|The media, a small set of very large corporations, reports that the economy is always getting better, but hardly clarifies the issue. Better for whom? Large corporations like the media?|
Is it surprising that a profit-making company in the business of disseminating public information does not report that you're suffering while they prosper? Economic indicators are made public information by various academic or government organizations, but we hear little public debate regarding their significance. Just what do these numbers mean in terms of our everyday life? How should we act on the information they give us? Consider the following subtlety that is typical of statistical information: the price of computers goes down by 50 percent, but the price of cheese goes up 10 percent; so, on average, prices are dropping. OK, let them eat computer chips! It is difficult to respond to our current situation if we don't know the facts and we can't see how those facts are relevant to ourlives.I don't want to foster any false paranoia, but look around. We don't need an official report to let us know that the dignity of our fellow man is affronted every time he can't afford to send his children to college, or can't afford children in the first place, or has difficulty paying the gas bill, or getting decent housing, or, in the extreme, has to scavenge through garbage cans for empty bottles and half eaten bags of potato chips. This is not an exaggeration! Rummaging through garbage is a daily activity for the street people on Elmwood St. in Buffalo. And, in response to that legion of "concerned citizens" who politely inform me that I can always leave the country if I don't like it here, I remind them that these poor souls will not digest their food any better if I do. Yet, the very people that are indignant of my criticisms have no qualms complaining about how poorly they are treated when employers warn them in no uncertain terms,"well, if you don't like your job, you can work elsewhere."
Apparently, injustice is easier to recognize when it happens to you than when it happens to your neighbor. But, this is not a question about the American way vis-a-vis other ways of life. Indeed, it has been a growing global problem ever since the early '80s when First World leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, among others, began to implement polices in their respective countries which, if they did not actually send us down our present economic path, certainly did little to prevent it. Nor should we limit our vision to the First World only; the Third World has suffered far greater injustices at the hands of the same economic system that now hits close to home. Economic exploitation knows no national boundaries.Let me begin by characterizing the problem, grosso modo. In a nation as rich as the US (or any First World country), it is difficult to believe that the economic hardship encountered by the average person and his family is due to scarcity. A more reasonable explanation points to the process by which the wealth is distributed. That is, it is not the case that the nation lacks the natural and human resources to, say, provide good housing for everyone; rather, these resources, as they are allocated by the economic rules of "fair play," are not directed towards addressing human needs, but towards increasing profit margins, and these two ends are not necessarily compatible; in fact, they are often blatantly contradictory.
Trickle down economics would have us believe otherwise, but it is hard to understand exactly how this would work. What magic connects the individual's needs to the profit margins of large corporations? Lower cost for products and services is the answer offered. But, consider the otherside, namely the now famous scenario of corporate downsizing-famous because it offers an excellent example of why trickle down economics fails. It is perfectly legitimate in the business world for a company to lay offworkers in order to increase its profit; however, doing so means that someone will have to pay by loosing his job. If these unfortunate individuals have a mortgage or other financial commitments, hardships are sure to follow. The lower price of computers will make little difference in their lives if they don't have a steady income; although, it may make a big difference in the pockets of other companies that do use computers. So the "magic" of trickle down economics does not benefit the workers; indeed, the environment created when every company simultaneously tends towards downsizing is an economy which is capital intensive and labor scarce. How can this possibly meet the need to include more people into the labor force? We can't just fool ourselves into some fantasy by saying, "well, somehow things will work out," because they don't. We can easily produce counter-examples and so can banks which foreclose on mortgages. There is no "invisible hand" within the system miraculously making things work out.
We must resist deluding ourselves with non-existent phantoms that transcend the sphere of human activity and appear just in time to save the day. The economic system in place is a result of the human actions, and any injustices to be found there point to individuals and the decisions they make. God promised us a world that could sustain us. The rest is our doing. Economics is essentially a matter of morality. If, then, the problem is not scarcity, but how the wealth is distributed,why are so many people resistant to questioning the "free" market system?
If things are really rough, and it seems to me that they are because many of my hard working friends and colleagues are experiencing similar financial hardships, albeit to varying degrees, why is there this uncritical commitment to the very system which they find oppressive? This is a difficult question with a very complex response. I cannot pretend to answer it completely, but there is this vague sense among the general public that the "free" market forms part of the "freedom" of the "Free World" which opposes itself to the totalitarianism of the old Soviet bloc, and now even the Muslim nations-the old good guys versus bad guys theme which still finds its expression in popular cinema. So, to question the "free" market is to question "freedom". I am well aware that this is just a caricature, and many people rise above it. Nonetheless, at the unconscious level, there are some very strong associations connected to the word "freedom" which have much more formative value than they should. In this way, many questionable cultural habits can be justified by simply affixing the word "free" in front of them, like "free" sex. But anyone who justifies the "free" market solely on the basis that it is "free" can have no argument against "free" sex; one wonders at times how different the political Left and Right really are in the US. Once the notion of a "free" what-have-you has entered the popular imagination, the logical argument is an uphill battle against people's emotional responses. Try to convince them that this sort of "freedom" is an illusion which, upon closer examination, reveals itself as enslavement, and you will see what I mean!
