Since the beginning of the international financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 many on the political Left have been disappointed by the inability of their leaders to articulate a coherent critique of the neoliberal model of capitalism which produced the crisis. The genuinely radical responses have seemingly come from the political Right, for example the libertarianism of the Tea Party movement in the United States and the populist communitarianism of parties such as UKIP in Britain and the Front National in France. The success of these movements has in large part been due to their ability to articulate people’s genuine feelings of loss, insecurity and dislocation in a changing world. These feelings are very real and meaningful. The challenge for the Left has been to articulate these feelings through a politics which is inclusive rather than exclusionary.
One possible contribution may come from an unexpected source. Throughout 2013 the new Pope Francis has spoken, most notably in a Papal Homily in July that year, with almost unique clarity of the neoliberal world as being marked by a crisis not only of capitalism, but of indifference, by which “We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!” This indifference can be seen in our warped priorities of what is news worthy, as Francis asks in a recent Encyclical: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” . It can also be seen in our acceptance of the everyday tragedies on our doorsteps, such as the deaths of African migrants drowning at sea in the Mediterranean. Francis asked a deceptively simple question during his Papal Homily on the shore of Lampedusa tragedy: “Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it? Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters?…. We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – suffering with others”. While politicians of the Right articulate feelings of the loss of community solidarity, respect and security through a politics of resentment against social “others” (the poor, immigrants, the unemployed, public sector workers) the Papal critique challenges us to reflect upon these feelings of loss in a more critical way, by looking at the way our society has become so hardened to the extent that we are indifferent about inequality, poverty, suffering.
What then does the Papal Critique have to say about the causes of this “globalisation of indifference”? Here Francis develops a deeply Christian response to the global crisis, the result of neoliberal “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation”. Such ideologies, it is argued, have fundamentally changed our relationship to money to the extent that there has developed an “idolatry of money” which denies the primacy of the human purpose in the way we organise society. We have come to organise our schools, universities, welfare systems, housing provision, healthcare, urban spaces, taxation, and immigration systems in such a way that the only purpose is to increase profits, aid efficiency, and foster growth. This transformed relationship to money has inevitably transformed our relationship with each other. The ideology of neoliberalism stresses only the individual, eroding ethical obligations to our neighbours who may be struggling to afford childcare provision; the obligation of respect for the elderly who may be cold this winter; the social obligation to the disabled who are discriminated against in the job market and targeted for welfare cuts. Such ethical obligation of solidarity is “viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative”. Instead we have the anti-ethics of pure individualism “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape”. This marks a fundamental shift from capitalism in the modern era, where the prevailing form of social inequality was that of exploitation as analysed by the Marxist tradition. The contemporary neoliberal world has created an even more pernicious form of injustice by which “those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’”. The encyclical thus concludes that in our postmodern globalised world “Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds. We Christians remain steadfast in our intention to respect others, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’”.
The critique outlined by Francis can be traced back to fundamental Christian principles – No person can serve both God and Mammon (money) (Matthew 6:24) and that the worship of God cannot be separated from the love of the neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39). For many in the European Catholic Church during the latter part of the twentieth century the challenge was to remain relevant in an age of consumerism, secularisation and relativism. The success of Francis in the first year of his Papacy has been to show that the Church can perhaps be most relevant when it speaks for our feelings of loss in this world through an appeal to our better instincts, our common humanity and the dignity of the person. Such concerns are not unique to Christians, but the Christian tradition in Europe is perhaps uniquely placed to open the conversation. The challenge for those on the Left inspired by Francis and the tradition of Christian social critique is to develop this discourse from a theological and ethical protest, to a political agenda which builds solidarity, restores the human as the fundamental purpose of our social and economic arrangements and challenges our indifference towards the suffering of others.