- Laudato Si’ excerpts on Integral Ecology and the Common Good
- Laudato Si’ excerpts on Global Inequality and the Technocratic Paradigm
- Laudato Si’ excerpts on Biblical Wisdom and Ecological Spirituality
Summary: We cannot fight ‘environmental degradation’ unless we also address ‘human and social degradation’ (§ 48). The elites of the world, who sometimes use ‘green rhetoric’, have failed to hear the ‘cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (§ 49). Blaming ‘population growth’ is a way of ‘refusing to face the issues’ of global inequality (§ 50). An ‘ecological debt’ exists between ‘certain countries’, particularly ‘between the global north and south’ (§ 51). Every ‘ecological approach’ must recall that the earth and her fruits ‘are meant to benefit everyone’ (§ 93). ‘The natural environment is a collective good’ of ‘all humanity’ (§ 95). Humanity has taken up ‘technology and its development’ according to ‘a paradigm’ which has ‘squeezed the planet dry beyond every limit’ (§ 106). Technology is ‘not neutral’; it ‘conditions us’ (§ 107). ‘Finance dominates the real economy’; ‘profit’ and ‘the market cannot guarantee’ that technology will lead to ‘integral human development’ (§ 109).
48. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”.  …
49. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.
50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues… we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”.  …
51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.
93. Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”.  …
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”. 
106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm… Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit…
107. …We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups…
109. The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy…. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.  At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”,  while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures…
Excerpts from the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis.
Summary: The Book of Genesis teaches that human life is not ‘adrift in hopeless chaos,’ but that God’s plan includes humanity (§ 65). Human life is grounded in three fundamental relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself; originally in harmony, these relationships were disrupted by sin (§ 66). Our ‘dominion’ of the earth is not ‘absolute ownership’; we are subject to God’s will for ‘mutual responsibility between human beings and nature’ (§ 67). Our awareness of ecological crisis must translate into new habits, especially for those ‘in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence’ (§ 209). Christianity has a ‘precious contribution’ to make towards an ‘ecological spirituality’ which is needed to ‘motivate’ and ‘inspire’ humanity (§ 216). We all need an ‘ecological conversion’ which ‘is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience’ (§ 217).
65. Without repeating the entire theology of creation, we can ask what the great biblical narratives say about the relationship of human beings with the world. In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26)… How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”. 
66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.  This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.
67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church… The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).
209. An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits. Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them. In those countries which should be making the greatest changes in consumer habits, young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment. At the same time, they have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits…
216. The rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity. Here, I would like to offer Christians a few suggestions for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living. More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity”. 
217. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.  For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.
Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 Nov 2013), 261: AAS 105 (2013), 1124.
Excerpts from the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis.
Summary: The earth, our home, is beginning to look ‘like an immense pile of filth’ (§ 21) due to our ‘throwaway culture’ of non-renewable resources and immoderate consumption (§ 22). This has caused global warming, which damages the common good of our climate (§ 23). Therefore, we need an integral ecology that recognizes our interconnectedness to nature (§ 139), the ‘immense dignity of the poor’ (§ 158), and ‘intergenerational solidarity’ (§ 159). Otherwise, we may leave our children a world of ‘desolation’ and ‘catastrophe’ (§ 161).
21. Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.
22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.
23. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight at the earth’s surface. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.
139. When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.
158. In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.
159. The notion of the common good also extends to future generations… We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity…
161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.
But we are Christians; we are forbidden to despair. What God sends us as chastisement we will endure, and what princes attempt against the common good we will resist. If Trumpism is a turn for the worse, it is not the first time America has gone astray: his racism, his casual misogyny, his exploitation of the weak are nothing new to Americans who have suffered these at the hands of their rulers and their bosses.
Trump puts himself forward as a protector of the working man, and as an enemy of legal abortion. His long career of chicanery gives us no confidence that he will honor these commitments, but those who have supported him in pursuit of these ends are mistaken, not evil, and if they become disappointed in Trump we hope the work of this Collective will provide them with clarity and guidance.
But Trump promises other things that admit of no defense. His contempt for women, his kindling of xenophobia, his cheerful calls for torture and brutality, and his assaults on the solidarity that should bind all Americans are a threat to our common life. All Christians, all people of good will should do what they can to oppose these.
