THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

14. The Task of Sisyphus

As we saw in the previous posting in this series, Pope John Paul I was presented with what seemed to be an insoluble dilemma his entire career as a priest, as a bishop, and even his all-too-brief tenure as pope.  He had the principles underlying social justice (Aristotelian-Thomism applied in the philosophy of personalism), he even had many of the “parts” of social justice, notably solidarity and subsidiarity.

Alexis de Tocqueville
What John Paul I lacked was a completed philosophy of personalism as well as an effective means to empower people to be able to organize to carry out acts of social justice, social justice being the “vehicle” of personalism.  Perhaps the best way to explain this is to look at what Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835, 1840) discerned as the three basic types of democracy, which he called the French or European collectivist type, the English or individualist type, and the American or personal type.  As de Tocqueville noted,
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds. . . . If it be proposed to advance some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II.2.v.)
Take the European type of democracy first, for that is the type with which John Paul I was dealing.  This is because it is now prevalent throughout the world as what Hilaire Belloc called the Servile State, thanks in large measure to its combining with the English type of democracy and the dominance of Keynesian economics.
French or European democracy manifests as collectivism, with the community or the State taking the lead in everything, from great national endeavors to (eventually) dictating every aspect of daily life, down to internal affairs of the family, even in extreme cases redefining marriage and family to fit a political agenda.  The emphasis is on the dignity of the people as a whole, that is, the abstraction of humanity rather than the reality of the human person.  This is socialism.
Walter Bagehot
Aristocratic England developed an elitist form of democracy, exemplified by the political theories of Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) presented in The English Constitution (1867) and applied in Lombard Street (1873).  In English type democracy the wealthy — “a chosen people” (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution. Portland, Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, 1997, 17) — govern the lower classes for their own good.  Not surprisingly, Bagehot despised America and its institutions, and greatly admired the totalitarian philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.  English type democracy manifests as capitalism, a system of concentrated private ownership of capital.
Interestingly, Keynesian economics, which combines socialism and capitalism into the Servile State, relies heavily on Bagehot’s theories of politics and economics (John Maynard Keynes, “The Works of Bagehot,” The Economic Journal, 25:369–375, 1915), which it combines with the social welfare concepts found in Fabian socialism.
In America, however, democracy manifests (or did in de Tocqueville’s day) as the essence of social justice — organizing for the common good — applied in daily life as a matter of course, even routine.  The emphasis is on the dignity of the individual human person under the highest sovereignty of God.  This is personalism.
Emmanuel Mounier
And what is “personalism”?  Interestingly, Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), considered the founder of the personalist movement, carefully avoided defining what he meant by the term!  As he said in Be Not Afraid (1946, 1948, 1951),
We are aware of the pitfalls latent in all loyalty, and we are therefore always prepared to break through the thickening walls of principle to the exigencies within, which yesterday might have escaped or disturbed us.  We shall not be afraid to contradict ourselves to-morrow if experience or reality have contradicted us.  We are ready to forgo any label if, as a result of some unexpected reaction in our surroundings, this label were to obscure our purpose and compromise the battle in which we are holding one sector.  Our major concern is that Personalism should remain a continual creation, a continual awareness.  We therefore repudiate anyone who might crystallise it into a system or degrade it into verbalism. (Emmanuel Mounier, Be Not Afraid: A Denunciation of Despair.  London: Rockliff, 1951, 175.)
This, at first glance, hardly sounds like a denunciation of despair.  It may be the fault of the translator, but it sounds, in fact, very much like a cop-out, and a slide into pure moral relativism.
Taking a closer look, and taking into account the fact that Mounier explicitly rejected the absolutes of the natural law, we realize that Mounier was not talking about a true personalism at all.  Rather, he was making the dreadful mistake of confusing true and unalterable principles of the natural law with changeable applications of those principles!
Aquinas: God is the natural law.
What Mounier viewed as changeable principles in reality can never be changed, were actually applications of principles that can and must be changed.  Thus, “the thickening walls of principle” that Mounier viewed with alarm are not really the principles themselves — these are, and can only be, absolute and without change — but the institutions or “walls” constructed to hold the principles in place to make them useful, i.e., apply “the exigencies within.”  These “walls” are what we must be prepared to modify or reject if it turns out they are not exigent or expedient, that is, if they do not permit the principles of the natural law to be applied properly or at all.
Thus, if we find that the “walls” we have built — the institutions or social habits we have developed and put in place — are “contradictory” or flawed, we must be prepared to reject them and repair or build new “walls” or institutions so that we no longer “obscure our purpose [or] compromise the battle.”  We cannot allow a false loyalty to a particular application (form or “accidental” as opposed to substance) to blind us to the essential task of restructuring the social order and reforming our institutions to conform to the natural law — which is, to any Catholic and Aristotelian-Thomist, God Himself, so far as it is within our limited human capacity to discern the Absolute.
Suddenly we realize where a great deal of Mounier's confusion lies.  Mounier’s personalism is an attempt to describe the functioning of the act of social justice, but without consciously taking social justice into account!
