What does the left stand for? Social democrats across the West seem stuck, unable to move beyond the binary option of centrist technocracy or revolutionary populism. Devoid of ideas and energy, the left suffers defeat and division while the right reinvents itself and rules. Missing from progressive politics is a sense of purpose beyond rights and utility – a vision of human flourishing anchored in fraternity and friendship. Such a vision can be found in Pope Francis’s social encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”, published on 4 October.
The contemporary left lacks a distinctive conception of the good life. Appeals to left-wing values ring increasingly hollow. Of the three foundational values that have dominated politics since the French Revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity – the left has privileged the first two at the expense of the third. Yet without fraternity, liberty slides into individualistic free choice removed from the relational constraints of family or community. Equality becomes debased to mean either sameness or difference. As a result, the left is caught in an impasse between imposing uniform standards and promoting individualised identities.
Fraternity itself has been redefined. Whereas it used to denote interpersonal relations embedded in decentralised mutual aid organisations, it has come to designate impersonal solidarity provided by the central state via top-down redistribution. In this process, the intermediary institutions of civic society lost much of their agency and were subsumed under the joint power of state and market. The left version of being free and equal abstracts from social roles and relationships.
Over time this has led to left-wing support for free-market capitalism, extreme identity politics and an obsession with technology. Far from producing progress, these forces exacerbate divisions that have been decades in the making – rising levels of economic inequality, social fragmentation and family breakdown. But growing polarisation will not be resolved by doubling down on technocratic or populist politics. Instead, the left abandons its traditional supporters and keeps losing elections, as happened to Labour under Corbyn in 2019.
To recover a moral compass, the left should heed Francis’s call for “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship”. Fraternity is a universal disposition, the idea that we ought to love every human being because we all have dignity. Friendship is a particular moral sentiment, the affection we have for those we encounter. Fraternal love enables friendship as the strangers in our midst become our neighbours. In the Pope’s own words, “every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country”. Social friendship, he writes, creates a “true universal openness”, as opposed to “the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people”. But it is not only liberal globalism the pontiff takes aim at. He rejects populist nationalism and its demagogic exploitation of fear in order to attain power. The constructive alternative Francis seeks to chart balances “love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family”.
The pope’s intervention is vital for the left as it tries to regain popular trust. Mindful of our fractured world, he calls for a more just sharing of the world’s resources, care for our common home of nature – the subject of his previous encyclical – and compassion for migrants. Linking greater economic justice and ecological balance to social fairness will help the left to renew its ethical traditions anchored in the common good, beyond utilitarian or rights-based models. The left will also appreciate his unequivocal condemnation of Christians who are apologists of xenophobia, racism and ethnocentric atavism.
At the same time, Pope Francis is determined to take the oxygen out of the “culture wars” that are ripping Western societies apart. Against left-wing protesters who tear down statutes and dismiss whole cultures as reactionary, he reminds people to know their history, learn from the experiences of their elders and be open to the inheritance from past generations. “People who abandon their tradition,” the pope writes, “and allow others to rob their very soul, end up losing… their moral consistency and, in the end, their intellectual, economic and political independence.” It is a powerful rebuttal to the advocates of “cancel culture” and the closing of the progressive mind.
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Key to the practice of fraternity is a balance of rights with obligations. Selfishness enslaves us to our own fabricated desires, whereas caring for ourselves and for others makes us free. True equality involves a hierarchy in which the young have a duty to look after the elderly, just as the elderly are obligated to impart wisdom which the young cannot achieve on their own. The left forgets that the family remains the fundamental social institution that educates us into the social virtues of sacrifice and service on which citizenship and democracy depend. Social virtues rest on lived fraternity – relationships of “give-and-receive” that give our daily lives meaning.
The left can learn from Catholic social teaching a politics of the common good, motivated by fraternal love, that rebuilds broken societies. Such a politics starts with the things that matter most to people – their families and friends, the places where they live and work, the relationships of support and community that sustain them, and the institutions that provide security. Love, home, work and hope are the building blocks for the good life that fuses our individual fulfilment with the mutual flourishing of others.
Fraternity is at the heart of the social fabric binding together communities and countries. The left needs to recover ethical traditions to be a force for good – gaining and retaining power to offer people a more dignified life.
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?