Thursday, 12 February 2015

Where is the new thinking on the Left?

In case you hadn't noticed, Pope Francis (above) has been shaking up the Catholic Church. He's been recommending, and to some extent living, the life of the poor. He's been ruthlessly clearing out opponents of a (slightly) more liberal approach to sexuality and gender. He's been talking about a larger role for women in the church. He's been toughing it out with recalcitrant Vatican bureaucrats. Just in case anyone thought he was some sort of leftist revolutionary, he's been defending religious belief against the more secular and absolute views of what free speech is or might mean.

There's a lot of actual ideology in there, by the way. Have a read of this absolute zinger of a stomach punch to free marketeers' views, released as an Apostolic Exhortation, not fired off as one of Francis' famous back-of-the-'plane ad libs. It bears study in full:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Say what you really mean, eh? There are very few places where you'll get such a succinct, and devastating, critique of the way we consume news, think about others, conceptualise the developing world, believe in outdated economic platitudes, and the like - all in just seven sentences. And there's more where that came from. Lots more.

Now, don't worry. This isn't a paean to Catholic social teaching (though there's a lot in there to get your teeth into, should you wish). It's a piece to highlight the way in which quite - and in some cases, very - conservative people are making all the running in how we think about late (or post-) capitalism. Even Prince Charles has been getting in on the act, talking about how capitalism must serve people and protect the planet, rather than just pumping out more and more stuff that we don't want.

But European social democrats are struggling to respond. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have seized the moment, pointing the finger of blame for our economic woes fairly and squarely where it belongs - in the unacceptable and lopsided concentration of power in the hands of banks and political austerians. But beyond that, British Labour and the French Socialists speak only of a milder form of retrenchment, with perhaps some weak-minded and watery evocations of 'predator' rather than 'producer' capitalism thrown in to taste.

Europeans deserve better than for the most resonant spiritual, moral and humanistic critiques of the economic straitjacket in which we've imprisoned ourselves to come from conservatives - welcome as those interventions are. They need a lead from the Left, too. Will they get it? 

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