Niebuhrian Coercion and a Non-Utopian Version of a Vision That Hopefully Will Never Die: Bolivarian-Burnsian International Justice and Solidarity

Dedicated to the spirit of the tenth socialist commandment:

Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one community, and live together as equals in peace and righteousness.

Before you jump to the conclusion from the title of this piece that Brother Francisco has gone “violent,” please note that “coercion” can be democratic, where democracy is available, and even where democracy is not available, it can be peaceful to a large extent. But it must involve bona fide pressure in some form appropriate to the circumstances toward a worthwhile vision. I believe that the world’s worthwhile vision should be global stewardship of our soil and other resources to meet everyone’s basic needs and would like to see this vision put to “a worldwide vote.” If it “passed,” it could generate bona fide, peaceful, and democratic pressure from below, i.e., coercion by the masses, to at a minimum supplement begging to the powerful for economic justice.

This raises the question of why the citizens of the world cannot vote as citizens of the world on any issues, much less arguably the most important subjects we share in common. We have in effect worldwide unsustainable exploitation without representation. Our nation state-based fractured system of global “governance” is the reason we cannot do so, and it is a failure at economic justice from the standpoint of everyone but the powerful. As it stands, international coercion exists, but only for the purpose of maintaining capital hegemony, or, to use Billy Bragg’s lyrics, “making the world safe for capitalism.”

Humanitarian tendencies for economic justice across national boundaries supported by Pope Francis depend upon passing the tin cup. I think this is both wrong and foolish, and so did Simón Bolívar. In his own cautious way, so did Reinhold Niebuhr. As I will try to develop in this post, the challenge is to harness the commitment in the promotion of international justice and solidarity of the Bolívars without losing democracy, which, however imperfect, Niebuhr valued and so should we.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention at the outset of this post that my hero, the Englishman Eric Arthur Blair, nearly died from a Fascist’s bullet while militarily serving outside his country on the international cause of justice and solidarity. Fear of Soviet totalitarianism by the man who would write 1984 did not prevent him from shedding his own blood in Spain on the same side as the Soviets. He coupled his disdain for totalitarianism with a commitment to democratic socialism, and so should we. Like Niebuhr and Pope Francis, he was not willing to subvert justice in the name of hollow peace.

Before Francis, Niebuhr, and Orwell, but long after Jesus Christ and the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Scotsman Robert Burns had literally harmonized international justice and solidarity as being intrinsic to human equality. Thus, he ended A Man’s a Man for A’ That with the words:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

In the 1840s when Ferdinand Freiligrath was agitating for German democracy, he translated this poem into Trotz alledem.

After World War II, when a devastated German Democratic Republic was trying to rekindle an international spirit, it turned to this song once again, although the Berlin Wall served as a constant contradiction.

A Relic of the Berlin Wall Behind the U.N. Headquarters

A Relic of the Berlin Wall Behind the U.N. Headquarters

When the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, Rabbie again stole the show.

Hence underlying an empowerment of local democracy was a call for international justice and solidarity.

Why Bring Worldwide Grassroots Pressure for Change from the Status Quo? Because International Justice and Solidarity Will Never Develop with the Powerful and Their Nation States Running Our World.


On occasion, because of Holidays, there are no national flags flying in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Such was the case on the morning of New Years Eve 2013 when I happened to take the U.N. tour (and no, I was not in town from the Deep South to watch the ball drop at Times Square). The above shot was taken from inside the Conference Building, rather than out in front of the Headquarters complex where one normally sees the flags, and in the middle of the photo one can see some of the empty flag poles.

