The Divine End of Demonic Neoliberalism

“Charity in truth is a force that builds community.”

The Pope has spoken. His latest Encyclical Letter ‘Caritas in Veritate‘ (“of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, the Lay Faithful, and All People of Good Will on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”) is a scorching tally of the type of

economic growth [that] has been and continues to be weighed down by malfunctions and dramatic problems, highlighted even further by the current crisis [and embodied in the] technical forces in play, the global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples [and] excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care (paras. 21, 22).

The Letter does not stop there; it also offers far-reaching advice on how global as well as local structures of competition and cooperation need to be adjusted so that “distributive justice and social justice for the market economy” (para. 35) are guaranteed and human development everywhere becomes a real possibility.

It is in the interests of the market to promote emancipation, but in order to do so effectively, it cannot rely only on itself, because it is not able to produce by itself something that lies outside its competence. It must draw its moral energies from other subjects that are capable of generating them (ibid.).

The exclusively binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. Today’s international economic scene, marked by grave deviations and failures, requires a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise […] (paras. 39, 40).

Thus acknowledging limitations as well as failures of both markets and state entities amid the dynamics of economic globalization (para. 24), the Letter’s central proposition is a resounding call to strengthen social fabrics and protecting such micro-level initiatives through a fundamental “reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.” (para. 67)

Progressive Catholics usually hold their breadth when the Vatican issues a new statement of worldly affairs. Too often since the Second Vatican Council has it defended positions on matters as personal as birth control, marriage or sexual orientation that seem anachronistic at best. Aid workers in the reproductive health field have rightly pointed fingers at the Catholic doctrine, which stands in sharp contradiction with the realities on the ground. Even where some of its demands, such as the rejection of condom use as a means to prevent the spread of HIV, are in fact partially supported by empirical evidence, the crudeness of Papal language and content has often served to alienate rather than unite.

Yet this most recent manifesto is made of different stuff, at least where it sketches its philosophical foundation for human development. It is based on the simple yet powerful argument that social networks are not held together by markets.  Markets can maximize efficiency, but they cannot maximize societal coherence. What is needed for the latter is truthful charity or, put differently, a conception of society that rests on social rather than economic ideals.

This is an important distinction. There can be no doubt that almost all human societies nowadays are constructed around the primacy of economic production. But this orientation must not be confounded with an idealization of capitalism, epitomized in the economic frenzies of the recent past. “The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action.” (para. 34) On the contrary, it is the social sphere that needs to govern the economic: “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner.” (para. 32)

What is missing, in other words, is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water for nutritional needs, and also capable of addressing the primary needs and necessities ensuing from genuine food crises, whether due to natural causes or political irresponsibility, nationally and internationally (para. 27).

Development-related ‘charity’ needs to be mindful of the rules and limitations set by the overarching momentum of globalized economic exchanges and work with them rather than against them (cf. paras. 42, 66). At the same time, this explicitly includes a partial redefinition of institutional frameworks: “The current crisis obliges us to re-plan our journey, to set ourselves new rules and to discover new forms of commitment, to build on positive experiences and to reject negative ones.” (para. 21) This is not a task for developing countries alone. “International aid has often been diverted from its proper ends, through irresponsible actions both within the chain of donors and within that of the beneficiaries” (para. 22), and “international organizations might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly.” (para. 47) Reform is therefore necessary among all actors (cf. para. 27).

Moreover, “[t]he earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.” (para. 6) A notion of rights-based justice alone is therefore insufficient to create and strengthen social fabrics (cf. para. 43). This renders recent shifts in development policy towards a rights-based agenda which has tended to overemphasize economic rights (and, in the case of UNDP, even added institutionally elusive ‘business rights’) while downplaying the centrality of social rights questionable. In the same vein, charity is not the safety net for economic neoliberalism, and human development is not a coy answer to stagnating economic growth. On the contrary, ‘charity in truth’ is a morally justified paradigm that needs to shape economic transactions rather than being determined by them.

Efforts are needed — and it is essential to say this — not only to create “ethical” sectors or segments of the economy or the world of finance, but to ensure that the whole economy — the whole of finance — is ethical, not merely by virtue of an external label, but by its respect for requirements intrinsic to its very nature (para. 45).

Another important consideration is the common good. […] The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis (para. 7).

Based on such moral grounding, the activity of human development is thus inherently political: “As well as cultivating differentiated forms of business activity on the global plane, we must also promote a dispersed political authority, effective on different levels.” (para. 41) The apolitical depiction of ‘charity’ during the past decade, furthered by imperfect organizational mandates, powerful vested interests and toothless public figureheads is futile. Practicing charity means engaging in politics, whether micro- or macro-politics, in order to Pope Paul IV’s postulation to further “the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.” (para. 21)

Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift (para. 37).

Idealizing technical progress, or contemplating the utopia of a return to humanity’s original natural state, are two contrasting ways of detaching progress from its moral evaluation and hence from our responsibility. […] The Church had good reason to be concerned about the capacity of a purely technological society to set realistic goals and to make good use of the instruments at its disposal. Profit is useful if it serves as a means towards an end that provides a sense both of how to produce it and how to make good use of it. Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty (paras. 14, 21).

This rejection of profit as the ultimate objective of human societies is precisely a reiteration of the conceptualization of human development as a broader agenda. Rather bizarre, the latter has co-evolved with an increasingly boundless type of global capitalism, and its conceptual teeth have proven blunt amid the force of profit. It has been a feel-good doctrine that, much like the anthroposophical approaches that have gained prominence in post-industrial societies, has managed to mobilize a global following which has endorsed its rosy vision in the most uncritical fashion conceivable.

The reality is different. The task of global governance is deeply political, and this begins at the lowest levels of society. “Globalization certainly requires authority, insofar as it poses the problem of a global common good that needs to be pursued. This authority, however, must be organized in a subsidiary and stratified way […].” (para. 57) This, then, is the truly progressive proposition put forward by Caritas in Veritate: even though all politics is local, it is the communal nature of humanity that can enable global change.

Such praise is not intended to absolve the Church as an organization. Spanning from the suppression of Jesuit colonies to the revocation of Liberation Theology across Latin America, its role in human development has been ambivalent, to say the least. This history reminds us that the Church, too, can err – just as any other human-governed institution (I recognize that this is a decidedly agnostic proposition).

Nevertheless, that Benedict XVI is now repositioning the social sphere as the core component of human development, defined in his Letter as “rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy” (para. 21) is an important step amid the global crisis of capitalism (see also Abbott 2008). That he does so by emphasizing the political nature of necessary reforms is an even more welcome message. It is indeed the political nature of human development that links production and consumption at one place, in one country, with economic and social structures elsewhere, in both theory and practice. To deny this means to obfuscate the global mechanism of power. To embrace it means to open the door to a new, more genuinely social conception of human progress.


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