"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
At last – a truly Catholic response to the current economic meltdown. An article, "A costly illusion," written by Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, an Italian economist and professor of financial ethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy was recently published in L’Osservatore Romano. The root issue, which has been so deeply obscured by the corporate media, is "lack of any real economic development with a booming Wall Street." In other words, as our manufacturing base was rapidly removed from our shores, our productive capacity was gutted while Wall Street profits boomed. Our financial wizards found that by "securitizing" mortgage loans through a new financial instrument known as the collateralized debt obligation (CDO), they could multiply profits many times beyond the actual value of the property in question. Fabulous profits were created which had no solid economic foundation whatsoever.
Many commentators have castigated the monstrous bubble of cheap credit which these financial buccaneers created, but few have probed into the underlying economic rot where such crimes breed and flourish. Many Christian commentators point to U.S. addiction to unsustainable levels of consumption fueled by borrowing, leading to vanishing personal savings. But though we believe that greed is the ultimate culprit, we have to ask ourselves, "Why have we created an economic system that promotes greed and punishes self-control?"
The promises of neoliberal economists have all proven false. Every project that has been undertaken with their advice has resulted in increased poverty for the vast majority invariably accompanied by fabulous profits for the few. The West has "not succeeded with its new economy project, it did not succeed with accelerating growth in Asia by transferring low-cost production (there), and it did not succeed after inventing a boom in the GNP through risky financial models that were poorly conceived and badly regulated." - Ettore Gotti Tedeschi
The Christian position is stated forcefully in the Catholic Catechism, "The development of economic activity and growth in production are meant to provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community. Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God's plan for man." – Catechism 2426.
First I would like to examine the fundamental economic causes behind the current breakdown, then turn to that light radiating from traditional Catholic teachings. In the years immediately after WWII, finance played the role of a helpful servant to production. After the 70s, the growing dominance of the financial sector has stood the earlier productive relationship on its head. Finance now dominates over production. The evolution of this tendency has many causes, but we will here focus on the primary factors. In order for our economy to grow, new sources of demand must be found for the growing surplus created by increasing productivity. This demand is normally met through creating new "needs" in consumers through advertising and other marketing techniques. These "needs" are completely artificial in that they are deliberately induced in order to create a market for products, though they do not correspond to any real requirement for a satisfying human life.
The Catechism clearly demonstrates that the creation of artificial needs is contrary to the seventh commandment. "In economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world's goods." – Catechism 2407. Even the natural needs of human beings should be kept under control, which makes the deliberate induction of unnatural "needs" a serious violation of the virtue of temperance. Note that this only applies to material goods. Spiritual needs can grow without limit, especially when they are not burdened by the task of fulfilling artificially induced material desires.
But to return to economic trends, a maturing economy slows down and the system becomes unable to find new and sufficiently lucrative investment outlets. Slowing growth is caused by many factors, but one that is particularly relevant to Catholic social teaching is the growing inequality of income and wealth. Spreading poverty limits consumption demand at the bottom of the economy leading to a build up of unused productive capacity. This in turn drives investment opportunities away from increasing capacity and pushes the wealthy toward using their funds for speculation of the type that has proliferated recently. These types of speculation consist primarily in gambling on the rise or fall of markets. The process is well described in an article by Michael Hudson, "A hedge fund does not make money by producing goods and services. It does not advance funds to buy real assets or even lend money. It borrows huge sums to leverage its bet with nearly free credit. Its managers are not industrial engineers but mathematicians who program computers to make cross-bets or ‘straddles’ on which way interest rates, currency exchange rates, stock or bond prices may move – or the prices for packaged bank mortgages. The packaged loans may be sound or they may be junk. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is making money in a marketplace where most trades last only a few seconds. What creates the gains is the price fibrillation – volatility." – Michael Hudson, “America’s Own Kleptocracy”, Sept. 20, 2008.
In other words, since real investment opportunities are increasingly rare, the wealthy can only gain high returns through speculative bets that contribute nothing real to human needs. These are sins the Church has yet to define, yet the Catechism does include this condemnation: "The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others" – Catechism 2409 This is an effective definition of much of what currently passes for "wealth building."
Another factor is the process of monopolization through mergers and acquisitions which leads to a lessening of competition, thus diminishing the dynamism and creativity of the system. An illustrative example is found in the media monopolies. Whereas thirty years ago there was a proliferation of media outlets, today virtually all media is owned by five major corporations. The consequent diminution of truly diverse viewpoints and intelligent dialogue goes without saying.
The resulting deep stagnation of the economy has also been offset by military spending, which is described by Chalmers Johnson as follows, "The Department of Defense’s planned expenditures for the fiscal year 2008 are larger than all other nations’ military budgets combined. The supplementary budget to pay for the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not part of the official defense budget, is itself larger than the combined military budgets of Russia and China. Defense-related spending for fiscal 2008 will exceed $1 trillion for the first time in history." – Chalmers Johnson, "Why the US has Really Gone Broke," Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), February 2008. A less humanly productive way of spending billions could scarcely be imagined.
The Church fathers at Vatican II spoke out forcefully on this issue of military spending, "While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world. Disagreements between nations are not really and radically healed; on the contrary, they spread the infection to other parts of the earth. New approaches based on reformed attitudes must be taken to remove this trap and to emancipate the world from its crushing anxiety through the restoration of genuine peace." – GS, 81.
Confronted by the current economic stagnation, we must conclude that "financialization" is a compensation for a basic misapprehension of the real needs of human beings. "The needs of the poor take priority over the desires of the rich; the rights of workers over the maximization of profits; the preservation of the environment over uncontrolled industrial expansion; production to meet social needs over production for military purposes." – John Paul II.
