The persistence of a failure to critique or challenge a political economy which maintains and even deepens existing inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity within societies and between nation-states is eroding social cohesion. These inequalities in wealth accumulation are often delivered to the public as celebrations of individual genius. The absence of an inclusive discourse has in too many places led to the recrudescence of a vicious politics of the far-right that in form, content and iconography many of us had hoped never to see again……I sense that this issue of the missing critical discourse that we need is now coming to the fore.
President Michael D Higgins, “Of the Discourse that we need”, speech at Social Justice Ireland Annual Conference, November 21st, 2017
In March 2016, a small Christian group, which we nicknamed a “coalition of hope”, began to explore the need for constructive engagement between Christians and those who hold secular beliefs: how together we may imagine what we called a “new project of human flourishing” in Ireland. We were initially stimulated by Professor Michael Cronin, a member of our group, when he wrote:
As Ireland comes out of the most severe politico-economic crisis in its post-independence history, it is worth asking what kind of emancipation we might strive for and what the role of religion and critical thinking might be in a new project of human flourishing.
Together we produced a prophetic paper entitled, “The Signs of Our Times”, which can be read in the book which we have published arising from our detailed deliberations over many months: A Dialogue of Hope Critical Thinking For Critical Times, ed. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ., (Messenger Publications). The book also has six individual papers, which were drafted by members of a “coalition of hope”, but collectively discussed before the authors finalised them. These cover some key issues raised in The Signs of Our Times, which was drafted by Dermot McCarthy, former secretary general to the government, a member of the group. Professor Iseult Honohan, a political philosopher, writes a pertinent analysis of “Religious Perspectives and the Public Sphere”. Father Dermot Lane, theologian, considers how our understandings of anthropology – what it means to be human- may help us to a new dialogue between secularists and believers in a paper entitled “Anthropology in the Service of Bridges of Hope”. Dr David Begg, former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, frames Ireland’s economic vulnerability in a context of global economic insecurity and how we might develop a new and more balanced economic model for human flourishing. Professor Michael Cronin, who has published widely on language, culture and identity, in “Beyond The Slogans: Future Prospects, Present Dilemmas”, focuses how we address the ecological crisis with a richer concept of how human development is served by a more ethical economics.
Father Gerry O’Hanlon SJ., addressing “A Challenge to the Churches”, argues that it is now time, “in our pluralist society, for believers and unbelievers to learn how to pool their resources in a common attempt at re-imagining an alternative narrative”. In my own paper, entitled “Key Areas for Constructive Engagement: Solidarity, Community and Active Citizenship”, I seek to clarify how the Christian commitment to these core elements of a flourishing society is in fact shared by a civic republican philosophy ‑ the secular philosophy which ought to underpin and shape the republic which is established in Ireland. The “coalition of hope” authors do not consider their task finished with the publication of this unique collective book: we are developing opportunities for dialogue with other views whether faith-based or secular. We have presented the book to President Michael D Higgins as our work relates very closely to his very successful ethics initiative. It is strongly recommended that our book be read in conjunction with the president’s own book, When Ideas Matter: Speeches For An Ethical Republic, (Head of Zeus).
What is common to both books is the pressing need for a new narrative to replace neoliberalism: analysis of the failures of neoliberalism – which has been the operant public philosophy in the West, Europe, USA, Great Britain and Ireland – particularly since the Reagan and Thatcher era in 1980s reveals how neoliberalism underpins our current social, political, economic, ecological and ideological troubles.
Neoliberalism is hard to pin down but has powerfully shaped the multifaceted crisis we all now confront. As we point out in “The Sign of Our Times” there is widespread consensus in secular and religious circles that we are running out of time to save the planet, that the cause of climate change is human behaviour, that we can no longer depend on fossil fuels and that a reduction in greenhouse gases is urgent – in short we must make the difficult transition from our exploitation of the earth to one of stewardship of the planet – stewardship is of course a profoundly biblical concept. The economic, financial and political crises which came to a head in 2008, and the consequences of these crises which we are living through now, have resulted from neo-liberal ideas about the preference for markets over government – remember Reagan’s stupid slogan that government was the problem not the solution ‑ deregulation, and the favouring of economic incentives in the public policy realm and private entrepreneurship over collective action. For example, our current housing crisis has arisen because we stopped local authorities building and maintaining an adequate stock of public housing and left the “private market” free to exploit this basic human need and indeed human right. When the great “entrepreneurs” of the banking world screwed up the world for financial gain by way of deregulated greed they ran to government and the general public purse to rescue them from their self-inflicted disasters. Yet neo-liberal idiocy often knows no bounds ‑ even as inequalities are becoming so gross throughout the world and within societies some still call for deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation or fiscal austerity. Such self-serving policies of the wealthy one per cent have fuelled the toxic politics of Trumpism, Brexit and a widespread return of racist and even fascist movements in Europe.
