Dorothy Day's Anarchism and our Current Moment
“The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am … against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual in an immediately unsuccessful way, underdogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.”
William James (The Letters of William James, vol. 2, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1920, p. 90)
I do not normally write on political matters since political theory is out of my wheelhouse and the various issues involved often incite more heat than light. Nevertheless, the international political, economic, and cultural crises created by the Covid pandemic, and now war again in Europe, have prompted in my mind a scattershot flow of ideas related to Dorothy Day’s political views that I think are worthy of discussion since I think her ideas more relevant today than they were in her own time. Chief among those ideas is the well-known fact that Dorothy was, by her own description, an “anarchist”. The problem, however, is that the term “anarchist” can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people and often conjures up an image of lawlessness and libertarian antinomianism. However, this is not what Dorothy Day meant by the term “anarchism” as I hope to show in what follows.
The best way to describe Dorothy’s “politics” (and my own) is to view her approach as a politics of “anti-centralization” wherein what is being opposed is the Leviathan of the modern, “Big State” and the bureaucratic apparatus that imposes itself with ever greater force upon all of us. Her “anarchism” is therefore related to the philosophical personalism of folks such as Berdyaev and Mournier (among many others) who were already warning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the increasing economic and cultural complexity of modern nations creates a social “logic” that leads by a virtual necessity to an increasing centralization of power in an anonymous, bureaucratized, and impersonal State. The United States, for example, thanks to Manifest Destiny and our wars of imperial conquest over the First Nation peoples, followed by the Mexicans and then the Spanish, as well as the peaceful Louisiana Purchase, was a nation that now encompassed vast new regions that are disparate and incommensurate in geography, culture, religion, economics, climate, moral values, language, and ethnic/racial identification. How does one govern such a nation? How does one keep the centrifugal forces of fractious disintegration at bay? How does one keep California, Texas, the agrarian Midwest, the still angry South, and snotty, blue blooded New Englanders under the same national umbrella? Through a Hobbesian deal where all agree that it is in their best interests to remain in this artificial “union” and thus cede ever more power to the central, Federal government to make that union real economically and militarily.
This State then claims for itself a hegemony of authority which leads by another logical necessity to the destruction of all other mediating authorities as well as all “localist” understandings of social organization. The key here is to see that it is precisely the claim to hegemonic authority that most characterizes the modern Liberal State which masks its inherent totalitarianism under the rhetoric of “freedom.” Seen in this light, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is not properly invoked when all we are talking about is that same State “granting” a sphere of “free operation” for more local entities. For in such a case no natural authority outside of the State is acknowledged, and only the State gets to define its own self-limitations, which is not what subsidiarity means. True subsidiarity, as Dorothy understood, requires the recognition that there are competencies and forms of natural authority, rooted in Divine and natural law, that are aboriginally and constitutively prior to the State. Here is how Dorothy described it in an essay she penned in the December 1949 edition of the Catholic Worker paper:
“The word anarchist is deliberately and repeatedly used in order to awaken our readers to the necessity of combating the ‘all-encroaching State,’ … and to shock serious students into looking into the possibility of another society, an order made up of associations, guilds, unions, communes, parishes - - voluntary associations of men, on regional vs. national lines, where there is a possibility of liberty and responsibility for all men.”
What Dorothy did not live to see was the vindication of her position as evidenced by the exponential increase in the power of the modern State as it has equipped itself with the toys of modern technocracy and aligned itself with the emerging surveillance capitalism of Big Tech. But she would not have been surprised. And the totalizing power of the modern State is only going to get worse as Covid rages on into its third, or fourth, or fifth “wave,” or as the next great “emergency” emerges that putatively requires, once again, the suspension of our basic civil liberties, which are now exposed as the fragile “tolerances” of our elitist overlords. The Hobbesian State is big enough and powerful enough to protect my State-granted “rights,” but it is also, therefore, big enough and powerful enough to take them away. The American “Declaration of Independence” grounds our “inalienable rights” in the fact that God has granted them to all human beings. But this principle is never explicitly endorsed in the Constitution which deliberately eschews such religious language so that the American democratic project could remain “neutral” with regard to such questions. The Declaration of Independence may have provided the ambient cultural matrix through which the Constitution was originally read by the Protestant majority of that time. But it is a matrix which did not gain explicit or implicit constitutional approbation, and as soon as the cultural dominance of an orthodox Protestant worldview waned, so did any notion that our constitutional ordo was rooted in God and his rational order in creation. Thus do we eventually see, as secularism replaces Protestantism as our dominant cultural matrix, the emergence of the secular Leviathan of the “Big State” which is what Dorothy Day is explicitly rejecting.
