Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pope Francis on Youth Unemployment, War, and the Idolatry of Money

It is not often that the global economy’s military-industrial complex is tied to youth unemployment and, moreover, to the idolatry of money. Yet this is precisely the thread woven by the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. While the pope’s comments risk a certain overreach from the theological to the terrain of international political economy, which proffers its own body of knowledge, it can also be said that having a transcendent referent as one’s focus enables a person to make subtle taken-for-granted assumptions in our economic, social, and political systems transparent. In articulating an economic (and related political) center and giving it a distinctly theological interpretation stemming from the Biblical passage, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,”[1] the Roman pope provides the world with a way to do political economy from a distinctly religious vantage-point.

“At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman,” the pope asserts; “everything else must be in service to this man.[2] In itself, this claim is not religious in nature. Rather, the tone is philosophical, reminiscent perhaps of Kant’s “kingdom of ends” in which morality means respecting rational beings as objective ends in themselves, rather than only using them as means. For Kant, a lack of goodwill, due to pathology, lies behind the lack of adequate respect that would otherwise put people first—hence the need for public legal justice. This is not to say that Kant secularizes the matter completely; any rational creature is an end in itself “by virtue of the autonomy of his freedom he is the subject of the moral law, which is holy.”[3]  Using reason, the rational being is an assigner of value; such a being thus has absolute value (hence deserving to be treated as an end in itself, rather than merely a means to someone else’s agenda). Now a rational being is uniquely free to subject himself to his own law, which, given the necessity that lies in reason itself, binds him.  “The moral law is holy (inviolable),” Kant writes; “the humanity in his person must be holy to him.”[4] For Kant, the humanity is the rational nature, which makes the moral law sacred because reason cannot be bent out of sheer caprice. Put another way, rational beings have absolute value in that we use reason to hold ourselves as if by necessity (though freely) to that which we assign value to.

Pope Francis can be read as substituting love for reason—that men and women are made out of love, and thus inherently to be loved rather than used as mere means. Here we can discern glimpses of Leibniz’s claim that human beings are due love as a matter of justice as per the extent of being or existence that we have, and Augustine’s emphasis on caritas, or human love that can be sublimated to love of God.

Whereas Kant points to pathological self-love as thwarting the respect due beings of love, Pope Francis argues in terms similar to Aquina’s misordered concupiscence—placing a lower good above a higher one. “(W)e have put money at the center, the god of money,” the pope claims. “We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”[5] Where your treasure is, there may be found your heart. In this case, money, which Aristotle calls barren metal, has come to be loved rather than other people, not to mention God, which as Augustine stresses, is love itself. The basic problem, in other words, is warped priorities.

Not surprisingly, greed is not far away, lying behind money as a god at the center of all. “The economy is moved by the ambition of having more.”[6] That ambition is an end in itself, so no amount of money is ever enough. Interestingly, we can distinguish ever-lasting here from the eternal; whereas love cuts through time in having value, greed is of infinite, or unlimited, desire. Value that cuts through time, such as holds with love, gets expunged by the all-consuming god of money. Put in Kantian terms, people are treated as mere means rather than also as ends in themselves.

It is no wonder that the young and old are tossed to the wayside because of their relatively low utility. Regarding youth unemployment, the pope had this to say. “(W)e are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore, a system that to survive must make war, as the great empires have always done.”[7] The system, being designed to funnel money, must be protected, and it is no accident that the people-as-means, or human resources, attribute so easily translates into an economy of war. Rather than being at the center, the human being is reduced to collateral damage, or targeted outright.

Because “a Third World War can’t be done, they make [regional] wars,” the pope explains.[8] This involves the production and sale of weapons, which sorts out “the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money.”[9] Here the pope explicitly relates making money an idol of inviolable worth and sacrificing people as if they are worthless. Barren metal, in other words, is put over beings capable of holding themselves to a moral law and of loving themselves and others—even those who would sacrifice them on an altar of gold. Not unexpectedly, an international political economy oriented to sustaining an arms trade divides economies—even sorting them reductively along the lines of weapons production and consumption. The United States is a “superpower,” whereas Africa has value only in as much as it has the wherewithal to purchase weapons and sustain its intestine squabbles.

Once held up as a coming cacophony of diversity “like a polyhedron, all united but each preserving its particularity, its wealth, its identity,” globalization has become impoverished, “a sphere in which all points are equidistant from the center” whose sheer gravity “takes away the wealth of diversity of thought and therefore the wealth of a dialogue between peoples.”[10] That is to say, the reductionistic, weapons-oriented organizing principle of the global military-industrial complex saps globalization of its many differences, essentially nullifying this sort of wealth in favor of a more banal form in which the dark hole of a bank vault functions as a god with a suffocating embrace.

Beware the military industrial complex. U.S. President Eisenhower delivered this starkly public warning as he embraced some free speech in his farewell address in 1960. It is dangerous to have so much financial and related political interest lined up on the side of war. This is hardly unknown, yet we tolerate it because the interests of capital have beguiled us into supposing that they have labor’s back. In other words, we have been made to fear the onslaught of mass unemployment that would ensue from a structural realignment off the weapons trade. 

In his interview in 2014, Pope Francis takes a more subtler look at what is really at stake. Whereas historically religion and then morality operated as viable constraints on the profit motive, the god of money seems to have a relatively free hand as of the early twenty-first century at least; correspondingly, people are secondary, and thus expendable, in the system designed and inhabited by the same. Money has come to be regarded as an absolute, with the worth of persons being defined exclusively according to its measure. Put another way, the unit of measurement has become an end in itself—inviolable, and thus an idol—while the measurers—the assigners of value—have come to accept their place as mere means, or human resources. 

Living in the “system”— an artifice entirely changeable even in its basic contours—many people just assume that the constantly-felt subterranean, subtly existential instability or uncertainty is a necessary part of life. Life means being expendable. Life means that money rules. From a transcendental referent point, a spiritual person can see the world differently—atypically—and thus make transparent our systems’ basic premises. Once recognized, they can be changed; the changers can take back their innate power to set the priorities for the systems, whether they are social, economic, or political in nature, and to see to it that the designs are in sync with those priorities. Where our treasures are, there too are our gods.

[1] Luke 12:34; Matthew 6:21. Not being in Mark, the source is likely the book of Q (which stands for Quelle, or “source” in German), a book of Jesus sayings hypothesized to have been a source used by the writers of Luke and Matthew.
[3] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
[4] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.