Where voting will make a difference, vote; persuade those who are capable of persuasion. Much can and should be done, even within the bounds of liberalism, to oppose the worst of what Trump promises. But it is not in the interest of liberalism that we oppose him. Our struggle is beyond Trump toward the order of which he is the current avatar; it is not simply an unqualified President-Elect but an unjustifiable way of life that we condemn.
Without warning or fanfare, in the midst of his analysis of commodities and exchange in the second chapter of Capital, Marx inserts a block quote (in Latin) from the Apocalypse of John.
Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt…Et ne quis possit emere aut vendere, nisi qui habet characterem aut nomen bestiae, aut numerum nominis eius
These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name
In other instances, when Marx makes use of literary references they tend to be short, to the point, and surrounded by explanation. The Much Ado About Nothing reference at the end of the first chapter, and the Faust reference that closely precedes the paragraph in question function as witty illustrations of his opponents’ poor habits of thought. For the Apocalypse citation, Marx stitches together two different passages and gives no explicit explanation for its use. The tone is not humorous and the relationship is not clear. Why would a self-proclaimed atheist-materialist desire to plunge his account of the formation of the money as a universal equivalent for exchange within the cosmic drama of the Evangelist?
There are at least three possibilities. One would be to cast Marx as a cynical rhetorician. He is appealing to a mythological framework to further the dramatic impact of his own historical-economic analysis. Perhaps he is afraid that the sociological nuts and bolts required his system does not provide sufficient kindling for revolution. A story of the final battle between the Messiah and the Ancient Dragon, however, is both recognizable per se and its attendant signs are easily transposed to other significations.
Another possibility could be that it has no deeper significance. Marx was both well-educated and widely read. Fowkes, a translator of Capital, notes “it is generally agreed that Marx was a master of literary German. A translation which overlooks this will not do justice to his vivid use of the language and the startling and strong images which abound in Capital”. Sometimes a display of literary erudition is its own reward.
Thirdly, it could be that Marx used the Book of Revelation because he glimpsed a way to read the imagery of Biblical apocalyptic in an economic, political, and historical manner. I find this to be the most interesting possibility.
There is at least some indication that Marx was comfortable analyzing the operations (and apologists) of political economy in theological and religious terms. His remark about commodities as “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” may stand as a simple pejorative if taken singly. But, in conjunction with a few other passages, it seems to indicate an implicit aspect of his analysis.
He chastises the political economists who presumptively enshrine certain forms of labor and value as self-evident truths of human action which are imposed by necessity. To his mind, this is to treat previous forms of economic and social organization “in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religion.” The footnote to this passage takes us to The Poverty of Philosophy where Marx makes a similar comparison about the naïve distinction between “natural” and “artificial” institutions. “In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God…Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.”
For Christians, this has a double significance. Negatively, it means that Marx considers theologians to be as naïve as political economists in elaborating doctrine. Positively, it means that Marx believes that political economy forces a caesura on the development of history by using a theological apparatus. And in locating the essence of political economy in the use of a particular commodity that can evaluate all other commodities, he identifies the (anti)messianic center of this aberrant theology: money.
The moment in Capital when Marx names money as the universal equivalent of exchange is also where he decides to juxtapose the passages penned by St. John. I think he intended us to take the similarities quite seriously. The terrifying unity of purpose with which the kings of the earth hand over their power to the beast matches the social action necessary to establish the monetary system. The mark of the beast dominates and drives all market-relations and bears a curious numerical quality which remains at the same time “a human number.” It is important to remember that the Beast from the Earth establishes images of the Beast from the Sea and rules by invoking his authority. For St. John, this bestial image would not be a true icon leading from the material to the divine, but a base idol, or fetish, the very word Marx uses to characterize this use of commodities.
Further evidence that Marx took his exegetical interlude seriously comes a little later. His comments on the material used for commodity-money continue to have religious overtones. “This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth, the direct incarnation of all human labor. Hence the magic of money…The riddle of the money fetish is therefore the riddle of the commodity fetish, now become visible and dazzling to our eyes.” Marx stresses the chthonic origin of money, as well as mentioning its strange desire to incarnate itself. Likewise, the Beast of the Earth emerges from the deep places and enacts his own demonic parody of the Incarnation. In his own historical-economic mode, Marx echoes the purpose of St. John, which is to lay bare the mystery of iniquity.