And now we have the added bonus of a pandemic for the technocrats who love a crisis. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that in my lifetime I would witness governors of various states, in the name of public health, shutting down everything except the grocery stores, liquor stores, and abortion clinics. Who knew that they had such power to circumvent the Constitution by simply declaring a “state of emergency”? How many people, in the name of public safety, died because of the increased alcoholism, drug overdoses, neglected illnesses, unemployment, depression, suicide, and poverty, which were induced by the lockdowns? How many kids have been traumatized by the loss of a normal childhood of friends and play? I am not anti-vaccination or anti-science or anti-public health. But if the power of government to do what it has done during Covid does not scare you, then you are not paying attention. Churches and schools were closed, businesses shuttered and destroyed, but the liquor stores remained open. In Canada we saw the spectacle of armed police officers interrupting Mass in order to make sure everyone there was wearing a mask. Why not also then visit all of the brothels to make sure every man there is wearing a condom? Even during the AIDS public health crisis of the eighties and nineties - - with AIDS at that time being far, far, more lethal than Covid - - nobody suggested we send the sex police storm troopers into hook-up bars to do a condom check or, horror of horrors, to just shut down such bars as well as the legalized brothels in places like Nevada or Amsterdam. But that would be to touch the sacred cow of our culture - - sexual libertinism - - and so such draconian moves were off the table as a bridge too far in the curtailment of such an “important” sexual civil liberty. But Churches during Covid? Meh. Who cares? Let the “deplorables” worship at home.
I understand that there are those - - even those who agree with my general point in theory - - who argue that Covid really did represent a threat and that we needed some of the lockdowns out of care and concern for those most vulnerable among us. I get that and get it with the full force of the charity that inspires it. I dutifully wore a mask in all public places and practiced responsible social distancing, especially when I was not feeling well and suspected I might have Covid. Nevertheless, my point is that such lockdowns and countermeasures should have been the product of genuine democratic deliberation which were faithful to the basic constitutional rights we possess, and not from a series of executive diktats that established the principle that the State has the right to suspend, rather arbitrarily, some civil liberties, while allowing others, at the stroke of the governor’s pen.
Returning then to Dorothy’s anarchism, during this past presidential election I often voiced my disgust with the two major party candidates presented to us and made it clear I would not be voting for either one of them. As you might imagine I got the usual responses from both sides of the ideological aisle wherein I was pilloried by many and accused of making “the perfect the enemy of the good”. My Left leaning friends were clearly of the view that a “flawed” Biden was clearly a better choice than the “evil” Trump, and my Right leaning friends thought just the opposite. I was told that “compromise” is the soul of politics and that I needed to come off of what one of my critics (John Medaille) called my “sanctimonious high horse” and to stop acting as if candidates needed to be morally pure before I could endorse them. What is important (the critics would say) isn’t the moral caliber of the people running but the “positions” they take on the relevant “issues”. Afterall, we are not electing the “Boy Scout in Chief” but the President of a complex and pluralistic democracy.
