Two recent articles—one by Charlie Clark (at Mere Orthodoxy) and the other by Elias Crim (The Dorothy Option)—make similar observations about, and offer similar prescriptions for, the flaws in our free-market economy/way of life. While both authors proceed from unabashedly Christian standpoints, their analyses can resonate even with non-believers: I should know, since I am one.
Charlie Clark begins his essay by questioning the modern separation of economic matters from basic morality. In the name of “efficient markets,” we maintain a posture of strict agnosticism about the values being promulgated, advertised, bought and sold on the market, trusting that the “Invisible Hand” will sort it all out, which (of course) it never has and never will:
Questions of political economy are unavoidably moral. The activities that feed and shelter us, that keep body and soul together, are not matters of value-neutral calculation. Reducing the debate over economic customs and policies to mere quantities has not clarified it; it has sterilized it. As Ruskin wrote in “The Roots of Honour,” “All endeavour to deduce rules of action from balance of expediency is in vain. And it is meant to be in vain. For no human actions were ever intended by the Maker of men to be guide by balances of expediency, but by balances of justice.” As Christians, we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to turn the conversation back, wherever possible, to fundamental questions of the common good and the ethical principles by which we pursue it.
I don’t know of any politician, let alone economist, of recent vintage—with the signal exception of Barack Obama—who talks much about “the common good”. But our economy cannot function only for individuals; it must function for whole communities in which those individuals live, work, and try to find a place in the world. What doth it profit a man to be able to afford a nice car if the roads and bridges on which he has to drive are in dangerous disrepair? And how unpleasant must it be for the lords and ladies of our capitalist manors if they have to make their way daily past hordes of beggars at their gates? How many different walls are we going to have to build to protect ourselves from the social pathologies our system engenders?
In pursuit, then, of the common good, Clark lays down five principles he believes must be kept in mind, the first of which is “Christianity should set the terms of our economic discourse”. Not being a Christian, I will beg to demur on that point; it might be better simply to follow the example of Dwight Eisenhower and to insist that our “economic discourse” has to be grounded in sincerely held moral and/or religious convictions, whatever they are.
That aside, Clark goes on to state his second principle: “What man has made, man can unmake.” Free-market capitalism as it currently exists is not writ in stone nor carved on our hearts; it is no more immune to transformation than, say, the slave-based economy of the ante-bellum South. Changing social institutions, dynamics, and mores is difficult but not impossible, and as Clark says:
“Concerns about practicality too often stem from an unduly limited imagination about the possibilities of change. History is long, and the upheavals it can effect are scarcely imaginable by those living inside it. In a world that has seen the Roman Empire rise and fall, nothing is “too big to fail.” 1
Clark’s next two principles are intertwined: “Man was not made for the market” and “Of the economy, the measure is man.” While those principles are valid, both of those phrases bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Clinton-era “Putting people first,” a phrase which turned out to be, so far as actual economic policy was concerned, virtually meaningless. Neo-liberal economics, whether administered by Democratic or Republican administrations, does not prioritize people in the sense Clark has in mind; which is why neo-liberal economics has to go. Clark wants us to go beyond mere campaign slogans and rhetoric, to take those eloquent phrases seriously, and to demand a change in our “business as usual” policies. As such, Clark’s agenda is not quite the Bernie Sanders revolution, but it could easily march alongside.
Above all, Clark understands that we cannot have a human economy or an economy on a human scale without first grappling with the familiar question of what people are actually for:
The homo economicus is plagued by all manner of atrophies and hypertrophies because status quo economics is agnostic about what people actually are (much less what they are for).2 [We need a] critical debate about the nature of human happiness and [we need to offer] a picture of happiness as a robust beatitude that transcends mere pleasure. Such a revitalized definition of happiness could be a potent source of resistance to an overbearing market economy.
Clark reminds us that “All economics is home economics” and that “community has an economic foundation.” He warns that “It will be impossible to build Christian communities if, six and a half days a week, all their members are on loan to Mammon. We must recognize that all economic activity is productive of culture, and be wary lest our unconscious ‘getting and spending’ contradict and undermine our intentional culture making.”
Again, even non-Christians can acknowledge that our “getting and spending” can and does frequently contradict and undermine our moralities and our visions of the good life. Call it “Mammon” or “keeping up with the Joneses” or “being caught in the rat race”: whatever term you choose, we all recognize how socio-cultural expectations and demands get in the way of being the people we want to be.
One may quibble with or even balk at Charlie Clark’s wanting Christianity to “set the terms” of this discussion, but the fact is (a) it’s still a discussion worth having on whatever terms and (b) it does seem mostly to be Christians these days who are articulating their dissatisfaction (and ours) with consumerism and with the commodification of human existence. In his post at “The Dorothy Option,” Elias Crim writes about the late Father Jose Maria Arizmendi, a Spanish priest involved with the Catholic Action movement in the 1930's and with the Mondragon community (a working model of economic “cooperativeness”).
