It being a hundred years since 1914 I recently listened to an audio book of the World War I section of Golo Mann’s Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. I was so enchanted by it that I quickly acquired and listened to the audiobooks of the rest of his history of modern Germany. Mann has a wonderful sense of the ironies and inconsistencies of human history. Although he himself has somewhat liberal tendencies he has great ability to sympathize with those with whom he disagrees. Witness his account of the Zentrumspartei that I have just posted to The Josias. Unlike most liberals he obviously studied Marx closely and learned much from him, but he does not reduce everything to economics, he takes religion, philosophy, music, and literature seriously, and argues that they are not mere ideological superstructure but have an actual effect on history.
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came to him a woman with an alabaster vessel full of precious ointment and anointed his head with it as he reclined at dinner. When his disciples saw this they were displeased and said: Why this waste? It could have been sold for a great price and the money given to the poor. Jesus was aware of them and said: Why are you hard on this woman? She has done a good thing to me. For always you have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. When she anointed my body with this ointment, it was for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached through all the world, she will be spoken of, and what she did, in memory of her. (Matthew 26:6-13)
But six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. So they prepared a supper for him there, and Martha served them, and Lazarus was one of those who dined with him. And Mary brought a measure of ointment of nard, pure and precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was full of the fragrance of ointment. One of his disciples, Judas the Iscariot, who was about to betray him said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? But he said this not because he cared anything about the poor but because he was a thief and, being keeper of the purse, used to make off with what had been put into it. But Jesus said: Let her be, so that this can serve for the day of my burial; for the poor you have always with you, but you do not always have me. (John 12:1-8)
The beautiful scene of the anointing in Bethany occurs several times in the liturgy of these days. Hearing it this year I could not help of thinking the way it has been misused by certain soit-disant “traditionalist” bloggers to criticize the Holy Father. The reaction among certain liturgical “traditionalists” to the election of Pope Francis was truly appalling. As Fr John Saward would say: “if anything proves that liturgical renewal is necessary but insufficient for the restoration of all things in Christ, it is these arrogant, intemperate, unjust, and profoundly un-Catholic cyber-tirades.”
Concern for the splendor of the sacred liturgy is laudable, but if certain “traditionalists” would spend more time reading the authentic witness of Apostolic tradition found in the Church Fathers, they would see how odd it is to use the anointing in Bethany as to attack the Holy Father’s concern for una Chiesa povera e per i poveri. A glance at the Catena aurea for Matthew and John shows that the Fathers read this passage as signifying (at one level) the love that we should show Christ in the poor. Continue reading
Daniel Nichols has posted a piece on the American Bishops’ failure to agree on a statement on the economy. One wishes that they had come out with a stern reminder of the Church’s perennial teaching against usury, and suggestions for overcoming it. Some Americans are attacking usury though; the eccentrics of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have had a brilliant idea for saving some people from usurers:
OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it — traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)
The name “Rolling Jubilee” is explicitly taken from the Old Testament jubilee. As one commentator puts it “it … feels great to have the opportunity to be an anti-bank for once. There’s something very good about forgiveness.”
Meanwhile, Front Porch Republic reports on a method from a completely different part of the American political “spectrum” to help poor immigrants avoid getting into the hands of usurers in the first place:
Eleven years ago, Bruno Rivas left Mexico City to make a better living for his family in San Francisco. He landed a job at a restaurant and began making some money, but couldn’t figure out how to break out of a cash system into a marketplace driven by credit. […] he was able to purchase items for daily provision, but without a means of building credit, he struggled to find a way to fund larger purchases or take bigger steps toward financial health. But then four years ago, Bruno learned about the Bay Area-based Mission Asset Fund (MAF)—an organization that has garnered nationwide recognition for its nontraditional approach to lending—and decided to join a peer lending circle, or “cesta populare” (“community basket” in Spanish). Joining a cesta meant that Rivas and the eight other members of his circle would contribute $100 every month to a communal pot. After drawing names to determine order, members would take turns collecting a loan that they could then put toward whatever they chose. When Rivas’ turn came around, he took the loan from the lending circle, combined it with savings from an Individual Development Account (IDA) that MAF had set up for him, and purchased equipment to start a screen printing business.
“Peer Lending Groups” are doing the same sort of thing as the montes pietatis.
