While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”
The charge is absurd.
Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced. Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions. Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions. History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity. I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.
Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas. The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism. He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.” He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering. Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.
The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible. Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder. Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.” Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.
The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal. Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing. They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture. It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption. It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility. Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.
Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals. It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring. The culture maintains social stability and order. Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything. Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe. That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.
For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values. That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.
Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic. While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context. If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era. Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly. Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.
To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes. Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom. Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship. Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare. A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas. Custom has been replaced by fad. Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”
Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters. That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist. The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works — So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.