Not a pretty picture to be sure, but at least it is unvarnished. The General Assembly Building is currently undergoing a major renovation and things are looking pretty shabby on the grounds even with the flags. I found the shabbiness reassuring in its authenticity since, most optimistically, that reflects the state of human affairs as we enter 2014–shabby at best. The far too weak, neoliberal capitalism-friendly Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) set for 2015 will not be met. Fear not, the MDGs will be replaced with a new set of goals called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And all will be right in the world the powerful have given us. Not united in meeting basic human needs for everyone, we can pretend that we are while dithering under the capitalist’s “united free trade system,” allowing profits to be maximized and sucked up by the economic overlords who do not take kindly to even a Pope’s spiritual correction

Will Francis dare bite the hands that restore cathedrals? I do not believe that Pope Francis is a “liberal” Christian, much less a naïf. But I am hopeful that he will be a risk-taker for humanity, which is all anyone can be. As I recently wrote at length, (1) he may draw wisdom and strength to pursue a meaningful economic justice agenda not only from his own experiences but also from Jesuit history and scholarship; and (2) potential allies of the Pope on economic justice issues, which is to say the left, should take this into account in our praxis.

Of course, neither the Pope nor the Jesuits have a monopoly on wisdom. If the Pope’s friends do not point this out, his enemies certainly will. Other than red-baitingextortion threats, and distortions of Church teachings such as subsidiarity, this will be one of the main tactics of the reactionaries–kill him with the tenacious “D” of omnipresent Fox-cockiness. It is rather easy to put the Pope in his place since, after all, the clergy’s place is in the Lord’s home not out in the world–which is sort of the opposite of Evangelii Gaudium’s message, but still, people like Paul Ryan are after-all God-given economic geniuses with whom we in the good ole’ U.S. have been blessed and, by the way, Stalin and Mao were bad and the Soviet Union failed ergo socialism has nothing to offer.

Rather than viewing this predictable cockiness as a threat it should be used as an opportunity to prepare all those of good will, whether inside or outside of the Church, the better to take into account both the savagery of the oppressors and the abundant resources at hand to rebut them. Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr also knew a thing or two about these matters. If Pope Francis is willing to look outside the Church for support, the potential sources of wisdom and strength would certainly include those remarkable 20th century Protestant theologians.

One was martyred and had both a “dream” and a deep understanding of economic injustice, not unlike Pope Francis. The other, whom Dr. King critically studied, was no naïf either. In part because Niebuhr was so hard on the illusions of his fellow liberal Christians, he deservedly has great credibility. He treated his allies with the same perceptive scrutiny that he imposed on totalitarians and the oppressors of the poor. He had the perception and honesty of Orwell (but not the creativity and linguistic mastery).

One might speculate how Niebuhr or Orwell would have reacted to the fact that the “Good Defeats Evil” sculpture one encounters at the beginning of the U.N. Headquarters tour was donated by the Soviet Union during its final days.



Because of the self-justifying immorality of nations, which, among other things, put the mass of humans largely under the control of the powerful in what are ostensibly democracies, Niebuhr was skeptical of the U.N. just as he was that of its predecessor, the League of Nations. Of the latter, and the circumstances in which it operated, ever constrained by the powerful and even undercut by the coercion-averse social scientists and religious people who most highly regarded it, he wrote in detail in 1932:

Modern religious idealists usually follow in the wake of social scientists in advocating compromise and accommodation as the way to social justice. Many leaders of the church like to insist that it is not their business to champion the cause of either labor or capital, but only to admonish both sides to a spirit of fairness and accommodation. …

[T]hey regard social conflict either as an impossible method of achieving morally approved ends or as a momentary expedient which a more perfect education or a purer religion will make unnecessary. …

