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Sister Stan’s Road to Serfdom

Left wing nuns are two a penny. Or, as we say in Wexford, “you can pick them up at any cross roads.” I did so once. Late one summer night  I was driving between Kiltealy and Bunclody  ( the former a village, the latter a small town in the South East of  Ireland) when I saw a car stopped the road and a lone woman beside it  obviously in trouble. So I stopped and asked if I could help? She turned out to be a nun, who back in Ireland from her missionary posting, had borrowed her father’s petrol car and then filled it with Diesel; as a result she was stranded on a lonely road.

I was soon driving her to Bunclody where help would be available. As she chattered away beside me in the car it soon became clear that there was no economic fallacy- except perhaps bimetalism-  which she did not share. The gist of it was that the rich exploited the poor; that the rich west exploited the poor countries of the third  world, and that capitalism was  responsible for every evil.

The important point here not was the details of her argument.  But the way these questionable assertions, were, to her, obviously true. Perhaps unknowingly she viewed the economic world through the lens provided by Karl Marx. Her knowledge of economic history, and  of economic theory was small. For her Milton Friedman might have been living on the moon.

The explanation for her faith in socialism was probably that she had been surrounded by such ideas and had heard of no others. The history of the Catholic Church  since the war hinges on the Second Vatican Council. It did much good. But it also unleashed forces which those who promoted it  can hardly have imagined. Those who  wished to open the church up to world failed to ensure that in doing so they did not merely import fashionable fallacies into it.

Perhaps because women’s orders  were run in an especially authoritarian and inconsiderate way  they were particularly deeply influenced by these “new” ideas. Consequently the numbers of religious vocations to women’s orders more than halved in Ireland between 1965 and 1970. And a new character bustled onto the stage- the leftist nun. They are, as I say, two a penny. My friend who had “misfueled” her father’s car was not alone. Not long ago the BBC web site ran a piece about a Spanish nun who having sent to Harvard returned to her homeland all of a flutter spread the new faith. And Ireland has not been exempt. Sister Stanislaus Kennedy is by any standards a remarkable women. Since her time in Kilkenny under Bishop Birch she has been influential in Irish society.

Some would separate her compassion for the homeless, for the downtrodden, and latterly for the newly arrived, from  her political beliefs. But Sister Stan’s autobiography “The Road Home, My Journey” makes it quite clear that her practical concerns are part of a carefully thought out and highly developed operational method of promoting her long term political and economic goals. She wants to use our concern for the poor as a lever  to help her impose a new  and very radical economic and social model on Ireland.

What then are the political beliefs which animate her?  As we will be discovering Sister Stan is not a hard Marxist who sees change as coming about through a revolution. Instead her analysis begins with what the parlance of liberation theology calls “the preferential option for the poor.” While she tends to avoid radical language, something very like this idea does seem to underlie her belief that we should listen almost excluseively to those who are on the margins of society because as she puts it “they understand society much better than those of us who are in the middle of it”  ( p. 100 ) 

Reflection suggests that this proposition has  little to recommend it.  Perhaps the easiest way of demonstrating why this is so is to rephrase her sentence substituting “those on the margins” for a less fashionable noun.

Let us pretend for a moment that we are listening not to the comforting figure of Sister Stan but some forgotten theoretician of a less fashionable creed:

“Any body who wants to be in leadership…should listen to Aryans rather than Jews because they understand society so much better.”

Sister Stan is, of course, no Nazi. But she is making a similar mistake.

Our understanding of society is not justified by who were are, but by how accurately our ideas reflect reality. Our job is to see reality as it is, and to make sensible recommendations based on this reality. Policy recommendations based on the view of one particular lobby, on the basis of one particular set of experiences, are likely to be misleading. Of course the poor must be allowed to have their say. And Sister Stan is right when she says we should have listened more to them in the past. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking their view is somehow less biased and partial than that of other lobbies. The poor can be biased and ill informed too.

Sister Stan’s belief that the poor are uniquely based to teach us the truth about our society leads directly into the way she goes about making her case. The study of methodology sounds horribly obscure and unimportant. In fact it is vital. When I was a child I was told “Ask a silly question; get a silly answer” Methodology is simply the science of asking the right questions of appropriate evidence. We have not only to ask the right questions; but we need to know of whom to ask them

How then does Sister Stan go about her work, and how do were methods effect her conclusions? She makes absolutely no pretensions to impartiality. It may be that impartiality is more difficult to achieve than we once thought. But surely even those who believe that objectivity is impossible have obligation to make themselves familiar with the full facts of the case. Surely we all should be trying to understand reality, rather than just extracting convenient facts from it. This is no easy task. And certainly it is difficult to manage alone. We all need to be corrected with those who bring different perspectives to the discussion of these contentious and difficult issues.

