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Global Neoliberal vs. Christian Economic Values and the EU Crisis
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-07-20 11:07:10
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This is a follow-up to the two articles I contributed recently on the Christian values  anchoring the political vision of the EU founding fathers. My hope is that it will foster a genuine and convivial dialogue, but in any case let me throw the net wide and see what, if anything, happens.

It can hardly be denied that despite the most modern and sophisticated financial tools employed by the global neoliberal economic market economy we have reached an impasse, an economic crisis of enormous proportion on both sides of the Atlantic. What is bizarre in this crisis is that the financial engineers of market capitalism are doing quite well and as the proverbial saying goes, they are laughing all the way to the bank, whereas the poor and many in the unemployed middle class continue to suffer.

Some have called this dire and unfair situation criminal and have advocated the prosecution and punishment of those neoliberal financiers, which is all well and good; within a democratic polity people ought to be brought to account before the people’s court for their reprehensible crimes. But I am afraid that such a measure by itself will not solve the problem. Yes, a modicum of justice will have been achieved but the precipitous slide into poverty on the part of many now in the middle class will probably continue.

I have suggested repeatedly that beneath the economic issue within the EU, now in a crisis, there is another more urgent issue: that of the cultural identity of such a polity. The problem resides, in my opinion, in abandoning and/or neglecting the original vision of its founding fathers as expressed by them some sixty or so years ago. That vision was based on general Christian values and it included economic Christian values. The three founding fathers I am referring to here are Schuman, De Gasperi and Aedenauer who were all practitioners of their faith. Their vision of social justice was inspired by the Papal social encyclicals and the classical Christian view of social justice. I have written a whole book on this issue titled A New Europe in Search of its Soul (1995), but what I wish to do here is to merely outline the present day Catholic teaching on social justice as promulgated by recent Papal Social encyclicals and then present an overview of general Christian Liberation Theology and the Biblical notion of Covenant and Stewardship as it applies to social justice. I trust that the open-minded and fair reader, after according a hearing to these notions, will then be able to compare that vision with present day neoliberal economic doctrine, usually devoid and even inimical to Christian values, and make up his/her mind as to whether or not it is reasonable to return to the ideal of the EU founding fathers. For indeed there is much ignorance and misinformation on this crucial issues, not in the least helped by those who are out to grind an ax against religion, any religion. Many prognosis being advanced for the present crisis are misguided exactly because the diagnosis is false. Quite often the very people who proclaim themselves Catholic are burdened by an incredible amount of ignorance when it comes to Catholic social teaching.

Let us begin with the main principles of Catholic social thought to which the three above mentioned EU founding fathers were adherents. The social question, or the question of what society should look like is of course as old as Plato’s Republic, but within modern history and within Catholic thought it begins with an attempt to find a middle way between the excesses of laizzez-faire capitalism and totalitarian state socialism. One of the foundation stones of Catholic Social Thought is the dignity of the human person. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity because made in the image of God. Against an over-individualistic perspective, every person is understood as made for community; that is to say not only every single person is made in the image of God, but the whole of humanity is also made in the image of the Trinity, conceived as a perfect community. The demand for life in community is expressed in the notion of the common good. We are called not to work merely for our own interests, but the good of all people, or the common good. When they are held in tension these two foundational principles are the basis of Catholic thought since St. Augustine: they assert that every individual is both sacred and social.

To flesh out what those two principles may look like in practice, additional principles have been developed. Thus there is a three-fold model of justice. The first level is called commutative justice, that is to say, the demands that interactions between individuals have a fundamental fairness. The second level, held in tension with this, is called distributive justice, or the notion that burdens and benefits of the whole should be distributed fairly. The third is called contributive or social justice, or the notion that there is a demand upon individuals and smaller communities to care for the well-being of all and build more just structures in the world.

