From Here to Utopia

What religion can teach the Left
Migrant farm workers share a meal in the soup kitchen of Our Lady of Guadalupe Roman Catholic Church, Immokalee, Florida (Bettmann/Contributor).

 

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Back in the now half-forgotten early days of the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders experienced a health crisis that seemed to deepen his understanding of the country’s political crisis. Three weeks after suffering a heart attack that took him off the campaign trail, he held a massive comeback rally in New York City. In front of twenty-five thousand people, Sanders offered an alternative to Donald Trump’s efforts to divide Americans, one given renewed urgency by what Sanders had recently endured. “I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don’t know,” he said. “Maybe somebody who doesn’t look like you.... My question now to you is: Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know, as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” Would those listening fight for the immigrant neighbor, or the person in their community without health care? Would they be “willing to love”?

In October 2019, Sanders’s plea to love the stranger and fight for the common good might have been taken for avuncular sentimentality, or dismissed as a whiff of the 1960s. But in retrospect he clearly saw that something was deeply wrong in our society—that the American body politic was unwell. Only a few months later, a pandemic hit that revealed just how many pathologies were afflicting us: an economy in which “essential” workers are often the least well paid; steep racial hierarchies defended by militarized police forces; an electoral politics engulfed in spectacle and money; and social solidarity so tattered that fellow Americans could view one another as members of enemy camps.

These realities were not new, but they became dismayingly clear as COVID-19 condemned hundreds of thousands of Americans to death or permanent disability. In COVID-19 wards, Black and brown Americans died more often than whites. Those who survive remain at the whims of police raids even when sleeping in their beds or walking down the street with their families. The children of immigrants and refugees are concentrated in detention camps suffering unknown rates of infection and death. Addiction and suicides from opioid abuse are increasing. Voting rights are under assault by the courts and Republican-controlled state legislatures.

Social bonds in the United States have been steadily dissolved by decades of neoliberal capitalism that starved the public sphere, trained us to view neighbors as competitors or threats, and racialized access to common goods like education, public health, and social insurance. The Left has policy solutions to some of these problems. But if they want to succeed, they must also address the crisis of civic belonging that has whetted the Right’s appetites for xenophobic nationalism and white supremacy. The unrestrained plunder of the past forty years, and what it has wrought, cannot be overcome with policies and programs alone. It is not just an economic force to resist but an ethical wound to heal.

 

Much of the Left today is focused on proposing policies and dismantling structures. These are undoubtedly important, but such aims cannot be advanced effectively while neglecting the devastation to social belonging and identity that have followed from unfair policies and unjust structures. In the absence of ethical transformation, achieving policy goals may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory—swapping out institutions and incentives but keeping the same damaged social body underneath.

Any American movement beyond neoliberal capitalism has to begin with this social therapy. The road to economic justice passes through new practices that build networks of mutual care extending from family to neighbors to strangers. We need to relearn how to sustain these circles of inclusion. This is why Sanders’s plea to reinvigorate our love for strangers was not a quaint flourish. It was a prophetic insight into the preconditions of a future social democracy.

The non-religious Left needs to dream not only beyond capitalist economic systems but also beyond capitalist moral cultures.

Such an emphasis on civic belonging and cultural transformation tends to be neglected on the American Left. Centrists and progressives still mostly confine themselves to fighting large-scale social inequities with redistributive programs, ceding family, community, and existential meaning to the Right. For example, shortly after Trump’s election, two editors of the socialist magazine Jacobin made this error with accidental precision. It is single-payer health care and similar programs that will restore communal belonging in American life, they promised: “Programs that benefit all Americans will foster the sense of solidarity and political engagement necessary to building a lasting progressive coalition.” Their analysis is exactly backward. Material goods do not magically generate a sense of social belonging in people. Rather, renewed cultures of solidarity must accompany policy success. Without a commons, there is no common good.

