Opportunists use to swim with the current, only courageous outsiders dare to swim against it. Such a role has been assumed by the Catholic moral theologian Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics at the Pontifical University of Rome. While the head of his church, Pope Francis, says of capitalism: “This economy kills”, Rhonheimer claims the exact opposite: capitalist economy creates wealth. In his opinion, St. Martin did not at all act correctly when he divided his coat sharing it with one of his poor fellows. Instead, he would have done better to set up a coat factory.
The thought leaves much room for further conclusions. Let us suppose that St. Martin had been a wealthy man. According to Mr. Rhonheimer, he should have refrained from distributing a hundred coats to a hundred people, let alone paying them an unconditional basic income; instead he should have opened a large manufactory. There the poor would have produced thousands of coats not only for themselves but also for many other people – a typical case of capitalist wealth creation!
We know which people applaud Rhonheimer’s thesis, namely the rich and powerful. They will thank the moral theologian for providing them with a glimmer of St. Martin’s halo. Of course, we also know which people condemn his thesis, namely the poor and powerless. For two thousand years the Church has been on the side of the powerful – not always, but most of the time. But the founding document of the Church, the evangelical message of Jesus Christ, and in its wake Pope Francis clearly take a stand for the powerless. By the way, this is also what Carina Kerschbaumer did, the reviewer of the “Kleine Zeitung”, an Austrian regional newspaper, who simply accuses the Christian theologian of cynicism.
Who is right in this argument,
which is as old as capitalism itself? The fact is that its left wing opponents and right wing supporters usually fight each other irreconcilably. I myself had congratulated Mr. Rhonheimer on daring to publicly advocate such an unpopular thesis, but at the same time had insisted that it was subject to very “weighty restrictions”. “Weighty restrictions”? Rhonheimer wrote back. “What do you mean?” It seems the theologian is unreservedly committed to capitalism.
I) To make things clearer, let’s first list the five arguments
that manifestly support Rhonheimer’s defense of capitalism. These are 1) the historical, 2) the factual, 3) the contradictory, 4) the demographic and 5) the logical arguments.
1. The historical argument
“… industrial revolution “has overcome and abolished the external constraints of physical survival that applied to the agricultural way of life… By replacing human slavery with insensitive machine slaves, it released the lower 90 percent from their age-old dependence and turned them first de jure and ultimately de facto into human beings with equal rights. This is the undeniable historical achievement of this great historical turning point, in spite of all the misgivings immediately coming to the mind of Westerners when they hear of capitalism or the industrial revolution.”*1*
2. The factual argument
The comet-like rise of China illustrates it particularly well. It is only partly due to the extraordinary diligence of its population as this diligence had always existed, without producing spectacular results. It was only after – with the blessing of Deng Xiaoping – profit-seeking capitalists introduced Western capitalism and capitalist investment that Chinese diligence was directed towards exponential economic growth and soaring wealth.
” With strategic perseverance, the Chinese followed a path that initially demanded extremely harsh sacrifices, for it essentially consisted in the dirtiest work of industrial production being taken over from the states of the West into their own country, without in the least caring for man and nature. For this would have made production more expensive and delayed China’s rise.
After all, Western investors did not come out of love for China, but in search of the highest possible profit. At minimal cost, they first had those goods produced in China, which they could then sell at relatively high prices in their home countries. Somewhat later when the Chinese themselves had acquired the necessary purchasing power, they were interested in local markets too. But it should be emphasized: Any sympathy with the suffering masses or the intention to develop the country has never drawn Western capitalists into the country – a fact which confirms Adam Smith’s famous verdict that we should expect less from the goodwill of an economic subject than from his well-understood interest… It is true that so far China has achieved a Western standard of living only in coastal regions and in a few hubs of the hinterland. But with a growth rate of over six percent, the increase in national wealth is progressing in giant strides. It seems to be only a matter of time before China will have overtaken Western countries, especially the US, because the latter are getting more and more indebted – in other words, poorer – while China has become their most important creditor and becomes richer every year.”*2*
3. The contradictory argument (failure of development aid)
No development aid (which in any case was not granted to communist countries) would have allowed China, a country still completely undeveloped at the time of Mao, to become a superpower in a few years as quickly as was to happen through the intervention of profit-seeking capitalist investors. In the shortest possible time and with the help of enormous amounts of investment, they built their production facilities (for coats and many things more) first in Shenzhen and soon also on the entire Pacific coast… All over the world, development aid – i.e. government-sponsored sharing in the way of St. Martin – has produced at best marginal results, but often none at all, while the greed for profit, already described by Adam Smith as a powerful driving force that helps others to help themselves, encouraged billions of people to achieve within just two centuries a level of wealth unheard of in human history.
