December 08, 2013

Pope Francis on Capitalism

ON Tuesday, November 25, the Vatican brought out an 84-page document written by Pope Francis which was a severe indictment of the current unjust economic system that prevails in the world. It said (all quotations and the basic information are taken from Lynn Parramore’s article published in Truthout of December 2): “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….As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” The pamphlet asked States to guarantee “dignified work, education and healthcare” and attacked what it called the “idolatry of money”. Not surprisingly the pamphlet has caused consternation in Europe and America and the American press is full of speculation on whether the new Pope is a “closet Marxist”. Helen Horn wrote in the Atlantic: “It would make some pretty amazing headlines if Pope Francis turned out to be a Marxist” but she quickly added that “happily for Church leaders” this could not be the case. This marks a major departure for the Catholic church. Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI had denounced Marxism as a scourge of modern times. And the Vatican has often been criticised for its opulent life-style. Francis’ pronouncements not only provide a contrast by way of emphasizing the economic exclusion of the vast numbers of the poor, but even trace this exclusion to “structural causes”. He mentions in particular the “autonomy of markets” and “financial speculation” which are integral features of contemporary capitalism. It is not difficult, though uncommon, to come across concern over poverty from such unlikely quarters, but such concern usually ends up advising governments to do something about it, the presumption being that if only the governments were attentive to the issue, and overcame the sloth and “corruption” in which they are usually steeped, then they could make poverty disappear. The Pope’s comments go beyond this. In criticising free markets and financial speculation, he sees the necessity for the State not just to “wake up” to the reality of poverty but to effect a change in the economic regime. SIGNIFICANT DEVELOPMENT This of course is what the Left asks for. But the Left has always been aware that overcoming these essential features of contemporary capitalism is impossible without overcoming capitalism itself. Capitalism as a self-driven system, under the weight of its own “immanent tendencies”, has “developed” to a point where it has arrived, in the contemporary period, at these essential features. Financial speculation is contemporary capitalism, not some extraneous growth upon it but its very essence. Capitalism therefore would struggle furiously against any effort to remove this essential feature, because of which its negation can only be effected through a transition to socialism. While Pope Francis of course does not talk of overcoming capitalism, his critique of capitalism, at least of its essential features in the contemporary world, coinciding remarkably with that of the Left, is a significant development. It is no accident that Francis is the first Pope from the third world. He comes from Argentina, and from a continent that has seen the growth of “liberation theology”. The Vatican, dominated till now by priests of European origin, from amongst whom alone the Popes have been elected, has had an uneasy relationship with “liberation theology”, which has been developed by priests working among the poor in the third world and keen that the church should do something to improve their lives in this world itself instead of working for their salvation after this life. Many of them, influenced by Marx’s ideas, faced repression during the years of military dictatorships in Latin America with which they were in an antagonistic relationship. Some even joined guerilla struggles. A prominent figure among the latter was Father Miguel Brockman who joined the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in October 1977, and became foreign minister in Daniel Ortega’s government after the Sandinista triumph in 1979. He was expelled from the Catholic church by Pope John Paul II in 1980 for holding a political office, remained the foreign minister of Nicaragua till 1990, and was the president of the UN General Assembly when the world capitalist crisis erupted in 2008. His attempt to use the occasion to build a new equitable world economic order through the participation of all the countries of the world under the auspices of the United Nations, to replace the existing order presided over by a handful of rich countries, who have co-opted at best a few others to form G-20, was a challenge to their hegemony. Another prominent liberation theologian was Father Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru who had grown up in abject poverty and was influenced by Marx’s ideas. Shunned by the Vatican until now, Gutierrez had a meeting with the new Pope in September, with an essay in the Vatican newspaper at the time arguing that with a Latin American Pope, liberation theology could no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe.” The stirrings in Latin America have now reached the Vatican through the election of a Latin American priest as the pontiff. These stirrings however are a reflection of the reality under contemporary capitalism, ie, capitalism in the era of hegemony of international finance capital. In the post-war period when there was decolonisation and capitalism adopted Keynesian demand management measures to shore up employment, because of which there was high output growth, high labour productivity growth, and also high real wage growth in the advanced capitalist countries, it appeared that capitalism was not inherently poverty-engendering; and that even if inequalities happen to increase under it, these could be reversed through State intervention, and they certainly did not entail any increase in absolute poverty. The fact that for long years in the era of colonialism the people of the third world had actually experienced an increase in absolute poverty (in “British India” for instance annual per capita foodgrain availability had gone down from around 200 kilogrammes at the beginning of the twentieth century to 136 kilogrammes at the time of independence), was forgotten in the post-war euphoria about “reformed capitalism”. The ideological hangover of that period still persists, even though that period itself, a product of exceptional times when finance capital was in retreat; perched on the verge of a precipice, engulfed by the threat of a world socialist revolution; and hence forced to make concessions for its very survival; did not reflect the “normal” immanent tendencies of capitalism. With centralisation of capital and the emergence of “globalised finance”, which has rolled back Keynesian demand management (the current buzzword being fiscal “austerity”) and dirigiste third world regimes pursuing some form of national economic policy, and has wrapped the world in a web of neo-liberalism where the immanent tendencies of capitalism operate unchecked, its true nature once again stands revealed, as it had been in colonial times. This consists, as Marx had noted, in the growth of wealth at one pole and of poverty, absolute poverty at that, at the other pole. Once more, we find a decline in per capita foodgrain availability for the world as a whole and an increase in the extent of world hunger, which is clear proof of the growth in absolute poverty. INCONTESTABLE FACT The poverty-engendering nature of capitalism is an incontestable fact and it constitutes the bedrock of Left praxis. No matter how vociferously the demise of the Left is proclaimed, no matter loudly the triumph of capitalism and the collapse of socialism is celebrated, as long as this fact remains, the centrality of Left praxis for human freedom remains. Pope Francis’ pronouncement, though it comes from a very different and unusual quarter, is a recognition of the fact of the poverty-engendering nature of capitalism. It must therefore be welcomed by the Left. The Pope is not a socialist, but his starting point and ours coincide. And that starting point is so different from what the apologists of neo-liberalism, and those pushing for growth at all costs, assert, that it is worth quoting what Pope Francis has to say on this: “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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system”. It is ironic that the opinion of the establishment in our country, a country proclaimed by its Constitution to be a socialist republic, is so far to the right of the head of the Roman Catholic church. But that only confirms Francis’ warning against having any trust in the “goodness of those wielding economic power.” Prabhat Patnaik