Friday, December 13, 2013

Pope Francis and Corporatism: the real font of Catholic social justice

In the wake of Time Magazine naming Pope Francis its "Person of the Year," I thought it might be apropos to revisit his recently published apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). This transmission from the hand of the Pope spends a lot of time discussing what he sees as critical issues with regard to the pastoral duties of the Church, but it also delves into political economy, free markets, and the increasing amount of inequality in the world (at least in the opinion of Pope Francis).

This latter portion of the Evangelii Gaudium has garnered a great deal of attention, to say the least. It has been greeted with joy from many progressives and liberals, as they see it as essentially an anti-capitalist screed, a call to normalize society through the promotion of real social justice, with--apparently--the Catholic Church prepared to lead the way. And in that same light, many conservatives and libertarians see it similarly, except they are none too happy with it, supposing--to put it mildly--that the Pope doesn't know what the hell he is talking about because he is a card-carrying Marxist/communist/socialist.

In fact, I think he completely understands what he is saying and I don't think he's preaching Marxism, socialism, or communism at all. Instead, the Pope is very much speaking from the point of view of one immersed in an ideology spawned among the intellectual leaders of the 19th century Catholic Church: the ideology of Corporatism.

This term--Corporatism--is fraught with perils, mostly because it is now commonly used to label aspects of the current world economic order, almost always incorrectly. Understand that Corporatism proper has nothing to do with modern corporations at all, neither how they function, nor their dependence on or independence from the state. The confusion in this regard--all too common throughout the internet--is largely due to the similarity of the two words: Corporatism and corporation. Both have the same root word, the Latin corpus meaning body, but that's about it.

Corporatism actually refers to an economic (and political) system wherein the people in a society are organized into various groups, based on what they do, on how they make a living. The underlying idea here--and the reason for the name--is that society should be viewed as an organic whole, like a living organism or body, with every person having a distinct role to play in order for society to properly function, to metaphorically live and grow. Thus, one segment of the population should never be--figuratively or literally--under the heel of any other segment. None have primacy in this regard, except of course for the state itself, which is tasked with leadership and control (more or less the head of the body).

These ideas were mostly a product of the Catholic intelligentsia in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century and represent a reaction to the growth of free market economies based on the ideas of Adam Smith and other English thinkers. At the same time, Corporatism was also a counter to the radicalism of Marxist-based ideologies that was threatening the traditional social end economic order in Europe, especially with regard to the role of the Catholic Church. For while there is a strong syndicalist aspect to Corporatism, there is nothing in it that suggests abolishing the idea of private property, much less the absolute leveling of society.

In fact, Corporatism was--when it was initially articulated--very much a conservative ideology; those who fashioned it still looked to the economic institutions of the Middle Ages, the guild systems and feudalism, as their inspirations. They opposed wide open free trade and free markets because they assumed greed would dictate activity, first and foremost. Thus, the Corporatist system was designed to both maintain the status quo and protect those segments of society in need of such protection. Here is a good overview of Corporatism that includes a list of modern regimes that might properly be labelled as essentially Corporatist:

    System Name                    Country Period                Leader          
National Corporatism            Italy 1922-1945                Benito Mussolini
Country/Religion/Monarchy   Spain 1923-1930              De Rivera
National Socialism                Germany 1933-1945         Adolph Hitler
National Syndicalism            Spain 1936-1973              Francisco Franco
New State                            Portugal 1932-1968         Antonio Salazar
New State                            Brazil 1933-1945             Getulio Vargas
New Deal                             United States 1933-1945   Roosevelt
Third Hellenic                       Greece 1936-1941            Ioannis Metaxas
Justice Party                         Argentina 1943-1955        Juan Peron

Note the last in the above list: the Peron regime in mid-twentieth century Argentina. For Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina in 1936. He lived his formative years under this regime and the heavily nationalistic and populist flavors that characterized the period.

The gist of his Evangelii Gaudium--when it comes to issues of wealth and inequality--is suggestive of this background immediately. And more importantly defines an approach grounded not only in populism but in the ideology of Corporatism. I'll quote from it at length:
No to an economy of exclusion

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 “throw away” 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”.

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 na├»ve 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. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

No to the new idolatry of money

55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. 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.

56. 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.

No to a financial system which rules rather than serves

57. Behind this 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 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. 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”.[55]

58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
Pope Francis talks about "today," about how things are different, are worse, have changed, but his criticisms of the current state of affairs are the same criticisms leveled by Pope Leo XIII in the latter's 1891 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum. This pronouncement--also called the "Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor"--bemoaned how the plight of the working poor, of the underclasses, at length. It criticized unfettered free markets and capitalism, but also took issue with the precepts of communism. The Rerum Novarum was, in many ways, a blueprint for a fully Corporatist state, as realized under leaders like Peron in Argentina and Franco in Spain. It laid out how workers and employers should come together to negotiate, how wages should be "living wages" as a matter of course, and how each person has a designated role to play in the body economic:
There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.
Pope Francis does not lay out this same Corporatist vision, it is true, but he defines society, social justice, and economic justice in the same ways as Pope Leo XIII. He does not call for an elimination of the wealthy at all, for a leveling of society. Pope Francis takes it as a given that there will be various tiers of wealth but calls for more real sharing of that wealth, only to the point of eliminating the "excluded." His call for a return to "an ethical approach" to economics and finance is thus a call for a return to the past, to the idealized Corporatist model which still holds sway among Catholic intelligentsia. His vision is nothing new or novel, at all.

This is an important thing to note, for what Pope Francis is not talking about at all in his screed is economic mobility, an idea that is critical to the progressive and liberal mindset. Why? Because Corporatism does not lead to greater economic mobility, but rather exactly the opposite: economic stagnation for the individual. Just as each person has a defined role to play, each person also has a defined socio-economic level. Corporatism maintains or leads to the stratification of society as a matter of course (which is unsurprising, given its roots in Feudalism). And such stratification is of critical necessity to the Catholic Church, for it allows the Church to justify its own vast wealth, for it to claim a role in society as a servant to the poor, even as it maintains a stranglehold over that wealth to the primary benefit of its top tiers of leaders.

Consider this: Pope Francis wants an ethical approach to economics, but apart from the general wealth of the Catholic Church (much of which has come from the working poor), which is far greater than any corporation or individual on the planet, the Vatican--and the Papal Apartments--is filled with incredibly valuable art, worth many billions of dollars on the open market. Much of this art is rarely if ever seen by anyone, save dignitaries of the Church and special guests. If one wanted to separate the rich from some of their wealth, what better way to do it than this? Sell the art, disperse the proceeds to those in need. Simple stuff, really. But such an idea is heretical in the minds of the faithful, to say the least.

Even if we allow that the vast wealth of the Church is justified because of how it is used, what sense is there in maintaining the private opulence of the Pope and his ministers? From a socialist or communist point of view (or a progressive one), none whatsoever. But again, Pope Francis is none of these things, ideologically speaking. His vision, the Corporatist vision, is fully compatible with a class system, as long as he and the Catholic Church maintain their place at or near the top.

Cheers, all.

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