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The common flaws of market liberalism and Marx’s socialism

Just because we want a society that has a marketplace does not mean we must accept a society which is a marketplace.

Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz, Germany. (animaflora | us.fotolia.com)

While certain insights may be gleaned from a study of Marx’s work, it is impossible not to notice the shrill, ungenerous “know-it-all” streak marring Marxist thinking. Where Saint Thomas Aquinas ended his life with a mystical realization of how far the glory of God exceeds human reason, Marx to the very end gave the impression of believing himself the end-all, be-all of human thought, the Oedipus who had personally unraveled the riddle of history.

What is a feature for the ideologue is a bug in the Christian philosopher. The latter submits to reality, while the former cannot even in principle acknowledge a higher Truth against which his own little truths might be measured.

So it bears repeating that even if the Church recognizes problems with free market ideology, it also deems the socialist movement to be an “emphatically unjust” one, a surrogate religion tainted with “the poor man’s envy of the rich,” in the words of Leo XIII. As the same pope made clear in Rerum Novarum, socialism’s greatest strength lay not so much in the doctrine itself, but in the abuses and wrongs which aggravated the resentments upon which socialism fed. Hence,

some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class, for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. (par 3)

Again, the fact that such remarks would today be taken as “socialism-adjacent” says less about Leo’s mind than it does about the muddled state of the 21st-century American mind. There is nothing socialist about professional guilds, religious influence in the public square, or ethical limits upon moneylending. Just because we want a society that has a marketplace does not mean we must accept a society which is a marketplace.

Indeed, as a spiritual document Rerum Novarum critiques Marxism far more deeply than do Economist editorials, for the latter pointedly ignore the anthropological issues at stake in favor of amoral, utilitarian judgments about productivity. As if the real problem with socialism is simply that it fails to deliver on its utopian promise of allowing man to safely and comfortably stuff his face forever. Pope Leo, being a student of human nature who recognized the value of man’s interdependence vis-a-vis his neighbor, observed how there “naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community” (par 17).

In Leo’s view, those differences in skill, health, strength, and fortune which so offend the egalitarian are natural and salutary, perhaps even conducive to our salvation, and thus Catholics must reject

the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. (par 19)

A classless society is both impossible and undesirable, for “all striving against nature is in vain.” Needless to say, Leo’s sentiments are diametrically opposed to Marx’s belief that “the history of all hitherto existing society” is nothing more nor less than “the history of class struggles” that is predestined to culminate in a revolution rendering all previous understandings of human nature obsolete.

At the same time, we may also note how Leo’s response to socialism differs from that of the mainstream “conservative” establishment, which hails capitalism in reverential tones, as if it were the holy finger of God Himself and thus beyond criticism. Indeed, were we unwise enough to heed Fox News we would think it is the Communist Party USA rather than billionaires such as Bill Gates, George Soros, and Jeff Bezos who have done the most to promote LGBTQ doctrines; we would think it is Communist China rather than companies including Johnson & Johnson, Costco, L’Oreal, and Pepsi that have subsidized Black Lives Matter, welcomed the redefinition of the family, and promoted the strangulation of small businesses via COVID lockdowns.

The cold hard reality is that “woke capitalism” is a very real thing, and as a descriptor of Big Business the adjective “woke” becomes increasingly redundant with each passing day.

Even if it weren’t, a multibillion-dollar tech company capable of influencing national elections hardly warrants the same protections and consideration as do a locally-owned restaurant, an independent mechanic’s garage, or a hundred-acre family farm. While the evils of government micromanagement are obvious, it is likewise obvious that according unfettered power to transnational corporations has led to an ever-increasing dehumanization, especially among the working class.

Where neoconservatives and democratic capitalists blithely ignore or even deny this dehumanization of the lower orders, Marx’s “solution” boils down to a campaign for dehumanizing everybody. So market liberalism and socialism alike reflect a flawed understanding of human nature. While the open-minded Catholic in search of answers can and should engage other traditions, he must always begin – and end – with his own.


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About Jerry Salyer 50 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

14 Comments

  1. “Indeed, were we unwise enough to heed Fox News we would think it is the Communist Party USA rather than billionaires such as Bill Gates, George Soros, and Jeff Bezos who have done the most to promote LGBTQ doctrines.”
    I have never heard Fox News mention the Communist Party USA, and they are plenty hard on woke big business.
    The organisations you mention are very successful free market enterprises, but they are objectionable not because of this but because they seek to strengthen their position by undermining traditional family and social structures. It is their ideology, not their capitalism, that we must oppose.

