Tuesday, 15 December 2009

On Surviving and Flourishing

Pope Benedict's 2010 Message for the World Day of Peace is entitled, "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation".

No comments here on the outcome of the Copenhagen Summit (!). However, on another matter, a fascinating article by Craig McLean on the success of Lego, the family-owned toy firm based near Copenhagen, recently appeared under the title 'Play it again'. We sometimes forget that family-owned businesses can get this big - and that big can be beautiful. A lot of lessons can be learned from this story about the creativity and innovation needed to keep a company alive.

The article doesn't talk much about the company ethos, but according to Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, the only corporations that survive and flourish over a long period of time are those which treat their enterprises as "living work communities" - i.e. humanistically rather than as purely economic machines, valuing human talent above money and capital.

Analogously, perhaps, the Pope writes:
The ecological crisis offers an historic opportunity to develop a common plan of action aimed at orienting the model of global development towards greater respect for creation and for an integral human development inspired by the values proper to charity in truth. I would advocate the adoption of a model of development based on the centrality of the human person, on the promotion and sharing of the common good, on responsibility, on a realization of our need for a changed life-style, and on prudence, the virtue which tells us what needs to be done today in view of what might happen tomorrow.
The term "ecology" is quite recent, and is used to refer to a scientific approach that studies the living systems of the planet as an integral whole, interconnected with each other, rather than individual species in isolation. Humanity is taken into account as one more animal species that depends on, but also transforms, the environment around it, but as the Pope points out, human beings are in a special category. Like it or not, we play a central role. What we need is a humanistic ecological vision that "takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations"; that is, our "duties towards the human person" (CV, 51).

[Picture: Wikimedia commons]

Friday, 11 December 2009

George Soros

The financial speculator and philanthropist George Soros recently gave a lecture at a panel discussion in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre, sponsored by the 21st Century School. In it he developed his theory of reflexivity and financial markets. He also announced the creation of an Institute for New Economic Thinking to be launched in April in Cambridge, through the Central European University. Interestingly, the distinguished panelists made several key points: that one's model of the human person determines one's economic model; that the economic order cannot be separated from the religious, political, social, and cultural orders; that there is a need for a new integration of the different academic disciplines in order to study big events (such as the recent recession); and that we have by and large lost the ability to educate students in such a way that they are capable of seeing the big picture, thanks to the fragmentation of our educational system (for more on that theme see my Beauty-in-education blog).

The point of the lecture in Oxford was to see what lessons could be drawn from the recent global financial crisis. For Soros, the lessons were stark. International, deregulated capitalism is over. It does not work. When governments were forced to put the market on to artificial life support, it became clear that markets by themselves do not tend towards equilibrium. The alternative, he concluded, is state capitalism of the kind we see in China (and much less successfully in Russia, he added), where the market is explicitly regulated by the state.

Many will react to this suggestion with scepticism, if not horror. Whatever happened to the Open Society? Personally, I wonder if Mr Soros in his preference for bipolar thinking has jumped too quickly to contrast the unregulated with the state-controlled market, ignoring the actual and potential role of civil society, in the space between the individual and the state. When the dinosaurs collapsed many millions of years ago, tiny little mammals running around their feet inherited the earth. Maybe the alternative to big state-run markets is a multiplicity of overlapping tiny markets, supported by credit unions, cooperatives, guilds and local currencies. That may be a dream, the dream of a small mammal in a world of big beasts, but as for putting our fate in the hands of the state, Leopold Kohr warned us against it long ago:
The fourth and last form of Radicalism is therefore no longer directed against capitalist exploitation, political privilege or religious superstition. Socialists, Liberals, and Christians have taken care of these. It is directed against the power of the state, symbolised by the swollen sponge of Parkinsonian bureaucracy. Since this is proportionate to the size of society on which it feeds, it follows that the most modern form of radicalism, having again to step outside the existing order to accomplish its ends, must aim at centering social life in national communities whose size is so reduced as to render excessive governmental power both impossible and unnecessary. For what good is the welfare state if its costs of administration become larger than the benefits it yields? The new radicals are therefore the decentralisers, the federalisers, the regionalists, the regional nationalists (in contrast to the centralizing, expansionist and hence non-radical nationalistic power megalomaniacs) such as they begin to emerge in all corners of the world.
Image: Sheldonian from Catte Street (Wikipedia Commons)

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Appropriate Technology

The phrase "appropriate technology" is sometimes associated with E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, though his term was "intermediate technology". The impetus for the idea seems to have come from Gandhi's advocacy of sewing machines, spinning wheels and bicycles - relatively simple technologies that nevertheless can make a huge difference to productivity at the local level, empowering the poor, and requiring fewer resources to produce and maintain. Recently there has been a lot of talk about "sand dams", as one example. The decentralised storage of water is an important strategy in semi-arid and arid regions outside the reach of perennial rivers, springs, deep groundwater or other water sources. Building small concrete dams backfilled with sand in seasonal rivers is an ancient method of storing water that is now being used extensively in Kenya and elsewhere to support local farming communities. As water becomes an increasingly scarce resource in many parts of the world, this relatively cheap solution is becoming more important.

The Pope writes about this in Caritas in Veritate (n.27):
Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional. 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. The problem of food insecurity needs to be addressed within a long-term perspective, eliminating the structural causes that give rise to it and promoting the agricultural development of poorer countries. This can be done by investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology that can make the best use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are more readily available at the local level, while guaranteeing their sustainability over the long term as well. All this needs to be accomplished with the involvement of local communities in choices and decisions that affect the use of agricultural land. In this perspective, it could be useful to consider the new possibilities that are opening up through proper use of traditional as well as innovative farming techniques, always assuming that these have been judged, after sufficient testing, to be appropriate, respectful of the environment and attentive to the needs of the most deprived peoples.
Readers may be interested in a rural education project in Sierra Leone, started by a former student of Plater College, John Kanu, under the name Sierra Leone Chesterton Centre.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Community-owned shops

The encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate, encouraged cooperatives and other applications of solidarity within the economy (e.g. section 66). In Britain, the recession seems to have led to just such a development. The Plunkett Foundation, a charity which promotes self-help in rural communities, reports that 2009 saw an unprecedented number of community-run ventures being set up. So far this year, 25 shops have opened and there are a further 65 in the pipeline, which would take the total number to at least 285, stretching from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye. "We think we've reached a tipping point where we have now gone from a few communities doing something that others saw as unusual to a situation where people are now thinking they could do it too. It is seen as a credible, viable option. It is incredibly rare for the shops to fail, closure rates are virtually zero." While the catalyst for action is often the impending closure of a shop, villages which have not had one for more than 20 years are also joining in the burgeoning movement.

Read the article by Ian Johnston.

The Plural Society

The Catholic Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Scola, is a man of enormous energy and vision. His intense interest in education and the Church’s engagement with the modern world have given rise to a number of important initiatives over the last five years, not least the journal Oasis, published twice yearly in several languages including English and Arabic and aimed primarily at Christians in Islamic countries. Oasis is a lavish production, as yet without a distributor in the UK, containing articles and book reviews as well as important extracts from classic works by the likes of Guardini and Ratzinger. The intention behind Oasis is to foster improved understanding between Christians and Muslims.

A extension of this initiative was launched in September under the name ASSET (for “Advanced Studies Society Economy Theology”). ASSET is a research centre devoted to the interdisciplinary and international study of “the plural society” – by which is meant the postmodern collision or, better, hybridization, of multiple cultural influences. Secular liberalism pretends to value freedom whilst excluding religious hypotheses, in order to ensure that faith can only enter the debate under terms already defined by its opponents. If ASSET is to be successful, it must find a way to reintroduce both theology and the social doctrine of the Church into the public debate.

