Politics determines policy and policy reflects the morality of societies.
While a number of strident public critics in corporate media and Washington politics have suggested that Pope Francis should stay out of politics and stop criticizing various U.S. policies, it is rather impossible to separate the moral admonitions of the Pope from politics.
The pontiff’s harshest criticism seems reserved for capitalism, as it actually exists. He does not favor a political party. We often speak of capitalism as if it exists according to the romanticized and now distorted images coöpted from the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, men who wrote centuries ago and at a time when corporations as we know them did not exist and when British and European “trade” activity was based on mercantilism, artisanal entrepreneurs and tradesmen.
When Smith referred to the coincidentally benevolent “silent hand” effecting mutual benefit amongst citizens, he was referring to these kinds of individuals and not large mega corporations, which did not exist in his time except for the likes of the East India Company of which he was harshly critical for its monopolistic power and brutal tactics in foreign lands. Many “conservatives” like to quote Adam Smith but in a way that makes it apparent that they haven’t actually read his work, or have done so selectively.
What the Pope seems to understand at a fundamental level is that the thing we call capitalism today is anything but the world envisioned by Smith, or that the “market” is in any way free and therefore benevolent or benign, by intent or otherwise. When trade agreements are negotiated in secret, out of public and even congressional view, how can we justly call this free trade? Free for whom?
When the three largest arms producers in the world are U.S. companies and virtually all of their profits are attributable to U.S. taxpayers, how is this free market capitalism? When these arms are sold to brutal regimes, like the one in Egypt, in power by virtue of coup d’états, or Saudi Arabia, an extremist fiefdom promoting Wahhabism and genocide against Shia’s, how can this be seen by the Pope as anything other than government sponsored brutality?
The Catholic Church, despite the story of Galileo, has a rather decent record on the embrace of science in the modern era and this Pope recognizes the urgency that overwhelming scientific evidence has brought to bear with regard to global warming and climate change. When fossil fuel companies dominate energy markets, are given massive taxpayer subsidies and licenses to drill on public lands, driving ever more CO2 into our only atmosphere, how is this rational public policy? How does this serve the public trust and how is it remotely based on free market economics?
When the U.S. surrounds Iran, a country with military technology based on the Shah era, with 14 military bases and supplies massive arms to its most bitter enemies, the Saudis (and Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain), who have promoted Wahhabi and Salafist extremism intent on wiping out Shia Islam, how is this furthering democracy, peace and brotherhood? How is it rational and peace-seeking on the part of the U.S. when all of the non-aligned nations of the world and the P5+1 countries support the Iranian Multilateral Nuclear agreement and accept the International Atomic Energy Agency’s assessments (and the U.S. Intelligence Estimate) and findings, but the U.S. Congress and influential “hawks” wish to scuttle it, raising the specter of war?
The Pope is from Latin America and knows its history well. A question he might ask: Why is it that the U.S. Congress and leading presidential candidates propose building gargantuan border walls and the undertaking of massive deportations of illegal immigrants, many of whom were refugees fleeing from Honduras where a democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup in 2009? How is it that the Latin American countries, the European Union and the UN condemned the coup, but the U.S. didn’t and went even further and embraced the new military dictatorship, which then undertook a violent campaign of oppression, driving farmers off of working land and creating a massive refugee crisis, landing thousands at our southern border?
The Pope will know well the effects of the U.S. War on Drugs in Latin American countries. He sees our massive demand for drugs and our poverty-generated markets for them and the criminalization of non-violent, drug-related activities in the poorest neighborhoods of the U.S., which has swelled our prisons, creating a new government-driven, private, (but not free) market for prison management, with taxpayers bearing the cost of building the prisons and paying the tab for private contractors. We now jail 2.5 million people, the largest number in absolute value terms in the world. The Pope may also question why the U.S., unilaterally and brutally, has imposed an embargo on Cuba for over 50 years, while the rest of the world and all of Latin America has condemned it. On this front, even large capitalist enterprises in the U.S. have for years called for the lifting of the embargo.
For those who wish to blame the GOP for all of these tragedies—and they deserve plenty of blame—please do not allow the plank to rest in your eye and ignore the complicity of the Democrats in all of this. These are not new problems. They have developed over decades and across presidential administrations and congresses and the unraveling of them will not occur on our behalf by those in power whose campaign coffers are filled by powerful special interest groups. We are, in the literal sense, living in an empire and this Pope knows it. Private power is feeding at the public trough and our government policies, unsurprisingly, reflect these interests.
If the Pope accomplishes one thing outside of the Catholic Church proper, it may be that he opens our eyes to the human and moral consequences of our government’s policies, its misuse of its citizens money by spending 54 cents of every tax dollar on the military (that we know of), its allowance of companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple and GE to store billions of untaxed dollars abroad, the forcing of its citizens to underwrite the moral hazard of ridiculously large banks and their executive’s bonuses in the name of “liquidity,” increasing the already staggering wealth of those who make money on capital, but not of working people and the poor. Not to mention its perpetual militarism, which has destabilized an entire region of the world, bringing death and suffering to millions of innocents and the creation of massive refugee crises, all the while having 25 percent of the world’s prison population jailed inside of its borders and over a half a million people living homeless on the streets of its great cities.
It is instructive that the Pope, when addressing today’s joint session of Congress, offered these great Americans for thoughtful consideration: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Blessed are the peacemakers.
“Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.” ~ Pope Francis, Address to the joint session of Congress, September 24, 2015
Author: Kevin Swanwick
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wikimedia Commons