Thus, Biden’s Catholic supporters were willing to ignore his record on pre-natal butchery, his lecherous groping, the accusations of sexual abuse, his well-documented history of serial lying, his resume inflating embellishments, his plagiarism, his clear mental deficits, and the fact that he is a quintessential, inside-the-Beltway political hooker who has spent his entire career doing the bidding of our nation’s wealthiest pecuniary pimps. And Trump’s Catholic supporters were willing to ignore the fact that he is a vicious and petty man, a swindler, a liar, a narcissist, an adulterer, a con artist, an emotionally unstable adolescent, a delusional paranoid, and one of the pecuniary pimps mentioned above. But hey, depending on your political persuasion you hold out hope that one or the other will take action on your fantasy football team of political dreams and soon things will be better.
Therefore, I think it bizarre that we have reached the point where if you find yourself unable to vote for either of two manifestly evil men that you are accused of pitting the perfect against the good. The good?? Really? What if my two choices were between Hitler and Stalin? Well… Stalin did give his people universal health care so let’s not be making the perfect the enemy of the good here. So Stalin it is…. Furthermore, maybe the problem is a deeper one than the fact that our political choices are so uniformly horrific. The deeper question is why our choices are so uniformly horrific? Did you ever stop to wonder why, in a nation of 350 million people, that these two miscreants - - Biden or Trump - - were the choices proposed to us? The answer to that question is that sock puppets always look the same. This is why Dorothy was an anarchist. Because only by opting out of the process will we ever expose the process for what it is: a mendacious illusion perpetuated by powerful people in order to mollify the masses and to give to them the illusion of participatory democracy even as the elites, using this ruse to their advantage, solidify their hold on power and wealth. This is not to say that it is somehow wrong to vote, even though Dorothy did not, or that voting never has any beneficial effects for the common good. We are not dealing in absolutes here but rather in the realm of prudential judgments, and so if you want to vote then vote, and I certainly have no right or desire to tell you otherwise. But what Dorothy Day is saying is that no matter our choices in such matters we must always be aware that in our system the entire affair is rigged to the advantage of a few at the expense of the many, with ample use made of the classic memes of the grand narrative of American democracy by marketing gurus and focus group Apparatchiks, all in the service of maintaining the economic and political status quo. I do think that part of Trump’s appeal was that he seemed to buck this trend and that as a rogue “outsider” he really could “drain the swamp.” But Trump himself is a denizen of that swamp and is a swamp creature if ever there were one, which is why he never drained it, preferring instead to tweet about how awful John McCain was for having been captured by the NVA, and other such inane babblings.
Too cynical you say? I remember I was in London in 2008 when Obama was elected. And as I was making my way around the city folks who recognized that I was an American through my accent were openly gushing with glee over Obama’s election as if there could be no doubt that I too shared their enthusiasm. They would slap me on the back and high-five me in congratulations and with manifest joy as if we had just elected the Messiah himself. And I must admit that I too caught some of the infection and started to wonder if maybe this did represent something good and positive. And I did think that at the very least it was really cool that we had elected a Black president. But ask yourself this question: By 2016 what was really different about America in a positive sense after eight years of Obama? Indeed, in 2016 we were once again “gifted” with two wonderful candidates - - the empty suit that is Clinton, and the orange haired narcissist - - - indicating that not only were things in our political culture not any better, but in reality they had gotten worse. And now Obama, the great Messiah of “Si se puede!” enthusiasms, is retiring to a multi- million dollar mansion in Hawaii as he and his wife hobnob with the rich, the famous, and the powerful. But we should have seen it coming when in the earliest days of his presidency Obama put together his “economic team” the members of which were almost exclusively drawn from the super-rich mavens of Wall street. Presidents do not run the country. Goldman Sachs does. And so the great Messiah of 2008 is now a supremely wealthy man retiring to his fortified Hawaiian version of Mar-a- Lago. Si se puede indeed.
I am not arguing here, and nor was Dorothy, for an “apolitical” stance that simply retreats into our faith compounds with our buried school buses filled with stockpiled rosaries and hand grenades embossed with the image of Our Lady of Fatima. We cannot cede the political realm to those who have usurped it and we cannot become like latter day Essenes squirreled away in the Qumran fortress of our apocalyptic fantasies awaiting the divine judgment which is sure to come for all of “those others.” We cannot neatly divide the political and the spiritual into two hermetically sealed separate spheres. This would be contrary to the incarnational logic embedded in the Catholic vision of reality which lays claim to the totality of our existence and which commands and commits us to a missionary stance of engagement with the world, including the political world. We are, after all, Catholics and not anabaptists, and therefore we cannot accept any narrative of an apolitical, pre-Constantinian pristine Church which was then followed by the “fall” of the Church, post-Constantine, into the “corruption” of political engagement.
