Western politics and economics have relentlessly pursued policies that uproot people. But as Anna Rowlands explains, roots are a fundamental human need. An academic based in Durham specialising in political theology and Catholic social thought, she draws on the thinking of Simone Weil and Josef Pieper to explore the longings human beings have for roots, for community, and for participation.
An uprooted nation: from Brexit to a Christian vision of the common good
Over the last few years it has become commonplace for social commentators to compare our own unsettled times to the upheavals of earlier periods. Chief among these points of comparison has been the early 1930s. Others propose Brexit as another English Reformation, or point to the parliamentary chaos we experience these days as resonant with moments in eighteenth and nineteenth century parliamentary cycles.
Others — of an admittedly more rarefied academic disposition — suggest that we are living through times reminiscent of the fourth and fifth century collapse of empire and a shattering of our assumed worldviews about liberalism, individualism and democracy.
Not everyone, of course, feels that the current context needs to be seen in such apocalyptic terms. Brexit is read by some as a healthy sign of a corrective democratic resetting decades in the making, and part of the cycle of crisis and renewal that liberal democracy naturally tends towards. Such voices claim that it is without such shocks to the system that we are at risk, not because of them. The tricky thing, perhaps, is that it isn’t always easy to know whether you are in a healthy or unhealthy democratic “crisis.”
I’m not going to weigh into this debate here and propose my own grand historical comparison theory. I do, however, want to construct something of an historical conversation between past and present — but a conversation of a different kind: led not by events as such, but by an encounter with two Christian social thinkers who I think can help us think better about our difficult times and the fragmentation, fractures and fissures with which we live.
I live in the North East of England, and I was born and brought up in an immigrant diaspora community in the North West of England, the granddaughter of what we would now call “low skilled,” very poor economic migrants from Catholic Ireland. My parents benefitted from the educational-social mobility of the 1960s and became teachers, although they remained living in and serving the community they had been born into. Both my upbringing in a large northern town, on the edge of a large city, in a mixed working class/lower middle class, largely white immigrant community, and the fact that I eventually left that town in search of education and later work, inevitably shape how I relate to current events.
The way that I understand Brexit is also shaped by many conversations I have had in the North East of England — in heartlands Labour and Leave — over the last three years, as well as conversations in which I have been involved with Christian groups seeking to make sense of populism in Italy and Hungary.
Let me begin by laying out a number of recurring themes — a short series of “theses” about Brexit — drawn largely, anecdotally, from those conversations. I offer these not as a definitive or comprehensive Brexit theory (I don’t believe there is one yet, and I am not capable of offering one myself), but as something of a synthesis of what I hear, and as stimulation to add your own interpretations to the conversation.
This is a significant moment of national crisis — a reckoning, that is, in its most recent form, a generation and longer in the making. This is a moment of national crisis that has profoundly local, national and global dimensions to it.
In this sense, while I think that Brexit is a distinct reality, there is also a profound relationship between what is happening here, in France, Italy, Poland, the United States and Hungary. So while these realities are not the same, and they exist in a non-identical relationship to each other, this relationship nonetheless needs to be thought in the round.
I want to suggest that we need a specific but a non-exceptionalist reading of Brexit. Let’s think Brexit, but let’s also think what’s happening to democracy, to capitalism and to liberalism in the context of democratic shifts across the northern hemisphere.
Part of what is driving divisions and social fracture in a Brexit context is a growing, sharp intra-regional divide between towns and cities. This divide moves us beyond — but does not fully replace — traditional North versus South, Left versus Right and class divides: it augments these divisions and cleavages, makes them more complex fissures, and cuts across them. These inter-regional cleavages are starkly evident among civic near neighbours — Bolton and Manchester, Wigan and Liverpool, Hartlepool and Leeds. This is not just about distance from Westminster, but also the fracture of post-industrial geographies. It’s what has happened to the towns that used to produce things.
These divides are also marked strongly by educational and generational differences. These divides are not therefore, solely economic as is often lazily assumed: they are social, economic, political, environmental and cultural, and crucially related to a sense of access to and distribution of power. This is much more than a story of the “left behind.”
