Dissenting Radical

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

Month: February, 2016

Why do ordinary working people vote for parties of the right, against their economic interests?

  1. Part of the explanation is ‘just world assumption’. People like to assume they live in a just world. So bankers ‘deserve’ their bonuses and the poor ‘deserve’ their poverty. People who try to challenge that go against this grain and are seen as trying to reward the undeserving.
  2. The rich and powerful control the media and the narratives, so they can reinforce those assumptions.
  3. People live in small, immediate worlds. They compare themselves with the unemployed family down the street and ask ‘why should they get hundreds of pounds of my tax money’ but never compare themselves to the directors of a privatised service (who live a different life that they never see) and ask ‘why should they get millions of pounds of tax money?’
  4. It reinforces their own sense of superiority. This works two ways. Firstly, ‘I make a few grand a year more than that bloke – I’m doing ok, and so the system must be basically ok, because I’m better than that bloke.’ Secondly, siding with the rich and powerful makes one feel a little bit richer and more powerful by association.
  5. People like to think of themselves as future winners. Why bother with a humane welfare system for those who fall on hard times? I’m smart. I’ll be ok.
  6. People don’t want to think of themselves as beneficiaries of public spending. A lot of public spending goes on health, education, roads etc, but these are received in kind and therefore less visible than cash payments. People see cash spending as going on someone else (the poor), not them or people like them (ordinary working people).
  7. British nationalism is traditional, monarchical, hierarchical and backward looking. There’s really no popluar, democratic, republican nationalism that can mobilize people to pursue progressive policies on the basis of identity (compare with Scottish nationalism or French nationalism, which are both tied to radical traditions).
  8. The left is demonised and portrayed in ‘straw man’ terms. Want a bit of European twentieth-century style social democracy like 1970s Sweden? Or a new New Deal like FDR? Then you are practically Lenin! Want to raise the minimum wage, publicly fund university tuition and not invade Syria? You are basically a Maoist. Jeremy Corbyn, who is a most a social democrat, has been openly accused of Stalinism.
  9. It’s easier to kick downwards than kick upwards.Kicking down makes people, who are secretly conscious of how small they are, feel big. It’s easier to hate a refugee or a homeless person, than to take a stand against the fact that you work to enrich a tax-evading corporation in the Cayman Islands that doesn’t give a damn about you.
  10. Lefties smell, have scraggly beards and no dress sense. They need a shave, a wash and a proper job.Or they have cloth caps and whippets. This is nonsense of course, but it is a powerful stereotype that makes people want to not be associated with lefties.
  11. The left gets tied up in gender identity issues, political correctness, and matters that seem very important to bourgeois liberals but not directly relevant to the bread and butter concerns of working people. The right, in contrast, is able to position itself as the bearer of ‘common sense’ and as being ‘in tune with ordinary people’.
  12. Our society assumes Hobbes is correct and cannot understand Aristotle. Hobbes’ ideas are at the core of the ideological system known as neo-liberalism. Attacking neo-liberalism seems to go against what we have for the last four hundred years (but not for two millennia before that) believed to be immutable human nature.
  13. Low-information, low-consideration voting, because ‘politics is boring’ when compared to, say, ‘Cash in the attic’ or ‘X-factor’.
  14. Inherited voting patterns, especially amongst older voters who grew up in the two-party system where one was, pretty-much, either a coal miner or a Conservative.
  15. Sectarianism and the ‘Orange vote’.

Christian Democracy and Constitutional Transformation

The social mission of Christianity is to turn wastelands into gracelands, to turn the places of desolation into places of reconciliation, and to ensure that all enjoy not only ‘daily bread’ but the fullness, beauty and joy of ‘life in abundance’.

Works of charity, performed voluntarily by the church, social institutions and individuals in the sphere of civil society, are and always will be necessary to achieve this end, but so too are works of justice performed collectively through law and public policy in the sphere of the state.

This is not to reduce the kingdom of God to a political manifesto, nor to put excessive trust in the power of the state, which is also subject to human corruptions, but it is to recognise that Christianity cannot be political neutral or apathetic. In fulfillment of its transformative vision for the whole of life – all things will be made new, every tear will be wiped away – Christianity calls the state itself, no less than individuals, to repentance and to newness of life.

The profound change of heart associated with repentance is most apparent during constitution building processes. The South African Constitution of 1996, which sought to repent of the sins of slavery, apartheid, racism and economic exclusion, and to seek newness of life in a common, inclusive, racially integrated citizenship, was one instance of such a change. The Constitution of Kenya, which sought to end a legacy of repressive politics and intercommunal violence, was another.

In both these cases of constitutional transition (and in many others that could be mentioned besides, not least the restoration of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-92) the churches played a pivotal role. Not only did Christian leaders act as moderators and mediators between competing factions, they also held forth a credible vision of a healed, redeemed, politics – a politics not of cynical power and self-interest but of the common good.

