Gordon Campbell on the new Pope’s criticisms of free market economics

Everyone likes the new Pope, right? Seems a nice guy, a humble man of the people, has a good sense of humour etc etc. A big change in style (at least) from the frosty German who preceded him, however similar their views may still be on abortion and women priests. The new Pope could be engaged in merely a public relations re-branding of the Vatican, the nice-ing up of a discredited institution by stressing its concerns about the poor. Can’t go wrong defending the poor, can you? On the bright side though, some striking areas of difference are emerging between the two living Popes, when it comes down to the ethics of the modern economy. For instance: Pope Francis has just issued a papal encyclical called Evangelii Gaudium that is damningly critical of the kind of “hands off” free market economics that have held sway in New Zealand for the past 30 years. The full Vatican document in English is here.

The key observations that Pope Francis has on the economy begin at para 53 under the sub-head “No to an economy of exclusion”. It begins:

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

Pope Francis then homes in on the economic policies and beliefs that create and foster this morally unacceptable state of affairs. Those who believe in the magic of the un-regulated market economy do not pass muster with him:

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

An ethical debasement is the result:

The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

New Zealand of course, has been the free market Albania of the South Pacific for the past 25 years, or more. Routinely, our political and business leaders have preached the gospel that the state should not intervene to correct the excesses of the market. Pope Francis by contrast, comes down squarely on the side of state intervention as a moral necessity, given the levels of social inequality that are being generated under the current policy settings. As he puts it:

55. 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. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. 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.

Pope Francis doesn’t go quite so far as kicking over the tables of the money changers. But he is forthright on this point. As he indicates, because the market cannot quantify and assign a market value to God (and /or to the moral obligations inherent in the social contract) the two forces – hey, lets call them God and Mammon – are as opposed to each other in the workings of the modern world as they ever were in antiquity. If left unchecked, he concludes, the “free” market will actually produce a system of enslavement:

Behind this [market] attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order.

In the midst of the asset sales referendum – which asks us to condemn the ripping off of assets owned by all of us all, for the further enrichment of the wealthy few…get this finale:

With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

Now, is this much different from the worthy words that previous Popes have uttered on this subject? Well, yes, it is. Markedly. The last time that a Pope sounded off on such matters was in 2010 when Benedict XVI issued his encyclical document “Caritas in Veritate” which is available in full here. Basically, Benedict took a view on the subject that you might have expected from the likes of the National Rifle Association. Benedict held that the free market was just a tool for which individuals were responsible, in the workings of their own personal morality. The key passage in Benedict’s document began at para 36, which started out by making all the right, compassionate noises:

36. Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

“Justice through re-distribution?” That sounded pretty radical. But no worries for Wall Street, because Benedict then began peddling steadily away from the implications of that incendiary phrase. As in:

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

Yeah, right. That’s the NRA position, too. It’s not guns (or free markets) that kill people. It is people, individual people, who are the problem – at least, according to the frosty German. In essence, Benedict returned morality to the same fount of individualism that serves the market so well. Atomise the problem in this way, and it dissolves the need for social action. That’s probably why as Cardinal Ratzinger, and in his role as the Church’s theological hitman in the 1980s, Benedict reacted so venomously against the liberation theologians. The liberation theologians (Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez etc) had argued that the conditions of sin reside in the social institutions that deny opportunity to so many, and which reserve the basic comforts that render moral choices so much easier to make, for the affluent few. To the Vatican of the day ( John Paul II, Ratzinger) liberation theology smacked of socialism.

In South America in particular, Ratzinger’s reactionary response to liberation theology has been a total disaster. By rolling back the Church’s grassroots ministries for the poor and by actively diminishing the influence of liberal bishops such as Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, the John Paul II/Benedict papal regimes inadvertedly opened the door to Pentecostalism, which has made deep inroads into poor communities across Latin America. As an Argentinian, Pope Francis is well aware of this dismal trend. Belatedly, he appears to be trying to swing the pendulum back the other way. In mid September, Francis even met informally with Gustavo Gutierrez, the so called “father” of liberation theology.

This is not to say that Pope Francis is some Catholic re-incarnation of Che Guevara. Yet judging by this latest encyclical at least, Francis seems to be well aware that sin and temptation have their origins in social and economic structures, as much as in the heart of the individual standing before the Cross. It will be interesting to see what – if anything – his Papacy makes of the insights that he has stated so clearly and passionately.