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“Economic Personalism” is a Fraud: The Solution to Capitalism

You don’t have to be a genius to realize the failure of Marxism. Even before 1989 one could have realized that Marxist regimes were not built on Marxist ideologies and theory, but were built on the rather strange foundation of tens of millions of bodies of the proletariat who disagreed with the regime.

The foundation of the Marxist governments of Russia and China was two cemeteries.

Dorothy Day left the left. She realized as a young woman that the world’s economic problems were not solved by socialism and Communism. She resigned from the left because of its lack of profundity after her World War I experience with socialists. (See Anne Klejment and Nancy Roberts, eds., American Catholic Pacifism, Praeger, 1996). Several years later, at the age of 30, she became Catholic, only to discover the papal encyclicals and personalism. Dorothy Day was influenced by great thinkers like Peter Maurin, Father Virgil Michel, O.S.B., Emmanuel Mounier, Leo XIII and Pius XI.

Early editions of The Catholic Worker are full of references to the popes and their writings.

Dorothy was neither a socialist nor a capitalist. She was a Christian personalist like the present pope. Dorothy made clear her goal in starting the newspaper in its first editorial: “In an attempt to popularize and make known the encyclicals of the popes and the program offered by the Church for the constructing of a social order, this news sheet was started.”

Capitalist Success

You don’t have to be a genius to realize the success of the global market. Twentieth- century capitalism has evolved into a system that is brilliant at creating new capital. Truly it is wealth creation at its best.

With the global market we have seen the global gross national product grow by 40%, even in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

Achilles Heel

This pattern of great wealth creation, accompanied by great want, has long been the Achilles heel of modern capitalism.

The United Nations Development Program found that in 1996 the assets of the world’s 358 billionaires exceeded the combined incomes of countries with 45% of the world’s people (358 people would not fill St. Anne’s Church in Houston in one sitting).

The U.N. declared that “Development that perpetuates today’s inequalities is neither sustainable nor worth sustaining.

Unfortunately, the gap is accelerating. It is much worse. Houston Chronicle, “Outlook” section, Sept. 27, 1998)

Capitalist Doctrine and the Center for “Economic Personalism”

Encouraged by this success, capitalists have shown an interest in a theology of wealth creation and have targeted students, seminarians, religious and professional leaders, paying their way to seminars and buying books for them, to form them in better understanding the free market economy and to encourage them to promote its growth.

Under the leadership of Father Robert Sirico, a center called the Acton Institute has been founded to guide people in the way of this new theology. More recently, the Acton Institute has developed what they call a Center for “Economic Personalism.” While Fr. Sirico may be well-intentioned in trying to do good as a priest, he comes down on the side of those only interested in personal gain and profit. When his groups emphasizes liberty and creativity for capitalists, what they are defending turns out to be liberty and creativity only for a few.

Lord Acton, after whom the center was named, was the leader in the last century under the direction of Father Iguaz Von Dollinger in attacking the church’s definition of infallibility in 1870, even after the decree was issued. Father Dollinger, his mentor, was excommunicated. Lord Acton felt that the Roman Pontiff can and ought to “reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism (including economic liberalism i.e., laissez-faire capitalism) and modern civilization.” (Syllabus of Errors) Lord Acton despised Pius IX and the Vatican and barely remained in the Church.

Lord Acton coined the famous phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was prophetic in his description of the global economy.

Neglect of Papal Teaching

It appears that the people at the Acton Institute have the same attitude towards the Vatican teaching as Lord Acton. They neglect completely the papal teaching on economics, except out-of-context references to Centesimus Annus. They quote the popes in their condemnation of socialism but omit their call for solidarity with the poor and for justice.

We are especially appalled, rather outraged, that they use the words “economic personalism,” which for them really means individualism like the rugged individualism of the American frontier. What they describe is not the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier and Peter Maurin, which concentrates on respect for all persons and their vocations in life..

Fr. Sirico spent a semester at the London School of Economics. He recommends further dialogue between Personalism and free market economics, the Austrian, Chicago and Virginian schools (the authors attended the University of Chicago and know the Chicago school and Milton Friedman, a hero of Fr. Sirico).

Calvinist Economics

The Acton Institute and the Center for Economic Personalism rely heavily on the teachings of John Calvin, who emphasized that the outward appearance of material comfort signified God’s grace and approval. In Calvin’s teaching and preaching, the poor were thought to be visibly damned.

Ads placed in both Catholic and Protestant journals feature the Acton Institute programs as a celebration of the legacy of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist, presenting the themes as “100 years of Christian social thought.”

Unfortunately, their programs have precious little to do with the legacy of Pope Leo XIII, and are rather a distortion of it.

Fr. Sirico, endorsing this thinking, advertising the programs as a synthesis of Calvinist and Catholic thought, doesn’t sound like he belongs to the same church as the Pope, who speaks so strongly about solidarity and the terrible gap between rich and poor and even suggested when he last visited Poland that some capitalists came close to excommunication because of the terrible injustices.

