In Hope of a Catholic Economic System: Part II

Part I of this article can be found here.

Point 2: That Economic philosophy must place the person—never to be seen as simply a means of production or a tool for profit—at the center of its calculations and further still uphold the family, rather than the atomized individual, as the economy’s most important entity.

A flaw of both capitalists and communists is denigration of the human person and his natural habitat, the family. Intrepid communist usurpers sent high school kids in the USSR on weekend field trips, hoping the close quarters and raging hormones would soon bear promiscuous fruit, all the better to quash early in life any idea of traditional family roles especially the authority of the mother or father – a role which the State, in its all-encompassing benevolence, could so much better fill. Everyone agrees right? Less of our family and friends telling us what to do, more and more faceless government bureaucrats with bullhorns. For capitalists, the family is a shackle on the natural drive of the “individual” to fulfill his every consumerist need. Note, “individual,” not person, for a person has rights, feelings, thoughts, some of them sometimes profound, faith, fears, faults, and the ever-present hope for redemption. “Individuals” are as singular in their drives as the definition capitalists provide for them. People are complex; individuals are simple, individually focused on highly personalized and necessarily repetitious individualism best translated into the universal language of buy, spend, go into debt, etc. Communists and capitalists love non-persons like comrades and consumers; they are simple minded and easy to control. Both hate people, who are often complex and free.

We, however, want people to be part of our system. We want to place people and that most holy collective, the family, at the center of all our proposals. It is the family, not the individual, that is the “basic economic unit as well as the basic social unit,” says John C. Medaille, author of the book Toward a Truly Free Market. Furthermore, the individual left all by himself, as many modern economists desire, is a “sterile and not a self-sustaining entity. Neoclassical economics thus has no way to explain how new workers come into the economy, and hence it has no way to explain growth.” The family is a “true society,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Being a true society, and predating the State, the family “consequently…has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.” Families produce independent men and women, people, whereas state control of the economy, Pope John Paul II notes in his 1991 one-hundred year anniversary homage to Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus, inevitably reaches back into the family and against the person, rendering all “cogs” in a leviathan-like machine.[1]

But while state ownership of the means of production is often a communist reality, listen to what John Paul II cautions against as well. “Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values.” But “insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” Reduces man to the satisfaction of material needs. Capitalism often strikes at the family and personhood by turning what should be a tight-knit miniature community of love into turned inward, selfish, consumerist robots. It is the family that is the foundation of both the social and economic superstructure, the “reason,” as Medaille puts it, “for having an economy and the indispensable condition of the economy…a society that degrades the family degrades its own future.” [2]

Point 3:  Labor is the source of all real value. All that exists, economically speaking, is labor and nature. Modern economics, stuck in our point one problem of reducing the economy to mathematical algorithms and balance sheet statistics, focus simply on the economy in motion, on exchanges, without ever speaking of the most important facet: the engine of the system, or the production process. This is same ontological problem the atheists face: how did we move from something to nothing? It cannot be turtles all the way down, it cannot be a perpetual moving line of box cars stretching back into infinity, an infinite regress, for something has to be moving the line, pushing it forward from a first-spark cause of motion. [3]

That moving agent is labor and nature. Imagine a thicket of strawberries and cows on a pasture and rows of sugarcane; nature. Imagine the workers, labor, that pick those strawberries and shuck that cane and the farmers who milk the cows unto another set of culinary workers who combine all these things, plus some more, into the final product: strawberry ice cream. Like the atheists who claim that the universe brought itself into existence even though that would mean that the universe existed before it existed and that is impossible, modern economists, both on the left and right, pretend as if strawberry ice cream can exist as if having fallen from the sky finished, without nature and labor. To communists and capitalists alike nature and labor are little more than taken-for-granted commodities to be exploited. Little wonder there is so much degradation of the environment, for how can one care about the land if fully disconnected from it? Little wonder so many rich people make their living off of usurious interest, literally profiting off of zero labor, by them at least.For to them, labor is not honest but uncouth, as they live up in some skyscraper collecting benefits which one does not deserve than sully themselves with the peons working on the land somewhere far away.

