Everyone seems to agree that today there’s a growing gap between rich and poor, rulers and ruled, the center and the margins, elites and populace.
The gap is economic, of course, but more importantly it’s social, cultural, and even spiritual. The New York Times, for example, recently admitted the obvious, that they and the rest of the major media don’t “get” religion. So in our supposed democracy, the people in charge of public discussion don’t understand the most basic features of how ordinary people look at things.
Explanations of the gap and its nature differ. Leftists mostly emphasize economics and blame problems on capitalists and free marketeers. Rightists emphasize culture and politics, saying it’s liberal elitists and bureaucrats who are at fault. And the mainstream media say the problem is the morons who are too stupid and obstinate to listen to them. If there’s a gap between those at the top and other people, they tell us, the problem is the jerks who aren’t at the top.
People on all sides have faults, so there’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s a mistake though to attribute the problem to one piece of a system that works together as a whole. If we look at the big picture, it’s clear that an important reason for the gap between elites and populace is the unity among elites, a unity that requires them to weaken their ties to their various constituencies.
As far as people at the top are concerned, we live in an era of unprecedented good feelings. Billionaires like Bill Gates, bureaucrats like Ban Ki-moon, NGO operatives like Jeffrey Sachs, NGO paymasters like George Soros, ex-communist politicians like Angela Merkel, and now even religious leaders like the pope, all get along great together. Educated, prosperous, and well-placed people mostly seem satisfied with the situation, so it’s the outsiders—provincials, populists, fundamentalists, and conspiracy theorists, not to mention cranks, terrorists, and rogue regimes—who are seriously at odds with the outlook of those at the top.
That outlook calls for a unitary global society. The society is to be defined by world markets, transnational regulatory bureaucracies, an ever more comprehensive system of human rights and social protections, and expulsion of traditional religious and cultural concerns from public life. And it is to be run rationally—that is, transparently and responsively from the standpoint of those on top—to maximize and equalize everyday satisfactions, consistent with the efficiency and stability of the system.
(Efficiency and stability, not to mention inevitable imperfections, are of course likely to mean very large differences in wealth and power. No matter what happens, Bill Gates and the others aren’t going to live like you and me.)
In that society all aspects of life—economics, politics, and culture—become global. Electronics, jet travel, and container shipping, not to mention freer trade and increasingly open borders, make every person, place, and thing equally present to every other. The Internet and social media bring that situation home to everyday life.
The result is the combination of extreme unity and extreme fragmentation that defines mass society. Weakening local ties destroy concrete points of reference and disrupt the networks of habit, loyalty, memory, and stable personal connection that support culture and community. People’s connections to each other become tenuous, their understanding of politics loses its grounding in concrete experience, and opportunities of manipulation multiply. Decisions that transform daily life are made far away through market or bureaucratic processes guided by people with little connection or sympathy with those on the spot. Ordinary people find it difficult to organize opposition or even understand what’s going on, so democracy and political self-rule lose meaning, support for them weakens, and they are replaced by centralized power responsible at bottom only to itself.
Brexit opponents spoke of solidarity, but they meant the trans-national solidarity of the well-off. In contrast, popular solidarity has been declining as ordinary people become employees, clients, and consumers rather than members of families and local communities that in any event are losing legitimacy and definition due to feminism, multiculturalism, and the replacement of their functions by commerce and social services. The resulting destruction of local solidarity leads to a vicious circle. The more local bonds weaken, people separate from each other, and power flows to the center, the more people distrust and fear their neighbors and look to the center for protection.
So we have unity and power at the top, a large gap between those at the top, together with their allies, and more locally-minded people, and widespread religious, cultural, and social disintegration that is officially presented as progress, rationality, and liberation from local oppressions, a condition that is hard to distinguish from maximum amenability to bureaucratic regulation and economic use.
But what should the Church do about these trends, which point toward an inhuman and radically divided society?
People at the top talk a great deal about overcoming exclusion, with cabinet-level positions devoted to the issue in many countries. But the official remedy—bureaucratic initiatives that break down informal local barriers—mostly makes things worse, because to destroy barriers is to disrupt the bonds those barriers protect. Mass immigration and multiculturalism destroy barriers and also destroy local connections, leading to mutual distrust and withdrawal from social networks and public life.
Support for such policies among well-placed people in the Church has recently been supplemented with a call to go out to the peripheries and build a “Church for the poor.” Through heroic effort, it seems, Catholics are going to bridge the gap between insiders and outsiders. But the effect of the rhetoric is to push the majority of the less advantaged, ordinary people of the sort who support populist movements, to the periphery of the Church, just as they have been pushed to the periphery of political society.
After all, when people talk about the poor and the peripheries it doesn’t sound like they mean housewives and blue-collar workers in Dayton. So what’s communicated is that the day-to-day lives of such people are not what the Church cares about. She would rather pay attention to immigrant shantytowns in Buenos Aires, and other situations that put intervention by central authority in a favorable light by dramatizing the inadequacies of local arrangements. The pope of course does not view the matter that way—his way of thinking is concrete and personal rather than systematic and institutional—but it’s a tipoff to the real effect of his gestures and rhetoric that they play so well with people at the top.
In any event, it’s not clear that social-outreach Catholicism does much for the objects of its concern. In the pope’s own Latin America the poor seem more interested in Protestant groups that emphasize God, worship, and right living than the kind of socially-oriented religion well-connected Westerners expect them to favor.
And therein lies a lesson. It’s more important to build homes than knock down walls, so the way to fix exclusion is to foster the connections and orientations people live by. To that end the Church’s greatest strength is her ability to connect people to God as a center, and to herself as a network that is dense, local, sustaining, and available everywhere. And her second greatest strength is her support for moral understandings that guard the family and make people loyal and cooperative. If she pays attention to those things—if she simply does what’s normal for her—she’ll do much more for the poor and excluded than any amount of talk about progressivist versions of social justice.