The next sentence to this one says something about as commonplace in the religious blogosphere as admissions of mass murder, or admiration for Richard Dawkins, or similar. I am a revolutionary socialist. By which I do not mean that I am particularly keen on the idea of violent insurrection, but rather that I think that the bringing about of a society in which human beings flourish would require nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the existing social order, and in particular of the ways we own, produce and distribute things. I believe this for boringly old-fashioned reasons. I think that human beings are social animals, each of our flourishings is tied up with the flourishing of all — our ability to live the good life, the life of virtue, is affected radically by the social circumstances in which we find ourselves. I think, furthermore, that capitalist societies, which by their very nature school people in the vices of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and instrumentalism towards their fellow human beings, are intrinsically inimical to the living of the good life. This view, which I would call virtue anti-capitalism, is hardly original to me. It is clearly present in McCabe, MacIntyre and Eagleton. There are hints of it in the early Marx. And it has a good claim to be the modern manifestation of an ethico-political tradition going back, via Thomas, to Aristotle..
I record all of this in order to set in context an expression of puzzlement about a claim I have heard more than once about the English and Welsh Bishops’ recently published document, Choosing the Common Good; namely, that it is a tacit expression of support for political conservatism, in general, and for the British Conservative Party, in particular. The document is very much focused on the need for a society which disposes people towards virtue. And it is true that conservatives recognise this need. Does it follow that the bishops are advocating conservatism? Only if conservatism is the only politics which doesn’t rule out talk of virtue as illicit. And, as my previous paragraph indicates, it is not..
There is a common politial position which rules out the grounding of politics in any robust conception of the good. It is not, however, socialism but liberalism. I suspect that the reason many people see in ‘Choosing the Common Good an unambiguous shift to the Right is that left-wing politics is increasingly elided in peoples’ minds with liberalism. There is growing evidence of the blossoming of a US-style culture wars in the UK, where the most important political divide is seen as being between the forces of stability, tradition and substantive morality, on the one hand, and the forces of change, experimentation and ethical laid-backness on the other. Now there is much that is right about liberalism, with its respect for the integrity of the individual and its tendency not to be frightened of the future, just as there is much that is right about conservatism, with its understanding of the importance of tradition and history. It is a mistake, though, to suppose that the Right has a monopoly on these latter qualities Sed contra: it is we who are the true traditionalists (Trotsky). Now, I am not claiming that the Bishops are positively suggesting that the baptised spend their Saturday mornings selling Socialist Worker. But I am claiming that it is perfectly possible for those of us on the Left to applaud at a fundamental level the Bishops’ vision of a politics of virtue. That is worth noting, amidst all the inept reporting from the secular press.
That reporting has paid a lot of attention to the document’s position on marriage. It has been claimed that the bishops are voicing support for David Cameron’s curious plan to bribe people to get/ stay married through the tax system. Here is the section on marriage in full:
The future of society passes by way of the family. Families,
for better or worse, are the first school of life and love, where
the capacity to relate to others, to develop moral character,
is founded. The tragic personal, social and economic costs of
increased family breakdown are unmistakable.
Whilst we recognise and applaud the many parents who
despite family breakdown provide a loving and stable home
for their children, we have also as a society to accept that the
promotion and encouragement of family stability must be a
high priority if this trend, so damaging to the common good,
is to be reversed. Families require financial as well as relational
stability, access to affordable housing, and fair conditions of
employment that respect family responsibilities. Families
have a right to a life of their own, and governments do well
when they interfere as little as possible while supporting
parents in the exercise of their responsibilities. But at the
heart of necessary policy initiatives to support the stability
of couple relationships, it is essential to support marriage.
Marriage brings considerable and measurable benefits
to individuals, children, family life and society. It deserves
protection. A strong future for marriage is both achievable
and desirable. A more realistic view of married life should be
encouraged and couples should be prepared with the skills
to maintain and develop their commitment. There should be
more resources for relationship support. Society has a vested
interest in supporting marriage as the surest basis for family
life. Politicians of all parties should recognise and support
marriage as a key building-block of a stable society.
Good luck to anyone who finds ‘Vote Tory’ hidden in there. I don’t.