The Church did indeed often err on the level of prudential judgments in many of her “confessional” arrangements with various forms of political power, and she did indeed fall into anti-Gospel patterns of behavior in this regard as she herself imitated the formal structure of worldly power as an agent of coercive force rather than of persuasive love. And all of that history is sobering and is a constant reminder of the dangers inherent in the seductive allure of a power that is devoid of true moral and spiritual authority. The Church claimed precedence over even civil affairs on the grounds that the spiritual authority of the Church is higher than the temporal authority of the State. But what happens when the Church’s Christologically grounded spiritual authority is eclipsed and then eroded by her open embrace of coercive power in a worldly sense in order to achieve her putatively spiritual aims? In such cases the alleged “authority” of the Church is invalidated in a practical sense and her “rule” comes to be viewed as a tyranny of raw power.
I have often blogged on that topic, and perhaps ambiguously so, which has led some of my readers to surmise that I do harbor anabaptist tendencies. But my criticisms were directed at the corruptions inherent in any confessional State that divorces power from true authority and that no such arrangements will ever work in the long run when they are not animated by the towering figure of the crucified Lord - - the Lamb who was slain from all eternity. But confessional States as such are not only “allowable” in theory, but are necessary in practice since all States are inherently “confessional,” even the secular ones (indeed, perhaps especially the secular ones,) which in their modern iteration place their confessional dogmas above all others with corrosive effects. But neither is this an argument in favor of strong integralisms of Church and State. “Integralism” is a broad term which can mean many different things and therefore I prefer to speak, along with D.C. Schindler, in the language of an analogical relation between Church and State rather than an integralist one since one cannot “integrate” nature and grace or Church and State in the manner envisioned by the champions of a strong integralism, without falsifying the inner essence of both. Both Church and State are concerned with the proper ordering of all of reality, but do so analogously from within different missions and teleologies, rather than univocally and competitively. Space does not allow me to elaborate on this further, so all I will say here is that the normal, historical construal of “integralism,” in my view, is not the answer.
Personally, I remain deeply suspicious of the concept of a Catholic confessional State since the history of such arrangements reads like a litany of the seven deadly sins. It would seem therefore that the Church has proven herself untrustworthy in such matters since history shows us that she has been unable to resist the allurements of sin when it comes to the wielding of civil power. And who among us would trust the current leadership of the Church in any such confessional arrangement? We cannot police our own household and yet we presume that we can police the faith of the whole country? I do not have any prescriptive proposals or any answer to the question of, “Okay Mr. cynical smarty pants, what is your solution?” But the mere fact that I do not know what a post-Liberal political order should look like does not mean that our default position should be something spawned in Ottaviani’s fever dreams of an integralist Catholic State. That ship has sailed and so if you want to talk about political realism and what our real options are, then we need to stop the restorationist, jejune, trad nonsense about the return of Aragorn to the throne. I do not like Liberalism, but I am also constitutively negative toward integralisms of both the Right and the Left. And my view, as I suspect Dorothy’s was as well, is that we must simply articulate what our theological and political principles are, what our non-negotiables are, and then attempt to live them out as best we can and allow this process to organically develop into something innovative and new.