Catholic morality grows out of a wisdom that understands why "free" sex is really enslavement to passions and a loss of something very precious to our humanity, just as it can see why a "free" market is tantamount to near slavery. But do either criticisms get a sympathetic hearing? (Incidentally, if you doubt the second statement, that a "free" market tends to enslave, please read "Rerum Novarum" by Pope Leo XIII.) The remainder of this article is not aimed at expounding Catholic social teaching.
For this, I refer the reader to Rupert J. Ederer's fine book, Economics as if God Matters. In it, the author comments on six major papal encyclicals that were central in forming the teaching, and he makes them accessible to the lay reader who wants togain an appreciation for their spirit. For those who want to jump directly into an encyclical, I recommend Centesimus Annus by John Paul II, since it commemorates the 100th anniversary of the incipient encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and refers back to important earlier work.
Rather, in this article, I want to limit myself to clearing a path for Catholic social teaching by showing that it is radically different from either Marxist or Liberal social theories. In doing so, I hope to resolve any scruples the reader might have, for reasons stated above or for other reasons, and assure him that the teaching does indeed grow organically out of Catholicism. In sum, I will show below that both the Marxist and Liberal traditions,which have their origin in the Enlightenment, share a defect that Catholic social teaching not only avoids, but addresses directly. Namely, both attempt to give an account of society on the basis of some underlying "amoral" dynamics, and in so doing, eclipse moral considerations from economic and political decisions. Historically, this has left a moral vacuum in society which has been filled by all sorts of injustices and resulted in countless suffering. We still live one particular version of that disorder today, what below I call "consumer-driven capitalism."
|This unfortunate state of affairs came about because the Enlightenment reacted against Catholicism, and religion in general, and attempted to exclude morality from the public sphere, either by restricting it to the private sphere in the case of Liberalism, or by eliminating all together in the case of Marxism.||This unfortunate state of affairs came about because the Enlightenment reacted against Catholicism, and religion
in general, and attempted to exclude morality from the public sphere, either by restricting it to the private sphere
in the case of Liberalism, or by eliminating all together in the case of Marxism. Instead of moral reasoning, Enlightenment
thinkers opted for procedural reasoning which they believed was morally neutral in the same way that the laws of
physics are morally neutral. Their unlimited love for the natural sciences led them to appropriate scientific reasoning
far beyond its proper limits and extend it to humans in society.
This project was bound to fail because humans are irreducibly moral creatures, and no amoral theory can possible describe them or prescribe norms for them. The only effect an amoral theory has if it is taken on as a complete understanding of our nature, is that it obscures moral awareness and leads to disordered behavior.
For this reason, I will call Marxism and Liberalism "theory" because they purport to be positive sciences like physics, and I will call Catholic social teaching a "teaching" because it unabashedly integrates a normative prescription with our social and economic world. In fact, Catholic social teaching, properly understood,belongs to moral theology and aims at responding to the mess created by the Enlightenment. My scope here is limited. If I succeed in awakening in the reader, especially the reader who has a position of responsibility within the community, a desire to seriously understand what scholars and popes have said about economic justice and to integrate that teaching into their lives, then this article has fulfilled its purpose.
It is important to distinguish Communism as the actual political movement that took power in Russia under Lenin in 1918 from the social theory that was invoked to justify it, namely Marxism. The relationship between what Marx said and what the Revolutionary Party picked up as the jargon for its propaganda is an uneasy one at best; so, I will take the accusation that some people have made against me, namely that Catholic social teaching is close in spirit to Communism, to mean that it is close to Marxism.
Otherwise, comparing theory and teaching on the one hand with an historical event on the other would be like comparing apples and oranges. But even with this distinction, Marxist social theory and Catholic social teaching are so different that the whole project of contrasting the two seems a little silly. In truth, the people who made the accusation did not know what they were saying; still, it was sufficient to hear any criticism of the "free" market for them to jump to conclusions, so I want this response to go on record. Moreover, my discussion of Marxism will bring out its essential defect so that its similarity to Liberal economics, despite the popular belief that these are polar opposites, will become obvious. The central doctrine of orthodox Marxism, the sine qua non, if you will,is the doctrine of the historical dialectic which aims at giving a total understanding of the human condition through an understanding of our history. Curiously enough, this aspect of Marxism ultimately derives from Christianity, if not in content, then at least in form. St. Augustine, in the City of God, gave Christians our lasting understanding of history as the succession of ages in which God's plan for the salvation of mankind unfolds. Unlike the mythical sense of time that the ancient Greeks possessed, in which archetypal events inaugurated by the gods in illo tempore were forever repeated, Christ came once and for all, and he came in history, as one who dwelt among us.