Information about ASSET and copies of Oasis will be available on the Second Spring stand at the TOWARDS ADVENT Catholic cultural festival in London on 14 November.

Picture of Venice by Oliver-Bonjoch (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


“We have the technology” – a stock phrase from the old sci-fi show Bionic Man that might serve as the headline for this reflection. But if a thing can be done, should it be done? If there is money to be made, it most certainly will. There is a growing “transhumanist” movement – described by Peter Snow in a recent issue of Oxford Today – that indicates the shape of things to come. The radical enhancement of human beings through technology has already begun. Athletes often resort to treatments to enhance their physical performance. Now we are developing techniques to alter moods, eliminate depression, enhance memory and cognition, and extend life expectancy to two or three hundred years. The genetic engineering of human beings for specific professions and tasks is also becoming possible. Direct interface between brain and computer – and the worldwide web – is on the cards. You may not need your laptop for much longer. The more extreme transhumanists predict and advocate the replacement of the human species by other, superior forms of life developed artificially to improve on the slow efforts of Mother Nature. (See my earlier blog “The Rise of the Machines”.) But such developments will almost certainly create new forms of “wealth” and “poverty”, or reinforce the existing divide. It is only the rich who will be able to give themselves these advantages – if that is what they are.

To my mind, the deeper question raised by all this is not so much the social effects of transhumanism (which will, of course, be disastrous), but what it reveals about the spirit and philosophy of the age. Believing that natural forms are randomly generated by the algorithms of evolution, people have no intellectual defence against these ideas. They are unable to discern any spiritual message in the material world, any divine wisdom in the realm of nature. The ink on the pages of the world has become invisible, leaving them free to scribble whatever they like. Where do we draw the line between legitimate medical treatment and the creation of monsters, if for us the natural forms do not represent some kind of meaningful norm? There is no solution to all this in legislation.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Economy of Communion

The following notes are borrowed from an article in the Houston Catholic Worker. Follow the link for the full article and for other online resources about social justice. - S.C.

In his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) , Pope Benedict pointed to the Economy of Communion as a promising economic model.

The Economy of Communion in Freedom, as it is officially called, is a network of businesses linked to the Focolare Movement.

The Economy of Communion was launched in 1991 when Focolare founder Chiara Lubich visited Focolare communities in Brazil. During that visit Chiara was disturbed to find a whole ring of shanty towns in a circle surrounding the city, the favelas where people lived in abject poverty, "a crown of thorns" around the city. Those involved with the Focolare in Brazil included not only professionals and the middle class but many of these poor.

After that visit, in order to help meet the material needs of the local community, Chiara Lubich proposed a new economic model where for-profit businesses could generate additional jobs and voluntarily share profits in three parts: 1) for direct aid to those in need, 2) for educational programs that foster "a culture of giving" and 3) for continued business development.

EoC businesses commit themselves to building sound relationships with employees, customers, regulatory agencies, the general public and the environment. These new relationships include those who receive aid, who are truly active participants in the project. Sharing one's needs with dignity and sincerity is appreciated as a contribution to increase the life of communion, and many renounce the help just as soon as they reach a bare minimum of economic independence.

The Focolare movement has millions of members throughout the world. The EoC has brought together 754 companies worldwide that are committed to pursuing higher goals than just profit.

For more on the Economy of Communion, see the offical EoC site, which is also permanently listed on the Second Spring "Economy" site under Alternative Economic Paradigms.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


The Pope does not use the fashionable phrases “global warming” or even “climate change”, but his remarks in the 2009 encyclical (Caritas in Veritate) constitute the most sustained and systematic papal statement yet on the importance of ecology, clearly building on the remarks of John Paul II in Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. The Pope has spoken at a Wednesday audience on this theme during August and will revisit it in his January 2010 Message for the World Day of Peace.

I have already drawn attention to the Pope’s remarks on population and “responsible procreation” in the encyclical, which follow his treatment of rights and duties and precede those on ecology. In the same important chapter he talks of how the pursuit of profit should be subordinated to the goal of a “more humane market and society”. He speaks about how development programmes can be made sustainable, and the need to base them around an accurate assessment of need. It is only after this that he turns to the issue of the environment.

“The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (48). Nature is not more important than the human person, but “is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”

The Pope goes on to highlight the exploitation of non-renewable energy resources and the need for research into alternatives. He insists that “technologically advanced societies can and must lower their domestic energy consumption, either through an evolution in manufacturing methods or through greater ecological sensitivity among their citizens,” with a view to “a worldwide redistribution of energy resources”. This is all part of our “responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world's population” (50).

Economic development cannot be separated from a concern for the environment. In section 51 he states: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.” “The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood.” This human ecology is bound up with a sense of the dignity of the human person, particularly “the right to life and to a natural death”.

There is a reason for that. “The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.” Section 52 concludes: “That which is prior to us and constitutes us — subsistent Love and Truth — shows us what goodness is, and in what our true happiness consists. It shows us the road to true development.”

The Pope refers in passing, as we have seen, to some specific ecological issues such as energy and population (he also mentions the problems of desertification, water supply, and the impact of war, in section 51). But in general he is laying down fundamental principles, and there are several issues that are not mentioned by name. Climate change is undeniable, the destruction of biodiversity unacceptable (the mass extinction of named and unnamed species presently occurring is not receiving the attention it deserves). These and other examples of our impact on nature merely emphasize the central role played by human beings in the world’s ecosystem. The Pope along with other religious leaders (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) is calling on us to take seriously our God-given role as steward and protector of the integrity and harmony of creation.

Symbolic Metaphysics
In an earlier statement, published in July 1989, Cardinal Ratzinger had already linked the theology of the body with environmental ecology:
We have to make evident once more what is meant by the world's having been created 'in wisdom'…. Only then can conscience and norm enter again into proper relationship. For then it will become clear that conscience is not some individualistic (or collective) calculation; rather it is a "con-sciens", a "knowing along with" creation and, through creation, with God the Creator. Then, too, it will be rediscovered that man's greatness does not lie in the miserable autonomy of some midget proclaiming himself his one and only master, but in the fact that his being allows the highest wisdom, truth itself, to shine through. Then it will become clear that man is so much the greater the more he is capable of hearing the profound message of creation, the message of the Creator. And then it will be apparent how harmony with creation, whose wisdom becomes our norm, does not mean a limitation upon our freedom but is rather an expression of our reason and our dignity. Then the body also is given its due honor: it is no longer something "used", but is the temple of authentic human dignity because it is God's handiwork in the world. Then is the equal dignity of man and woman made manifest precisely in the fact that they are different. One will then begin to understand once again that their bodiliness reaches the metaphysical depths and is the basis of a symbolic metaphysics whose denial or neglect does not ennoble man but destroys him. [Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Fundamental Characteristics of the Present Crisis of Faith,” L’Osservatore Romano, July 24, 1989.]
Picture by Rose-Marie Caldecott

Saturday, 1 August 2009

More on Distributism

The best book on "evolved" or contemporary Distributism in its co-operative form is Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society - Alternatives to the Market and the State, by the Australian Race Mathews. This has recently been made available by the Distributist Review Press. If you follow the link paragraph you will find the relevant web page, from which this extract is taken:

Mathews focuses on Antigonish and Mondragon as two major attempts to put the ideas of distributism into practice. Although he had other examples to choose from, these two movements illustrate his central thesis: distributism only works when people have jobs (that is, work) of their own.

