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The Benedict Option at the Crossroads of Ethics and Economics

Partially in response to Noah Millman’s Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions about the Benedict Option in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher and several others have sought to provide a more concrete account of the Benedict Option. While this discussion has largely revolved around the role of the liturgy and the importance of prayer (“A Benedictine on the Benedict Option”), Dreher’s response to Andrew Lynn’s Saving the ‘Benedict Option’ from Culture War Conservatism points towards a more concrete and secular politics—an Option that engages modern economics as well as modern ethics.

Dreher notes that he is “grateful to Andrew Lynn for pushing forward on how the BenOp cannot be quietist and strictly retreatist and be true either to MacIntyre’s vision or to the spirit of the Benedictine monasteries,” before listing Lynn’s examples of “the local politics of ‘grassroots organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighborhood needs, schools, clinics, and transport systems.’” It is precisely such forms of local political engagement that MacIntyre has indicated as the primary locus of the practice of the virtues in the contemporary world. In a recent book review, he outlines “those areas in our own social order within which the relationships between the virtues, friendship, and directedness towards the achievement of the human good have taken on a distinctively contemporary form.” He goes on to say:

The relevant list includes on the one hand those engaged in by members of some rank and file trade union movements, of some tenants’ associations, of the disability movement, of a variety of farming, fishing, and trading cooperatives, and by some feminist groups, and on the other by those who are at work within schools, hospitals, a variety of industrial and financial workplaces, laboratories, theaters, and universities in order to make of these, so far as possible, scenes of resistance to the dominant ideology and the dominant social order.

Proponents of the Benedict Option must come to recognize that the primary means of opposing the destructive elements of modernity is through the shared pursuit of common goods. How can Dreher’s project, which has been almost exclusively framed in moral and religious terms, adequately account for one of the most important themes of After Virtue: the relationship between socio-economic structures and ethics?

In reference to MacIntyre’s final section of After Virtue, Robert Miller writes in First Things, “the ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’ that MacIntyre mentions in that book turn out to be economic communities. We’re waiting not so much for St. Benedict but for St. Vladimir, a baptized Lenin.” In response to Miller, MacIntyre noted that this reference to Lenin was “absurd,” particularly because a major claim of After Virtue concerned the inadequacy of Marxism as a political program. But Miller is correct in noting that MacIntyre’s vision of a new St Benedict should be understood in terms of an effort to resist “the corrosive effect of the individualism of modernity on the tradition of the virtues,” especially at the level of economic injustice.

In response to a critic (“After Virtue and Marxism: a Response to Wartofsky”), MacIntyre acknowledges that he failed to provide an adequate account of the changing social conditions that accompanied the radical changes in moral philosophy outlined in After Virtue. He notes that the version of social and economic history that he judges “to be thus vindicated is that of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.” Polanyi is important because he offers an Aristotelian reading of economic history.

The Great Transformation outlines the attempt by early proponents of globalization throughout the nineteenth century to free the market from the fetters of the social and political structures within which it was embedded in pre-modern societies, especially the household and local community. If this sounds familiar, it is because neoliberalism has been the renewed attempt to realize a completely disembedded market through the process of globalization.

Without explicitly naming Polanyi, After Virtue refers to this process of disembedding: “One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household,” MacIntyre says. “So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household sustains.” As production moved outside the the home, it marked a transition towards serving the needs of markets rather than the common goods of communities.

Polanyi analyzed the rise of capitalism in terms of Aristotle’s distinction between household management and money-making, the former characterized by the subordination of economic pursuits to the substantive goods constitutive of the common good of the household. MacIntyre follows suit, describing the development of modernity in terms of the disembedding of production and the goals of production from the common goods of the household and local community. Whereas the history of moral philosophy outlined in the first half of After Virtue describes the incoherence of moral theories that attempted to do without the notion of a telos, this Polanyian passage indicates that the good rejected by modern moral theory and thus the good in need of recovery is the concrete common good of local forms of community.

Dreher argues that “The BenOp must be anti-modern to some extent. I hesitate to define (at this point) too strongly what that means, because we all live in modernity, and have been shaped by modernity.” MacIntyre’s Polanyian reading of the rise of modernity provides an insight into what must be rejected. We must be anti-modern to the extent that contemporary social and economic structures are destructive of the common good of local communities.

Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option stand at the crossroads of economics and ethics. Transcending contemporary cultural debates requires an understanding of the relationship between modern ethics and modern economics. Putting flesh on the Benedict Option requires an examination of contemporary forms of community that have been able to defend common goods against the atomizing effect of contemporary economic institutions.

