Letters to the Editor: October 1984
The Controversy over Capitalism
George Gilder’s Letter, “Ignorance and Pettifoggery on Economics” (June), attacking Stuart Gudowitz’s essay, “A Christian View of Economic Virtue” (March), was curious.
Gilder’s polemical prose is a delight to read. I wish he could give courses to all of us on clear, simple, and entertaining writing. But his marvelous gift with language is no substitute for thoughtful dialogue. Thoughtful dialogue, even when critical, requires first that one grasp what the other has proposed. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.
Clearly, Gilder misunderstood Gudowitz. By responding with an attack on European social democracy, Gilder failed to realize that Gudowitz was not speaking out of this tradition. Rather he spoke out of the quite distinct tradition of Roman Catholic social thought, the main lines of which are in strong tension with state-centered socialism, as well as with liberalism’s capitalism.
Catholic social thought, with some recent qualifications, has been most uneasy about absorbing the economy into a centralized state. Similarly it has always been uneasy about the centralization of vast economic power into private corporate bureaucracies.
Since the writings of Pope John Paul II, Catholic social thought has given greater emphasis to the “socialization” of the economy. But it has equally stressed the classical Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” meaning that nothing should be done at a higher level that can be done at a lower level, and that it is the function of higher levels to help rather than displace lower levels.
With Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens, the Catholic stress on socialization deepened. But so too did the sophistication of the critique of a bureaucratized economy. John Paul II definitely called for planning, broadened participation of workers, and deeper socialization. But the state-centered communist or social democratic models are not his models.
Gilder might still wish to quarrel with this perspective, but it would have to be a different quarrel from that with Leninist communism or Western European social democracy. Rather John Paul II’s perspective seems closer to the growing tradition of communitarian rather than statist economics.
John Paul rejects both public and private forms of economic bureaucracy and attempts to link entrepreneurship with cooperative values. Indeed many of the futurists tell us that the combination of creativity and cooperation is a hallmark of the new economic model growing out of the death of both industrial capitalism and industrial socialism.
The strength of Gilder’s attack was his awareness of the new technological dimension (electronic miniaturization) that makes possible a new wave of entrepreneurship. The global explosion of transportation and communications, growing out the microelectronic revolution, is fundamentally transforming all of industrial society, no matter what its ideology.
Gilder rightly perceives that this microelectronic revolution begins to undercut the monopoly of the corporate giants over the world market. He understands that new actors car maneuver and compete under the shadow of the corporate giants, and without great support from the central state. Indeed, the new entrepreneurs are more dynamic than the corporate giants.
But he fails to perceive another possibility inherent in this new technology, namely its communitarian dimension. Precisely because of the miniaturization of the technology, major economic functions can now be re-rooted in relatively self-reliant communities. This fundamentally transforms the development model, suggesting closer bonding among workers in small scale or decentralized economic units yielding enhanced creativity. It also suggests closer cooperation between local governments (not national) and local producers.
We are seeing, as Gilder points out, the re-ascendance of small business. But we are also seeing, as he fails to point out, a new style of cooperative economics. The growing economic battle will be not the classical industrial battle of big business versus big labor mediated by big government, although that will not entirely disappear.
Rather the leading edge of a new economy will be the struggle between two distinct economic forms: on one side uprooted, bureaucratized, socially and ecologically antagonistic, and overly centralized anti-communitarian economic structures in both the private and public sectors (the model of the industrial age); and on the other side re-rooted, relatively self-reliant and entrepreneurial, socially and ecologically cooperative, and decentralized communitarian economic structures, whether private or public (the model of the information age).
Gilder’s critique of the intelligentsia for disdaining economic production, as part of his wider attack on the churches, carries a strong strain of truth. It could well be expanded into a broader critique of classical and modern Christian spiritualities, which failed to take seriously in spiritual terms humanity’s economic tasks.
Classical Catholic spirituality focused on uprooted transcendence, seeking to be holy by escape from “material” cares. (Thus there are few married Catholic saints.) Similarly modern Protestant spirituality saw the spiritual as a private or psychologized realm of interiority, where the soul could take refuge from the harsher external world. Both of these spiritualities failed to understand economic life as a primary place in which humanity’s co-creative power with the divine was played out. Only recently in John Paul’s writings and speeches has this dimension of work been theologically developed.
But another dimension of Gilder’s critique of the churches is less promising. It is a victim of the very liberalism he claims to critique.
