Category Archives: Welfarism

An Essay Introduction: Reading the Good Samaritan with Ivan Illich

Here is a completely rewritten introduction for a paper I gave at the Grandeur of Reason Conference held in Rome last September, originally entitled: “The Political Subjugation of the Works of Mercy: Recovering the Church from the Therapeutic Arm of the State.” Anyone who was there and actually heard the original are not likely to recognize this one. A few weeks after the conference, I skimmed through what I had presented only to discover how much work needed to be done. Of course, here I am now rereading my attempt to fix it and thinking much the same thing. Alas. I wrote this a while ago, but I think it tackles a few different angles of what I’ve been working on.

– – – – –

In his iconoclastic theological reflections on modernity, the Catholic philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich argues that the Incarnation of Christ created a rupture, radically exposing humanity to a new depth of relationality and loving, fundamentally transgressing the docile normativity of our moral sensibilities. In the divine Word made flesh, both the social policing and rationalist establishment of the boundaries of charity are at once disjointed from their cultural moorings, disbanded, and transfigured in the light of risen One; for Love has shown itself in our midst as the concrete universal; the ethical has found its content in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. Whoever sees him sees the Father (Jn. 14.6-10); “whoever loves another, loves him in the person of that other” (1 Jn. 4.11-12).[1] Any loving performance, any embodiment of goodness is only truthful to the extent it participates in the life of God.

For Illich, the enfleshment of the Son—the pivoting axis of human history—opens up an unprecedented dimension of charity at once subversive, unbounded, and “highly ambiguous because of the way in which it explodes certain universal assumptions about the conditions under which love are possible.”[2] Family, race, culture, wealth, nation no longer concretely demarcate the bounds of the neighbor. Illich maintains that in Christ I am beckoned into a startling freedom to choose whom I will love and where I will love. “And this deeply threatens the traditional basis for ethics, which was always an ethnos, an historically given ‘we’ which precedes any pronunciation of the word ‘I.’”[3] To elucidate this paradigmatic rupture, Illich appeals to a radicalized reading of the Good Samaritan.

According to the Gospel of Luke, a challenge is raised to Jesus: But who, then, is this other, this neighbor? Through his persistent questioning, an expert of the law reveals a primal yearning for the intimation of limits. He grasps desperately for a frame of reference, for a categorical delimitation identifying where the commitment of charity can safely cease. He expects Jesus to tell him what he wants to hear: a line in the sand revealing who is, and consequentially who is not, a neighbor for whom I am responsible.

Jesus responds with a parable. A traveler on his way from Jerusalem is attacked by bandits, ruthlessly beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead in a ditch. A priest comes along and after him a Levite, but both pass him by. Finally, a Samaritan (that is, an outsider, excluded and despised), sees the man, binds and dresses his wounds, and takes him to an inn to care for him without charge. Jesus then returns the question: Who was a neighbor? The one who had mercy on him (Lk. 10.35-37).

In saying “go and do likewise,” what Jesus tells the inquisitive lawyer is not to go and find neighbors “out there,” but to choose to be a neighbor to the one you happen upon, even if he is a Samaritan. Far beyond the unilateral transfer of disinterested aid, the Samaritan is moved by the call of this wounded man. His response opens the possibility of a new relation of charity that transgresses both the predetermined “we” of our tightly regulated social boundaries, and the “I” of our own illusions of autonomous self-sufficiency. Through an encounter of sheer contingency, a proportionality is opened between the Samaritan and the wounded man that clears the space for the creation of a new “we,” a new bond of reciprocity, a new communion.[4] This network of relation seeping outwards, extending into the unnamed territory at the fringes of the “acceptable” is what Illich calls the church. This fitting together comes from God and “became possible because God became flesh.” As such, this agapeic community is not an inherent human possibility; it is a revealed possibility and thus a gift. The Christian tradition calls the means of grace (i.e., the gifts of food and drink, prayer and compassion, shelter and hospitality) through which we enter into a neighboring relation with one in need, the “works of mercy.”

While the Incarnation opens this revealed horizon of relationality cultivated through the personal performance of the works of mercy, Illich nevertheless contends that this horizon also carries with it the possibility of its rejection, corruption, and subjugation. “There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.”[5] According to Illich, the gradual institutionalization of the church from rise of Western Christendom paved the way of secularization and facilitated the rational bureaucratization of human interaction through the systematic parsing of the world into neat categorical divisions: public/private, secular/religious, fact/value, objective/subjective.[6] As Charles Taylor concludes, “For Illich, there is something monstrous, alienating about this way of life. The monstrous comes from a corruption of the highest, the agape-network. Corrupted Christianity gives rise to the modern.”[7]

