Thursday, 25 February 2010

Centripetalism, arbitration and prophecy

In his very interesting article on the secular city, William T. Cavanaugh writes that the secular state began to assume one of two forms from the early-modern period. One model is the centralising State, sometimes called 'Jacobin'. In this dispensation individual freedoms have been handed to the State in a 'social contract' and the State doles them out again according to the common good. France of course approximates to this model, and the typical question Frenchmen are likely to ask is, 'Is it allowed?' Action depends always on this State concession. Assume you have no right unless it has been conferred on you. The French capacity for insurgency is but the inverted corollary of their obeissance to the State. I generalize of course, but there you have it. It is the kind of thinking which underpins the Napoleonic conquests of Europe in the early nineteeth century. It was the same mentality that kicked thousands of priests and religious out of France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The State came bringing freedom, and if the people didn't want it, they could have it shoved down their throats for them.

The second model Cavanaugh identifies is that of the arbitrating State. In these conditions, the State does not act as the creator of unity, nor as the donor of liberties. Rather it is the arbitrator that acts to prevent the clash of liberties which individuals already possess. That arbitration, moreover, is not the first court of appeal but the last. Meanwhile, individuals or groups have to try to get on with each other. There is space here for communities to be auto-directional. Their own native powers and roles are not constantly being sucked up into the State's apparatus. We have, until the twentieth century, tended to associate this model with the British State. The Brit is more likely to ask not whether something is allowed, but to consider that unless it is specifically banned, then he is free to do it. We can of course question the principles of such an arrangement, but it no doubt provides the best circumstances for the Church in a minority situation. The Church's own arrangement with the State over Catholic schools' voluntary-aided status corresponds to this thinking. Moreover, as Chesterton says somewhere, there are some things a man must do for himself, and these include blowing his own nose and contributing to the governance of his own community. They also, I may add, include being his children's principal educator.

Now, there is no doubt that as we drag ourselves on through the twenty-first century, our politics - henceforth heavily shaped by European political cultures and by an ever more entrenched political class who know no other profession - is increasingly centripetal rather than arbitrating. The European model is increasingly imprinting itself on our legislature. That is not even to reckon with the native forces which have desired, celebrated and embraced the transformation of our public representatives into our cultural nannies.

And, so, one has to believe that any resistance to the appalling Children, Schools and Families Bill can place itself not only on the grounds of Christian rationality, not only on the grounds of parental rights; but also on the grounds of the importance of the diffusion of power. For what does democracy mean, what can it mean, if power is not effectively diffused? And what is the removal of parents' rights to have their children educated according to their own beliefs except a State-sponsored grab for those rights? The tragedy of course is that the services which the State has assumed in a providentialist manner - health, education, etc. - have provided the context in which a centripetal political culture can grow. If you eat from the hand that extends towards you, you can hardly be surprised when it snatches your collar and leads you where you would not go. And a choke chain - the equivalent of the fudged ammendment - is no less a dog lead than any other.

There is only one question the bishops need ask themselves about this bill. Would they back it, and any fudged ammendment, if it was a bill enforcing racism, Jewish segregation, forced repatriation of immigrants, or anything which remains instantly identifiable as a moral evil in our quasi-conscienceless society?

We could of course put it another way. Will they stand up as defenders of the truth and fulfil the prophetic function they were ordained for?


  1. Interesting to place what you say into the context of Gordon Brown's search for Britishness.

  2. "The Brit is more likely to ask not whether something is allowed, but to consider that unless it is specifically banned, then he is free to do it."

    Such an inversion of what used to be the case (and remarked upon by foreign observers), when the people of this country believed they had liberty unless clearly they had not rather than to suspect a restriction until they were told they *could* act.

  3. Quite, Father Ray. It is usually forgotten that nationalism was THE republican tradition in nineteenth-century France until the Belle Epoque. Nationalism and socialism and authoritarianism - the left has a lot to answer for!!!

  4. Mike, I'd be interested to know if there isn't a Belloc essay on this kind of thing. He surely felt this difference as a Franco-Brit.