It is the essence of liberalism to fragment the wholistic functions of life, for example the separation of religion and economics. The original and noble purpose of this modern liberal fragmentation was to give greater autonomy to economic, scientific, technological, and intellectual achievements. But now we have gone to the opposite extreme. The autonomy of late modern life brings a new and destructive fatalism. The name liberalism gave to this autonomy was freedom. Indeed this is the root meaning of liberalism — i.e., the doctrine of freedom. The vision of freedom as autonomy is the cultural foundation of liberalism.
Gilder critiques the “liberals” who allow certain sexual pathologies to exist in society; for example, pornography. He admits that evil capitalists make money off this vice, but blames the “liberals” and the churches for allowing it to happen. The failure, in his view, is due not to capitalism itself, but to “liberal” moral permissiveness.
Here we see Gilder’s double standard and internal contradiction. He wants absolute moral autonomy for economic life, with no interference from the churches. Yet he wants strict moral controls on sexual life, with the churches pressing for these controls. Permissive (i.e., autonomous) sexuality he identifies with “liberalism.” But he fails to see that permissive (i.e., autonomous) economics flows from the same liberal worldview. Capitalism is the economic project of liberalism, not something apart from it.
Now let us return to Stuart Gudowitz, the object of Gilder’s attack.
Gudowitz has tried to make a clear statement of the main lines of Catholic social thought, from Leo XIII to Pius XI to John Paul II. He did a good job of summarizing the tradition. I hope that Gilder will take the time to study this tradition more carefully.
Nonetheless I have a few reservations about the main lines of Catholic social thought, partly as presented by Gudowitz but also in itself. So my endorsement of the Gudowitz proposal is not total.
First, there is the matter of “vocational associations,” officially stated in the social writings of Pius XI. In this model, the major industries of a country would be reorganized into guild-like institutions. To my knowledge, there is no longer serious discussion in contemporary Catholic social thought of these vocational associations. Generally, they are seen by Catholic social theorists as an ill-conceived attempt to combine medieval and industrial models in an impossible synthesis. Further, the model fails to address the new (post-industrial) microelectronic age now arising, of which Gilder speaks so eloquently. Actually the largest group that claimed to take the vocational associations seriously were the European fascists, although I don’t think Pius Xl’s conception was itself fascist.
Second, there is an assumption that Catholic social thought has a simple, easy, and verified strategy for transforming the capitalist economy. I am not so sure about this. For half a century, there has been a political carrier of the Catholic vision. It is the network of Christian Democratic parties. There is little evidence that these parties have fundamentally altered the capitalist ethos. Hence the question of vision cannot be separated from the question strategy and agency. Yet these are not addressed by Gudowitz, nor in any significant way by Catholic social thought.
Third, Catholic social thought has reflected very little on ecological questions. Recently, John Paul has stressed the ecological crisis, arising slowly through gradual contamination of the earth or rapidly through nuclear holocaust. But when he turns to the work process, the emphasis falls back almost exclusively to the relationship between capital and labor. The reflection on an artistic ecology as inherently called for from within the work process is only weakly present. Gudowitz also mentions it, as does Gilder, but both in a peripheral way.
In my judgment, the shift in ecological relations is the much deeper context out of which we may then explore a shift in social relationships. But Catholic social thought has conceptualized the work process only as humanity’s dominating and controlling the earth. This vision, based on a classical Greek hierarchical understanding of the Genesis narratives, may be at the root of the modern ecological crisis.
Fourth, Catholic social thought has offered no real critique of patriarchy. In fact certain contemporary neoconservative strains seem intent on reasserting it. Even Laborem Exercens, which rightfully calls for a reappraisal of motherhood in relation to work outside the home, is noticeably silent on fatherhood.
Increasingly I believe the violence of modern economic life, especially its militarism as symbolic of its press toward ecological, social, and spiritual destruction, represents the culmination of the Western male drive to escape from the finite cycles of life and death, which we call reproduction. This is the deepest psychic root of the Western drive toward domination. If this is true, transforming the economy would then require a return of the male culture to conscious identification with the biological cycles, as well as a willingness to let the powerful symbol of woman join in the shaping of history.
Finally, neither Gudowitz nor Gilder reflects on the globalization of economic life, that is, the rapid maturing during the second half of the 20th century of the world market system. This change is of course directly traceable to the technological revolution in transportation and communications. But it requires its own strategic reflection. Catholic social thought since Pope John XXIII has taken this challenge seriously, but it is not reflected in Gudowitz’s summary.