But labor and nature are the economy. Only people—people, remember, from families, not consumerist or comrade robot wage serfs, people—willing to put their labor to the task of taking things found in nature and transforming them by ingenuity and hard work into products for the market make any of this possible. Without families that produce people that produce products, there would be nothing. And the best thing about labor being the source of all value is that labor happens to be fun; really. It’s better this way, more rewarding, very much like, how nice it would be if we didn’t have to eat but could take pills to fulfill all our nutritional requirements? That would not be nice. That would be awful. Eating can be fun. Fasting can be rewarding. But taking pills in place of food, a plate of pills next to millimeter measured out beakers of vitamin water instead of real food beside your favorite drink, is never fun, not good.

So too, making a profit without having put in the work, the labor – and yet how many capitalists make speculative fortunes in shady, short-sold trade deals, perhaps the most disconnected from labor and nature “work” we can imagine, living high after having steamrolled a slew of mom and pops for no reasons outside of “why not, I want to, that’s life, and I can.” And how many communist apparatchiks live pompous lives in paid-for homes with paid-for perks and pleasures – all of them paid for, in full, by someone other than them…probably you.

Labor is the source of all value. Labor is rewarding and fun. “As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle,” Pope Leo XII notes, “but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience.” That which would then have been his delight. Work was designed by God to be fulfilling, to make people feel good, like they matter, like they can and do contribute. One of the hidden secrets to life is that people love to work. Why have we heard otherwise so often? Thank you, communism and capitalism. If you spend your whole life in some factory making useless products for an unjust wage and both your co-workers and your supervisor look like the walking dead, staggering about, maybe even pretending to work, counting the ticking seconds until they can leave, then you too would come to the conclusion that work is bad. Notice I did not specify the above as belonging to the capitalist or communist sphere. This because it belongs to both.[4]

Be we – PALCOP, believers in a family-oriented moral economy that honors people’s work and the land they live and labor upon – we know work is meant to be meaningful, purposeful, useful and desirable. One, certainly not all, but one of the reasons to jump out of bed and take on the day, is being able mimic our Creator’s ultimate creative power in the small creations springing forth from our unworthy hands. Work is good, people like to work. Listen to what Medaille says on the topic. “The truth is that people love to work. A man will come home from a hard day’s labor and immediately go out to his workshop or into his garden…people love to accomplish things; they love to contribute; they love to demonstrate their skills and their mastery over some productive technique…it is only since the invention of television that people could be diverted long enough from the boredom of idleness to engage in it for very long.” [5]

The third and final installment of this article will be published next week.

[1] John C. Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More (Culture of Enterprise, Wilmington Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011),39; Leo XII, Rerum Novarum, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor (1891), 7.

;John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, Encyclical Letter to His Venerable Brother Bishops in the Episcopate, the Priests and the Deacons, Families of Men and Women Religious, All the Christian Faithful, and to All Men and Women of Good Will on the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (May 1, 1991, Memorial of Saint Joseph the Worker), 15.

[2] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus,19; Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market, 43, 100.

[3] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market 65-66.

[4] Leo XII, Rerum Novarum, 17.

[5] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market,  97.

Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Two Women in the Moor

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Author of a novel entitled The Holdout (Adelaide Books, 2018) and a Civil War history Catholic Confederates (Kent State Univ. Press, 2020). Thermonuclear Mirth, a novel, is under contract and forthcoming with Arouca Press. A collection of essays, The Hippo Lectures, stemming from talks given at St. Augustine's, is completed and in circulation. Selected fiction has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Riddle Fence, Nashwaak Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Eclectica Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, New English Review, The Southern Distinctive, PILGRIM, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Black Bear Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Scriberlus. Selected articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Catholic Historical Review, The Polish Review, the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of Southern Religion, and Idaho Magazine. Future research will be concentrated on writing a comprehensive Great War history about people on the Palouse. Earned his PhD in history from Mississippi State University. Currently teaches in Washington State University’s School of Design + Construction, the WSU department of history, and in the University of Idaho's College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences. Previously taught in the history department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has played baseball collegiately, professionally in Europe in the Czech Republic and Belgium, and for the Polish National Team. He is fluent in English, Polish and French with ability in Russian and Italian.

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