Father William J. Ferree. S.M., Ph.D.
Now, this would not matter one bit were it not for one thing.  After all, as Father William Ferree pointed out in the conclusion of his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice,
The completed doctrine of Social Justice places in our hands instruments of such power as to be inconceivable to former generations.
But let us be clear about what is new and what is old. None of the elements of this theory are new. Institutions, and institutional action, the idea of the Common Good, the relationship of individual to Common Good — all these things are as old as the human race itself. There is nothing more new in those things than in the school boy’s discovery that what he has been speaking is prose; nor must we ever believe that God made man a two-legged creature, and then waited for Aristotle to make him rational. Moreover, much of the actual application of these principles to practical life is to be found in older writers under the heading “political prudence.” (Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice.  New York: The Paulist Press, 1948, 56.)
And the one thing that makes what is not even an error into a major disaster?  There is no practical means to undertake acts of social justice as a usual thing — we are not talking extraordinary measures here, which by definition are not the “usual thing” — unless ordinary people, those who in personalism have the primary responsibility for the common good, have the means and opportunity both to become capital owners and actually be capital owners.
This is because power follows property.  Nor are power and property “dirty words.”
·      Property we have already explained as both the natural and absolute right to be an owner in the first place, and the bundle of socially determined and limited rights that define how an owner may use what is owned.  Property is a good thing if you control it.  It is a bad thing if others use it to control you.
·      Power is simply “the ability for doing.”  It is a good thing if you use it to control your own life.  It is a bad thing if you use it to control the lives of others.
We come to the inescapable conclusion that personalism, Catholic social teaching, the Just Third Way — whatever you want to call it — is impracticable for all practical purposes!  This “paradox of personalism” comes from the existence of two great and interdependent barriers, neither of which can exist without the other.
Mortimer J. Adler
These barriers are, first, what Louis O. Kelso and Mortimer Adler called “the slavery of savings.”  This is the assumption that the only way to finance new capital formation is to restrict consumption below one’s income, accumulate the excess in the form of money, and then purchase capital.
The obvious problem with this “slavery of savings” — so called because it forces most people to work for savings instead of making savings work for people — is that it restricts capital ownership as a rule to those who are already capital owners.  Only capital owners can produce far in excess of their ability to consume, and so necessarily accumulate the excess, which they use to finance more capital formation, making the problem even worse.
This brings in the second barrier: rejection or lack of, or failure even to recognize the act of social justice.  This is easy to understand.  Since power follows property, and only a few people have property, then only a few people have power.
This in turn means, as a usual thing, that most people lack the ability to organize and carry out the acts of social justice required to remove barriers, or in Mounier’s words, repair or build “walls” . . . we blame the translator for such confusing, even contradictory terminology; it’s bad, bad, bad.  Are we removing barriers, or building walls?  Is it flammable, or inflammable?  What does “noninflammable” mean?
Having explained what Mounier should have meant by building walls but consciously rejected, we will stick to Just Third Way terminology from now on, and talk about building or reforming institutions and removing barriers.  Even so, we are faced with the paradox of personalism, which can be stated very simply.
Pope John Paul I
That is, if people ordinarily need power to organize and carry out acts of social justice, and as a usual thing power follows property . . . how do you organize to remove the barriers that prevent or inhibit most people from becoming capital owners?
John Paul I was therefore faced with a Sisyphean task — Sisyphus being condemned for all eternity to roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll down again when he reached the top.  The goal of Catholic social teaching is to restructure the institutions of the social order to provide the proper environment to acquire and develop virtue, which means people take reasonable care of their material needs and then get to work on their moral and spiritual needs.
But if people can’t meet their material needs, in most cases they won’t meet their moral or spiritual needs, either.  And there’s another catch: the way people meet their material needs often shapes the way or if they meet their moral and spiritual needs.  People who have everything handed to them often do not grow and develop as moral or spiritual beings.
Simply meeting people’s material needs, therefore, is not enough.  It must be done in such a way as to allow them to grow and develop, and that means they must, as a rule, meet their own needs through their own efforts, and that means becoming productive.
But what if technology is displacing human labor to the point where human labor is insufficient to generate an adequate and secure income?  Redistribute?  Institute a Universal Basic Income?  How does that help people grow and develop?
It doesn’t, as the government of Finland recently discovered.  The only real answer is to organize to remove barriers that prevent most people from owning capital . . . but that ordinarily requires capital ownership to have the power to organize, which is the very thing people need to organize to do!  Talk about a Catch-22!
Consequently, John Paul I was trapped.  The best he could do under the circumstances was to tell people to be virtuous anyway, and advocate redistribution to meet people’s material needs, even though it was painfully obvious that redistribution can’t go on forever and creates an environment that makes acquiring and developing virtue virtually impossible except for extraordinary individuals.
. . . and that created even more problems, which we will look at in the next posting in this series.