The hard truth is that a relatively small number of individuals and corporations control huge pools of capital and can find no other way to continue to expand capital at the necessary growth rate except through heavy reliance on finance and speculation. The Catechism demonstrates clearly that the right to private property is a relative value that must yield to more basic moral considerations, "A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order … Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. ‘You cannot serve God and mammon.’" – Catechism 2424.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
The specter that haunts capitalism is our dreams, our hopes, our ability to conceive justice. How few perceive that the current crisis is the bursting boil of a long disease, the rot that capitalism has created in our souls. It is the symptom of a fatal disease that has reached its turning point. We cannot be cured until we rid our souls of the fever of capitalism, of private ownership which excludes all care for the common good, that eats the heart out of the solidarity that makes us human.
Instead of goods and services that weave human bonds into our daily struggles, capitalism is the pledge of destruction to the production of goods and services, the instigation of class conflict. Indeed, we are locked into conflicts at many levels by the burden and imposition of the owner class, yet justice lives within our hearts and we give worship to the king of justice.
To conclude, "...if workers in each enterprise (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, AIG, Washington Mutual) became their own collective boards of directors, the old capitalist conflicts between employers and employees would be overcome. If state agencies coordinated enterprises' interdependent production decisions, the remaining enterprise competition could be limited to focus on rewards for improved performance. The US government might not just bail out huge financial institutions but also require them to change into enterprises where employers and employees were the same people and where coordination and competition became the major and minor aspects of enterprise interactions. The US government took over Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG, it changed neither the organization of these enterprises nor the destructive competition among them. That was a tragically lost opportunity. If the political winds continue to change far enough and fast enough, solutions responding to the current crisis by moving beyond capitalism might yet be tried." - Rick Wolff, "Capitalist Crisis, Marx's Shadow", MRZine, 9/26/2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
An historic opportunity presents itself to the American left. The looming collapse of American neoliberalism opens a door that has been shut tight for thirty years. While mainstream analysis of the current financial crisis usually portrays it as an easily avoidable consequence of regulatory laxness, the threatened pain may pry open many ears to a more profound analysis. I don’t presume to present that analysis here, but I would like to sketch out the elements of a response in the hope that others more capable than I will can expand upon.
Critiquing the Critique
The first task is to critique the shallow critique presented by mainstream liberalism. An example is Dean Baker’s recent article, “The Financial Meltdown Continues”, where he states, “While there is no simple path out of this crisis, it was a crisis that could have been easily avoided. If the Federal Reserve Board had acted to stem the growth of the housing bubble before it grew to such dangerous proportions, the country would not currently be facing a recession and the prospect of a financial collapse.” The implication is that a modicum of regulation would have been sufficient to avoid the crisis.
The many variations on the liberal critique usually revolve around the theme of good capitalism versus bad capitalism. Everyone knows what bad capitalism is – it is unregulated, amoral, ecologically destructive, greed-driven, laissez-faire, Gilded Age, buccaneer – name your cliché. Good capitalism is what FDR created with the New Deal. It protects the weak, respects labor, is ecologically responsible, accepts government regulation – name your illusion.
The real crisis is inherent to capitalism itself. Financialization means the conversion of actual economic value into speculative instruments. In order to maximize profits, wealth was increasingly separated from the creation of real value. Instead of a manufacturing-based economy that created actual goods, our economy was transitioned to a finance-based economy that traded in what were essentially financial concepts. Exotic investment instruments proliferated in order to support the illusion of incessant double-digit growth that capitalism requires.
Naomi Klein understands how radical the critique must be: “The reason these junk loans were allowed to proliferate was not just because the regulators didn't understand the risk. It is because we have an economic system that measures our collective health based exclusively on GDP growth. So long as the junk loans were fuelling economic growth, our governments actively supported them. So what is really being called into question by the crisis is the unquestioned commitment to growth at all costs. Where this crisis should lead us is to a radically different way for our societies to measure health and progress.” Naomi Klein, “Free Market Ideology is Far from Finished”, Sept. 20, 2008. The key phrase is “unquestioned commitment to growth at all costs.” This is precisely what capitalism cannot sacrifice. An end to uncontrollable growth means an end to its oxygen supply.
Despite strident calls by the Catholic Church and other Christian associations for financial responsibility, these calls must fall on deaf ears unless accompanied by a parallel call for a new economic system. It is incoherent to support an economic system that requires endless expansion and then condemn the immorality of CEOs who try to achieve this expansion. This is precisely the moral model involved in the condemnation of consumerism.
Here is one of the archetypical condemnations of consumerism, “A disconcerting conclusion about the most recent period should serve to enlighten us: side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This superdevelopment, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism’, which involves so much ‘throwing-away’ and ‘waste’. An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, or of some other human being who is poorer. All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.” John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Sociallis, 28.
The moral overtones to this analysis imply that we should resist this temptation to consumerism, but “how” is left in the ether. Acknowledging the barrage of advertising, what is the remedy for the dissatisfaction which is the driving force behind the capitalist economy? Silence reigns.
But this silence conceals a host of issues that must be uncovered if we are to make an adequate intellectual, moral and spiritual response to the current crisis. First, we must escape from the good capitalism/bad capitalism dichotomy. Capitalism, in response to government and popular pressure, has at times managed to conceal its basic nature. However, as soon as the pressure declines, as during the late seventies and thereafter, the fundamental nature of the system emerges into the light. The basic features are the same today as they were in 1900, as they were in 1790, and as they will be in 2100, assuming there is a planet left to consume.