Intolerable Contrast

On September 27, 1998, John Paul II, recalling the day’s liturgical celebration of St. Vincent de Paul, drew our attention to “one of the great challenges which confronts our conscience, the truly intolerable contrast between that portion of mankind which enjoys every advantage of economic well-being and scientific progress and the enormous masses of those who live in conditions of extreme need.”

The Holy Father added that, “in the strident contrast between the indifferent rich and the poor who need everything, God is on the side of the latter. It is not licit to resign ourselves to the immoral spectacle of a world in which there are still those who die of hunger, who do not have a home, who lack even the most basic education, who do not have the necessary help when they are ill, who cannot find work.”

The Cemetery Again: “Economic Personalism” Is a Fraud!

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that the global economy (international free market) now solidly in control and flourishing, has been built on the bodies of Third World people who have worked for practically nothing to fill the coffers of First World companies. We meet these people every day at Casa Juan Diego. (See the Houston Catholic Worker,January 1998, “The Neediest and the Greediest,” e.g., Wal-Mart, Disney, Nike, the May Company (Foley’s), K-Mart, J.C. Penney, etc.)

The foundation of the tremendous success of these companies is slave wages.

Again, we have a very healthy economy built on a cemetery filled with poor workers who have died not with a bullet to the head or a firing squad but death from malnutrition, overwork, slave wages, poisoned water, inadequate housing or trying labor union organizing.

The global market has re-invented serfdom. Economic structures that should facilitate a better life and a better environment have facilitated slavery. A recent column in the Business section of the Houston Chronicle on the renewed need for labor unions exposed local chicken factories where workers must wear adult diapers because they are not allowed time off to go to the bathroom.

The devil of the industrial revolution of the 19th century has returned with seven more, worse than the first.

Success of the Global Economy

Twentieth century capitalism has evolved into a system that is brilliant in creating wealthy capitalists, but very poor at expanding the number of capitalists. Even in the United States, where the economy is thriving, the net worth of the top one percent is now greater than that of the bottom 90 percent.

It is incredibly ironic that global free-market advocates would call their ideas economic personalism when, as William Greider reminds us, “In the global marketplace defined as free trade, everyone is free, it seems, but the people. Multinational enterprise can come and go from one market to the next, investors may insist upon terms for the use of their capital, governments may demand concessions in exchange for commercial opportunities. These contractual rights do not extend to the citizens, however” (William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, Simon and Schuster, 1997, p. 388).

When Fr. Sirico says that “Economic prosperity through free trade is the most effective distributor of wealth and power,” (“The Public Square,” First Things 75 (Aug./Sept. 1997) perhaps this terrible disparity is what he means.”

How Can This Be?

Emmanuel Mounier, father of modern Christian personalism, would be shocked by the falsity of the concept of economic personalism as expressed by the Acton Institute. Any personalism espoused by the Acton Institute is, by their description, a definition of individualism instead of personalism. Individualism is what Mounier called “personalism’s dearest enemy.” (Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1952,)

Mounier understood the problem of neoconservatives who have never had to live in poverty or never had any contact with the poor: “Intellectuals unaccustomed to the crudity of certain realities, men of too great lesiure who do not understand the force of material constraints… forget that the initiatives of individual are embodied in institutions, both their short-comings and their determinisms, that new objects call for new knowledge. Such institutions, be they good or bad, always contain a menace of oppression for the person.”

Mounier’s Personalism

Mounier’s blueprint for a personalist economy asks everyone to lay aside greed and materialism. It is in harmony with the Beatitudes:
“On the plane of individual ethics we believe that a certain kind of poverty is the ideal economic rule of personal life. But by poverty in this sense we do not mean an indiscreet asceticism or a shameful miserliness. We refer rather to a contempt for the material attachments that enslave, a desire for simplicity, a state of adaptability and freedom, which does not exclude magnificence or generosity, nor even some striving for riches, providing such endeavours are not avaricious..” (The Personalist Manifesto, Longmans, Green and Co., 1938p. 192).

Mounier felt that the biggest problem of modern capitalism has been proclaiming the primacy of economics over history, over the life of the people, over community, over living out one’s faith and one’s values. The “extreme importance attaching today to the economic problem among human preoccupation is a sign of social disease.”

We can readily understand what Mounier means by the primacy of the economic when we think of the tremendous pressure brought upon people to buy and posssess things, live a certain life style and always reach for the highest level of comfort. Social consideration and display are priorities. Even among church people we must let the economic factor dominate or be considered odd. No one in the U.S. is unaware of what putting the primacy of economics in the medical field has done to the availability of good medical care to all.

Contempt for Workers

You don’t have to be a genius to realize the attitude of First World companies towards their Third World workers. It is clear by the amount of money paid to them-a few cents an hour.

