2.2.2 ‘The priority of labour over capital’

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Unit 2 Contents

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As you have just read about the historical background to modern CST, and in particular have been introduced to ‘economic liberalism’ and ‘socialism’, and also to Rerum Novarum, the first principle we’ll look at is to do with the issues this document addressed.  This is the principle of ‘the priority of labour over capital’.  At first glance, this might sound as though it fits with socialism and is contrary to capitalism – but it doesn’t quite mean that.

What does it mean?  Basically, it rests on recognition that ‘labour’ always refers to people, not just things: workers are persons.  ‘Capital’, on the other hand, does not refer to persons, but to things, the wealth of many kinds that has accumulated over many generations in a society.  Such ‘capital’ includes all kinds of buildings, tools, infrastructure (such as roads), etc.  Such wealth is owned either by particular people – often mostly by a small minority – or by the state.  But CST points out that ‘capital’ is in fact only things, and that it is labour that has produced capital.  It is “the result of work and bears the signs of human labour” (Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #12).  Persons use the raw materials which God gives us in nature to make and build things, and what we make and build becomes valuable to us – capital.

The principle of the priority of labour over capital simply insists that, because capital is ultimately only things, it always must be employed in a way that serves labour, i.e. people.  This principle explicitly rejects the idea that workers may be employed to serve capital – this gets it exactly the wrong way round.  And CST insists the principle applies regardless of whether capital is owned and controlled by private business or by the state.  This last point is very significant.  It means that this principle makes CST equally opposed to the sort of capitalism that ‘economic liberalism’ tried to defend and to the sort of socialism that sees the solution to capitalism as lying in transferring capital to collective control.  What CST is critiquing here is especially such socialism as existed in the European Communist countries until 1989.

So the priority of labour over capital means that all those who operate in the economic system, whether private companies or state agencies, must ensure that all they do is directed to benefiting labour itself – people – rather than capital, mere things.  This might sound, in one way, like a statement of the completely obvious.  But CST has regarded both economic liberalism and socialism as failing to recognize and respect it, with terrible consequences.

What does it mean in practice?  Most importantly, it means that any and every business has, as one main responsibility, to ensure that its workers are being enabled through their labour to become more fully human, to grow towards human fulfilment.  In fact, much work fails to enable this – or so many people would think.  This is why the principle of the priority of labour over capital is hugely significant, even if its meaning can be hard to grasp at first.  It presents a massive challenge to the way work actually is for a huge number of people, all those who have been made subject to capital in one way or another.  This principle matters because very often the reality is the priority of capital over labour.

This is to say enough about ‘the priority of labour over capital’ here.  It is studied further, and much more attention is given to what it means in practice in Unit 4.

However we shall turn shortly to a related principle, indeed one which is actually assumed by the priority of labour over capital.  This is the principle of human dignity – but, as our route towards looking at this, we consider the biblical idea that humans are made ‘in the image of God’.

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End of 2.2.2

Go to 2.2.3 Men and women as created ‘in the image of God’

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