Totalitarian Capitalism

I’ve been pondering Pope Francis’ recent writings and have come to certain conclusions about some serious miscommunication regarding what the Pope is doing. Contrary to a lot of the Francis miscommunication corpus, I don’t think that this is the Pope’s fault.

Capitalism is not, properly speaking, a totalitarian system. It requires a separate moral system, a guide to provide purpose to all the buying and selling. It can fit to a wide variety of moral systems which is a good reason that capitalism ends up being global.

Capitalism’s limits to economic acts create a space for morality to survive and thrive and are natural fetters to the system. These are the fetters that would interest a churchman. Unfettered or unregulated capitalism is totalitarian. If you’re worshipping mammon. If you find value only in your bank account, if there is no other system that informs your purchases and your production, then you have a serious problem. The fetters of government regulation in the economic sphere are irrelevant to Pope Francis because he’s not a politician and not an economist. He has a different scope for his job and vocation.

This is a virtue problem and one that has real world, practical effects. The difference in the education levels in virtue in the American colonies at the start of its revolution and Bourbon France at the start of its revolution are a major factor in why the former succeeded and the latter was ultimately a failure that died in the terror.

Pope Francis’ gig is ultimately to inculcate virtue and prepare us for Heaven. Occasionally this means he falls into the jargon of his profession which, like all professional jargon, is sometimes confusing because in different professions, the terms have different meanings.

cross post: Flit-TM

25 thoughts on “Totalitarian Capitalism”

  1. This is all correct. Further, Francis comes from Argentina. In that country, the only capitalism is capitalism which means crony capitalism, business in bed with government power. He is probably only faintly aware that there is another kind. On the point of moral order outside of capitalism, Hayek, I think, says that capitalism requires virtues which it inherited, which it did not create and cannot replace by itself. If it wasn’t Hayek, maybe it was me. In either case, its right. Capitalism in a moral vacuum is predation and a rule-free grab for access to power and wealth. We don’t want that. It does not work, and it taints by association the kind of free economy we advocate, with all the advantages, practical and moral, which it provides.

  2. Rich men and eyes of needles are a common theme of Christianity, especially Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation made prosperity moral. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes shifted the Industrial Revolution to England.

  3. MK…”Rich men and eyes of needles are a common theme of Christianity”

    There seems to have been much less emphasis on the dangers to one’s soul of possessing *power*, as opposed to those warnings about the dangers of possessing wealth. Perhaps partly because in the early days of Christianity, few members of the congregations would have likely HAD any political power….but also, because preaching against the owners of the power levers would have been much more dangerous.

  4. It seems that previous popes were able and most current catholic organizations are able to help people and perform services without demonizing the free market or pitting people one against the other. They were very inclusive. This fellow seems to be different.

    To accuse a Jesuit pope (and the Vatican) of poor use of language or lack of economic knowledge somewhat stretches credulity. When a man of learning whose day job is believing tells you what he believes, I tend to take it straight up at face value. He’s made his choices and expressed them.

  5. @MikeK Fascinating connection you make between Edict of Nantes and the Industrial Revolution shifting to England. I’ve often thought that the massacre of Bartholomew’s Day provides a key to understanding lots of history, eg, the difference between the American War for Independence and the French Revolution.

  6. My family is Catholic, and I was raised in Catholic schools, and sent my kids there, so this issue is something that has concerned me for quite some time.

    I will not pretend to be an observant church member, for many reasons not pertinent here, but the courage of John Paul 2, and his consistent demand for respect for the dignity of the individual as a spiritual entity with a distinct conscience was so powerful that I respected him greatly.

    This respect didn’t mean, however, that I agreed with all of his positions, and there were some of his economic ideas that I found problematic,as well as various ethical issues.

    At any rate, the situation with Francis is much the same in many ways. He seems to have accepted the overall European social democratic outlook, both in his critique of the free market, and his ready acceptance of various statist political positions. I don’t think this is at all surprising, as his life has been spent in an atmosphere in which these ideas are the accepted norms.

    Also, as with any religious professional, if I may use that term, he has had little or no direct contact with the actual workings of an enterprise engaged in economic competition with others outside of the statist model that has held sway in Argentina, and much of Latin America, for all of his life.

