Aquarell 6 by Wassily Kandinsky. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Subsidiarity? It’s the Economy of Heaven”

How can we get out of the impasse we are in? For Phillip Blond, theologian and advisor to Britain’s Tory leader David Cameron, we have to begin with relationships, and a Catholic doctrine that exalts the individual for the benefit of all.
Fabrizio Rossi

“Subsidiarity? It’s the political economy of Heaven.” It’s difficult to categorize Phillip Blond, the English theologian, philosopher, and political scientist, who heads the Progressive Conservatism Project, inaugurated four months ago within the Demos think tank (where, just to give an idea, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, was also present to open the champagne). He is an Anglican who adores Catholic apologetes like Chesterton and Belloc. He is proud to define himself a “red Tory,” but he is also a leading columnist in the progressive dailies, The Independent and The Guardian.
 He is a thinker of broad competence, from finance to faith, from paychecks to God. It was no coincidence that, on May 8th, he was there to open the series of three international seminars entitled, “Beyond The Crisis,” at Milan’s Catholic University, proposed by the Foundation for Subsidiarity, Aseri, Cosmopolis, and the Athenaeum Center for the Social Doctrine of the Church, speaking on “Subsidiarity and a New Welfare State,” a topic dear to him, so much so that he identified subsidiarity as “the new starting point” for the financial gurus gathered at the last Davos summit, proposing to them the Catholic doctrine of “less State and more society.”

Markets went crazy, companies closed... What was the origin of the crisis in Western societies? 

Simply put, society is in crisis when the relationship between people is destroyed. There are two crucial relationships that a human society needs: an immanent or internal relationship and a transcendent relationship. An immanent relationship is between a person and his or her fellows and the transcendent relationship is with “the good” that exceeds the sectional interest of any person, group, or, indeed, society itself. It is those two relationships and their coming together that constitutes the possibility of a healthy society.

What has destroyed these relationships? 

Developments in Western society, predominantly though not exclusively secularization, which have in effect reduced all transcendent goods to immanent goods. But the lesson of history is that if you don’t have transcendent goods, you can’t have immanent goods either. So I think that the European Enlightenment, which, of course, was a reaction against the wrong sort of absolutism, destroyed the transcendent relation by replacing it with the idea of immanent relations. But immanent relations themselves can’t survive without a transcendent relationship.

So, not only  the financial storm and collapse of the economy are at the root of this crisis.... 

Indeed not. In order for the economy to collapse the way it has, there has to be a prior destruction of human relationships as exemplified by the family, the nation, and the common good that binds us all. And we have seen the erosion of human relationships and the social structures that uphold and foster them. In this respect, the two dominant political ideologies in the West, socialism and non-liberal capitalism, have not differed, in that, with respect to the priority of relationships, they adopted exactly the same form; they both erode family, culture, and social unity.

In what sense?

They’re both based on forms of monopoly and centralization. And they are both based on the destruction of intermediate relationships. The critique of the State posited the market as a place where human individuality could be realized but, the trouble is, the market, when it is conceived in that way, is just a flip side of the State. In that sense, the secular left and the secular right are both underpinned by something more fundamental: liberalism.

What do you mean?

Liberalism denies there are any goods beyond individual will. So, in the end, what liberalism produces is a world of isolated individuals, each fighting one another. But since society itself can’t function when you have an atomic war of all against all, it requires the absolutist State. Paradoxically, liberalism promotes a critique of absolute power that actually resurrects absolute power in the form of the State.

What is the way out of the current impasse? 
The doctrine of subsidiarity seems to offer a radical alternative to the current impasse. Recovering from this crisis is about creating real human relationships and the conditions for their permanent priority. There’s no going back to a status quo. We need to recognize this as a political opportunity to potentially recover a different sort of political settlement. The really interesting political, social, and economic alternative is the rethinking of intermediate groups: families, associations, local communities. Subsidiarity insists on a radical decentralization. It’s really a Catholic theory of the plurality of society: Catholicism means universalism, so in that sense what counts for Catholics is people.

In what way? 

It’s in the family or in the smaller associations that people have a genuine opportunity to exercise their nature, a God-given nature, and condition their own unique sense of being with the transcendent sense of that which exceeds it. Paradoxically, precisely because it is unique and singular, a person’s individuality–if it is ordered to the transcendent dimension of life–serves the good of all other beings. God Himself delights in the plurality He creates. In order for there to be a plural world, there must be beings who are unique and who relate to each other and celebrate each other’s uniqueness in the light of that which essentially unifies all distinctions within an identity that doesn’t negate them. And that’s a Christian and therefore plural society. This is the purpose of subsidiarity.

In modern society, individuality is always in conflict with others... 

In Christian society, individuality and sociality reinforce one another. So, in that sense, subsidiarity is the political economy of heaven, because the political economy of heaven is essentially the way in which my uniqueness or your uniqueness is extolled and exemplified but somehow paradoxically serves all other uniquenesses. So, I think that the role of religion in society is essential because it is, in my view, the only way to articulate the common good and exceed the self-interest of the isolated human person. Without religion, society collapses back into an aggregation of competing subjects whose only goal is the maximization of their own self-interest. This anarchical situation threatens to undermine society itself and can only be contained and controlled by an authoritarian state.

Is this a risk our society is facing? 

If we look at the world, everywhere there are more monotheistic believers than there ever have been. China will soon be the third most populous Christian nation in the world. The only global region that doesn’t believe in God is northwest Europe. So, secularization is a provincial European narrative and I’m sure that, historically speaking, it’s already over.