What we often fail to see is that these are geographies that speak not simply of the drift of post-industrial capital towards metropolitan centres, but also of profound cultural narratives of attachment (the things we love, desire and attach to) and loss (the things we mourn and grieve, and the things that we desire that are simply absent from our lives; the things that become inaccessible for a generation). We might be getting better at noting economic inequality and insecurity, but I think we are not yet well enough attuned to the affective dimensions of either the attachment or the loss that our current politics is haunted by.
Building on my second thesis: in many of the conversations I have had in the North East, globalisation is experienced in subjective terms by many of those who live outside dynamic cities, as a complex mix of loss as well as marginal gain. This is not just a matter of economic envy; it’s also a question of the values to which people have committed their lives — lives that they feel have been politically denigrated for much of the last four decades. (Remember Tony Blair’s famous 2005 speech about the need for workers to be socially and geographically mobile, for them to get with the globalisation programme or be left behind?)
In many of the conversations I have had, globalism and cosmopolitanism become associated in people’s minds less with growing freedom and more with a package of: individualism; relatively unrestrained free markets; increasingly free movement of capital and (some) people; degrading and meaningless-seeming work in which it is difficult to feel pride; precarity in work and housing; and a lack of intergenerational benefit. In the face of these social realities, there is an attempt to assert a legitimate attachment to place (and a right to remain in a community in which you have roots, even when the work leaves), family, decent, meaningful and productive employment, public services and the aspiration to have enough wealth to own property, travel and take leisure.
And what interests me is that asserting these values comes to take on the character of resistance to something — something that feels difficult to get hold of and define. If you feel unsettled by the dominant story of liberal individualism and free markets, then resistance to these things ends up coming to seem like a package too, and this resistance has, I think, been gathering momentum just beneath the surface. An attempt to assert a seemingly denigrated attachment to place, family, work, geographical stability comes to take on the character not of a simple political demand, but as resistance.
It is telling, is it not, that we have moved from an era where popular politicians used positive messages (“Yes, we can!”) as their campaign mantras (just think Tony Blair and Barack Obama), to a time of populist politicians and political movements whose primary declaration takes the form of a strident “No!” (just think of Italy’s Five Star Movement, Brexit, Trump, perhaps the gilets jaunes in France). Rightly or wrongly, the pushback is against all the things that seem beyond the realm of the everyday, but which seem to block people’s everyday aspirations: supra-national concern; the centralisation of everything from government and services to business and money; the free movement of capital and people; rentier capitalism.
But this account on its own is too simplistic. For alongside a memory —doubtless often romanticised — of a lost sense of stability and community is another storyline we have been fed from outside our immediate small communities by the philosophers and policy-makers of modernity. That is the story of the sovereign self. We are told that we, as individuals, are crafters of our own destinies, saviours of our own fortunes, builders of our own worlds, and that we are primarily responsible for ourselves. This takes the form, on the one hand, of the euphoric claim: Now, you can be anything you want to be! The sky is the limit. But this claim has a shadowy underside: You are responsible for both your own fortune and your misfortune.
The problem is that, for most people, the euphoric promise of limitless freedom reveals itself quickly as a cruel fiction. Those caught in the politics of everyday survival from which they cannot escape feel both a sense of anger at promises denied and a sense of internalised, lonely guilt and shame that they haven’t been successful sovereign selves.
This storyline is proved fictional in a further way: it contradicts the bare facts of what we come to know about ourselves, how we thrive and how we survive difficulties — illness, mental collapse, addiction, divorce, displacement. What happens when the pressures on the sovereign self, in increasingly fragile and overstretched communities, are just too much? This is when we find that we are something other than sovereign selves: we are relational, vulnerable selves who depend on social relationships to live and live well. We know this, but we also still seem unable to free ourselves from the mindset — which we impose on ourselves and others — that we really ought to be more self-reliant, and better sovereign selves. This is a mentality that fosters isolation and produces a politics of chronic pressure. And its net sum is a solidarity deficit that compounds the structural problems latent in late modern market economies.