The Nature of the Beast
What is absent from these analyses is an instinct for economic reality. During the past five years, Wall Street brokers have frequently been fired because they did match the returns that their compatriots were making. In other words, they were ousted for not playing the game while it was going, a game of shuffling junk mortgages that virtually everyone knew was based on fraud. The same forces apply equally to CEOs of energy corporations, who are under incessant pressure to outperform their competitors. They too can be fired for not matching the returns of their compatriots. They can also be sued by stockholders for actions that detract from maximum profits, such as failing to evade environmental regulations where possible. The essence of capitalist efficiency is competition, reaching for the maximum possible gains in order to outperform and potentially acquire one’s rivals. This is not an aberration, the result of excessive deregulation - it is the nature of the beast.
The beast makes money any way it can. It does not care about producing anything worthwhile for humanity. Consider Michael Hudson’s description of the hedge fund bets that led to the current meltdown, “A hedge fund does not make money by producing goods and services. It does not advance funds to buy real assets or even lend money. It borrows huge sums to leverage its bet with nearly free credit. Its managers are not industrial engineers but mathematicians who program computers to make cross-bets or ‘straddles’ on which way interest rates, currency exchange rates, stock or bond prices may move – or the prices for packaged bank mortgages. The packaged loans may be sound or they may be junk. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is making money in a marketplace where most trades last only a few seconds. What creates the gains is the price fibrillation – volatility.” – Michael Hudson, “America's Own Kleptocracy”, Sept. 20-21, 2008.
These are sins the Church can’t even define, yet hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of human beings will be devastated by them. The Church, like the rest of us, is buoyed up by wealth that derives from such sources, so its motivation for understanding them is minimal. Capitalists make money the easiest and fastest way possible, not because they are immoral, but because that’s what they have to do to compete. If they can make money using arcane hedge fund formulas, and by doing so can outcompete rivals who follow more productive paths, then they have to do so, whether they like it or not. Most tell themselves stories about how smart they are and come to believe these stories.
While hundreds of millions of taxpayers have been mindlessly convinced to “save the system” by putting themselves and future generations into massive debt bondage, no major world institution can define the system we must save. In this system, if a coal mining company can make more money by blasting the tops off mountains without concern for the health consequences to the surrounding population, they do it, but not because they don’t care about the Appalachian ecology. They may, but soon will convince themselves that other priorities should predominate because the nature of the system forces them to stop caring about factors other than profit.
John Paul II wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, "It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a 'virtue,' is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and 'structures of sin' are only conquered - presupposing the help of divine grace - by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one's neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to 'lose oneself' for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage.”
Commitment to the common good should be the virtue guiding us out of this morass. But it can only be awakened in those who are capable of facing the nature of the system in which their moral choices are embedded. My hope is that other ZNet writers will contribute stories with explanatory power and popular appeal to lift the debate beyond the familiar clichés that set off good capitalism from bad capitalism. The crisis means that many will be seeking voices with the power to provide convincing explanations.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Recent economic events are an profound confirmation of the truth of traditional Catholic teachings and an equally profound refutation of the "spirit of capitalism" school of Catholic theology. The spirit of Catholic economics as declared above by St. Ambrose makes it blazingly obvious that the corporatist/consumerist economic model promotes exactly those economic vices that the Church condemns.
An illustration from the recent financial debacle may clinch the point. The Catechism tells us: "The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste." Catechism 2409. Though all of these apply to the current culprits of uninhibited neoliberal practice, the most pertinent one for the most massive transfer of wealth in U.S. history is "appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise", the "enterprise" in this case being the United States of America. AIG, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, and those yet to come, have all pleaded to those in charge of the public treasury to absolve them of the consequences of their greed. And corrupt officials have gladly agreed.
What is blatantly obvious, though few in the Church seem willing to state it openly, is that the current economic system, far from creating the conditions for virtuous action, promotes and rewards precisely those economic vices that the Church explicitly condemns. In fact, we have been systematically blinded to the consequences of neoliberal economic practice by a system of corporate propaganda that has rarely been challenged from American pulpits. Instead, the Church has been glad to share in the bounty of these practices as long as they were successful.
We Catholics in the pews must have the courage to repent our own endorsement of corporate neoliberalism first, then we must demand that Church leadership condemn these immoral practices with the vigor of John Paul II who wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, "It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a 'virtue,' is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and 'structures of sin' are only conquered - presupposing the help of divine grace - by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one's neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to 'lose oneself' for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to "serve him" instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage."
The virtue of solidarity is precisely what our economic system despises. While we Catholics are treated to endless discourses filled with "shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people", the solid convictions of the Church which condemn neoliberalism are never mentioned. Again, the recent bailouts are heart-wrenching examples of the diametric opposite. Rather than committing to the common good, the goods of the vast majority are being decimated (quite literally) in order to promote the good of a tiny wealthy minority.
Friday, September 19, 2008
"Greed says: 'I snatch all things to myself. I hug all things to my breast; the more I have gathered the more I have … When I have whatever I need, I have no worries about needing anything from someone else.' Simple sufficiency replies: 'You are harsh and devoid of mercy because you do not care for the advancement of others. Nothing is sufficient to satisfy you. I, however, sit above the stars, for all of God's good things are sufficient for me … Why should I desire more than I need?'" - Hildegard of Bingen.
The financial meltdown of the past weeks is an astounding validation of the truth of Catholic teachings regarding the seventh commandment. Arthur Jones in a recent NCR article has well-characterized the practices that led to the current crisis, "Americans mindlessly emptied their vast natural resource chest, and then lived off accumulated fat, not income (and that’s not capitalism). Trade went into the red as imports exceeded exports (though U.S. arms sales accelerated). Incredibly, Americans began borrowing while increasing their consumption of goods they no longer produced and couldn’t – and can’t -- afford to pay for." Arthur Jones, "America the Perplexed: The Economic Reality Show", NCR, Sept. 19, 2008.
