Is Capitalism Wrong For Men?

The Catholic intellectual corners of the internet and social media have been abuzz lately with reaction and commentary after a group of self-identified Catholic socialists calling themselves the “Tradinista!” posted a 20-point manifesto on their website. Many in the Catholic blogosphere and widely-read online journals like First Things and Ethika Politika have weighed in on the burgeoning phenomenon. Some of these authors claim to know members of the Tradinista! Apparently they are traditional, Latin Mass-going, pious Catholics, yet they are unapologetically socialist – an odd combination to say the least.

In a previous article here at Those Catholic Men, I unabashedly declared that “socialism is wrong for men” and listed three reasons why that is the case, with reference of course to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which condemns socialism in no uncertain terms. At least a few readers left feedback going so far as to claim that the piece was just a shill for capitalism. What those readers missed, however, was the fact that nowhere in that article do the terms “capitalist” or “capitalism” appear. This was done purposefully. Socialism may indeed be wrong for men, but that means nothing for capitalism. We must evaluate capitalism on its own merits, something the Tradinista! may help us to do.

Now, much of the Tradinista! Manifesto reads like recycled Marxist talking points with a veneer of Catholic social teaching (or, depending on how you look at it, elements of Catholic social teaching with a veneer of Marxism). Throughout the document one senses the authors’ “Bern”-ing passion for their own socialistic theology. It can be difficult to find the nuggets of truth ripe for fruitful discussion. Though, for as much as they get wrong (again, see my previous article), their leftist perspective could, as David Mills argues at Ethika Politka, “force more politically and economically conservative Catholics to take neglected aspects of the Church’s social teaching more seriously than they do.” And therein may lie their most beneficial purpose.

If what Mills says is true, then some of the Tradinista!’s writings should offer up ideas for “more politically and economically conservative Catholics” to strongly consider. As an example, let’s evaluate the sixth point of the Manifesto:

  1. Capitalism must be abolished.

The foundational relation of capitalist society is between those who are compelled to sell their labor-power on pain of destitution and those who, by their ownership of capital, are enabled to exploit the former. Since it is premised on workers’ lack of economic freedom, this structurally-unjust relation must be eliminated; and in doing so, the capitalist class – which serves its own ends, detrimental to the common good of society – will also be done away with.

Admittedly, my eyes tend to roll when reading about “exploitation” of the laborer and other allusions to class-conflict frequently included in Marxist writings such as this. So, I am an unlikely candidate to suggest learning from socialists. The language in the point above seems to be particularly anti-capitalist and runs completely contrary to the familiar rhetoric of classical liberalism. But is it wrong? Though we may not like the prescription, must we necessarily disregard the diagnosis that capitalism is flawed? Perhaps we need more evidence.

To find that evidence, let’s turn to a sobering article by Bob Davis and Gary Fields recently published in The Wall Street Journal featuring the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Davis and Fields use Reading as a case study for the plight of blue collar communities around the country in a post-Great Recession economy. They list a litany of problems that are threatening to undermine the social fabric of this community, though one word seems to be a fitting summary: desperation. “Dozens of prayers are scribbled in ink on poster boards at St. John’s German Lutheran Church in downtown Reading, imploring spiritual help for jobs, a chance to finish school or escape from the ravages of drugs,” they write. The desperation is palpable.

Because it is an election year, the article also attributes to that growing sense of desperation the improbable rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as leading candidates for president – two men with profoundly differing views on economics, but each in his own way appealing to a segment of society who otherwise feel they have no voice. Both men have had such surprising appeal in this election cycle because they, like the Tradinista!, have been able to diagnose some of the problems faced by communities like Reading.

As Catholic men, what do we make of all this? What is the root cause of the fraying social fabric and desperation found in Reading, PA and other towns across the country? How can we respond to the desperation, isolation and voicelessness we may feel in ourselves or see in others? Facing the temptation to desperation, should we place our hope in political leaders and their vision of what constitutes sound economic policy?

