4.3.8 The critique of ‘economism’ and ‘materialism’ (LE ##13-15)
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Returning to the text of LE, in #13 Pope John Paul moves into his critique of capitalism and of Marxism. He refers to a historical ‘breaking’ of the proper connection between labour and capital which led to these being understood as opposed to one another (#13, third para.).
What is he talking about here? We can answer this by referring back to the historical outline earlier in the module, in Unit 2 (2.1). In the emergence of the ideology of liberal capitalism around 1800, ‘labour’ came to be seen as one ‘instrument of production’, to be utilized in a mode of manufacture that was subject to the overriding aim of maximizing profit. This must be the ‘breaking’ which John Paul has in mind, granted that it is explicit in the theory of classical economics that workers come to be seen as instruments. The ‘subjective dimension’ is excluded. This is what John Paul means by referring to ‘the error of economism’.
But in #13, even more plainly, the target of his critique is Marxism. How come? Wasn’t Marxism formed in radical opposition to capitalism? Yes, but John Paul’s argument is that, without realizing it, Marxism took over ‘the error of economism’ and made it, if anything, even more central in its analysis.
This is clear from the last two paragraphs of #13. John Paul has argued that ‘economism’ brings along with it the error of ‘materialism’ – that humans are nothing more than material beings, without any transcendent dimension. Marxism took this up very explicitly, insisting on an atheist, anti-religious world-view. It understood the whole of history in terms of conflict between classes defined by how they fitted into the material conditions of production. It is this conflict between opposed classes that Marxism called ‘dialectical materialism’. (Here ‘dialectical’ basically refers to two opposing forces.) John Paul uses this term a couple of times. In arguing that Marxism took over capitalism’s error, he says:
In dialectical materialism too man is not first and foremost the subject of work…, but continues to be understood and treated, in dependence on what is material, as a kind of ‘resultant’ of the economic or production relations… (#13)
So his contention is that, even though Marxism understood itself as totally opposed to capitalism, in fact it incorporated into its own worldview the most basic error that capitalism had made! In consequence, Marxism was fundamentally incapable of generating a form of working life in which ‘the priority of labour over capital’ could be achieved – and in which human beings could be properly human.
Rather, Marxism made labour subject to a different kind of ‘capital’ – state-controlled ‘socialized’ capital. Both John Paul’s critique and his constructive argument for an alternative can be seen as summed up near the end of #14. He speaks here of the ‘socializing’ of property that Marxists favoured, but he rejects what they meant by it. As we would expect, John Paul says that any such socializing could be fruitful only if it is based on a proper conception of the human person. I quote below from this passage. It seems clear that the Pope’s vision of ‘solidarity’ is implicit, as is the CST ‘principle of subsidiarity’. The principle of the common good is explicit.
[M]erely converting the means of production into state property in the collectivist systems is by no means equivalent to ‘socializing’ that property. We can speak of socializing only when the subject[ive] character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else. A way toward that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes [i.e. in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity]; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration [i.e. in solidarity] with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good. (#14).
Coming from a Pope who had lived under Communism until three years previously, and in a country that was, at the time LE was published, engaged in deep conflict about exactly such issues, that analysis amounts to an astonishingly powerful critique of Marxism. No doubt it was recognized as exactly this by people in Poland and in other Communist countries of eastern Europe.
You are asked in a moment to read the passage this screen has introduced. (Even with this, it may not be an easy read.)
The main question that Laborem Exercens’s analysis raises for us, 30 years on, when Marxist Communism no longer exists (in anything like the form the Pope knew so well), is this:
Is John Paul’s critique of liberal capitalism still as relevant now as it was then – in the context of the global market economy and the aftermath of the 2008-2013 financial and economic crisis? Keep this question in mind.
Laborem Exercens, part of Chapter III: ##13-15
This link takes you to the start of Chapter III, so scroll down.
End of 4.3.8
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