Many democratic socialists erroneously believe that structural change will guarantee revolutionary change. Take, for example, the well-known culture theorist Fredric Jameson. In his much-discussed essay, “An American Utopia,” he argues that the best hope for transitioning away from capitalism is for a future president to seize “emergency powers,” conscript the entire population into the military, and extend health care and education to all Americans. This top-down “new social structure” by fiat would supposedly usher in “the transformation of subjectivities.”

There are many problems with Jameson’s account of revolutionary transition. First, without substantive ethical transformation the Left risks succumbing to Jameson’s openly dictatorial view of power. Ironically, this is a picture of political change he shares with Catholic integralists like Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, who maintains the dangerous illusion that technocrats can enact a massive change in culture by manipulating the levers of the state. But this purchases socialism at the cost of democracy, paying little heed to the dignity and freedom of the human person. Second, without ethical transformation, one cannot expect those formed by neoliberalism to use the Schmittian levers of power justly. Trying to change impersonal structural forces without an equally powerful humanism threatens to repeat the mistake of Stalinism. Dostoevsky foresaw this perennial trap over a century ago: the love of humanity in the abstract that in practice generates an intense hatred of actual humans with their frailties and limitations. In the words of the fanatical atheist Shigalyov in Dostoevsky’s Demons, “Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.”

That Jameson would slip into such fantastical errors is especially tragic, because it was he who inspired Mark Fisher’s unsurpassed diagnosis of the crisis of imagination haunting the American Left. In his book Capitalist Realism, Fisher describes “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative.” If the radical imagination is to be authentically renewed anytime soon, the non-religious Left needs to dream not only beyond capitalist economic systems but also beyond capitalist moral cultures. To do so, the non-religious Left desperately needs to learn from the witness of radical—indeed, sometimes utopian—communities of individual and collective conversion.

It is not surprising that one of the most discussed democratic-socialist manifestos in recent years—Martin Hägglund’s This Life—is programmatically anti-religious, yet concludes by imagining future solidarities on the analogy of religious faith. Hägglund ultimately attempts to convert Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian socialism into an atheistic form. But what does it mean if the most enduring models for social renewal on the Left remain those led by people of faith?

At the least, it suggests that religious traditions can help tutor and rehabilitate the Left. Religious communities differ widely, and religious identities can certainly exacerbate existing divisions. But most religions know how to inculcate practices that can radically transform the self and repair social bonds; indeed, this is their expertise. Thriving religious communities know how to turn strangers into family, share material goods heedless of profits, link communities beyond local boundaries, and forge solidarities across class and ethnicity. If capitalism occupies the “horizons of the thinkable,” as Fisher observes, the new solidarities offered by religious faith provide an alternative horizon. They are incubators of a new society, transforming the old from within.

As American social democracy matures, it has much to learn from religious movements, and from Catholic communities in particular, as it supplements cries for change with the fine-grained work of ethical transformation.

 

Utopian thinkers have often been motivated by Christian faith. The last century alone includes William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and Cornel West, not to mention many other Latin American and Black liberation theologians. But too often Catholic political identity is limited to issues, ideology, and religious affiliation in survey polls. Equally important is the slow ethical formation of the self through the various practices of the Catholic faith, especially liturgies and other rituals that actually do the labor of constituting social belonging between individuals.

Concrete examples of radically new forms of social and economic communion might help the non-religious Left recognize their power to heal a broken social order.

Catholic liturgy is a set of practices whose highest aim is communion with God and neighbor. Among other things, the Mass is a public prayer that reconstitutes the social body by reconciling each to the other and all to God. Communion with God works against alienation from one’s neighbor, from creation, and from oneself. At every Mass, Catholics offer perfect strangers a “sign of peace” and greet them as family. They pool individual wealth for the needs of the poorest, from each according to his ability to each according to his need. Communal sharing reaches its climax in the radically democratic act of God feeding all of God’s people without exception. All are joined in their individual bodies by the one Body of Jesus; all who participate in this meal are made radically interdependent upon each other, organs of a single creature. In effect, they resolve not to be themselves without the other. As Pope Francis is fond of repeating, “no one is saved alone.”