In the early 20th century, Antigonish was a movement of consumer co-operatives in Nova Scotia which flourished for a time, but ultimately failed. Although Mathews finds much to praise in their work (and plenty of consumer co-ops flourish today), he uses Antigonish to illustrate how the basic agency dilemma will weaken any co-operative that operates only on the consumer level. You may have a food co-op, but if you hire outside managers to run it, there's nothing particularly co-operative about their incentives. They may as well be working at the mall.

In contrast, Mondragon is a worker co-operative. This co-operative (really a co-operative of co-operatives) is altogether the seventh largest corporation in Spain. Big business? Hardly. Mathews examines the intricate mechanisms by which a worker in a Mondragon factory has a real voice in how his shop is run, a real stake in the success of the whole enterprise, and a real safety net for keeping at work, not getting welfare payments.

By the way, THE DISTRIBUTIST REVIEW has reviewed the encyclical Caritas in Veritate here. The review is by John Medaille, and it is one of the best I have seen.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Although it is not a major theme of Caritas in Veritate, education is not unrelated to the “integral development” of homo socialis, of man in society, and what the Pope says about it is significant. He ties it in to the search for a wisdom capable of integrating the different aspects of our divided culture – a chaotic cultural state which reflects our degraded and fragmented image of man.
“Paul VI had seen clearly that among the causes of underdevelopment there is a lack of wisdom and reflection, a lack of thinking capable of formulating a guiding synthesis, for which ‘a clear vision of all economic, social, cultural and spiritual aspects’ is required. The excessive segmentation of knowledge, the rejection of metaphysics by the human sciences, the difficulties encountered by dialogue between science and theology are damaging not only to the development of knowledge, but also to the development of peoples, because these things make it harder to see the integral good of man in its various dimensions. The ‘broadening [of] our concept of reason and its application’ is indispensable if we are to succeed in adequately weighing all the elements involved in the question of development and in the solution of socio-economic problems” (31).
The broadening of reason is, of course, a theme not just of this encyclical but of his whole pontificate. Here he emphasizes that it must involve collaboration between the various separated academic disciplines under the umbrella of charity (which implies an important role for theology, correctly understood). In fact it is the nature of love as the highest form of knowledge that makes the new synthesis possible.
“In view of the complexity of the issues, it is obvious that the various disciplines have to work together through an orderly interdisciplinary exchange. Charity does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within. Knowledge is never purely the work of the intellect. It can certainly be reduced to calculation and experiment, but if it aspires to be wisdom capable of directing man in the light of his first beginnings and his final ends, it must be ‘seasoned’ with the ‘salt’ of charity. Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile” (30).
But all of this implies an adequate anthropology. The Catholic faith gives us an understanding of the human person in which all the divided pieces fit together, but the world around us continues to divide, and therefore to promote systems of education that erode and corrode our very humanity.
“The term ‘education’ refers not only to classroom teaching and vocational training — both of which are important factors in development — but to the complete formation of the person. In this regard, there is a problem that should be highlighted: in order to educate, it is necessary to know the nature of the human person, to know who he or she is. The increasing prominence of a relativistic understanding of that nature presents serious problems for education, especially moral education, jeopardizing its universal extension” (61).
There are, of course, many books that I could recommend for a deeper study of this question. (I have had a go at writing one myself, called Beauty for Truth’s Sake.) The one I want to single out here is a wonderful little book of essays by Thomas J. Norris called Getting Real about Education from Columba Press. Influenced by Newman, Balthasar and Lonergan he writes, very much in the spirit of Pope Benedict,
“The human being is in fact an image of infinity, being made in the image and likeness of God, and being born with an insatiable hunger for communion with mystery, love, truth and beauty. To disconnect the education of the human being from the integral identity of the human being is to deform and not to educate. Such a person may have everything he or she needs, except a reason to live and a reason to die! If the university project is severed entirely from the moral and spiritual, then the weight of knowledge, scientific technique and technology will crush out of existence the springs of love that are in the world – the family, the community, the volunteers” (p. 12).
By the way, a recent book by James Tooley looks interesting. Called The Beautiful Tree, it tells the story of private education among the world's poor - not mission schools for the rich, or government schools, but co-operative, community schools. This connects with our item above, dated 1 August, which concerns the cooperative movement. Tooley's book is recommended by MercatorNet.com.

Saturday, 25 July 2009


Love that moves the sun and the other stars...

One of the most remarkable discussions in Caritas in Veritate concerns the notion of justice. There are three main places where justice is discussed – first where it is compared to love, secondly where the notion of “rights and duties” is introduced, and finally in relation to the market. How the Pope’s treatment of this subject will end up influencing the development of “justice and peace” groups is anyone’s guess, but it has a close relationship to the more radical things he is saying about the economy.

Justice consists in giving to everyone what is due to them, what they have a right to, what “belongs” to them. The question is, what is due? And how do we know what is due?

Free-market liberals prioritize an understanding of freedom based on the assumption that all moral obligations stem from individual acts of will. In a contract, each party voluntarily binds itself to do or give something in exchange for something else. In a market-dominated society, the contract becomes the basic paradigm for all human relationships. Opposed to this is the traditional understanding that obligations (i.e. duties and rights as twin aspects of responsibility) are often prior to acts of will, because they flow from the relationships constitutive of our identity as creatures in society, creatures who are called to self-fulfilment through love; that is, self-gift.

Obligations such as the duty to pay one’s workers a just family wage, or to allow time for worship, or to preserve human life, are rooted in our constitutive relation to God, not in any decision to grant those rights in return for some advantage to myself. As the Pope says, “if the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time” (43). Human rights are based on the needs of each person to fulfil himself according to his nature – that is what is “due” to us as persons – and on the duty of others to permit that fulfilment.

Henri de Lubac SJ brilliantly traced this back to a failure to admit the “natural desire for God” taught by Aquinas. If human nature has to be made to desire God by a supernatural influence upon it, it must have a natural fulfilment outside God. But the assumption of a natural order separated from the supernatural order proves to be the first step in establishing the autonomy of the natural and the total irrelevance of the supernatural (and of theology) to anything in the “real world” – a truly secular order, a novus ordo saeculorum.

In Caritas in Veritate the Pope insists that justice is “inseparable from charity” (6). It “demands justice”, in the sense of “recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples,” as a first step. For “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them.” (Note the Pope’s emphasis on “legitimate” rights, which is clarified in chapter 4. Not everything we want is a right.) But there is also a sense in which justice demands charity, for the Pope adds elsewhere: “today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place” (38).

De Lubac’s understanding of nature and grace helps us to understand this point. If justice is giving what is due to another in the integrity of their humanity, it must ultimately mean giving to them more than they have a right to expect. After all, I have no natural right to the vision of God, yet I am called to that vision nevertheless. In a sense we can only do “justice” to the integrity of their humanity by loving them (and that is perhaps why at Matt. 5:40 Jesus says, “if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well”). There is no purely natural man whose “due” is determined solely by his natural needs. For in fact our natural needs include the need for love, which is supernatural.

This is why the Pope insists that the market itself be governed not simply by commutative justice, “which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction”, but by distributive and social justice as well (35), and why he concludes that while “Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value…. 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” (37). Thus the Pope’s new synthesis of justice and love leads directly to his proposal for a new “economy of fraternity”.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 5. A Distributist Manifesto?