William T. Cavanaugh brilliantly using Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings to debunk the illusion of the free market:
Today sees the opening of the opening of the “Oekonomika” Institute in Vienna: a think-tank on applied economics and political philosophy that takes the Aristotelian tradition and Catholic Social Teaching seriously. I’ve mentioned these people over on Modestinus’ blog. Here’s a snip from one of their statements:
In contrast to the contemporary tendency to make the economy an end in itself, the tradition of the Christian West includes the “art of household-management” (along with ethics and politics) in practical philosophy. Economic agents are not merely driven about by blind economic “laws” such as “supply and demand,” but able, through the practice of virtue, to act in accordance with truly human ends in the economic sphere.
Economics has a subordinate role in relation to ethics and politics. It is therefore necessary for a true understanding of the proper measure in economic matters to concern oneself with virtuous action and the goals of political life. For the existence of human institutions ought only to be justified by their supporting the common good and assisting human persons in the quest for a happy life.
I am by no means an admire of leftist politics, but I must admit that the English Labour MP in the above clip is attacking a real evil. The so-called payday loan companies that give short-term loans at a very high rate of interest are a particularly clear and extreme example of the injustice of usury. They exploit the distress of the poor, enticing them into an unjust contract, obligating them to exchange (say) £182 for £100.
Payday loans are clearly absurd, but they are typical for an economic system in which usury is the default solution to bottle necks both in supply and in demand. Leftist analysis of economic injustice is often as insightful as Leftist solutions are disastrous. Take a look at David Harvey’s application of Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capital accumulation to the current situation:
That’s a remarkably pithy summary of the basic underlying dynamics of the system. The first point at which usury enters into the system is in supply. Supply is supposed to work by a capitalist taking money, buying means of production, hiring labour, and and using an industrial technology to produce enough of a commodity to pay for the means of production + labour + a profit. The first point at which usury enters into the system is simply to accumulate enough capital at the right place and time to get the system going. But this means that enough of the commodity has to be produced to pay for means of production + labour + interest on debt + a profit. Unless of course one delays re-paying the debt, for then one can reinvest part of the profit in an expansion, and pay from the expanded profit. This is the first point at which growth becomes vital: one needs to be able to expand. The imperative to expand is of course also strengthened by competition (not to mention greed).
Now an interesting problem arises: it’s simply what G.K. Chesterton identifies as the basic contradiction of capitalism: namely that it wants the mass of men to be both poor (since their wealth comes from wages) and rich (since they are the capitalist’s customers). Another way of stating the paradox is to say: where does the necessary surplus demand come from to keep the growth going? Marx explains the contradiction by means of a simplified model of the economy: if you had an economy entirely divided between capitalists and workers increase in demand can’t come from the workers, since they can’t possibly spend more money than is paid to them in wages. So the capitalists themselves have to supply the surplus effective demand. But how is that possible? Well, the answer is of course by usury. But now it’s lending money to the consumer. Credit cards are a great example here. This is money lent to increase demand in order to drive growth. So now you have a system in which both supply and demand are financed by usury which always depends on future expansion. Hence debt increases with the growth of the economy. The whole thing is an elaborate Ponzi scheme that only works as long as there is a very high rate of growth.
But of course one can answer to this that in fact it has worked pretty well. Every once in a while there’s a depression in which a lot of people go bust and the system starts over again as it where from scratch, but for the most part the economy keeps growing. And while perhaps we have more usurers making unjust gains than in earlier economies, we also have less people starving. Is constant growth such a bad thing? What about “be fruitful and multiply” and all that. This is the line of argument taken up by Edward Hadas in a book that I have just begun reading. In the introduction Hadas remarks that he began the book intending it to be simply a condemnation of the modern economic world. Synthesizing the thinking of the anti-capitalist Jewish left in which Hadas was raised, and the anti-modernist strand of Catholic Social Teaching to which he had been converted. But soon he came to think that a tout-court condemnation was an inadequate response to what he calls the “pro-life” features of modern industrial capitalist economy. This economy, he contends, allows the world to support many more people, and allowed them to live longer, healthier lives, and expand their knowledge of creation. “A life-lover cannot simply dismiss these accomplishments as meaningless.” (p. xvi) So Hadas goes about trying to formulate a constructive critique of the system. Hadas’s point made me think of a chilling scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where the misanthropic Walter attacks economic growth:
Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible. […] “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” (pp. 121-122)
An anti-life vision if ever there was one. In a brilliant undergraduate essay Caleb Cohoe once made a “pro-life” argument for capitalist economy similar to Hadas’s, in which he points out that Aristotle thought that one had to prevent poverty by limiting population including by infanticide and abortion.
