A Facebook friend brought my attention to the tug of war taking place over the legacy of Dorothy Day in recent months between pro and anti-capitalists. The Catholic Worker has criticized both the NY Times and Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute on Day-related matters. Liberals can’t claim her, so it is said, because she was anti-abortion and loyal to Church teaching, obviously never having gone the way of radical disobedient feminism. But conservatives and libertarians can’t claim her either because she rejected capitalism.
Or did she? As best I can tell, she neither practiced it or preached it as a way of life. And yet she did say the following:
We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the Idea of force and compulsion…
Of course, Pope Pius XI said that, when such a crisis came about, in unemployment, fire, flood, earthquake, etc., the state had to enter in and help.
But we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam.
If you don’t believe in “force and compulsion”, you believe – by logical necessity – that capitalism is at least permissible. At least capitalism as Fr. Sirico, Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard would define it, which is nothing more than private property + free exchange of goods and services. No capitalist along these lines, moreover, could or likely would raise any objection to voluntary collectivist projects such as workers cooperatives or agricultural communes. Voluntary Distributism, which Day supported in her writings, is capitalism.
At any rate it is evident that Day’s conception of “social justice” had little if anything to do with the modern conception on both the Catholic and secular left. If she rejected a “bountiful Uncle Sam”, what would she say about Uncle Barry? The practice of taxation and redistribution rests upon “force and compulsion”, which doesn’t magically become something else because the man with the gun to your head is wearing a badge.
I’m probably not as radical as Day, since I believe in minimal taxation for a minimalist state. I also think that she and her comrades did not fully understand the extent to which free-market capitalism would and actually did raise the standard of living for the poor. Many people fail to see this, however, for a simple reason: capitalism has spread so much wealth (peacefully and voluntarily) that the relatively few pockets of society that have failed to benefit from it are all the more distinctive. They take on the appearance of a crisis only because so much of the rest of society has attained a dignified standard of living, an unacceptable anomaly in our midst.
Even so, it is clear that Day wouldn’t have advocated the idea of shaking down “the rich” in order to address the problem. And this isn’t really where the Obama-money flows anyway. It has never really been about the poor, except perhaps to make sure that they stay pacified. It has been about the aggrandizement of the state – the padding of government salaries and department budgets, the purchase of demographic voting blocs, social engineering, and of course, the war machine. If anything is unmistakable about Day, she opposed the state in all of these endeavors. And since, unlike a lot of left-anarchists I have known, she was unambiguous in her rejection of the use of force and compulsion to obtain “social justice”, I don’t think it can be said that she opposed capitalism either.
Throw in her pacifism and pro-life position, and look at her photos as an older woman in a certain light, and she almost looks like this guy. I don’t go as far as she does with pacifism or anarchism, but she’s an inspiration to me all the same.