For the Christian, then, what is the usefulness of this reading? The genre of apocalyptic, as others have stated, is not easily translated into the realms of history, politics, and economics. Notable exceptions like Joachim of Fiore remained largely in the background until the advent of liberation theology, and the resurgence of political theology. At least one jumping off point is Marx’s account of commodity-fetishism. Aided by this conceptual framework, we can more easily identify how commercial empire of the Whore of Babylon sins against love of neighbor and love of God. Consider the song of the merchants after the devastation of Babylon:
And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.
Two things are worth noticing here. First, slaves are deliberately placed at the end of what is essentially a cargo manifest. Not only are human being categorized among lifeless commodities, they are at the end of the line. But St. John interrupts this lament over lost profits with a simple damning gloss: slaves are human souls. The image of God in man is in direct conflict with the logic of the profit-motive. The Evangelist tells us that worshipping the bestial fetish determines one’s ability to operate in the market-place. All the merchants have to do is deny the image of God in man and worship instead the image of the Beast, the image that Marx identifies as money. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself and treat human beings as subject to the laws of the market-place: like commodities.
Second, almost all of the items in the inventory are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture as either being material for building a dwelling of God (precious metals, stones, wood, fabrics), or for liturgical celebration in a temple (incense, sacrificial animals, bread and wine). In only pursuing exchange of materials for wealth, Babylon and her merchants denied any higher purpose for matter or the created order. They are an ignoble counterfeit of King David who demanded to pay the full price for the site of worship and the gifts because he would not give to the Lord that which cost him nothing. For them, nothing can be given to the worship of God because it has no value apart from cost. The metaphors of whoring and fornication drive home their exclusive mentality of pleasure and profit. Creation must wait for the sons of God to be released from its status as an exchange-fetish and revealed as a luminous sign of the divine and the material condition of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Marx suffered more from what he was unable to say (because of his materialism and rejection of Christianity) than what he positively outlined in his critique of political economy. The eschatological destiny of mankind and Creation remained hidden (or at least obscure and distorted) for him. Instructed by divine revelation, we seek after the holy visions of prophets, apostles, and evangelists. We desire to understand all political, historical, and economic within the mystical and apocalyptic grammar that began in the Old Testament within the images of Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel. The Apocalypse of John gathers together all previous prophecies and apocalyptic in the final institution of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Lamb of God. The liturgy, social teaching, and dogmas of the visible Church constitute a single narrative whole of restoring and transfiguring heaven and earth in all its aspects. The Church already proclaims the need for repentance and conversion to all nations in her teachings and in her liturgy. For the kingdom of heaven is among us. It would be inexcusable to separate out those parts of Holy Mother Church that speak authoritatively on political and economic matters as utopian. St. John has lifted the veil and confirmed the teachings of St. Paul that our warfare is not against flesh and blood but principalities and power, and the systems of this world.
Spiritual warfare in this cosmic drama is most decidedly not private warfare. The witness of the Church must be allowed to speak in its fullness or it risks fragmentation and incoherence. As commentators like Eugene McCarraher and David Bentley Hart have recently pointed out, Mammon is ascendant in the form of global capitalism and it desires the worship due to God alone. Marx’s critique of political economy is of great help in exposing this particularly subtle and elusive fetish. Still, like all philosophies, Marxism must be disciplined and subjected to the holy mysteries and authority of the Church. We make a war of intellectual conquest on all things in order to bring them to subjection under the rule of Christ. Augustine and many other Fathers tell us that the true purpose of the gold the Israelites took from the Egyptians was to adorn the tabernacle of the living God. The purpose of our plundering should be no different.
From our discussion in Parts I and II, we have concluded that a Catholic may indeed be a socialist, since our generic definition of socialism both escapes the popes’ condemnations of “socialism” and coheres with the moral principles that they delineate in several encyclicals. According to that generic definition, recall, “socialism” refers to “an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.” But of course, this definition is highly abstract, and any concretely-existing socialism will have to fill out that definition in various ways. Even if socialism in the abstract is consonant with the Catholic faith, is this also true of any of socialism’s concrete species?
This question has been already addressed, in a fragmentary and implicit way, in the preceding two essays, as we have dispelled misunderstandings about the Church’s relation to socialism. But here we will take up the question explicitly and systematically. While our discussion will inevitably remain fairly general, we will attempt to provide at least a more specific account of what a Catholic socialism might look like.