I have come to believe that we are currently playing out a political psychology marked by both the reassertion of our desire for rootedness and community, and a continued — but perhaps more doubtful — assertion of a narrative of self-reliance.
This third thesis now bleeds into a fourth: the post-financial crash austerity drive did not cause Brexit, but I do think it remains a significant factor at play in the political psychology of Brexit and its aftermath. I do not think that austerity is over. Why? Because austerity was never merely a pragmatic policy initiative; it was always also a kind of value system or worldview.
I see austerity still at work in conversations where my friends and family explain that they voted to leave the EU so that there would be enough money for the NHS or schools, that they felt this was a single, clear vote for a new social contract for public services and the welfare state: the money had run out and it had to come from somewhere for a new generation of public services. This has its corollary in debates about immigration: who do you stand with, fellow citizens or migrants? We evidently couldn’t afford both the EU and public services fit for a new generation, and we cannot afford very much solidarity with migrant others. A politics of either/or was part of our public debate and it bears the imprint of a philosophy of austerity: the wrong kind of politics of limit.
We think within worldviews that we are often barely aware hold us in their sway. Under chronic pressure, we haven’t in the last decade felt very abundant. When people explain that they voted “Leave” to bring a halt to escalating house prices, to boost social mobility for their kids, to release the chronic pressure of everyday life, we should do something other than suggest that those reasons make no sense: of course they make sense! The vote may or may not be a direct solution to those problems — to many it is not, but people were naming a solidarity deficit hitting their communities and expressing a desire to turn that around. They were naming a series of problems that they believed this vote would register. And they couldn’t see any other way to indicate that something was wrong, and that they wanted it to change.
The problem now is, leaving the EU alone won’t fix the problem, and mainstream politics still seems not to hold out any solutions.
Illuminations: Simone Weil and Josef Pieper
Having laid out a set of critical or diagnostic theses, now I want to engage in something a bit more constructive. Not long after the end of the Second World War, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in a short book titled Men in Dark Times. In it, she reminded us that, in dark or difficult times, we have “a right to expect some illumination.”
It is to this mid-century world into which Arendt wrote those words that I want to turn. In doing this, I am not suggesting that our moment repeats the 1930s, nor am I imagining that the voices I want us to heed have all the answers. What I do claim is that, at least for me, it is instructive to return to a series of essays written between 1943 and 1947 by Christian social thinkers in Europe, and to note the vision of political life and the common good that they propose. Both of the thinkers on whom I want to draw allowed themselves to be deeply disturbed and perplexed by their times, and both offered to the world, not simply a diagnosis of what was wrong, but also the grounds for a renegotiation of social contracts.
Both thinkers are what I would call “severe” or “difficult” thinkers — not because they are hard to read, but because they resist offering false or easy comfort, and because they are thinkers of something that might seem a bit counterintuitive: they both express the uselessness of Christian thought. By this I do not mean the irrelevance of Christianity or Christian thought, but rather that its relevance is tied to the fact that it cannot be turned into something useful, marketable or immediately politically salvific; but rather, that it is a training in a particular way of paying attention to the world and loving it.
The first of my figures is the Jewish-Christian philosopher Simone Weil. Weil died at the age of 34 in London in 1944. She had been living in London as a French Jewish refugee who had been drawn for some time — since a retreat to Assisi in 1930s — to Christianity. She died shortly after completing a manifesto for the rebuilding of France after the war, which she titled The Need for Roots. The book was ridiculed by de Gaulle and the Free French who had commissioned it, partly because it contained too much religious thinking.
For my purposes here, I want to draw out a couple of elements of Weil’s writing from this text: her reflections on uprootedness and her vision of human obligations and needs. As the title of the book suggests, Weil’s concern was to propose a basic human need for rootedness:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well nigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.
