We Need a New Rerum Novarum

This week I attended a panel discussion, hosted by King’s College London, with Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks to discuss his most recent book Not In God’s Name. As you would expect, the book itself is a compelling engagement with the problem of religious violence, especially between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Lord Sacks’s exegesis of Genesis as a story of sibling rivalries and the jealousy of “being”, rather than of mere possessions or status, is as thought provoking at the individual level as it is at the level of global interfaith relations to which he applies it.

The panel discussion itself was, sadly, a deal more dull, functioning more as a showcase for King’s College’s prize media performers, and lacking any real substantive discussion that went beyond shades of praise for Lord Sacks and his book.

One of the lead participants on the panel was Douglas Alexander who, having lost his parliamentary seat in the last general election, has been reinvented as “Professor Alexander” of King’s College and Harvard. It was to Professor Alexander that the inevitable question to the panel on Brexit was directed, and his answer, which stepped nimbly across ideas of cumulative identity and the imperative of government moral accountability at different levels, was a perfect example of the logically short-circuited politician’s answer which he had, earlier in the discussion, held up for rueful ridicule. Needless to say, he was for “In”, obviously.

Professor Alexander’s thoughts no longer have the political relevance they once did, but they reminded me how the increasingly weaponised debate over the EU referendum, which is part of a rising populist tide here and in America, is the legacy of a generation of politicians who wore their democratic accountability very lightly indeed.

Professor Alexander currently finds himself billeted in academia, rather than the House of Commons, because, for a generation, the Labour Party treated Scotland as a proprietary concern which could be taken for granted, to the point that the electorate were willing to nationally cut off their own noses to spite Labour’s face and vote, overwhelmingly, for the Scottish National Party.

The angry cacophony of a people who understand, all too well, that their representatives consider themselves much more “for the people” than “of the people”, and which led them to prefer to elect a teenager rather than return the eminent Professor Alexander, is the same movement currently propelling Donald Trump towards the Republican nomination, at the recent expense of the clearly mystified Jeb Bush.

Professor Alexander’s idea of government moral accountability above and aside from the national interest ignores, and therefore plays further into the hands of, those who’s principle objection to the EU is its yawning democratic deficit. David Cameron’s recent savaging of Boris Johnson in the House of Commons included the Prime Minister’s self-righteous assertion that, since he was not seeking re-election, he could be trusted to “do the right thing for the country”. This is a shockingly bald admission that, to his mind, only politicians free from the petty concerns of the people, and their ability to hold them to account, can be trusted to truly act as statesmen.

In his encyclical letter Rerum novarum, Leo XIII spoke of a great divorce between capital and labour. The “spirit of revolution” which was abroad in the western world was one fomented by various flawed ideologies, especially socialism, but which had been given room to grow by the systematic economic disenfranchisement of the general population. What we are seeing now is a recurrence of this cycle, though it is political, rather than economic, disenfranchisement which is being keenly perceived by many, whether it be in the shape of monolithic EU structures or a wall of consensus between media coverage and super-PAC money.

When the concerns of politicians become obviously other to those of whom they govern, some reaction is to be expected. In a well functioning democracy, governments out of touch with their electorate are replaced. But today, both in the UK and the US, we have reverted to the kind of machine politics which were common in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, where only approved establishment candidates obtain the their party’s blessing and get their name on the ballot. This is equally true of David Cameron’s A-list candidates, the Republican primary process which puts forward the same candidates election after election, the inevitable coronation of Hilary Clinton for the Democrats, and, from a radical perspective, the Momentum campaign to deselect otherwise popular Labour candidates.

The answer that was found a century ago was in the machine and monopoly busting populism of Theodore Roosevelt, possibly America’s greatest president, who himself only came to power when, having been sidelined by the establishment into the vice-presidency, the establishment President McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt’s square-deal platform was, in many ways, the political embodiment of Rerum novarum, emphasising the freedom of the individual, the rights of collective representation, and the necessity of fairness in the market, while absolutely preserving the integrity of private property and enterprise.

In his Wednesday audience this week, Pope Francis spoke of how when those in power lose their sense of service, their behaviour “turns into arrogance and becomes control and subjugation.” He went on to draw upon biblical examples of tyrannical kings and reiterate that no matter how monstrous the despot, the Divine mercy is still available too them. This is, of course, true. But the despotism currently being rebelled against in many parts of the world, especially in the West, is the soft, smothering dictatorship of elitism. The paternalistic expansion of structures, many of which still enjoy the theoretical support of the Church, and which have developed their own enclosed and self-referential agenda and justification for power, has caused a crisis of personal sovereignty in the heart of the democratic West.

What the world urgently needs is a coherent counter-narrative against the creeping technocracy. Absent this, “We the people” are left to grab whatever tool is to hand, be it the SNP or Donald Trump. The current populist movement sweeping the West is a gut-level demand for democratic justice; it remains to be seen if a sensible head will emerge to guide it.


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