|So, whereas pagan time was cyclical, Christian time is linear, with a definite beginning at Creation and the Fall, a definite middle with the coming of Christ and a definite end at the Final Judgment. This historical structure was first appropriated by Hegel, who emptied it of its Christian content and put in its place a pantheistic version. He saw history, not as the unfolding of God's plan, but as the unfolding of the World Spirit, and incarnations of this spirit were to be seen in the historical events and people of his day, like Napoleon. Linear history was next appropriated by Marx who turned Hegel upside down and said that it was not spirit, but matter and its impersonal, amoral laws that underlay history. But not the laws of physics; Marx was referring to the laws of economics.||Linear history was next appropriated by Marx who turned Hegel upside down and said that it was not spirit, but matter and its impersonal, amoral laws that underlay history. But not the laws ofphysics; Marx was referring to the laws of economics.|
On this account, human history is driven forward by the interplay of a society's natural resources, means of production and means of distribution. From a primitive state, we evolved first into a slave economy, then a feudal economy, and now, a capitalist economy. But, there will be one final stage to the dialectic, the revolution, after which we will enter our socialist phase, history will end and we will live in the workers' paradise. That the dialectic must inevitably reach this critical point is demonstrated as follows: as capitalists get richer, the competition between them becomes fiercer, and the weaker members of their rank are forced into the working class, which in turn gets poorer. (Incidentally, if you hear something of Darwin's "survival of the fittest" in this, you may not find it surprising that Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to him. One wonders just how different Marx's thought is from that of a good bourgeois Victorian!)
Eventually, the suffering of the working class leads them to realize their common condition and a class consciousness forms where the workers begin to act cooperatively. In one final decisive moment, the workers simply take over the means of production and private ownership is abolished. The creativity of the worker, which was once alienated from him in the form of wage-labor, is unleashed and becomes reintegrated into his life; he lives blissfully ever after, spontaneously producing and sharing wealth. I think the similarities to Christian eschatology are obviouse nough to not need comment.Since Marx was aiming at a total understanding of our social condition, he had to account for other institutions, like politics, law, philosophy, art, literature, religion and so forth, besides economics. To include these in his system, he posited a duality in society between the economic infrastructure, which is made up of the natural resources and the means of production and distribution, and the superstructure, which comprises the politics, laws, and so forth. The former is the material base which essentially drives society forward, while the latter, the conscious activity of society, is simply the "after effect." This has very important implications in terms of our nature.
For Marx, man is not homo sapiens, a reasoning creature, but homo faber, man the producer, an economic automaton whose functioning merges with the blind dynamics of material dialectic. On this view, one should not think of the poor working conditions of late capitalism as offending some "natural" sense of justice which is grounded in "reason"- that's Catholic talk - rather, these conditions are simply the origins of the workers' consciousness.
(The comparison can be made to the picture of the mind arising from the material functioning of the brain. Individuals in a Marxist society are like neurons in the brain: no single individual has much awareness, but collectively they do.) The class consciousness of the workers, as it is emerges from the material dialectic in the late stages of capitalism, results in a consciousness of the revolution; in contrast, bourgeois consciousness is the system of philosophy, religion, art, politics, laws,etc., which serves to justify the privileged position of the capitalists.
These are the so-called "ruling ideas" of society which, in Marx's language, attempts to instill a "false" consciousness in the workers so that they are distracted from a "true" consciousness of their condition and of the revolution.
It is at this point that the fatal flaw of Marxism reveals itself in full force. In his endeavor to develop a theory which would be truly "scientific," Marx separated the dynamics of society, which he represented as amoral and impersonal laws, from the living individuals who make up that society and are moral beings. Let me expand on this. Impersonal laws are fine in physics. It is absurd to think of the underlying constituents of a table, say, as deliberating over their condition, weighing their possible choices, considering the consequences of each, and paying the price for any immoral behavior afterwards. The dynamics of electrons is totally determined by the laws of physics which constrain them to behave in one and only one way, and they have no "choice" in the matter. Because of this, we would hardly think of treating electrons as moral creatures. We would not appeal to their freedom, discuss possibilities with them, feel that they should be punished for doing the "wrong" thing, and so on. It is simply the case that electrons cannot do the "wrong" thing, because they blindly follow set rules; so, one is justified in talking about them in an amoral fashion. But, humans do have an inner freedom and they can consciously choose among different possibilities. So, in so far as Marx reduces society to amoral laws, his theory can no longer speak to moral creatures.
Marx can no more tell an individual what he should or should not do than a physicist could tell an electron what it should or should not do. Or, put another way, I, as an individual, have no idea what to do with Marxism because nowhere does Marx ever say what I ought to do, only what I will do as an integral part of my class and its place in the dialectic. But this offends my sense of inner freedom. Do I not have some awareness of my situation and of the possibilities it entails? Can I not freely choose among these possibilities? And if I can, how should I choose? On the moral question, Marx is absolutely silent. As far as he's concerned, my behavior is determined like that of an electron.This problem manifests itself most forcefully in terms of the question of the revolution. First, consider it from the workers' perspective. Since the material dialectic proceeds to its critical point by an impersonal dynamic, the revolution is inevitable. But then, the workers might reasonably conclude that they need not work to bring it about because, after all, there is no possibility that it will not happen. Thus we arrive at an absurdity where the workers will inevitably revolt, but need not do anything for that revolution to occur! A similar absurdity is encountered when one consider the effect that Marxism would have on the capitalists. Now that they are aware of the material dialectic and the coming crisis,they could work towards resisting the revolution or even preventing it.