[T]he romantic overestimate of human virtue and moral capacity, current in our modern middle-class culture, does not always result in an unrealistic appraisal of present social facts. Contemporary social situations are frequently appraised realistically, but the hope is expressed that a new pedagogy or a revival of religion will make conflict unnecessary in the future. Nevertheless a considerable portion of middle-class culture remains quite unrealistic in its analysis of the contemporary situation. It assumes that evidence of a growing brotherliness between classes and nations are apparent in the present moment. It gives such arrangements as the League of Nations, such ventures as the Kellogg Pact and such schemes as company industrial unions, a connotation of moral and social achievement which the total facts completely belie. … This glorification of the League of Nations as a symbol of a new epoch in international relations has been very general, and frequently very unqualified, in the Christian churches, where liberal Christianity has given itself to the illusion that all social relations are being brought progressively under the “law of Christ.” … [T]heologian and pastor, Justin Wroe Nixon, thinks that “another reason for believing in the growth of social statesmanship on the part of business leaders is based upon their experience as trustees in various philanthropic and educational enterprises.” This judgment reveals the moral confusion of liberal Christianity with perfect clarity. Teachers of morals who do not see the difference between the problem of charity within the limits of an accepted social system and the problem of justice between economic groups, holding uneven power within modern industrial society, have simply not faced the most obvious differences between the morals of groups and those of individuals.

Moral Man and Immoral Society, Introduction, pp. ix-xxii. Scribner, 1932. (Footnotes omitted.)

These days liberal Christians have been beaten down by eight more decades of sad reality, attacked by demagogic conservatives for sympathy to any governmental programs to address economic problems, and seen their ranks drastically lowered (although conservative Christians may no longer be on the ascendance). Moreover, as it has been many times in the past, religion is as much a cause of violence as it is a preventer of violence. Would that religion were just the opiate of the masses, but then again, it never really was just about escape but also about very real suffering:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Marx, K., 1843. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. (Emphasis in original.) The results can be the same whether the weapons are religiously or secularly employed. Even in nation states such as Syria and Egypt where religion plays a prominent role in violence, Niebuhr’s analysis still holds. In one way or another, “society is in a perpetual state of war,” Niebuhr at p. 19, and it is only with coercion that “peace” is maintained.

In less than two of his typically enormous paragraphs, Niebuhr accurately captured the plight of the individual, whether in Cairo, Egypt or Cairo, Georgia:

The need of the modern industrial overlord for raw materials and markets, and rivalry over control of the undeveloped and unexploited portions of the earth are the occasion of modern wars. Yet the ambitions and greed of dominant economic groups within each nation are not the only cause of international conflict. Every social group, as every individual, has expansive desires which are rooted in the instinct of survival and soon extend beyond it. The will-to-live becomes the will-to-power. Only rarely does nature provide armors of defense which cannot be transmuted into instruments of aggression. The frustrations of the average man, who can never realise the power and the glory which his imagination sets as the ideal, makes him the more willing tool and victim of the imperial ambitions of his group. His frustrated individual ambitions gain a measure of satisfaction in the power and the aggrandizement of his nation. The will-to-power of competing national groups is the cause of the international anarchy which the moral sense of mankind has thus far vainly striven to overcome. Since some nations are more powerful than others, they will at times prevent anarchy by effective imperialism, which in our industrial period has become more covert than overt. But the peace is gained by force and is always an uneasy and an unjust one. As powerful classes organize a nation, so powerful nations organize a crude society of nations. In each case the peace is a tentative one because it is unjust. It has been achieved only partially by a mutual accommodation of conflicting interests and certainly not by a rational and moral adjustment of rights. It will last only until those, who feel themselves too weak to challenge strength, will become, or will feel themselves, powerful enough to do so. …