Though I’m as worried about my 401K as anyone, I wanted to understand the moral breakdown that I felt sure was hidden behind this economic crisis, so I turned to St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas demonstrates that the goal of a society should be to create a field of virtue in which its members can pursue their salvation in solidarity. Well-being arises from two factors according to St. Thomas: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV. From this we see that the goal of economics is to provide sufficient material goods to form the basis for the life of virtue. Rather than making security or survival or the constant expansion of material goods the goal of economic policy, Christian economics must be centered in promoting the exercise of those virtues which lead to salvation.
What did the Fathers of the Church say about how the goods of the earth were to be distributed? St. Ambrose, mentor to St. Augustine, said, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132. To reassure myself that this was not an outmoded teaching, I turned to the most recent edition of the Catechism, where I found the following: "In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits ... The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism 2402, 2403.
The Fathers were quite explicit about what the universal destination of goods implied for economic practice. St. Basil said, "Though you have not killed, like you say, nor committed adultery, nor stolen, nor borne false witness, you make all of this useless unless you add the only thing which can allow you to enter the kingdom ... whoever loves his neighbor owns no more than his neighbor does. But you have a great fortune. How can this be, unless you have put your own interests before those others." - St. Basil, Homilia VII. Notice that the emphasis is on production for sharing rather than survival and security. Of course, these are very important values, but the teaching implies that if we produce in order to share, then survival, security and many other such goods will be ours in abundance.
The current measures by the U.S. government are obviously the result of desperation, the desperation that always afflicts those who violate the moral law. "The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are bold as a lion." - Proverbs 28:1. The Catechism tells us: "The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste." Catechism 2409. Though all of these apply to the current culprits of uninhibited neoliberal practice, the most pertinent one for the most massive transfer of wealth in U.S. history is "appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise", the "enterprise" in this case being the United States of America. AIG, Merrill Lynch, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, and those yet to come, have all pleaded to those in charge of the public treasury to absolve them of the consequences of their greed. And corrupt officials have gladly agreed.
What is blatantly obvious, though few in the Church seem willing to state it openly, is that the current economic system, far from creating the conditions for virtuous action, promotes and rewards precisely those economic vices that the Church explicitly condemns. In fact, we have been systematically blinded to the consequences of neoliberal economic practice by a system of corporate propaganda that has rarely been challenged from American pulpits. Instead, the Church has been glad to share in the bounty of these practices as long as they were successful. Now that it is too late, so let the denunciations begin.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
While most fighters for social justice would gladly declare that their struggle was worth it, they rarely define the “it” that it is worth. Understanding the motivation for becoming not simply an activist in one cause or other, but one who claims to present a comprehensive vision of social and economic reform, is a key part of recruiting new members to the movement. Since socialist activism, if it is real, requires considerable personal sacrifice, comparable to that required of the monastics of the middle ages (and requiring similar faith), the motivation must be powerful, constant, and unquestionable if it is to produce tangible results.
The more I dig, the more the shining ore that holds the secret of socialist commitment is revealed as what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope.” We need hope like we need oxygen. Hope can take many forms, hope for a better salary, hope for a successful marriage, and many other immediate hopes. Indeed we are daily inundated with promises of fulfillment for these types of hopes. But there is a deeper hope which these types of hopes often mask, though if we think clearly about the ultimate direction of these hopes we will discover their source. It is the hope for our total fulfillment as human beings, a hope that cannot be satisfied by any of the material services on display in the marketplace of global capital. In fact, such commodified responses to hope are deliberately constructed to distract us from the deeper fountain of hope which wells up in us eternally.
So we scrutinize our lives. We look at what we are forced to do by our employers and what hope our employment holds out for us. Out of the many ideological maneuvers involved in this, the psychological pressure is manifest. We try to find satisfaction in the achievements which are possible within the current capitalist structure. We try to find satisfaction in advancing our careers by placing ourselves in a position where real achievement is possible. If we are lucky, we have a talent or a passion that brings us fulfillment in itself. Speaking as a long-time technologist, I can declare without hesitation that this is the real driving force behind the technological revolution of the past 20 years. Art for art’s sake, in other words. For most of us, we know that these satisfactions will leave us empty in the end, but they continue to motivate because we cannot live without hope. If such satisfactions or dreams of such satisfaction are not sufficient for us, we are characterized as “whiners”, people who can’t give up their childish dreams and accept the facts of human nature in the real world.
So a suspicion arises directly from our experience of life. Our labor creates the prosperity we see around us, but another class owns and enjoys that prosperity. We hear the constant praise of the “efficiency of markets”, but our daily work demonstrates beyond doubt that chaos actually rules. What strikes me most forcefully as a technologist is how dependent the capitalist is on our ministrations, how computer-like we are made to be as human beings, how we let ourselves be constantly bullied beyond our limitations, attempting the impossible through an appeal to our technician’s vanity. We are expected to become automatons, caring about nothing but technology itself, pure devotees of abstract technical perfection. The ideological motivation behind this is obvious – we are valued to the extent that we become wholly identified with our purpose in the capitalist infrastructure.
Where does that leave us in terms of human fulfillment? Though we pretend to identify with technical perfection, few can find enough human satisfaction in that to fulfill the deep hope that can never be quenched. So we begin to dream. These dreams can lead many directions. One particularly popular vector is to embrace New Age theosophies and live toward an inner fulfillment that pretends independence from material reality. Variations include fundamentalist Christianity, especially the “gospel of prosperity” variety. Many single issue causes are available as well, especially ecological causes, which are usually blessed by the liberal corporate party. What is forbidden among all these options is to embrace a unified social agenda that links these causes into a coherent array. The word of denigration for that embrace is “totalism”, with its overtones of totalitarian Communism and Fascism. We must never be so bold as to hold our social convictions as true because truth is a word that has been used to dominate.