Either way, one could argue that the workers are better off if the dialectic is kept secret, not only from the capitalists, but also from themselves! In fact, pushing this ironic twist of reasoning further, one might speculate that we are not living in the workers' paradise today because awareness of the dialectic has already undermined the dynamics of the dialectic itself! Marx never considered what consequences an awareness of his theory might have because consciousness for Marx was only an "after effect" and had no causal efficacy. But, as we can see, only absurdity follows from such a position. In sum, we might find Marxism an elegant and sophisticated social theory, but what, pray tell, do we do with it?! How do we act on the basis of the knowledge it imparts? Do we sit by our windows and watch the inevitability of history unfold itself, or do we go into the streets and participate?
This is a subtle, but serious, flaw that is not limited to Marxism. As soon as one tries to construct any social theory based on an amoral dynamic, one succeeds in producing a theory which not only has no normative value for us, but is meaningless because we cannot resolve how it fits into our lives. How can an essentially amoral theory speak to essentially moral creatures? Nonetheless, the mind can fall under the spell of this amoralism, and when one does, it is not the case that one begins to act amorally, which is impossible for moral creatures; rather,one loses touch with the moral law and begins to act in a disordered fashion. So, in so far as Marxism aims at being purely an amoral description of society, it is utterly useless as a normative prescription for action. And in so far as one tries to internalize it as such, one looses touch with one's moral nature and acts in a disordered fashion. Injustices are sure to follow. Is it any wonder that Marxism was so easily picked up by the Communist party as propaganda and used to justify anything? As ideology, it lulled people into a moral slumber that allowed Stalin to commit atrocities against the people in the name of the People!
But I will not dwell on these sins because the media in the West has neverlost an opportunity to discredit Communism with them and we are all well informed about Soviet atrocities. But much to the media's chagrin, a proper analysis of the situation shows that Liberalism is equally implicated in the sins of its Enlightenment sibling! Below, I will turn my tactics around. Rather than dwell on Liberal economic theory, I will quickly expose the principle of amoralism in it and then turn to a longer discussion of just how that moral vacuum has been filled by disord in theWest. Whereas Marxist theory is little known here, but its effects well known, the situation with Liberal theory is somewhat reversed: the connection between its amoral principles and the resulting disordered social practices has not been brought to the foreground. Just how Liberal economics lulls us into moral slumber in our world is not discussed, or if the criticism is raised, it is easily dismissed as not worthy of serious consideration in the public forum.
Let me begin with a distinction similar to the one I made above. On the one hand we have Liberal economics, the exponent for which below will be Adam Smith who is considered its father, and on the other hand, we have the historical event which we are living today and which I will call capitalism (or the "free" market). Again, the relationship between theory and practice is a difficult one because, although the former is taken as the justification for the latter, the degree to which the practice truly reflects Smith's intentions is a matter of scholarly debate. But, it is not important for us to sift through this relationship because it will suffice to show that the theory is based on a central principle of amoral dynamics and so, regardless of what Smith intended, in so far as it is taken as justification, it eclipses moral awareness and leads to disorder; all else is just details. Below, I will show precisely what this principle is and how it has led first to labor-driven and now to consumer-driven capitalism. The second manifestation of this monster has succeeded to an historically unprecedented degree in absorbing life into economics. If the celebration of the life God gave us begins when economic necessity ends, it is little wonder that capitalism contributes to a growing cultural malaise. We have forgotten that work is for man and meant to dignify him, not vice versa.
Much of the Enlightenment can be understood as the appropriation of Medieval thinking, made "scientific." Marxism, as we have seen, takes the idea of linear history, empties it of God and puts in His place the material dialectic. Similarly Liberal economics adopts Natural Law from moral theology, but empties of its moral content, and applies it to economics. Natural Law, as it is generally understood, is God's intention for how man and society ought to operate. If a society goes against this law, then harm follows of its own accord, that is, it follows naturally and not as fire and brimstone from heaven. For instance, if the members of a society have made their peace with theft, then they must also pay the price because wherever there are thieves, there are also victims, and the society's collective misbehavior becomes its own punishment. But, this state of affairs can lead people to an awareness of their error and so there is the possibility of self-correction: when people start to realize that stealing is not such a good idea, laws are enacted, enforced, and so forth.
Adam Smith, in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, appropriated this structure to explain the dynamics of the marketplace. According to Smith's account, the market is guided by laws of its own that naturally adjust the production and exchange of goods so that everyone in society benefits in the maximum way possible. These are not legislated laws, but in analogy to Natural Law, they are the "invisible hand" that guides the economy to meet the needs of society. The worst of all possible sins, then, would be to interfere with their workings; rather, one should always follow the rule of laissez-faire, "leave it alone". When a society acts against the Natural Law, it puts into play its own punishment; similarly when a society interferes with the free market, it falls short of meeting the needs of the people. The central principle operating here is the law of supply and demand which Smith formulated as follows:
1) If there is a demand for a particular product, then there will be a market for it. The product is at first scarce and its price high. But this will attract other manufacturers which want to compete and the net effect will be to reduce scarcity and bring down the price to a "fair" range.