[T]hus society is in a perpetual state of war. Lacking moral and rational resources to organize its life, without resort to coercion, except in the most immediate and intimate social groups, men remain the victims of the individuals, classes and nations by whose force a momentary coerced unity is achieved, and further conflicts are as certainly created. The fact that the coercive factor in society is both necessary and dangerous seriously complicates the whole task of securing both peace and justice. History is a long tale of abortive efforts toward the desired end of social cohesion and justice in which failure was usually due either to the effort to eliminate the factor of force entirely or to an undue reliance upon it. Complete reliance upon it means that new tyrants usurp the places of eminence from which more traditional monarchs are cast down. Tolstoian pacifists and other advocates of non-resistance, noting the evils which force introduces into society, give themselves to the vain illusion that it can be completely eliminated, and society organized upon the basis of anarchistic principles. Their conviction is an illusion, because there are definite limits of moral goodwill and social intelligence beyond which even the most vital religion and the most astute educational programme will not carry a social group, whatever may be possible for individuals in an intimate society. The problem which society faces is clearly one of reducing force by increasing the factors which make for a moral and rational adjustment of life to life; of bringing such force as is still necessary under the responsibility of the whole of society; of destroying the kind of power which cannot be made socially responsible (the power which resides in economic ownership for instance); and of bringing forces of moral self-restraint to bear upon types of power which can never be brought completely under social control. Every one of these methods has its definite limitations. … Since it is impossible to count on enough moral goodwill among those who possess irresponsible power to sacrifice it for the good of the whole, it must be destroyed by coercive methods and these will always run the peril of introducing new forms of injustice in place of those abolished. There is, for instance, as yet no clear proof that the power of economic overlords can be destroyed by means less rigorous than communism has employed; but there is also no proof that communistic oligarchs, once the idealistic passion of a revolutionary period is spent, will be very preferable to the capitalistic oligarchs, whom they are to replace. … So difficult is it to avoid the Scylla of despotism and the Charybdis of anarchy that it is safe to hazard the prophecy that the dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized. It is a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable to fulfillment by collective man. It is like all true religious visions, possible of approximation but not of realisation in actual history. The vitality of the vision is the measure of man’s rebellion against the fate which binds his collective life to the world of nature from which his souls recoils. The vision can be kept alive only by permitting it to overreach itself. But meanwhile collective man, operating on the historic and mundane scene, must content himself with a more modest goal. His concern for some centuries to come is not the creation of an ideal society in which there will be uncoerced and perfect peace and justice, but a society in which there will be enough justice, and in which coercion will be sufficiently non-violent to prevent his common enterprise from issuing into complete disaster. That goal will seem too modest for the romanticists; but the romanticists have so little understanding for the perils in which modern society lives, and overestimate the moral resources at the disposal of the collective human enterprise so easily, that any goal regarded as worthy of achievement by them must be beyond attainment.

Niebuhr at pp. 18-22 (boldfacing added.)

That “more modest goal” should not mean the masses having no, zero, nada coercive power against capitalists. Under the MDGs, soon to be replaced by the SDGs, the U.N. effectively lets biased neoliberal point persons like Jeffrey Sachs go into rooms with the powerful and emerge to tell the desperate how much relief from their desperation they at best might expect from the capitalists over the next several decades. This does not cut it. Nor, sorry to say, does relying on the conversion of capitalist souls.

The Pope seems to be talented in evangelism that encompasses concern for the poor, but he will never be that talented. This is not about picking on Catholicism much less Christianity or religions as a whole. It is simply about facing facts. The Jesuit view of justice being in the service of love is remarkably consistent with Niebuhr, who on the one hand praised the religious passion for justice, and on the other admitted that even the liberal Christians were easily disengaged from bringing coercion to bear against the powerful. As Neibuhr observed in 1932 when liberal Protestantism was still in its heyday, “fear” of using force to establish justice is a constant weakness of religious idealists in the quest to achieve social and political significance:

[W]e developed a type of religious idealism, which is saturated with sentimentality. In spite of the disillusionment of the World War [WWI], the average liberal Protestant Christian is still convinced that the kingdom of God is gradually approaching, that the League of Nations is its partial fulfillment and the Kellogg Pact its covenant, that the wealthy will be persuaded by the church to dedicate their power and privilege to the common good and that they are doing so in increasing numbers, that the conversion of individuals is the only safe method of solving the social problem, and that such ethical weaknesses as religion still betrays are due to its theological obscurantism which will be sloughed off by the progress of enlightenment. …

[S]ince liberal Protestantism is, on the whole, the religion of the privileged classes of Western civilisation, it is not surprising that its espousal of the ideal of love, in a civilization reeking with social injustice, should be cynically judged and convicted of hypocrisy by those in whom bitter social experiences destroy the sentimentalities and illusions of the comfortable. …