But then again, if one looks at the actual effect of the globalization of the capitalist system in our times one sees that it has spread abortion and contraception to the four corners of the globe. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Hadas’s unfolds his project of a pro-life re-thinking of our economic life.
His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, was in these parts a few weeks ago giving a lecture at the International Theological Institute in Trumau. The basic idea of the lecture (which was based on His Highness’s book, The State in the Third Millenium, and is pretty well summarized in the interview embedded above) was that the state in the third millennium should be a service company providing certain useful goods to its citizens. His Highness explained that he was lead to this rather prosaic vision by the problem of religious freedom as it is understood today. The traditional legitimation of the monarchy had of course been Divine Right, but once Enlightenment style religious pluralism become accepted as the norm, such a legitimation became problematic. The Prince went in search of another model, and, living in Liechtenstein, it was perhaps not altogether surprising that he came up with a pretty boring shop-keeperish, paleo-capitalist, democratic legitimation: one which sees the ruling family as a sort of old and trusted family business (as Aelianus put it in the Q&A). The purpose of his book is to propose his model as the model for the state in the third millennium.
There are numerous objections that one could raise against His Highness’s model. If there is one thing that Marxist economics has shown, it is that the internal contradictions of capitalism are such that stability in one place can only be bought at the price of instability in another place. The stable prosperity of Liechtenstein and Switzerland can only be maintained because other places pay the price for their usury. Sometime I shall explore that theme in more detail (it basically follows from what Chesterton says about the capitalist wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time), but now I want to focus on another objection.
The most obvious objection is that this model is too boring. In the Q&A I asked His Highness what he thought of the future of a rival model: the model which Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has developed in Russia. I quoted a Russian friend of mine who says that he doesn’t care about the lack of civil rights or any of that kind of stuff; what he cares about is that under Putin Russia is again trying to assert her power. He cares about the glory of Russia. This is the sort of timocratic vision of a state that one can rally armies around. And that is why I don’t think a paleo-capitalist, cuckoo-clock democratic model of the state is really going to be the wave of the future. I rather tend to agree with Slavoj Žižek’s oft repeated prediction that the state in the third millennium is likely to follow the late-capitalist authoritarian model of Putin and Berlusconi.
His Serene Highness gave an interesting reply. He said that man is a strange creature. On the one hand he is an individualist who looks out for his private interest, but on the other hand he also has a “herd instinct”, which leads him to seek group-inclusion and to massacre those who are not part of his group. The herd instinct (said His Serene Highness) is best satisfied by the communal satisfactions of religion, but when religion is weak it finds an outlet in destructive ideologies such as nationalism.
This is a rather pessimistic view of man: divided between selfish greed and irrational mob ecstasy. St. Thomas would argue that there is another side of man that is the proper principle of political community: his ability to participate in common goods. The common good, properly speaking, appeals both to man’s natural love of his own fulfillment–since it is the good of those who participate in it–but also to his communal nature–for it is a good superior to his own singular good. But, as I have argued before, to be ordered to the common good in the proper sense it is necessary that a political community order its common good explicitly to God. Thus we see that it follows from the acceptance of the “enlightened” separation of Church and state that the only models of the state left are Prince Hans-Adam’s boring model, Vladimir Putin’s oppressive one, or some mixture of the two.
In England the disintegration of the medieval order coincided with the rise of the house of Tudor. In fact, already Henry VII (1457 – 1509), the founder of the Tudor dynasty, made certain key decisions which were to erode the medieval way of life and the world view of Christendom. When he came to power in 1485 England was weakened both by the hundred years war with France (1337 – 1453) and the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1485), a civil war which decimated the English nobility. The effects of these two wars gave Henry the opportunity to begin the remolding of England along new lines. By the peace of Etaples (1492) Henry VII gave up English claims to French territories , a key step in the development of English nationalism. Removed from the continent the English could less and less conceive of themselves as part of the higher unity of “Christendom.”
The weakening of the English nobility through the Wars of the Roses enabled Henry to strengthen the monarchy, thus ending the hierarchy of subsidiary feudal authorities, and leading English subjects to see themselves primarily as members of the English nation. At the same time it led to the an increase in the power of the mercantile class, with which Henry allied himself. The Intercursus Magnus (given its effects, the Flemish name Malus Intercursus seems more apposite) led to an explosion of the wool trade that was to be a driving force behind the fundamental changes represented by the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The wool trade led to enclosure which destroyed the medieval economy (which Phillip Blond calls the “Catholic Economy”). It led to the primacy of the kind of dehumanized contractual/mechanical economic relations that are typical of capitalism.