27 December 2013

'Capitalism is mostly ideas'

Republicans in the U.S. are still stewing over Pope Francis's recent critical comments on capitalism and "trickle-down" economics. For many on the American right, apparently, to criticize capitalism is to be either a Marxist or a fool, though the categories tend to blur in their minds. Into the fray steps Michael Novak, a right-wing American Catholic, who wants to reconcile Republicans to the new pontiff. While he won't endorse all the Argentine's opinions on economics ("bishops aren't trained to do economic analysis"), he chides Americans like Rush Limbaugh who don't understand "the Catholic part" of Francis's critique. This Novak summarizes as "Love, care for the poor, humility, kindness." In other terms, the Pope is presumably concerned with the immediate needs of the poor as opposed to the theoretical benefits of capitalism. But Novak is hopeful that Bergoglio will "get his feet on the ground, get his arms around the questions of globalization," and recognize that capitalism is something other than the inegalitarian oligarchy he knows from South American experience. Capitalism, Novak insists, "is mostly ideas." He seems to mean that the essence of capitalism is something qualitatively different from the practice of capitalism where Francis used to live -- if Novak recognizes such practices as capitalism at all. Perhaps the Pope needs to recognize, as some capitalist apologists admit, that "the problem with capitalism is capitalists," but the idea, somehow, is still good.

The "idea" Francis's American critics want him to get is that, whatever his beef with inequality or the suffering of the poor, capitalism remains the best vehicle for poor people to improve their lot. They want him to share their faith that any poor person can improve his lot simply by working hard, and that capitalism as an "idea" presents no impediment to advancement through hard work. These may be leaps of faith that a Pope can't make. At a minimum, Republicans would like Bergoglio to acknowledge that, whatever capitalism's flaws, all alternatives are worse. A certain Protestant premillennialism, with its contempt for the "social gospel" and its pessimism about the prospects for a Christian utopia in this world, informs the American critique of the Pope -- perhaps even among Catholics.  We know that pessimism in its political form as the constant pressure from Bipolarchy to settle for what Bipolarchy deems possible, to stop making "the perfect the enemy of the good," to stop demanding what they say can't be done and definitely don't want to do. Whether you think the Pope has any moral authority at all on such questions, he has as much prerogative as any person on earth to demand better from society when it is self-evidently possible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Capitalism is not a bad idea - when used with restraint, but unfortunately it's main proponents are driven by greed. When your "idea" allows you to consider other human beings with needs as nothing more than a replaceable number on a ledger sheet, it is no longer "good" by any definition of the word.