On 11 July 2009, the international conference of the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture took place at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, on "Distributist responses to the global economic crisis". A full report by one of the four speakers, Allan Carlson, can be read here. As the report mentions, the first speaker, Phillip Blond, wasted no time in claiming the new papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, as "a decisive repudiation of neo-liberal economics and an open embrace of Distributist principles", perhaps even a Distributist manifesto. At the same time, he urged Distributists "to give more thought to how their goals can be made relevant to urban majorities."

Writing in the Guardian, Adrian Pabst, a colleague of Blond's, outlines the Pope’s radical call for a new political economy “that transcends the old secular dichotomies of state vs market and left vs right.” He concludes that “Taken together, these and other ideas developed in the encyclical go beyond piecemeal reform and amount to a wholesale transformation of the secular logic underpinning global capitalism.”
“The state enforces a single standardised legal framework that enables the market to extend contractual and monetary relations into virtually all areas of life. In so doing, both state and market reduce nature, human labour and social ties to commodities whose value is priced exclusively by the iron law of demand and supply.

“However, the commodification of each person and all things violates a universal ethical principle that has governed most cultures in the past – nature and human life have almost always been recognised as having a sacred dimension. Like other world religions, Catholic Christianity defends the sanctity of life and land against the subordination by the ‘market-state’ of everything and everyone to mere material meaning and quantifiable economic utility – an argument first advanced by Christian socialists like Karl Polanyi and his Anglican friend RH Tawney."
That is why we find the Pope writing in the encyclical that "the exclusively binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society". According to Pabst, instead of defending civil society in its current configuration, Pope Benedict wants to see the market-plus-state "embedded within a wider network of social relations and governed by virtues and universal principles such as justice, solidarity, fraternity and responsibility."
“Concretely, the pope encourages the creation of enterprises operating according to mutualist principles like cooperatives or employee-owned businesses, for example the Spanish-based cooperative Mondragon which has over 100,000 employees and annual sales of manufactured goods of over $3bn. Such businesses pursue both private and social ends by reinvesting their profit in the company and in the community instead of simply enriching the top management or institutional shareholders. Benedict also supports professional associations and other intermediary institutions wherein workers and owners can jointly determine just wages and fair prices."
In section 39 the Pope picks up on the teaching of an earlier encyclical, Rerum Novarum, to the effect that "the civil order, for its self-regulation, also needed intervention from the State for purposes of redistribution." (This is something Pabst downplays.) But Pope Benedict adds that this redistribution of wealth by the State is today "evidently insufficient to satisfy the demands of a fully humane economy." Thus he is led to propose something more radical, which Pabst calls a "third way". His summary: "labour receives assets (in the form of stake-holdings) and hires capital (not vice-versa), while capital itself comes in part from worker and community-supported credit unions rather than exclusively from shareholder-driven retail banks." Furthermore, "the world economy needs to switch from short-term financial speculation to long-term investment in the real economy, social development and environmental sustainability."

Those on the free-market side of the social debate are grasping at straws when they dwell on the fact that the Pope has not condemned markets as such (why would he?). They tend to quote the passage where he says “it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility” (adding “it is man's darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se”). But these sentences in section 36 are sandwiched in between some of the Pope's strongest assertions of the need for structural reform of the economic sphere to include ethical concerns from the outset.

We may want to avoid the term “third way”, with all its complicated associations, just as we may wish to avoid the term “Distributism”. No doubt a new term is needed – perhaps we should speak of an “integral” or “fraternal” economy. But whatever we call it, the Pope is certainly pushing for a “new humanistic synthesis” and a “new vision for the future”, because he says so (in section 21).

More on Distributism here.

The picture shows a true "Distributist manifesto" - a new collection of essays by some of the best contemporary writers in the Distributist tradition, published earlier this year by IHS Press. See also this new edition of the best book on "evolved Distributism", Jobs of Our Own by Race Mathews.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 4. The Rise of the Machines

We seem to be haunted by the fear of our machinery and what it is doing to us, or what might happen when it goes wrong. According to landmarks of popular culture such as the Terminator and Matrix movies and Battlestar Galactica, sooner or later the machines will turn upon us. They will use us as a source of energy, or treat us as a biological infection to be expunged. At best they will regard us with disdain. J.R.R. Tolkien dramatized the dangers of technology and the dark side of globalization in his novel The Lord of the Rings. In his letters he refers to the Ring of Power as “the Machine” – a symbol of the attempt to gain power over the world. Sauron “exteriorizes” himself in the form of the Ring in order to bind others, but in so doing he paradoxically makes himself weaker, just as we have done to the degree we have become dependent on our technology. C.S. Lewis described the same process more philosophically in The Abolition of Man.

Pope Benedict offers an unprecedented papal critique of the “technocratic mindset” in his 2009 encyclical Charity in Truth. On the one hand, “Technology enables us to exercise dominion over matter, to reduce risks, to save labour, to improve our conditions of life” (69). On the other hand, it can become “an ideological power that threatens to confine us within an a priori that holds us back from encountering being and truth. Were that to happen, we would all know, evaluate and make decisions about our life situations from within a technocratic cultural perspective to which we would belong structurally, without ever being able to discover a meaning that is not of our own making” (70). That is a perfect description of the premise of The Matrix.

Benedict’s critique rests on a profound Christian anthropology, a sense that we receive our own existence from God, that truth is a “given”, and that our true freedom lies in respect for the “call of being” (70).
“Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own ‘I’ on the basis of a ‘self’ which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person's development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes. By analogy, the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the ‘wonders’ of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it. To this end, man needs to look inside himself in order to recognize the fundamental norms of the natural moral law which God has written on our hearts.” (68).
We have come to rely on “automatic or impersonal forces” to improve our lot, but this is a mistake. “When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research” (71). There must be “moral consistency” between ends and means. That is to say, technology must be at the service not of our desires and intentions, but of truth, and in particular the truth of the human person who is made for love.

The implication of all this is radical. The Pope is calling on us to change the way we think and act.
“Technologically advanced societies must not confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority, but must rather rediscover within themselves the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history. Evolving societies must remain faithful to all that is truly human in their traditions, avoiding the temptation to overlay them automatically with the mechanisms of a globalized technological civilization” (59).

Saturday, 18 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 3. Homo Economicus

What is all this about "gratuitousness" in the market? The Pope's Caritas in Veritate has planted several little bombs under conventional economic thinking. One of the most important is an attack on homo economicus. In section 34 the Pope writes that “Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.” Thus “economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.” Over and over again the Pope insists that “in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity” (36). This is why he calls for new types of economic entity and wealth-creation that do not seek profit as an end in itself (38).

The idea that we are made for self-gift is more familiar to Catholics in the context of papal teaching about marriage and the family. Its most famous reference point is in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially section 24 of Gaudium et Spes, which states that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. This was unfolded by John Paul II into a theology of the body. Pope Benedict applies it to economics, rejecting the idea of “economic man” – the individual acting always in his own interest, a model favoured in business schools the world over – in favour of homo socialis, whose “self-interest” is actually the interest of others and of the group. We are made in such a way (he argues) that our true self-interest is served by giving of ourselves to others. He deepens this point by a “metaphysical interpretation of the ‘humanum’ in which relationality is an essential element” (55) in chapter 5.

This changes everything – but we may not immediately see how. One place to look for clarification is a brilliant 2003 essay by Dr Adrian Walker (an editor of Communio and translator of the Pope's book Jesus of Nazareth) called “The Poverty of Liberal Economics”, now published online for the first time on the Second Spring site. It can be found in Doug Bandow and David L. Schindler (eds), Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny, which brought together writers from different points of view to discuss the triumph of capitalism. Walker argues precisely for the point made by the Pope – that the market is not morally neutral, and that (in his words) “the best, most central paradigm for understanding free economic exchange is not contract among self-interested strangers, but gift-giving among neighbours” (p. 23). In fact, only a “communion of giving and receiving… can unlock for the individual the wealth of his being as a person” (p. 33). By contrast, the market of pure exchange, far from generating genuine wealth, engenders the “ontological poverty” expressed in boredom, stress, alienation, misery.

Walker also shows how liberal economics is based on an inadequate sense of economic freedom, profit, justice and value. Liberal economics guarantees neither real freedom nor real prosperity. He calls for us to address the “necessary task of developing an economics of gift” (p. 42), to reconsider the well-being of local economies, and to decentralize economic power according to the principle of subsidiarity. Like Pope Benedict, he offers a humanistic critique of technical “efficiency”, and claims that “conventional economics, deeply shaped by the liberal tradition, gets economics itself wrong by separating it from theological considerations” (p. 46). For the “neutral” economy that takes no stand with regard to God or the nature of man is a pure illusion.

For further study: Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Random House, 1979); Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Gift: Creation (Marquette University press, 1982), and The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005); and especially Joseph Ratzinger, Chapter 5, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press, 2004), where he talks about Trinity, person, and relation. See also my article "The Theology of Gift".

More notes on controversies sparked by the encyclical to follow. For an overview of the document itself see below.

Friday, 17 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 2. Population control

Is there a population problem? Yes and no. The Zenit news service, which has been running a helpful series of commentaries on the new encyclical, recently interviewed the president of CESPAS (the European Center for Studies on Population, the Environment and Development). Riccardo Cascioli points out that the Pope rejects the view that population increase is the cause of underdevelopment. There is a demographic crisis, but “it is that of the developed countries, which for more than 40 years have a birthrate lower than that of the generational replacement level. In many countries, he says, attempts to reduce population have
“diverted important resources needed to promote true development projects. Moreover, the savage application of these policies – as in the cases of China, India and other Asian countries – has caused grave social disequilibrium, of which the absence of hundreds of thousands of women is merely the most striking aspect. It is no coincidence that this encyclical does not use the concept of ‘sustainable development,’ which is based precisely on a negative view of population.”
Some care in needed here. The Pope does talk of, and advocate, sustainability – for example when he says in section 21 that “The economic development that Paul VI hoped to see was meant to produce real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable,” or when he speaks of “investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology that can make the best use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are more readily available at the local level, while guaranteeing their sustainability over the long term as well” (27), and by implication elsewhere when he argues for taking a long-term view, and for “inter-generational justice” (48).

As far as population control is concerned, the Pope rejects coercive population policies and the fostering by developed nations of an “anti-birth mentality” which is too often confused with cultural progress, arguing instead that “Openness to life is at the centre of true development” (28) and “Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” (44). He points out the disastrous economic consequences for developed nations of a population failing to replace itself, as well as the positive contribution that a youthful population and large families can make to economic as well as social development. The Church has to remind the world that sexuality “cannot be reduced merely to pleasure or entertainment, nor can sex education be reduced to technical instruction aimed solely at protecting the interested parties from possible disease or the ‘risk’ of procreation. This would be to impoverish and disregard the deeper meaning of sexuality”. But he is speaking of “responsible procreation” (44), for he trusts human beings, couples and families to make the right decisions if they are educated and informed.

There are certain technical controversies the Pope does not venture into. One of them is the question of “carrying capacity” – whether of particular countries or of the earth itself. But what has become increasingly clear to everyone in recent years is that population growth, even if it causes problems in many areas and will cause more in the future, is less of a problem than the technology with which it impacts on the environment. More on that another time.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 1. Global governance

The Pope’s comments in his new encyclical on the “urgent need of a true world political authority” that would have “the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums” (67), have attracted a great deal of concerned comment. Could this be a recipe for global tyranny? But the Pope adds: “Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth.” In section 57, he has already said:
“In order not to produce a dangerous universal power of a tyrannical nature, the governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together. 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, if it is not to infringe upon freedom and if it is to yield effective results in practice.”
What does this imply? The Pope does not think that international law should be determined by “the balance of power among the strongest nations” (67), but nor should it be dictated by some arbitrary authority. The authority should not be arbitrary but governed by the principles he has outlined. Furthermore, its only role is that of serving and coordinating the other “layers” of political authority. How this could be done – if it is possible at all – is for others to work out. “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim ‘to interfere in any way in the politics of States.’ She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation” (9).

Also read John Zmirak on "The Pope and Global Tyranny" at Zenit, and Robert A. Gahl Jr's summary article on the encyclical on MercatorNet. Professor Gahl usefully clarifies the point made above concerning global governance by noting:
"some infelicitous translations in the preliminary but official English translation of the encyclical (for instance, 'polyarchic' is rendered as 'stratified', 'polycentric' as "many overlapping layers', and 'Monti di Pietà' as 'pawnbrokers'). The use of 'stratified' rather than 'polyarchic' might seem to imply a clumsy addition of bureaucratic layers of statist government agencies. In contrast, Benedict advocates polyarchic authorities of governance so that a higher, or simply complementary, authority may safeguard the pursuit of a globalized common good while also fully respecting the principle of subsidiarity. By proposing polyarchy, the Pope offers an innovative principle while entrusting its detailed policy implementation to technical experts capable of adjusting the principles in accord with our rapidly changing world."
See also a helpful piece in First Things by Douglas Farrow. More notes on controversies sparked by the encyclical will follow soon. For my own overview of the document see below.

Monday, 13 July 2009

SUMMARY of the Encyclical

Love in Truth is uneven in style - not uncommon in such documents - and has been roundly criticized for incoherence by George Weigel, but I find it an extremely impressive text. It naturally has to cover a vast field, but it does so brilliantly, consolidating and updating the teaching of previous popes (particularly Populorum Progressio and Centesimus Annus) in the light of changed circumstances, but also boldly advancing strong arguments that take Catholic social teaching to a whole new level. As anticipated in previous posts, there are echoes of John Milbank's point that "we need a new sort of market, and a new sort of politics, in which economics and politics are no longer defined in isolation from each other (exclusive regard for the power of money, or the power of law)." Similarly, Michael Sandel had spoken of the fundamental importance of remembering life as a "gift", and stated that "Economics is not a 'value-neutral science'." While avoiding reference to certain specific controversies around “capitalism” (he prefers to speak of the “market economy”) and “climate change” (he speaks of our responsibility to preserve natural resources), the Pope maps out the principles that must guide us in engaging with these controversies and others.

Closely related to the Pope’s two previous encyclicals, on Love and on Hope, this one starts from the fact revealed in Christ that “God is love”. Love is the heart of the Church’s social doctrine and as such is applicable to everyone, Christian or not. But what gives meaning and value to charity, saving it from sentimentality, is truth. Love is not merely a mood or a feeling, but “Logos”, intelligible order. This is what gives the encyclical its teeth, in line with the Pope’s appeal elsewhere to the need for us to broaden our concept of reason, rather than confining it to purely material concerns (31). In chapter 5 he describes the deepest foundation of human solidarity and subsidiarity, namely the nature of the human creature as spiritual, being “defined through interpersonal relations” (53), in the image of the Trinity (54), and growing to maturity by living these relations properly. The Trinity is the basis for diversity at every level within an overall communion. Thus the Pope calls for the social sciences to work with metaphysics and theology in order to do justice to “man’s transcendent dignity” as a social and therefore relational creature. We need “a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation” (53). Connected with this emphasis on wisdom and metaphysics is an insistence that God and theology cannot be excluded from the public realm (cultural, social, economic, political) without damaging or seriously distorting human development (56).

At a practical level, in response to the new circumstances – “global interrelations, the damaging effects on the real economy of badly managed and largely speculative financial dealing, large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth's resources” (21) – the Pope advocates sustainable and holistic development that takes account of all the dimensions of the human person and remains open to the transcendent. In chapter 4 he examines several threats to the integrity of human development. One of these is the proliferation of rights detached from duties, which takes place when rights are no longer understood as rooted in the nature and authentic needs of the person. Another is the impoverishment of sexuality and the imposition of materialistic ideas and policies with regard to the family. Human development on every level will be thwarted by continued attacks on marriage, the unborn, the elderly. He mentions also the excessive centralization of certain development programmes, which take little account of the need for subsidiarity and effective local management. Finally, he stresses the enormous range of duties that arise from our relationship to the environment, which is bound up with our relationship to the poor and towards future generations. Nature is a gift of the Creator containing an inbuilt order which we must respect. Once again, stewardship of the environment cannot be separated from respect for human life, sexuality and the family – “the book of nature is one and indivisible” (51).

One important theme that runs through the encyclical is the inseparability of justice and charity (6). Giving and forgiving transcend justice but also complete it. This is developed further in chapter 3, which establishes the priority of the “gratuitous” (including truth as gift) over the contractual arrangements of the market (35). With this the Pope overturns the model of homo economicus – the self-interested individual who plays such a central role in textbook economic theory. Economic action and commercial logic cannot, he says, be detached from political action and the principle of the common good (36), for the economic sphere is never ethically neutral (36). Economic life depends on three “logics”: not only contractual exchange, but also political justice and unconditional gift (on which justice today depends). Flowing from this is a call to create space within the market for economic entities aiming at a higher goal than pure profit. The “principle of gratuitousness” is not to be confined to civil society or delegated to the State. It is to be fully integrated within the market through the presence (alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and various types of public enterprise, and hybridizing with them) of commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends – for example, by taking account of the interests of all the stakeholders and not just the shareholders (38, 40).

The Pope has opened the door here to the “new economics”, or the development of new economic entities that do not fit the old distinction between for-profit and non-profit enterprise, which perhaps make a profit but treat this always as a means to a social end, including cooperatives, credit unions, micro-finance, and the “economy of communion” (46) – not to mention new “hybrid” forms of economic activity that must be encouraged to emerge in the future (38). He has integrated this with a strong vision of human and environmental ecology, while purifying the latter of materialist ideology, and goes on in chapter 6 to tackle the whole question of technology, in which the distinctive problems of modernity come to a head. There many of these threads come together in his claim that “the development of peoples goes awry if humanity thinks it can re-create itself through the ‘wonders’ of technology, just as economic development is exposed as a destructive sham if it relies on the ‘wonders’ of finance in order to sustain unnatural and consumerist growth. In the face of such Promethean presumption, we must fortify our love for a freedom that is not merely arbitrary, but is rendered truly human by acknowledgment of the good that underlies it” – the fundamental norms of the natural moral law (68).

Technological progress is a legitimate response to God’s command to “till and cultivate” the earth, but this must be comprehended within the “covenant” between human beings and the environment which “should mirror God’s creative love”. Otherwise technology becomes an “ideological power” holding us back from being and truth. (There are important paragraphs on social communications and biotechnology in this connection.) Here as elsewhere, integral human development is prevented by a confusion between ends and means, as if our goal could be limited to the attainment of scientific knowledge, the consolidation of power, or the maximization of profit.

Human development, the Pope concludes, depends on our “rising above a materialistic vision of human events” to include the spiritual dimension, the “beyond” that technology cannot give (77), in a “humanism open to the Absolute” (78). In other words, we must become aware of our constitutive relation to the transcendent, our “calling” towards God for the common good of all, in love and truth.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Charity in Truth

The text of the new social encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI on globalization and 'integral human development' is called Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). The text can be read in English by following the link from the title. My own first comments follow, and a more detailed summary will be added in the next few days. (These comments were solicited by the Zenit news agency, which has also posted the official Vatican summary here. There is also an interesting new blog on social teaching by Andrew Abela of the Catholic University of America here.)

Without claiming that these are the most important features, there are four particular elements of this encyclical on “integral human development” that are worth mentioning because they have so far not been widely noticed.

1. It is closely interlocked with the Pope’s two previous encyclicals, on Love and on Hope, and forms with them a triptych on the Christian faith, in both its theoretical and its practical dimensions – Love and Hope grounded in Truth.

2. It takes Catholic social teaching to a new level by basing it explicitly on the theology of the Trinity and calling for “a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation”. Metaphysics is back.

3. It introduces a new principle – that of “gratuitousness” and “reciprocal gift” – which enables us to break the “hegemony of the binary model of market-plus-State” (38, 39, 41). Economics as a human activity is not ethically neutral and must be structured and governed in an ethical manner; that is, in accordance with the highest ends of man. Economics and politics are not to be separated, because justice must enter into the economy from the outset, and justice is made perfect only in “giving and forgiving”. The radical implications of this principle for the market economy will need time to unfold.

4. Those in the Distributist, Green, and “alternative economics” movements will be encouraged that the encyclical opens the door to the development of alternative “economic entities” that act on principles other than pure profit, or which treat profit merely as a means to a social end, including cooperatives, credit unions, micro-finance, and the “economy of communion” (46). In fact it hopes that new “hybrid” forms of commercial behaviour will emerge in the marketplace in the future (38). It insists that the “weakest members of society should be helped to defend themselves against usury” (65), and insists that use of technology be subordinated to the “holistic meaning” of the human (70). It consolidates the strong environmentalist emphasis of John Paul II within Pope Benedict’s vision of integral human development, linking human to environmental ecology and the natural law (51). Man is called to be the wise steward of creation. The Church must defend earth, water and air as “gifts of creation that belong to everyone”, and help to prevent mankind from destroying itself (51).

In fact the Pope writes that it is “incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet” (50). But all this is set against a spiritual horizon, for we cannot achieve true solidarity with others without transcending our own selfish and material concerns in the “experience of gift” (34).

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Reith Lectures completed

Now that Michael Sandel has completed his four Reith Lectures on the BBC it is possible to look at them as a whole. (Transcripts and podcasts are available on the BBC Radio 4 website, and see below for comments on the first Lecture.) In some ways Sandel, whose religious allegiance is Jewish, has prepared the ground admirably for the forthcoming encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Sandel was arguing, overall, for a 'better kind of politics', one oriented 'less to the pursuit of individual self-interest and more to the pursuit of the common good.'

First he showed that our present politics is too influenced by the ideology that allows markets to intrude where they do not belong - we have drifted 'from having a market economy to being a market society'. In fact not all values are quantifiable or economic, and not every good should be treated as a commodity.

In the second lecture he showed that the right way to value things (for political or other purposes) is to 'figure out the purpose, the end of the social practice in question'. This took him into Aristotle's theory of justice. He concluded that we cannot and should not avoid substantive moral questions in politics - questions of what we mean by the 'good life', which determine the nature of justice. We need a much more open and robust debate about this.

In the third, he applied all this to the question of genetics, and the growing threat of a new 'liberal' or non-coercive eugenics movement, which erodes our fundamental sense of human life and of our own talents and abilities as 'gift'.

Finally, in the fourth lecture, he spoke of the end of 'market triumphalism' and the need for a new philosophy of public life. We need to return to traditions of solidarity and civic virtue instead of trying to avoid moral questions by relying entirely on the mechanism of the market. Economics is not a 'value-neutral science'. The attempt to empty politics of moral controversy (by always trying to be 'non-judgemental') is actually 'corrosive of democratic life'. We should regard ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens.

'So rather than focus on access to private consumption, a politics of the common good would make the case for rebuilding the infrastructure of civic life; public schools to which rich and poor alike would want to send their children; public transportation systems reliable enough to attract commuters from all walks of life; public health clinics, playgrounds, parks, recreation centres, libraries and museums that would, ideally at least, draw people out of their gated communities and into the common spaces of a shared democratic citizenship.'
And he concludes that 'the virtues of democratic life - community, solidarity, trust, civic friendship - these virtues are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are rather like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.' 'A politics of moral and civic renewal depends... on a more strenuous exercise of these civic virtues.'

Well, it seems a bit like wishful thinking in some ways. Very true though! Lets see if the Pope can do better.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Radical Orthodoxy

On 11 July at St Benet's Hall in Oxford the Chesterton Institute based at Seton Hall, NJ, is running a conference on Distributist responses to the economic crisis. One of the speakers is Phillip Blond, who is associated with John Milbank's (shown here) 'Radical Orthodoxy' movement. What is all this about, and how does it related to the British reception of the forthcoming social encyclical, 'Caritas in Veritate'?

Here is Milbank's perceptive analysis of the economic crisis from his fascinating book The Future of Love. He talks of the danger that as a reult of the crisis 'State bureaucratic oligarchy would now start to fuse with the "private" oligarchy and monopoly of capital. Hilaire Belloc's "servile state" would start to emerge.'
'With the current apparent collapse in 2008 of the finance and debt-fuelled domination of neoliberalism in a crisis of the "non-realizability" of abstract assets through linkage to more material ones, this specter now looms. State control of banking could easily dictate greater state direction of production and a greater use of technology - yet still in the interests of the market and still involving an extraction of surplus-value from the dispossessed who do not equitably share in the profit of industry, but are bought off with "wages" and "salaries" (p. 96).'
Milbank stands within the tradition of non-statist Christian "socialism", alongside other types of thinkers who 'characteristically stress subsidiarity (the distribution of money and power to appropriate levels, not necessarily the lowest) and the break-up of central sovereignty through the operation of intermediary associations.'
'These theories can appear as relatively more "left" or "right", yet all in reality question the left/right distinction in its secular form. In relation to the latter, Christians must pursue a politics of seeming paradox from apparently "opposite" vantage points. Thus some within Radical Orthodoxy will follow Phillip Blond in his espousal of a new British form of "Red Toyism". Others, currently the majority, will follow my own brand of "Blue Socialism" - socialism with a Burkean tinge, now common to many on the left, including some within the centre-left (anti New Labour) British Labour Party "Compass Group"' (p. xvii).
But he rightly adds that 'these differences may not be what matters' in the debates concerning
'the role of nuclear and extended families, of co-operatives, of trade guilds, of mutual banks, housing associations and credit unions, and of the law in setting firewalls between business practices, defining the acceptable limits of usury and interest, and the principles that must govern the fair setting of wages and prices. Above all perhaps they concern how we can turn all people into owners and joint-owners, abolishing the chasm between the mass who can only earn or receive welfare and so are dependent and the minority who own in excess' (ibid.).
More philosophically, Milbank argues that we need a new sort of market, and a new sort of politics, in which economics and politics are no longer defined in isolation from each other (exclusive regard for the power of money, or the power of law). Does this sound fantastic, he asks? 'No, the fantastic is what we have: an economy that destroys life, babies, childhood, adventure, locality, beauty, the exotic, the erotic, people, and the planet itself' (p. 263).

And speaking of the New Distributists, a particularly fine new introduction to this important strand of Catholic social thought has been recently published by IHS Press. Titled Beyond Capitalism and Socialism: A New Statement of an Old Ideal, and edited by Tobias J. Lanz, it contains powerful statements by twelve of the most impressive Distributist thinkers alive today.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

What Ails Modern Society

by Peter Maurin (Catholic Worker)

What ails modern society
is the separation
of the spiritual
from the material.

When religion
has nothing to do with education,
education is only information;
plenty of facts,
but no understanding.

When religion
has nothing to do with politics,
politics is only factionalism:
“Let’s turn the rascals out
so our good friends
can get in.”

When religion
has nothing to do with business,
business is only commercialism:
“Let’s get what we can
while the getting is good.”

And when religion
has nothing to do with
either education, politics or business,
you have the religion of business
taking the place of
the business of religion.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Reith Lectures

The social encyclical is due to be signed at the end of June. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than sharpen your mind by reading or listening to the 2009 Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4. This year's lecturer in the prestigious series is Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, and his lectures, entitled A New Citizenship, are about "the prospect for a new politics of the common good". (The Radio 4 website has podcasts and transcripts available.) Outlining the subject matter for his lectures, Professor Sandel said: "The Reith lectures have a storied tradition of engaging the life of the mind and the public square. At a time of political change and economic turmoil, we need new thinking about the common good: What, in an age of globalisation, are the moral limits of markets? What should be the place of moral and spiritual values in public life? How is biotechnology transforming our relation to nature and the environment?"

The lectures are being broadcast both on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. The first ever Reith lecturer was the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1948, who spoke on "Authority and the Individual". Professor Sandel is the author of Liberalism And The Limits Of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982, 2nd edition, 1997), Democracy's Discontent (Harvard University Press, 1996), Public Philosophy: Essays On Morality In Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005), and The Case Against Perfection: Ethics In The Age Of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Also well worth noting and reading is a series of articles by Mick Brown in the Telegraph Magazine, called 'High Street: High Noon', looking at the recession and the world that is emerging from the ashes. The first article looks at the High Street in Chester and goes on to examine the impact of alternative economics in Totnes - fascinating!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Catholic social teaching is no secret

The body of Catholic social teaching built up in modern times has become quite a formidable edifice. Naturally successive papal encyclicals on the subject have to reprise their predecessors as well as develop the teaching further. Each repays careful study in its own right, but conveniently the Church has summarized the accumulated tradition so far for us in her Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The soon-to-be-released social encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI will build on this foundation.

In my first posting, I tried to reduce the whole body of principles to four: personality, solidarity, subsidiarity and sustainability. The starting point of the whole teaching is the revelation of the meaning of the human person, created in the image of the Trinitarian God - relational not merely individual. On this depends all our dignity, our rights, and the responsibility to act accordingly. A Dominican friend has pointed out that this theme was developed beautifully in an important but little-known document of the International Theological Commission of the Holy See called Communion and Stewardship (2004). The document discusses the theology of the divine image, including its relevance to gender, community, ecology, evolution, science and technology. Here are some extracts concerning ecology:
Created in the image of God to share in the communion of Trinitarian love, human beings occupy a unique place in the universe according to the divine plan: they enjoy the privilege of sharing in the divine governance of visible creation. This privilege is granted to them by the Creator who allows the creature made in his image to participate in his work, in his project of love and salvation, indeed in his own lordship over the universe. Since man's place as ruler is in fact a participation in the divine governance of creation, we speak of it here as a form of stewardship. [57] ...Human beings exercise this stewardship by gaining scientific understanding of the universe, by caring responsibly for the natural world (including animals and the environment), and by guarding their own biological integrity. [61] ...A misunderstanding of this teaching may have led some to act in reckless disregard of the natural environment, but it is no part of the Christian teaching about creation and the imago Dei to encourage unrestrained development and possible depletion of the earth’s resources. [73]

Thursday, 2 April 2009

What Is Happening to Capitalism?