In our contemporary secular age, the church’s works of mercy are frequently appealed to as one of the few means through which the church can safely enter the public sphere. Religious institutions and their practice of charity are seen as a powerful means of tackling our more pervasive social problems. However, torn from their ecclesiological context and pressed into the service of the state, these practices are too often converted into bureaucratic mechanisms for the efficient redistribution of resources designed to pragmatically “solve” the very problems created by the political establishment itself. Reduced via a political nominalism, only those practices intelligible to a church that buttresses the socio-political system are deemed worth maintaining. Indubitably, thoroughly tackling such an ambitious agenda lies far beyond the scope of the present essay. Nonetheless, I hope to tease out some of the critical implications of Illich’s thesis by suggesting that a faithful, alternative theopolitical imagination capable of confronting the bureaucratic institutionalization and philanthropic domestication of Christian charity begins by reframing the works of mercy at the heart of the church’s liturgical politics of the everyday. In other words, perhaps a fruitful path forward is to risk raising the question: what happens when the works of mercy are taken seriously, once again, as embodied acts of worship?


[1] Cayley, D., The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2005), p. 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 197.

[5] Ibid., p. 56.

[6] On the pervasiveness of secular dichotomization, see McIntire, C. T., “Transcending Dichotomies in History and Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 80-92; Gregory, B. S., “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 132-149.

[7] Taylor, C. A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 740.


Social welfarism and the bureaucratic mediation of relationality, part 2

A little while ago, I posted a selection from Michael Ignatieff’s The Needs of Strangers. In rereading that post on its own, it occurred to me that so isolated it loses much of its original nuance and critical edge. In exposing the role that welfarism has taken to mediate relationality and thereby atomize our collective solidarity, Ignatieff is not arguing for the dissolution of the welfare state as such, but is seeking to explore its more perverse and debilitating social consequences. In many ways, Ignatieff’s book as a whole represents reflections of one deeply shaped and influenced by liberalism on the one hand, yet frustrated, disillusioned, and sharply critical of it as well. At the heart of his project is a political and philosophical inquiry into the nature of “needs”. Welfarism plays such an important part of his criticism precisely because it is touted as the means through which our societies can satisfy the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, the institutions of modernity — pillars of our liberal democracies — are incapable of achieving such a project.

To start with, liberal politics grounds the ethical in freedom and justice as preserved by the quasi-philosophical paradigm of “rights”. Framed within a presumed context of individualism, such a language remains inadequate to engage the depths of human belonging, formation, praxis, and identity. This is strongly manifested in the debates over the welfare state. Ignatieff writes,

“The distinction I want to make is also one between needs which can be specified in a language of political and social rights and those which cannot. Most arguments in politics these days are about the first sort of needs, for food, shelter, clothing, education, and employment. The conservative counter-attack on the welfare state is above all an attack on the idea that these needs make rights; an attack on this idea puts into question the very notion of a society as a moral community.

“In the attempt to defend the principle that needs do make rights, it is possible to forget about the range of needs which cannot be specified as rights and to let them slip out of the language of politics. Rights language offers a rich vernacular for the claims an individual may make on or against the collectivity, but it is relatively impoverished as a means of expressing individuals’ needs for the collectivity. It can only express the human ideal of fraternity as mutual respect for rights, and it can only defend the claim to be treated with dignity in terms of our common identity as rights-bearing creatures. Yet we are more than rights-bearing creatures, and there is more to respect in a person than his rights. The administrative good conscience of our time seems to consist in respecting individuals’ rights while demeaning them as persons. In the best of our prisons and psychiatric hospitals, for example, inmates are fed, clothed and housed in adequate fashion; the visits of lawyers and relatives are not stopped; the cuffs and clubs are kept in the guard house. Those needs which can be specified in rights are more or less respected. Yet every waking hour, inmates may still feel the silent contempt of authority in a glance, gesture or procedure. The stranger at my door may have welfare rights, but it is another question altogether whether they have the respect and consideration of the officials who administer these rights” (p. 13).

In this way, we can see that when the debates over “need” gets too rapidly reduced to the raw material necessary to enable and sustain organ function, what is often overlooked is the fact that the means through which these raw needs are met can also be the condition under which those other human desires and longings necessary for human flourishing get ignored.

Additionally, Ignatieff maintains that at the center of this problematic remains the teleological question of the good. “I am saying that a decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virtue unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation” (p. 14). This is really important for evaluating welfare. What does health look like? What is the normative condition our assistance aims to achieve? What virtues direct the practices capable of such a task? The critical point is that there is always a good. Unfortunately, it is often cast in terms of the good of the state, civil society, and the market. It is often coined as a question of power.

Finally, Ignatieff also offers various critiques of choice and freedom. For him, these remain integrally connected to the question of teleology. More importantly, they are fundamental in determining ahead of time our perception of need. Sidestepping the totalizing discourses of political liberalism requires developing sufficient language to adequately articulate needs.

“It seems a fact of life that individuals have different needs. Some people need religious consolation, while others do not; some need citizenship, while others seem content with a purely private existence; some pursue riches, while others pursue knowledge, power, sex, even danger. Who is to say which is the truer path to human fulfillment? If human nature is historical, individuals have different histories and therefore different needs.

