Pope Francis, speaking in 2016, declared that “we live in a society that is bleeding.”1 His use of the present tense suggests that he believes the bleeding can be stopped, the wound healed. Matthew Eggemeier and Peter Fritz’s new book, Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism (Fordham, 2020), is an attempt to take up this healing task by sketching a Catholic “politics of mercy” that draws on papal teaching, contemporary insights from theology and critical theory, and the plain words of scripture. Their book—meticulously organized, carefully argued, and ambitious in scope—is inspired by Pope Francis’s call for a “bold cultural revolution,” which they take to mean “an anti-neoliberal revolution” (164), and seeks to identify and counter a series of interrelated “crises” which now all seem to be coming to a head: environmental destruction; global poverty; mass incarceration; and global migration. The book’s function is thus twofold: to issue a “prophetic condemnation” of neoliberalism and its murderous craze for sacrifice (sacrifice of the migrant, the debtor, the prisoner, etc.); and to start to develop a “more deliberate” program for moving beyond neoliberalism towards an “alternative world” (160).
Already, two issues (at least) have surfaced: First, there is the persistent difficulty of defining neoliberalism, a problem acknowledged by nearly everyone who writes on the topic. Our authors, for their part, suggest that the difficulty arises from the fact that “defining neoliberalism is like trying to define water to a fish. It is the political-economic world in which we live, move, and have our being” (2–3). Furthermore, as Eggemeier and Fritz rightly note, this blindness is a product of neoliberalism itself, one of the “epistemic tactics” it deploys to perpetuate its hegemony (162). So, for example, alarm over environmental disaster is dismissed or downplayed as “apocalyptic” scaremongering in the pages of major neoliberal organs, even as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, hurricanes intensify, and Arctic ice melts before our eyes.2 Other crises, such as the astounding proliferation of mass incarceration, are more or less hidden from view (the authors’ discussion of the “culture of indifference” underpinning this particular issue in chapter 3 is effective). Again and again neoliberalism tells us: Keep moving, there’s nothing to see here. And so resisting neoliberalism means first of all opening our eyes to the devastation it has wrought and stepping outside what J. B. Metz called the “magic circle of prevailing consciousness.”3 Eggemeier and Fritz help to do this by marshaling an impressive set of facts and statistics about climate change, mass incarceration, slum proliferation, global migration, and other related issues and reading these theologically as failures of hospitality, of stewardship, of mercy, and so on.
Even after this necessary period of “conscientization,” however, the definitional question remains. Eggemeier and Fritz choose to define neoliberalism as “a politicized mutation of capitalism,” and they emphasize in particular the increased role for the state (to ensure global capital flows) and the decreased scope of civil society (which comes to be dominated more and more by “market logic”) (3). One could, of course, raise questions about this working definition—and some of the respondents to this symposium do just that. Still, it seems fair to say, at least, that whatever vagaries haunt Eggemeier and Fritz’s definition are also to some extent present within the existing tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The authors handle this body of literature skillfully, drawing out a large amount of rich material from the writings of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis in order to narrate an emerging papal critique of neoliberalism. On the strength of this alleged consensus, Eggemeier and Fritz attempt to assemble a “new politics” (204), one that institutionalizes mercy instead of sacrifice, promotes abundance instead of austerity, and creates sanctuary instead of terror. It is here that “prophetic denunciation” gives way to programmatic thinking in pursuit of utopia.
