"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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Priority of Humanity over Capital

The first of the Christian economic principles, for which St. Thomas served as the mouthpiece of the Fathers of the Church, is what the current Catechism calls the "universal destination of goods", which he described as follows, "Now according to the natural law all things are common property and the possession of property is contrary to this community of goods." - Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa, IIae, q. 66. This was not a Communist or a monastic principle, but a Christian principle, reaffirmed by the current Catechism in the following section, "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. While the neoconservative economics advocated by Michael Novak and his cohorts have led to the current fiscal meltdown, the economics of sharing advocated by St. Thomas and the Fathers of the Church have been the persistent source of spiritual and economic renewal throughout the centuries.

The Church has long taught the priority of labor over capital, well summarized in the following passage from John Paul II, "...we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle of the priority of labor over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man's historical experience." - Laborum Exercens, 12.

During the 1970s, workers won both higher wages and social services while refusing to increase the pace of work. Thus corporations found their profits under pressure as the increasing quality of life of workers clashed with profit-making. In response governments began to attack the wage and social services gains made by workers.

John Paul II spoke with eloquence and perspicuity against these trends: "We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. Man, as the subject of work, and independently of the work that he does-man alone is a person." - Laborum Exercens, 12. While we are currently bailing out capital at the expense of the common good, the Church persistently directs us to the priority of humanity over the "collection of things" which the financial system represents.

My thesis rests on Christian tradition concerning private property, which "... has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone." - Laborum Exercens, 14. This principle implies that in times such as these, when the right to private property has been used to destroy the common good, property rights are abrogated. In such circumstances, it is the right and the duty of the state to expropriate the resources of the wealthy, in this case the banks, and reallocate those resources for the good of the common people.

John Paul II points to the inherent sinfulness of the dominance of capital over the good of the person, "This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production...They cannot be possessed against labour, they cannot even be possessed for possession's sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession - whether in the form of private ownerhip or in the form of public or collective ownership-is that they should serve labour, and thus, by serving labour, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them." - Laborum Exercens, 14.

In other words, the only legitimate reason for the ownership of capital is to serve the needs of labor, with the goal of promoting universal sharing and solidarity. The sin which constantly lurks in the property system is that of indiscriminately excluding others from using the property which God intended for common usage.

Statistics show clearly that corporations have been spectacularly successful in keeping wages low. Real wages with inflation factored in are at the same level today as in the early 1970s. But low wages raise a major problem for corporate profits. Low wages mean workers cannot afford to buy the proliferation of superfluous goods. If goods cannot be sold then profits cannot be made. This is the classic problem of overproduction. Thus is the low-wage model inherently unsustainable.

To compensate for this, wide availability of cheap credit has allowed workers to borrow large sums of money and consume way past their means. Low mortgage interest rates, zero-percent car financing, thick decks of credit cards and loan shops at every street corner have allowed high levels of consumption to continue. In effect, this allows corporations to profit twice: once from the low wages of increasingly productive workers, and twice from interest on loans to those same workers.

Yet, according to the Catechism, "'Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.' When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice." - Catechism, 2446. Making deceitful loans to workers rather than paying them just wages is an immoral violation of the remuneration due to workers for their increasing productivity and a grave sin against the common good.

The current bailout will fail because it is the result of deep spiritual failure, a catastrophic denial of Gospel principles. Hopefully, the passages from John Paul II show that my article had nothing to do with defending the economic philosophy of medieval monasticism, but with a very modern Christian vision of economic justice. I would welcome a serious discussion of Catholic principles related to these issues.


Brother Billy said...

Although as an Anglo-Catholic/Episcopalian and not a Roman Catholic, I'm not prepared for "a serious discussion of Catholic principles" beyond saying that I like your selection of texts, I do have a couple of comments.

Your point about the necessary abrogation of (some) property rights in times like these is made more clearly justifiable if we first put the necessary emphasis on the "if" in the phrase "even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Respect for property rights is always contingent.

Also -- we need to emphasize that it's a bundle of rights, not a unitary right. The common acceptance of the principle of zoning, even if sometimes it's done badly, shows how some of the rights associated with property ownership can justly be overridden.

About the current bailout: as a dedicated critic of our economic system, I still have to concede that the "bailout" is not primarily on behalf of capital vs. the common good. Capital has messed up so badly that the common good requires a bailout of some kind. (The credit freeze, as shown in international inter-bank lending interest rates, was/is real. As I write, it's been thawing rather slowly and the economic fallout may last a long time.)

The inadequacies of the (evolving) bailout are the issue. The common good requires that we move on from the necessary first steps of shoring up the financial system and proceed to start paying attention to human priorities, including the need for some basic as yet undefined and unagreed-upon 'systemic change' in our current corporate "structures of sin".

Universal sharing and solidarity are not possible when corporations rule. The sin which you describe doesn't merely "lurk" in the (mainly corporate) property system: it's the basic structural component.

I agree that the bailout will ultimately fail if we don't address the deep spiritual failures embodied in our current non-negotiable American Way.

Thanks for bringing so many apt and powerful quotes to my attention.

Boyd Collins said...

Thank you for your well thought out and pertinent comments, Brother Billy. I would like to respond to your comments one at a time.

Respect for the common good clearly takes precedence over the "if" of the Catechism. I'm attempting to contend that the "absolute" demand of property rights is neither Christian or human. Christianity is not worship of the status quo, unquestioning acceptance of current property relations. Respect for property rights is contingent on many factors. In fact it is far down on the Biblical priority list.

It is indeed a bundle of rights, all based on human as opposed to natural law, as Aquinas explicates. My key point turns on this distinction. The universal destination of goods negates individual rights to possession when they violate the common good.

As to your third point, I regret to say I disagree. The common good does not require the preservation of the current economic system. I believe the bailout is precisely about the preference for the current financial system over the birth of a new system. The current system must die for many reasons, one of which is its inherent prioritizing of capital requirements over human needs. Such a system will collapse from its own contradictions, and Christians should rejoice in the possibilities unleashed in that collapse.

I consider the current capitalist system a form of sin and like all sin, it will eventually destroy itself because it is based on a lie. Attempting to preserve it because of the evil a collapse might cause is temptation. I want to see a completely new system based on the priority of human development over monetary considerations. I have no interest in bailing out the current system.

So I would continue my disagreement by asserting that the inadequacies of the current bailout are not the issue. The issue is, as you state, to start paying attention to human priorities. That is the first step, not 'shoring up the current financial system' which inherently contains the same priorization of capital over those needs.

Far from being "undefined", systemic change can be adequately envisioned by those who see beyond the current system of injustice, whether that system is "agreed upon" or not. Agreement can only come by demonstration.

I firmly endorse your insight into the basic structural components of the corporate property system. Indeed, they do not "lurk", but dominate.

The bailout will fail precisely because it is a bailout, not a response to the American spiritual failure. In the words of Paulo Friere, "The church [or country in this case] that is not reborn through suffering, but merely rearranged in its domestic life, only succeeds in becoming more efficiently fascist."

Boyd Collins said...

Thank you, Bill, for your appreciation of the quotes. I've accumulated them over a long period and plan to build from them the foundation of a Christian critique of capitalism. Your contribution to this project will be acknowledged and appreciated.