“If this is all we can say about human needs, then it seems to follow that the proper domain of politics ought to be the satisfaction of people’s expressed desires, rather than the enactment of some vision of what their needs might be. A free society can stand for justice – for the idea that private preferences should not result in harm to others – but if it stands for more than justice, it will jeopardize the freedom of individuals to choose their needs as they see fit. 

“This is the core of the liberal creed in politics. It draws a line between the needs which can be made a matter of public entitlement and those which must be left to the private self to satisfy. Since the disestablishment of the churches and the granting of rights of toleration, some of our most durable historical needs – for consolation and ultimate explanation – have passed into the domain of private choice. Likewise, a market society leaves it up to each of us to find work capable of satisfying our needs for purpose and meaning. By and large, few of us would exchange the freedom to choose our own beliefs and our own vocation for the solidarity of the Islamic or Stalinist theocracies of the modern age.

“Doubtless the price of our freedom to choose our needs is high. We have Augustine’s freedom to choose, and because we do, we cannot have the second freedom, the certainty of having chosen rightly. That certainty, Augustine believed, could only be granted by the gift of Grace. The modern political utopias of Rousseau and Marx were attempts to imagine a secular political equivalent to the state of Grace, a state of social unity in which each private self would feel its own choices ordered and confirmed by the general will. As such, their resolution of the alienation between self and society was a leap out of politics into metaphysics. If this is where our needs for certainty take us, it would be better for us to be reconciled to the burdens of our private choosing.

“Yet the problem they pose remains. Is there a form of society which could reconcile freedom and solidarity? Is there a society which would allow each of us to choose our needs as we see fit, while providing us with the necessary means to make these choices? Freedom is empty as long as we are trapped in physical necessity. Freedom is also empty if we lack a language in which we can choose the good.

“For all its shortcomings the modern welfare state can be understood as an attempt to reconcile these antimonies: to create a society in which individuals would be given what they need so that they would be free to choose the good. For all the apparent relativism of liberal society – our interminable debate about what the good in politics consists in – in practice a shared good is administered in our name by the welfare bureaucracies of the modern state. From birth, our needs for health and welfare, education and employment are defined for us by doctors, social workers, lawyers, public health inspectors, school principles – experts in the administration of needs.

“The paradox is that this continuous intrusion into the logic of our choosing has been legitimized by our public commitment to freedom of choice. It has been in order to equalize everyone’s chance at a free life that the state now meets needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, transport and health care (at least, in some countries). It is in the name of freedom that experts in need now pronounce on the needs of strangers. Apparently, societies  that seek to give everyone the same chance at freedom can only do so at some cost to freedom itself” (pp. 135-137).


Social welfarism and the bureaucratic mediation of relationality, part 1

25 years ago, Michael Ignatieff wrote a profound, thoughtful little book entitled The Needs of Strangers. In it he offers a series of critical reflections upon welfarism, the predominate social imaginaries of modernity, relationality, and the buffered self of political individualism. Echoing such thinkers as Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, and Charles Taylor, Ignatieff attempts to come to terms with where such a world locates our “appropriate” responsiveness to the needs (real or artificially constructed) of the stranger.

“Every Tuesday morning there is a barrow outside my door and a cluster of old age pensioners rummage through the torn curtains, buttonlesss shirts, stained vests, torn jackets, frayed trousers and faded dresses that the barrow man has on offer. They make a cheerful chatter outside my door, beating down the barrow man’s prices, scrabbling for bargains like crows pecking among the stubble.

“They are not destitute, just respectably poor. The old men seem more neglected than the women: their faces are grey and unshaven and their necks hang loose inside yellowed shirt collars. Their old bodies must be thin and white beneath their clothes. The women seem more self-possessed, as if old age were something their mothers had prepared them for. They also have the skills for poverty: the hems of their coats are neatly darned, their buttons are still in place.

“These people give the impression of having buried their wives and husbands long ago and having watched their children decamp to the suburbs. I imagine them living alone in small dark rooms lit by the glow of electric heaters. [. . .] All these old people seem [. . .] cut adrift from family, slipping away into the dwindling realm of their inner voices, clinging to the old barrow as if it were a raft carrying them out to sea.

“My encounters with them are a parable of moral relations between strangers in the welfare state. They have needs, and because they live within a welfare state, these needs confer entitlements-rights-to the resources of people like me. Their needs and their entitlements establish a silent relation between us. As we stand together in line at the post office, while they cash their pension cheques, some tiny portion of my income is transferred into their pockets through the numberless capillaries of the state. The mediated quality of our relationship seems necessary to both of us. They are dependent on the state, not upon me, and we are both glad of it. Yet I am also aware of how this mediation walls us off from each other. We are responsible for each other, but we are not responsible for each other” (p. 9-10).