    • I do not think that is quite right. Forcing inclusion necessarily expands the labor pool. Capitalism has its place as so many Holy Fathers have pointed out. But the point is that the economy exists to serve the community, not the other way around. Which modern capitalists have seemingly lost the thread of…
      Richard, you are quite correct that at least some (e.g., Tucker Carlson) have seen the light.

  2. “What is a feature for the ideologue is a bug in the Christian philosopher. The latter submits to reality, while the former cannot even in principle acknowledge a higher Truth against which his own little truths might be measured.”

    It is highly doubtful that anything is true in ideology. The Catholic Church teaches truth. Ideology – likely by nature – twists it. Ideology is a form of “intellectual pride.”

    “Again, the fact that such remarks would today be taken as “socialism-adjacent” says less about Leo’s mind than it does about the muddled state of the 21st-century American mind. There is nothing socialist about professional guilds, religious influence in the public square, or ethical limits upon moneylending. Just because we want a society that has a marketplace does not mean we must accept a society which is a marketplace.”

    Actually, it says more about the success of business propaganda. I believe that it was the evil agnostic Herbert Spencer who came up with the idea that government intervention in economic matters is socialism. He was the person who came up with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” In business terms – nowadays – this translates into – “survival of the immoral.” I know from personal experience.

    A popular comment (i.e. “upvotes”) which I came across appears to have more truth than even the commenter knew. It was along the lines of the quickest way to get fired is to tell the truth.

    “While the evils of government micromanagement are obvious, it is likewise obvious that according unfettered power to transnational corporations has led to an ever-increasing dehumanization, especially among the working class.”

    I am not certain just how evil government intervention in the economy is. The alleged evils of “micromanagement” (whatever that means) aren’t obvious to me. If it was made a crime to unjustly fire someone or refuse to hire someone unemployed, then the world would be much juster. Even better would be to make the punishment a loss of one’s management position. This would conduce to “survival of the moral.” However, it is unlikely that something like this would come to pass without a moral miracle.

    “At the same time, we may also note how Leo’s response to socialism differs from that of the mainstream “conservative” establishment, which hails capitalism in reverential tones, as if it were the holy finger of God Himself and thus beyond criticism.”

    This is likely because of the “donations” of businesses along with their advertising dollars. However, there is some push back. They don’t have the best solutions, but there is American Compass.

    Pope Leo XIII is maybe the first or at least close to the first to indicate a path to the solution that I outlined above. He recognized that a person (i.e. a breadwinner) has the right to earn a living. That can be found in Rerum Novarum. My solution above is only a logical conclusion from that fact.

    Would the country tolerate an “at-will family?” Would we say that the father had the right to kick his children out of his house and refuse to support them if he didn’t like them? The answer to both questions ought to be “No!”

    There must be a court decision to divest a parent of custody or there must be an adoption process. Parents can’t unilaterally decide not to support their children, and the state – and morality – requires some provision for their care.

    A breadwinner isn’t a child, but he is in need of an income. Without a farm or business of his own he must either start the same – likely with some likely borrowed capital – or work for an employer. The only alternative is for those who have a great fortune to live off of that.

    “While the open-minded Catholic in search of answers can and should engage other traditions, he must always begin – and end – with his own.”

    The Catholic Church alone is infallible with regards to faith and consequently morality. It may be that other humans may be correct concerning morality, but they aren’t infallible. The are at most possibly suggestive – not conclusive or decisive.

    • Do you really think that Herbert Spencer is the first person to come out against widespread government intervention in the economy or that the idea is wrong just because he supported it? An employer is obliged to hire someone unemployed? What if he doesn’t have an open position? What if he can’t afford to?

      • Tony,

        “Do you really think that Herbert Spencer is the first person to come out against widespread government intervention in the economy or that the idea is wrong just because he supported it?”

        Any agnostic is likely to be suspect when it comes to morality because of his evil will. I try not to commit the ad hominem fallacy.

        I am not an expert about Herbert Spencer, but he appears to have – mistakenly – made a “law” out of the status quo and denied the moral implications of business decisions. Basically, if a person did well financially that was because he was somehow “more fit” than those who did less well.

        One might as well say that the thief is “more fit” than his victim – because he managed to succeed with his crime and remain uncaught – but one must disapprove of such evil.