In this respect Sister Stan makes things needlessly difficult for herself by the deep seated intolerance for approaches other than her own which is so marked a feature of her autobiography;  and even more seriously by the manner in which she explicitly builds  her presuppositions into her research. For Sister Stan research gives rise to action, and action to further research. In effect  action- of a highly political nature- and research are merged. “Action- research is characterised by the engagement of the researcher with the action.”  ( p. 90 ).  And consequently there must be doubt about the conclusions which she reaches, especially when these are- as we will be seeing- of a very far reaching nature- far beyond anything the evidence she can possibly have looked at as a professional investigator could justify. She seems unable to conceive of any kind of social research which is not grounded in the view that society needs to be radically transformed. Has she forgotten perhaps that both William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury were Tories. They were keen to expose and to right shocking abuses, and succeed in doing so. But unlike Sister Stan they did not wish to overturn society in the name of a Utopian fantasy. Caught up though as she is in her vision  we have in Sister Stan’s case a kind of intellectual “one way gearing.” in which the very radical presuppositions on which the research is based are themselves never investigated. Consequently if the original presuppositions on which the work are indeed wrong, as there is good reason for supposing that they are in this case, she has no real chance of correcting them, and the whole process becomes a way of building mistakes into the very foundations of the new society, that she wishes to create.

This is  a method she has borrowed from the “post” Marxist Frankfurt school. Their approach marks  a  significant break with the procedures of impartial academic research. While other schools of social research do what they can to limit the way in which their presuppositions control their conclusions, the advocates of the Frankfurt school start with their presuppositions and then seek to refine them in the light of their research.

And what are these presuppositions? They are more or less those which were expressed to me by the nun I met near Bunclody, namely that Western society is inherently corrupt, that our culture is inauthentic, and that our market economy is necessarily exploitive.  In the important passage that we have already referred to ( p. 90 ) in which Sister Stan discusses her methods she makes it clear that “critical reflection” plays a crucial part in her activities. This sounds harmless enough until it is realised that “critical reflection”  she employs is not the objective study of our society; but “code words” for the application of post ( or should that be sub? )  Marxist analysis to the situation that we face in Ireland.

We need to ask ourselves whether such an analysis is likely to be informative. More particularly since we are presented here with an autobiography we need to ask ourselves whether Sister Stan is sure guide as she explores our society? Certainly hers  is a self confident book. She admits to personal suffering; and it would be a hard hearted reader who could not feel for her as she describes her grief at the death of Bishop Birch ( p.84 ). And her grief was made all the worse by the disgraceful manner (p. 86)  in which she was treated after his death. But deep though her suffering has been  it never seems to have lead her into any serious re-examination of  her presuppositions,  her activities, or – as we shall be seeing – her proposals.  She confuses critical theory with thought. Above all she fails to distinguish between the her aim which is to help the poor, and the wisdom of ways she proposes going about doing this.

There can, of course, be no question about the worthiness of Sister Stan’s motives. She is obviously a woman of  great human sympathy, who is genuinely concerned with marginalised, one who has done much good, and one who- I do not for moment doubt- has practiced many private acts of charity which deserve our admiration and emulation.  It is not that she loves too much. It is that she thinks too rarely, and knows too little.

To me perhaps the saddest feature of Sister Stan’s autobiography is the gaping lack of interest that it reveals in culture. She does, it is true, show some appreciation of architecture ( p. 169, 171), and delighted in the story telling of her childhood  ( p. 3 – incidentally, a beautifully written passage. ). Elsewhere though she writes as if human culture is something reserved for others. ( p. 17 ) Science, music, films, painting, and literature are all quite beyond her experience, and outside her concern. Not all of us can be interested in all these things. Music is to some extent beyond me. But their importance in forming the well rounded personality is clear. Why? Because it is only through culture, and especially through literature, that we can gain sympathy for those sorts of persons  with whom we  have not personally come in contact with.

Sister Stan understands the poor because she has met then. But she shows little sympathy for anyone else 9 Hers is then an essentially puritanical, even perhaps Cromwellian figure, with narrow if intense sympathies, who is prepared to incinerate everything that stands between her and her distorted vision of Ireland. Of course there are numerous and important differences between Sister Stan and Cromwell. Most vitally Sister Stan is planning no massacres. But just as  Cromwell wanted an Ireland without Catholics, so Sister Stan, as we will be seeing, writes as if she wants an Ireland without businessmen, without entrepreneurs, without private enterprise, and without a prosperous middle class. Sister Stan is then no Cromwell, but she would- as we will be finding out- create near famine conditions in Ireland.  Is she really then the sort of person from whom we wish to take advice about how to manage the economy of our country?

For all her faults though, I think though that it is  the very intensity of her identification with the poor, that has misled her about their real interests. She offers no justification for her beleif that the marginalised are especially well placed to understand our society. She fails to see that one of the crucial difficulties with being poor is the way in which poverty focuses the attention of the the poor  on their immediate needs at the expense of their long term interests. Sister Stan and those who work alongside her are then right to remind us that we have responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. They are right to when they point that this cannot be a purely private concern. As we shall be seeing the government has a role here.  They are also right, if not especially original,   when they say that we should ask the poor themselves about how  they think we can best satisfy their immediate requirements. But those such as Sister Stan  have passed from compassion into confusion when they suggest that we should adopt the ideas they attribute to  the poor about how we should organise our society as a whole.