But simply partaking of the spiritual smorgasbord leaves some part of us still gasping for breath. In the words of William Blake, “Less than all cannot satisfy man.” It seems that we are totalities in ourselves and made for total fulfillment on the social and spiritual plane as well. It’s as if at one time we were parts of a vast harmonious social organism that has become fragmented and we are doomed to dissatisfaction until we can find the path of reintegration. Yet we know that this reintegration cannot take place without a hunger for justice.
Then we discover that that hunger has always been there, suppressed, ridiculed, outright denied, it sits stubbornly in our gut until its rights are acknowledged. But once acknowledged, the hunger blossoms into a nonnegotiable demand. What we hunger for most is coherence, a plan of action that fits our behavior into a rational pattern that also includes our human fulfillment. After a few pages of Marx, it becomes clear that we are victims of systematic repression, that our humanity has been truncated and channeled in the service of forces that are incapable of caring for the common good of humanity, much less for our human fulfillment. The fire of hope lights once again as we envision “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Marx and Engels, “The Communist Manifesto.”
At last we understand that we all are interconnected, that the lack of development of some stunts the fulfillment of all. We begin to sense the missing element from all the satisfactions promised by corporate soothsayers: that we can only pursue happiness in common - to glut ourselves with our own little pile of goods can only convict us of the deepest human poverty. The horribly stunted conception of humanity imposed by global capital is revealed as an ideological prison that serves to transform us into the disposable batteries of production. Another end of human development opens, as unexpected as it is thrilling, “the development of all human powers.” This is the power of dreams, this is what compels us to remake ourselves through revolutionary activity. And, in order to truly grasp our hearts, it must point beyond humanity, to something that appears in myths and religions, something that leaves us speechless, but happy.
Friday, September 12, 2008
The fundamental contradiction of most 19th and 20th century leftist ideologies is that while they are all motivated by an intense love of justice, they undercut that motivation by adopting an atheistic and materialist philosophy. The contradiction is simply stated: If you believe that all human motivation is the exclusive result of material forces, then so is Marx’s passion for social justice. The difference between a spiritually-based hunger for justice and a materially-based one is that the latter is inherently malleable, whereas the former can endure eternally. Related to this is the critique of the Marxist notion of “class-truth.” This theory states that truth can be no more than a reflection of the economic interests of a particular class, which is precisely what Marx demonstrates to be true of capitalist society. If there is no notion of truth which stands independently of class, then there can be no basis for truth other than class interest. This notion can and is deployed in favor of the ruling class as easily as the working class. In other words, if you say that the Marxist analysis of capitalism is true, but that it is only a reflection of the class interests of the working class, then the ruling class can immediately answer you that the reflection of their class interests has the same ontological status as your “truth.”
Unless truth rests on a foundation other than class interest, there can be no truth. Such a standpoint makes real knowledge of social and economic truth impossible. Either the Marxist analysis of the contradictions of capitalism is true or it is false for all classes. If it is true only for a particular class, but false for another class, then whichever class possesses superior material force must impose its version of “truth.” This is equivalent to saying that only coercive force can establish “truth.” Perhaps Nicolas Berdyaev put it best, “Now in principle there are no such things as absolute truths, but in reality there is at least one, namely, that there is no absolute truth, and that all truth only a reflection of economics and the class-war! But this doctrine lifts the knowing subject above all relativity. It would seem that the proletariat whose truth Marx expounded has a cognitive superiority over all other classes; its consciousness is no longer the illusive ideological reflection of economics but is open to the knowledge of reality.” Berdyaev, “Christianity and Class War.”
Truth cannot belong to a single class, but a class can certainly pervert the truth. For example, we cannot coherently criticize the incessant distortions and outright lies of Fox News without having a conception of truth that rises above our class interests. Otherwise we should simply record them as expressions of the objective interests of the ruling class rather than being outraged by them.
When we work for social justice on such a shaky philosophical foundation, the motivation for our work can be constantly undermined by those who adopt crude definitions of material interests and act on them. If there is no higher realm of the spirit that can stand in judgment on our material behavior, then simply acting for one’s immediate material benefit by, for instance, accepting the highest possible salary from the most exploitative and environmentally degrading company, can be as easily justified as working for social justice. Why should I spend my life in poorly compensated work for justice and accept the sanctions of the capitalist state when I could have all the material benefits of that state? If the material interests of my class are the only determinants of truth then there can be no hesitation: act for your immediate material benefit and create a “truth” that supports that decision.
Far from accepting the commonly touted opposition between a spiritual viewpoint and the quest for social justice, I follow Considerant and Lamennais, widely considered the most eloquent advocate of Christianity in the 19th century, in finding solid support for revolutionary action directly in the teachings of Christianity. Considerant declared, “Modern society is in a definite state of decomposition. The old world, the world of slavery, of feudalism, of the proletariat, the pagan world, attacked at its base 1800 years ago by the great explosion of the doctrine of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that Christ brought to earth, the world of misery, of struggle, of exploitation of man by man, has been shaken to its very foundations: it is cracking in every part of its worm-eaten timbers.” – Victor Considerant. He goes further, identifying Christ with the idea of social justice, an intensely Biblical notion, “This idea is the invincible demand for a society that is just, free and happy, a society that is human and Christian, made in the opposite image from that selfish, barbarous and pagan society that you [the French ruling class] want to preserve and which you will not preserve. This idea, which like the armed man of scripture has captured souls and taken possession of this century, is socialism.” – Victor Considerant.