Such a pedagogy of communal reconciliation ought to make God’s people capable of sacrificing for their neighbors. Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation reeducate the Christian’s desires through practices of radical inclusion and socialized goods. These are actions our bodies perform. They teach Christians in space and time how to experience strangers as kin, to greet neighbors with peace, to recognize one’s own complicity in violence, and to understand the welfare of the poorest neighbor as intimately connected to one’s own—indeed as part of one’s very body. At its best, Christian liturgical existence is a hands-on, long-term, embodied pedagogy in solidarity.

The Left needs to learn how to introduce what James K. A. Smith has termed “cultural liturgies.” Liturgies in this sense are cultural practices that shape our desires toward a highest good. Smith is ultimately concerned with Christian sacraments, readings, prayers, ascetic acts, charitable works, celebrations, and holy days. But he also draws attention to the way that other liturgies are offered to us by consumer capitalism that condition the heart to seek a rival highest good. “Liturgical capture” happens when patterns of cultural life subtly orient the Christian toward other gods: a narcissism of the nation, a desire for riches, a fixation with military might, a libertarian mania for total freedom. By contrast, pedagogies of solidarity are patterns of Christian worship that order our desires toward God through the concrete flesh of our neighbors and especially the poorest on the margins of society.

Of course, nothing in Catholic liturgy automatically generates communion with one’s neighbor. Many Catholics participate in the rites formalistically without allowing them to transform their perceptions and choices. Moreover, whenever Christian worship quarantines wealthy communities from poorer ones, the Church fails in its catholicity and its pedagogy. But the same practices, lived faithfully, perennially produce arresting examples of creative communal living. Some concrete examples of radically new forms of social and economic communion might help the non-religious Left recognize their power to heal a broken social order.

 

Secular democratic socialists often confine their gaze to secular institutions and secular elites. But if we ask where post-capitalist forms of life are taking concrete form today, we might be surprised. In Los Angeles, there are active cells of Americans testing labor economies that prioritize social solidarity over private profit and experimenting with new forms of kinship beyond state, market, and nuclear family. They have concrete lessons to teach the secular Left about how to create solidarities.

In the early 1990s, Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, founded what would become the most successful gang-intervention program in the country with the help of women from his parish, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Their impetus to organize began when they realized two important things. First, ex-gang members need jobs, above all, to avoid the allure of returning to gang violence in the future. Second, in an age of mass incarceration, the private labor market refuses to offer ex-gang members employment in significant numbers. As Boyle recalls in his book Tattoos on the Heart, a group of Latina community members walked with him directly into the factories surrounding the housing projects and handed out fliers on behalf of gang members. “We waited for the factories to call with employment offers but this never happened,” he writes. The punitive culture of law-and-order permanently blocked those who joined gangs from a full return to society.

Utopian forms of alternative communities are possible now, even at a medium scale.

In response to these disappointments, Boyle and his parish defied the logic of capitalism by adopting the logic of the Church, a logic of radical inclusion. They founded Homeboy Industries by collectivizing capital (charitable donations) from churches and non-profit foundations. Today Homeboy consists of multiple businesses exclusively staffed and run by ex-gang members, including a bakery, café, and silkscreen company. Homeboy rejects the economic model of a supposedly meritocratic labor pool coordinating supply and demand. Instead, as Boyle prankishly says, at Homeboy “we only hire hoodlums,” pursuing a full-employment policy for former gang members seeking work in good faith. Workers are also offered free job training, counseling, tattoo-removal services, and a chance at camaraderie with former enemies from rival gangs.

Boyle’s solidarity with gang members is marked by Catholic liturgy. He first meets many of the “homies” who later join him at Homeboy Industries when he celebrates Masses at the dozens of detention centers and probation camps around Los Angeles. Once at Homeboy, the workers meet for regular prayers and reflections on the life of Jesus. The goal of Homeboy Industries is not purely economic: not jobs, but what Boyle calls “kinship”—a new form of communal belonging where we move “ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.” This “cultural liturgy” of radical inclusion reshapes the desires of all involved through a pedagogy of solidarity. “The homies,” writes Boyle, drawing on his Jesuit training, “have returned me to myself. I’ve learned with their patient guidance, to worship Christ as He lives in them.”

