The recent publication of A Tradinista! Manifesto, a statement by a number of left-wing Catholics, has generated a variety of responses from the vitriolic to the sympathetic. While we should dismiss Zmirak’s claim that the self-proclaimed Tradinistas “scorn freedom,” David Mills is absolutely correct that on many issues, not limited to that of the just wage, “Catholic social teaching explicitly rejects a merely market-given answer.” It is because of the Church’s rejection of market fundamentalism that the attempt to combine libertarianism and Catholicism can be no more than an ill-fated chimera. But Catholics sympathetic to the tradinistas’ attempt to combine traditional morality and orthodox theology with a radical political economy may have underestimated the difficulties of such a project.
Writing for First Things, Marc Mason notes,
[I]f the tradinista cause is to be more than an internet hobby, it has to be taken out to the suburban parishes. It may be hard to talk to the suburban dad at the local mega-parish who has never heard of Alasdair MacIntyre (let alone that maybe communism isn't godless materialism) about liberalism. But it's necessary if one believes in this cause. If the purveyors of illiberalism aren't willing to do this, then they are simply engaging in an incestuous internet form of the worst conceptions of the Benedict Option.
But Mason fails to realize that MacIntyre, while providing a devastating critique of modern moral philosophy, and offering persuasive arguments for the moral failings of capitalism, has himself failed to articulate a viable alternative to capitalism. Besides discussing the virtues of isolated communities that are protected from the impact of the market, MacIntyre has provided little insight concerning the potential for a transformation of contemporary economic life. Thus talking to suburban dads about MacIntyre’s moral philosophy will not provide a solution to the problems identified by the Tradinistas.
Consistent Failure to Address Alternatives to Capitalism
MacIntyre is not alone among leading Catholic philosophers in failing to develop an alternative to capitalism. While Charles Taylor’s analysis of secularization included a consideration of the role of capitalism in the development of the “modern moral order,” he has said relatively little concerning the need to accept, reject, or modify the modern economy. Likewise, Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest, and a leading proponent of Thomist moral theory, has argued in a number of places that capitalism is not only compatible with but that there is
rather an intrinsic kinship and affinity of this logic [of capitalism] with the Judeo-Christian anthropology and it is completely compatible with the idea of natural law as what is suitable or not suitable to human nature, according to the dictates of reason able to discover this law.
This suggests that Catholics do not have anything particular distinctive to say about the practical potential for transforming contemporary economic life.
At this point one might consider distributism as particularly relevant. John Médaille has offered the most compelling restatement of distributism as a rival approach to political economy, yet his argument, arguably depends upon a widely implausible transformation of the relationship between the state or national government and the local community. Whereas current US law gives little standing to local communities, Médaille’s proposal would demand that the nation-state hand over its power to tax to local communities who would then provide revenue to the national government from a land tax collected by local authorities. While such a program may effectively curtail the power of the federal government, providing the political space needed for the implementation of distributism, there are no grounds to believe that this is a remotely plausible practical goal.
Likewise, point 10 of A Tradinista! Manifesto, “Worker cooperatives should be strongly encouraged,” avoids addressing the practical problems surrounding financing and entrepreneurial incentives that limit the proliferation of employee-owned cooperatives in the contemporary economy. The considerations suggest that what is needed is a consideration of the very real problems caused by contemporary capitalism, as well as an account of the politically and economically viable solutions available to such problems.
Besides the fact that the Tradinistas’ combination of radical political economy with traditional orthodoxy sits uneasily with many other potential coalition partners on the left, who have grown increasingly hostile to traditional religion, the reality is that there is little organized opposition to capitalism. The plausibility of Marx’s prescriptions rested upon the vitality of the labor movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now with a declining labor movement, it is unclear how, practically speaking, one can express one’s opposition to capitalism.
Addressing Real Problems
This does not eliminate the very real tension between capitalism and the tradition of the virtues, as MacIntyre’s work has indicated, but it does suggest that we do not have a clear understanding of how to address this problem. The beginnings of an answer include both practical political organizing designed to correct concrete problems faced by the precariat, who are so often overlooked in contemporary discussions of economics, as well as a renewed examination of political economy more rooted in empirical research than much of the discussion so far. The Tradinistas have well understood the importance of MacIntyre’s critique of modern moral philosophy, including his critique of capitalism, but it is unclear if they have recognized the intractability of the problem faced by those convinced by MacIntyre’s work.
So one unavoidable question concerns the practical implementation of the Tradinistas’ moral and economic vision. Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto at the request of the Communist League, an international workers’ party; but to whom is A Tradinista! Manifesto addressed? A related question concerns the nature of the difference that Catholicism makes to a program of radical politics and economic critique. What is the relationship between Catholic religious and cultural practices — the Mass, contemplative prayer, theological study, the liberal arts, etc. — and the a radical critique of the contemporary economy?
I’ve previously argued (with Philip DeMahy) that the Benedict Option cannot avoid addressing economic questions both because the integrity of communities of faith and religious practice are threatened by neoliberal economic policies that decrease job stability and increase uncertainty, and because the Benedict Option as a vision of Christian community must be viable for both the winners and the losers of the contemporary economy. This raises another question: How does the Tradinista! project relate to the Benedict Option? More specifically, does the its vision speak to the various communities of faith and virtue that have taken concrete actions in order to promote and preserve orthodoxy in the contemporary world?
Instead of reading After Virtue with suburban dads, the Tradinistas must find a way to make their economic vision more practical. Likewise they must find a way to engage with members of various Benedict Option communities, people who define more in terms of the cultural threats to religious practice posed by liberalism rather than in terms of the dangers of capitalism.
One promising stream of research has drawn upon MacIntyre’s work within the context of business ethics and organization theory in order to conceptualize contemporary forms of economic practice that serve to inculcate the virtues. (Some of this research can be found here and here.) What is needed is both a better understanding of how the contemporary economy contributes to or frustrates attempts to cultivate the virtues. Likewise new efforts are needed to transform economic practice so that it gives expression to a commitment to the virtues, especially the virtue of justice. In at least some cases Benedict Option communities may provide the most promising examples of how this might be accomplished