The poor and those who claim to speak for them are not necessarily good guides about the way our economy should  be arranged. We need to be franker about the fact that there is a huge gulf between what the poor will say that they want and what is in their ( and our ) real long term interests. Those of us who have the capacity and information to do so  have a responsibility to think about the wider picture, which includes not simply the distribution of wealth- which is all that Sister Stan seems to be concerned with – but also its creation and preservation. Why? Well one good reason is that it is only a prosperous society that can possibly afford the social services which Sister Stan so insistently demands.  Moreover  market based capitalist societies have not only created this wealth, but have also  consistently improved the living standards of the poor far more effectively than any of the  alternative arrangements that have so far emerged.

To see this we have only to glance at the history. Take the example of nineteenth century Britain. This was a free market society if ever there was one. And yet as a whole and over time the poor benefited enormously. According to W.H.Mallock ( 1849 – 1923 ) – writing in 1894 “During the first sixty years of this century [ i.e. 1800 to 1860 ] the income of the labouring classes rose to such an extent that in the year 1860 it was equal…to the income of all classes in the year 1800…Thus the labouring classes in 1860 were in precisely the same pecuniary position as the working classes in 1800 would have been had the entire wealth of the kingdom been in their hands…What has happened in the near past, will, other things being equal happen in the near future.” If Britain had adopted the socialised “solution” prescribed by Marx and Engels in 1848 the huge growth the took place in the late nineteenth century would never have taken place.

While we cannot know what would have happened had Britain adopted socialism in 1848? But we can look at what happened to the Russian economy when it made the subject of a huge socialist economic experiment starting in 1917. The Soviet Union was formed in a country which was bursting with natural resources- from gold, to oil, to coal, and to the huge grain basket of the Ukraine. And yet the result of the experiment in socialism was exactly that which would have been predicted by every advocate of liberal economics.  Here we have the witness of Eugene Lyons. (1898 – 1985 )  he points out that in 1964 economists working outside The Soviet Union “placed wages in the USSR at five to six times lower than the United States, [ and ] three to four times lower than in Western Europe.” Moreover in the Soviet Union incomes were- he quotes another economist as writing- “significantly more unequal than in other countries of a comparable level of development.” Seventy years of socialism  created an economy with too little paper to print the ration books; and too little aviation fuel  to fly spare parts into the Siberian oil fields. And the same story can, of course, be told about all the other socialist experiments which have  been tried. Ludwig von Mises was right. Socialism always turns into planned chaos.

In the light of this it is hardly believable to find

Sister Stan writing that ” as long as society operates on the basis of individualism and personal achievement poverty will not be eradicated.” ( P. 80 ) It seems to me then that we have here, not so much a problem of economic understanding- although God knows that is lacking, but of epistemology and ethics. I do not ask the good Sister how she is going to run an economy without a price system, and how she can have a price system without a market, and how she can have a market without the individualism she derides?  But I do wonder how  anyone can attribute much value to the research conducted by a person who writes in this way? Such sentences apparently written in all seriousness make me wonder whether or not Sister Stan is utterly blind to reality? “How” wrote W.H. Mallock thinking of another now long forgotten author of the same ilk as Sister Stan ” does it come about then, that an educated man like himself can believe in, and devote himself to preaching, doctrines so visionary and preposterous?”

In the course of one of his more controversial speeches the late Enoch Powell paused to remark that he could “already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such terrible things?” I can hear a similar chorus. How dare I mention the Soviet Union and Sister Stan in the same article? How dare I equate her beliefs with those of the far left? Is she not- as the blurb on the cover of her book claims “one of today’s most influential and formidable social activists” ?

Very well then let us listen to what Sister Stan says (largely) in her own words. While as we have seen the  undeniable achievement of market based economies wherever they have been found has been lift people out of poverty Sister Stan believes that “poverty is not just a product of poor economic performance. Poverty is built into the way our society operates.” ( p.80 )  In her view poverty is a structural feature of capitalist society and needs to be combatted by the  redistribution of wealth. ( p.67 ) ( Like others of her kind Sister Stan conflates taxation which is designed to raise revenue with that which is intended to create a more equal society.)  But how in her view is this poverty to be defined? Poverty is both consistent (p.70 ) and relative ( p.71 ). “Even if we do eradicate consistent poverty, we will still have a very long way to go before we have a socially just society” ( p. 153 ) “We have” she writes ” to change our thinking.. and acknowledge that poverty cannot be measured in absolute terms; nor can any notional amount of money be identified as sufficient” ( p.154 ) to eradicate it.  She deplores the fact that “there are no plans that would take everybody out of consistent poverty and reduce to close to zero those in relative poverty.” ( p. 80 ) “Unless” she continues ” there is a radical change in our policies the situation of poverty will continue, with the poor becoming more marginalised” (p. 80 )

