critique of neo-liberal capitalism, by a sense of injustice and by a desire for a more caring, sharing world. Many of them combine this motivation with intelligence and personal principle.  Yet they cannot talk about their party. It is too sore, perhaps, for rational discussion. They know their party is lost. They know they have no arguments. To talk about it only rubs it in.

It is pitiful to watch, the more so because the door to new social democracy is wide open. The financial crisis pulled the lid off neo-liberalism and revealed the mess within – all the pain, inequality, greed, destruction, alienation and vapidity of the Chicago School doctrinaires has been unmasked.  In response to this opportunity, new movements and civic groups like the New Economics Foundation, UK Uncut, 38 Degrees, Open Democracy, the Occupy Movement, and many others, are asking the right questions and have even begun to propose constructive answers. In Scotland, the pioneering ‘Commonweal’ movement, with its pragmatic amalgam of social democracy and localist ecology, provides perhaps the best glimpse yet of where the path towards a kinder, gentler, more sustainable future lies.

Yet despite this combination of good timing and ideological innovation, the Labour Party remains stunted and muted, unable to build a coalition around these movements to effect social democratic change. This is ironic, for a party so obsessed with looking backwards. The Labour Party grew out of a trade union-based Labour movement that was built on the foundations of a Victorian class system – cloth caps vs bowler hats. Although the working conditions, rates of pay, alienation, and lack of autonomy, experienced by a call centre worker or supermarket shelf-stacker are increasingly reminiscent of the Victorian factory system, and while both inequality and real poverty are on the rise to Victorian levels,  the ‘class system’ from which the Labour party emerged has changed.

The fact is that there are just not as many working class people around as there used to be. Some have made it into the lower middle class – a larger, but more precarious, group than before. Some have slipped into a growing (but politically alienated and effectively disenfranchised) underclass. Those who remain in the working class have largely lost their former class identity: solidarity has been eroded by virtuality, the Working Men’s Club by Play Stations.

The Labour Party’s fundamental problem is that it has not found a way to respond to this change.  In trying to do so, it divides itself. The left of the party wants to go back to ‘working class roots’, but interprets this largely as serving in a clientelistic role to a dwindling number of unionised workers, mainly in the shrinking public sector. Meanwhile, the right of the party, partially recognising the demographic situation but misreading the political runes, assumes that it must move to the right – on issues like welfare and immigration – in order to win the votes of lower middle class electors.

The Labour Party is not alone in this situation. Other Social Democratic and Labour parties across Europe are, to a greater or lesser extent, facing the same problem. What does a working class party do, when the working class is a minority?

The answer is strikingly simple: redraw the class boundary from the ‘working class’ to ‘the 99%’. The class politics of the 21st century will not be fought out between the cloth caps and the bowler hats, but between ‘just about everyone’ and ‘a tiny minority of the super-rich’. There is room for a progressive populist opposition to neo-liberalism, that builds a workable ‘Social Market’ alternative based on the remoralisation of the economy.

This would recognise that markets are important mechanism for distributing certain types of good and services and that widely distributed private ownership of the means of production enables people to enjoy both creative fulfilment and economic independence, while also recognising that market transactions alone are grossly inadequate to ensure a just distribution of resources, and that markets need to be both constrained by an ethically-grounded socio-legal framework and supplemented by non-market institutions, including public services and social and environmental protection.

Labour’s mistake is to assume that as soon as someone has their own (heavily mortgaged) four bedroom house in the suburbs, they no longer care about the wider society around them, or that as soon as someone owns their own small business they identify their interests with those of the owners of Walmart or the directors of Goldman Sachs. In reality, the difference between the working poor and the (relatively comfortable, but still over-stretched) middle class is minimal compared to that between the middle class and the very rich. There is a four-fold difference between those on £12,000 a year and those on £48,000; more than a ten-fold difference between the latter and those on half a million.

The middle class and the working class together constitute what in civic republican language might be described as ‘il populo‘, the demos, the people.  Together, they have a shared interest in making a society that works for ‘ordinary folks’. Against this stand the global super-rich, those who exclusively benefit from the plutocratic ideology of neo-liberalism, and whose excessive wealth and power makes them stand outside the legal and moral order of the polity.

If the Labour Party were able to embrace this – if it could criticise neo-liberalism and set out a compelling vision of a Social Market, ‘Commonweal’, alternative – then it could attract ‘middle class’ voters while still moving to the left. It could be a force for good.

But, being realistic, the Labour Party is unlikely to make this change. Labour, like the post-imperial British State it so obstinately props up, is beyond reform. That’s why I’m so glad that in Scotland we have other options, like the SNP and the Greens.  If these parties succeed in leading Scotland into a better future, it will be despite the Labour Party’s fervent and contrarian opposition.

Proposals for a Secular Charter

I’ve been thinking about suitable wording for a ‘Secular Charter’, to be endorsed as a ‘Statement of Aims’ for a secular Scotland.

These are not necessarily draft constitutional provisions, since Constitutions that last are based on the broadest possible compromise, and a suitable Constitution for Scotland might have to be more accommodating than these principles would suggest.

Nevertheless, they do, perhaps, represent the direction in which we ought to be heading if we are to establish a Scotland free from religious discrimination and clerical privilege.

(1) There shall be no legal establishment, state endorsement, or state funding of religion.

(2) No person shall be compelled to take part in, or to support, any form of worship or religious rite whatsoever.

(3) No religious tests shall be established as a requirement for holding any public office.

(4) Representatives of religious communities shall not have any right to specially reserved membership of Parliament, local Councils, education authorities, or other public bodies.

(5) No person shall suffer any discrimination on account of their religion, or lack thereof.

(6) Freedom of expression shall not be infringed on the grounds of blasphemy or heresy.

(7) Everyone enjoys freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief, in public or private, and in worship, teaching, practice and observance, subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Thoughts and comments?