Within social justice there is, moreover, the principle of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. The notion here is that we have a responsibility to “opt” for the poor. This does not mean that God loves poor people more than rich people, but rather that in the midst of inequalities in the world, we are called to live for “the least of these,” that is to say, to put poor people first. Solidarity means that we are all responsible for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters, and this solidarity must be rooted in real concern for the poor and for building community in everything that we do.

Then there is the twofold principle of subsidiarity: it gives strong moral preference for local solutions to problems where they are achievable, but it also requires that more removed forms of governance help those local communities to meet the demands of justice and the common good. Catholic social thought has consistently stressed the dignity of workers. Work is not something to be eliminated but something by which humans develop their gifts from God.

But there is another more recent component of Catholic social thought which is a response to the growing environmental crisis, the concept of stewardship of creation as found in the Scriptures.  This concept declares that only God, and not humanity, is the true owner of all creation, and we must care for creation, not exploit it. Similarly, there has been a constant reminder of the universal destination of material goods which asserts against overly capitalistic tendencies that there is a “social mortgage on private property.” In other words, God has entrusted us with everything on the earth for the use of all people, not just a privileged few.

All the above principles lead to what may be considered the most important theme of the above social teaching: peace. As Pope Paul VI used to say: if you want peace, work for justice. Another important theme is that of participation, or the idea that as Christians we must not only work toward social justice for the poor and oppressed, but also with them. Then there are the themes of human rights and development.

The above outline will give the reader an initial idea of the richness of Catholic-Christian thought as understood by the EU founding fathers. But let us now deal with more concrete examples of present economic circumstances beginning with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. In that year there were about 14 million people in the former communist bloc who lived on less than four dollars a day. By the mid-nineties that number had risen to 147 million people. At the same time there has developed excessive wealth for a small minority. Where communism had relied on unrestricted state planning, politicians and leaders have now embraced the unrestrained market mechanism as the path to a better future. This neoliberal “shock therapy”, requiring a shrinking role for the state, simply disabled existing social provisions for ordinary women and men. Consequently, economic globalization in its present form threatens values such as justice, charity, peace and sobriety that are rooted in Christian traditions. It replaces them with the values of unrestrained consumerism and the increasing commercialization of society.

But let us also look at a Western country not affected by Communism: Argentina. There one notices a country which some  thirty years ago had 9% of its population among the poor and a solid 50% among its middle class. Now, as a result of faithfully following the prescription of the international monetary organizations, 59% are poor and the middle class has shrunk dramatically. There is a growing harshness to the structural adjustment of economies and the growing imperial domination of the financial markets which some have aptly called “savage capitalism.” We are clearly living in a new stage of capitalism, which combines all forms of power and affects all dimensions of life. It is also new in its far-reaching and all-encompassing strategy of domination where the global financial market is an idol, an empire and a god, a sort of impersonal demiurge affecting all aspects of modern life. Through neoliberal globalization, the economy, designed to sustain life and the wellbeing of all, has become a totalitarian faith system of wealth accumulation for the few, endangering life as a whole on our planet.

This new “world order” so called has provoked hunger, poverty, economic breakdown and financial crises. Economic crises in Asia and Latin America have brought about unwitnessed suffering and the disintegration of people’s lives that he media hardly ever covers. There is a dramatic convergence between the sufferings and cries of the people and the irreversible destruction and degradation of the ecology of the earth. And here is where the faith community is called to act urgently, because the whole of creation is groaning and the sufferings of people are intensifying.

Current, Christian theological teaching, at times called “liberation theology” says that every economic activity builds on the gifts of God. Therefore material goods are the instruments of God’s grace in the service of life. Money becomes mammon when it is used to victimize God’s people and the earth. Human economic activity needs regulation because human beings are greedy and are born with an original sin. When defined by God’s covenant, the economy is life-enhancing and life-centered for the people of God, all living creatures, and the whole earth (Genesis 9). When illumined by the grace of God, the economy of the covenant is an “economy of community” in which love and justice form the spiritual basis. Whereas today’s neoliberal economy is exclusive, God’s economy is inclusive. Whereas the neoliberal economy is an exploitative economy of the poor, God’s economy is a protective economy in favor of the poor. Whereas in the neoliberal economy the flow of wealth is from the poor to the rich, in God’s economy it goes from the rich to the poor. Whereas in the neoliberal economy the poor are invisible, in God’s economy the vulnerable are before everyone’s eyes. Whereas the neoliberal economy is based on greed and profit-making, God’s economy is based on community and mutual support. Whereas the neoliberal economy is based on limitless competition, God’s economy is an economy of cooperation.