2) If there is no demand for a particular product, then there will be no market for it. The product is in abundance and its price low. Manufacturers producing it will switch to producing other products for which they get a better return.
So, both the human and natural resources of society are shifted away from products not in demand to ones that are and any scarcity is alleviated. The system isself-correcting.The law of supply and demand, as it has been sketched out so far, is the amoral dynamics of Liberal economics and it aims at describing how the economy will adjust itself through the workings of an "invisible hand" (by"invisible" read impersonal, unconscious and amoral); but, again like the material dialectic or the laws of physics, it does not give us any normative prescription for action. Smith, as a good bourgeois, was not as radical in this respect as Marx, and he did recognize that there must be some deliberations going on in the decision making process of individuals.
To flesh out his theory, then, Smith described this behavior as the enlightened pursuit of self-interest and so implicitly prescribed it as normative-enlightened because the reasoning individual would recognize that violating the common good was not to his benefit. This pursuit leads to the law of supply and demand because, in pursuing their own self-interests, manufacturers are continuously competing to get ahead, and so adjusting the supply side to match the demand side. But it is rather clear that Smith's moral prescription is custom-tailored to fit his law, and is only secondary to it.
He simply answered the question of how to make his amoral law have the semblance of normative prescription by constructing that prescription which would make it work; so, like Marx, he put the amoral dynamics before any moral considerations and came up with a formula that can be summarized as "private vice equals public virtue."
But how does one sympathize with such a norm? How is the dignity of man guaranteed if this consideration is not brought in from the start? One answer Smith might put forward is that the protection of our dignity emerges as collective behavior through his law; but, it does not take much to construct scenarios which are consistent with the law, and yet affront our dignity. The history of capitalism is the history of such refuting scenarios. He might add that the pursuit of self-interests must be enlightened, that it must take into consideration the common good. But then he will not be able to justify the rule of laissez-faire. If the pursuits are not "enlightened," are we justified in interfering with the free market? Despite Smith's poor attempt to make his theory prescriptive, it remains essentially amoral, and in so far as it is used by our society to justify the "free" market, it leads to disorder. The suffering of marginalized individuals is explained away, or worse, simply dismissed on the premise that the law of supply and demand guarantees "fairness," and these individuals have no right to complain. In sum, it becomes ideology.
First in the history of capitalist disorders is the one that is now best understood. It set in around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and by the 1840s was inspiring Marx to formulate his theory. By the turn of the 19th century it had reached revolutionary fury and in 1918 this fury burst forth in Russia. In the US, it did not entertain a revolutionary hope, but it still manifested itself in the formation of labor unions and the violence that attended them, especially because of the involvement ofthe Mafia which remained a problem well into the '50s and early '60s.
Smith's laissez-faire economics was a naive hope at best,but when it was combined with the bourgeois dogma of absolute property rights (the belief that one can do whatever one wants with one's own property), it became downright immoral and an immediate danger to the average worker. Not factored into Smith's considerations was the fact that at least one way in which manufacturers could operate in their own self-interest was by lowering labor costs. Individuals were not only the agents in society that created demand by purchasing products, but they were also the labor force and, thus, a integral element of the supply side that could be purchased at an ever decreasing price as labor became available in abundance. And far from competing for labor resources, manufacturers quickly discovered that people were quite desperate for money and were forced to sell themselves at less than a just wage-a dramatic instance of Smith's law failing to set a "fair" price.
Collective exploitation of this situation by the capitalists led to inordinately poor working conditions, long hours in sweatshops, child and woman slave labor, and a general degradation of the masses of humanity that had nothing other than their labor to sell-we enter here the world of Charles Dickens. The advent of unions and collective bargaining somewhat protected the worker who otherwise stood naked before these industrial giants; but, the problem remains with us today and shows no sign of relief. Once again, we have an instance of the impossibility of founding an economic system on an amoral principle and expecting the dignity of man to be protected. The origin of the second major event in the history of capitalist disorders, at least here in the US, is located with Calvin Coolidge and his generation. If we call the first phase of capitalism labor-driven in that exploitation was concentrated on the labor force, we may call the second phase consumer-driven because attention was shifted onto the consumer. Although we inherit both problems today, each surfacing in turn, consumer-driven capitalism is much more insidious in that it has been largely successful in absorbing our culture and churning it into mush.