Christan Democracy and the New Christian Left

Christian Democracy’ was a twentieth century ideological synthesis that sought to apply the policies of Catholic Social Teaching in matters of social and economic relations within the context of a liberal-democratic state. Just as Thomas Aquinas had sought to reconcile Christ with Aristotle, so Christian Democracy sought to reconcile Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the democratic constitutional form of government, and to present that package in an electorally attractive party platform.

Christian Democrats were the dominant (or a dominant) ideological stream in many European democracies in the twentieth century – including in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy. Christian Democracy did at least as much as Social Democracy to create the welfare state, to bring about universal healthcare, to protect labour rights, and to restrain the abuses of capitalism in the centrist model of the ‘Social Market’ economy. In other words, although the party was just the political manifestation of a much broader social movement that included direct social action as well as political engagement, there was an explicitly Christian party, which sought to present and to implement a specific governing programme based on a Christian-inspired ideology.

In contrast, what might be called the ‘New Christian Left’ seems not to want to coalesce into one party or even one coherent movement. Rather than seeking the synthesis of a distinctly Christian ideology with a democratic mass movement (incarnated in the corruptible flesh of a Christian party), the New Christian Left seems to return to Abraham Kuyper’s antithesis – an inevitable and irreconcilable tension between Christian ideals and the realities of mundane existence. The political activism of the New Christian Left aims not to form a party that can win elections and govern, but to hold the light and mirror of gospel values up so that all parties and all governments, of whatever hue, can be seen in it and judged by it. It seeks less to hold power, and more to hold power to account. It doesn’t try to form a party, but tries to influence the agenda of all parties.

I wonder if the difference in approach and technique lies in the fact that Christian Democracy was largely a Roman Catholic phenomenon, whereas the New Christian Left is largely a product of post-evangelicalism, with its ideological and spiritual roots in the radical reformation. Christian Democrats were used to the idea of the Christian ethos and values being embodied in one large, centralised, power-wielding, politically influential institution.The New Christian Left folks are more used to the idea of church being ten people meeting in a living room with an open bible, a tray of homemade biscuits and slightly out of tune guitar. As such, they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of binding themselves to an institution that will have to make difficult compromises. Moreover, they realise that they, as a group, are too small to accomplish much, but that each member of the group, as an individual, can be a witness to the light and a force for good in the context of different secular campaigns – so one joins Amnesty International, another Greenpeace, one works campaigning for debt relief with Jubilee, another works on nuclear disarmament with Trident Ploughshares – and yet all things work together for good.

Wheat and Chaff

The problem started early on, as Greco-Roman and Egyptian pagan ideas filtered into early christianity in the multi-cultural wirlpool of the first century AD eastern Mediterranean. Very soon – at least by the time of Paul’s epistles – christianity began to move away from being the religion of Jesus and started to become the religion about Jesus. That is to say, it began to ignore or distort the moral, ethical, apocalyptic, mystical (and very Jewish) teachings of Jesus the martyred prophet, and instead to transform early christianity into a sort of ‘rebirth mystery cult’ not unlike the cults of Mithras or Apollo.

By the time that Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire it was almost unrecognisable: Jesus had become an eternallly pre-existing second person of the Trinity, and believing in this became much more important than actually following his teachings. The very practical and radical preaching of Jesus (his first recorded sermon was about the re-distribution of land and the cancellation of debts) was gradually sacralised, losing its social criticism and political bite.

The reformation fixed a few things but also added error to error, focusing solely on the role of Jesus as a sort of divine scapegoat, whose death was far more important than either his life or his resurrection. All that mattered was to ‘believe in Jesus’ so we could ‘go to heaven when we die’. The good news of the kingdom of God – that God would restore, redeem, heal and console the earth, so that earth would be as it is in heaven – was reduced to a sort of cosmic fire insurance.  (I’m exaggerating slightly, and setting out something of a strawman – the reality was always more nuanced than this – but it illustrates the point well enough).

However, not everyone thinks this way. There’s a lot of scholarship that tries to get back to and rediscover the life, teaching and way of Jesus. Some of these folks comes from a liberal or even post-christian position (e.g. Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman). However, there are also people who self-identify as evangelicals (or perhaps as ‘post-evangelicals’) like N. T. Wright, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne or Jim Wallis, who – while they cling to trinitarian creedalism and evangelical soteriology – take the ethical and social teachings of Jesus very seriously.

It’s a genuinely mixed bag. It’s impossible, I’ve realised, to think of christianity as good or bad, it is so many different things, and it has so many different manifestations. They are knowable only by the ‘fruit’ that they produce: Do certain beliefs and practices make people bitter, arrogant, judgmental and domineering, or do they make people loving, forgiving, accepting and serving? Do they make for a more gracious, more humane and more nurturing society, or for a more belligerent, more punitive, more repressive society? That’s the key for separating the wheat of Jesus Christ from the chaff of religious legalism or nutjobbery.

The Long Haul

So Bernie Sanders might have narrowly lost the Democratic caucus in Iowa. A loss is a loss. But the battle of France was a loss. Dunkirk was a loss. We all know how that turned out in the end. The campaign – not only for the US presidency, but for the revival of social democracy in our time – is long.

