I have discovered in my life that there are many forms of isolation, confusion and loss. While I reflect on parental death, marital breakdown and estranged friendships as the most intense, there is a competitor. It is a particular form of academic crisis.
One moment stands out. I was studying for my PhD at the European University Institute in Fiesole, just outside Florence, in a converted monastery. It was in this academic idyll that I first developed my doubts about the European Union. It was 1989 and I observed from my medieval tower that communism was disintegrating.
I had a longstanding sympathy for the Solidarity movement in Poland. It built its programme around “the traditions of the Labour Movement and of church teaching” and advocated works councils, strong local democracy and land reform to underpin small farms and home owners.
So what would happen in Poland after communism had fallen? I hoped that it would follow the post-war West German model, one underwritten by Christian and Social Democracy. Germany’s economy had many attractive features: strong local economies, supported by regional banks; a vocational system, in which the dignity of work was upheld and youngsters could learn a trade through apprenticeships; equal representation in the coal and steel industries between owners and workers.
I fully expected Poland to adopt the West German forms of the “social market economy”. West Germany is Poland’s neighbour, the two countries have many links, and West Germany seemed a good model for the shift from dictatorship to democracy. But it did not turn out that way. Instead, Poland followed the British model: centralisation and privatisation.
As an exile from Thatcher’s Britain, I observed with horror the imposition of “shock therapy” in Poland, the transfer of all industrial assets to the state and then their privatisation. I saw the ways in which the old communist apparatchiks took immediate control of the new industries and the liquidation of solidarity. This was supported by the EU, the World Bank and the IMF, who were committed to financial globalisation and state centralisation.
I switched my PhD to a study of what had happened. Why had Britain and not Germany become the model for the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland? I was fired up with intellectual and moral outrage. Then my personal academic crisis hit. As I was reading around the West German economic and social model, I could find no coherent analysis of what it actually was.
Liberal economists could not explain how its institutions – with their restrictions on market freedom – led to an increase in productive power. Keynesians could not comprehend its scepticism about central planning and its conservative monetary policy. Marxists expressed exasperation about the cooperation between owners and workers. I could find no coherent explanation in the academic literature. I thought I knew what the social market economy was but the more I looked the more obscure it became. The tiny screen remained empty on my early Apple Mac computer. Professors and experts could not answer my questions. My doctorate had disintegrated at the moment of conception. I was isolated, confused and lost.
I talked about this one evening with a very good friend who was Italian. She was a “Cata-Communa”, a Catholic communist. Like millions of Italians, she both went to church each Sunday and voted for the Communist Party. I spoke with a quiet desperation about my existential crisis and she calmly asked me if I had ever read Catholic social thought. I had not heard of it. As a good leftist I knew about Liberation Theology, but I had no idea what she was talking about. She gave me a volume of papal encyclicals as a birthday present and that was that.
I had an intense experience. I stayed up all night reading John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, which remains the greatest reflection on the meaning of work I have ever read. John Paul’s Centesimus Annus was also revelatory, as was Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. I pieced together the link between subsidiarity, the human status of the worker and solidarity as a form of political community.
From this new perspective, the West German economy began to be pieced together and I could understand its fundamental debt to the gift which Pope Leo had given “urbi et orbi ”. I understood that capitalism wished to commodify creation, but that a centralised state would claim similar ownership. What was needed was an active, decentralised society which recognised the value of vocation and our stewardship of nature. This shaped and brought together my political and ethical thinking and gave it form. In all I have done since, I have been guided by its teaching.
Not only did it save my PhD, it restructured my politics, ethics and orientation of thought. It established the Common Good – a negotiated settlement between estranged interests – as the ultimate end of politics. It is Catholic social thought that has guided me through the 2008 crash, Brexit and now the coronavirus. It has been my inspiration and I will be eternally grateful to Catholics and the Church. It was a very generous gift. In the darkest moments, it lights the way.