I was thinking about politics today, particularly about the terms in which politics could more helpfully be talked about. As it stands, folks in the churches I know and love generally talk about “issues” without really engaging what it means for people to be political or rational or even spiritual animals, and I think that our Christian witness suffers for it; if we’re merely partisans of one or another American political faction, to what extent can we call our common witness Christian?
More specifically I was thinking about wealth and the ways we speak about it. It’s no big surprise that capitalism is the dominant economic ideology in the lands claimed by Washington. But the church’s unwillingness (or inability) to speak critically about such things is troubling. While churches agree and disagree about whether or not centralized governments should regulate lying or sex or those such things, nobody seems to question the purely monetary model of “property” that underlies the way that we live together.
Even Plato seems to have known better. In his Republic, the city is the locus of property. The producers generate material goods and perform specialized services, and the civil servants police things and fight wars, and the philosopher-kings rule using noble lies among their other stately tools (I’m becoming more and more convinced that the U. of Chicago group, the students of Leo Strauss, are intentionally reclaiming this Platonic tool). What is proper to each class, and thus to each person, is duty and function. There’s no sense that any of the producers is thinking that “my” crops or coins or whatever are ending up in the hands of the kings; rather, the city itself is the “proper” steward of these things. Later, in monastic life, similar things happen–whatever was once proper to this or that man becomes the common “property” of the community, and each monk’s “property” becomes not a monetary holding but a participation in a larger social body.
But modern notions of property, whether capitalist or communist, seem to presuppose “property” as a liquid asset, something to be bought and sold without any eye for its function as a communal good. Marx is no less guilty of this than any capitalist; the revolution presupposes that a finite, liquid pool of resources is the aim of the revolution (if I’ve got this wrong, any Marx scholar is quite welcome to correct me). In The German Ideology, the end of revolution seems to be a collection of functionally equivalent individuals, not any sort of community.
In libertarian/Republican frameworks, it’s even scarier and even more Nietzschean. It doesn’t matter how the rich got rich or the powerful got powerful; their duty is to retain that power and money. Not to do so would be to cave in (according to Nietzshce) to the ethics of resentment (echoed in the last fifteen years or so by Limbaugh and company’s rants about “class warfare”). If a few of the poor win or deal or work themselves to death and earn a little wealth, the moneyed class points to them with great rejoicing and says that “anyone can make it in America.” But if someone points to the thousand who can’t accumulate wealth, even while working themselves to death, it’s “class warfare.” In the meantime, they continue to congratulate themselves for being wealthy and powerful, sneering at the working poor as “the lazy class.”
I’ll probably post more on this in the days to come; right now, I’m just trying to establish some sort of theoretical framework within which I can talk and write about national politics without automatically falling into one or another megaparty’s camp and, more importantly, without assuming that the nation to whom a person pays taxes automatically becomes that person’s primary political identity-maker. More later.