The Franciscan Left and ethical socialism
At the most unexpected time and from the most unexpected place,
Pope Francis has taken up the environmentalist banner,
denouncing the economy of today’s capitalist model
which is destroying Earth and deepening inequality.
His Encyclical “Laudato Sí” calls for the
construction of an ethical socialism.
Where are we failing? is the title of a book coordinated by Jorge Riechmann, in which he reflects upon the reasons why the ecological discourse about the negative environmental consequences of our production-oriented and consumerist culture is having such little repercussion on society.
But we’re growing…
The soundness of the ecological discourse is unquestionable. And it’s not new. Back in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill posed that a stationary State, without economic growth, would inevitably need to be reached. And in the 1970s, the report to The Club of Rome, written under the direction of Dennis Meadows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shook up global consciousness. It also argued the need to reach zero growth. Nonetheless, growth continued. Since then so many scientific studies about climate change, resource depletion, pollution and the decline of bio¬diversity are piling up that we should feel obliged to seriously consider a radical change in our lifestyles and in our production and consumption styles. But this change isn’t happening.
In her latest book, This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein exhaustively presents the reasons why climate change compels us to make radical changes in our social and economic organization. The most notable thing about this author is that she doesn’t see the change as sacrificing a series of improvements that make our lives pleasant and comfortable. On the contrary, she believes this change would mean an improvement in the quality of life for most of humanity.
Yet still nothing has changed. In fact, the financial crisis relegated to the back burner aspects related to the environment. In Spain, a series of scientists and environmental experts recently drafted a manifesto titled “Last Oppor¬tunity” pointing out the urgency of adopting decisive measures if we want to avoid an environmental catastrophe with unforeseeable consequences. Many people signed the manifesto, among them several politicians, but it’s an issue that has practically disappeared from electoral campaigns.
I believe those politicians signed sincerely, sharing the concerns expressed in the manifesto, but when the moment of truth arrives—”electoral truth,” that is, one that has very little to do with the “plain truth”—they are aware that this issue isn’t a priority concern for citizens so the most they give the matter is an honorable mention.
We’re closing our eyes to an “uncomfortable truth” that even a US Vice President, Al Gore, tried hard to bring to the mind of humanity. It was yet another warning, also forcibly and scientifically presented, that we’re pushing the limits of our planet and doing so could bring us to a situation far worse than merely uncomfortable.
Markets are other specters
Efforts to stop humanity’s social decline don’t seem to be doing any better. This decline is reflected in the fact that the world’s 85 richest people accumulate as much wealth as the 3 billion poorest.
Marx announced 167 years ago that the specter of communism was moving through Europe. Today the specters terrifying people in Europe and the whole world are the markets. They’re specters with no name, face or soul, but with the capacity to sink the poor of the Earth deeper into misery and even roll back all the welfare achieved through the hard labor of the First World’s fortunate inhabitants.
All the dreams of a world revolution have been exhausted, spoiled or turned into nightmares. Economic power rules over the earth and it seems nobody knows how to resist its oppression. Even the current appearance and rise of a politician like the British Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, who simply wants to return to an authentic social democracy, causes surprise and admiration in some and irritation and discomfort in others. Naturally, the accusation of radicalism against him is understandable if we compare it to the paltry aspirations of a defeated official Left.
Latin America’s progressive governments, which have shown us progress toward greater justice and freedom, have certainly achieved notable improvements in the eradication of poverty and inequality, but have been unable to avoid basing their economy on pronounced extractivism in which, voluntarily or not, they are contributing to the deterioration of the environment and exhaustion of the planet’s resources in addition to always being exposed to another deadly blow by the great neighbor to the North.
We’re living in times of a demoralized Left, lacking a utopic breath or clarity of ideas, unable to excite people, reduced to pathetic and even covetous objectives. Many pay lip service to the word “change,” but their aspirations go no further than what can be done with the permission of the markets. What’s really needed is to take power away from the markets, but who talks about that these days?