It is important to note that we will be addressing the nature only of a Catholic socialism – there may well be other forms of Catholic socialism harmonious with the Church’s teachings, and there are certainly differences of opinion among Tradinistas. It is similarly important to mention that, of the various forms of socialism, there is no “correct” one abstractly; whether this form of socialism ought to be favored in that society depends upon that society’s particular circumstances – circumstances that are beyond our scope here. The following remarks, then, should be taken simply as programmatic ideals, indicating the broad contours of a Catholic socialism.
If socialism is to constitute a genuine alternative to capitalism, the key question we should ask is not whether it will contain markets or not, but rather what role markets will play in society. Under capitalism, markets impose a set of imperatives, as most workers must sell their labor-power in order survive and most capitalists must compete on the market or go under. These structural imperatives leave ordinary workers badly off, forced to accept low wages and abdicate creative control over their labor processes to capitalists because of the latter’s greater bargaining power on the market.
Markets impose a set of imperatives when one’s livelihood depends upon the market – especially the livelihood of ordinary working people. So the coerciveness of markets hinges critically (though not only) upon the system of wage-labor, in which the majority of people must sell their labor-power to some employer on pain of destitution. This is a system in which labor-power is commodified: the “production” of labor-power – which is simply the daily subsistence of the laborer – requires purchasing necessities on the market, which requires receiving a wage, which requires finding a job.
Breaking markets’ coercive hold over life would demand decommodifying labor-power. With labor decommodified, markets would undergo a transformation, now not imposing a set of imperatives, but rather becoming a realm of opportunities.1 Only when success on the market determines one’s livelihood do the “coercive laws of competition” exert all of their pressures; and in abolishing the former, we abolish the latter, putting people on a more equal footing on the market.
To see this more clearly, consider the nature of the market in those pre-capitalist societies in which the bulk of production is carried out primarily by independent peasant proprietors.2 Having direct access to means of production, these peasant proprietors are genuinely free to engage (or not) in market exchange, since they could produce for themselves everything that they need for survival. Because their livelihood is not dependent on the market, the market activities that they do engage in need not conform to the abstract standards of competitiveness, efficiency, and so forth that characterize markets under capitalism. Like the kid hired to mow one’s lawn that we mentioned in Part II, these peasants engage in market activity not because of any economic compulsion, but simply because of a desire to acquire some extra goods.3
With livelihood sustained independently of the market, those competitive pressures peculiar to capitalism – generated by the drive to accumulate capital – cease to exist. One may well wish to minimize labor-time, producing things more quickly rather than more slowly; but this desire for labor-minimization does not derive from any social imperative based on competition. Markets would still exist, but they – or their imperatives – would no longer regulate human life.4
The crucial task for socialists, then, is to make livelihood independent of the market – to decommodify labor-power and to abolish the wage-system. Note, however, that while making livelihood market-independent entails the decommodification of labor-power, the entailment does not run in the opposite direction: it is possible for labor to be decommodified, but for livelihood still to be dependent upon the market. This would be true, for instance, if each person had an individually-owned and -run business, or if the entire economy were composed of worker-managed cooperatives, all producing commodities for sale on the market. Here, while labor-power would be decommodified – which would indeed be a major moral improvement – people would still need to purchase on the market the things that they need to live.
Such a society may work for a time, but since livelihood would not yet be detached from the market, the dynamics of capitalism would soon reassert themselves. Engaged in commodity production, all individual and cooperative firms would compete – and so there would still be a drive to accumulate, expand production, and cut costs, with the result that some firms are driven off the market; successful firms become bigger, while unsuccessful producers become wage-laborers. Yugoslavia learned this the hard way: so long as livelihood depends upon the market, even an economy marked by a substantial level of worker self-management may soon fall prey to market imperatives, with reestablished capitalist social relations in the wings.
A genuinely market-independent livelihood for all, then, requires that the basic goods and services necessary for survival – at a decent, but not luxurious level – be produced in a non-market manner. This can be accomplished in several ways, of course, but three stand out. (1) Everyone could, in the first place, own their own means of production and produce, for themselves, everything that they need to live. This was the case in our envisioned peasant economy above. (2) Second, everyone could have use-rights over common property that they can then use to produce, for themselves, all the necessities of life. (3) Finally, there could be direct provision of basic goods and services by the state.
Our Catholic socialist society should certainly let people own small-scale private productive property, and so such a society ought partly to include private production for private consumption – option (1) above. People should, if they so desire, be able to grow their own food, educate their own children, build their own houses, etc. Nevertheless, while people could indeed produce many such things for their own consumption, that is certainly not possible for all of the things that they need in order to survive at anything like a “modern” standard of living. One could grow one’s own vegetables, but not easily perform one’s own brain surgery or make one’s own steel; and often the large investment of time required to produce some things for oneself prevents one from producing other necessary things.
