The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am … against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual in an immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top. – William James (The Letters of William James, vol. 2, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, p. 90)
I do not normally write on political matters since political theory is out of my wheelhouse and the various issues involved often incite more heat than light. Nevertheless, the international political, economic, and cultural crises created by the ongoing fallout from the COVID pandemic, mass immigration and the social unrest this creates, and now war again in Europe, have prompted in my mind a scattershot flow of ideas related to Dorothy Day’s political views.
I think they are worthy of discussion because I think her ideas are more relevant today than they were even in her own time. Chief among those ideas is the well-known fact that Dorothy was, by her own description, an “anarchist”. The problem, however, is that the term “anarchist” can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people and often conjures up an image of lawlessness and libertarian antinomianism. However, this is not what Dorothy Day meant as I hope to show in what follows.
The best way to describe Dorothy’s “politics” is as a politics of anti-centralization that opposes the Leviathan of the outsized, modern centralized State and the bureaucratic apparatus that imposes itself with ever greater force upon all of us. Her anarchism is therefore related to the philosophical personalism of folks such as Nikolai Berdyaev and Emmanuel Mounier. Those men, among others, were already warning, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the increasing economic and cultural complexity of modern nations creates a social logic that leads to an increasing centralization of power in an anonymous, bureaucratized, and impersonal State.
This State then claims for itself a hegemony of authority, which leads by another logical necessity to the destruction of all other mediating authorities as well as all localist understandings of social organization. It is precisely the claim to hegemonic authority that most characterizes the modern Liberal State, which masks its inherent totalitarianism under the rhetoric of “freedom.” Seen in this light, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is not properly invoked when all we are talking about is that same State “granting” a sphere of “free operation” for more local entities. In such a case, no natural authority outside of the State is acknowledged, and only the State gets to define its own self-limitations, which is not what subsidiarity means.
True subsidiarity, as Dorothy understood, requires the recognition that there are competencies and forms of natural authority, rooted in divine and natural law, that are aboriginally and constitutively prior to the State. Here is how Dorothy described it in an essay she penned in the December 1949 edition of the Catholic Worker paper:
The word anarchist is deliberately and repeatedly used in order to awaken our readers to the necessity of combating the ‘all-encroaching State,’ … and to shock serious students into looking into the possibility of another society, an order made up of associations, guilds, unions, communes, parishes – voluntary associations of men, on regional vs. national lines, where there is a possibility of liberty and responsibility for all men.
Dorothy Day’s vision is now abundantly vindicated by the exponential increase in the power of the modern State, which has equipped itself with the toys of technocracy and aligned itself with the emerging surveillance capitalism of Big Tech. But she would not have been surprised. The Hobbesian State is big enough and powerful enough to protect my State-granted “rights,” but it is also, therefore, big enough and powerful enough to take them away.
Furthermore, and in light of Dorothy Day’s critique, ask yourself why our choices for President are so uniformly uninspiring? Did you ever stop to wonder why, in a nation of 350 million people, that Biden or Trump were the choices proposed to us? The answer to that question is that sock puppets always look the same.
Too cynical, you say? I recall being in London in 2008 when Obama was elected. As I was making my way around the city, folks who recognized that I was an American were openly gushing to me over Obama’s election as if there could be no doubt that I shared their enthusiasm. They slapped me on the back and high-fived me in congratulations and with manifest joy, as if we had just elected the Messiah himself. I must admit that I started to wonder if maybe this did represent something good and positive. And I did think that at the very least it was really cool that we had elected a Black president. But by 2016 what was really different about America in a positive sense after eight years of Obama? Indeed, in 2016 we were once again “gifted” with two deeply flawed candidates indicating that not only was the political culture not any better, but in reality it had gotten worse.
Obama, the great Messiah of “Si se puede!” enthusiasms, is now retired to a multi-million dollar mansion as he and his wife hobnob with the rich, the famous, and the powerful. But we should have seen it coming when, in the earliest days of his presidency, Obama put together his “economic team,” the members of which were almost exclusively drawn from the super-rich mavens of Wall Street. Presidents do not run the country. Goldman Sachs does. And so the great Messiah of 2008 is now a supremely wealthy man retiring to his fortified version of Mar-a-Lago. Si se puede, indeed.
