Bruce Duncan. Pope Francis rejects ‘neoliberal’ economics.

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1 November 2020.

The new social encyclical of Pope Francis is a cry for those oppressed by poverty, hunger, and exclusion, protesting against the injustice of a world with so much wealth failing to do enough for everyone to have the opportunity for a reasonably good life. Not surprisingly, Francis drew from the parable of the Good Samaritan: will we remain indifferent and pass by, or take the global situation seriously?

Instead, unimaginable wealth is channelled into the hands of small elites, allowing them to capture undue political influence, and to reshape public policies primarily in their own self-interest, rather than for the common good. His new 43,000-word encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity & Social Friendship, highlights this critique, particularly blaming the economic thinking termed ‘neoliberalism’.

Commentators were expecting a robust refutation of neoliberal economics, but instead of a tight academic critique, Fratelli Tutti draws heavily from statements of Pope Francis, many from his more than 30 overseas trips in countries suffering from acute social distress and poverty.

Pope Francis is dismayed that hopes have been disappointed for renewed efforts through the UN Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate hunger and poverty and to lift living standards globally while reducing the threat from climate change. He wrote Laudato Si’ in 2015 to mobilise public support both for the Paris Climate Conference and for the SDGs.

Economic conditions were deteriorating even before the pandemic drove tens of millions more people into desperate poverty. After the Global Financial Crisis, “it appears that the actual strategies developed worldwide in the wake of the crisis fostered individualism, reduced integration, and increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed” (#170). Of special concern to Pope Francis are libertarianism or ‘radical individualism’ and a narcissistic culture indifferent to the distress of others.

He especially opposes manipulation of markets and outright exploitation: “many forms of injustice persist, fed … by a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard, and even kill human beings. While one part of humanity lives in opulence, another part sees its own dignity denied, scorned, or trampled upon” (#22). Moreover, in many societies, women do not possess rights identical to those of men; “doubly poor are those women who endure situations of exclusion, mistreatment, and violence” (#23).

Francis is appealing for improved regulation of economic systems, to produce equitable outcomes. He is not at all opposed to the free market in principle, or a culture of personal enterprise and innovation. He recognises that socially responsible businesses are essential to maintain life and sustainability for everyone. “Business activity is essentially ‘a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world'” (#123). He sees business abilities as a gift from God, helping to eliminate poverty and create work opportunities.

However, Francis writes that ‘powerful interests’ through the media and networks of influence are trying to “create a new culture in service of the elite. This plays into the opportunism of financial speculators and raiders, and the poor always end up the losers” (#52). Francis had witnessed Argentina’s sovereign debt default in 2002 and its struggle to negotiate remission of foreign debt, with the perverse behaviour of the so-called ‘vulture funds’ that bought up debt cheaply and fought tenaciously for full payment of the original debt.

Francis supports the principle that, normally, “all legitimately acquired debt must be repaid”, but, especially with the economic devastation caused by the pandemic, “the way in which many poor countries fulfil this obligation should not end compromising their very existence and growth” (#126). “Plunging people into despair closes a perfectly perverse circle: such is the agenda of the invisible dictatorship of hidden interests that have gained mastery over resources and the possibility of thinking and expressing opinions” (#75).

Francis’s appeal for a renewed sense of our common humanity

After a sobering first chapter surveying the serious problems faced by nations, Francis explains the parable of the Good Samaritan as capturing our best ideals of fraternity and solidarity with those in real trouble. “As a community, we have an obligation to ensure that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development” (#118).

Without an attempt to enter into that way of thinking, what I am saying here will sound wildly unrealistic… we can rise to the challenge of envisaging a new humanity. We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all. This is the true path to peace, not the senseless and myopic strategy of sowing fear and mistrust in the face of outside threats (#127).

Francis calls for a renewed “global juridical, political, and economic order” to aid and guide the development of all peoples. This will ultimately benefit the entire world, ‘giving poor nations an effective voice in shared decision-making’ and access to international markets” (#138).

Francis continues that “We are still far from a globalisation of the most basic of human rights. That is why world politics needs to make the effective elimination of hunger one of its foremost and imperative goals. Indeed, “when financial speculation manipulates the price of food, treating it as just another commodity, millions of people suffer and die from hunger. At the same time, tons of food are thrown away… Hunger is criminal”.’ (#189).

Everything, then, depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles. Otherwise, political propaganda, the media and the shapers of public opinion will continue to promote an individualistic and uncritical culture subservient to unregulated economic interests and societal institutions at the service of those who already enjoy too much power (#166).

Reactions

Some commentators have reacted strongly against the Pope’s views, charging that he misunderstands economics, or is playing partisan politics, betraying his role as a religious teacher. However, Francis insists that the issues are supremely moral, since many millions of lives are at stake, as is our future with global warming.

The document could have avoided some criticism if it had clarified the meaning of some passages. The difficulty in part stems from the way the document collates nearly 300 quotes, 172 of them from Francis himself, with the rest from his predecessors, some episcopal conferences, and others. These quotes are like a collage building up the picture Francis is composing. However, without understanding the context behind the original quotes, some may seem overstated.

Francis on the right to property

Francis follows centuries of religious teaching that God created the world for the benefit of everyone, not primarily for the rich and powerful: “the Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property” (#120).

The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. … Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems. But ‘the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality which gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society.

Francis called for policies to promote sound businesses which create but not cut jobs, but noted that financial speculation aiming at quick short-term profits continued to wreak havoc (#168).  

Francis encourages a politics that “is something more noble than posturing, marketing, and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict, and a bleak cynicism incapable of mobilising people to pursue a common goal” (#197). Solidarity “means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means combating the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labour rights. It means confronting the destructive effects of the empire of money” (#116).

Economic thinkers influencing Fratelli Tutti.

The writing of Laudato Si’ included consultations with eminent climate scientists and economists. By contrast, Fratelli Tutti does not mention leading economists, though the writing team behind Pope Francis has had strong contacts with architects of the SDGs, including Professor Jeffrey Sachs and economists like Professor Joseph E Stiglitz, Nobel laureate and former chief economist at the World Bank.

Stiglitz is well known for his denunciation of the ethical collapse in finance and economics, allowing the ideology of ‘neoliberalism’, or what he prefers to call ‘economic fundamentalism’, to become so influential. Even after the GFC, the lessons were not learnt, and the result is that wages of most people still stagnate while the rich become richer. In The Great Divide: Unequal Societies & What We Can Do about Them (2015, 248) Stiglitz wrote that, after adjusting for inflation, the median wage of full-time US male workers was less than in 1968. The trickle-down theory is ‘a myth’.

Further, Stiglitz wrote in People, Power, & Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent (2019, xii) that ‘the top 1 percent of the world now owned nearly half the world’s wealth’. The degree of inequality is quite simply outrageous.

Calculations of how many individuals have how much wealth fluctuate with circumstances and economists, but no one can deny wealth and power are concentrated to an unconscionable degree. Stiglitz wrote in The Scientific American (1 November 2018) that economic power is so concentrated in the hands of elites that ‘The American Economy is Rigged’ to bolster their special interests at the expense of the great mass of US citizens. Other economists like Robert B Reich have written in similar vein.

The 2019 Banking Royal Commission in Australia revealed that the influence of neoliberal thinking has also been significant in Australia, with systemic fraud and a collapse in moral standards maximising profits. As pointed out in recent years by many writers in Pearls & Irritations, neoliberal policies of privatisation and deregulation have damaged other sectors in our society and economy, too.

How Fratelli Tutti will be received in Australia remains, of course, to be seen.


Photo Charging Bull in Wall Street NY. Photo Sam Valadi. flickr cc.


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