Similar considerations hold true for option (2) – that is, for common property that individuals can have use-rights over (land, 3D printing supplies, communal workshops etc.). A commons could be a good way of “socializing” property without resorting to central planning, with the state carrying out only the minimal task of ensuring that no one intentionally destroys such common property. Once again, though, individuals can produce only so much for themselves. Many of the “needs” of modern life require high degrees of technology and skill, as well as many workers assembled together, and these cannot feasibly be produced by individuals for private consumption. There should indeed be a commons under socialism; but it will still be insufficient to secure a market-independent livelihood for all.
To achieve such a livelihood, our Catholic socialist society will need to include the direct provision of basic goods and services by the state – option (3) above. These could include healthcare, education, (some types of) food, water, housing, and the like, leaving it to particular societies to determine for themselves precisely which goods and services should be state-provided.5 Although furnishing citizens with the basic goods and services necessary to live, the state should nevertheless allow individuals to produce those goods and services for themselves – or even as part of worker cooperatives – as long as their production does not involve the exploitation of labor or violate the common good in some way.
State provision of basic goods and services would be superior to another, often-promoted attempt to divorce livelihood from the market: a universal basic income (UBI). While obviously a very good thing as far as it goes, a UBI unfortunately does not go far enough. Supposing that it could be implemented (which seems less likely than direct state provision), a UBI still leaves the production of basic goods and services subject to market forces, and our criticisms above – of labor-decommodification without total market-independence of livelihood – apply once again. While markets have many virtues, they are inefficient at accounting for externalities, coordinating investments, capturing social needs that are not expressed in money (“demand”), and suffer from various other failures and crises. Basic goods and services need to be provided in non-market ways.
As far as state provision is concerned, this will certainly involve some level of planning. Like markets, planning has difficulties, too, but these are of a surmountable sort when planning is kept within its limits. Complexity is one of these limits. While planning has many virtues – it can avoid the waste that markets produce, for instance in crises – it is inefficient when applied to an entire economy. All of the goods and services in an economy could not realistically be planned, nor would we want them to be. Planning part of an economy, on the other hand, is possible; and to maximize the potential of planning, we should restrict its scope.6 This scope should be limited to those goods and services necessary for citizens’ basic livelihood, as well as any large-scale production, carrying a social power too great to be left in the hands of private individuals. Likewise, planning should be restricted in geographic scope, undertaken as locally as possible and with democratic input from ordinary people (of which more later). So planning, here, does not equal central planning, and planning by the state does not exclude individual citizens from common deliberation over what “the plan” should be.7
While aiming at giving individuals access to basic goods and services, planning should not aim at maximizing work or making labor more productive through repetitive, mechanical tasks, where intellectual labor is split apart from manual labor. (Individual productive units, given general targets, should be free to produce as they see fit, introducing any labor- or time-saving innovations.) An economy befitting human nature should maximize not work, but rather leisure – and technological advances, the lack of market imperatives, and the ex ante coordination of planning could indeed make life more leisurely, with individuals likely needing to work only part-time to produce society’s basic goods and services. A life of greater contemplation – most importantly, contemplation of God – would become feasible for many, and this is one of the most important reasons for supporting socialism.
Individuals should also be free, if they so choose, to opt out of state-run work, becoming independent farmers, say, or forming communes. This would result in a decrease in the state-provided goods and services that they could acquire, although some very basic level would still be available to them. A good standard of living and non-exploitative work relations might, in any case, induce many or most people to work part-time for the state. (What happens if a large number of people opt out of work will have to be determined on a society-by-society basis. If enough opt out, the basic goods and services provided will have to be cut back. This may encourage people to return to state-run industries. If they do not, perhaps the state could provide incentives – e.g. certain “luxury” items available to those who work.)
It is worth noting that the demands of subsidiarity are respected under our proposed scheme of state provision of basic goods and services (and state ownership of large-scale industry). First, guaranteeing citizens a non-market livelihood is something that the state alone can do. Second, even if some non-state association could perform that function, it is certainly not a matter of “lesser importance” that, according to Pius in Quadragesimo anno (¶80), ought to be left to lower social levels. Third, lower levels are in any case not debarred from producing or acquiring their basic goods and services in other ways. State food production, for instance, does not prevent individual food production, nor does state provision of education prevent individuals themselves from educating their children. Subsidiarity, then, remains intact.
