[Editor’s Note: Peter Joseph Fritz is associate professor and Edward Bennett Williams Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, where he teaches courses on Catholic theology, Christian history, and Catholic Social Teaching. He is currently co-authoring (with Matthew Eggemeier) a book on Catholicism and neoliberal capitalism, which provides a theological critique of our world’s dominant economic system. The book, titled Send Lazarus: Capitalism, Catholicism, and the Politics of Mercy, is currently under consideration for publication in 2019 by Fordham University Press. Charles Camosy spoke with him about the new book, following up a conversation he had with Fritz’s co-author.]
Camosy: This past January I did a Crux Q&A with my colleague David Cloutier related to his basic thesis in his book The Vice of Luxury. How might your argument in Send Lazarus: Capitalism, Catholicism, and the Politics of Mercy relate to his?
Fritz: I read Cloutier’s book, and admire how he draws upon the deep Christian tradition to discuss the vice of luxury, Christians’ antipathy to it, somewhat modern softening on it, and retrieval of Christian roots to encourage economic virtue today.
Our focus, however, is on a systemic critique of neoliberalism, today’s globally dominant variant of capitalism, which economizes all areas of life and encourages mercilessness along the way. We propose a Catholic politics of mercy as an alternative way of life — one as comprehensive as neoliberalism, but directed toward solidarity, not market calculation.
You mention solidarity, a classic principle of Catholic Social Teaching. But it seems the people who are most troubled by questions of neoliberalism are often of a very particular political persuasion. Your audience on the hard left is likely nodding along, but what do you have to say to people who inhabit other political spaces?
Our project’s not “leftist”; it’s Catholic. Matt focused on the theme of solidarity, an idea that preoccupies the “Catholic left.” Let’s fill out that picture. We also address the equally essential principle of subsidiarity, a focus of the “Catholic right.”
“Subsidiarity” means that social problems must be addressed at the most local level possible, and neoliberalism is a massive assault on the principle of subsidiarity. Neoliberals claim to be friendly to subsidiarity because they want to give individual consumers choice in the marketplace, but in its real effects the era of neoliberal dominance has brought drastic consolidation of economic power in fewer and fewer companies and individuals.
This has concentrated decision-making and power in global centers rather than local areas. For example, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have disproportionate influence on global health and educational policy, irrespective of their connection to any particular locale.
I’ve noticed this concern has been increasingly raised by people who identify as Catholic conservatives.
Yes, we see this happening in some quarters as well, as in R.R. Reno’s recent essay titled, “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.” But we nevertheless worry that certain segments of the Catholic population have been enlisted by the neoliberal rhetoric of choice and individual freedom (which sounds like subsidiarity) into economic and political projects that violate this very principle.
You’re rightly concerned about massive structures and how they function, a classic focus of academics who take the 40,000 foot view. But how has neoliberalism been disseminated into everyday life?
Neoliberalism began as a minority academic project in economics in the 1940s, has been politically ascendant since the 1970s, and is now dominant globally. Neoliberal think tanks (including the Catholic-affiliated Acton Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, which employed prominent Catholic, Michael Novak) and important political victories accomplished this, with the result that neoliberalism has seeped into every aspect of our lives.
Reality television is a great example. Neoliberalism extends market logic even into our families and living rooms. Market logic designates winners and losers, the included and excluded, those who please the market and who don’t. This is the premise of every reality TV show: Many will compete, few will win. Every week we witness the winners’ triumphs and relish losers’ failures.
Reality shows reshape our aesthetic preferences, moral values, and attitudes toward truth, whether we want them to or not. There could hardly be a type of formation more contrary to Christian formation, a formation centered on Christ who says “the last shall be first,” who himself is the “stone that the builders rejected,” and who seeks the lost sheep.
How do you see this winner-loser scheme playing out in the social crises your book analyzes?
We examine two global crises (climate change and slum proliferation) and two domestic ones (mass incarceration and mass deportation). The basic problem is that if you allow the logic of the market to run all of life, then all of life must have winners and losers.
If, to have economic growth, we must have environmental destruction, then so be it. If we must have people living en masse in slums, so be it. If we (in the USA) have to incarcerate people at the highest rate in the world to feel safe, secure, and to enjoy our prosperity, so be it. If we need to eject immigrants by the millions in order to put “America first,” so be it.
Of course, the situation is more complex. Environmental degradation and slums predated neoliberalism, even capitalism more generally. But neoliberalism has helped to accelerate climate change and, more perversely, to seek avenues of profit from it.
Neoliberalism has brought new proliferation of slums befitting its fierce market logic of social exclusion. Racism, of course, existed before neoliberalism, but neoliberalism has combined with existing racism to redesign policing and immigration policy.