Let's see how this has come about. The '20s saw the first industrialists who realized that the very factory workers they employed were also the consumers of their products. So, the industrialists were undermining their own interests by paying the workers too low a wage: if the workers could not afford the products, the markets would remain restricted. Instead, the industrialists calculated that by increasing the workers' wages by a certain amount, the latter would have a surplus income and want to own items of "luxury." If wages and prices were balanced just right, and the workers instilled with a desire for these luxuries, the industrialists would increase their overall profits. Overnight, the mass consumer was born, caught in a vicious circle where still more labor was needed to obtain the very items the worker desired. As time progressed, society became dependent on these "luxuries," like the automobile, and we became enmeshed in our present economic monster.Advertising was instrumental in this shift. Beginning in the '20s and with increasing frequency, advertisements were used to entice consumers by presenting them with a vision of the good life as one with filled with luxuries. Fashion magazines gave the public the latest designs which, ofcourse, were always changing; and, for the first time, women were shown as obsessing over their looks in the mirror. The depression disrupted much of the economy's activity, as did the war, but as the US recovered, capitalism became ever more consumer-driven.
In the '50s, the business of advertising became a major industry in its own right, shaping our culture through the icons it injected into the popular imagination. When one considers that the mere symbol of a soft-drink, Coca-Cola, has won international recognition, one is struck by the absurdity of the situation! Today, there is a certain cultural current which ridicules the emptiness of these icons and recognizes their facile attempt at manipulation, but this has not stopped manufacturers from finding other ways of exploiting consumers. We are told that marketing surveys are for our benefit, so that manufacturers know what the public wants and can better serve us. But, this is just a front; what they really want to know is our spending impulses. Frugality is not a capitalist virtue.Thus, the brave new idea of consumerism expanded Smith's amoral law to cover, and hence disorder, a whole new dimension of society. When Smith proposed his law of supply and demand, he did not consider the possibility that demand could be generated out of whim by the enticement of manufacturers; rather, he was thinking of average needs and wants.
Of course, with the moral nature of human beings eclipsed, this sort ofconsideration is no longer available to the exponent of Liberal economics who is forced to respond that it is the individual's "free" choice and responsibility whether or not to consume a particular product. This, of course, presupposes that the individual's sensibilities are formed in the private sphere previous to his becoming a consumer in the public sphere, and that he has the moral strength to avoid continuous temptation; but, as we well know, this is exactly what advertising aims at undermining. It wants to form a consumer that acts on whim as often as possible and is given over to impulse. Here we must resist the tendency to put the blame squarely on the individual and his lack of frugality. Remember, as fallen creatures, we are all weak to some extent. A more charitable outlook recognizes that guilt also lies in the hands of those who take advantage of that weakness without shame. Individuals in a society depend on one another when moral strength fails them. Consumer-driven capitalism betrays such a trust. So, whereas labor-driven capitalism preyed on those who only had themselves to sell on the labor market, consumer-driven capitalism preys on our moral infirmities. Either way, the weakest member of society always pays the most.
But, consider how unique an historical situation this is. Unlike most social orders in the past or elsewhere in the world today, which require a certain amount of self-restraint and sublimation of base desires, capitalism is a social order which thrives off of the opposite! Not "private vice equals public virtue", but "private vice equals public resilience" - injustices abound, but the system is too rigid to allow for correction. Capitalism only bottoms out at dangerous decivilizing forces which are curtailed either by our innate sensibilities or by intervention of the state. Other than this, consumer-driven capitalism seems able to pick up any aspect of human life, make it into a commodity, and sell it back to us as a product, a simulation of the real which becomes the only reality we know. We enter the world of Andy Warhol; life becomes a stroll through the department store, with the isolated narcissist at the center and all of life as commodity stretched out before him. Like an infant which still identifies the whole world as an extension of itself, the consumer experiences pain when his wants are withdrawn and numbness when he is satiated.
The highest and best in man, his God-given existence and the celebration of that life in art, literature, spirituality and so forth, is swallowed up in the abyss of consumerism. Our senses are packaged and sold back to us: taste is commodified in the mass-produced food we purchase at supermarkets, sight is commodified in TV images, and sound is commodified in pop music. Even Gregorian Chants are no longer the special occasion of a religious celebration; they are the digitized sounds whose aura has been striped; they are spliced in with alternative music, as the group Enigma did, and even make the top 40s list. Love is commodified in sex and sex in its mechanical reproduction as pornography. Children are commodified in artificial contraception or abortion; there is a whole money-making industry around the elimination of the "unwanted." World events are commodified in the news; you won't see it if it doesn't sell commercial time. Time is commodified in interest rates; if you want today what you can only afford tomorrow, you must pay for the intermediate time. Health is commodified in medical insurance; peace of mind carries a cost.
Spirituality is commodified in therapy and self-fulfillment. The mind is commodified in skills that are sold on the job market; gone are the days when education was "food for the soul." The freedom these various activities and entities once had, to be for their own sake, has been taken up within an economic system which only returns them to us for a price, and then only as a simulation of their original reality. In consumer-driven capitalism, economics strives for ontology: an entity exists only to the extent that it can be made into a commodity and sold on the market. It is difficult to minimize the extent to which consumerism has chewed up our culture and spit it out as mush. An interesting illustration is afforded by the fate of certain counter-cultural movements in our society.