We were very saddened recently when we heard a prominent theologian say that his brother who lives in Latin America says that it’s great that the multinationals give jobs to these people, jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have. The slave wages paid in Third World countries are even slave wages among slaves. To say that no other jobs exist except maquiladoras is to admit that the “structural adjustment” programs required by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the behest of the richer nations have created such economies in poor countries and are a complete failure.

Mounier felt that the system of factories “is based on contempt, conscious or implicit, of the laborer.” He reminds us how this was expressed by one businessman, Taylor: “We don’t ask you to think. There are others who have been paid to do that.” The economics of the business world “tries completely to ignore the person and to organize itself for a single quantative and impersonal goal: profit.”

According to Mounier, “profit recognizes no human criterion and no limits. If it does accept a criterion, it is that of the bourgeois values of comfort, social consideration and display, and it remains indifferent equally to economic well-being as such and to the good of the person it contacts.” (p.180).

Mounier echoed the teachings of the popes on the primacy of labor over capital. He emphasized that profits do not have rights, but workers do. For many workers the invisible hand of the market had a knife in it.

JP II’s Great Trilogy

Writing in the New Oxford Review in September 1998, and quoting Laborem Exercens,Rupert Ederer expresses these same concerns, pointing out that for Pope John Paul II, “the payment of the just wage is ‘the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system….'” Ederer contends that “that proposition strikes at the very heart of liberal capitalism, in which labor is just a disposable commodity that is left to the mercy of the ‘free market.'”

In a summary of Catholic social teaching of the last 100 years, Ederer emphasizes the great trilogy by John Paul II: Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) andCentesimus Annus (1991), stating that these three writings alone would be enough to earn him the title Doctor of the Church and that they “contain whatever critique is needed for confronting the dire consequences of our present return to Victorian capitalism and they offer us the moral principles according to which a saner social order can be constructed.”

Emmanuel Mounier and Jeff Gates

It is very interesting to read The Personalist Manifesto, published in the 1930’s, (brought to the United States by Peter Maurin, who persuaded the monks at St. John’s Abbey to translate it), and find how exactly pertinent it is to today.

It is also fascinating to read Jeff Gates’ The Ownership Solution (Addison Wesley, 1998), and discover so many of the same ideas-a writer today expressing Mounier’s ideas about capital. Based on a decade of experience in developing worker ownership in ESOP’s (Employee Stock Ownership Plans), advising companies and advising governments in twenty-five countries on involving workers in ownership, Gates’ book is one of the best practical interpretations of modern papal social teaching.

What is our Real Religion?

When Gates writes, “We are all now buffeted by a global economy in which key actors are encouraged, even mandated, to maximize financial returns in a worldwide auction of sorts in which financial values have become a substitute for the values of ethics, religion and community,” and that “Money, not man, is fast becoming the measure of the common good” (The Ownership Solution, p. xxi.), he sounds very like Mounier.

When Gates names as worship, a “secular sanctification of market forces” the attitude people worldwide are developing toward financial returns, he reminds us again of Mounier, who understood that it was the lack of a “philosophy of life” which allowed people to accept the primacy of economics over all else. Mounier insisted that “the problem of economics cannot be solved independently of the political and the spiritual problems, to which it is intrinsi-cally subordinate” (p. 165).

Institutions in Control, Not People

There has been a major change in capitalistic ownership, another facet of the growing concentration of wealth. “Almost half (47.4 percent) of all outstanding shares of U.S. corporations are now held by institutions. America’s institutional insurance investors-pension funds, mutual funds, insurance companies, banks, foundations and university endowments held $11,100,00,000,000 ($11.1 trillion) in assets as of 1 July 1996.”

As Gates points out, “Money management focused on maximizing financial returns is now new. What is new is the vast scale and the skyrocketing growth of contemporary ‘disconnected’ capital'”-money and investments totally unconnected to persons. (The Ownership Solution, p.2)

How Could all this Happen?

How could we, a people committed to opportunity for all, allow such terrible disparities between rich and poor to develop?

Gates’ analysis is similar to Mounier’s: capitalism as we know it has a very poor feedback system. The market is only interested in money. Its figures do not relate to human concerns.

Marie Antoinette Capitalism

Free market advocates try to give the impression that their system is open to all. Gates describes the reality for the person who does not already have large quantities of capital: “Policymakers routinely claim that capitalism is an ‘open’ system because anyone can purchase shares. It’s a free market-anyone (i.e., anyone with money) can buy those new equities.

“Expecting a broad base of wage earners to buy their way into significant ownership (i.e., from their already stretched paychecks) is what I call ‘Marie Antoniette Capitalism,’ only instead of urging ‘Let them eat cake,’ the modern refrain is ‘Let them buy shares.'” (The Ownership Solution, p. 23)


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 6, November 1998.