We can summarize the system of property and markets under our version of Catholic socialism. This is a society in which individuals may still own private property – both means of consumption and small- and perhaps medium-scale means of production, using these latter either to produce for themselves or to exchange on the market. Individuals, too, may form small productive enterprises established on a worker-cooperative basis, with rates of pay determined either within the enterprise or by the community as a whole. The market activities that individuals engage in will now be genuinely freer, because those individuals will not have to engage in them: their livelihood is not dependent upon the market. This market-independent livelihood is achieved partly through people producing for themselves – whether through privately-owned or common property – but above all through the direct state provision of basic goods and services.
State provision brings us to the subject of the state itself. What sort of state do we imagine here? At the very least, under socialism, the state should exist in a radically different form from the modern nation-state. Of course, there will be some similarities: the rule of law – and the need for checks and balances to prevent any one part of the state from gaining too much power – will still need to be present, for instance. But there will be some important differences as well.
One difference concerns size. The modern nation-state has inflated as capitalism has developed, at least for the general reason that a large, independent state is necessary to serve the interests of a fragmented capitalist class. But a Catholic socialist state should be as local and decentralized as possible, giving maximal autonomy to self-governing communities. This is necessary so that, with capitalist exploitation abolished, centralized state bureaucrats do not take their places. State planning, then, should begin from below. Local or regional councils – both of producers and of consumers, and in which every citizen has a say – could deliberate about the sorts of basic goods and services that need to be produced. As far as possible, the state at the corresponding local or regional level should then be tasked with regulating the needed production. These local councils could elect representatives to serve at more national councils, whose concern would be with socially necessary production that must be carried out at that more national level. With heavy democratic input, planning should not be purely technocratic, but also based on prudence and ethics, aimed always at the common good; and we should favor not central, but rather decentralized planning.
Another difference concerns “abstractness.” A distinguishing feature of the modern nation-state is the fact that it is abstract in the sense of being abstracted from the lives of ordinary citizens. Partly, this abstractness involves considerations of size; but it is also manifest in the professionalization of politics (in which being a politician becomes a career path), in the fact that elected officials are not easily and continually recallable, and in the lack of transparency of the state’s operations. Our socialist state would, as far as possible, do away with these features, decreasing the distance between citizens and the state, as well as altering the functions of the state. This task will be made easier by the break-up of big business and large concentrations of wealth, which capitalists use to influence politics.
Most importantly, unlike modern nation-states, our Catholic socialist state should not be liberal. While space should be made for communal deliberation about the common good, that deliberation should concern the conception of the good to be embodied in society. Our socialist state can and should “legislate morality,” reflecting a substantive conception of the good in its organizations, laws, and practices. This conception of the good, moreover, ought to be the Catholic one, with the state encouraging people in virtue and placing God as our highest (and common) end. (No one, of course, should be forced to become Catholic; our teaching forbids this.) Although there is a broad scope for democratic decision-making in such a state, certain things must – if the Catholic understanding of the common good is to be upheld – nevertheless be off the table.8
It is useful here – related to the topic of the state – to address a worry that may arise. One of the pernicious features of capitalism is that workers, lacking direct access to means of production, must sell their labor-power to capitalists. The wage relation is thus a relation of economic compulsion, and socialism aims to abolish that relation. But the worry that arises is that economic compulsion will still exist under socialism. We have envisioned, for instance, individuals working part-time for the state or else receiving a diminution in their guaranteed, state-provided basic goods and services. Is this not a form of compulsion, too – merely by the state instead of by capitalists?
On the contrary, the two forms of “compulsion” are radically distinct. The difference consists in the way in which these forms of compulsion are ordered to the common good: the compulsion by the state is per se ordered to the common good (or at least can be so ordered), whereas the compulsion by capitalists9 is ordered to the common good, if at all, only per accidens. Capitalists may per accidens pursue the common good if their private interests happen to benefit society as a whole. But this is only accidental – and in truth, this “public benefit” is not really the common good, but rather an aggregate of individual goods. Further, there is no common good within the capitalist firm. The firm is ordered to the good of the capitalist, and to that of the workers only insofar as their good – subsisting or being sufficiently content so as not to revolt – is a means to the good of the capitalist. The relation here is very similar to that between master and slave, and as Alasdair MacIntyre writes, under capitalism it “becomes impossible for workers to understand their work as a contribution to the common good of a society which at the economic level no longer has a common good, because of the different and conflicting interests of different classes.”10
Just as violence exercised by a private vigilante is unjust, whereas violence exercised by an official of the state on behalf of the common good is just, so also in the case of compulsion. The state or its officers have care of the community, and they can compel for the sake of the common good. To compel, in the unjust sense, is to compel someone to do something that is against his nature; but since the common good is part of one’s own good, then to be “compelled” by the state to do something for the sake of the common good involves nothing immoral.