According to Crim, Fr. Arizmendi (in his memoirs) stressed the following points in considering how an economy should be organized:
- All economic, political and social problems are, in the final analysis, human problems.
- We do not aspire to economic development as an end but as a means.
- The cooperativist ideal is to grow more as human persons.
- It is unquestionably preferable to be a poor man than a satiated pig, it is better to be a discontented Socrates, Peter or Francis than to be a contented mad person.
- Before dreaming about making managers, it is necessary to think about making mature persons. Before teaching them public relations and manners, they need to get used to forgetting about themselves.
- Economic development represents human progress and constitutes a true moral duty. In the eyes of a believer, sub-employment, in all of its forms, is a scandal.
Crim notes that Fr. Arizmendi offered “A brilliant reformulation of the ‘rendering unto Caesar” teaching’: Cooperativism gives work what is work’s and gives capital what is capital’s. Arizmendi also sounded a note about the nature of work very similar to Paul Goodman’s classic GROWING UP ABSURD: “The problem now is not to place ourselves in the conditions of avoiding work, but instead of making work a service and to a large extent a source of honest satisfaction. Work can and should be humanized.” Equally important, says Crim, Arizmendi made some helpful “corrections to Marxist notions” about class struggle and revolution:
- Our strength is not translated as struggle but as Cooperation.
- Today revolution is called participation.
- The economic revolution will or will not be moral. The moral revolution will or will not be economical.
By way of summarizing Fr. Arizmendi’s ideas, Crim offers these quotations:
- If the sign of vitality is definitely not to endure but to be reborn, as was well said by a great cooperativist, if cooperativism is not only the diametrical opposite of paternalism but also of conformism and conservatism,…then it is imperative that we remain on the cutting edge of social innovation. This is especially true when these innovations are demanded by a conscience of dignity and freedom, justice and solidarity. Those who share these feelings today do not lack strength.
- Cooperativist philosophy rejects both the collectivist and the liberal conceptions of human nature. It recognizes instead the unique value of the human person, but insists that this person cannot be totally himself or herself until entering into creative as well as spiritually and materially productive relationships with the world he or she is a part of.
The “cooperativist” approach blends nicely with such notions as Distributism, human scale, localism and a sense of place, voluntary simplicity, limits to growth, respect for the earth, and a stress on renewal and maintenance rather than on constant innovation and exploitation (of both human and natural resources). While a cooperativist philosophy rejects both collectivism and liberalism, it also attempts to incorporate the most valuable aspects of both. Under liberalism, goes the argument, individuals are too rootless and disconnected from each other; on the other hand, herded into collectivism, individuals lose their identity altogether. The spirit of cooperation—individuals working together towards commonly accepted notions of the common good—escapes those pitfalls, simultaneously retaining individual identity and accomplishing social cohesion. It is not quite the Kingdom of Heaven, but its proponents firmly believe you’d be able to see it from there.
All of this, it goes without saying, is so very unlike our current economic and social order and discourse that it seems pointless even to bring it up; but that merely returns us to Charlie Clark’s reminder that “Whatever man has made, man can unmake.” The unmaking will be no less difficult than the original making, and it will take at least as much time, but it can be done. The hidden (and mistaken) assumption of “free-market capitalism” is that it is precisely a natural order rather than a humanly constructed one; unmask that illusion for the self-serving fiction it is, and change is possible.
Homo Economicus, whatever his value in the larger scheme of things, was not discovered but invented; what Charlie Clark, Elias Crim, Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendi and many others want us to do is to go back to the drawing board and see if we can recover some earlier model of human nature and human destiny—or, failing that, create a new and improved model for the future. One thing is certain: any socio-political order that gives us Donald Trump as a presidential candidate is in urgent need of repair.
1 Somewhat closer to home, the collapse of the Soviet Union would be another excellent example.
2 Kudos to Charlie Clark for alluding in a single sentence to two of my own hobby-horses: Homo Economicus and “What are people for?” As to that latter question, I’ve just started watching a BBC series (“Humans”) which offers a fascinating and positively Philip K. Dick-esque vision of a world in which humanity is in danger of rendering itself obsolete. The show is like the film Blade Runner without the noir but with the same underlying philosophical concerns; it addresses, better than almost anything I’ve seen, the fundamental question with which Philip Dick wrestled for much of his life: what does it mean to be human? And just as soon as I find out the answer (I’ve only watched three episodes of “Humans” so far), I’ll be sure to let the rest of you know.