And what would this change in “policies and priorities”  ( p. 165 ) involve? Here the good sister seems to suffer some confusion- or is just a moment of doubt? On the one hand she writes that ” the market has good to Ireland: we experienced nothing less than a economic miracle” ( p. 163-4 ). However elsewhere she writes that the current economic crisis in Ireland  has given us ” a unique opportunity… to rebuild our whole social system from the  bottom up, not on the model of the cappuccino culture of the market place, to which we have so long been in thrall [ really! ] but on sound democratic principles.” ( p.129 ). In order to help those who have suffered in the current crisis “we need a new social and economic model that promotes economic equality” ( p.78 ) “We need” she says ” to overhaul the infrastructures  of our society.” ( p. 165-6 ). Elsewhere she calls for  a society built on social justice  which she defines as a society that provides for all its citizens according to their needs. ( p. 163, see also p.154, and p. 166 )

In a democracy everybody who comments about matters of public importance and who wants their ideas to be taken seriously  has has an obligation to ensure that what they say is grounded in reality. It is, I am afraid, not quite enough for Sister Stan to say “it is up to us all, politicians and people, to think about ..[ my proposals]   talk about [them] and come up with the mechanisms for bringing about what amounts to a social revolution” ( p. 165)  It was one thing for the nun I picked up near Bunclody to speak in the way she did. She was talking in private, and was making no demands on anyone. But Sister Stan is claiming, even demanding, our attention.  And yet hers is the economics of bedlam.  Her ideas are indeed in Mallock’s words “visionary and preposterous. ” She seems to take comfort in the uncontrolled extremism of her rhetoric. She gives the impression of believing that she will betray the poor if she stops to think or to consider what are likely to be the consequences of the actions that she suggests. In fact it is exactly because the situation of the poor is so difficult that we dare not betray them by recommending policies which would lead us all rich and poor to disaster.

Those who have read Sister Stan’s book and thought about what it actually says- as opposed to those who have merely responded to the emotions it is intended to arouse –  will soon become aware that her proposals would, if enacted, have a catastrophic effect on the Irish economy.  There are three ways of paying for government activity. The money can be raised by taxation. The money can be borrowed- a process which involves persuading someone – usually a fund manager – to lend it to the government. Alternatively the money can be printed. Since Ireland is now- and is likely remain- part of the Euro zone this last ( and worst ) option is no longer available to policy makers in Dublin. This means that the only ways of paying for Sister Stan’s demands are by increasing taxation or by borrowing the money to pay for them.  This is not a legend invented by capitalists for their own purposes. It is a matter of fact.

Since Sister Stan’s proposals- how shall I put it?- do not suffer from the disadvantage of being excessively precise- they are impossible to cost. And anyway as we have seen she explicitly refuses to assign any notional amount of money as being sufficient for the carrying out of her objectives( p. 154 ) She announces rights with the same regularity with which other people clean their teeth- including the right of all those who have been deeply hurt  ” to be sure that they are loved” ( p. 97 ). However more seriously and much more troublingly she says that “social justice is continually evolving” ( p.166), and since she has previously all citizens should be provided for according their needs, there is in effect no limits to what she expects the taxpayer to subsidise.

This blank cheque  that she demands would be all the more gigantic when one considers that she seems- it isn’t quite certain- to favour-  a more or less open door immigration policy. If even a fraction of her proposals were put into effect- for example those relating to old age ( p. 163 )- Ireland would become a magnet for benefit shoppers from all over Europe, and perhaps elsehwere. At the very least a flood of British pensioners would start pouring through dun Laoghaire and Rosslare.  The situation in the border counties could well become chaotic, as Nationalists and others from the North took advantage of the free benefits bonanza available in the Sister Stan’s utopia.

I do not wish to pretend to have knowledge of the bond market which I do not possess.  But under these circumstances I find it difficult to envisage a responsible investment manager with obligations to his principals or clients buying Irish government bonds except at very rates of interest for short periods of time, as the danger of default would be extremely high. The  reaction of the rating agencies to any Irish government which even considered introducing Sister Stan’s  proposals can only be imagined.. Were Ireland to default on its bonds it would mean that any future government would have to follow an extremely tight fiscal policy in which there would be little enough to spare for the poor.

But if existing Irish bondholders faced difficulties in Sister Stan’s new model Ireland the position of the taxpayers would be far worse. Sister Stan needs to ask herself if our low rate of Corporation Tax could be maintained if we were to adopt the level of government spending which she advocates? And if not which companies would leave, and what impact this would have on our rate of unemployment? But Corporation Tax is not the only tax that Sister Stan would have to raise. Income and capital taxation on individuals would also have to greatly increased. Just as then the wave of benefits seeking immigrants began to arrive higher rate tax payers would start leaving. This is not just a theoretical possibility as is shown by the large numbers of French people who have left France for London to avoid the  new taxes imposed by M. Holland’s government. l Since Stan could build no Berlin wall on the border, or for that matter at Dublin airport, the exodus would begin soon after her Minister of Finance ( what a job that would be! ) announced his first spine chilling budget.