    And further, his mentality is geared toward another plane of existence rather than the nuts and bolts of living in a competitive earthly environment, and trying to make a living while raising a family in uncertain times. Much of the religious critique of life in general, and the free market in particular, hinges on the fact that religious minds focus on the next life, while the market and its members live in this one here on earth.

    I figured out a long time ago that someone who is accomplished in one area is not necessarily skilled in all others, and their opinions, while valid and interesting, are not any form of automatic wisdom. I think that is pretty much the case here.

    I’m sure that the new Pope is a fine man, and his concern for the poor very admirable. I would only say to him, should the unlikely event arise where I could say anything to him at all, that the use of the state to accomplish acts of religiously inspired compassion and charity is a faustian bargain, which many churches have fallen prey to, and of which the current dispute regarding abortion funding under the new medical law in the US is only one of many manifestations of the peril of any “partnership” between the church and the state.

    I wish the Pope a long and successful reign, as he has any number of significant problems and issues with which to grapple around the world. As to his economics, well, I find them as pertinent to the real world as his positions on birth control or divorce.

  7. John – You are correct that Pope Francis is a competent writer. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be misinterpreted if he’s sufficiently taken out of context. A good bit of the problem is that Pope Francis uses words in a specific way in this document to identify phenomena that are relatively new, defines them fairly precisely to make it absolutely clear what he’s going on about and then uses the term. This is absolutely normal.

    The interpreters in the media have entirely omitted his definitions and just used the common meaning of the words and declared that his carefully constructed points mean something else entirely. This is dishonest on their part and puts the Vatican into a tough spot. They can’t just call out the press by name. There are too many instances of it happening. All they can do is urge people to read the actual words.

    Veryretired – As a Jesuit provincial, Pope Francis had to balance a lot of books. Jesuits live a vow of poverty but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have to pay the light bill. If I had to measure it, Pope Francis had more executive and economic experience under his belt prior to his election to the papacy than President Obama had prior to his election to the Presidency. That is not necessarily the highest of praise but I’m thinking he’s not the otherwordly economic naif you’re painting him to be. The real question is the prevalence and influence of people who view capitalism in a totalitarian way. If this is really a thing, then we have an internal challenge to capitalism of some subtlety that needs to be addressed.

    I do think we have a virtue deficit that we could use some work on that is independent of our economic arrangements. The Pope’s case is plausible. The question that should be answered is whether it is true. I’m not holding my breath for a media that systematically does the research to determine that.

  8. There’s much more to Francis than meets they eye.
    I believe with the apostolic exhortation and other moves like taking over the Vatican Bank, he’s positioning the Vatican to take a stronger role in The European Union
    or possibly (likely in my estimation) some kind of regional post-EU confederation.

  9. TM—Any kid who was an assistant shift manager at Dairy Queen had more economic managerial experience than the leader of the current regime, so that’s a very low bar to use as a measurement.

    I considered the fact that as a bishop and cardinal, Francis would have had economic experience of a kind, but this is a far cry from the kind of economic decision making that a small business owner/manager has to make to stay in business, expand, and then become a significant player in some particular area.

    The plain fact is that people of the 20th century, especially those whose environment was vigorously anti-capitalist, as Peronist Argentina, and much of Latin America and Europe, was during the ascendency of the modern welfare/regulatory state, never really experienced much of anything that could be described as a free market system except for black markets.

    As far as reading is concerned, I would be very surprised if his library had ever contained anything by Hayek or Friedman or similar.

    But my larger point, aside from the personal views of Francis, was that the adoption of the social justice agenda by the state, enthusiastically supported by most mainline religious denominations, was a disastrous error for both sides, leading to the increasing bureaucratic growth of an ever more coercive state, as it attempted to redistribute income and benefits within society, and, conversely, a weakened and shrinking church, which found itself increasingly irrelevant socially, as its mission among the poor and vulnerable was usurped by the state.

    It has long been my contention that the most significant violation of the 1st Amendment’s establishment clause is not some manger display or other demonstration of generic religiosity, but the profoundly corrupting adoption of a theocratic social agenda by the state, leading inexorably to the runaway expansion of state power we can observe in every area of our society.

    The list of positive rights so beloved by the progressive movement is little more than a legalistic re-writing of the Sermon on the Mount, and, as such, is a gross violation of the entire concept of separation of church and state.

    I don’t think Francis is anything special in his positions on economic questions at all—he is a very ordinary product of a century of collectivist indoctrination. He can’t imagine letting people manage their economic affairs without the omnipresent oversight of the state’s cadres to insure those greedy capitalists don’t impoverish the rest of the population.