The most powerful current expression of spiritual socialism is the result of Latin American Christians in struggle against the kingdom of Satan, understood as the symbolic accentuation of the negative effects of capitalist rule. Known as “Liberation Theology”, or more generically, “Liberationist Christianity”, this perspective makes justice to the poor the central reality of the kingdom of heaven. We will expand on this theme as an alternative theory of socialism that grounds class analysis in the teachings of Jesus in a new series that will be forthcoming over the coming months. The central thesis of this effort is that “[Capitalism] is a form of sin, a way of life that captures and distorts human desire in accordance with the golden rule of production for the market. Given the horrendous consequences of this discipline for the majority of humanity, it is fitting to call capitalism a form of madness. Christianity, on the other hand, is about the healing or liberating of desire from sin. It is a therapy, a way of life that releases desire from its bondage, that cures the madness so that desire may once again flow as it was created to do.” Daniel Bell, “Liberation Theology after the End of History.”
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Without confronting the moral status of the transnational corporations which are currently destroying our planet’s ecological balance, no proposal can outrun the onrushing ecological catastrophe. As Catholics, we have a powerful moral basis for taking the necessary action in the Catechism and the teachings of the Fathers. This necessary action must include expropriating natural and other resources from those corporations that are currently misusing them to degrade the creation upon which we all depend for life.
The moral foundation for what needs to be done is known as the "universal destination of material goods." St. Ambrose, mentor to St. Augustine, stated, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132). The implications of this teaching as echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich: "In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race …The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise ... The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. Goods of production - material or immaterial - such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number … Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good." Catechism of the Catholic Church 2403 – 2405.
Property rights, far from being absolute, or the "guarantee of freedom" as globalized groupthink pretends, are subject to more primal concerns. Among these is the common ownership of Earth’s resources such that all receive a just share of its goods and that matters of common concern such as the survival of our species should be addressed communally. In other words, each of us belong to a social organism and have responsibilities beyond our individual desires or corporate interests. This responsibility cannot be evaded by legislation. In fact, it could be argued that our current notions of absolute individual and corporate property rights are a moral fiction produced by the ecological exploitation that has led to the current catastrophe.
Though energy corporations are raking in profits at historically unprecedented levels while the planet burns, they will no doubt argue that the 7th commandment would forbid any major public redirection of those funds. A close reading of the section of the Catechism which explicates that commandment reveals a much different set of moral imperatives.
"The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation ... Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation." Catechism 2415. The 7th commandment cuts in two directions. On the one hand, and the only hand considered by corporate interests, it protects legitimate property rights. On the other hand, it reveals larger moral imperatives than simply the protection of property. Actions which violate the integrity of creation to such a degree that the survival of those who depend on the damaged ecological balance is threatened summons another order of moral accounting.
According to this rule, those who are degrading the environment for the sake of private profit are violating the 7th commandment in a far more vicious way than those who would restore balance by expropriating their ill-gotten gains. They are stealing the life and property of millions who are alive today or will shortly be born along the coastlines of the major cities which will soon be inundated by the effects of global warming. This is stealing in a much deeper and more relevant sense than the legalistic interpretations which protect the right to destroy the "quality of life of his neighbor."
The right to pollute and degrade God’s creation cannot be bought and sold, nor can legislation make it moral. If you want proof, look at the next rainbow you see, and remember the words of Genesis, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all mortal creatures that are on earth.” Gen. 9: 9-10. Those who violate that covenant and inflict grave injustice on their neighbors make themselves unworthy of the property rights that they prize above creation itself.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Sudden and dramatic changes to major geophysical elements of the Earth are inevitable if global temperatures continue to rise as corporations continue to emit greenhouse gases at higher and higher levels. These changes will be irreversible on a human timescale. A sliding damage scale derived from current scientific reports tells us that an increase of 2.5° will result in the extinction of 25-30% of species. If the average temperature rises to 3.5° 40-70% of all species on Earth will become extinct. Water shortages will affect up to 4.4 billion people and crop yields will drop precipitously as the water dries up. Sea levels will likely rise to 7 meters displacing hundreds of millions of people in the world’s cities.
The root of the problem is private ownership of the world's resources. The illusion promoted by our globalized economics is that property rights are absolute and that any infringement of them is a direct attack on freedom. We are encouraged to believe that in owning a resource we can do with it exactly as we please. There is no accountability other than to market forces which reward decisions which result in the greater concentration of resource control by private entities. This form of ownership insulates the owner from responsibility to the global community. Real and potential damage to the community is trumped by the need to protect private profit.
Particularly relevant to the rapidly growing embrace of creation care by Catholics and evangelicals are traditional Christian ideas about property. St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, and mentor to St. Augustine, stated, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132). The implications of this teaching which is echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich. "The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism of the Catholic Church 2403.
Property rights, far from being absolute, or the “guarantee of freedom” as contemporary propaganda pretends, are subject to more primal concerns. Among these is the common ownership of Earth’s resources such that all receive a just share of its goods and that areas of common concern such as the survival of our species should be addressed communally. In other words, each of us belong to a social organism and have responsibilities beyond our individual desires. This responsibility cannot be overturned by legislation. In fact, it could be argued that our current notions of absolute individual and corporate property rights are a moral fiction produced by the ecological exploitation that has led to the current catastrophe.
The expansion of rights devoid of responsibility to the community which guarantees them has reached its apogee when the planet which sustains all life is being degraded by unchecked corporate profit seeking. The unrestrained indulgence in material goods unleashed by globalized capital has atrophied our sense of social responsibility. Property that is being misused by corporations to destroy the basis for human and other life must be reallocated from those corporations and placed in collective ownership. This collective ownership must decide how to reorder the distribution of the world’s goods so as to place survival and social responsibility first and devise a fundamentally different set of economic priorities which reward solidarity, care for creation, and production for satisfaction of actual human needs rather than profit.
