I’ve been on the road while teaching a variety of ethics classes this summer, and one of the places I’ve been privileged to be is Prague, Czech Republic. What I had heard about the city matches what I’ve seen: it’s a lovely city, with layers and layers of time showing through. No era is forgotten in this city: the buildings and people give witness to the wide-ranging human activity in this region, from the ninth-century monastery and church I visited, to Wenceslaus Square where the 1989 revolution happened, to the statue of Jan Hus, and the Hapsburg castle.
One of the places I visited the Museum of Communism, which made me remember many scenes from childhood. I spent the first half of my growing-up years believing that the Soviets and communism were both evil, and the second half scarcely believing that the Iron Curtain had actually fallen. When I heard stories about the Iron Curtain, my visions were of grey, dull concrete buildings, pollution, and people made to work as efficiently as they possibly could, while the way of life enforced in those countries sucked all the joy from them. So too I remember being wildly joyous at hearing about all the revolutionary change sweeping through Eastern Europe in the late 80s and early 90s.
The exhibit at the museum did nothing to change those images: the videos of soldiers beating civilians, the replicas of a drab school, store and interrogation room reinforced what I’d heard as a kid. Of course, that was the point. The museum makes no pretense of trying to be “objective”: it is clearly naming democracy as good, and communism as bad – and notes places in the world where communism still exists, to the detriment of its people. And Catholic teaching has borne witness against communism too, in part with its view that private property is a good (though not an unlimited good).
What I was greatly surprised by, however, was that some of the images of communism mirrored some of the images of our contemporary late global capitalist society.
For example, I watched a video (circa early 80s?) that had been aimed at discussing the harm of communist methods on children. The video stressed that increased drive toward efficiency, for example, had led to increased toxic levels of fertilizers in farming so that, in the video’s words, our children were imbibing so many liters of poison a year….
What jolted me was that the offhand descriptions in the video about drive toward greater job efficiency, treating workers like machines, and the need for poisonous chemicals in farming methods could have described several industries in the US today. We speak offhandedly about how we’re just generating food for people, and isn’t that a good thing? But how different is that rhetoric from that used under communist regimes that also promised a happy life for people because efficiency and good work meant people were getting food they needed?
In another part of the museum, I encountered slogans aimed at workers, telling them to be grateful for their jobs and their meagre wages, for they were contributing to the greater good of society!
How different is this, though, from some neo-con celebrations of capitalism that ask workers to be content with lower wages because, after all, it’s for the good of the free market! And (as they tell us) a free market is clearly for the greater good of society, even if some people get lost in the shuffle, and even if some have to make do with jobs and wages that don’t contribute to their own good living?
Some have suggested that Catholicism has always been against communism, but that it has always stood in favor of capitalism, because (after all) capitalism stands for freedom and freedom of the will; it is an economic system that encourages us to privilege that freedom. Others have suggested that Catholicism has proposed a “third way” in economics – a way that is between communism and capitalism, one that emphasizes the common good (which seems to some to be too similar to the communist ideal of holding everything in common) and one that emphasizes the importance of an individual’s ability to hold private property.
When I read the encyclicals, though, I find no economic theory. I find only the same central concern that the church holds in all of its teaching, which is that human beings possess the particular dignity of being made in the image of God. No economic theory, however good it seems, can be allowed to sidestep this central point, or if it does so, it does so to its own detriment. Maybe another way to put it is this: the moment the church tries to put forth an economic theory is the moment it is in grave danger itself of forgetting human dignity. It is only in not proposing any one theory, but instead emphasizing what must be central regardless of the theory, that the church can offer critiques of those theories.
In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict wrote:
I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: ‘Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life…’
The pope goes on to discuss his concerns with global capitalism, the “grave failures” of the contemporary market to be faithful to the needs of all people. So, for example, while we boast about having created an industrial agricultural system capable of feeding the world, we have at the same time denigrated human work, and caused many farmers to have to farm crops that they cannot, themselves eat or use to sustain themselves.
In the West, we may fault communism for having denigrated the human spirit, but I cannot say that we have not done the same with some of our own economic activities. Too much of a focus on markets and on individual decisions for their own self-interest denies a whole range of human activity. As Benedict says:
The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.
If one of the difficulties with communism was that it prevented people from taking pride (in the good sense of the word) in God’s good earth by owning it (via private property) and by learning to use it well (and I happen to think that the pope is exactly right here), a parallel difficulty arises from contemporary late capitalism in that it tends to believe that such things as gifts are impossible, and thus also prevents people from taking pride (again, in the good sense of the word) in being able to do good for each other.
With either theory, I find it difficult to sustain a life lived for the gospel.