A Message Discomfiting to All

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 January 1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES



Pope John Paul II’s visit can’t help but make the American political class squirm. For very good reasons, liberals and conservatives alike find him vexing. Conservatives applaud his aggressive championing of traditional values, but they are exasperated by his increasingly insistent rebuke of capitalism. For its part, the left warms to his cry for “a more just sharing of the goods of the world,” but finds his defense of the traditional family and his uncompromising position on a host of social issues–abortion foremost among them–silly or abhorrent.

At bottom, the pope troubles both groups because his position exposes the inconsistency and hypocrisy of their views and the hollowness of the political and cultural debate.

The pope recognizes that the triumph of global capitalism has created a vast international economic elite and startling levels of economic inequality, both within and among nations. And even more important, while he acknowledges the astonishing economic growth that capitalism engenders, he deplores its spiritual consequences–the “radical capitalist ideology that encourages instincts that lead to consumer attitudes and lifestyles.” He knows that capitalism, which glorifies competition and whose very essence is the gratification of desires and the incessant invention of new ones, affords a free rein to the worst aspects of human nature–to our appetites and to what Adam Smith acknowledged to be our “envy, pride and ambition.”

John Paul II understands that the free market perforce elevates individual choice as the highest good; the radical individualism it engenders–an individualism free from family, community and civic responsibility–uproots and destroys all traditional values and social relations. It is, simply, the most corrosive social force in world history. And so, like true conservatives from Edmund Burke to Hillaire Belloc, the pope concurs with Marx and Engels’ description of capitalism’s destructive effects: “Uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation. . . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. . . . All that is solid melts into air. All that is holy is profaned.”

Those who call themselves conservatives fail to recognize that the free market they embrace destroys the “community” and “family values” they espouse. At the same time, what passes for the left in America seems not to realize that the unlimited autonomy of individual desire and the “personal liberation” that it celebrates goes hand in hand with the very economic system it finds so disquieting.

Americans should listen to John Paul II, for he diagnoses the whole of an ill that the lines of today’s political and cultural debate have erroneously divided. Social conservatives and economic radicals should start listening to one another, for in many ways their critiques are opposite sides of the same coin, and together their views would form a potent political force, recalling an American political, religious and economic tradition long neglected.

From Thomas Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline and the anti-Federalists to the 19th century Populists, and from the Nashville Agrarians to members of the “old right” and New Left, many of America’s most penetrating thinkers have dreaded free-market capitalism precisely because it reduces individuals to abstractions, anonymous buyers and sellers whose claims on each other are determined solely by the capacity to pay, and thereby destroys the human and Christian ties that, they have believed, bind men and women into communities.

If those groups that are now talking past each other–urging on the one hand greater economic justice, and on the other the restoration of moral and spiritual values–heed the pope’s critique and explore America’s own dissident tradition, they’ll see just how closely their goals are related, and America’s political and cultural forces could be fundamentally realigned.

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