Friday, September 05, 2008
Voluntary efforts, papal decrees, and governmental programs within the context of the current system are doomed. Why? Because they depend on the very system that caused the crisis in the first place to cure itself. Excommunications would certainly show that the bishops meant business, but even that would be insufficient. "According to James Lovelock, one of the world’s leading earth system scientists, if the global average temperature rise approaches 3˚C (relative to pre-industrial times) and the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) rises above 500 parts per million (ppm), both the world’s oceans and the rainforests will turn into net emitters of greenhouse gases. In that event, the global average temperature could rise further by up to 6˚C, making the greater part of the earth uninhabitable for human beings, raising the sea level by at least 25 meters, and causing the extinction of 90 percent of species and a possible reduction of the world population by 80 percent." Minqi Li, Monthly Review, July - August, 2008. Human survival is at stake. But unlike during the Great Flood, God is now asking humanity a direct question, "Will you take responsibility for the covenant I have made between you and all the creatures of the earth?" Or will you escape into religious fantasies? What is required is a total response. The mark of seriousness is that we face the possibility that the system which provides our current lifestyle is the source of the crisis. If we believe that we can preserve this system, then we still don't take the crisis seriously. Under this system, corporations and nation-states are highly pressured to expand production and accumulate capital on increasingly larger scales. This is not the result of abuse, but is fundamental to global capital. This system cannot be reconciled with ecological sanity. Changes in personal consumer behavior will have no significant impact. Technological miracles are very unlikely. What is left? We must open our hearts to a future in which we care for each other.
Monday, September 01, 2008
James Gustav Speth
In the first part of this series, we described the current turn toward ecological consciousness by the Catholic Church. We began to examine the weaknesses of the Catholic position as enunciated by Pope Benedict XVI, focusing particularly on the lack of awareness of the depth of the crisis and an analysis of the cause of the crisis in the current economic system. The fundamental weakness of the Pope’s position is his inability to make the connection between the current economic system’s fundamental premises and its ecological effects. My principle thesis in this series is that the current global economic system is fundamentally hostile to the maintenance of ecological balance and that efforts to avert the rapidly mounting crisis that disregard this fact are delusional at best and counterproductive at worst. My purpose is to construct arguments and approaches to the climate crisis that can allow activists to create a fruitful dialog and action agenda with Church organizations which contain many willing and influential members.
Looking for Solutions within the Current Economic Structure
James Gustav Speth’s new book, Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008) identifies the agent behind climate change with great perceptiveness and courage. “Capitalism as we know it today is incapable of sustaining the environment.” - James Gustav Speth, Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. The driving element of the global economic system, without which it cannot survive, is expansive economic growth. He effectively deals with one of the major arguments offered by proponents of market solutions, that the advanced countries are becoming increasingly “dematerialized”, which means that technological efficiencies continually decrease the required materials and energy per unit of output as economic growth relies more upon services than traditional industrial sectors. In this way, we can sustain high enough growth levels to maintain the current economic system while lessening its destruction of the environment.
The Jevons Paradox, named for the 19th century economist William Stanley Jevons, was the result of Jevons wondering why the price of coal soared after James Watt introduced a much more efficient way of using coal with his new steam engine design. Common sense would seem to dictate that the more efficient use of a resource would lead to less need for that resource, therefore less consumption and a more eco-friendly coal industry. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. The reason, and it is as compelling today as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, is that improved efficiency lowers the relative cost of using a resource and thereby increases demand. And this is precisely what we observe in today’s economy. More use of information and other technologies has led to much higher levels of throughput for materials and energy, as well as greater output. Thus hope for a technological solution to the need for a reduction in materials and energy consumption would be self-defeating in the current context.
Another of Speth’s crucial points about the current economic system is that, “…there are fundamental biases in capitalism that favor the present over the future and the private over the public.” - James Gustav Speth, Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Note the word “fundamental” – this bias toward short term profits and private gain over the public good is inherent to the system, as those who work within it today are quite aware, whether they approve of the facts or not. Short term profit always trumps long-term planning, not because of moral flaws in those who run corporations, but because of the inherent dynamics of the free market.
Externalities: Transferring Costs to the Innocent
In order to render this idea more transparent, let’s consider a key factor in improving profitability rates. In the previous part, we briefly covered the idea of “externalities”, which were described as “hidden costs” not reflected in the price of a commodity such as gasoline. One of the primary ways profits are increased today is by finding situations where the costs of producing goods can be transferred to others, such as taxpayers, while keeping the benefits internal to the company. Though this may sound like an abuse, it is actually inherent to the way capital has operated for hundreds of years.
One of the prime examples is Wal-Mart’s policy on employee health care. Health care costs are a huge burden on corporate profits, so those companies that can minimize these costs will tend to thrive in today’s markets. Wal-Mart severely limits these benefits and trains workers to take full advantage of government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Thus Wal-Mart has “externalized” a cost that would negatively impact its profit margin by transferring the cost to the American taxpayer.
The same principle works in the same way when the external costs are widespread ecological damage. When car manufacturers fail to take into account the damage their carbon dioxide emissions inflict on our fragile climate, they are externalizing the cost of climatic damage to future citizens, as well as to plant and animal species that will be exterminated. These social costs are not factored into the cost of cars or gasoline because they are “external” to exchange relationship between the buyer and seller. Both buyer and seller in this instance participate in a kind of “conspiracy” against the real payers of the cost of the product. The buyer gets a cheap and valuable product and the seller gets the profits, but the social costs are left to the innocent ones who gain no benefit from either half of the transaction, but who will most definitely be forced to pay the real price for it. In our current economic and political system, these parties are without representation.