I am not arguing here, and nor was Dorothy Day, for an “apolitical” stance that retreats into faith compounds with a fortress-like mentality of resigned futility. We cannot cede the political realm to those who have usurped it. And we cannot become like latter-day Essenes squirreled away in the Qumran fortress of our apocalyptic fantasies, awaiting the divine judgment sure to come for all of “those others.” We cannot neatly divide the political and the spiritual into two hermetically sealed separate spheres. This would be contrary to the incarnational logic embedded in the Catholic vision of reality, which lays claim to the totality of our existence and which commands and commits us to a missional engagement with the world, including the political world. We are, after all, Catholics and not Anabaptists, and therefore we cannot accept any narrative of an apolitical, pre-Constantinian pristine Church, which was then followed by the “fall” of the Church, post-Constantine, into the “corruption” of political engagement.
I have often written on that topic, and perhaps ambiguously so, which has led some of my readers to surmise that I do harbor Anabaptist tendencies. But my criticisms were directed at the corruptions inherent in any confessional State that divorces power from true authority. No such arrangements will ever work in the long run when they are not animated by the towering figure of the crucified Lord–the Lamb who was slain from all eternity. But confessional States as such are not only “allowable” in theory, but are necessary in practice since all States are inherently confessional, even the secular ones (indeed, perhaps especially the secular ones), which in their modern iteration place their confessional dogmas above all others, with corrosive effects.
But neither is this an argument in favor of strong integralisms of Church and State. “Integralism” is a broad term that can mean many different things and therefore I prefer to speak, along with D.C. Schindler, in the language of an analogical relation between Church and State rather than an integralist one. This is because one cannot “integrate” nature and grace, or Church and State, in the manner envisioned by the champions of a strong integralism, without falsifying the inner essence of both. Both Church and State are concerned with the proper ordering of all of reality, but do so analogously from within different missions and teleologies, rather than univocally and competitively. Space does not allow me to elaborate on this further, so all I will say here is that the normal, historical construal of “integralism,” in my view, is not the answer.
I do not have any prescriptive proposals or any answer to the thorny questions of how to negotiate all of this. And it would be both false and anachronistic to label Dorothy Day as a post-Liberal thinker with a clear political theory in place. Hers was a prophetic response to concrete evils and she engaged in concrete counter-actions of care for the poor. She saw such actions as grounded quite simply in the Gospel–especially the Sermon on the Mount–and believed passionately that if all Christians lived the Gospel radically that a more just form of “politics” would emerge from that effort. Electoral politics, though important, are downstream from culture, and if we change that culture, one brick at a time, we can also alter the course of our political order.
I am reminded here of the words of Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity on the role played by simple monotheistic faith in the dethroning of the hegemony of worldly power as the key component in the political order. He states:
… the profession “There is only one God” is, precisely because it has itself no political aims, a program of decisive political importance: through the absoluteness that it lends the individual from his God, and through the relativization to which it relegates all political communities in comparison with the unity of the God who embraces them all, it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.
Seen in this light, we must always remember that “politics” is a broader category than mere “electoral processes” and when those processes, legitimate in themselves (Dorothy was not anti-democracy), become degraded and corrupted in non-recoverable and terminal ways due to their near-total cooptation by wealth, power, and an ideology of secular domination, then perhaps a different kind of “politics” is called for. This was the main point of Dorothy’s anarchism which saw in the modern, centralized State, and its alliance with a rapacious Capitalism and its policing arm in militarism and the national security surveillance State, a deep assault on human dignity. And it is also no good to resort to a regime of sacral domination since this entails, more often than not, the same confusion of authority with power and the apparatus of coercion that goes with it.
Tyranny rises in exact proportion to the loss of real community and real culture. The COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the rise of racial tensions here at home, the surge of desperate immigrants fleeing conditions in their own countries that our country helped to create, and the rise of an even scarier militarism (now extending into space), cry out for the anti-politics politics of the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, which is not of this world, but is, paradoxically, for this world. Now is the time of an expectant preparation for the inbreaking of that Kingdom in the form of the divine love displayed in the events of the paschal mystery.
There is no political issue stronger than the tissue of this love. Therefore, in order for that to happen let our prayer be: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and he has lifted up the lowly.”
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