Pope Francis recently published an Apostolic Exhortation called “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel”. It is largely a criticism of how the church ministers to the community and advocates a less centralized approach. But what people really care about is his criticism of unfettered capitalism. Conservative pundits were outraged. And their outrage was predictable and generally nonsensical. Rush Limbaugh called it, “pure Marxism”. Others quickly hopped on the socialism bandwagon and excoriated the pope.
So what did the Pope say that was so Marxist and why was that so bad? Karl Marx lived during the heart of the Industrial Age. New technologies had begun to aggressively move Europe and the US from an agrarian economy to an industrialized one. The transition was brutal for the working class. The quality of life dropped, wages dropped, child labor was rampant, shanty towns and slums were crowded and unhygienic, disease was rampant, people developed cancers, got sick, injured and died working in unsafe conditions. Profits sored. The “Middle Class” of industrial barons overtook the landed gentry in terms of wealth and power. In the middle of this Marx enters the world stage and says that technology will increasingly replace labor and as a result wealth will become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite. This will inevitably cause resentment between the classes. Boy was he ever wrong. I’m sure Marx is sitting in his grave weeping with embarrassment at how far off he was in his predictions.
Without a doubt Marx and Engles were the fathers of socialism, though I’m quite certain that socialism didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. They envisioned collective ownership from the bottom up, not the top down. By the time Lenin came around he wanted State control of major industries and banks, but it wasn’t until Stalin took over from Lenin that the economy fell under pure autocratic dominance of the Stalinist regime. Ironically, Stalin was who made the Soviet empire a world power and was responsible for largely defeating the Germans in WWII. Generally though, autocratic forms of government never last particularly long. Cue centuries of failing monarchs and idiot kings, autocratic and wasteful dictators, and, like all the rest, the massive unending corruption and incompetence that doomed communism. The only reason democracy functions is it allows a peaceful transfer of power to rivals while the outrageous and the incompetents in your own party weed themselves out through natural selection.
Now, in 2013 the Pope criticizes capitalism. He says that economic systems should work toward the benefit of everyone in a society. So what about all that is Marxist or socialist? Not a darn thing. Socialism is about the government ownership and control over the means of production. <—- classic definition right there. That means if you’re having problems with your banks a socialist would simply nationalize them. As in, make them state owned institutions. The buildings, the assets, and everything else would be owned by the government. The employees would become government employees. So far there isn’t anyone who is seriously advocating this. The Pope isn’t even Marxist in the sense he’s not talking about class struggle. He’s merely asking to more seriously address the faults of an economic system.
Conservatives are quick to point out that capitalism has done more to lift people out of poverty than any other system. That’s true in an overly simplistic and superficial fashion. However, capitalism alone didn’t do a thing. It typically made people’s lives worse, much worse. It took a hundred years of pro-social reforms for capitalism to bring about a golden age for Americans and western europe. It included things like the right of the government to break up and dismantle monopolies, the right to unionize, compulsory education, an end to child labor laws, health and safety regulations, environmental regulations, and more. It takes a strong legal system and tax code to ensure prosperity for every citizen. In the sense that those legal safeguards are “socialist” then yes, the Pope is “socialist”. So am I, and so are you.
Socialism was correct about the problems of Capitalism. That they were unable to achieve a viable alternative does not make their analysis incorrect. It wasn’t until after World War II that we achieved anything like fairness or justice in the work place and we’re still working on it. We only recently passed a law that demands equal pay for men and women. If the capitalist system is so perfect, how did that glaring fault persist for so long? It was a long road for capitalism. I think if Socialism had better actors, given enough time it could also have become viable. But I think it’s moment passed without ever becoming realized. Even now the same predicted boom bust cycle that enriches the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class continues. Income inequality is at an all time high in this country with no signs of abatement. If this persists for long enough eventually a class conflict like the kind imagined by Marx will happen. It will be the turmoil of the 60s and 70s along economic issues instead of social and political ones. Each boom bust cycle leaves America stronger, not because it weeds out the weak capitalists but because it increases the regulatory framework. The regulations put into place as a result of the great depression democratized banking and made it stronger. The same as true for the banking crises in the 80s. The cause of the economic busts during the 80s and in 2007 were not the same causes as during the great depression. And the cause of the next bust will have a slightly different cause than the 2007 crash. The US has the opportunity to come out ahead provided it doesn’t lose the political will to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
The only means of honest self-reflection that I know of lies in the socialist framework. Wall Street is glaringly, shockingly unapologetic when it comes to it’s role in the collapse. In it’s mind it did nothing wrong and can do nothing wrong. The Great Recession was caused by some “other” that is not themselves. Nor will a purely capitalist perspective undertake any endeavor that advances the lives and goals of their employees. The Capitalist perspective is one of incredible short sightedness. This country is by far better off with mandatory high school education for ever child and strict child labor laws, but from a Capitalist perspective this is a non sequitur. There’s no profit in it. Capitalist don’t build infrastructure, do basic science, protect natural resources, or lobby for a fair tax code even though they benefit from all of those things. Those are all programs born out of a socialist paradigm. We collectively own the roads, and schools, and airways and waterways. We are all enhanced by that ownership. It’s worth protecting and expanding but you can’t do it with pure capitalism. Pure socialism will fail as it must fail, but so will pure capitalism.