Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pope Francis: Part 2

Today, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died. I have strangely little to say about this, except to note that his politics assaulted the status quo for the sake of utopian populist notions of freedom. But he also seems like a really nice guy. Come to think of it, he reminds me for all the world of Pope Francis.

Think about it: serious idealist comes into institutional power, preaches love and hope, is (mostly) beloved by the political left, and throws yet another wrench into the concept of legitimate hierarchy. I'm seeing a historical troika developing: Mandela, Pope Francis, and I'd also throw Mikhail Gorbachev in there, just so you know what's likely to happen to the institution unfortunate enough to have one of these guys take power.

Francis recently spoke out against capitalism, and boy, am I shocked. A clergyman with long-time experience in the ghetto hating inequitable distribution? Never would have seen THAT coming. Obama's already rolling with his ideas. How long before the wealth of the Vatican becomes a topic of conversation? And how long before the good pontiff starts giving it away?

Conservatives are not pleased with this new direction from His Holiness. Evidently, there is something more acrimonious to talk about than abortion and homosexuality, and for obvious reasons, questioning capitalism makes little sense to much of the establishment. We really have no option. Going from one group of self-interested people holding power - capitalists - to another group - politicians - is not solving anything, and this has been historically proven. At least with capitalism, things get produced. No other known system gets things done with any kind of reliability, unless you go back to more authoritarian systems, which people will not tolerate. Even in Christian thought, you need some form of your own strength to help the weak in the face of the selfish strong.

The Road To Hell...

Look, he's a pope. He's not an economist, and really, he's not even a philosopher. He's a sweet man, and guys like that have no business with power because they don't understand the basics of how it works. Capitalism, socialism, all these cultural systems describe methods of distributing authority over resources in such a way as to get things done. Speaking out against capitalism IS pointless, but the reason it's pointless is because nowhere in this game are we going to find a system that gives people what they want, which is more power. Poverty, Francis' pet peeve, is by definition a lack of economic power, and power is a zero-sum game. There's nothing Francis can do, nothing anyone can do, to create a system in which all rise in power, as opposed to simple possession of material goods and the supposed utility they provide. The closest he can come is to promote redistribution, which creates an expectation that people will get more from those in charge for doing less. Our system is already optimized to give people tons of crap. Whether or not they need more stuff is hardly questioned, and Francis looks blissfully unaware that people's "needs" are relative and impossible to satisfy.

A pope should understand that material wealth is not the problem with modern society, although this one doesn't seem to know it now. But hey, railing against the rich is making him popular. What can you do? None of this should surprise anyone.

Rush Limbaugh can call Pope Francis a Marxist without irony because Rush Limbaugh doesn't understand enough about Christianity to know that its fundamental philosophical foundations are the same foundations as Marxism, and always have been. Us Nietzscheans know how this works, but precious few other people do, especially conservatives.

Rush speaks to Christians over the airwaves; it might be news to some of those Christians, the ones who do not think through their moral principles, that Judeo-Christian ethics are based on subservience and self-sacrifice, and not the kind of individualism that modern libertarian-oriented conservatism promotes. Just a hundred years ago - a single century - some of the most well-known and beloved left-wing radicals in America were preachers, albeit Protestants. The most obvious example was William Jennings Bryan, who railed against the corporate classes, rousing farmers against bankers and pushing inflation through the Free Silver Movement. For most of Western history, religious organizations have been the political left.

In the case of Catholicism, that role has not been revolutionary so much as evolutionary; the church knew, and basic Judeo-Christian philosophy understands at the core, that inequality and some kind of relative deprivation are part of earthly existence. Thus, they focus on life after death, and redemption for the inevitable self-interest of being alive here. They cannot create heaven on Earth, although at various times, some popes have addressed inequality; Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI wrote Rerum Novarum and the retrospective Quadragesimo Anno respectively, to address inequality and industrialism specifically. The Catholic solution looked an awful lot like the guild system that individualistic capitalism replaced. Pope Francis might intend to move in a similar direction, which isn't so bad, but really places blame for modern problems in the wrong place: on capitalist inequality. In contrast, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno called out liberalism and socialism as false gods, and with good reason; the Enlightenment holds some of the blame.

This might be a missed opportunity for the church already. Were the pontiff to point out the problems of capitalism and suggest a new arrangement in which Catholicism played a greater role, then the entire exercise would be a sharp - albeit unlikely to work - institutional power play. But Francis, who's also toying with changing the church's principles regarding homosexuality and contraceptives as well, might be under the impression that liberating people will solve problems instead of making them worse, by encouraging policies that "liberate" people from poverty, like redistribution. Francis is a true believer, not so much in the fundamentals of his religion - this is, after all, a man who called proselytizing "solemn nonsense" - but in the people; Mandela and Gorbachev would be pleased, but institutional order would be in trouble.

The "solemn nonsense" article is important to understanding what he's trying to do. Francis' idea of attracting people to the church is to be more giving and more pure in morality. He wants to, in essence, inspire people to be Catholic by selling them the faith, by creating an image of goodness that will draw people in by their natural inclination to the good and the Godly, by being the brand-name house of love, kindness, and sacrifice. What a vision, this species that is attracted to rigor and discipline out of love.

It's beatific, it's sublime, and it's completely fucking ridiculous. There are large portions of Christian thought that I find ludicrous anyway, but the degree of faith needed to look at the human species and decide that the problem is that stupid people don't have enough agency, and that people living in an individualistic culture want to do more in exchange for less, hoping for metaphysical grace in the afterlife in this secular age, truly staggers my mind. Religion needs cultural and institutional legitimacy - maybe even some mildly coercive proselytizing - not hippie humanism carried out like you're trying to sell a club membership. The Protestants would have never fallen off if things worked that way.

If Francis held some genuine economic insight, he would be able to see that capitalism, the system of economic distribution by property rights and legal accountability, is not his enemy. It's just a system, and at the core of that system is people making decisions. The decisions are made according to cultural and personal values. If Francis wants to make a change, he will need people to be empowered to do something, and they will not have that power if they do not have rights to property, and responsibilities to go along with those rights. The way he talks, he encourages socialism by default, simply because it isn't capitalism, but socialism is enforced redistribution, not voluntary charity, and the meaning of charity dies when options disappear.

But still, he's such a nice guy. Once again, he's a great PR pope; you can see why people like him, especially certain people who are looking to have their worldview validated. I agree that the financial and material elements of the world should matter less than the relationships, than the cultural and moral elements of society, but Francis isn't making things better, he's making them worse. He's empowering fools. I want to like the guy, but... but...

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