It would be spine chilling not simply because of the taxes he would have to raise, but spine chilling too in the cuts to all non welfare related spending he would have to impose. In Sister Stan’s Ireland there would be no money for defence, foreign affairs, new roads, foreign aid, policing, or culture. In this way, at least I suppose it could be said that she would have been successful about bringing about “what amounts to a social revolution.” ( p. 165 )

At one level then Sister Stan’s ideas for reform seem to be hardly more than the product of the over heated imagination of a right wing satirist; but she is important not only because she is taken seriously by people who really should know better ( What for heaven’s sake was that excellent egg Mary MacAleese doing writing a foreword to Sister Stan’s amazing book? (p. ix-xi)  ); but also because she is by no means she is by no means alone in her convictions. Liberation theology of the kind she espouses is here to stay. We badly need to know then what is driving her?

I think the clue is to be found in what Sister Stan does not say. Sometimes our silence tells more about us than our speech. And I think this is true of  Sister Stan. The nun I met on the road in North Wexford revealed a lot about the environment in which she lived and worked by chattering away in the way she did . But Sister Stan, despite never being lost for words, tells us more about her assumptions, her deepest motives, and about her hopes, by what she does not say.

Her book suggests that she has no understanding that we, the Irish, have to pay our way in competitive world. It says nothing about attracting capital to this country. So far as I can see it says nothing about helping the poor make more prudent choices. It says nothing about reducing the barriers to entry which stop them founding small, perhaps very small, businesses, and she says nothing about providing them with small loans for such purposes. In short she says nothing about getting the poor out of poverty. She says a great deal about listening to what the poor have to say, but for her their role is always passive- except when they demand new or greatly expanded government services. Her book says nothing about equipping the poor with new skills.

In Europe, as opposed to The United States, there is a  consensus that the state should provide a safety net for those who cannot help themselves. There is hardly a Tory in the shires who should not admit that “Atlee was right- at least to some extent.” But providing such a safety net does the difficulty that for some people the safety net will become a sofa on which they can relax at the expense of the taxpayer. To put the matter more seriously there is a real difficulty in providing welfare benefits which are generous enough to be useful, and which at the same time do not destroy the incentives for those who receive them.

We have here a genuine puzzle at the heart of the welfare state. Yes, we have an obligation to relieve the consistent poverty that Sister Stan speaks about, and – yes again relative poverty should be of concern to the responsible citizen. But  equally we surely also have an obligation to ensure that the tax payer is not exploited?  After all the Irish Constitution enshrines the right to private property very explicitly. And surely also we have a responsibility to see that our well meaning measures to not condemn generations yet unborn to a life of dependency on welfare?

However to Sister Stan the idea that government activity and spending could ever damage the long term interests of its beneficiaries is completely alien. There are no references to welfare dependency in the index to her book.  She appears, for example to be quite ignorant of the work of The Centre for Social Justice set up Ian Duncan Smith. Duncan Smith may be a conservative M.P. and hence perhaps not flavour of the month in the circles in which Sister Stran moves, but even so one would have thought she would have shown at least some concern for the way in which the policies which she is advocating could perpetuate poverty rather than eradicate it. It is true that she writes in a rather different connection that the “sense of entitlement is one of the major enemies to spiritual growth.” ( p. 180 )  But there is no evidence that she sees it as being any kind of social or economic problem.

Could this be that because for Sister Stan  dependency is not really  a problem, but an opportunity to advance her political agenda?   This impression is reinforced by the way the she speaks about education. One of the most exhilarating things about The United States (despite all its faults ) is the discovery that it is the society of not just the second chance, but of the third and fourth chances also. A young man or woman founds a business in The United States. It fails, as they often do. Everyone shrugs their shoulders- and wishes them  good luck in their  next enterprise. Similarly the education system provides endless opportunities to re-engage with the system through Community Colleges. In The United States education is the highway out of poverty. Sister Stan rarely speaks in this way

The point here is not to laud the  American system but to commend the attitude that lies beneath it; and to contrast it with Sister Stan’s. For Sister Stan education is not about personal excellence. It is not about achievement. It is not about the escape from poverty. For Sister Stan  education is not about breaking the chains of dependence. Instead she out lines an extraordinary plan for promoting what she calls active citizenship. ( p. 129- 143 ) I don’t doubt that in practice such efforts do some good, but the basic idea of which seems to be turning school children into agents for promoting the kind of social and economic  change which she favours. On all and every subject the model she adopts is essentially political. The conclusions she favours are invariably collectivist.

While Sister Stan’s demands for political change and innovation are insistent, some would say obsessive, there is one kind of change which utterly eludes here sympathy. She shows no interest in entrepreneurial activity. Nowhere in her book is there any real understanding of economic creativity, while she grudgingly admits “of course there is some social mobility in our society, and people may acquire [ notice the verb “acquire” not “earn” ] funds and status through a combination of talent hard work and good luck over time, usually several generations.” ( p. 153 ) Does she really believe that this is an accurate way to refer to the “black taxi” revolution that exploded in South Africa in the late nineteen eighties?

She has  nothing moreover to say about the importance of saving or investment.  She tells us indeed that ” people can only move out  of poverty if society decides that poverty is unacceptable” ( p. 153 ) when as she has albeit unenthusiastically admitted ( see above, p. 153 ) this is not true. In an astonishing passage she writes that: “the problem of focusing on making sure that people have a higher disposable income is that this simply supports inequality; the more income people have to spend, the more likely they are to buy themselves their way out of poor-quality public services.” ( p.81 ) These are the words of someone who is in love with high taxation. Is it really too much to say that in Sister Stan’s view dependence on the state is good thing?