Another local example of radical kinship in Los Angeles is the Catholic Worker kitchen located at the heart of Skid Row, the largest homeless encampment in the United States. Founded in Los Angeles in the 1970s as part of the wider Catholic Worker movement, the kitchen rejects capitalism’s commodification of food, which dictates that only those able to afford food are guaranteed regular meals. Instead, as Worker community member Matt Harper recently put it, “if you come to our kitchen, you will get food no matter who you are.”

This practice of radical generosity began with the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day. Day explained in her memoir Loaves and Fishes that to transform society one needed what she called a “liturgical life”: a form of selfhood shaped by the Church’s worship. For this reason she founded Catholic Worker Houses not simply as sites of charitable giving or for organizing activism. Rather, the chief goal of the Catholic Worker is a new kind of self, living a new life in community.

Day’s foremost goal was not merely to right social wrongs, but to create spaces that educated human beings about what it means to actually love. Serving what Day wryly referred to as not simply the deserving but the “undeserving poor” was a form of communal pedagogy. Day taught that all those who follow Christ must attach themselves firmly to the poor in order to enable their own ethical transformation. “We were being pruned,” she wrote of her founding of the Catholic Worker movement, in order to recognize “that all men are brothers, that we are a family.”

Day was always clear that she was not a revolutionary Communist; she rejected violence and force as forms of political change. Nonetheless she heartily joined the search for a more egalitarian economic order. For Day, the Catholic liturgy shaped people into selves who “worked from below” toward an “economy based on human needs, rather than the profit motive.” She believed that authentically practicing the Catholic corporal and spiritual works of mercy generated a new form of community that challenged unrestrained capitalism. In her famous 1949 statement, “Our Brothers, the Communists,” Day wrote that “if Catholics delved into the rich body of Catholic liturgy and sociology, they would grow in faith and grace and change the world.”

 

Utopian communities like the Catholic Worker, Homeboy Industries, and others like them hold at least four lessons for the secular Left. First, utopian forms of alternative communities are possible now, even at a medium scale. There is no need to wait for a future society that has transitioned beyond neoliberal capitalism. Many religious communities are unwittingly instantiating them piecemeal as we speak, from the bottom up.

Second, electoral politics are important, but if not fed by deep roots, such victories will be ephemeral or quickly betrayed. Moving beyond neoliberal capitalism entails moving beyond the indifference and greed of the libertarian self.

Third, today’s democratic socialists should seek out ways to create, support, or join communities of radical belonging with the poor, often (and even) religious ones. They should recognize that without cultural liturgies that place them in solidarity with the poor they risk drifting unwittingly into other patterns of worship—a political hero, an ideological test, an abstract vision of the future, or revenge against opponents. The twentieth century was full of Leftist movements with lofty ambitions that quickly turned violent as they fell out of unity with the people they purported to help.

Finally, critics of neoliberal capitalism should steer clear of the easy temptation to ignore, marginalize, or alienate religious communities. They should see that Catholic communities in particular are cells of individuals learning to share material life in common, beyond alienation and scarcity. They are utopian collectivities ordered by the rhythms of gathering and redistributing. Despite their many flaws, Catholic communities bear witness to the possibility of mutual interest built not on consumerist entertainment, not on state power or ethno-nationalism, and certainly not on ideological uniformity, but on interdependent vulnerability and care for the neighbor without precondition. With a little hope, we might even see in them the germ of a utopian movement that could ramify in concrete networks across the United States, an actually existing solidarity.

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

David Albertson is an associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a senior fellow at the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought.

Jason Blakely is an associate professor of political science at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought. He is the author of We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power and Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and the Demise of Naturalism.

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