The new social form emerging out of this change implies some new synthesis of globalism with localism. Thus we need to reduce the power of the nation-state, strengthen the rootedness and self-reliance of local communities, and simultaneously create new networks of solidarity where local communities begin to bond with each other independently of the large political or economic bureaucracies of either industrial capitalist or industrial socialist ideologies.
If we fail to build this global solidarity, we will be faced with a brutal world market dominated by highly armed, ecologically and socially destructive, and spiritually blasphemous national security states. Indeed that seems to be the direction in which the main lines of our society are trying to carry us.
Center of Concern
Defending Evelyn Waugh
Helen Garrity’s letter (June), concerning what she saw as the failed faith of Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited, calls for a revisitation of its own. Can the characters of this book actually be said to have failed in faith? Can the deathbed conversion of an aged recreant, the spiritual submission at heartrending cost of a seemingly incorrigible skeptic, a lady’s reaffirmation of a carefully ignored faith by one who realizes that her reconciliation with God means the permanent sundering of her most cherished human relationship, the final refuge of an alcoholic in an African monastery — can all this be called failure? Each of these characters returns at last to the God who had not ceased to haunt their long lived attempts to ignore Him.
I suspect the reason this is perceived as failure is precisely because Waugh’s characters do not display that much touted modern caricature of Christianity that expects faith in God to give off a sugary, bubbly mixture of cheerful confidence and constant contentment, that says God wants one to have the abundant life, not be sad, not unhealthy, and heaven forbid, not unsuccessful. Such thinking is never far from the feel-good-about-your-self success orientation of the American middle class and has swept unabated into the evangelicalism of my own background. But where is failed faith if not in the cheap, supermarket Christianity promoted in pulpit and proclaimed on television, a Christianity that offers personal happiness, spiritual entertainment, and present-life security at virtually no cost other than a simple affirmation of belief and a slightly modified American lifestyle?
Without doubt there is desolation in Brideshead; but was there no desolation in Gethsemane? Was there no bitter regret in St. Peter’s life, or anguish in St. Paul’s memories? Where in our modern age do we hear of Isaiah’s suffering servant or see the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief?
The difficulty with most of us middle-class Americans is that our faith is the frosting on the cake of a not unpalatable life, not the only bread left to us. We avoid sorrow and flee austerities and pain. We are attracted to a faith that soothes and pampers us and we naturally react against a faith that bloodies us with scourge and cross.
Of course there is a real, though mysterious Christian joy in Waugh’s book, though one must wait to the last paragraphs to see it; but it does make a quiet appearance there. Of course it is just subtle enough that in our day of prize-in-every-package Cracker Jack Christianity we might skim right on past without noticing. It is certainly a joy that comes on the heels of much sorrow and frustration and even desolation. Seraphim of Sarov once said, “Where there is no sorrow, there is no salvation.” Salvation does come in this excellent book and its triumph is the more remarkable for its power to tear people from their natural joys and selfish hopes and kindle that quiet but unmistakable flame in the hearts of those tragedians whom Waugh knew so well.
Steven Faulkner, Rector
Holy Trinity Congregation
Ornery & Nasty Like Me
As one who might well qualify as a “failed” Christian, may I add my own impressions of Evelyn Waugh to those of Helen Garrity (letter, June)?
The two things that puzzled and provoked me, as a child, about Christians were that, first, they were incredibly stupid and shallow in their thinking (whatever they might “believe” wafting them to Heaven so long as they “believed” sincerely); and, second, they were all of them such Nice People, charming as puppies, gentle as lovebirds, harmless as baby rabbits. I emphatically did not fit into their group, and I was not at all sure I wished to fit in. And although it seemed right, it seemed utterly impossible for an ornery person like me to be transformed into a Nice Person. To the probable relief of the Nice People, I quit attending church.
As a matter of fact, these things still bother me. I’m still as ornery as ever, snapping at little old ladies, running in terror from Ladies’ Aid meetings, backing away from cuddly infants, wishing God hadn’t told us to love other people. And I still think much of what passes for Christian thought is stupid and shallow, and I spend lots of time sneering and giggling at pompous theologians and sticky-sweet social reformers. Mere niceties, I fear, will never convert me.
It is precisely for people like me that a merciful (and perhaps exasperated) God sends writers like Evelyn Waugh into this world. Over the years, it was such writers as he who egged me on, inched me along the road, insisting on the not-very-nice truths of this life and the ultimate Truth of Christianity, assuring me that orneriness was no excuse for damnation and nice-ness no guarantee of salvation.