    The fact that the more free market a country is the more it’s general population prospers just never seems to penetrate that mindset. More’s the pity.

    In that respect, the leader of the church and the leader of the current regime seem to have something in common.

  10. TM Lutas: Is seems that you are saying that an avowed man of the people is speaking in a way that the people cannot understand. That does not make sense and does not seem to fit with the man’s character or any of his actions in his life to date. Who is he speaking for and to then?

    I think the people got the meaning he wanted them to get loud and clear. Both he and the Vatican are extremely press savvy. He’s getting the press he’s courted.

    What’s so bad with a leftist pope that so many people refuse to admit what he admitted himself and feel they need to make up elaborate excuses for him – as if he’s some sort of imbecile? And that he’s not.

    Most catholic commentary I’ve read tippy-toe around the issue by saying his solutions for various social problems do indeed ‘lean left’. Such circumlocutions seem superfluous to me.

    Be honest. Be direct. Get a clear understanding. I believe the man when he speaks. I may not agree, but I believe and accept he is what he claims to be. I’m sure he wants no one’s excuses for his life.

  11. Being critical of unrestrained capitalism and free markets is not neccessarily a “leftist” stance in the context of European political traditions, it can often be an element of conservative thought; I don’t know enough about Latin American political history to be sure, but I wouldn’t be suprised if the same was the case there.

    In this context it was *liberals* who were the outright champions of free market capitalism, NOT conservatives. And aspects of this history a still a live factor in the politics and social attitudes of Germany and Italy in particular.

    On a map of political ideas, American Republican conservatives are far closer to old-school European liberals than to traditionalist European conservatives.

  12. The “capitalism” that Pope Francis observed in Argentina has decided differences from that practiced in the US. As others have pointed out, there is a strong strain of crony capitalism in Argentina. Not that crony capitalism can’t be found in the US, but that it is less prevalent than in Argentina.

    A further difference is that in Argentina and in much of Latin America, a contract is simply a piece of paper which is to be adhered to only if it is to one’s advantage. By contrast, a US company will do its utmost to adhere to the terms of a contract. Having seen how our Argentine “partners” operated, I asked a family friend who had worked for the World Bank in Latin America for 20 years about this. His reply was that indifference to the terms of a contract was a carryover from the Spanish.

    An additional continuity from the Spanish:”Obdezco pero no cumplo” – I obey but I do not comply- was the standard operating procedure in in Spanish colonies to directives from the mother country.

    Had Pope Francis seen a more honest business environment than the one he lived with in Argentina, he might have a different attitude towards capitalism.

  13. Francis has never constrained his criticism of personal freedom and therefore the free market to Argentina. Never.

    A mere two months after he was elected pope, he addressed foreign ambassadors to the Vatican saying:

    “…free-market capitalism had created a “tyranny” and that human beings were being judged purely by their ability to consume goods.”

    The immediacy and content of his address concretely confirm:

    1) His anti-free market ideas have been long thought out, decided upon and prepared for public dissemination well prior to his election.

    2) Slamming individual freedom is important. It comes before addressing the church’s many other church-specific problems.

    3) EVANGELII GAUDIUM or The Joy Of The Gospel is not a one off glitch, mistranslation, misspeaking, economic ignorance, a specifically Argentine phenomenon or any other elaborate excuse some have constructed to trivialize the pope’s words. It is rather a restatement, reconfirmation and codification of his deeply held leftist views.

    He may not be a dialectical materialist. That would cause too many theological complications. But he definitely seems to be a materialist in part of his thinking, which is nevertheless quite interesting religiously speaking.

    I find it incredulous that so many people refuse to accept what this man so very clearly says repeatedly. I haven’t seen this type of fierce denial sine Obama. It must be the popular mass psychosis of the times.

  14. Grurray – Keep an eye on the Orthodox. Francis is basically hitting their wish list and nobody’s paying attention in the western press.

    veryretired – I don’t have personal knowledge of the state of Jesuit finances in the southern cone where Francis was provincial. I would note that not only was he in charge of Argentina which is, you’re very correct, not classic free market but also Chile which has a bit of a different history. How deeply involved in Chile was he and what were the lessons he took from that, I can’t say. I think that it’s not entirely fair to view him as limited to an argentine experience.