The Christian World Commission on Environment and Development’s report, Our Common Future, captures the essential feature to which the Bible calls us in one phrase: “Overriding priority is to the essential needs of the world’s poor.” This provides the criteria for any economic and social action, whether by individuals, communities or institutions, churches, public authorities or enterprises. If someone or something has priority, it comes first. If the essential needs of the poor have priority, they must be served before any other needs. This rules out any action or policy that first enriches the rich, even if it claims to improve the lot of the poor later. For instance, this rules out the “trickle-down” policies so dear to neoliberals. Overriding priority simply underlines the urgency. The priority must be exercised, there can be no arguments for delay.

Within these Christian values, the poor includes the deprived, those who have been denied the means of subsistence, the means to protect themselves. The poor are the orphans, the widows and the strangers, to whom the Bible constantly recalls our responsibilities. They are the weak, the ones without property and resources; the vulnerable, those to whom Jesus addressed his message of liberation (Lk 4.18-19, Mt 25.34-45); those who are denied the fullness of life. The poor may be individuals, but they may equally well be families, communities, countries or cultures. For example, indigenous peoples should be protected from the attempts by transnational corporations to appropriate their knowledge and culture for private profit. God’s call is to give priority to the world’s poor, who should enjoy their life in equality and dignity. Who is my neighbor? (Lk. 10.29-37), Christian teaching drives us beyond the boundaries of race, gender, caste, class and nationality. My neighbor may be anywhere. So this has implications for the migration and refugee policies of so many rich countries.

The poor within this Christian vision are the primary actors in God’s economy. It is for them to define their needs. It is not for anyone else to answer in their place. We can, however, be sure that they include humanity, dignity and the autonomy with which God has endowed every person, every community and every culture (eg Deut 24.10). Whatever is done to enable the poor to meet their needs should bear this dignity in mind. High among these needs is security. Each day they need to find today’s food, as the Lord’s prayer reminds us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). Any economic policy that imposes risks on the poor calls this injunction into question. For example, there is opposition to the policies of the World Trade Organization, which put the food security of poor communities at risk; or one of the arguments against genetically modified seeds is that they may endanger the crops of poor farmers. That some can be confined to an economy of mere survival or even death is an affront to the overflowing abundance, the fullness of life, that God promises to all.

God is the giver of all life and we ought to recognize God’s joy in the totality of creation and God’s blessing of all that is created (Psalm 104). God’s covenant invites all beings into a relationship in which all creation participates in common living. God’s covenant for life extends to all creation and beyond the present to the future (Gen 9.8-11). An economy that does not recognize this principle is an economy of sin against God’s creation.

We have broken the covenant. We continue to abuse nature through the indiscriminate exploitation of God-given natural resources such as water, land and air. Millions of people are deprived of the life-giving resources of land and water because they are appropriated for profit. Waters are polluted, thereby killing the very source of life for all. Indigenous peoples’ cultures and spirituality that are closely linked to the earth are destroyed, taking away the basis of their identity and survival. Women’s life-giving roles are threatened. We need to recognize that God’s economy means interdependence for the mutual benefit of all creation. An economy of life would release the earth to replenish all life. We are called to protect and not to destroy the life-giving power of the earth. God’s covenant must be reaffirmed in order for us to be faithful and obedient as people of God.