4. The demographic argument
“… it is a historical fact that competition played only a marginal role all over the world until the rise of industry in the late 18th century. In all major cultures, such as India, China, Central America and the leading countries of Europe, about ninety per cent of the population were condemned to serve as quasi-enslaved food suppliers for the top ten per cent. They were farmers when born and remained so until death because there was no competition that would have allowed them to prove their abilities and rise from their serving position. During ten thousand years, it was not competition that decided which privileges a man enjoyed or which miserable fate he had to endure until death, but the status conferred on him by his birth. For ninety percent of the population, this resulted in a “life sentence” of either undeserved toil or undeserved privilege.
So, this is what society looked like, before capitalist competition was allowed to emerge. Between the lower ninety percent and their masters competition was out of the question anyway. People died in the same position they had been born into. But even among the disadvantaged majority competition was virtually impossible, since as a rule it only caused harm. If due to better methods or more personal endeavor a farmer succeeded in producing a more abundant harvest than his neighbors, the tax collector immediately became aware of the surplus, so that the next year the hapless innovator was forced to pay higher taxes (at least ten percent to his secular and another ten percent to his spiritual masters).
For this and no other reason – certainly not because of a lack of intelligence – farmers used to be arch-conservatives. They regarded every innovation with utmost suspicion, as they were required to pay for every additional yield. This was the merciless reality in societies bereft of competition. Freedom from competition far from creating a lucky and harmonious society was the real cause of its misfortune.
And what a misfortune! In the majority of all cultures (especially the most populous ones), the food suppliers – the lower ninety percent – were so squeezed by both their secular and their spiritual masters that what was left of their work was a bare minimum for survival. Peasant uprisings – the very opposite of harmony based on the absence of competition – were endemic all over the world, but even these uprisings never really changed the peasant’s miserable lot. Even in Luther’s day – and with his blessing! – they were suppressed with unrestrained brutality by the top ten percent.
In the 18th century only did the world gradually came to change for the better. Through industrial revolution, an overwhelming majority that in all large states had led a slave-like existence, was now exposed to competition. Not immediately – conditions at the first stage of industrialization proved to be even more brutal than the previous era (here Karl Marx was perfectly right). But this was a transient evil. For with industrial revolution and capitalism came institutionalized competition – both together redeemed the masses from their undeserved immaturity. After some time, the toiling masses found themselves liberated from the life-long impotence imposed upon them for thousands of years. In developed countries, three percent of farmers now suffice to produce the food for the remaining ninety-seven percent. And even these three percent enjoy a free choice of occupation. They are no longer condemned by birth to pursue this or any other profession. In an almost symmetrical way, history’s previous model was turned downside up.”*3*
Now ever more people were able to use their initiative and intelligence for their own benefit and the common good. Together, industrial revolution and capitalism had an explosive effect – unique in all recorded history.
5. The logical argument
Competition – and not its opposite, namely its suppression in all major agricultural civilizations – has made possible the social vision that the Enlightenment had in mind in the 18th century: a society where it is not privilege but personal ability that counts. Why has this vision so far not been realized, or only in a far from perfect way?
“Not competition was to blame for this failure, but the inability of Homo insapiens to tame and organize it in such a way that it would really be exercised for the benefit of all. Let me emphasize that it would be a mistake to assume that temporary victories of the strong over the weak can produce lasting damage. Since intelligence and ability tend to be redistributed among different individuals in each generation, competition has, on the contrary, the potential to completely prevent the formation of social classes – in other words, competition is the only social force able to produce a truly classless society.”*3*
Only when wealth is acquired by birth and not by the selection of the best and the ablest, does it inevitably lead to social classes and even to social castes.
People are killed in any kind of economy, but when comparing the last two hundred years with the ten thousand since the Neolithic Revolution, we are forced to admit that Pope Francis is clearly in the wrong, while Rhonheimer is right. The industrial revolution, based on capitalism and the use of fossil resources not only increased the number of people more than sevenfold in two hundred years (from about one billion in 1800 to about seven two hundred years later), it also enabled most of the planet’s inhabitants to live much longer and materially much better lives. During the past fifty years, famines have been exceptional occurrences. Until the 18th century, they regularly mowed down entire populations.
II) Now, what speaks against the moral theologian’s thesis that capitalism shines in the halo of St. Martin?
These are essentially three arguments: 1) increasing inequality, 2) social cutbacks in the absence of growth, 3) the inevitable ecological collapse produced by unbridled capitalism and 4) the “race of nations”, which conjures up both: the ecological collapse and the final self-extinction of Homo insapiens.