[T]he full force of religious faith will never be available for the building of a just society, because its visions are those which proceed from the insights of a sensitive individual conscience. If they are realised at all, they will be realised in intimate religious communities, in which individual ideals achieve social realisation but do not conquer society. To the sensitive spirit, society must always remain something of the jungle, which indeed it is, something of the world of nature, which might be brought a little nearer to the kingdom of God, if only the sensitive spirit could learn, how to use the forces of nature to defeat nature, how to use force in order to establish justice. Knowing the peril of corruption in this strategy, the religious spirit recoils. If that fear can be overcome religious ideals may yet achieve social and political significance.

Id. at pp. 79-81 (boldfacing added).

“Utopia” Will Never Happen, But That Should Not Be the Goal

Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.

Id. at p. 82.

I find Niebuhr’s methodical accounting of the weaknesses of humankind, whether or not religiously inclined, to be cathartic. Rather than excusing our apathy, our shared humanity calls for us to do our best as species-beings. Doing our best as species beings will involve stomaching use of appropriate “coercion,” coupled with democratic and human rights constraints, to build a sufficiently just world so that, as nearly as possible, everyone’s basic needs are met. This is a vital reality in what I call garden variety democratic socialism. You may call it something else if you prefer.

Fundamentally, the struggle for economic justice must make the powerful not only uncomfortable but no longer powerful. Clintonian cocktail party diplomacy will not cut it. I hope that Pope Francis will be willing to stomach this reality, but it will not be easy. He is going to have his hands full of reactionary clergy under the sway of reactionary fat cats and their batallions. Perhaps the constant temptation will be to wish he could have chosen the comfortable, dithering, liberal-bashing route of a Benedict XVI, but I hold out hope that Francis is truly embracing the uncomfortable because that is what he somehow feels “called” to do. It certainly is what the world’s desperate require.

One last quote from Niebuhr before I complete your U.N. tour. This is from the very end of Moral Man and Immoral Society:

We live in an age in which personal moral idealism is easily accused of hypocrisy and frequently deserves it. It is an age in which honesty is possible only when it skirts the edges of cynicism. All this is rather tragic. For what the individual conscience feels when it lifts itself above the world of nature and the system of collective relationships in which the human spirit remains under the power of nature, is not a luxury but a necessity of the soul. Yet there is beauty in our tragedy. We are, at least, rid of some of our illusions. We can no longer buy the highest satisfactions of individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.

In the task of that redemption the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.

Id. at pp. 276-77 (boldfacing added).

Thank You For Touring the U.N. Headquarters

Just before leaving the Conference Building of the U.N. Headquarters one passes not far from a staircase off to the left. Under the staircase I spotted a barely discernible portrait near an ATM machine used by U.N. employees. I gained permission from a guard to walk up to the portrait and take a photograph. I was able to confirm the identity of the person who was painted and provide the proof to you. Sure enough, it was Woodrow Wilson, a racist, socialist-harassing U.S. president who managed by my account to do one pretty good thing–push for establishment of the highly imperfect precursor to the highly imperfect U.N. (By analogy, I appreciate the fact that the MDGs do some good.) On balance, I like that Wilson’s haughty visage is in the U.N., but I am glad that it is not prominently displayed.


Passing through the door to the complex grounds one might easily miss off to the left a sculpture donated by Latin American nation states to the U.N. I like this sculpture very much. It should be part of the tour. Simón Bolívar’s idealistic words would have been worthy of any Pope much less an imperfect early 20th century president or an imperfect early 21st century socialist agitator. Too bad he and the Ploughman Poet never met. They might have made beautiful music together.


In the march of the centuries, perhaps there will be one single nation covering the universe: the federal nation

The one thing I might change is “the centuries.” I might change it to “time.” I do not think that humankind can spare even a day from learning how to make international justice and solidarity a reality.

In friendship with the weak and their allies,


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