Montaigne and Solidarity

I have recently taken a great deal of interest in the writings of Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J. and the principles of Catholic solidarism — namely the very economic principles that helped to liberate and then build a prosperous Poland not to mention a robust West Germany in the 1950s.  Ironically enough, both Poland and Germany weathered the Great Recession in ways that other Western markets did not (and perhaps could not by design).

So it’s with that background that I find this article on Montaigne and the principles of solidarity in the UK Guardian… at least in the twist that Marxists have imposed upon the term:

Taking an interest in others, on their own terms, is perhaps the most radical aspect of Montaigne’s writing. His was an age of hierarchy, in which inequalities of rank seemed to separate seigneurs and servants into separate species, and Montaigne is not free of this attitude; nonetheless, he is curious. It’s often said that he is one of the first writers to dwell on his own personal self; this is true but incomplete. His method of self-knowledge is to compare and to contrast; he stages differentiating encounters and exchanges again and again in the pages of his essays. Frequently he is gratified by his own distinctiveness, but almost as often, as with his cat, he is perplexed by what makes others different.

Like Holbein’s table, Montaigne’s cat was an emblem fashioned at the dawn of the modern era to convey a set of possibilities; the table represented in part new ways of making things, the cat represented new ways of living together. The cat’s backstory is Montaigne’s, and La Boétie’s, politics: co-operative life, freed of command from the top. What happened to these promises of modernity? In a pregnant phrase, the social philosopher Bruno Latour declares, “We have never been modern.” He means specifically that society has failed to come to grips with the technologies it has created; nearly four centuries after Holbein, the tools on the table remain mystical objects. As concerns co-operation, I’d amend Latour’s declaration: we have yet to be modern; Montaigne’s cat represents human capabilities society has yet to nurture.

At least, here is where Mr. Sennet and I would agree.  Technology has a funny way of advancing before we do.

…and that’s where we part, as Mr. Sennet proceeds to (rightly) attack (Marxist) solidarity:

The 20th century perverted co-operation in the name of solidarity. The regimes that spoke in the name of unity were not only tyrannies; the very desire for solidarity invites command and manipulation from the top. The perverse power of solidarity, in its “us-against-them” form, remains alive in the civil societies of liberal democracies, as in European attitudes toward immigrants who seem to threaten social solidarity, or in American demands for a return to “family values”.

Of course, the Catholic idea of “solidarity” involves none of this.  Solidarity in the Catholic sense is a sort of linkage between Chesterton’s distributist ideals and Austrian economic theory in practice.  That’s not just a difference — it’s a gulf between the Marxist variety of solidarity which lashes us all together without asking the question “quo vadis?”

Solidarity has been the left’s traditional response to the evils of capitalism. Co-operation in itself has not figured much as a strategy for resistance. Though the emphasis is in one way realistic, it has also sapped the strength of the left. The new forms of capitalism emphasise short-term labour and institutional fragmentation; the effect of this economic system has been that workers cannot sustain supportive social relations with one another. In the west, the distance between the elite and the mass is increasing, as inequality grows more pronounced in neo-liberal regimes such as those of Britain and the US; members of these societies have less and less a fate to share in common. The new capitalism permits power to detach itself from authority, the elite living in global detachment from responsibilities to others on the ground, especially during times of economic crisis. Under these conditions, as ordinary people are driven back on themselves, it’s no wonder they crave solidarity of some sort – which the destructive solidarity of “us-against-them” is tailor-made to provide.

Kinda makes you want to put your head through a wall, right?

The problem he accurately diagnoses is the form of socialism that pervades modern society.  This is not the same as solidarity — which in a Marxist sense, is a prerequisite for socialism, yet in a Catholic sense is the predication that human beings have intrinsic worth beyond the market.  In essence, while the socialist sees value in the means of production, the Catholic sees value of a priceless sort in the ends of production: namely, the human person made in the likeness and image of God.

It’s little wonder also that a distinctive character type has been bred by this crossing of political and economic power, a character type seeking to relieve experiences of anxiety. Individualism of the sort Tocqueville describes might seem to La Boétie, were he alive today, a new kind of voluntary servitude, the individual in thrall to his or her own anxieties, searching for a sense of security in the familiar. But the word “individualism” names, I believe, a social absence as well as a personal impulse: ritual is absent. Ritual’s role in all human cultures is to relieve and resolve anxiety, by turning people outward in shared, symbolic acts; modern society has weakened those ritual ties. Secular rituals, particularly rituals whose point is co-operation itself, have proved too feeble to provide that support. (emphasis added)

Of course, what’s described here is a “sense of place” as the antidote for radical individualism, a problem probably more acutely felt by Europeans but one that is disassociated entirely with the American experience.  Not quite a solution looking for a problem… but the American reader would turn his head slightly at this phrase and wonder.

Ultimately, the diagnosis is marginally correct: technological advances separate us from one another both socially and economically.  Ritual alone does not resolve this (secular or religious) — in fact, if viewed as mere social and economic problems, we never arrive at a true solution.  Human beings, while desiring a place and a belonging in the world, are also designed by nature never to be content with their station.  We are always excelling, always seeking, always creating.

In this, true solidarity embraces this and puts a value on the human person, allowing opportunities for advancement without subsidizing existence.  False solidarity rejects this and focuses on the means of production, the means of socializing, the means of economic modalities, subsidizing people without rewarding opportunity — because ultimately, those “opportunities” further the distance between haves and have-nots.  Catholic solidarity, to the contrary, asks whether the advancement of one ideally advances us all.

So long as the rights and dignity of the human person are recognized… that’s true solidarity, and we all benefit.

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