A new politics of values is replacing an empty politics of freedom for its own sake
One of the more satisfying recent retrospectives was the look back from The Economist, the “newspaper” which offers their readers superlative weekly analysis delivered with unparalleled arrogance. The movers were rather shaken. It was a rough year for The Economist, which spent the first half of 2016 heaping scorn upon the ignorant and the backward who supported Brexit, and the latter half alternatively lusting after a Hillary Clinton presidency and hyperventilating about a Donald Trump one.
The Economist offices at 25 St James Street – the imminent move from which prompted four-pages of self-congratulation in the year-end issue – serve as a functioning headquarters for the elite global consensus that took such a beating in 2016. If Brexit and Trump – not to mention the new Philippine president and the Italian referendum – were about the disdained hurling a brick at their disdainers, the windows of the brutalist Economist complex are as good a proxy as any for the order that was shattered.
“For a certain kind of liberal, 2016 stands as a rebuke,” The Economist began its year-end leader. “If you believe, as The Economist does, in open economies and open societies, where the free exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas is encouraged and where universal freedoms are protected from state abuse by the rule of law, then this has been a year of setbacks. Not just over Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but also the tragedy of Syria, abandoned to its suffering, and widespread support – in Hungary, Poland and beyond – for ‘illiberal democracy’. As globalisation has become a slur, nationalism, and even authoritarianism, have flourished.”
That’s a bit melodramatic – especially as Brexit and a Trump presidency have not even begun yet. The freedom agenda of The Economist has much to recommend it, especially against authoritarianism – which often brings impoverishment in addition to oppression – and the spectre of destructive, even violent, nationalism. For generations during the Cold War, the freedom agenda was self-evident against the alternative of communism. After the defeat of communism and the liquidation of the evil empire 25 years ago, there appeared to be no other options, and the increasing prosperity of the liberal, global economy seemed an end in itself.
In the quarter of a century since, the prosperity of that order has seemed elusive to many, skewed instead toward an elite. And absent the greater shared prosperity, what is the purpose of the liberal agenda? To what end is it aimed? Even more destabilising, as the freedom agenda embraced the socially libertine agenda championed by The Economist and others, various institutions of social connection were eroded – marriage, family, neighbourhood, even culture. For the mobile affluent, it brought more opportunities, to leave one job for another, to leave behind children to move on to a newer wife. For the rest, it brought dislocation.
“Liberalism [must] deal with its other problem: the loss of faith in progress. Liberals believe that change is welcome because, on the whole, it is for the better,” writes The Economist, arguing that never have so many had it so good. “Large parts of the West, however, do not see it that way. For them, progress happens mainly to other people. Wealth does not spread itself, new technologies destroy jobs that never come back, an underclass is beyond help or redemption, and other cultures pose a threat – sometimes a violent one.”
The reason people have lost liberalism’s faith in progress is that liberalism does not propose a goal toward which that progress is to be ordered. It simply assumes it, and when those assumptions are not apparent, liberalism suffers a loss of faith.
Which is an interesting phrase from a secularist mindset. Liberalism, separated from any conception of who the subjects exercising their freedom are, and for what purposes they ought to order their freedom, becomes an empty vessel. It is the world of faith, not exclusively but primarily, that usually provides the necessary identity and that purpose.
The empty politics of freedom for its own sake is being replaced with a new politics of values. Those values are not guaranteed to be benign. Europe is right to worry, knowing the wickedness that the dark side of blood-and-soil values wrought in the last century. The malevolent side of religious values are evident with each new massacre.
The challenge then for a new politics of values is to propose values worthy of free persons and free nations. Catholic social teaching thus has a particular relevance, for it proposes the common good as the proper end freedom. Even those who would disagree with Catholic teaching about what constitutes the common good ought to appreciate the conceptual framework it provides, allowing politics to address questions of family, employment, equality, immigration and culture. Values returned to politics in 2016. The task ahead is to better shape what those values will be.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine