As you may have heard by now, yesterday the Vatican, specifically the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, released a note on Global Financial Reform. Let me first say that I am not an economist, so my comments should be taken with more than a grain of salt. Secondly, I am not going to be offering a thorough summary or analysis of the document (for that, I highly recommend that you check out Kevin Ahern’s excellent and sophisticated post over at Daily Theology), just my initial reactions. And finally, I intend for my comments not so much to be Definitive Statements of Truth as much as invitations to discussion and debate.
1. Despite the widespread perception that this document presents a resounding rebuke to economic conservatives, I think this document actually vindicates the defenders of capitalism. In arguing that, if adequately regulated, capitalism is the best hope for the poor, this document actually affirms a central tenant of economic conservatism.
2. I think that the reason so many people are interpreting this as being a “radical” critique of the economic status quo is that we are confusing political rhetoric with political reality. Republicans and Democrats both want us to think that the choice is between the “free” market or governmental regulation–Republicans of course want us to think that it is when the government gets involved in the economy that things go wrong while Democrats want us to think that it is when the government doesn’t get involved in the economy that things go wrong.
However, in perpetuating this narrative, Republicans and Democrats both help obscure the fact that there is not and never has been any such thing as a “free” market–capitalism is and has always been not merely a social construction, but a government construction. Despite their rhetoric on the campaign trail, the last thing economic conservatives want is for the government leave the market alone.
For example, many of the largest and most powerful corporations depend almost entirely on government contracts, and this is especially true in the military and space technology sectors. Without the United States’ government hiring corporations to develop certain weapons or provide it with certain services, these corporations would be much less profitable than they are today. The United States government is many of these corporations’ best customers. For example, does anyone really think Halliburton wants the government out of the economy?
Think also of the United States government’s relationship to the timber industry. The United States not only lets big timber companies harvest timber in national parks, which are publicly owned and maintained via tax dollars, but also builds the roads, again with public tax dollars, that these companies then use to access the timber. Even worse, the US government often sells timber companies these contracts at very low bids.
When we recognize that capitalism is both created and maintained by governments, it is easier to see why the Vatican’s call for greater regulation of the economy is not necessarily in and of itself a critique of the economic status quo.
In other words, the problem seems to be the exact opposite of the way the Vatican and many “liberals” conceive of it: rather than being under-involved in the economy, the government is too involved in it. Instead of desiring a situation in which the government tries to contain with one hand the fire that it stokes with the other (which is what I’m claiming the Vatican document inadvertently is doing), we might wonder whether the poor would actually be better off if the government simply stopped stoking the fires of corporate capitalistic domination.
3. And this brings me to my third point: in our current world order, in which power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, is the establishment of a “supranational” organization to ensure that the global financial industry works to serve the good of the poor even possible? What makes us think that such an organization could succeed where the IMF and the World Bank failed? This seems especially unlikely given that the Vatican wants this organization to be voluntarily established rather than coercively imposed upon the nations of the world. When, in the history of the world, have the powerful, as a group, ever voluntarily surrendered their power? As Martin Luther King, Jr. argued, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
In other words, the problem would seem to be not that capitalism is improperly regulated but that capitalism, by its very nature, produces unequal and highly concentrated distributions of wealth which leads to a similarly concentrated and uneven distribution of political power both within and among nations. It seems not unreasonable to ask whether a truly democratic distribution of power within and among nations is even possible as long as we have an economic system that, by definition, concentrates wealth in the hands of the few.
As my friend Glenn Brown argued on my facebook wall, any solution that fails to take this into account will inevitably come up short and maybe even make the problem worse:
“The real problem is the assumption that the solution is a central, transglobal oligarchic power…or, just as explicitly, that some centralized governing power will be able to decree and govern a global economy — curiously like how Rome thinks the body of Christ is meant to function. Realistically, the world economy is already run by such a thing, and it does not work
The idea of a transnational governing body with concerns beyond national interest — this is already the state of global capital. A really chilling statistical study in New Scientist showed how out of nearly 37 million companies in the world, 147 of those control most of the economy. The [Vatican’s] diagnosis of problems is sound, the solution is flawed.”
And you can read this study here. Rather than getting into what seems like an unwinnable arms race between the big gun of corporate capitalism and the even bigger gun of governmental regulation, perhaps we should be thinking of ways to de-centralize economic and therefore political power. Doing so would not only take power away from those who have the ability to impose their will on the masses (and therefore obviate the need for a “supranational” organization) but also address some of Kevin’s concerns that rather than simply protecting the poor, we must remove the structural obstacles that prevent the poor from exercising their own agency. Rather than rescuing “the poor,” we should simply let them save themselves.
The upcoming “Bank Transfer Day” on November 5th, which calls for people to take their money out of “too-big-to-fail” banks and invest them in local Credit Unions or Community Banks which are more likely to invest in ways that help the poor, seems to be one step in this direction.
4. And finally, the most profound critique of this document comes from my friend Steven Battin, who is finishing up his Ph.D in systematic theology at Notre Dame. Steven prophetically argues that the recent economic crisis is not new to history but is merely the continuation of an imperialist and white supremacist world order begun more than 500 years ago when Pope Nicholas V granted all of “America” to Spain and all of “Africa” to Portugal, giving them
“full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.“
Rather than a “new” crisis, this is yet another iteration of the same old crisis. Steven argues:
“Isn’t this the same crisis that created a climate of hostility and violence for which people have been offering “solutions” over the last 500 years? Within Europe’s own intellectual tradition: Wasn’t this the point of naming and critiquing the control of the “means of production,” “primitive accumulation,” and the resulting “alienation” of persons within a capitalist system? Isn’t this crisis that Tupac Amaru tried to solve by leading an indigenous rebellion/revolution in Peru in the 16th century? Wasn’t it this crisis that sparked a variety of “solutions” articulated in the long and varied tradition of black”critical theory” in the writings and practices of [W.E.B.] DuBois, CLR James, Franz Fanon, MLK, Malcom X, James Baldwin, to name only a *very few*? But oh yeah… “capitalism”–built on “collective greed and the hording of goods on a great scale”–is the best hope for the impoverished populations that it created, so when non-Europeans or non-elite Europeans critique the crisis and its consequences *at its roots*, they clearly “know not what they do.”
Steven goes on to say:
“The attitude in this document reminds me of what the anti-colonialist thinker Aime Cesaire said with respect to the Holocaust/Shoa: the western European beneficiaries of colonialism/slavery didn’t see the systematic, technocratic, large scale genocide of peoples intrinsic to its “success” until those very techniques, honed in the colonies, were applied in their own back yard. The “new” and fundamental crisis is only a real crisis, because it will “ultimately undermine the very foundations of democratic institutions, even the ones considered most solid.” …The chicken is coming home to roost like never before! *Now* this longstanding, intrinsic problem is a problem worth naming and critiquing! Now it needs solutions!”
Steven is not so much questioning the intentions of the authors as he is their understanding of history. Steven’s point is that people living on “the underside of history” (women, people of color, indigenous people) have been living in a state of “crisis” for centuries. The fact that we frame this moment in time as a historic crisis reflects not so much a universal truth but the fact that Vatican seems to be embedded within a white, Euro-centric perspective. Steven’s analysis also challenges the Church (and all of its members) to see itself not just as one who offers a potential solution to this “crisis” but one who has historically been part of the problem.