Consider the hippies, which began as a reaction against the materialism of the '50s and preached an anti-establishment gospel. Yet, while their music aimed to create a new consciousness of "peace and love" which would "overthrow the establishment," the sale of their records turned the music industry to a political force mandating the very things the music protested. It seems that even attempts at overthrowing consumer-driven capitalism are co-opted by it and sold back to the"revolutionaries"! Today, the "counter-culture," or "alternative" as it is called, is a well-established market. To be clear, I have little sympathies for the hippies; it was before my time and the whole affair strikes me as something short of pure silliness, but neither do I sympathize with what they were reacting against. Nor am I preaching asubversion of the system-heaven knows what injustices will follow. But failed attempts at subversion do reveal the resilience of the system: one wonders if other cultures would have survived the level of decadence introduced by the hippies into ours. Today my students bring me the lyrics of popular alternative, rap and heavy metal bands. One of them, Rage against the Machine, has for its album cover a collage of various revolutionary books, like The Anarchist Cookbook. The lyrics are filled with misdirected anger and incite us to "rage," to "fight the system," and so forth. This is not a danger to capitalism, it is a celebration of it!
The CDs and related cultural fetishes, like body piercing, sell; there is a market to be exploited here. Alternative is the mainstream. If these students are really seeking an alternative to the culture of death theyhave inherited, they might try Catholicism.The same resilience and ability to deflect criticisms is found in our public domain discourse, in particular, as it is carried out in the media. Economic concerns encompass a major portion of our public debates, to besure, but these remain so far in the abstract as to be of little value to us; that is, we cannot act on the information we are given.
Why are economic injustices not reported as such? Why doesn't the media tell us what particular decisions were taken by what particular companies and what effect these decisions had? (We hear lots of noise when it comes to issues of ecology. Why not the same volume when it comes to the concerns of the workers?) We know companies downsize, but why is there no follow-up on just what happens to those individuals who have the misfortune to experience it? Do they find a new job? If they do, does their pay decrease? Or, work hours increase? Do they find it harder to make ends meet? And just where are we going with all this economic activity? Where do we want to go? How does it all fit into what constitutes a good life, a life worthy of the existence God has given us? These essentially moral questions are generally excluded from our public discourse. The question of why this is the case and the role the media plays is profoundly complex and I cannot pretend to answer it here.
Nonetheless there are at least three criticisms which are worth mentionining because each has enough truth in it as to alert us to the dangers. The first comes from the political Right and is not always very probing in its analysis. It simply points to the fact that the news has a certain Left-wing bias and tends to set the agenda for public discussion accordingly. There is some truth to this, particularly when it comes to issues of sexuality, but less so when it comes to economics per se. For instance, it is not often that we hear a debate about how couples are punished economically for having a family.
The sacrifices parents must make today are substantial given that they must guarantee their children will properly integrate into society; among other things, they must worry about giving them a college education. At a cost about $50,000 per child for college alone, this is not a trivial expense, and it is sufficient to put a real economic wedge between DINKS and families. DINKS (couples with Double Incomes and No Kids) live in a different economic world, and therefore cling to different values, than families with children. Yet, one often hears arguments in accord with their values: it is the responsibility of the couple to limit their family within their economic means. This is true; but what limits the economic means of families? An economy of mass consumption and profit margins. Is it any wonder that so many of our youth feel displaced in a world that puts such a heavy price on their heads?
Their very existence is pitted against the profit margins of companies and the consumerism of the previous generation. But how often is this argument put forward in the public arena? Its mere elimination shows a biasing of certain values.The two other criticisms of the media are more probing because they show precisely how the media has merged into the functioning of consumer-driven capitalism: in effect, even our perception of the world as it is given to us by the news is caught up in commodification where what counts as the reality of our situation is only its simulation, packaged and sold back to us. The first criticism comes from Chomsky and other Leftist critics. As capitalism discovered its new vocation in advertising, newspapers increased their profits by augmenting returns from sales of the paper with returns from advertising. Soon newspapers became dependent mostly on the latter,and were co-opted by consumer-driven capitalism. Papers which resisted sales of advertising could not compete and folded. The Daily Herald affords an example of this. As a Left-wing British paper, it once had more than twice the circulation of The Times, The Financial Times and The Guardian combined; but, refusing to sell advertisements for ideological reasons, it collapsed in the '60s.
So, asks Chomsky, what kind of news would one expect to come out of a media that is comprised of, and responsible
to, large corporations? Clearly, it would be dedicated primarily to their interests and act as an effective filter
for challenging ideas. Chomsky gives a disturbing example of this filtering process. Two simultaneous and comparable
atrocities occurred in the mid to late '70s in the South East Pacific; one in Cambodia, the other in East Timor.
While the first was intensely covered by The New York Times, the other was not. Why? Because the first was committed
by Communists (the Khmer Rouge), who were not very good business allies of American companies, and the second by
the Indonesians, who were, especially when it came to the sales of arms. East Timor, a largely Catholic and egalitarian
country, was simply expendable. Only "off-beat" media, like those run by Catholics committed to social
justice, reported much about East Timor. They still do. The December 1996 edition of The Catholic Worker has a
short article on the small island; it reports that the Nobel Peace Prize this year is shared by Bishop Carlos Belo
of Dili, capitol of East Timor, and Jose Ramos-Horta, the foreign minister in exile.