1. The argument of increasing inequality
“The short-term successes of competition are almost always beneficial. Only in a long-term perspective competition appears in a different light. Without the regulatory intervention of the state, wealth becomes increasingly concentrated, until finally, with the one percent of the super-rich occupying the top of society, the rule of people (democracy) turns into the rule of wealth (plutocracy). Even in a time-honored democracy like the United States of America, the process of refeudalization has been carried to new extremes. No wonder the country has at its head a president who bears the greatest resemblance to a soldier emperor of imperial Rome.”*3*
According to Thomas Piketty, the top percent of Americans receives 20% of all income (https://www.sueddeutsche.de/wirtschaft/einkommensverteilung-wo-die-ungleichheit-am-groessten-ist-1.3791583).However, in the distribution of wealth, inequality is, of course, much greater because surplus income accumulates over the years.
2. The argument of social cutbacks in the absence of growth
As long as there is growth, the entire population will generally benefit – albeit to varying degrees. If there is no growth, the rich can only increase their wealth at the expense of the poor. Through redistribution from the bottom to the top, the majority is then forced to accept a reduction of their welfare.
“In emerging countries such as China and India, this danger is hardly perceived, because the majority still enjoys its liberation from immemorial servitude. So, the masses pay little attention to the fact that the number of billionaires is constantly rising too. Things are quite different in old industrial nations. These are all the more in the grip of concentrated wealth, as the poor no longer increase their material well-being, but on the contrary begin to lose it – that is, relative to the rich minority at the top. Hence the ever louder protests against neoliberal capitalism.*4*
This is a very dangerous trend, which through social unrest threatens to destroy all previous achievements. It should be the main topic among social theorists and reformers – not Karl Marx’ dream of a classless society or paradise on earth without competition – a utopian fantasy contrary to all historical evidence.”*3*
(The argument of the destruction of work through technological progress may here be disregarded, as in my view it does not allow us to draw clear conclusions).
3. the ecological argument
“In Western states, more than two centuries of growth created a conspicuous standard of living. But now, growth has come to fulfill a more questionable purpose – that of stimulating the consumption of lots of superfluous things. Of course, this too benefits investors, and the people working in offices and factories derive no less advantage. The greater the number of new products flowing onto the market and of old ones thrown into waste dumps, the more reliably a state may count on maximum employment for its people and a high profit from new investments. In throw-away-societies, continuous growth is no longer fed by real needs but by the demand for full employment and profit.
This is to say that Western societies reached a limit: Growth only makes sense as long as it serves the life of man without destroying his habitat. But growth turns into a destructive obsession the very moment that it endangers the globe – be it through climate change, loss of fertile soil, overfishing, the annihilation of species or the radiation from nuclear waste.*5* Growth is, of course, not a value in itself.”*1*
4. The race of nations
It is one of the basic insights of both medicine and philosophy that a substance, medicine or social practice, if enjoyed in moderation, can have beneficial effects, but deadly ones if excessively used. This is particularly true of capitalist competition. “… competition is a kind of war, only to be endured if there are sanctuaries like the family, partnerships, friends – in other words, communities of unconditional trust – where individuals may recover. No doubt, competition was the most powerful force of modernity as it has released the lower ninety percent from age-old bondage. But people were able to cope with it because the family offered them a daily retreat where there was no competition, as everyone gave to his kin what he was able to give – regardless of his respective abilities.
But in competition, people have nothing to offer except their skills. These are used to calculate a person’s market value, preferably in monetary units (he is worth so many dollars). Such permanent evaluation of each individual citizen according to his or her “output” is now regarded as quite normal. Writers and musicians are judged on the quantity of their entries in the Google search engine, scientists on how often their peers quote them, the best among them on whether the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm selects them, super-rich people on what rank they occupy on Forbes’ list. Every employee within a company is nowadays the object of life-long internal evaluation… We are living in a society of generalized competition, whose ultimate goal consists in compressing the value of each individual in relation to all others in one single figure, as if human value and dignity were a measurable material substance!”*1*
This generalized competition, which spread to previous refuges like family, friends and partnerships and largely destroyed them, is responsible “for the emotional distress and general uneasiness about modern civilization “*1* It is responsible for a hatred that in the old industrial nations – in marked contrast to emerging countries like China and India – is now directed against capitalism, neoliberalism etc.
And quite rightly so, because capitalist competition, which has gone out of control, has become a global threat to both man and nature.