        “An employer is obliged to hire someone unemployed? What if he doesn’t have an open position?”

        It is possible for an employer to “make” a position. Those times when a customer must wait 40 minutes for someone in a business to answer his telephone call? If the company hired more people, then he might only have to wait 5 minutes – if that.

        I know for a fact that the commenting platform Disqus has pretty much zero personal support – for those who comment. That was a “business decision,” which needn’t have been made that way. Of course, support requires “supporters” – i.e. employees.

        “What if he can’t afford to?”

        Business is a gamble, but the business has control over prices in the absence of government intervention. The price must be based on the needs of the employees and the necessity of staying “in the black.”

        Of course, it isn’t possible to force a customer to purchase something from a business, but it is likely not morally impossible for the government to play a role in managing competition.

  3. This short piece comes as close as possible to perfectly expressing how a Catholic should view socialism and “capitalism”. Socialism can never be justified, while capitalism must be kept in check by forces in addition to and higher than the “free market”. Those force do not necessarily have to include big government most of the time. Unfortunately, so many of the intermediate institutions that protected families, local communities and nations from the predations of the superrich have been destroyed, weakened or warped. This has left us with the terrifying situation that we face today – isolated individuals and small groups with no buffers against the transnational “elite” that seeks nothing less than complete domination.

  4. It simply comes down to free will. God gave us free will. He wants his love for us to be returned to Him freely. Socialism restricts free will, Communism eliminates it. Our Constitution allows free will to be exercised in a good and productive manner; as does Capitalism. Nothing is perfect. But our Constitution and Capitalism allows better exercise of free will than any other system.

  5. The market is nothing but people making free choices. If someone is going to start controlling and restricting those choices they had better have very good reasons and be deeply wise and moral. One might not like the choices others make, but that does not mean that they should not be allowed to make them.

    • Exactly right, Steve. Capitalism is just another word for freedom.

      If capitalism is flawed, it’s because humanity is flawed.

      Because capitalism leaves people to be free, under capitalism they can make mistakes. They can even do evil.

      If humans were perfect, the capitalism that they practice would be perfect.

      Socialism is, by contrast, coercion. It cannot be anything but unjust because people who live under socialist rule are slaves.

      Their lives are not their own, but the state’s.

      • When I teach my children, I don’t give them the option of “Allah.” Or anyone else. Freedom is a tool, not a goal.

  6. Well said. For me it all about which type of system causes the least harm and the most good? I conclude that ours, with the richest “lower” 20% in the world, is the best.This feeds all my politics and voting.

  7. One problem with socialism and communism is concentration of power. Power is absolutized into an all powerful state. When businesses get large enough they start to have quasi-governmental powers. A lot of “woke” corporations are big business entities. In capitalism there is such a thing as economies of scale which can favor big business. Concentrations of unaccountable power can corrupt those who wield this power. The public and the private sector are equally capable of wrongdoing. Wall Street and Washington D.C. have both had their scandals. The ruling class establishment elites live in their own bubble world that insulates them from the consequences of their actions. Rules for thee, but not for me. The CCP appears to be their role model. The CCP has adapted aspects of marketplace capitalism placed under state control.

  8. “The cold hard reality is that ‘woke capitalism’ is a very real thing, and as a descriptor of Big Business the adjective ‘woke’ becomes increasingly redundant with each passing day.”

    In 2015 corporate America formally positioned itself in ramrodding gay “marriage.” As broadly reported and rewarded in the media, AT&T and Verizon, Dow Chemical, Bank of America, General Electric, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, and the San Francisco Giants, were among nearly four hundred infiltrated corporations and business boardrooms that weighed in. Model sycophants, one and all, they spontaneously filed their own amicus briefs asserting a constitutional right to the oxymoron same sex “marriage.”

    The reason: stock market numbers might show a blip in the GNP! By this capitulation the business world has given an entirely new meaning to the term: “bottom line”….

    Only a small step from 2015 to 2022 when Disneyworld execs today, wallowing in the LGBTQ bubble-world, apologize to internal staff activists for failure, at their Florida outpost, to groom children away from their parents and family-oriented reality.

  9. It is sad that the author of this fine article felt it necessary to take an uncharitable swipe at Fox News. It is very obvious from from his comments that he knows nothing about Fox News – unless of course the comment was an intentional deceit.

    Either way, my trust of this author has been undermined.

    I watch Fox News often and have never heard anything that even approaches justification for such a blatant misrepresentation.

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