A new kind of politics: the revolutionary Pope

22 Oct 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 22 Oct 2020

For the past three decades we have been encouraged to believe that there is no alternative to the liberal world order, that we have in that oft-quoted phrase reached the end of history.

Modern democracies claim liberty, equality and fraternity as their foundational values and the key to their success. Yet when the Covid-19 pandemic struck they were nowhere to be seen.

For all the connectedness of the present age governments were shown as being unwilling, unable or incapable of working together. And these supposed values were exposed for what they have become: mere words, slogans.

This month a searing indictment of governments both nationalist and globalist was published by an unlikely source, the Vatican. Its author is Pope Francis. 

The encyclical Fratelli Tutti (translated as Brothers and Sisters All) is a call for a “new vision of fraternity and social friendship.”

The supposedly foundational idea of universal brother/sisterhood has long since been neglected, ignored or simply forgotten by governments of all hue. Pope Francis sees this as having had disastrous consequences:

“What happens when fraternity is not consciously cultivated, when there is a lack of political will to promote it through education in fraternity, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment? Liberty becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.”

And as he looks around the globe he is troubled by the rise of extreme nationalism.

“Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise. In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests.”

Yet there is  no comfort for him in liberalism either:

““Opening up to the world” is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries.

“Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action.”

 What passes for political discourse fills him with dismay.

“The best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values. Today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion.”

And those who watched the first US Presidential debate will relate to this passage: “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.”

This poison spreads across the population through digital communications, preventing any proper discourse that allows us to understand other peoples’ perspectives, he argues:

“Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices. Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures. . .A new lifestyle is emerging, where we create only what we want and exclude all that we cannot control or know instantly and superficially.”

No wonder he concludes: “ In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia.”

Some of the most obvious victims of this are migrants. The Pope comes down particularly hard on those who refuse them welcome.

“No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of  origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.”

This notion of fraternity is core to his argument and he sees individualism as a virus, eroding the common good. “Individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal. The mere sum of individual interests is not capable of generating a better world for the whole human family. Nor can it save us from the many ills that are now increasingly globalized.”

But he saves some of his most devastating criticism for proponents of free markets, arguing for the necessity of active, interventionist states.

“Some people are born into economically stable families, receive a fine education, grow up well nourished, or naturally possess great talent. They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only claim their freedom. Yet the same rule clearly does not apply to a disabled person, to someone born in dire poverty, to those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care. If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal.

“Indeed, to claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise doublespeak.”

At this point the extent of Pope Francis’s political radicalism emerges.

“The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom. It has also shown that, in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not subject to the dictates of finance, “we must put human dignity back at the centre and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need

He adds: “when financial speculation manipulates the price of food, treating it as just another commodity, millions of people suffer and die from hunger. At the same time, tons of food are thrown away. This constitutes a genuine scandal. Hunger is criminal; food is an inalienable right”

He goes further still. Francis argues that the world belongs to everybody and so therefore questions the right to private property.

“The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.

“The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment, for if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.”

It follows from this that if everybody has an inalienable dignity, if there is a true brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind and the world belongs to everyone “then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere. My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development.”

Francis’s opposition to the death penalty, his championing of migrants, his views on climate change, free markets and global poverty have made him many enemies, particularly in the US where the Trump regime has tried to undermine him, rather arrogantly presuming that it could influence a 2,000 year old institution. Indeed last year he told reporters that he considered it “an honour” to be attacked by Americans.

At 287 paragraphs Fratelli Tutti is a long read  but a vitally important contribution to the debate about how we should live.




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