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Fratelli tutti and the critique of capitalism

Rocco Buttiglione

Is Pope Francis a communist?

Many people accuse Pope Francis of being a communist. Is he really? Of course he is not. He is not a politician and not even a philosopher of politics. He repeats the age-old Christian social doctrine in the new context of today’s economy and society. Nevertheless, this doctrine resounds in today’s context with a different timbre and this is what causes so much apprehension for some of the Pope’s statements in one sector of our public opinion. This different timbre is what we want to investigate in the present paper. We will also register similarities and differences with some aspects of Marx’s thought that perhaps deserve to be recovered after the death of Marxism.

We still need a movement for the liberation of the human person

After the collapse of Marxism many have concluded that capitalism had definitively triumphed. Many thought that the market alone was sufficient to mediate all human relations and interactions and to create a just society. A further consequence was that with communism the great experience of the Workers’ Movement had also arrived to an end. A large part of the left shared this opinion too, and substituted the modernization of sexual mores for the quest for social justice.

I remember discussing this issue with Alberto Methol Ferré at the beginning of the ’90s. Methol Ferré was a great friend of mine, and of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and perhaps the greatest Latin-American thinker of the last part of the 20th century. Alberto thought that with the end of Marxism the struggle for social justice and for the liberation of the oppressed was not going to cease. Marxism was wrong but the oppression of the poor was real. Marx had led the Workers’ Movement into a blind alley but the fall of communism would not bring with itself the end of the Workers’ Movement, but only the beginning of a new stage in its history. In this stage the Catholic Church could and should try to take the leadership of this movement.

It seems to me that this is the purpose of the Encyclical Fratelli tutti.

An ethical and religious criticism of capitalism

Francis’ critique of capitalism is ethical. The existing system is measured with the ethical measure of the Gospel and is found unjust. One part of mankind is starving while another part wastes an enormous amount of resources.

The system is aimed at the maximization of exchange values and not of use values, goods useful to make life better for people. Men live to make money, instead of making money in order to live. Those who are not useful for the purpose of making money are easily discarded as superfluous. They are just waste. Those who can make money participate in the circle of production and consumption, but are they happy? They are not, because they are alienated. The concept of alienation that helps us understand Francis is not that of Marx (economic alienation) but that of Wojtyła: man is really by himself (not alienated) when he is a member of a living community animated by love and reciprocal care. Man is ordered through his essence to be an “I” but also a “we”. The person fulfills her ultimate destiny through an act of belonging to other persons in love. The real wealth of personal life consists in the relations of reciprocal belonging in love that have been established in the course of one’s life. If we understand this then we realize the reason why the preferential option for the poor does not contradict the commandment of universal love. The system of structural sin that condemns the poor to a life of hardship or death by starvation at the same time condemns the rich to a life of alienation and inauthenticity. Here Francis walks in the footsteps of Bartolomé de Las Casas: the great Dominican friar pitied the material plight of the Indios but was even more worried about the salvation of the souls of the Spaniards.

Francis’ criticism is an immanent criticism. He is not an economist and does not propose a different model. He encourages us, however, to rethink the anthropological presuppositions of the current economy while he points out its apparent shortcomings.

The admonitions of the Pope encounter here some reflections that are growing in the world of professional economists. These reflections are not ethically motivated; rather, they arise out of the fact that the real empirical functioning of the economy does not correspond to the models proposed in the handbooks.

Let us consider one point. Francis has expressed more than once his distrust of the idea that the welfare will “trickle down” through market mechanisms and even reach the poor in the end. We have sound logical models that make us sure that the market tends to a position of equilibrium with the full employment of all factors (labor included). This a priori knowledge is however contradicted by the empirical existence of huge numbers of unemployed in many world economies. John Maynard Keynes had already observed that the model of marginalist economy works only in the long run, but in the long run we will all be dead, and workers wish to find a job in the limited time of their lives.

The model, moreover, presupposes a perfect market in which capital and labor can move freely to exploit the best opportunities without barriers of any kind and with free access to the productive factor with equal conditions. This is however not the case in the real world. Real markets are full of barriers that create monopoly or oligopoly conditions and only a sound economic policy can keep the markets open. The poor have very limited and unequal access to the market, when they have any and are not completely discarded. They do not possess the required skills and qualifications, they have no access to credit, very often they cannot even register their small enterprises for activity in the market.

What is the reason for this difference between the theoretical and the practical functioning of the market? The maximization of value production is one of the driving forces of real markets but not the only one. The interest of the élite to preserve their power position is an equally powerful force that shapes the real markets. The game is rigged in favor of the powerful. It is fully legitimate to demand that this disturbance be balanced by sound policies empowering the poor.

Is Pope Francis against capitalism?

If we identify capitalism with the market he is not. Pope Francis fully recognizes the positivity of market mechanisms. If we pretend market mechanism is sufficient to mediate all human interactions, the Pope will tell us that this proposition is false and may serve as an ideological cover for the manipulation of the market against the poor. Rather, he will advocate a political orientation of the market to put it at the service of the poor and of mankind at large.

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