Weil is clear that reciprocal exchanges — the everyday relationships that fill the natural environs in which we live — are as important in shaping rootedness as any narrow physical sense of place. The problem, Weil thinks, is that most of our current modes of social organisation pull away from this deep need. Western politics and economic life in the twentieth century, she believes, have pursued policies that uproot people: our fundamental economic and political model uproots; the distribution of power uproots. And so she contrasts rootedness — as that for which we long — with uprootedness, which she thinks is our universal modern experience:
Uprootedness is by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed, because it is a self propagating one. For people who are really uprooted there remain only two possible sorts of behaviour: either to fall into a spiritual lethargy resembling death … or to hurl themselves into some form of activity, necessarily designed to uproot, often by the most violent methods, those who are not yet uprooted or only partly so.
Just to be clear, Weil is not referring to people who live in exile or who are migrants; she is talking about a spiritual-political condition of uprootedness that is deep in the modern psyche and exists in visible structural forms through work, governance, markets and the flow of capital. Weil believes that uprooted cultures are prone to spiritual crises and that uprootedness does not produce the conditions for thinking well in order to get us out of such crises: uprootedness deadens thought.
Weil comes to view the moments when we manage to think well under such chronic pressure as near miraculous — as coming to us, like miracles. These are the rare moments when we can break the cycle, even for a moment: what she refers to as an “interval” of time. These irruptions of love, hospitality to the enemy, and true attention given to the other are possible, but not inevitable. They come about when the soul is willing to be truly attentive, to allow itself to apprehend reality and be moved by it, to take it on as its own. Such moments, often fleeting and difficult to sustain, stand as proxy moments for a wider justice that is still denied or notable for its continued absence. These breakthrough moments beg the question — or rather, hold open and hold up the question — of justice that remains absent.
Weil views the human being as the only truly eternal thing in the social order. Collectivities, therefore, serve the person like food does the body: societies either poison or nourish human beings in their relations with each other, and in the pursuit of their eternal destiny. She proposes, therefore, a theory of human obligations rather than human rights (she isn’t against rights; she just thinks they are fragile and conditional and need to be seen as grounded in prior obligations).
She proposes that, regardless of context or condition, we bear obligations towards the human person as such, and these obligations relate to concrete needs. She names these human needs as both material and moral — and, interestingly, she thinks we have a tendency to focus more on material needs to the detriment of moral needs. Responding well to both of these needs is part of what roots and re-roots us, and keeps the tendency towards uprootedness at bay. Weil’s list of these needs is challenging. The obvious material needs for food, shelter and decent work make the list. But the moral needs she enumerates are less self-evident, and no less important: the need for truth, to have access to it, to pursue it, to find our relation to it, which she sees as the most sacred need of the person; the need for order; the need for both risk and security; the need for responsibility; the need for liberty and equality; the need for private property and also for collective property; the need for healthy relations of obedience. A society that plays fast and loose with political truth, according to Weil, is an uprooting society.
Five years after Weil had finished The Need for Roots, and died unbearably young in a severe act of solidarity with the suffering French community resisting Nazism, a young German academic named Josef Pieper was articulating a Christian vision of the common good. Writing in 1947, Pieper laid out the following claims for a vision of the common good fit for a post-war world:
- If we want to be good at diagnosing our political times, we have to attend to the deep patterns of love and desire manifest in public speech. To begin thinking about the common good is to think about our worthy and meaningful common loves.
- When we think about the common good, we need to look at the sum total of a society’s production: the whole of its output. The common good is as good as the sum total of the social whole. Fairness implies equal access to that total good. The crucial question, then, is: is the good of the social whole available equally to all, or are there vast inequalities in the access to what is produced by common efforts?
- Pieper thinks that we have a tendency to think of the total good in merely material terms: we think the good is GDP, or “the national economic interest,” or “the usable goods of production,” as Pieper puts it. Pieper says that a theological account of the good forces us to look at the goods that are material and part of the life of necessity — the basic material needs of food, shelter, work, education, leisure that Weil also lists. Yet, he says, we must also look at the goods that are neither usable nor marketable, but which are entirely real and indispensible to a good life together: the relations of care and love and contemplation and beauty that make our lives together and sustain life. These goods represent the life of freedom and gift-exchange beyond mere supply and demand — all the things that exist for us beyond what Pieper calls “the total world of work.” It is vital to the common good that we protect the forms of social relation that cannot simply be “put to use.”
