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Friday, December 20, 2013

What We Can Learn From Popeconomics

What we have heard is that the Pope says 'unfettered capitalism is tyranny'. His critique of our current global economic system can be found in his Apostolic Exhortation  in paragraphs 52 - 75. And when one reads that section of the exhortation, one cannot even find the word 'capitalism' let alone the phrase 'unfettered capitalism is tyranny.' But that doesn't matter because the concept is there and concepts are what matter. 

In his exhortation, the Pope strongly criticizes the current 'autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.' I can honestly say as a Christian Fundamentalist who comes from the Reformed Tradition that his criticisms of today's global economic system have caused me great disappointment. This is not his fault; rather, it is because outside of Nicholas Wolterstorff (see his comments on capitalism by clicking here), I know of no other credible Reformed source who is also challenging our world's current worship of the golden calf of profit--btw, both OWS and the Pope use this imagery. So hearing the Pope's challenge has caused me to be somewhat disillusioned with the Reformed Churches in America to which I belong.

The alternatives which conservatives do offer for our current economic problems have, for the most part, brushed aside democratic controls of the economy as just another form of government dominance. At the same time some conservatives, remembering the good old days of our forefathers who lived in an agrarian economy when society was much simpler and smaller and where communities were more homogeneous than today, advocate local and regional applications of Capitalism as a solution to our economic problems. However, such approaches to Capitalism deny the size and complexities of our interdependent society and they also deny the self-destructive role that both the motivation for profits and competition play in Capitalism at any level. In addition, their ignorance of alternative forms of Socialism blinds them from seeing that both they and many socialists share many of the same concerns about our current economy and even some similar solutions. The call for co-ops, for example, (click here and search for the term 'co-op') can be viewed as a call for Socialism if the co-ops operate democratically. This is because Socialism is first about worker ownership and control of the workplace. 

Despite their concerns, these conservatives fail to publicly challenge our system. Rather, they seem to prefer to discuss these matters in intramural settings hoping that converting individuals to Christianity will change evil systems. The tragedy here is that that this is what is presented as the only hope in a time when America is becoming more secular because they see Christianity as being less relevant.

Thus, with the exception of Wolterstorff, when it comes to today's economic abuses, the leaders from my faith's tradition have opted for either the complicity of silence or the guilt of jumping on the Free Market bandwagon. Of the two reactions complicity is the worst because it shows cowardice in that it tries to avoid the inadvertent offending of others.

So while those conservatives focus on the size of institutions as being both the problem and solution for Capitalism gone wild, the Pope sees the lack of accountability as being the main culprit. And he has described the problem in terms which both Socialists and those who believe in regulated Capitalism can agree. For his interpretation of the situation is stated in paragraph 56 of his exhortation. In contrast to what the Pope observes, accountability has been taken off the table by many conservatives in the name of individual liberty (please click here for the blogpost on the overemphasis on individual liberty). 


While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

The Pope gets it while my fellow Reformed Christians haven't a clue. He understands, on multiple levels, why the world is on a downward spiral. And he gets it because, unlike my fellow American Reformed Christians, he is concerned with more than what is happening in his own corner of the world and he uses a variety of sources to understand today's world. In contrast to the Pope, most of the Reformed Theologians I have read and Reformed Christians I know seem locked in on what is happening to their own small circle and refuse to draw insights from outside of a very small, well-defined box. And while most of the Pope's critics want to discredit his analysis by calling him a 'Marxist' or describe his exhortation as an attack on the Free Market, the Pope offers an explanation which can be embraced by followers of other forms of Capitalism than the one dujour. Such shows that one must be able to separate Capitalism in general from today's Free Market to understand how the status quo has changed over the years.

There are other tremendous insights we can benefit from in paragraphs 52-75 of the Pope's exhortation. There are also valid criticisms to be made. But just as admitting that one has a problem is the first step to recovery, so a proper analysis is the first step in finding real solutions. And the Pope has offered a very astute analysis, much of which  is shared by others who criticize Neoliberal Capitalism. However, unlike the others, the Pope is not an obscure figure. So now, it is up to us to take advantage of what the Pope has initiated to stop and change what is currently a steep and downward spiral for all too many people in the world.


2 comments:

lau300 said...

Hello there, I'm a fellow Reformed Christian. I really like how you dispel myths of socialism which even I held onto before coming across this blog, and it's gotten me to re-evaluate my views on economics. I also share with you the frustration of what seems to be the marriage between theological conservatism and political conservatism coupled with libertarian economics.

That said, have you read Republocrat by Carl Trueman? Apparently he himself identifies with the political left (though he is not a socialist), and from what I've heard he shows why conservative Christianity does not equal conservative politics. While conceding that capitalism has produced more prosperity than any other system SO FAR, he notes that it runs on greed and requires making consumers feel unsatisfied with what they currently have. He also mentions that we can't absolutise capitalism since it's very possible that a superior economic system could emerge down the road.

He also explains the traditional leftist notion of oppression in a sympathetic manner.

BTW, I personally haven't read the book though I do want to read it eventually. I'm only going by reviewers and interviews.

Curt Day said...

There are so many books to read with too many distractions and so little time. Trueman is a good man to read but I would like to distinguish democratic liberalism from the Left. The Left is anti-capitalist. Democratic liberalism is capitalism with more fringe benefits than Republican capitalism. And then to the right of that is neoliberal capitalism or Free Market Fundamentalism. I think Trueman is more of a Democratic liberal than a leftist. But I would ask him to see what he says about himself. Read his book and then I would read a book by Ezequiel Adamovsky called Anti-Capitalism. Make sure you order the English version. And instead of thinking of the above positions as discrete positions, it is best to think of the as existing on a continuum.

Dispelling the myths of socialism is very difficult, and impossible on the first try, because of how well ingrained they are. Sometimes, the best way to dispel the attacks on socialism is to talk about the concepts without bringing up the label. So if you ask people what they think about co-ops that are democratically run, see what people say and then use your judgment as to when to tell them that such co-ops are examples of socialism.

Also tell people that socialism is like capitalism in that neither are monoliths. The form of capitalism we are employing today is different from the one in the 60's and even early 70's. It was around the mid 70's that our form of capitalism started to slowly change. In fact, I think it is better to use the continuum of elite-centered gov't and economics vs non-elite-centered gov't and economics rather than the capitalism-socialism continuum.

Anyway, I am sorry the response is so long. Thank you for reading and commenting. And we do share a frustration with the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity. The conservative label inhibits people from asking critical questions.