Incarceration rates have exploded under neoliberal dominance (disproportionately affecting African Americans) and mass deportation (chiefly of Latino people) has become normalized. Even more, neoliberalism’s winner-loser logic disables our response to these crises. Who would want to side with losers? In Catholic language, it perpetuates structures of sin and precludes merciful and just responses to them.
Recently I saw an article which, spurred by the spotlight recently shone on our culture of sexual harassment and structural violence, invoked “The Neoliberal Sexuality of the Left.” Is it fair to say that neoliberalism has also transformed our sexual culture into just another series of market transactions, where the only rules are the rules of the market?
This is an extraordinarily important and fraught issue that demands a sustained analysis unto itself. Speaking preliminarily, we do see a connection between the sexual culture of harassment and violence and neoliberalism’s explicit project of erasing all other values and replacing them with the market logic of winners and losers.
We’ve said that neoliberalism has redesigned and marketized racism. Something similar is going on with sexuality. Neoliberalism views everything in terms of individual, market choice, so naturally sex is economized, and people commodify one another. But let’s go deeper. There’s something more troubling going on with sexuality related to the winner-loser logic we’ve been discussing. We’ll briefly illustrate with the phenomenon of hookup culture.
In fall 2015, Holy Cross’s McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture hosted a public lecture by political theorist Wendy Brown, in which she introduced neoliberalism to our students. She used many illustrations (including the market-motivations of the Iraq War), but one stuck out for our students: neoliberalism’s contribution to and exacerbation of hookup culture.
Brown cited a New York Times article that explained how for college students, sex is now seen in terms of investment costs and risk management — no longer, as one student put it, as the “meeting of two souls.”
College students want to be winners, so must spend maximal time and energy building their resumés, and the bare minimum on relationships. “Low-cost,” “low-risk” sex is best. 18-to-22-year-olds are uncertain whether a potential partner will become “successful,” so it’s best to avoid long-term commitment and instead focus on periodic sexual pleasures and investment in one’s own value.
So hookup culture follows a winner-loser logic.
Definitely. This neoliberal approach to sex short-circuits anything recognizable as what Catholic teaching holds to be healthy, dignified sexuality. It’s no longer a sign of God’s love.
We have to reject this, not in an individualistic-moralizing way (because this would fit neoliberal logic, too, as it takes systemic issues and makes them a matter of personal responsibility and blame–especially victim-blaming), but as part of a structural program of resistance against neoliberalism.
In the previous interview, Matt had a particular focus on a politics of mercy. How might this kind of politics respond to these crises?
Here we have a focus on the works of mercy. There are the traditional spiritual works of mercy, like instructing the ignorant and counseling the doubtful. Applied to the contemporary context, we think it is critical to get people to see that there is a problem with neoliberalism — its logic is perverse, and it intensifies crises, many of which we don’t tend to know about.
It’s consistent with the basic orientation of the spiritual works of mercy to point out global phenomena like proliferation of slums, or domestic phenomena like mass incarceration, to people who aren’t aware of them.
And it’s important to reassure people plagued by self-doubt that many of the problems they experience in life (unemployment, low pay, difficulty paying for health care) are problems with the economic system. This opens up the possibility for concrete responses.
Here we think returning to the corporal works of mercy is urgent for Catholics. The earth is sick. We must care for it: recycling, limiting consumption, driving less. Over 1 billion people are without adequate shelter, food, and water. We must find ways to provide them with their basic needs. 2.3 million people are currently imprisoned in our country. We must visit the imprisoned. Migrating people live in the shadows, perpetually insecure. We must welcome the stranger.
These are individualized strategies for addressing what you’ve called a systemic problem. What about systemic solutions?
The works of mercy must take form as a politics of mercy. This is the most difficult step, and it involves a structural application of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The traditional spiritual work of mercy, admonishing the sinner, must be applied as a denunciation of a sinful economic system and its ironclad winner-loser logic. Likewise, the corporal works of mercy, as individual acts of charity, must be applied structurally to reconfigure social space.
Here the recovery, development, and implementation of a Catholic imagination of mercy will be necessary. Neoliberals birthed the world we now live in by imagining new possibilities and working toward a utopian vision. Imagination was vital to neoliberalism’s rise to dominance. We must reverse the neoliberal imagination.
An authentic Catholic imagination, formed by the “image of the invisible God,” Jesus Christ, must be directed toward envisioning and then building a more merciful world. We’re trying to do this concrete work of imagination and building through Catholic education.
We invite people to join us in applying a Catholic imagination of mercy in whatever ways they can, so the world of mercilessness will pass away, yielding something new.
You can read Charles Camosy’s interview with Matthew Eggemeier here.