Geoff Mulgan has an interesting article in the April 2009 issue of Prospect magazine, entitled 'After Capitalism'. It begins: 'The US banking system faces losses of over $3,000bn. Japan is in a depression. China is headed for zero growth. Some still hope that urgent surgery can restore the status quo. But more feel that we are at one of those rare points of inflection when nothing is the same again.'

Meanwhile the Spring issue of RSA Journal is concerned, in the words of its editorial by Matthew Taylor, with the question of 'whether the economic collapse is an accident or a revelation,' and wants to take the debate to a new level.
Market globalisation, turbo-consumerism, the fetishising of economic growth, indifference to inequality, scepticism towards the state and even the very idea that human beings are best understood as rational, self-interested, individuals: all these aspects of what some in the UK might loosely call the neo-liberal inheritance are now subject to a concerted attack.
The first article that follows this RSA editorial, by Oliver Kamm, argues that we are facing not a 'crisis of capitalism' but 'a severe malfunctioning of one part of the capitalist economy, its financial sector' - to be corrected not by increased protectionism and state control but by openness and regulation (and in the short term by injecting money, purging bad debts and writing down assets). Pete Lunn writes of the rise to prominence of the 'behavioural economists' who argue that human beings function economically in a much less 'rational' manner than neo-liberalism assumes. We behave as a herd (even experts and CEOs), we often make worse decisions the more information we are given, and we act on the basis of trust and a sense of fairness, rather than as 'independent, rational economic agents out to maximise their own self-interest'. An article by Jonah Lehrer then examines the psychology of spending, and the way credit cards lead us into temptation, bypassing the normal inhibitions that constrain desire, and he applies this principle to the subprime mortgages that triggered the present crisis. Finally, Barbara Taylor asks the question whether men are to blame for the crisis more than women, pointing out that in Iceland the male bosses have now been replaced by females. This leads into a fascinating discussion of the differences between men and women and the history of feminism.

Back at Prospect magazine, Geoff Mulgan wants to look at how things might change for 'capitalism'. But what does this ubiquitous word actually mean?
The French historian Fernand Braudel offered perhaps the best description of capitalism when he wrote of it as a series of layers built on top of the everyday market economy of onions and wood, plumbing and cooking. These layers, local, regional, national and global, are characterised by ever greater abstraction, until at the top sits disembodied finance, seeking returns anywhere, uncommitted to any particular place or industry, and commodifying anything and everything. Capitalism became an “ism” when the vigorous banking and trade of Genoa and Venice, London and Bruges, combined with inventive manufacturing to create a world where the holders of abstracted capital became dominant, displacing the many other contenders for pole position, from warriors and scholars to bureaucrats and makers of things.
He goes on to talk of various versions of capitalism that have flourished at different times and in different cultures, and then about alternative utopias that have been proposed relatively recently:
The answers ranged from communism to managerialism, and from hopes of a golden age of leisure to dreams of a return to community and ecological harmony. Today these utopias can be found in the movements around the World Social Forum, on the edges of all of the major religions, in the radical sub-cultures that surround the net, and in moderated form in thousands of civic ventures across the world. They are bound to find new adherents. But their weakness and the weakness of much contemporary anti-capitalist literature (from David Korten, Wendell Berry, Alain Lipietz or Michael Albert) is that they offer little account of how their visions might be realised and how powerfully entrenched interests would be overcome.
Daniel Bell and others have spoken of the way capitalism tends to erode the traditional ethical and social norms on which its success depends. Others point out that as populations become older in the developed nations, a growing number of elderly will need more and more support from a dwindling group of youngsters. Even the success of capitalism works against it, forcing it to 'invest ever more in creating new needs fuelled by anxiety about status, or beauty and body mass'. But for a deeper insight, Mulgan turns to Venezuelan economist Carlota Perez:
Perez is a scholar of the long-term patterns of technological change. In Perez’s account economic cycles begin with the emergence of new technologies and infrastructures that promise great wealth; these then fuel frenzies of speculative investment, with dramatic rises in stock and other prices. During these phases finance is in the ascendant and laissez faire policies become the norm. The booms are then followed by dramatic crashes, whether in 1797, 1847, 1893, 1929 or 2008. After these crashes, and periods of turmoil, the potential of the new technologies and infrastructures is eventually realised, but only once new institutions come into being which are better aligned with the characteristics of the new economy.
Here is the relevance to our present situation:
Perez suggests that we may be on the verge of another great period of institutional innovation and experiment that will lead to new compromises between the claims of capital and the claims of society and of nature. In retrospect these periodic accommodations are as integral to capitalism as financial crises—indeed it’s only through crisis and institutional reform that capitalism adapts to a changing environment and rediscovers the moral compass that is so vital for markets to work well.
'If another great accommodation is on its way,' he adds, 'this one will be shaped by the triple pressures of ecology, globalisation and demographics.' However:
Forecasting in detail how these might play out is pointless and, as always, there are as many malign possibilities as benign ones, from revived militarism and autarchy to stigmatisation of minorities and accelerated ecological collapse. But the new technologies—from high speed networks to new energy systems, low carbon factories to open source software and genetic medicine—have a connecting theme: each potentially remakes capitalism more clearly as a servant rather than a master, whether in the world of money, work, everyday life or the state.
This sounds nice, but what could it mean? He talks about the pressure for increased regulation and accountability, the rise of social and ethical investment, and various forms of mutualism.
Even money itself may be rethought. The privileges that accompany the ability to create money will come in future with more responsibilities, but we may also see more enthusiasm for alternative currencies that are more embedded, like the local currencies in Germany or timebanks.
There are already 'strong movements to restrain the excesses of mass consumerism: slow food, the voluntary simplicity movement and the many measures to arrest rising obesity, are all symptoms of a swing towards seeing consumerism less as a harmless boon and more as a villain.' The evolution of low-carbon production methods, and the success of open-source software, cooperatives and employee-owned firms like John Lewis, point towards the new types of capitalism Mulgan has in mind, although here, he says, the decisive issue 'is whether capitalism can find a new accommodation with the family'. He concludes that there is
no inherent contradiction between capitalism and community. But we have learned that these connections are not automatic: they have to be cultivated and rewarded, and societies that invest large proportions of their surpluses on advertising to persuade people that individual consumption is the best route to happiness end up paying a high price.
I hope it is clear why I am summarizing all this material on a blog about Catholic social teaching. It is not that any of these authors are Catholic (as far as I know), but it does seem to me that the new ideas thrown up by the crisis and new approaches being suggested in mainstream journals do dovetail quite nicely with CST. The teaching of the Popes and other religious traditions has inevitably appeared of marginal interest to a civilization secure in its own liberal ideology. But that security has vanished, and a deeper wisdom is being sought.

See also Democratic Capitalism, Adrian Pabst on Karl Polanyi, the Progressive Conservatism project, Proutism, Allan Carlson's Third Ways, an online book on Subsidiarity, Distributist Perspectives, and John Zmirak on Wilhelm Roepke