Thursday, April 17, 2014

Opportunity Lost?

As the national elections loom on the South African horizon and post-Mandela disillusionment sets in, UK journalist John Pilger offers a perceptive account of why so little economic progress has been made during the first 20 years of South Africa's democracy. Simply put, the ANC sold out and took the only path that remained after the fall of the Berlin Wall: neo-liberalism, the alluring but unrealistic belief that by making the rich richer (BEE, anyone?) wealth will begin to trickle down to the masses. Well, as Pope Francis wrote, "the excluded are still waiting". What is of particular interest is Pilger's brief description of what kind of programs could have been implemented to ensure that the end of apartheid meant not only the right for the majority of South Africans to vote, but also the right to a decent and dignified livelihood: 
[H]ad the ANC invested in [the majority of South Africans] and in their "informal economy", it could have actually transformed the lives of millions. Land could have been purchased and reclaimed for small-scale farming by the dispossessed, run in the co-operative spirit of African agriculture. Millions of houses could have been built, better health and education would have been possible. A small-scale credit system could have opened the way for affordable goods and services for the majority. None of this would have required the import of equipment or raw materials, and the investment would have created millions of jobs. As they grew more prosperous, communities would have developed their own industries and an independent national economy.
A reinvigorated—and skilled—peasantry that fosters the bonds most essential to a healthy society is crucial to liberating South Africa from its colonial and apartheid past that shattered the peasant class and tore families—the real fabric of society—to pieces. This is the basis of distributism in South Africa. 

The change that occurred in the early nineties put our country in a perfect position to transcend the ideological warfare that plagued the 20th century and embark on a new journey towards economic, political and social freedom. Instead the ANC revealed itself to be little more than an ideological playground for the black middle class, and South Africans—most of whom were not yet even born in 1994—are still waiting for real freedom to arrive.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pope Francis Blowing the Dynamite of the Church

Today Pope Francis' published his first Apostolic Exhortation, entitled Evangelii Gaudium (translated in English as The Joy of the Gospel). At over 220 pages, the document outlines in detail his vision for a missionary Church that "goes forth from [its] own comfort zone in order to reach all the 'peripheries' in need of the light of the Gospel". 

One of the primary challenges to the mission of the Church that Francis identifies is "an economy of exclusion" based upon a trickle-down understanding of the (so-called) free market. From there the pope proceeds to blast neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely out of the water (with an open acknowledgement of how offensive his words might sound thrown in for good measure). 

Peter Maurin famously wrote that to once again become "the dominant social dynamic force" of the world, the Catholic Church "will have to use some of the dynamite inherent in her message.” Has Pope Francis lit the fuse that will "blow the dynamite of the Church"? You be the judge (bold mine):
53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.
54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.
No to the new idolatry of money
55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
No to a financial system which rules rather than serves
57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside of the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.
58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
No to the inequality which spawns violence
59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history”, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.
60. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.
The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.
189. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.
The economy and the distribution of income
202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.
204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.
205. I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. We need to be convinced that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”. I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.
206. Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole. Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find local solutions for enormous global problems which overwhelm local politics with difficulties to resolve. If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few.
207. Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk.
208. If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.
Read the entire document here.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Global Wealth Inequality

Political decay, poor farming and agricultural methods, a shrinking population, weakening military forces and a gradual decline in economic activity are some of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell. These are often presented alongside statistical or anecdotal evidence illustrating the extent to which Roman civilization had degenerated before eventually succumbing to the relentless barbarian invasions. It is tempting to look back upon the failures of past eras with a modern smugness that ignores the signs of our own decline. How will the fact that the combined wealth of today's richest 300 humans exceeds that of the poorest 3 billion be remembered by future generations as they learn about our era? 

The accumulation of such a vast amount of wealth (equal to the combined wealth of China, India, Brazil and the US) in the hands of such a small group of individuals is unprecedented, and has only been made possible by the rise of globalised free-market capitalism, which allows capital to extricate itself from its historically more permanent commitment to the labour it supplies. Before the invention of money, the interests of capital and labour could only be separated as far as one could carry one's pig to the local market. The replacement of bartering with a widespread currency created a level of fluidity between capital and labour that allowed economies to flourish, but nevertheless ensured that capital's interest (excuse the pun!) was still somewhat bound up in that of labour.   But in a post-industrial age, capital's ability to tap into and out of markets with such remarkable volatility threatens to produce the kind of economic absurdities that future generations may well look back on with the same smugness that we have towards those foolish Romans.  