Whys is this? Why should an inherently decent woman apparently animated by all the right motives should be advocating policies which are designed not to foster independence, freedom, choice for everyone but instead has spent her life promoting a series of measures which if enacted  would- as we have seen- humiliate the Irish people, and convert the Irish economy into a ruined wasteland of welfare dependency, abandoned factories, empty call centres, closed  shops, wasted investment, decayng infrastructure, and unemployment?  I think, although I hope I am wrong, that the real problem is that Sister is in love with poverty and not with the poor.

The late twentieth century and the first years of the twenty first has not been kind to those who have committed their lives to religious orders in Ireland. The gigantic certainties of the nineteen fifties have passed away. As a Christian  I do not believe that this reflects any weakness in our case, rather it reflects the fact that the deep concerns of Christianity on which there was time to reflect in the slower pace of a largely agricultural society ( one of he finest bits in Sister Stan’s book is the passage in which she describes her father bringing his cattle in for milking ( p.5) ) have now been eclipsed in the popular mind by the more immediate, if more trivial matters. Our message has been crowded out rather than refuted. But for whatever reason, the Christianity which seemed so crucial when Sister Stan took the veil, no longer appears  as important as it then seemed. People no longer think they need the ministrations of the church. Perhaps they are wrong about this. I think they are. But the fact is inescapable.

Consequently the role of priest, the  clergyman, and the nun, has become increasingly devalued and problematic.  It would be astonishing if many of them had not sought out new more secular roles for themselves. There are it turns out good reasons why left wing nuns are two a penny. The over supply is because socialism, or versions thereof,  is widely seen as providing a new way of being useful for those with the kind of skills in the “knowledge sector” that are so widespread among the clergy of all denominations. While socialism at first presents itself to us as an economic doctrine, it  is in fact a profoundly political way of organising society. And a society in which public goods are distributed exclusively through a political process, is one which will necessarily place a high value on the skills that are needed to gain access to such funds. Step forward the new clergy!

In the terms developed by Marx Sister Stan is an utopian socialist. He believed that he had discovered economic laws which were leading the world inevitably towards a communist future in which the state would wither away. She shares no such conviction.  But in the absence of such a revolution Sister Stan and those like her  has perforce to have some mechanism by which the desirable state of affairs which they envisage can be brought about.

And I think that it is in the manner in which they  propose to do to achieve their aims that their real motives can be discerned.  And to find out what this method might be we have to look once more to the teachings of the Frankfurt school. The Frankfurt model starts with the view with the view that our society is inherently oppressive and needs to be changed. This change can only to brought about through the conscious political transformation of our way of life. It is interesting to note in this connection that the leading liberation theologian Leonardo Boff talks of politics as being a “mighty weapon” to achieve his objectives  And even mightiest weapon needs those to fire it. And this then is to be new role for the clergy and for those like Sister Stan who took the veil. Their theological knowledge may no longer be considered important- or even in some circles thought to be knowledge at all – but their skills in communication, in organisation, and in dealing with people, can, after all, help lever them into positions of influence in the new and more secular society which has grown up around them.

It is in the light of this that we should understand why political activity and a call for planning are at the centre of Sister Stan’s vision for Ireland. “Imagine  what it would be like , and how excting it would be, if every village, every parish, every town was discussing and debating the type of society we want,” ( p. 84  )  She writes that we, the Irish are “good in a crisis, we are good at creative solutions to immediate problems, and we have political system, that for all its merits tends to reward short-term thinking.” We need she continues to ” have a long term view and a plan for how we are to achieve our long-term aims.” ( p.166 ). This is just the reasoning which so pitilessly analysed by Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom.” published as long ago as 1944.

“The Road to Serfdom” is not  a perfect book. It was written under the deep emotion of wartime by an economist whose mind had been formed in a school of thought which placed little value on inductive historical reasoning. It was vigorously criticized when it first appeared. Nevertheless its basic thesis that democracy can only survive when the power of the state is limited is sound. In the course of his argument Hayek casts much light on the whole question of planning and the way in which the planners have to engineer consent for their proposals. Hayek writes that “the most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends towards which the social plan is directed is make everybody believe in those ends…It [ becomes ] essential that people come to regard them as their own ends”  In the light of this it is more than a little troubling to find Sister Stan’s operatives penetrating our schools, and claiming  saying that if her vision ” is discussed and debated enough, I am convinced that Irish people will want to embrace and implement it.” ( p. 166 )    One would like to know on what evidence Sister Stan bases this assertion?

Yet more pertinently  who is going to  make the plan? What is it going to entail? How is it going to be enforced?  Who is going to do the convincing? Who in practice is going to be caught up in the excitement of the continous political meetings that Sister Stan envisages. The answer, of course, is Sister Stan, or at least people very like her. When I look around me I see a society in which fewer and fewer values are shared, and yet Sister Stan believes that she can create a quite new consensus on a whole range of issues. The truth seems to be that she imagines she can do this only by using the taxpayers’ money ( i.e. government ) money to pay for the various charities which adopt her perspective; and by what she calls education, but what to others might seem indistinguishable from propaganda.