The rising inequality throughout the world and within countries is very well documented and has given rise to the popular understanding of the problem as we talk of the 99 per cent and the 1 per cent in public debate. A leading scholar of inequalities, Anthony B Atkinson, has analysed this growing chasm and set out what policies might be adopted to address it. The very damaging social effects of inequality across a whole range of desirable outcomes for healthy societies have been brilliantly analysed and established by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their landmark study The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (Penguin Books). In September 2017, the archbishop of Canterbury stated that Britain’s economic model was “broken” because it produces widespread inequality. This great issue ‑ perhaps the defining issue of our time ‑ must be addressed by the churches if they are to regain lost credibility for institutional expressions of the Christian faith.
What the Christian churches might bring to a new critical discourse which seeks to dismantle the dominance of neoliberalism is the Christian understanding of the human being: neoliberalism is grounded in the concept of homo economicus – the supposedly perfectly rational human being who always pursues self-interest: hence the marked individualism and consumerism of contemporary society. As a sharp and powerful antidote to this diminished form of human life, Christian understanding of the human being is, as Dermot Lane points out, multidimensional and multi-layered and centred upon relationships of love for flourishing living.
Stephen Metcalf wrote a key article in The Guardian newspaper on August 18th, 2017 entitled “Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world” in which he observed:
Peer through the lens of neoliberalism and you see more clearly how the political thinkers most admired by Thatcher and Reagan helped shape the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties). Of course the goal was to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, and – always ‑ to cut taxes and deregulate. But “neoliberalism” indicates something more than a standard right-wing wish list. It was a way of reordering social reality and rethinking our status as individuals.
In “Sign of the Times” we outline our belief that the modern narrative – neoliberalism ‑ supporting the status quo is spent and that an alternative narrative is required in the twenty-first century. We believe that this alternative narrative should have input from secular sources and religious voices from poor and rich people, from atheists and believers, from scientists and philosophers and from poets and theologians. In particular we believe that the search for “the common good” (it is important to note this is a key concept in Christian social teaching and in civic republican philosophy) as we reshape our future together needs the active participation of citizens supported by a re-energised political system that supports deliberation and fosters solidarity (again note the civic republican concepts of “active citizenshi”, “public deliberation” and “solidarity” which are very consonant with Christian social teaching).
Christians wishing to explore what the Bible has to say about the ancient but powerful idea of the common good might wish to use Calling People of Goodwill: The Bible and the Common Good, which is the result of collaboration between Bible Society and an organisation called Together for the Common Good in association with Jesuits in Britain and the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.
In my own paper in A Dialogue of Hope, entitled “Key Areas for Constructive Engagement: Solidarity, Community and Active Citizenship”, I seek to elaborate on how we might find much common ground in this new collective project to promote human flourishing and tell an alternative story to that of neoliberalism. I quote Ivan Illich (1926-2002), philosopher and priest, when he reminds us of the power of story:
Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light on the future so that we can take to next step….If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.
At the same time as A Dialogue of Hope was published George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (Verso) appeared. Monbiot significantly places some sentences from Ben Okri’s A Way of Being Free as a epigraph to his important book which so significantly complements ours:
Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.
Brexit is a good example of a story sold in the United Kingdom referendum in 2016 which was based on lies and the suffering of the consequences for the British people and indeed others as a result are daily becoming more evident.
If Illich and Okri are correct in reminding us of the power of the dominant story we tell ourselves, as I believe they are, then it is imperative that we dialogue together about a new story for human flourishing. Monbiot reminds us that it is reasonable to hope for a better world even as the problems of climate change, the renewed threat of nuclear war, the disarray in so many countries and the failure of politics seem so intractable. When we understand the power of political narratives to shape our world then we may have hope inspired by a new narrative. Political history since the Second World War has been dominated, as discussed in Monbiot’s book, by the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world: those who tell the dominant stories run the world. These major stories, as Monbiot points out, have the same narrative structure of restoration: disorder caused by powerful and nefarious forces is confronted by a hero or heroes who revolts against the disorder and overcomes the negative forces despite great odds and restore order.