The final criticism of the commodification of the media comes from radical pessimists, like Baudrillard, and does not look to vested capitalist interests as an explanation. On this view, the commodification of everything has reached such a critical degree in our society that reality itself has been leveled. We see this in a totally apathetic society which simply absorbs whatever is thrown at it. After years of simulated reality on television, commercials of happy people with fake smiles, implicit promises of outrageous proportions, the general public has totally succumbed-its only reality is the commodity. For instance, given the choice between watching a political debate or a football game on TV, most people opt for the latter. Both are judged strictly as commodities for consumption. And why not? Watching the evening news, we see daily stories about famines in Africa juxtaposed with stories about how Scruffy the dog saved Fluffy the cat from mortal peril: one naturally wonders just what the reality of television is! Unlike Chomsky's account, critical discussions in the public sphere do not happen, not because it would upset those who control the means by which the discussions would occur, but because such discussions simply do not matter. The only reality such debates have is their value as commodity, in which case, Scruffy and Fluffy are on par with major famines, and both are equal to one minute of air time. This is a rather hopeless view of things, but again, there is some truth in it. And the extent to which it is true, is the extent to which Adam Smith's amoral law of supply and demand has absorbed our world.
It is time to move past the Enlightenment's vision of the human being as the duality of private and public sphere, the latter being merely the nexus where impersonal and amoral laws meet. This distorted view of our nature has opened up a crack in our world that has been filled by the monsters described above. The rise and fall of Communism and the present disorder in the East, the culture of death in the West, these are not trivial matters and they reflect the devastating effect of the amoral view we have adopted towards ourselves and our society. (Even Fascism and Nazism can be understood in this context, but as reactions against the Enlightenment rather than offsprings of it.) And the danger is still with us. The next round of economic nightmare may be just around the corner. Today, multinationals operate beyond any nation's power to curtail their excesses and truly are Titans that need not have any concern for us ordinary mortals. We tolerate them to the extent that we hope that, in their indifference to our humanity, it is our neighbor they will step on, and not us. Even our citizenship and the rights it entails cannot effectively protect us; multinationals intimidate their host countries with economic retaliation by threatening to withdraw to countries where labor or natural resources are cheaper. There are some very real dangers here in terms of the dignity of man, both in the First and Third Worlds.
The first step, then, towards addressing this problem is to regain what was lost by the Enlightenment, namely the view of ourselves as essentially integral moral creatures. We have lost sight of the fact that it is we who make the decisions that have repercussion on ourselves and on our fellow man. We are responsible, not some impersonal force like the law of supply and demand; and, we must not give credence to conclusions based on the workings of these ghosts, like the injunction not to interfere with the "free" market. The place of Catholic social teaching in all of this should now be clear: it is directed squarely at the eclipsed moral questions that are not being asked by our society and it unabashedly puts forward norms for the limits of economic, political and social decisions in the aim of protection our dignity. Needless to say, this approach is sorely opposed by our society, with its gut reaction that any moral considerations, especially if these originate in religious thought, are partisan and would unfairly privilege one set of values over another. It is not considered possible that such considerations might benefit all. Rather, the preferred modern solution is to lull ourselves into slumber with the belief that there can be some morally neutral procedural rules in the public domain which guarantee "fairness" to everyone. The evidence is now in, and we can safely conclude that nothing of the sort has occurred: the "system" does not insure justice, people of good will do.
Finally, I would like to end with a caveat. Today, there is a very negative sense associated with the word "morality" and the criticisms made above do little to bring out its positive side. (Sometimes the word "ethics" is used, but this does not always help.) It is true that much of our concern in economic justice regards the responsibility of those who have power before those who do not; for instance, it can be concluded that capitalists act immorally when they take advantage of desperate workers by offering them less than just wage. But there is a positive sense to "morality" beyond the self-restraint we are expected to take on ourselves to do right by our neighbor.
As Catholics, we look to the next world as our true home, but not at the expense of degrading this one. We value the life God has given us and the wonderful things in it that make it meaningful and worth living. There is deep satisfaction the many walks of life and we are called to these things for our own fulfillment, each in his own way. When we are young, we are educated and take on the wisdom of our society; we express our creativity in work; we marry, raise our children and grandchildren and see that they pick up where we left off; some of us dedicate ourselves to the service of others and God in various ministries. All these things are good; they make life worth living and the moral law is meant to guarantee them for us. It is not some empty legalistic code which renders life dreary, but the means by which we may have a culture of life.
Instead, having lost sight of this end, we now have a culture of death, one in which life is mostly a dreary matter of survival-just ask the GM worker who screws in the same bolt eight hours a day, six days a week. To the extent that morality has been vanquished from the social sphere, economic concerns have returned with a vengeance to frustrate life and fill it with needless anxiety. If we are to surpass our culture of death and regain life, we must reintegrate morality in our public sphere. Against the Enlightenment's social theories, we need Catholic social teaching.
This article appeared in the January 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine.
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