4.3.6 The priority of labour over capital (LE ##11-12)

Back to 4.3.5

Unit 4 Contents

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Chapter III is the high point of the encyclical.  It amounts to an incisive critique of both liberal capitalism and Marxist Communism, and a proposal for an alternative to both.  In this it is very much in line with Rerum Novarum.

Basically the Pope takes the ingredients he has introduced in chapter II and re-mixes them to generate what he calls the principle of ‘the priority of labour over capital’ (#12).

He then applies this principle in a critical assessment of liberal capitalism and Marxist Communism in “the present phase of history” (to quote the chapter title; #13-15).  Putting into practice the alternative that he favours depends on his advocacy of ‘solidarity’, as outlined earlier.

#11 requires little introductory commentary.  It sets the discussion in the historical context of the 90-year period since Rerum Novarum.  John Paul points out that many have seen working life in this period in terms of a great conflict between ‘capital’ and ‘labour’.  As you know already, he rejects this as an adequate way of understanding the problem of work.

It is in #12 that the Pope elaborates the principle of ‘the priority of labour over capital’.  He says that this has always been taught by the Church – although nowhere had it been expressed as directly or explicitly as in this encyclical!

In Unit 2 (2.2.2), an outline was given of what the principle of the priority over capital means, which I’ll simply repeat here:

Basically, [this principle] 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” (LE, #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 are 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, through their labour, being enabled 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 many, many 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.

The above paragraphs draw mainly on LE #12.  When you read this in a minute, try to assess whether they explain the principle accurately.

We can see this principle as a way of applying John Paul’s earlier emphasis on “the subjective dimension of work”.  Given that human beings are created to work, their work is supposed to contribute to them being properly human, to being fulfilled – rather than the opposite.  Through work the worker is to become “more a human being” (#9).  This is why labour must have priority over mere capital.

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Reading (3pp)

Laborem Exercens, part of Chapter III: ##11-12

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Reflection

In the working contexts with which you are familiar, would you say the principle of the priority of labour over capital has been respected?

Or are people regarded (whether explicitly or implicitly) as basically instruments to be used for the organization’s ‘objective’ aim?

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End of 4.3.6

Go to 4.3.7 Questions for discussion half way through unit

 

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