    I think you might be on shaky ground to guess that our first Jesuit Pope had a limited library and was not exposed to free market thought. That really goes against the grain for a Jesuit. It’s just not their tradition.

    I do agree with you that charity via government is an experiment that doesn’t seem to be turning out very well over the long haul. This is also something that Francis is attacking so you have that much in agreement, though he probably doesn’t agree with the separation of Church and state as an inviolable principle.

    John – His writing is certainly understandable if you actually read it. The press is being malicious in how they are pulling excerpts of what he is saying. This is a big problem.

    I hope that we can agree that totalitarianism, of any stripe, is tyranny. Economics cannot be the be all and end all of society or we end up in trouble. I think that Pope Francis is attacking a form of capitalism that is trending towards exactly that sort of totalitarianism. It’s not that it has a gulag or is politically repressive but that it is tending to go beyond the proper bounds of economics to declare that economics is all that really matters. Capitalism as economics is an afterthought because it is settled territory for him. Capitalism as economics won and he doesn’t want to discuss it because in his mind there’s nothing to discuss. He’s moving in different territory, talking about meaning and joy and distinguishing that from the latest iPhone, which is a nice tool and gives some pleasure but it’s not the same as joy.

  15. You might be right. OTOH, the Pope is smart guy who is capable of saying exactly what he means. He understands Catholicism better than, well, almost everyone, and so perhaps in his religious judgment of the moral qualities of Capitalism he is exactly correct.

  16. I suppose that the pope understands the moral qualities of capitalism about as well as the executives at GM do. Like them he has institutional incentives to speak and act as he does. IMHO opinion though one would expect the pope (a modern pope anyway) to be more principled and have a more wholistic world view.

  17. ErisGuy – Just don’t get trapped into giving power to his leftie interpreters as to what he’s actually saying. The words are publicly available. Reading them was an eye opener in comparison to press reports.

    Tyouth – Holisticism is the entire problem. Capitalism, on purpose, is not a holistic system for life. It’s a system that is specialized to handle the economic aspects of life. People mistaking it for a complete system in and of itself is a distortion of capitalism and the results aren’t worth supporting except when the suggested replacements are even worse (ie communism).

  18. TM, by “holistic” I meant “complete”. “Rationally balanced and complete” would perhaps been more exactly what I was trying to say.

  19. Oh, and just BTW:
    Holistic Vs Wholistic

    The two words “wholistic” and “holistic” have very different meanings, but there is some confusion and they are often used in an incorrect manner. The two words have very distinct meanings though somewhat similar in definition.

    Wholistic refers to the whole, a whole item or whole body of a person or thing. The word defines the consideration of the entire structure or makeup, which
    includes the body, mind and the spirit in the case of a human being.

    The word holistic is connected to holism, which focuses on the total entity and the interdependence of the diverse parts of this totality. Holistic has to do with the healing systems that are considered alternative like homeopathy and Ayurveda that deal with the human body as an interconnected whole.
    More Reference Links:

    :), you say tomato……

  20. Tyouth – The Pope is, I believe, identifying a distortion of capitalism. If that distortion is truly there, it should be of concern even for non-catholic capitalists. By several mentions in his text, he recognizes the underlying usefulness of the system as theoretically outlined. It’s the concrete realizations with this distortion, with this novel branching out into economics triumphalism where there is nothing else but the market, that has the Pope writing.

    On holistic or wholistic, I just thought you misspelled it so off I go to merriam webster’s online to find what’s their definition of wholistic. It consists of one word, holistic. This is not necessarily helpful.

    So off I go again to the second link in the google search, and find the site that has, word for word, your post.
    Frankly Isabella F sounds like she’s full of it.

    The homeopathy canada site had this:
    Holistic = Wholistic (kind of!)

    You say tomato indeed!

    Can we just call the whole thing off?

  21. Or: let’s call the hol thing off.

    Also, I suppose that “capitalism” is a more convenient target (scapegoat?) than are specific political, ruling, governments. The Vatican may wish to remain on good terms with with these political entities and so diplomatically sidesteps criticizing them….much safer to criticize a more or less ephemeral idea.

    The Catholic Church has a long history of self-interest and not in the interests of individuals as free actors. Frankly, my impression, sometimes, is that Rome might be happier if we were all 17th century (preferably Catholic) peasants.

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