To honestly grapple with the depths of suffering under neoliberalism is to already understand the need for utopia, that is, for something that does not (yet) exist, for something different. Our authors admit of some inconsistency on this point. They acknowledge, for instance, that the new politics of mercy they are advocating “will be seen as utopian by today’s political common sense” (172), but they counter this charge by showing that, despite its naturalizing pretensions, neoliberalism was explicitly intended as a utopian project by its original architects (Hayek, for example, wrote in a seminal 1949 essay that what was needed was a “liberal Utopia . . . which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible”).4 Eggemeier and Fritz claim to want “to do a similar thing under a different standard” (172), that is, the standard of mercy which is “a truer ethos than neoliberal sacrifice” (205). And yet, elsewhere the authors hedge their bets by echoing familiar (perhaps tired?) warnings against “this-worldly utopias” (5) and declaring themselves “suspicious of attempts to achieve this-worldly eschatological fulfillment” (213). While certainly acknowledging the “provisional character” of all political action, we might ask whether or not this kind of hedging already cedes vital rhetorical ground to defenders of the status quo and hobbles (or at least handicaps) our authors’ ability to carry out their stated goal of “imagining a world beyond neoliberalism” (193). As David Graeber realized, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”5 If the future beyond neoliberalism that we’re meant to imagine isn’t this-worldly, then, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “To hell with it.” (At issue here is also Eggemeier and Fritz’s hermeneutic of papal continuity since they closely follow Benedict’s critique of “secularized eschatology” [see 34–36, e.g.], a critique not untouched by anti-Marxist polemic; it seems to me that Francis’ call to strive towards the “brighter horizon of the utopian future”6 represents a welcome return to a more unashamed form of Christian hope, and arguably constitutes more of a break with his predecessors than Eggemeier and Fritz care to admit.)
These considerations notwithstanding, the twofold function of Send Lazarus that I identified above—the prophetic denunciation of neoliberalism and the charting of an alternative politics of mercy—remain urgent tasks for theology, and Eggemeier and Fritz have made a vital contribution. Their project deserves to be considered, expanded upon, and, ultimately, implemented. It is in a spirit of dialogue and as allies, then, that I have assembled the contributors to this symposium. We are theologians, philosophers, and ethicists working in the Catholic tradition and similarly invested in the effort to think beyond neoliberalism. We too seek some way to stop the “bleeding,” and we take up this conversation in the same generous spirit of dialogue in which the book is offered. Several contributors raise methodological questions, others wonder if we might push Eggemeier and Fritz further than they go on their own, and others still seek to chart new paths within the space our authors have opened up. All of these responses, in their own way, validate the efforts of this book. And, if I may be allowed a personal aside, it is a joy and an honor to engage the work of a former teacher (Eggemeier) who taught me so much as an undergraduate at Holy Cross. I’m also grateful to our hosts at Syndicate who have created a platform for this exchange.
But it would be irresponsible of me to conclude even this brief introduction on this warm note of amity, for the road ahead is difficult. Neoliberalism’s cunning knows no limit, its resources are seemingly infinite, and we are, to be sure, the insurgent faction. “We are,” as another improbable revolutionary wrote at the dawn of the last century, “marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire.”7 These enemies, as Eggemeier and Fritz know, are not only to be found among the avowed defenders of neoliberalism: They are all around us. Indeed, they are within the church itself, and so the critique of mercilessness must be applied ad intra in order to be credible (which Eggemeier and Fritz acknowledge, cf. 207). To state this plainly is not to give over to paranoia nor to some pretense of purity; it is, on the contrary, to acknowledge just how deeply we have been (de-)formed by neoliberalism’s insidious market logic. Nor are all enemies of our enemy to be counted as friends: There are those who would resist neoliberalism not by emphasizing mercy and emancipatory hope, but by a conservative revanchism and a politics of fear—witness Orbán in Hungary, for example.
To mount a meaningful resistance, then, we must be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). Eggemeier and Fritz’s book helps to train Christians on both counts, and it is my hope that this current symposium of snakes and doves contributes to their efforts.
Pope Francis, “Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in the Americas,” August 27, 2016; quoted by Eggemeier and Fritz 207.↩
See Michael Shellenberger, “Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change Are Wrong,” Forbes, November 25, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#7019d7f312d6.↩
Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society, trans. D. Smith (London: Burns & Oates, 1980), 90. See also Eggemeier’s previous monograph, A Sacramental-Prophetic Vision: Christian Spirituality in a Suffering World (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2014).↩
See Friedrich Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” in The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. de Huszar (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960), 371–84, here 384; quoted by Eggemeier and Fritz on 66.↩
David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (London: Melville House, 2015), 52.↩
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), § 222, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.↩
Vladimir Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?” (1902); accessible via Marxist Internet Archive at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/download/what-itd.pdf.↩