Never in my wildest imaginings could I visualize myself as a Norman Vincent Peale Christian or an Oral Roberts Christian, rising from the waters of regeneration, never to be tempted to kick my dog or wrinkle my nose at a dirty-faced, ill-tempered child. But I could, by the grace of God, see myself as a bungling, laughable Bridey-Christian, or a Pollyanna Cordelia-Christian, or a reprobate, cowardly Lord Marchmain-Christian. Christian writers like Waugh made sense: Their worlds, and their people, far from being either depressing or upliftingly Nice, were stark-naked real. And so was their Christianity. Not the sort of Christianity Nice People would invent at all, but rather the sort that smacked of Truth.
And so I read more and more of Waugh, and of C.S. Lewis (who drank and smoked and disliked children), and of Dorothy L. Sayers (who was impossibly eccentric and was rumored to be bald and a cigar-smoker), and other not-necessarily-Nice Christian writers. They led me, wittingly or unwittingly, to the Roman Catholic Church. Do I belong in the Church, with all those Nice People? Do I dare call myself a Christian? God knows, I don’t. But God knows, and so do we nasty, ornery, “failed” Christians, that Waugh was perfectly correct when he said that we are far better off within the Church than outside her. Whatever our presence does to embarrass the Nice People, we know damned well we haven’t a chance without the Church, and we intend to hang on for dear life.
Every once in a while I go back to a chapter of Lewis’s Mere Christianity to reread one of the bits that enticed me into the Church, and which still serves as a reminder to stay here: “It is very different for the nasty people…. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following — or else despair. They are the lost sheep. He came specially to find them…. They are the ‘awful set’ he goes about with — and of course the Pharisees say still, as they said from the first, ‘If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.’”
For us ornery, nasty people who can’t learn to be Nice, Waugh is one in our choir of angels singing us out of our despair and into the Church, assuring us that no matter how wrongheaded, eccentric, unlovable, and unregenerate we are in this life, we may, by God’s grace, become something better in the next. So long as we have the sense to realize we aren’t at all Nice, and beg forgiveness, and don’t despair.
A False “Either/Or”
I enclose my subscription renewal for New Oxford Review. This is one check I write with pleasure. Several years ago, as a long-time newspaperman and convert to Roman Catholicism who was feeling rather buffeted about by the gale winds of Vatican II, I thought of founding a magazine that would promote both Catholic tradition and Catholic social conscience. Then I discovered you, and from what I have witnessed so far, you have spared me both the time and the expense!
I continue to be appalled today at the number of “either/or” Catholics I encounter. Either you are a “liberal” Catholic who is all for world disarmament and social justice but who at the same time wishes to abolish many Church practices and traditions as unnecessary and simply picturesque. Or you are “conservative” and stand four-square for Rome, which (strangely) means you are also for a continued nuclear face-off with the Russians and for trickle-down economics.
Where, oh where, are those devout Catholics who, while loyal to Rome and its teaching authority, attempt to act out in their lives the admittedly difficult Social Gospel preserved for believers in the Sermon on the Mount?
Perhaps more than a few are out there among the readers of the NOR. That is both my hope and suspicion, in any case.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
While Robert Coles’s description of the pregnant teenager as a lost and lonely soul in need of moral guidance (Jul.-Aug.) does indeed apply to many of these young women, it does not apply to all. I believe the problem is broader than that.
As the mother of grown daughters, I have for some years watched young women who were loved and morally guided by their families succumb to the idea that they had no status or value without a boyfriend. With the boyfriend inevitably came the excitement of and the pressure for premarital sex, which, from what I can tell, was rarely denied.
There appear to be two factors related to this situation: women’s attitudes and social pressures. First, in spite of all the gains made in liberating women from restrictions of the past, no progress has been made in freeing them from the psychological bondage of feeling inadequate without a man. In fact, the obsession that has gripped boy-crazy teenagers is spreading to older women. For example, in New York State in 1983, the largest increase in out-of-wedlock births occurred not among teenagers but among women 20 years and older. These women should be helping younger ones to deal with their dependence on men instead of falling apart themselves.
Second, in this society, seduction of the spirit is powerful and pervasive and begins in the preschool years. It is found not only in the media and the products of commerce, but in the actions and conversations of our people. Because it fuels the economic machine, it is sacrosanct. Let’s face it: the ideal of chastity is a big joke to most people.
Does anyone have enough power to change ether term in this equation? Without change the probability that parental lectures will convince our impressionable daughters to strive for independence or exercise sexual restraint remains rather small.
Joan P. Cooney
Albany, New York
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