September 2015        

The Pope calls capitalism’s bluff

Tomás Mac Síomóin

Pope Francis is no 21st-century Karl Marx. But when it comes to the critical analysis of modern monopoly capitalism and its role in the creation of human suffering on a massive scale, the Italo-Argentine and the German Jew sing from the same hymn sheet.
     True to his roots in liberation theology, Francis offers, in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, a blistering criticism of contemporary capitalism. He expresses scepticism about market forces, criticises consumerism, and warns about the social costs of growth. Furthermore, he deals critically with specifically modern problems, such as global warming and its disastrous implications, that had yet to surface in Marx’s era.
     The present Pope blames the relentless pursuit of profit and political short-sightedness for the continuing exploitation and consequent degradation of the terrestrial and marine environments. The most vulnerable victims of this recklessness, he emphasises time and again, are the world’s poorest people, who are being dislocated and disregarded.
     He extends his analysis beyond the politics of climate change to the repudiation of all political-economic-institutional modes of domination, above all monopoly capitalism, whose class-based wealth accumulation involves the ruthless exploitation of impoverished Third World and First World working people. Thus, contemporary capitalism makes of such domination an acceptable moral value of political economy.
     Himself a trained scientist, Francis proposes a fusion of moral and political economy as a means of eviscerating the latter’s exploitative purpose and features. Technology makes human beings into commodities and destroys forests for agricultural and other forms of development, he says. Thus development as such becomes the bane of working people and the poor, being organised for profit, not human needs.
     Political economy, deprived of any moral compass, liberates the barbarity of wealth, which, given the greed and fratricidal struggle for control of the capital-accumulation process, almost inevitably leads to war.
     Laudato Si’ has as much to say about seeking the welfare of humankind as about seeking oneness with God, which for Francis are two sides of the one coin. His basic idea is that in order to love God you have to love your fellow human beings, and you have to love and care for the rest of creation. It gives Francis a solid traditional basis on which to argue for the inclusion of environmental concern at the centre of the Christian faith.
     A like perspective is shared by Marxists. Herbert Marcuse, for example, noted that science divorced from, and not informed by, a moral sensibility becomes an amoral framework applicable to the policies of dominant groups, in which empty or neutral social values can be used to justify oppression.
     The encyclical emphasises the way science denies responsibility for its uses: “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” With Laudato Si’, Pope Francis becomes the voice of the conscience of humankind. Those who marginalise this voice by building an artificial wall between politics and morality defend inequality, privation, human suffering, all in the name of progress.
     Demands that Francis stick to morals and leave politics to the politicians have already been made by well-known illuminati of the American Republican Party right, such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum—all professed Catholics. However, they all seem to be unaware that acceptance of the content of the Pope’s latest encyclical is not optional, it being now official Catholic doctrine. But free-market fundamentalism is pure science, conservative academics assert, hence value-free. Thence belief in the euro, or dollar, and the unlimited development and unfettered globalisation of mega-transnationals, all guided by the maximisation of profit rather than by scientifically unprovable moral platitudes, is their predictable stance.
     Consistent with such irresponsibility, the director of Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Department, Robert Stavins, holds that the Pope is out of step with the thinking of “experts,” who opine that climate change is best managed by market-based policy instruments: carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems. He berates Francis because he reflects the views of a “small set of socialist Latin American countries that opposed the Washington Consensus, fear free markets, and are dismissive and uncooperative in international climate negotiations.”
     That the free market constitutes an imperative beyond all moral sanction and considerations of environmental degradation, including global warming (for which we are bound to find a technological fix beyond carbon trading), is neo-liberalism’s sine qua non.
     Francis, on the other hand, attributes our burgeoning environmental crisis to wealthier, industrialised countries that extract non-renewable resources to feed the insatiable desire for consumer goods. Even Christians, he says, have been seduced by consumerism, despite the tradition of asceticism and the teachings on simplicity by St Francis and others. “Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption.” No wonder Pope Francis is increasingly seen by free-marketeers as the bull in the china shop of monopoly capitalism and its political economy!
     The question here is, What will adherents of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, clerical and lay, make of the Vatican’s radical stance as outlined in Laudate Si’, an encyclical that is mandatory reading for all who call themselves Catholics? Will most of them, the hierarchy included, ignore its clear mandates? Will they continue to align themselves ideologically with a socio-economic order that Pope Francis finds to be intrinsically evil in its wanton disregard for Mother Earth, whose future is being placed in jeopardy by the acolytes of that order?
     Or will his challenging and revolutionary encyclical impel them to have a serious and objective look at the world about them and take the necessary steps to square their thought and action with that of their spiritual leader, and thus ally themselves with those of us who share Francis’s social and ecological ideals?

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