We need to produce a new restoration story to replace neoliberalism: as Monbiot points out the narrative we build has to be simple and intelligible. If it is to transform our politics, it should appeal to as many people as possible, crossing traditional political lines, it should resonate with deep needs and desires. It should explain the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it and it must be grounded in reality.
In developing the new narrative we need to be informed by the convergence of findings in different sciences about humans as compared with other animals, Research in psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology points to an understanding of human beings as altruistic beings: we possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about the welfare of others and an unmatched ability to create moral norms to enforce these tendencies. Christian anthropology which sees the human potential to love others as we love ourselves in a more abundant and flourishing life is supported by science. Both scientific and Christian understandings undermine the homo economicus view of human beings, with its ideology of extreme individualism and competition, that we have falsely been led to believe to be our case as we imbibed neoliberalism. This allows us as Christians and as citizens of whatever faith or of none to confidently set about creating a new more accurate dominant narrative. In my chapter I call for a civic republican story which we might develop through a network of civic forums, developing popular understandings of key conceptual tools, such as “sustainable development” and “well-being measures”, and organising new models of participation in a “civic public square” in which people of faith or no faith can participate together.
The late Peter Mair, one of Ireland’s leading political scientists, described Ireland’s disengaged and passive citizenry: a “moribund politics and a moribund political culture”. His analysis is one which we ignore at our peril. Hence in imaging a new Civic Republic we face an enormous and long-term challenge. However, we must remind ourselves of the potential of people to renew their world – in Thomas Paine’s words “We can make the world anew”. This is evident from history and from our understanding of human beings. In a collection of essays I edited, entitled Towards a Flourishing Society (TASC, Dublin, 2012), I wrote:
The new Civic Republic of Ireland will, I believe, stand for a great and generous experiment in human well-being and happiness. It will be founded upon an educated and intellectually vibrant citizenry, imbued with the civic virtues and dedicated to the common good. It will develop a society where every person will be enabled to exercise the whole range of their human capacities and live rewarding and fulfilling lives as part of an energetic and humane political community.
George Monbiot’s call for a new “Politics of Belonging” in Out of The Wreckage A New Politics For An Age of Crisis shares our concern for the values that are required in this new discourse. He notes the parallel with religious narratives:
Effective religious narratives, like effective political narratives, are often restoration stories. They tell us that, through the observance of faith and other religious values, we find redemption: the restoration of order in a broken world or a broken psyche. The lesson religion has to teach politics is: first, know your values; then evangelise them in the form of powerful narratives.
As Iseult Honahan points out in her key chapter in A Dialogue of Hope, there are resources in religious traditions that secularists and others may learn from engagement with them:
These traditions have been the concentrated locus of reflection on some of the deepest questions arising in human experience: the meaning of human life in the face of mortality, the possibility of transformation and transcendence, the freedom of individuals, solidarity among human beings, and their place in the larger picture of nature and the cosmos.
She carefully analyses why religious expressions should not be excluded from the public square. The reasons include justice to religious citizens, the practical integration of minorities, and the important resources embedded in religious perspectives. In promoting reforms in society, churches, and their spokepersons, need to be dialogical rather than dogmatic. Churches are not required to abandon their specific truth-claims but they can be “expected to set aside claims to impose them on others without their consent”. In a secular and pluralist state there is great value in dialogue between religious and non-religious views in providing hope in a social, economic and political world “where conventional approaches have worn thin”
Father Gerry O’Hanlon SJ., in his “A Challenge to the Churches”, takes up in a prophetic way how the churches- in a “post-Catholic Ireland” where at best a sort of “negative tolerance” of the beliefs of others exists ought to respond: the collapse of traditional church predominance in fact allows a “prophetic mode” to be more capable of realisation. To achieve this will require reforms within churches towards participation and inclusion and will present challenges to the largely middle class constituencies within the institutional churches. He points out that churches have failed to combat sectarian divisions and to promote reconciliation on the island – indeed “there has been a lack of urgency among the Churches in Ireland about finding a common voice on social issues, and a disappointing take-up of agreed ecumenical statements at the institutional level”. The challenge for church leaders is to equip their churches, by serious study and reflection on socio-political issues, to enter into dialogue with secular Ireland with more credibility using the so far very underutilised resources of Christian social teaching.
We urgently need an inclusive social and political dialogue which will inspire hope for a more equal and flourishing society and we badly need our churches to wake up to the radically changed contexts in which they are called to convey the Good News of Jesus Christ: critical thinking is essential for our critical times and nowhere more so than in our churches.
Dr Fergus O’Ferrall is author of a number of books in Irish history including Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-30