- But at this point, Pieper adds a note of caution: while we can certainly list the basic material goods to which we all need fair access, and the problems that ensue when we don’t have that access, what we cannot do so easily is define with any certainty or finality what the total common good should look like. In fact, Pieper goes further and argues that we should be very suspicious of any form of government that thinks it can define, beyond doubt, that total common good — the ultimate horizon of the good. Any form of political messianism that tells us there is a final vision, an end to the open-ended conversation of what the good might be, revisable at every turn, is to be suspected as the imposition of a total market or totalitarian view of society. There is a necessary not-knowing about the final form of the good for which we strive; that not knowing for sure is why the social conversation and the contexts within which it can happen, must remain open, revisable, repentable.
- So, for Pieper, we need to work out a version of justice based on what we do know and are obligated towards, and what we cannot fully know. There are certain material and moral conditions that must be met for a health society — basic needs for access to basic goods. Critical to his account of these basic goods is the necessity to ensure the maximum conditions for social participation to all, and forms of power and agency that enable people to make their fullest contribution to the social whole. The question for him is not just whether have access to the benefits of the whole society (its wealth, leisure, natural environment), but also have I had a chance to contribute to it. To block contribution and the full extension of talents is to offend against the justice of power distribution. In the UK, I would insist, we have a contributory deficit and it is structural. For Pieper, the question of where and how power is distributed — not to mention a felt sense of distance from power — is a key part of the question of distributive justice and injustice, the question of the distribution of goods. And this is the facet of justice and the common good that we most often overlook.
Thus, Pieper writes:
The good of a common wealth includes the inborn human talents, qualities and potentials, and part of the ‘iustitia distributiva’ is the obligation to protect, preserve and further those capacities.
When I read Weil and Pieper and hear the level of social attention to which they call us, I am left feeling that part of what has fractured in our current context is our capacity to hold the whole in common, to imagine some sense of moral unity and to seek to speak of the whole from our own social locations, our places and histories. Love makes a poor abstraction: loves are particular, rooted, placed; they are about bodies — they are our fragile but unavoidable way into the whole. This is true of our political loves, too.
Theologian Oliver O’Donovan expresses this sentiment particularly well in an article on the common good. He says there are two poles of the common good for a Christian:
- there is the given-ness of community in its finite form — we live where we live, with the people that are there in all their diversity, and there is a requirement that we live well with that given-ness;
- but there is also the reality of a universal community without boundaries, never completely fixed, open to all, into which we have been called — this is a community of eternity, which is also a real community now.
This is the divine economy of the political with which we have to wrestle, claimed by both realities.
O’Donovan also says that, from a Christian point of view, the good — like love itself — is always trying to communicate itself. It is word made flesh, a good that seeks to be known as truth manifesting itself among us. What is truly good is the opposite of all that seeks to obscure, to isolate, to make us unable to think and speak, to fragment. It is like Pentecost: it drives us to risk speaking, communicating, beyond boundaries about our deepest desires.
I think that attending to this communicating good among us will involve attention to the longings that find their way easily into words: for roots, for community, for an ability to use talents and to shape the world. But it will also involve attention to all that manifestly seeks to frustrate the good — the realities that tell us about the lack of the good, and which can be heard in silence and shame as much as in clear speech. These are the trickier things, from which our minds often seek to flee. This second category is, spiritually speaking, harder to keep our attention on.
I am drawn to the work of Weil and Pieper partly because both call us to this double task of attention, as individuals and as communities. And I feel fairly certain that if we do not listen for these things, then others will feign doing so and manipulate what they hear, because these loves seek recognition, even if in distorted form. Hannah Arendt expressed this rather nicely when she wrote:
By desiring what is not, love establishes a relationship with what is not present in order to bring this relationship into the open, [to] make it appear …
The task of truth is to allow love to speak, to enable the good to communicate itself, and to bring relationships into the open, as part of breaking the cycle of injustice and learning again to negotiate a truly common life — even if only for an interval. But maybe, in dark times like ours, that is enough.
© Anna Rowlands