Today, every state is striving not to lag behind the others in terms of material and military power, but to get as far as possible to the top in this disastrous race of nations. “The race of mankind against itself prevents all attempts to direct the life of our species onto the path of sustainability. Any state that starts to do so risks hopeless inferiority vis-à-vis all other states that do not follow its example. And definitely no state will follow if, on the contrary, it benefits from refusing to do so.
Between states, pretty much the same law prevails as in the relationship among individuals. No matter how convinced we all may be that the world’s growing air traffic will, over time, increase the ecological footprint to intolerable levels. This conviction will only lead a few idealists to renounce flights. The majority will continue to disregard their example. As long as there are no binding rules for everybody, those who voluntarily renounce this convenient mode of transport must regard themselves as fools, because their behavior does not in the least change the overall situation.”*2*
“As long as the race of nations, which has dominated the globe for no less than three quarters of a century, does not come to a halt, there is not the slightest hope that mankind will break out of the two apocalyptic carousels: the destruction of nature and the prospect of nuclear self-annihilation. Any pioneer eager to set an example would only come out as the stupid one who makes a sacrifice of himself – the good example would turn out to be the worst.
We may even describe in a more drastic way the terrible impasse now threatening our collective fate. As long as the world consists of individual sovereign nations fighting an ongoing struggle for greater economic and military power, humanity, will head straight for the abyss – doing so in full consciousness… We will certainly perfect deadly weapons a little more with each passing year until we reach the point where they will finally explode all by themselves. And certainly, once Inner Asia and Africa have reached the same standard of living as the West, we will have to swallow not just three but ten globes – until the only one we have to get along with will be turned into an empty, dead shell. The race of nations is a dead end from which there can be no escape – the escape must consist in a total change of direction.”*3*
“Things will and can only change if none is to suffer such disadvantage. We know how this transition may be achieved. During civil wars, people walk through the streets with a rifle over their shoulder. Anyone who is the first to renounce his gun is at a definite disadvantage. For the fight of all against all to end, there must be a superior authority, i.e. the state, so that there is a level playground for all once they abandon their weapons.
The same applies to the fateful race of mankind against itself, which will only stop once a paramount authority – a world government – establishes a situation of equality, so that no single nation risks suicidal disadvantage if renouncing growth, GDP and throw-away-mentality. The constant war against nature and man will finally be brought to an end once such an authority imposes the same renunciation on all states. After this decisive step has been taken, renunciation is immediately turned into the greatest possible chance – just like the abandonment of rifles in a peaceful society.”*2*
Modern capitalism driven by technology and competition is responsible for a rapidly advancing ecological and military destabilization. It is at this point that we must strongly object to the thesis of Martin Rhonmeier. The constant increase in the production of cloaks and weapons must come to an end. In our time, St. Martin calls again for sharing. While a hundred years ago, Saint Martin could still, with a clear conscience, create thousands of new factories each year and thereby increase overall wealth, he must now categorically forbid today’s humanity to continue plundering and poisoning our planet. He reminds us that sharing has become no less than mankind’s categorial imperative. Faced with this completely new situation, Pope Francis is right while Rhonheimer is wrong.
1. Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History. Amazon
2. Peace, War and Climate Change. Amazon
3. Homo IN-sapiens. Amazon
4. We should view with great distrust the commonly used instrument for measuring social inequality. The Gini coefficient measures the distribution of wealth or income, regardless of how these are acquired. However, a society with complete equality of all incomes, in which half of the citizens receive these from interest or dividends (i.e. from the sweat of other people), is substantially different from a society in which all incomes or assets arise from personal effort and work. This essential difference is concealed by the Gini coefficient.
5. American journalist Robert Gerwin had already made the following calculation in 1959: “If the entire energy demand of the USA were met by nuclear power plants, then as much radioactivity would be produced each week as generated by 4500 atomic bombs … In view of the great effort required today to eliminate only a few kilograms of radioactive fission products, it is hard to imagine how our grandchildren and great-grandchildren could cope with these enormous quantities …”. Gerhart Baum, the former Minister of the Interior, remarked that “a plutonium ball the size of a grapefruit would suffice to kill all people living on earth today.” Quotes from Radkau (2017), p. 210, 256.
Email commentary by William E. Rees (father of the “ecological footprint”):
Concise, balanced and quite defensible — many thanks.
This piece is almost Darwinian in showing how qualities, characteristics and ideas that were once adaptive can in time be come dangerously maladaptive.
Ironically, the over-enthusiastic exercise of a great idea (in this case competitive capitalism) may so change the initial environment (both cultural and biophysical) that the culture adopting the idea may well be selected out by the resulting transformed environment.