Between the markets and mercy: New book looks at the Church and neoliberalism

Between the markets and mercy: New book looks at the Church and neoliberalism

Between the markets and mercy: New book looks at the Church and neoliberalism

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in a scene from the movie "The Wolf of Wall Street." (Credit: CNS photo/Paramount.)

In his analysis of neoliberalism, Pope Francis diagnoses our cultural situation as one in which many people devote themselves to the idol of money, choosing mammon over God. He identifies how “the faceless economy” distorts our values, what we give time and energy to, and what we are able to see or not.

[Editor’s Note: Matthew Eggemeier is associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross. He teaches courses on political and liberation theologies, ecological theology, and Catholic theology.  He is currently completing a book titled, Ekklesial Resistance: Radical Democracy and Political Theology, and is co-authoring (with Peter Fritz) a book on Catholicism and neoliberal capitalism. The book, titled Send Lazarus: Capitalism, Catholicism, and the Politics of Mercy, is currently under consideration for publication in 2019 by Fordham University Press. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the new book, and capitalism and the Church.]

Camosy: There seems to be growing sense of unease with capitalism. From ongoing discussions about income equality and taxation, to Pope Francis’s forceful criticisms of the market, the topic is very much a live one. So your project seems particularly timely.

Eggemeier: Yes, but my co-author and I have a long-time interest in economic justice. This led us to offer team-taught courses at the College of the Holy Cross on Catholic social teaching and capitalism. Our courses created a space for students to carefully evaluate the capitalist world in which they live in light of moral and theological concerns.

As we taught them, we were struck that while Catholic social teaching says many affirmative things about capitalism in general, it uniformly opposes capitalism’s most recent variant, neoliberalism. Scholars and journalists tend not to make this important distinction between capitalism and neoliberalism, and as of yet there are no systematic analyses of the Catholic tradition’s response to neoliberalism.

We want to mark that distinction and to describe neoliberalism’s distinctive threats to creation, human persons, and Catholic life.

So, you see an important distinction between capitalism and neoliberalism?

Yes. But maybe first I should say what neoliberalism is not. It’s not “new progressivism” or “new leftism.” Instead, it’s a name for a new form of capitalism.

Its first theorists were political conservatives who wanted to defend capitalism (economic liberalism: free markets) from government intervention. For them, the state should be used not to intervene in markets, but to create and sustain them.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher adopted this approach to government. Eventually, with Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and others neoliberalism was also adopted by politicians on the “left.” Now, this new capitalism is everywhere.

Recent popes had much to say about this, yes?

Benedict XVI is particularly interesting here. In Charity in Truth (2009) he distinguishes between three spaces of society, each with their own integrity and logic: The economic (commerce, market exchange), the political (justice, redistribution), and civil society (gift, love).

Benedict cautions that in our time markets and economic logic have thinned and overtaken the other two social spaces and their logics. He’s describing neoliberalism’s fundamental thrust: An attempt to subject every sphere of life to market calculations.

It’s important to recall that Benedict XVI was writing Charity in Truth amid the 2007-2008 financial crisis. A central concern in that text was that the political realm was being instrumentalized to prop up banks that had caused the crisis, with markets’ health being prioritized over that of human persons.

St. John Paul II rejected such totalizing economization, too, starting with his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. It is a consistent theme in Catholic social teaching.

The financial crisis exemplifies how politics increasingly serves the market. Do you see something similar taking place in civil society, or areas of life that are not explicitly political and economic? Places like our schools, churches, neighborhoods, and families?

For sure. Perhaps the most powerful thing about neoliberalism is its trickle-down effect to everyday life. How it reshapes society at large in the market’s image. Interestingly, in contrast to other cultural and political realities that shape our lives, neoliberalism has transformed our lives subtly and almost imperceptibly by habituating Catholics into practices contrary to the Catholic faith.

Soviet Communism’s threat to Catholicism was obvious, with its overt atheism and disdain for human dignity and freedom. Neoliberalism is different. It stealthily seduces us into not being concerned with precisely what Jesus says should most concern us: A life of mercy.

This sounds like Pope Francis.

Yes. Pope Francis has made this point forcefully in his own analysis of neoliberalism. He diagnoses our cultural situation as one in which many people devote themselves to the idol of money, choosing mammon over God. He identifies how “the faceless economy” distorts our values, what we give time and energy to, and what we are able to see or not.

For instance, Francis invokes the situation in which the stock market plunging several points demands virtually endless news coverage, but when a homeless person dies from exposure it is not newsworthy. His point is that neoliberalism’s logic affects us all, reducing our capacity for solidarity and our commitment to the common good.

How would you respond to someone who argues that bringing market metrics into the political realm and indeed every aspect of our lives can make our politics more efficient and optimize our lives, help us to live better? What is wrong with this desire?

Undoubtedly there’s something attractive about this.

The popularity of Freakonomics, which promises to explain all kinds of everyday things in terms of economic calculation, shows that. People like ‘hard data’; it gives them clarity, or at least the perception of it.

Market calculation, it seems, is clear as anything. But we worry about what market calculation leaves out. Market calculations can’t — they don’t! — make our important life decisions for us. Market calculations don’t lead us to pray. And seldom do market calculations really help us to love our neighbor.

Even worse, market calculations can give us new ways to exploit, denigrate, and kill our neighbors. Market calculations have revealed that it is very profitable to incarcerate African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor on a massive scale. Investors in private prisons may benefit from these calculations, but numerous communities are being ravaged by this same calculation.

The same can be said for businesses that profit from degrading God’s creation. War supports markets perhaps better than any other human activity; if market calculations were the only consideration, people would be continually at war. And we think it is no accident that the neoliberalized USA has been at war for the past sixteen years…and counting.

Market calculation can’t ultimately foster love—but it certainly can incentivize love’s opposite.

So what is the central thing you hope to accomplish in your forthcoming book on neoliberalism?

We take seriously Francis’s concern with the idolatry of money and devotion to the market, and set this on the background of traditional Catholic theology and practice of the works of mercy. We point to how, largely unknowingly, many Catholics devote their lives to something other than the living God — we worship wrongly and fail adequately to love our neighbors.

As we see it, Catholicism and neoliberalism ultimately offer completely divergent visions of life. We worry that neoliberalism is overtaking Catholicism in its influence, and to disastrous effect.

We intervene theologically, hoping that our fellow Catholics will recognize this situation, resist neoliberalism’s advance by reclaiming politics and everyday life from the market, and direct their lives toward enacting God’s mercy.

Concretely, we are concerned with neoliberalism’s practical effects, how the neoliberal social system intensifies sinful and merciless behaviors.

In Send Lazarus we analyze four crises intensified by neoliberalism: Climate change, the worldwide proliferation of slums, mass incarceration, and mass deportation.

We engage these crises from the standpoint of a Catholic politics of mercy that instructs Catholics to visit the sick (climate change); give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless (slum proliferation); visit the prisoner and ransom the captive (mass incarceration); and welcome the stranger (mass deportation).

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