The fundamental issue is that markets do not and cannot afford to care about the positive social impacts of their transactions. In order to survive and thrive, they need to focus all attention on maximizing profit. This is not a moral choice, as so many on the liberal side of the political spectrum seem to believe. It is not a matter of laissez-faire buccaneers leveraging loopholes in a system that is basically neutral. It is simply a matter of obeying the rules as given by the nature of the system. Nor is it a matter of merely not caring whether or not the social effects of a transaction are beneficial. There is an inherent bias toward negative social impacts. According to Robin Hahnel, “In general, it is well known that markets will underprice and overproduce goods and services when there are negative external effects associated with either their production or consumption, and overprice and underproduce goods and services when there are positive external effects associated with either their production or consumption.” – Robin Hahnel, “Against the Market Economy Advice to Venezuelan Friends” This could be stated as a law: Markets tend to favor transactions in which the true cost of the goods and services are transferred to an external victim because this is an easier way to maximize profits than increasing the value and decreasing the true costs of goods and services.
False Moral Choices
Since the purpose of this study is to aid communications with religious groups, it might be helpful to expand on the point made above about moral choices in this economic system. The typical Christian framing of the issue is depicted in this passage from Pope Benedict XVI in his “World Day of Peace Message” for 2008: “Respecting the environment … means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.” World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2008, section 7. Laying behind the commitment to future generations is the Catholic concept of the “universal destination of goods”, the idea that God created the earth for all human beings, not just the privileged few who own most of the property in this time and place. Later in this study, we will offer a detailed examination of this traditional teaching. But what lies behind the dictum “Respecting the environment… means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests”?
One implicit assumption is that we are capable of making moral choices in the globalized marketplace, that CEOs of energy corporations can choose to selfishly exploit nature with no regard to the consequences for future generations, or they can quiet their greed and anxiety for a quick profit and make the correct moral choice to respect the rights of other species and the future human race. The Pope seems further to assume that if only large numbers of CEOs would do this in concert, then the climate crisis could be reversed. In fact, most CEOs are genuinely decent people quite capable of good moral choices, but the choices they face are not portrayed in these terms. Their choices are centered on their obligations to the stockholders of their companies. If they make a decision that results in significantly lowering the value of their company’s stock, many dire consequences will ensue. Among these consequences is the possible end of their relationship to the company and the appointment of new leadership more willing to disregard the rights of future generations to increase today’s profit. The underlying system is far from neutral regarding such choices.
Moreover, portraying the problems of the system as the fault of greed-driven personalities serves many useful purposes. First, it makes our current problems appear to be the result of bad personal choices with the implication that if only we can summon the moral courage to turn away from our consumerist lifestyle then ecological degradation can be reversed. The Pope ignores the fact that we are embedded in an economic system that would come crashing down if the consumerist wheel did not keep turning at a frantic pace. Thus the illusion is fostered that our personal moral rectitude should be the focus of our efforts rather than attempting to combat the ideology that controls most economic decisions today. This attitude engenders the sense of weakness toward social formations outside the immediate orbit of Church, school, and local community. Attempting to understand the social system as a whole is variously characterized as hubristic, outside the domain of our expertise, and probably futile. We are encouraged to believe that society is in the hands of experts whose advanced training enables them to understand and administer the larger social dynamics. Focusing on the personal keeps most people’s attention on the self and improving the position of the self vis a vis the neighbor. What the system most fears is the possibility of politically conscious organizations that value solidarity over personal advancement.
The Death of Empathy
The Catholic Church has yet to grapple with the fundamental antipathy between the market and the teachings of Jesus. Despite a mountain of social teachings, she usually prefers to sidestep basic economic issues in order to preserve the source of her funding. These evasive maneuverings usually center on the distinction of planes, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. The Church is portrayed as a purely spiritual institution which can have no direct voice on economic or political matters, but can only act as a source of moral values. Yet the creation of empathy is fundamental to both faith in the Gospel and the solution to the ecological crisis. The crisis can only be addressed if we care so much about our fellow human beings that we begin to make serious sacrifices for their good.
But the reign of global capital is based on alienation. “Markets reward those who are the most efficient at taking advantage of his or her fellow man or woman, and penalize those who insist, illogically, on pursuing the golden rule—do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Of course, we are told we can personally benefit in a market system by being of service to others. But we also know we can often benefit more easily by taking advantage of others. Mutual concern, empathy, and solidarity are the appendices of human capacities and emotions in market economies—and like the appendix, they continue to atrophy.” – Robin Hahnel, “Against the Market Economy Advice to Venezuelan Friends”
This atrophy is not the result of bad moral decisions, though such decisions certainly reinforce it, rather the market openly rewards behavior that lacks empathy with economic success. By creating an exchange system that doesn’t require trust or solidarity, markets contribute to the erosion and eventual disappearance of those values. While most Christians treat these effects as simply fallen human nature writ large, they are the products of a consciously enforced ideology which requires a certain type of human being in order for the system to flourish.
By abstracting moral decisions from the economic context in which they must take place, the Pope fails to engage the social mechanisms which must be challenged if humanity is to survive the coming catastrophes. What we have so far established is a number of incompatibilities between the current economic system and ecological sustainability. The tendency to privilege immediate profit over long term social good is not an abuse of a morally neutral economic model, but an inherent part of capitalist operation. This tendency works directly against environmental preservation by favoring immediate exploitation of natural resources without regard for long-term consequences. We have also seen how those who make these decisions do not make them as free moral agents as the Pope conceives, but as agents of monetary forces outside of their control. Thus changes in individual behavior cannot be sufficient to impact to the crisis as long as the market system continues. Finally, we saw how human empathy, one of the core Gospel values, and critical to the solution of the ecological crisis, is constantly eroded by a system that rewards most richly those who lack this quality most completely.
Now that we have established the outlines of the relationship of the current economic system to the ecological crisis along with the strengths and weaknesses of the Pope’s presentation of these issues, we will turn in the third part to the Christian basis for a reordered world, also known as the Kingdom of God, in which the earth receives its just treatment, not according to the values bound up with human aggrandizement, but according to the wisdom of God.