At the height of the economic crisis, the appearance of the modestly dressed and humble Pope Francis seemed a statement in itself. His relatively non-judgmental approach to homosexuality surprised conservatives and perplexed liberals. His criticisms of capitalism soon after had the Christian world talking again, with many commentators on the left grudgingly welcoming his comments while some figures on the right, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, were less than impressed.
In an apostolic exhortation, the pope condemned “ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation”. He called on the world’s leaders to reform the financial system with “an ethical approach, which favours human beings”. Bloomberg Business Week ran the headline “Pope Francis says he’s not a Marxist. Others aren’t so sure.” In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, the pontiff criticised “trickle-down” economics and the global financial system, and accused the rich of theft.
The debate that followed revealed a great deal about the presuppositions embedded in contemporary thought. Undoubtedly Pope Francis is making arguments which have some similarities to those of other figures like Thomas Piketty, also condemned as a Marxist revolutionary (along with Barack Obama) by some hysterical voices of the American right, but his attitude to the poor comes from a long Christian tradition and it is easy to see why this would sit comfortably alongside a call for more redistributive taxation. Pope Francis is also the inheritor of a romantic anti-capitalism and an anti-materialism that descends from Francis of Assisi, after whom he is named, through to Rousseau and William Blake.
In conflating the views of Pope Francis with those of Marx, a vision based on a return to nature, simplicity, traditional values, a desire to turn back the clock, and a morality based on the veneration of poverty is mistaken for one that promised to propel mankind forward through a material revolution in production. A worldview based on exalting poverty is being mistaken for its moral opposite; a vision that plotted to consign pitiful categories such as “the poor” to the dustbin of history through the harnessing and politicising of collective material self-interest. You don’t have to dig deep into Marx to find this fundamental difference clearly explained. From the Communist Manifesto: “Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a Socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”
So why has the pope’s austere self-styling been so easily confused with Marxism? In Irish mainstream debate, deciphering whether someone is on the right or left of the political spectrum is easy on issues of cultural tastes and values, such as divorce or gay marriage, which play out in vicious public fights between opposing sides. But when the economic system is under discussion, these boundaries begin to blur. The Iona Institute’s Breda O’Brien has argued that the church and the traditional family are among the last bulwarks against the ravaging force of neoliberalism. When the economic crisis hit in 2008, John Waters argued that we were witnessing “the failure of the idea of Ireland posited by those who have sought to modernise the country on exclusively materialist principles since the 1960s” and pined for a time when “there was a deep attachment to land, to faith, to music and language”. Before the current economic crisis Labour asked “But are you happy?” to which the Fianna Fáil-voting, Ryanair-flying public seemed to respond Yes.
In Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, Löwy and Sayre’s study of the Romantic style, they define the movement as “opposition to capitalism in the name of pre-capitalist values”. A clear distinction needs to be made, but rarely is, between this romantic anti-capitalism and the anti-capitalism of Marx. It should come as absolutely no surprise that the pope, or indeed Breda O’Brien, disapprove of materialism and unfettered capitalist development and wish to constrain its excesses. Just about everywhere capitalism has gone, individualism, hedonism, women’s liberation from traditional roles, a decline in religiosity and the erosion of tradition have seemed to eventually follow. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Karl Marx on the modernising force of capitalism upon traditional societies, “all that is holy is profaned.” Breda O’Brien’s view that this resulting modernisation will continue to destroy tradition is correct, although I welcome much of the destruction she fears. Those on the right who believe that the revolutionary force of free markets can happily coexist with the traditional social values they already see rapidly disappearing and those on the left who believe that there is no connection between their gains in liberalising the cultural realm and their losses in the increasingly liberalised economic realm have a bit more explaining to do.
The pope’s Franciscan utterances have come at a time when western state ideologies have had to change from pro-consumption to pro-austerity. During this period the Irish state has increased taxation on consumer goods, a measure that left-leaning think tank Social Justice Ireland, based on Catholic social thought, has suggested should go much further, adding punishing taxes to various vices like text-messaging and gambling. It is easy to understand why our political compass seems a little off. After a boom period of equating the left with anti-consumerism, we are now in a period in which the government is preaching austerity and belt-tightening, Catholic leftists warn of the dangers of materialism while trade union economists like Michael Taft have argued for measures that would increase consumer spending. Rather than a period of unfettered capitalist development, we are living through a period in which there has been a strike of investment, both public and private. And while the state ideology across the debt-ridden west has been one of austerity, the pope’s modest dress and gestures of humility convey an equality of sacrifice. He argues for a redistribution of a finite or even diminishing pool of wealth, rather than a revolutionising of our production capacities. This is far from Sylvia Pankhurst’s vision of “a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume”.
In 1923 she wrote, “Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance. Our desire is not to make poor those who today are rich … Such a great production is already possible, with the knowledge already possessed by mankind. Today production is artificially checked, consumption still more so.”