An important first step is to admit our system is not perfect, and to recognize some of the inherent problems. Could it be the capitalist system which has offered jobs to millions of people but, despite the wealth created, has left ownership in the hands of a few? Could it be a flaw in this system that leaves thousands unemployed and seeking a means to support their families when those jobs are no longer needed or moved overseas where labor is cheaper? To be sure, there are other problems in Reading: breakdown of family life, a decreased marriage rate, more children born out of wedlock, rampant drug use, and so forth. To their credit, Davis and Fields repeatedly mention both the economic and social factors because it is clear that they impact each other, though it’s difficult to say which led to which. Regardless, the example of Reading gives a lot of credibility to the points raised by the Tradinista!, especially in their critique of capitalism.

In these desperate times, what Trump, Sanders and the Tradinista! offer above all is hope: hope that our problems can be solved, that the ills can rectified, that justice can be restored. The problem is that all of them, especially the Tradinista!, propose the replacement of one economic system with another. Such a proposal is doomed to fail.

Dr. George O’Brien, the same economist whom I quoted in the previous article condemning socialism, puts it this way:

“Capitalism found its roots in the intensely individualist spirit of Protestantism, in the spread of anti-authoritative ideas from the realm of religion in the realm of political and social thought, and, above all, in the distinctive Calvinist doctrine of a successful and prosperous career being the outward and visible sign by which the regenerated might be known. Socialism, on the other hand, derived encouragement from the violations of established and prescriptive rights of which the Reformation afforded so many examples, from the growth of heretical sects tainted with Communism, and from the otherthrow of the orthodox doctrine of original sin, which opened the way to the idea of the perfectibility of man through institutions.”

In a lengthy essay entitled “Ethics and the National Economy,” the Jesuit Fr. Heinrich Pesch offers a similar perspective:

“If we proceed to eliminate all ideal ethical values and powers, and if we install in their place the purely natural instinct of self-love as the guiding force in the economy, and if we go one step further and demand complete freedom for this guiding force in the quest by individuals for profit, then we should not be surprised by the consequences. A system which proceeds from false premises – as the free enterprise system does – and which is self-contradictory, can only lead to absurd consequences when it goes into operation. And what are these absurd consequences? They may be summed up into two words: capitalism and socialism.”

My fellow Catholic men, in the final analysis, capitalism is wrong for men for some of the same reasons that socialism is wrong for men. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking a perfect economic system exists. Our world will continue to slog along under imperfect leaders, with imperfect systems and imperfect institutions until Christ finally returns to establish his reign over the Universe. Facing the temptation to despair, we have to remind ourselves that our purpose is to get ourselves, and hopefully our families and friends, to Heaven. Despite what you may hear from Trump, Sanders or the Tradinista!, that is something you can do in any system.

10 12 2016
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  • John Stevens

    The important thing to grasp is the phrase "economic system."

    The free market should be just that: free, and a market. The free market is not the whole of civil society, is not its master or commander, and should be independent, separate and equal to the other institutions of that society.

    A free market should treat human beings solely as economic actors. This, because to do otherwise is to give the market too MUCH power over the lives of human beings.

    Human beings are, however, more than just actors in an economic system. This is where people oversimplify and make mistakes: in failing to recognize the benefits of separate, independent and equal institutions, and equally, to fail to recognize that all of these independent institutions meet and interact in the human person.

    It is not the economic system that should prevent its abuse. To do so is place the human being as a subject to the economic system. What should prevent the abuse of economic power by an economic actor is that which lies outside of the economic system: the Church, who teaches us, the human person, the Christian virtues. Thus through the human person, the system is used correctly, and by the very limits being discussed, the human person is not a subject of that system.

    The fundamental mistake of trying to MAKE people be good using systems of control is one illustrated by thousands of years of human history. God did not create us to be slaves of our systems or institutions, but instead, to master them and use them as he would have us use them: with love, charity and humility.

    "For the good man no law is necessary. For the evil man, no amount of law is sufficient."

