At City Journal, Park MacDougald has a very interesting piece about Catholic illiberalism in the wake of the French-Ahmari debate. In full disclosure, I spoke with MacDougald and am quoted in the piece. On the whole, MacDougald’s presentation of the status quaestionis is fair. Much fairer, indeed, than some of the sharp critiques leveled at integralists by other Catholics. Part of this, no doubt, is the author: MacDougald has been writing about the intellectual currents on the right for a while. For example, he has been writing interesting pieces about various authors and events on the right for New York magazine for a year or two now. However, part of this has to be the moment.
Indeed, the debates that MacDougald summarizes for a general audience seem to me to be part of a broader moment. I have written a lot here about liberalism generally and the potential crisis of liberalism that is emerging along social and cultural lines. But it must be observed that the debate is, for the most part, a debate taking place on the political right. Sohrab Ahmari and David French are both—at least in terms of how they describe themselves—men of the right. Most people would say that National Review and First Things are both right-wing publications; indeed, both would probably be among the most influential right-wing publications today. The other participants in the debate are also generally men and women of the right.
Even the prominent Catholic critics of integralism, such as Massimo Faggioli, are ultimately not conventional secular progressives. Whatever my disagreements with the Catholic critics of integralism, I have little doubt in my mind that they are no more enthusiastic about the excesses of identity politics, political correctness, intersectionality, or whatever else you want to mention than Sohrab Ahmari. Indeed, some of them, such as Ryan Anderson, boss at the integralism-obsessed Public Discourse, made their names expressing right-wing views on social-cultural issues. And even if a critic like Faggioli wanted to make common cause with the secular left, he would find out that the left gets to define who is a leftist and very few Catholics ever make the cut.
Consequently, the debate over integralism is, in broader terms, a debate on the right. And it cannot be denied that the right generally is ascendant at the moment. The rise of populism since 2008 or so has been, for the most part, a right-wing phenomenon. Even Hillary Clinton, whose campaign against Barack Obama in 2008 was structured along broadly populist lines, abandoned a left-wing populism when confronted with Donald Trump’s right-wing version. Throughout Europe, right-wing populists are achieving significant successes, the most notable of which is the departure of England from the European Union. Nigel Farage’s farewell speech in the European Parliament yesterday, for example, was, in part, a defense of populism against the dominant EU ideology. Enough has been said about Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.
Voices on the left recognize that leftists have been increasingly excluded from power. Sam Kriss—the leftist blogger who was sort of cancelled during the height of Me Too, though he has sort of made a comeback except on Twitter—wrote a piece following Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in the English general election. I think it is worth dwelling on one passage in particular:
The left has a tendency to lapse into a kind of vulgar Kantianism here. Du kannst, denn du sollst: it’s necessary, therefore it must be possible. All we need is enough hope. What if it isn’t? Gramsci attacks ‘the sweet illusion that events could only follow a certain sequence, as we predicted, in which they would inevitably run into the dikes and channels that we constructed’ – but what if the dikes and channels are all working exactly as intended, and they were built by our enemies? We have to win, or it’ll be a disaster – but disaster is already triumphant. The crises of neoliberalism haven’t done much to dull its effects; if anything, they’re strengthened. They’re in our communicative media; they’re in the air we breathe. I thought the financial crash of 2008 would lead to a revitalised left, but the oppositional movements that followed were scattered and useless, reduplicating the worst aspects of neoliberalism under the banner of resistance. I thought the collapse of liberalism in 2016 would leave us poised to inherit the earth, but it’s produced a reactionary paradise in which we struggle to gain a foothold.
(Emphasis supplied.) Now, this is obviously contingent. As I write, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are essentially tied for the lead in the Iowa caucus polls. For many people, including a large (or at least extremely online) contingent of Catholics, Bernie Sanders, the cantankerous democratic socialist from Vermont, represents the old left. That is the left before it became bogged down with identity politics and political correctness and intersectionality. The left in the good old days when Marxist students and UAW members at Buick City in Detroit marched toward a fairer economy.
Even more significantly, Sanders represents a left-populism that is far more vibrant than Hillary Clinton’s politics of resentment from 2008. While it is true, therefore, that right-wing populism has made significant political gains and ushered in the triumph of disaster for the left, it seems to me that there remains a possibility that the left will recover at least some of those losses through Sanders’s candidacy. Now, it may all go wrong: Joe Biden might win Iowa, Sanders might win New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar might win South Carolina, and the front runner after Super Tuesday might get shellacked by Mike Bloomberg. But until it does go wrong, I think it is necessary to admit that Kriss’s despair, while entirely rational, is contingent.
But it is entirely rational to see the left in disarray and despair even if only for the moment. And it is therefore worth thinking about integralism and the right more generally. Obviously, there can be no compromises with respect to integralism, not least since integralism is simply the perennial doctrine of the Roman Church with respect to its relations with states and the obligations states owe God. But it is worth thinking about what integralists can offer to the right more generally. MacDougald quotes Ross Douthat to the effect that integralism will pull Catholic intellectuals to the left economically and to the right with respect to civil liberties and censorship.
To put it another way, unless and until the left proves that it has any vitality left outside Brooklyn, integralists’ engagement should not be an engagement with leftists. It should be engagement with the right. Certainly, to the extent that leftist thought has unique insights not otherwise contained in the Church’s teaching (a debatable proposition if one believes Pius XI and Paul VI), there may be some sense in engaging with leftist thought. But at the moment, there is not really a political expression of leftist thought with any access to state power. Consequently, such engagement can happen as easily within integralist circles as it can in dialogue with the left, not least since integralists are more likely to realize and grapple with the real limitations of leftist thought, especially from a doctrinal standpoint.
However, this process does not happen in a vacuum and as Catholic intellectuals are drawn into a new posture, it stands to reason that these debates will be noticed. Indeed, MacDougald’s piece, among others, proves that these debates are being noticed. There does not appear to be any reason why this should ultimately be a passive project for integralists. Currently there are exciting discussions on the right about industrial policy, state power, and economic justice, all of which can be informed by integralist views. Likewise other aspects of the right-wing moment, such as populism, have a long history with the Church and can be informed by authentically Catholic teaching.
One should not be overly optimistic. The institutions on the right are, in all probability, as hostile to the Church’s teaching as the institutions on the left are. Politicians, no matter how earnest and high minded they may be at any given point, often make compromises, usually at the expense of true believers. But in a moment where the right is ascendant and the debates among Catholics about integralism and liberalism are attracting broader attention, it would be perverse not to advocate forcefully for integralist positions—prudently, of course, recognizing always the constraints that exist.