It is often suggested that there is no alternative to the neoliberal economy. This is not true, as can be shown by thinking of the economy as either a tunnel or a fruit tree. The tunnel represents the present process of globalization. All people and all economies are expected to go through the tunnel of growing productivity and competitiveness in the global market if they wish to reach the light at the end – a high standard of consumption for everyone. However not all traffic is welcome in the tunnel. The least efficient, least productive elements such as the unemployed and those countries not willing to adapt or modernize get in the way. The fastest vehicles have their own privileged lane. Finally, everyone must accept the stress, pollution and noise in the tunnel. The traffic has priority over the environment. A tree is quite different from a tunnel. A healthy tree is full of life and its growth is quite different from the journey through the tunnel. Firstly, all the living cells of the tree participate. Secondly, the tree does not overburden its own environment: it enriches it. Lastly, it bears fruit, both to sustain its own life and to feed others. The activity of the cells is meaningful labor, the surroundings are the global environment and the fruits, the fulfillment of all basic needs. So how can a simple tree do what the most advanced type of tunnel economies cannot? As soon as maturity is reached the tree refrains from further vertical growth and puts its energy and resources into making fruit. Its basic rule is blossoming not expansion. Even in the richest countries the law of endless market expansion is becoming a curse: stress is growing, environmental problems are uncontrollable, and everything is under the rule of the market, which continues to demand higher productivity and competitiveness.

But this could all change if the demand for an ever rising standard of living were abolished and new patterns of production, consumption and distribution were based on caring and sharing. The material wealth of the wealthy has grown enough. Their trees are now mature and should leave space for new trees to develop and blossom. Our alternative is an orchard of blossoming economies, each bearing its own kind of fruit. The time has come for radical change if total catastrophe is to be prevented and all creation to enjoy fullness of life.

In the present situation, when the dominant ideology claims there is no alternative, it is crucial to show that transition to another kind of economy is possible. God’s economy, as witnessed to in the Bible, is not wishful thinking. The people of God in different contexts of oppressive and enslaving systems, since the empires of the ancient Near East, have implemented alternatives and have sought to tame those elements of the economy not in line with God’s caring love for all creatures. Fullness of life for all and the common good are the basic criteria of God’s economy. Therefore, the local/regional community of families and persons living together in a given natural, cultural and social habitat are the basic unit and reference point rather than the individual. There are forms of property that are socially just and ecologically careful. These would give all people access to the gifts of God, since God is the final owner of the earth. Property, access and control may take various forms in the different cultural contexts of communities and peoples.

We have to overcome the false notion that there can only be either a purely privatized or a centralized economy. The key perspective is developing an economic order from below so that the lives of people are secured. All legal, institutional and political structures from the local via the national up to the global level have to serve society so that all may live in harmony with each other and nature. The alternatives may include community, cooperative or public ownership as well as ownership for private use, all under ecological and social conditions decided by the community.

Besides land there are other basic goods and services, which must be secured in similar ways, such as water, energy, health, education and transport. All people must have access to the abundance of creation, not only those who have purchasing power on the basis of property or contracted labor. This provision of public goods and services needs to be regulated at different levels including the global with the participation of those affected.

Another key area is production and labor. Small and medium-sized companies related to local/regional communities would have priority in an economy oriented to the needs of local people. Large and transnational industrial production units and corporations would require public control to ensure good working conditions, just wages, ecological standards and just taxation. Social and cultural rights should be applied universally, and this should include farmers, workers and migrant labour. This is possible if governments and all the actors in civil society cooperate rather than compete. The present financial markets and the international monetary system are characterized by speculation, tax evasion and undemocratic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These institutions impose structural adjustment programs on over-indebted countries, with one notable exception, the United States of America. It is not true that there is no alternative in this crucial field. Alternative proposals include a global central bank, international liquidity facilities, a structural fund (like the European Union Structural Funds) to share among richer and weaker regions, and a trade regime that would discipline the richer nations. The UN could be the democratic framework, rather than the undemocratic International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which operate on the basis of “one dollar one vote”.  The vision of an “orchard of blossoming economies” would be furthered by these proposals.