    You see, the problem lies not in the free market, but in the hearts of the people who take part in it. In a very real way, the new evangelization is about reaching out to those economic actors who need to be taught the moral use of economic power.

    The failings of Socialism and Communism lie in exactly this point: that these systems combine what should be separate, independent and equal institutions: justice, economy and moral teaching, to name three.

    The lower case c: "communism" is in fact rationally compatible with Christianity, precisely because in that case it is solely an economic system, tightly bounded and limited to that arena only. Many religious orders can be described as "communist", but these are radically different things from Communist systems of government. The similarities are much less than the differences, however.

    • Gabe Jones

      John, thank you for reading and your very thoughtful, eloquent response. I love your line "the new evangelization is about reaching out to those economic actors who need to be taught the moral use of economic power." Yes x1,000!

  • Alex Julian

    Gabe,

    I appreciate that you see capitalism in such a clear Christian light and do not blindly embrace it as many modern conservatives do. I also appreciate your understanding of precisely what is wrong with socialism. I wonder if you'd be willing to write an article on Distributism, the Catholic economic system supported by Chesterton, Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius the XI. We Catholics living in the US can't change the system completely, but with practical guidance and a practical alternative we can use the freedom that the US affords us to reorient ourselves toward a more Catholic way of living practically.

    • Gabe Jones

      Alex, thanks for reading, and thanks for the suggestion. Although I have an undergraduate degree in economics and a basic-to-decent understanding of Distributism & Catholic social teaching, I can't claim to be an expert in distributist theory, so I don't know that I would be the best person to write something like that, at least right now. Perhaps in the future. We shall see!

    • John Stevens

      Distributism is simply the free market, but a point of view that is expanded to include another institution. It is where the actors apply the moral teachings of the Church to their economic actions.

      It is not a different economic system from the free market, it is a Catholic kind of thing: a both/and description of how two separate, independent and equal systems should be related, and how they should interact, with the person of a practicing Catholic.

      • Alex Julian

        Distributism operates upon a free market to keep money from centralizing. It had a big influence on the Unions and Trust busting in the early 1900s. It is inherently against both socialism and unfettered capitalism, both of which tend towards money ending up in the hands of a few powerful people.

  • Gabe Jones

    Sean, thank you for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm curious to know on what grounds you would challenge the assertion regarding the origination of capitalism. While it certainly could be argued otherwise, there is substantial evidence to support my claim (which is really the claim of Dr. George O'Brien). For example, Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics and the idea of the "invisible hand" was a Protestant. The very study of modern economics and the flourishing of the capitalistic system only came about after the Protestant Reformation. Additionally, the most Protestant countries - including the United States - are also the most capitalistic (Germany and Great Britain are two others). So, there is at the very least a strong correlation (granted, which does not always equal causation) between capitalism and Protestantism. Just curious to know your thoughts!

  • Gabe Jones

    Michael, thanks for reading and I appreciate the feedback. My reason for not proposing a solution was because I thought the article was pretty long already, and outlining a solution which takes into account the enormously complex economic reality in which we currently live would be a very difficult - if not impossible - task.

    However, in general, I agree with you that a free society is best. In fact, I would delineate between a "free market" and a system of capitalism, socialism, or something in between, which can develop from a "free market." I think it unfortunate that the terms "free market" and "capitalism" are often used interchangeably because they really describe two different things - the former describes more what I would call the ecosystem of the economy, meaning a situation in which people are fundamentally free to engage in exchange with other people or businesses under a system of laws which ensure fairness, justice, etc., while the latter describes a particular system which can develop from that freedom and in which capital becomes concentrated in the hands of a few. Perhaps a better description of our current economy would be "consumeristic capitalism" or "capitalistic consumerism" because there is so much emphasis on consumption as a good to be encouraged.

    The other aspect of your argument being that we have to have a strong moral foundation is important too. That's probably the most important part in a free society because while people need to be free, they are not free to do what is morally wrong. So our laws out to reflect a common morality, but perhaps even more important, the populace needs to have the proper moral formation.