Sister Stan’s attitude to dissent is ambivalent. On the one hand she writes ” We need new structures and systems and models of development to enable dissent in Ireland” and wants people to have greater access to information( p. 149 ). On the other hand the kind of dissent she envisages ( p. 144- 145 ) always seems to come from those who claim to speak for the marginalised and never from the taxpayer, never from the advocates of economic freedom. Her meaning though is never quite clear. But she APPEARS only to envisage debate between groups which represent the various different groups of marginalised (p. 145 ) But certainly her book does not seem to place much value on freedom of speech, or for that matter, on parliamentary institutions. The local meetings which she calls for would in practice be dominated political enthusiasts of her ilk. And the plan she advocates would have to be written by experts, who would not in practice be accountable to anyone, least of all to the sort of discussions she has in mind. The harsh truth is  that new Ireland  she envisages would be controlled by people who shared her values and who operated in the way she has pioneered so effectively.

Sister Stan’s vision is not then in fact that  of free society and prosperous society. It is hardly more than a business plan for new class of social and economic agitators and planners. Dean Acheson famously said of Britain that it had “lost an Empire and not found a role.” In Ireland, as elsewhere, many religious orders have abandoned their primary roles of  offering broken humanity rich and  poor alike with some hope for eternity- and yes –  of providing practical help for the poor, and – yes again, making sensible practical suggestions based on their experience. Instead of these worthy and legitimate aims they have sought to re-invent themselves as advocates of a new political, economic, and social order in which they would play the central part. They the ones who are to employ the ” mighty weapon” of politics in the struggle for a socilaist society. W. H. Mallock was no enemy of the clergy. His father was a  parson. And he became a Catholic on his death bed. But he concluded more than a hundred years ago that “admirable in character as are the multitude of the Christian clergy, nobody will contend that that all of them are beyond reproach; nor will any such claim be made for all those who profess socialism. And for some of this body it is hardly open to doubt that the preaching of socialism is nothing better than a species of ecclesiastical electioneering [ we should perhaps use the term grand standing here]. In the language of the political wire puller, it affords them a good “cry” with which to go to the people. Why, they say in effect, should you listen to the agitator in the street, when we can give you something just as good from the pulpit? ” This is then is ultimately why left wing nuns are just two a penny, why they make such poor guides through the difficulties that we face, and why ultimately they are not on the road home, but on the road to serfdom.