South Africa can be seen a microcosm of the world's problems in this regard.  The solution clearly isn't to obliterate capital by means of nationalisation, which merely replaces one ruling class of capitalists with another (something that the ANC foresaw would be the chief challenge of post-apartheid South Africa), but rather to find ways of successfully recapitalising the people.  So far our government, via strategies like BEE, has accomplished transferring capital to a new black ruling class (as well as a brain drain of white professionals), but has failed dismally to reunite capital with labour, with the fruits of such a failure being on display to the whole world throughout the duration of last year's strikes.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Peter Maurin: A Fool for Christ

This is the title of a short biographical piece written by Christopher Shannon for Crisis Magazine. It's striking how applicable the ideas of Maurin (which are really the ideas of the Church) are to South Africa today. Shannon writes:
Maurin embraced and promoted holy poverty in a modern industrial age that presented new challenges to the Church’s understanding of wealth. Whereas St. Francis had stood against a greed and decadence acknowledged by the moral authorities of his age as a sin, Maurin set himself against a capitalist modernity that held up the pursuit of wealth as a positive virtue in itself. This new attitude toward material gain presented the additional challenge of fostering new inequalities of wealth even as it destroyed the traditional social bonds that had softened and humanized the old inequalities of traditional European Catholic societies. Secular critics of capitalism accepted the passing of traditional society as a positive good and focused on equalizing the distribution of wealth created by capitalist modernity. Maurin decried the poverty that he saw in the slums of the urban, industrial West, but saw both reformist and revolutionary plans for wealth redistribution as simply the democratization of greed. Against the modern alternatives of material poverty and material wealth, Maurin sought to lead the modern poor from their current, negative state of destitution—which combined material deprivation with social dislocation—to a future, positive condition of poverty, which allowed for the satisfaction of basic material needs but sought true wealth in communion with God and man.
Read the entire article here

Thursday, August 18, 2011

E.F. Schumacher Documentary

This film is a short documentary portrait of economist, technologist and lecturer Fritz Schumacher. Up to age 45, Schumacher was dedicated to economic growth. Then he came to believe that the modern technological explosion had grown out of all proportion to human need. Author of Small Is Beautiful - A Study of Economics as if People Mattered and founder of the London-based Intermediate Technology Development Group, he championed the cause of "intermediate" technology. The film introduces us to this gentle revolutionary a few months before his death.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chesterton's Distributism

"As a young man, Chesterton flirted with socialism, but he soon realized that it was mostly a reactionary idea. The rise of socialism and its attendant evils was a reaction against industrial capitalism and its attendant evils. The danger of fighting injustice is that if the battle is misguided, even a victory is a defeat. Good motives can have bad results. This is the point Chesterton makes when he talks about how the 'virtues wander wildly' when they are isolated from each other and wandering alone. In a broken society where we have this seemingly endless battle between the left and right, the virtues on either side are doing war with each other: truth that is pitiless and pity that is untruthful.

"The conservatives and the liberals have successfully reduced meaningful debate to name-calling. We use catchwords as a substitute for thinking. We know things only by their labels, and we have 'not only no comprehension but no curiosity touching their substance or what they are made of.'

"It is interesting, it is fitting, that the philosophy which Chesterton embraced as the only real alternative to socialism and capitalism (as well as to liberalism and conservatism) goes by a name that is utterly awkward and misunderstood. As a label it is so useless it cannot even be used as a form of abuse. Its uselessness as a label demands that it be discussed. To say the name immediately requires explanation, and the explanation immediately provokes debate. The troublesome title is 'Distributism.' It has to do with property. It has to do with justice. And it has to do with everything else.

"There is more to Distributism than economics. That is because there is more to economics than economics. Distributism is not just an economic idea. It is an integral part of a complete way of thinking. But in a fragmented world we not only resist a complete way of thinking, we do not even recognize it. It is too big to be seen. In the age of specialization we tend to grasp only small and narrow ideas. We don’t even want to discuss a true Theory of Everything, unless it is invented by a specialist and addresses only that specialist’s 'everything.' In reality, everything is too complicated a category because it contains, well, everything. But the glory of a great philosophy or a great religion is not that it is simple but that it is complicated. It should be complicated because the world is complicated. Its problems are complicated.

"The solution to those problems must also be complicated. It takes a complicated key to fit a complicated lock. But we want simple solutions. We don’t want to work hard. We don’t want to think hard. We want other people to do both our work and our thinking for us. We call in the specialists. And we call this state of utter dependency 'freedom.' We think we are free simply because we seem free to move about."

These are excepts from the essay, "G. K. Chesterton's Distributism", by Dale Ahlquist on The Distributist Review website.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Selling Abortion

It has been fifteen years since the Termination of Pregnancy Act legalised abortion on demand in this country. Yet it is only now that the government is seemingly acting on one of the provisos of the Act – namely, the banning of illegal abortion advertising.

In Cape Town, such lamppost banners have become a part of the urban landscape, all of which promise womb-cleansing and cheap and safe abortions amongst a myriad of other bizarre services such as penis enlargement and good luck. The government has resolved to bring the law to bear on such offenders, acting in concert with provincial government.

In terms of the legislation, and of the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa, only one organisation has been cleared to advertise in such a fashion – the Marie Stopes family planning clinics. Marie Stopes is a European Union-funded, not-for-profit organisation that provides abortion services in 43 different countries.

And fifteen years since government-funded abortions became part and parcel of our sexual culture, Marie Stopes--both the person and the organisation--offers us an intriguing avenue by which to assess the state of abortion in our land, and its meaning for our society, both politically and morally.