The unexpected “Laudato Sí”
Yet in this most unexpected moment, and from the most unexpected place, amid the clamor of confused and false voices, Pope Francis’ voice resounds loud and clear, reviving the fundamental spirit of the Gospel: I say to you, do not serve money, it has created a world in which economy kills. Free yourselves from that idol, its tentacles drown every effort to build a society of free men and women. Don’t be deceived by its lies, it’s never been seen that the market is a valid means for delivering the goods of the earth with justice. Don’t believe that by wringing out the last drop from Nature you will have economic growth that will solve all your problems. Respect Nature and she will give you enough for a simple life with dignity. You’ve heard it said to you: ‘Vote for me and I’ll have you living better, with more comfort and more consumption’. However, I say to you: change your way of living, free yourselves from the ambition that dries out your hearts, free yourselves from insatiable consumerism. Throw the god of money out of your soul, don’t believe that it can give you welfare and happiness. And be joyful, yes, deeply joyful with the good news that the Reign of God is near.
We hear these words that push us to take a stand as they did to Peter at the lake’s edge. Master, we’ve worked hard all night and have caught nothing. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.
Yes, we will let down our nets again. We will let them down with a renewed illusion, with revived hope. But, keep in mind that we are in a historical and cultural time very different from that when the Gospels were written.
We shouldn’t expect a miraculous catch that will fill our nets while we sway with the gentle roll of the lake’s waters. Two thousand years of history confirm that this isn’t how the Reign of God will come. It’s been a laborious advance among right answers and mistakes, falling and getting back up. We have to learn from our failures and make sure our nets are new and strong.
I think we can see clearly enough that what has failed is a socialism based on materialist philosophy and scientific pretensions.
It’s very hard to achieve a society based on human values and ethics if it’s founded upon crass materialism. The truth is that we discover an ethical option at the core of Marx’s stance. His idea was that the progress of human beings consisted of moving towards a society of equals, with neither oppressor nor oppressed, where each one’s freedom is conditioned to the freedom of all.
It’s evident that not everyone shares this ideal. For example, the human ideal for Nietzsche is the superman. And in describing his behavior he was very direct: “That healthy aristocracy, freed from all decadent compassion towards the weak, capable of rationalizing and defending itself from all sentimental weakness, knows that life is essentially appropriation, wounding and subjugating the other, the weak, oppression, firmness... and at the very least exploitation.”
Marx and Nietzsche were contemporary German philosophers, both atheists. I don’t think anyone can say one was more intelligent than the other, or that the human ideal of one had a greater scientific basis. It’s about indemonstrable ethical options, those that arise from a person’s deepest moral substrate. Was Marx aware that he was coming from an ethical not a scientific option? Surely not. Influenced by the scientific positivism of the time, he surely considered it the consequence of a scientific analysis of social reality, attributing the same grade of certainty to the human and social sciences as to the natural sciences. This was the foundation upon which he took up his struggle against the capitalist system.
The results are clear. There were revolutions that changed economic structures, but the new humanity hasn’t arisen from there. What happened in Russia and China more than confirms this. And nothing leads us to think the future will be any different. We need new paths on which to move toward that dream world of a free and fraternal humanity. And we also need new reasons to confront capitalism, that malignant tumor in humanity whose cancerous development threatens the very survival of the human race.
The missing soul
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Sí” clearly describes those new paths. A truly human world can’t be built by the simple evolution of a few blind productive forces. Francis has come along to add the soul that’s missing in humanity’s liberation movements, to discover the breath of the Spirit in the path towards justice and fraternity. Fraternity among all the children of the same Father.
The ecological deterioration of our planet can’t be stopped by fear of an environmental catastrophe. We need to admire Nature, to love her, to see her as the work of the Father, who called her into existence and saw that she was good. We need to contemplate her with the eyes of Francis of Assisi.
Throughout the history of social movements against capitalism, we Christians have been towed along, if and when we’ve not taken a clearly conservative position. The militant atheism that was adopted by different socialisms contributed significantly to this situation. Today, with these socialisms in rapid decline, their sectarian atheism incapable of holding up the slightest pretension of a scientific stance and instead presenting many traits of outdated dogmatism, it is the leader of the Catholic Church who bravely raises the banner in outright opposition to that economy of death.
The call to construct an ethical socialism in line with the society Jesus wanted has been made. It’s our responsibility as Christians, it’s everyone’s responsibility to hear the call and get working on the construction of that new Left, a Franciscan Left.
Antonio Zugasti writes for Exodo magazine. This text is from its October 2015 edition, under the title “La izquierda franciscana.” Translated and subtitled by envío.