  1. This is not an academic piece. However I shall be using the footnotes to provide references, to develop some minor points, and to make some suggestions for further reading. Almost all the references to Sister Stan’s book are, however, within the text enclosed by ordinary brackets (thus).
    The story of the penetration of the strangest, and most absurd ideas into Catholic  women’s religious orders of  is told by Donna Steichen, in “Ungodly Rage, The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism” ( San Francisco, 1991). Steichan brings a chain saw to the party, and she has been criticised for this. No doubt she makes the best of evidence available to her. But if even half what she says is true..
  2. See, Louise Fuller, “Irish Catholicism since 1950, The undoing of a Culture” ( Dublin,2002) p. 168. Fuller’s is a moderate and professional treatment of the case. She writes that “against the background of the decree on religious life”- issued by the Council –  ” and future projections suggested by the statistical data, religious were forced to re-assess radically their lives and work in which they were involved.”  For the, frankly, extraordinary way in which women’s orders were run before the Council, see Fuller p. 163 ff. 
  3.  Transworld Ireland,  which I picked up for E.9.95, but I have seen it for less. 
  4. For the influence of “liberation theology” on Sister Stan see p. 41 of her book. See Fuller, Op. cit. p. 221 – 222. for the influence of Liberation Theology on the Catholic Church in Ireland. 
  5. I have stolen this term from the German anti-Nazi writer Herman Rauschning ( 1887 – 1982 )- pictured at right – although he developed the thought in a rather different context. 
  6. It is interesting to note that the French sociologist Maurice Duvergier does not mention the Frankfurt school in his text book “Introduction to the Social Sciences”  ( English trans. London 1964)- in which he exhaustively describes every other conceivable way of understanding social realities 
  7. I use the phrase “code words” here very deliberately. This is not an exaggerated description of the way in which the Frankfurt’s school’s activities. See Lorenz Jager “Adorno, A political Biography.” Trans from the German by Stewart  Spencer ( New Haven, 2004 ) p. 47, where Jager speaks of the way in which the Frankfurt school deploys “euphemistic language.” 
  8. She is however appreciative of nature- see p. 16 
  9. I may be wrong, but from what I can see Sister Stan only twice (p. 41,- see below Footnote 10-  and p. 129) does Sister Stan  express sympathy for what might be called to taxpayer class, and this is in a book of two hundred pages . 
  10. It is true that in one phrase ( p.41 ) Sister Stan admits that the ” rich” have a place and a gift. But almost immediately thereafter on the same page she talks of “disquieting” the rich with her version of the gospel. This post is already far too long, and I cannot chase all the hares started by the good sister. But I will simply say here that I fully accept that the gospel does have disquieting things to say to the rich- as to the poor also-  but that anyone who reads the Acts of the Apostles and believes that they are reading an account of a revolutionary movement seems to me to be delusional. 
  11. See for example, Mrs. Cecil Chesterton, “I lived in a slum” (London, 1936) p.64, and 200 as well as elsewhere. The contrast between Mrs. Chesterton’s book and Sister Stan’s is perhaps worth hinting at. Both are equally horrified by some of the social conditions they have encountered. But unlike Sister Stan  Mrs Chesterton does not deploy the sufferings of the poor to promote a broad political and economic agenda. Despite its perhaps patronising title Mrs Chesterton’s is a very good book. Incidentally  Mrs Chesterton was the widow of G.K. Chesterton’s younger brother Cecil 
  12. W. H. Mallock, “Labour and the Popular Welfare” (London 1894) p. 322- 323). Mallock’s later book   “A Critical Examination of Socialism” ( London 1908 ) is also of great interest in this connection, especially p. 150- 175 in which  he writes about Christian socialism. I have made considerable use of his treatment here. 
  13.  The October 2013  number of “History Today” carries a piece by Charles Emerson entitled; ” The future Bright, the future Russian” which paints an optimistic picture of the Rusian economy on the eve of the First World War. Of particular interest is the fact that Russian industrial developments were increasingly being financed, not by foreigners, but by local savings and investment. 
  14. Eugene Lyons, “Workers’ Paradise Lost” (New York, 1967 ) p.233,  p. 230 
  15. These are both are examples which I can remember from the press at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am unable to document them. However David Shelbourne reports that in Poland in 1989 the allowance for toilet rolls worked at eight per person per year, or one every forty five days. See, “Death of the Dark Hero, Eastern Europe 1987-90, (London, 1990) p. 178 
  16.  The phrase “planned chaos” is borrowed from the title of a book ( 1947 ) by von Mises. For its application here see an article by Gary North “The Crisis in Soviet Economic Planning” in the American conservative quarterly “Modern Age”  Winter 1969- 70 
  17. Mallock, “Critical Examination… etc. ”  p. 157 
  18. I see that the interest rate on some Brazilian government paper is now 11%. Rates above 7% are generally regarded as being unsustainable, and our judicial system impose a rate of 8% in punitive cases. Obviously our situation would be very different from the Brazilian, but this is perhaps the sort of rate which the Irish tax payer might have to pay for loans under the kind of regime that Sister Stan wishes to create.  
  19. See for example, Anne-Elizabeth Moutet, “Adieu to all that: The French Driven to Flee.” “The Sunday Telegraph” ( London)  20/10’13 
  20. Article 43 reads as follows “1 The state acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods.” Although this is to some extent qualified by the succeeding clauses of the article. Article   40. 3. 2 is also relevant. It would be interesting to know how radical tax proposals would have be before they came into conflict with this right.  Any referendum to alter these clauses would of course be deeply divisive. 
  21. It is interesting to find Mrs Chesterton  reporting that even the primitive welfare arrangements of pre- war Britain were having a damaging effect on incentives, see Chesterton, Op cit. p. 31, p. 78-82. According to a piece by Aideen Sheehan in “The Irish Independent” ( 4/11/ ’13 ) quoting ERSI data 8% of those getting unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance would be worse off were they employed.  
  22. I do not doubt that there are more recent studies of which I am ignorant, but Theo Rudman’s book “The Third World, South Africa’s Hidden Wealth” ( Capetown, 1988 ) tells the fascinating and important  story. More recently, there do seem to have ben some difficulties in the black taxi business. But in the meantime thousands of jobs have been created.  The major authority on the “informal sector” in the Third World is the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar.  I am not though familiar with his work. 
  23.  I am surely right in detecting a note of sad nostalgia, when Sister Stan writes (p.19) : “When I was growing up in Lispole in 1940s and 1950s, churches were full for all the masses and holy days, and there were queues for confession on Saturdays.” 
  24. Leonardo Boff, “Ecclesio- Genesis, The Base Communites reinvent the church”  trans. from Portuguese by Robert R. Barr (Dublin 2001) p. 43. In my view the place to start understanding liberation theology is in the work of the Eric Voegelin see especially “Science, Politics and Gnosticism” (Chicago, 1968)
  25. The Austrian school of economists of  which Hayek was a distinguished member derives economic truths from its understanding of man. It teachings in this respect are not be confused  with those of the Chicago school which emphasises  empirical studies. 
  26. F.A.Hayek, “The Road to Serfdom” (London, 1944 ) p. 114
  27. It is only fair in this connection to acknowledge that some years ago I attended a debate in  Dublin chaired Sister Stan about different approaches to economic development in the third world. I suspect that in this respect her personal practice is superior to the implications of her ideas.
  28. Mallock, “A Critical Examination.. etc.” p. 156. For more on Mallock, see in the first instance, Russel Kirk, “The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot” ( New York, 1953, 1960 ) p.377-390. And also, of course Mallock’s autobiography, “Memoirs of Life and Literature.” ( London, 1920).