Coming to the end of this sketch of a Catholic socialism, it is worthwhile to say something about how such a society might be achieved. The present author does not advocate, at least not in current circumstances, a revolution involving the seizure of state power. The experience of the past century has taught us that “those who make the conquest of state power their aim are always in the end conquered by it and, in becoming the instruments of the state, themselves become in time the instruments of one of the several versions of modern capitalism.”11 Resistance to capitalism all too often becomes co-opted by it; and as the modern state has been shaped as an organ of capitalist power, it is unsurprising that a socialist revolution that leaves that state structure intact eventually replicates capitalist social relations.12 While violent revolution may be necessary in extreme conditions (spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church ), such conditions are rare, and we should be attentive to the personal and institutional corruption that political violence can bring.
But if not by violent revolution seizing state power, then how should we resist capitalism and strive to realize socialism? This is a very difficult question, with no simple answers or guaranteed solutions, but we can nevertheless note four principal avenues of resistance – all four of which we should engage in. A first form of resistance is one of “negativity,” consisting simply in saying No to capitalism at many points. Second, more positively, we can resist by experimenting and creating new forms of sustainable, local communities. This is the “eggshell” revolution approach: to build the new society within the shell of the old, so that when the latter collapses, the former will already be in place. We need a multitude of localized, concrete experiments in socialism (such as Marinaleda in Spain). Third, while we should be highly suspicious of the modern nation-state, we should still attempt to make reforms to it, even while recognizing that these reforms will be very much insufficient to address the deeper problems with capitalism. Finally, crucial to resisting capitalism is a personal revolution, which consists above all in the cultivation of virtue and the frequent reception of the sacraments. To be sure, the remedy for our present economic woes is not to be found solely in individual virtue, just as the cause of those woes is not to be found solely in individual vice. But the cultivation of virtue and the infusion of grace from the sacraments are certainly an important, even if not sufficient, precondition for a more just society.
Social movements resisting capitalism must come from below. A top-down revolution will end only in disaster. This accords with the idea of “prefigurative” politics: if we want a new system that gives ordinary people a say in their common economic lives, then the means by which we establish that system must also give ordinary people a say. As Andrew Collier writes:
Workers’ councils (soviets) set up under capitalism as a means of resistance…may take power from the capitalists and become a new kind of state, a proletarian democracy. But a self-appointed revolutionary clique, seizing power with the intention of introducing socialism and then handing [it] over to the people, will never do so; its structure as a ruling clique shuts off this possibility. The “means” cannot lead to the envisaged end.13
Working with local anti-capitalist projects would also provide people with hands-on experience of grassroots cooperation and communal decision-making, helping them also to acquire a sense of what a non-bureaucratic socialist society could be like. Above all, our activities of resistance should be sustained by the virtue of hope, even while we are attentive to the ways in which capitalism can always stifle or co-opt such resistance.
Although conducted at a fairly abstract level, leaving out treatment of a number of issues, our foregoing discussion provides a sketch of what one form of Catholic socialism might look like. There are, of course, other forms. One might, for instance, deny the need for state provision of basic goods and services, favoring instead non-state guilds cooperating to determine the shape of production. Or, with a more sanguine appraisal of markets, one might promote an economy of worker cooperatives competing on the market, perhaps with funds for investment being socially controlled.14
Which form of socialism ought to be established in any particular society depends upon concrete circumstances, but it is nevertheless useful to articulate an ideal. That has been our task here, having already seen in Parts I and II how one can, in the abstract, be a Catholic and socialist. Catholic socialism, of course, faces immense difficulties in its implementation – not only from pro-capitalist economic elites, but also from secular forces hostile to the Catholic faith. But while Catholic socialism (like socialism in general) will not inevitably triumph, neither will it inevitably fail. We can only struggle.