Economic injustice and ecological destruction prevent the fullness of the life that God gives to all creation. The covenant God made with all creation is at stake and therefore life is under serious threat. The neoliberal language of contracts, competition, privatization and the absolute freedom of the individual is not compatible with the concept of covenant. God’s covenant affirms God’s promise over and against the powers of destruction and dominance.

God initiates a covenant with people when their lives are in crisis. They become God’s partners. God’s covenant with Noah, his descendants and every living creature was made when the whole world was completely devastated by flood (Genesis 9). God’s covenant with Abraham was made when Abraham had neither descendants nor land. Jesus’ covenant was made when we had no salvation. Therefore the biblical covenant is a God-initiated process of normalizing an abnormal situation. God’s covenant is an act of liberation from untruth that leads into truth.

While the rules of the empire are exclusive and life in fullness reserved for the “few” and the “greatest”, God’s covenant is inclusive of the whole earth, God’s people and all living creatures (Genesis 9). What is more, in order to correct the exclusiveness that deprives people and living beings of life, God’s covenant begins by drawing into active partnership the most excluded, the poor, the vulnerable, slaves and strangers. In God’s covenant, the last are first and the first last. When all beings live together in covenant, we will find that God has given plenty and there is enough for all.

Covenanting is an action not only of putting oneself into the other person’s place, but also of recognizing oneself in the other. In the covenant, God put God’s own self into all creation. In the covenant that God has made with the whole of creation, all members of creation are put into one another’s place. Covenant is a decisive form of solidarity, overcoming the contradictions caused by unjust powers (Gal 3.26-29). In the context of life threatened, communities dismantled and the truth distorted, we must reaffirm and renew the covenant that God made with all creation, that Christ made new and promised would never be broken, and that the Holy Spirit continues to renew even today.

God’s vision is for the earth to live in conviviality and security. In our context, where so many people, places, and species of the earth are systemically excluded from the fullness of life, faithfulness to God’s covenant means working to overcome our embeddedness in the current system. Christians especially need to repent of complicity, if nothing else through silence or denial with these particular particular features of neoliberal capitalism: where debt enslaves people and nations and denies basic needs, where systemic ecological damage destroys the habitat of life, where we have succumbed to greed for material wealth and possessions, where property is coopted by large capital owners as absolute property for private accumulation at the expense of the common good, where the financial system leads to speculation, corruption, tax evasion and extortionate rates of return on capital.

At this point of our exploration in Christian social teaching, It is up to each reader to compare the social Christian economic values as outlined above and the global neoliberal capitalistic model of today and ask him/herself, is there an alternative short of a totalitarian undemocratic solution? The answer he/she gives may determine if he/she will take the trouble to take a second look at the Christian alternate vision and values of the EU founding fathers. I am afraid that those who advocate that Christian values do not belong in the public agora but in a church for an hour on Sunday have hardly understood the vision of the EU founding fathers and may indeed be building on sand. History will eventually render a final verdict but it is worth keeping in mind that even history will eventually end in the larger Christian scheme of things.  

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James Woodbury2011-07-21 00:29:42
All this is very well stated by Emanuel Paparella. But what in fact are all the Churches, starting with the Catholic Church, if you will, and then proceeding through the Orthodox Churches, the various Protestant Churches, and so on to proclaim, teach,
and actually do to improve the current bad situation? They are certainly relying on
purely ameliorative tactics and are conspicuously failing to confront the worst exemplars of phenomena such as neoliberalism on the world stage.
James W.

Emanuel Paparella2011-07-21 10:02:50
Indeed James, I concur. Was it not Alfred Whitehead who said that theory without practice is sterile and practice without theory is blind? Your critique that theory by itself is not enough is certainly a valid one, nevertheless I believe that it is better by far to start with the theory and hope for the praxis, than with a blind praxis ushering in activism and ideological fanaticism. The whole people of God or the assembly of the people of God (i.e., the Church) are called to the Covenant and to the preferential treatment of the poor (liberation theology) for as James says in the Gospel, what good is faith if it does not incarnate itself in good works?

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