The difference between the left and the right is that when the crisis hit for the left in the 1970s, the right was ready to exploit it. It had been working away in think tanks and strangely named societies for a long time, and it had not only it’s slogans but also its policies all worked out. But when the crisis hit for the neo-liberal right in 2008, the left was disorderly, disorganized, divided and demoralised, and neo-liberalism was able to weather the storm. The point is that not so much that change happens slowly – after all, both social democrats in the 1930s/40s and neo-liberals in the 1980s were able to bring about profound transformations of society within a decade or so. Rather, the point is that change comes in response to passionate, persistent pressure, backed by thorough intellectual and organisational preparation.

Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Podemos, Syriza – it does not really matter whether these leaders of the new social democratic movement ‘win’, for we are not yet at winning point. What matters is whether they can lay foundations and shift the sphere of debate.

For thirty-five years the left has had to fight on the right’s ground, on the ground of ‘individual choice’, ‘economic rationality’, ‘you cannot buck the market’, ‘on your bike’, ‘I’m alright, Jack’, ‘there is no alternative’, and ‘there is no such thing as society’. If the current generation of social democratic leaders don’t win office, but do force the right to fight on the left’s ground – changing the terms of political debate back to real economic issues, to poverty and inequality, the common good, to building genuine social security – then that is a great victory.

Basically, I think the overarching lesson of political change from the progressive era to the present day is that ‘office comes later’. That is to say that winning office comes only after the debate has been already won. Leaders who wish to be transformative should concentrate on winning the debate – then office will follow, enabling them to put their ideas into practice (e.g. Roosevelt, 1932; Atlee 1945, Thatcher 1979). If they seek office without winning the debate, all they will do is achieve hollow election victories that change little (e.g. Blair, 1997; Heath 1974; Obama, 2008). As a subsidiary point to this, I would say that those who are influential in winning the debate are not, usually, those who end up holding high office. Behind every Clement Atlee is a Harold Laski and a William Beveridge; behind every Margaret Thatcher is a Keith Joseph and a Milton Friedman.

Elliptical Orbits of Time

I heard today that the old Odeon cinema on South Clark Street in Edinburgh is going to be reopened, having been bought by a small independent cinema company.

This Odeon used to be my regular local cinema, and I used to go at least once, sometimes twice, a week. I saw the ‘The Phantom Menace’ here, ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’, and many other films of that era.

On one memorable occasion, in 1999, I went to see ‘The Mummy’ with a richly scented, sumptuously attractive Mediterranean girl. Her neck line was fine and aristocratic, her bosom generous, her hands strong, warm, earth-rooted and honest. She had fire in the blood, a passion for the outcast and downtrodden in her soul, and quickness, precision and singularity of mind that I found both impressive and baffling (I think in poetry, not prose – and in the ideal not the empirical, so her stark outlook was both a challenge and a corrective to me – which made for heated but illuminating conversation).

We had become friends after spontaneously deciding to go on a road trip through the highlands together, but she was obviously well out of my league for anything more than a strictly platonic arrangement. She would put her hand in mine occasionally – and even touch my knee now and again – but these I interpreted as nothing more than Southern European exuberance; there’s no way, I thought, that a woman like that would ever let a spotty, socially awkward irk like me anywhere near her.

I’m not quite sure what I eventually got right, other than a certain degree of persistence, but eight years later we were married – and any day now she is about to become a mummy herself. She’s worried about that – worried about how she will adjust, how she will cope, how her body and mind will meet the challenges of birth and motherhood. But I live in hope and I trust that God, having brought us safe this far, will lead us safely home. I still see the same qualities in her that I saw in the beginning, and I know that the ever-burning fire, the passion, the goodness, the courage, the loyalty and the dedication that she possesses will carry her through the new challenges ahead – over all the obstacles of uncertainty, fear, anxiety, pain and depression.

And, in the midst of all of this, I look forward to seeing this old cinema reopened, so that we can take our daughter there one day. Time flies, but not in straight lines; it flies in wobbly elliptical orbits around the significant places and events that anchor it.

Church – State Relations

‘In the second century, when Christians first intervened in the public arena, they stressed that their contribution, Christians favoured the good, for the sake of the good, regardless of whether the state looked favourably on Christianity. Even though an appeal to Christian revelation had no meaning in Roman society, Christians worked for the public good because it was the right thing to do. They advocated for the disadvantaged, they sought to limit violence, etc. They were motivated by Christian teaching, but they didn’t rely on revelation when they made their case in public. Instead, they developed sophisticated and rational justifications for why their vision of the public good was one that would benefit everyone.’ Prof. George E. Demacopolous

To me, this is the essence of secularism. It is not necessary for the church to have any institutional connection to, or special favour from the state. All that is necessary is an open, pluralist society in which Christians, individually and communally, can advocate publicly for the public good – not for the good of Christians, but for the good of society as a whole.