Dreher notes that “the BenOp cannot satisfy itself with simply being the Republican Party’s social and religious conservative wing in exile.” In order to avoid this fate, proponents of the Benedict Option must seek to build new forms of community life that reject the destructive elements of modern economics as well as modern ethics. Such a project is at once more radical and more mundane than has been envisioned by many proponents of the Benedict Option.

Like MacIntyre, Dreher has rightly recognized the compartmentalizing effect that a diminished theism has on everyday life but has yet to adequately acknowledge how the instrumentalization of work is an inextricable part of this phenomenon. MacIntyre writes that:

“What makes it worthwhile to work and to work well is threefold: that the work that we do has point and purpose, is productive of genuine goods; that the work that we do is and is recognized to be our work our contribution, in which we are given and take responsibility for doing it and for doing it well; and that we are rewarded for doing it in a way that enables us to achieve the goods of family and community. This conception of work develops in secular form the core of the Benedictine belief that work is prayer. (“Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Need to Be”)

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.


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  • Marie Dean

    Thanks, excellent article

  • Erica Wanis

    Could this theory of work apply to all vocations? What if you work for the federal government, or a global consulting firm?

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      This is really the challenge that After Virtue puts forth. The central argument concerns the difficulty of cultivating and practicing the virtues in many areas of modernity. MacIntyre highlights corporate and government bureaucracies as particularly problematic because they encourage and often demand a ruthless utilitarian attitude in pursuit of government or corporate goals. There is research that suggests that practicing the virtues may make it difficult to succeed in a corporation, especially in senior roles, because of the pressure to maximize profits. This is really radical problem with no easy solution. In some cases conventional workplaces may afford the opportunity to practice the virtues but in other cases it is probably necessary to develop new forms of work and new types of corporations that allow for the practice of the virtues. I am interested in cooperatives especially Mondragon, social hybrids that combine elements of for-profit and non-profit organizations, social entrepreneurship in general. But while I think there are no easy solutions the changing nature of work in modernity is too much of a problem to be ignored by Catholics.

  • NDaniels

    At the end of the day, we can know through both Faith and Reason, that the philosophical becomes the Theological, when we recognize that The Way, The Truth, and The Life (Light) of Love Is Christ Himself. Before Aristotle was, Christ Revealed IAm. Love Is ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons. In worshipping The True God, we come to know The Way, The Truth, and The Light of Love, our Savior, Jesus The Christ, Who Was In The Beginning, Is Now, and Forever Will Be.

  • When conservatives finally find their way around to Marxian critique, it makes my heart leap with joy! The far right and far left are really brothers except in fashion and faith!

    Yes impersonal systems based on extraction of labor for a remote, symbolic pool subject to a falsely meritocratic pecking order, have reached the high-water mark and must be shunned.

    • Hear, hear! The American Catholic alliance with the right in the US is an accident of history, stemming from the convergence of white backlash, free-market fundamentalism and Roe v Wade in the Nixon years. Those Catholics who were unwilling to give ground on abortion and such issues found themselves in a very un-Catholic atmosphere, which after breathing for several decades came to appear self-evident. And those that yielded, well, they remained Catholic in name only.

  • Robb Beck

    Hey Caleb,

    I think you’re exactly right: “Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option stand at the crossroads of economics and ethics.” I find Dreher to be most interesting when he’s pushed on economics rather than his various blog posts about sexual ethics (important as this topic is), so it was very refreshing to see this type of engagement.

    Adding Polanyi to this conversation is essential. Polanyi is of course helpful when it comes to thinking about the disembedded economy, or thinking through the shift from having a market society to becoming a market society. But even more insightful, I believe, is Polanyi’s Christian Socialist insight into the commodity fetish and his critique of the labor theory of value, both of which get to the heart of your essay (and MacIntyre’s broader point): how do we square the BO with the issue of labor in capitalist society? Admittedly, this isn’t what most commentators flock to when writing about Polanyi; but the tide seems to be shifting in Polanyian studies – what caused the great transformation was what Marx diagnosed in the first chapter of Kapital. But of course, Catholics developed this insight as well: Arthur Penty comes to mind.

    So I think the nuts and bolts questions about the workaday week and the BO are essential. And short of addressing the issue of labor in a capitalist society, I fear that the BO – as promoted by Dreher and company – can often come across as terribly abstract. In other words, the threat of ongoing proletarianization or worse, the rise of precariat economy, are not only inimical to the BO, but actively work against it. But this is just to echo your essay!