We must always remember in all of this that “politics” is a broader category than mere “electoral processes” and when those processes, legitimate in themselves (Dorothy was not anti-democracy), become degraded and corrupted in non-recoverable and terminal ways due to their near-total co-optation by wealth, power, and an ideology of secular domination, then, perhaps, a different kind of “politics” is called for. This was the main point of Dorothy’s anarchism which saw in the modern, centralized State, and its alliance with a rapacious Capitalism and its policing arm in militarism and the national security surveillance State, a deep assault on human dignity that could only be countered through an initial negation of its fundamental premises which are rooted in a de facto atheism. Seen in this light, the refusal to participate in the current political structure in a direct electoral way, whatever one thinks of that strategy, is a form of “politics” in itself. Call it a “Eucharistic politics of resistance” or a politics of the “Benedict Option,” or a “politics of localist Christian subversion,” it is all still some form of political action. And Dorothy Day is a perfect example of this. She herself did not vote, but she could hardly be accused of being “apolitical” or of being indifferent to how we should order the polis. And it is a measure of how degraded our current so-called “politics” has become that we have reduced its meaning to nothing more than electoral processes. Indeed, Dorothy’s whole point, and mine, is that what we today call “politics” is so degraded that it hardly deserves to be called political in any classically meaningful sense of that term. I would go so far as to say that in rejecting the classical understanding of “politics” as a realm that embraces all of the various natural authorities within society, Liberalism as such represents the negation of a true politics in deeply totalitarian ways. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once famously observed, “Liberalism is the only metanarrative that has convinced the world that it is not a metanarrative.” And in so doing it has of necessity needed to mask its truly corrosive effects as an “end of history” ideology that destroys all other rival political traditions.
The current war in Ukraine should be the final death knell for Liberalism’s myth of origin as the only possible guarantor of the peace. But it won’t be, since powerful forces are in play whose self-interest involves the maintenance of this myth. The procedural politics of Liberalism, with its purely stipulative and positivistic notion of “rights,” has no answer to Vlad the Impaler Putin other than military confrontation or economic sanctions. This is all modern Liberalism has to offer: blunt force and wealth. And what moral and spiritual weapons do we have that are not undermined by our own supreme hypocrisy? We all, rightly, recoil in horror at the sufferings inflicted by Putin’s insane military gambit to restore empire. But empire building is what Liberals do, and have done now for centuries, and so the moral condemnations of our political class rings hollow. America invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq in the vain hope of building an Iraqi version of our Disney World culture, it destabilized Libya and Syria leaving both nations in the hands of fractious warlords, and it has for decades used the CIA to subvert Central and South American leaders not to our liking in an attempt to make those countries safe for American corporations who only want to profit from cheap labor and resources without pesky Marxist interference. Oscar Romero was assassinated by an El Salvadoran goon squad sent by a regime propped up by American “interference.” And this is not to excuse Putin through an illegitimate “whataboutism” or a strict moral equivalence of various aggressions. Putin is an immoral bastard, an execrable thug, and needs to be deposed. But my one and only point here is that he does not represent a distortion or a violation of our current political order, but is rather a deep manifestation of the pathologies that lie at its core. My further point is that therefore, even if we depose Putin, our problems with such execrable tyrants will not go away, and more Putins will inevitably arise and will comprise the next great “crisis” that commands our attention until such time as a mega-crisis arises, or mega-crises, which will engulf us all and bring down the entire edifice.
Tyranny rises in exact proportion to the loss of real community and real culture. The Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the rise of racial tensions here at home, the surge of desperate immigrants fleeing conditions in their own countries that our country helped to create, the rise of poverty and unemployment, and the rise of an even scarier militarism, now extending into space, cry out for the anti-politics, politics of the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom which is not of this world, but is for this world. Lent is a time of expectant preparation for the inbreaking of that Kingdom in the form of the Divine love displayed in the events of the paschal mystery. There is no “issue” stronger than the tissue of this love. And it is only this Divine love, expressed in endless hospitality and open-ended forgiveness in intentional communities of Christian faith, that can build our communities back again and save us from the noose of techno-capitalist-militarist-tyranny that is around our necks. President Biden proposes that we, “build back better.” All he really means of course is what all presidents ever mean: “give my party more power.” But to really “build back better” we first need to subvert the old order. Therefore, in order for that to happen, in this Lenten season, let our prayer be: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and he has lifted up the lowly.”
Dorothy Day, pray for us.