Pope Francis, speaking in 2016, declared that “we live in a society that is bleeding.”1 His use of the present tense suggests that he believes the bleeding can be stopped, the wound healed. Matthew Eggemeier and Peter Fritz’s new book, Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism (Fordham, 2020), is an attempt to take up this healing task by sketching a Catholic “politics of mercy” that draws on papal teaching, contemporary insights from theology and critical theory, and the plain words of scripture. Their book—meticulously organized, carefully argued, and ambitious in scope—is inspired by Pope Francis’s call for a “bold cultural revolution,” which they take to mean “an anti-neoliberal revolution” (164), and seeks to identify and counter a series of interrelated “crises” which now all seem to be coming to a head: environmental destruction; global poverty; mass incarceration; and global migration. The book’s function is thus twofold: to issue a “prophetic condemnation” of neoliberalism and its murderous craze for sacrifice (sacrifice of the migrant, the debtor, the prisoner, etc.); and to start to develop a “more deliberate” program for moving beyond neoliberalism towards an “alternative world” (160).
Already, two issues (at least) have surfaced: First, there is the persistent difficulty of defining neoliberalism, a problem acknowledged by nearly everyone who writes on the topic. Our authors, for their part, suggest that the difficulty arises from the fact that “defining neoliberalism is like trying to define water to a fish. It is the political-economic world in which we live, move, and have our being” (2–3). Furthermore, as Eggemeier and Fritz rightly note, this blindness is a product of neoliberalism itself, one of the “epistemic tactics” it deploys to perpetuate its hegemony (162). So, for example, alarm over environmental disaster is dismissed or downplayed as “apocalyptic” scaremongering in the pages of major neoliberal organs, even as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, hurricanes intensify, and Arctic ice melts before our eyes.2 Other crises, such as the astounding proliferation of mass incarceration, are more or less hidden from view (the authors’ discussion of the “culture of indifference” underpinning this particular issue in chapter 3 is effective). Again and again neoliberalism tells us: Keep moving, there’s nothing to see here. And so resisting neoliberalism means first of all opening our eyes to the devastation it has wrought and stepping outside what J. B. Metz called the “magic circle of prevailing consciousness.”3 Eggemeier and Fritz help to do this by marshaling an impressive set of facts and statistics about climate change, mass incarceration, slum proliferation, global migration, and other related issues and reading these theologically as failures of hospitality, of stewardship, of mercy, and so on.
Even after this necessary period of “conscientization,” however, the definitional question remains. Eggemeier and Fritz choose to define neoliberalism as “a politicized mutation of capitalism,” and they emphasize in particular the increased role for the state (to ensure global capital flows) and the decreased scope of civil society (which comes to be dominated more and more by “market logic”) (3). One could, of course, raise questions about this working definition—and some of the respondents to this symposium do just that. Still, it seems fair to say, at least, that whatever vagaries haunt Eggemeier and Fritz’s definition are also to some extent present within the existing tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The authors handle this body of literature skillfully, drawing out a large amount of rich material from the writings of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis in order to narrate an emerging papal critique of neoliberalism. On the strength of this alleged consensus, Eggemeier and Fritz attempt to assemble a “new politics” (204), one that institutionalizes mercy instead of sacrifice, promotes abundance instead of austerity, and creates sanctuary instead of terror. It is here that “prophetic denunciation” gives way to programmatic thinking in pursuit of utopia.
To honestly grapple with the depths of suffering under neoliberalism is to already understand the need for utopia, that is, for something that does not (yet) exist, for something different. Our authors admit of some inconsistency on this point. They acknowledge, for instance, that the new politics of mercy they are advocating “will be seen as utopian by today’s political common sense” (172), but they counter this charge by showing that, despite its naturalizing pretensions, neoliberalism was explicitly intended as a utopian project by its original architects (Hayek, for example, wrote in a seminal 1949 essay that what was needed was a “liberal Utopia . . . which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible”).4 Eggemeier and Fritz claim to want “to do a similar thing under a different standard” (172), that is, the standard of mercy which is “a truer ethos than neoliberal sacrifice” (205). And yet, elsewhere the authors hedge their bets by echoing familiar (perhaps tired?) warnings against “this-worldly utopias” (5) and declaring themselves “suspicious of attempts to achieve this-worldly eschatological fulfillment” (213). While certainly acknowledging the “provisional character” of all political action, we might ask whether or not this kind of hedging already cedes vital rhetorical ground to defenders of the status quo and hobbles (or at least handicaps) our authors’ ability to carry out their stated goal of “imagining a world beyond neoliberalism” (193). As David Graeber realized, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”5 If the future beyond neoliberalism that we’re meant to imagine isn’t this-worldly, then, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “To hell with it.” (At issue here is also Eggemeier and Fritz’s hermeneutic of papal continuity since they closely follow Benedict’s critique of “secularized eschatology” [see 34–36, e.g.], a critique not untouched by anti-Marxist polemic; it seems to me that Francis’ call to strive towards the “brighter horizon of the utopian future”6 represents a welcome return to a more unashamed form of Christian hope, and arguably constitutes more of a break with his predecessors than Eggemeier and Fritz care to admit.)
These considerations notwithstanding, the twofold function of Send Lazarus that I identified above—the prophetic denunciation of neoliberalism and the charting of an alternative politics of mercy—remain urgent tasks for theology, and Eggemeier and Fritz have made a vital contribution. Their project deserves to be considered, expanded upon, and, ultimately, implemented. It is in a spirit of dialogue and as allies, then, that I have assembled the contributors to this symposium. We are theologians, philosophers, and ethicists working in the Catholic tradition and similarly invested in the effort to think beyond neoliberalism. We too seek some way to stop the “bleeding,” and we take up this conversation in the same generous spirit of dialogue in which the book is offered. Several contributors raise methodological questions, others wonder if we might push Eggemeier and Fritz further than they go on their own, and others still seek to chart new paths within the space our authors have opened up. All of these responses, in their own way, validate the efforts of this book. And, if I may be allowed a personal aside, it is a joy and an honor to engage the work of a former teacher (Eggemeier) who taught me so much as an undergraduate at Holy Cross. I’m also grateful to our hosts at Syndicate who have created a platform for this exchange.
But it would be irresponsible of me to conclude even this brief introduction on this warm note of amity, for the road ahead is difficult. Neoliberalism’s cunning knows no limit, its resources are seemingly infinite, and we are, to be sure, the insurgent faction. “We are,” as another improbable revolutionary wrote at the dawn of the last century, “marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire.”7 These enemies, as Eggemeier and Fritz know, are not only to be found among the avowed defenders of neoliberalism: They are all around us. Indeed, they are within the church itself, and so the critique of mercilessness must be applied ad intra in order to be credible (which Eggemeier and Fritz acknowledge, cf. 207). To state this plainly is not to give over to paranoia nor to some pretense of purity; it is, on the contrary, to acknowledge just how deeply we have been (de-)formed by neoliberalism’s insidious market logic. Nor are all enemies of our enemy to be counted as friends: There are those who would resist neoliberalism not by emphasizing mercy and emancipatory hope, but by a conservative revanchism and a politics of fear—witness Orbán in Hungary, for example.
To mount a meaningful resistance, then, we must be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). Eggemeier and Fritz’s book helps to train Christians on both counts, and it is my hope that this current symposium of snakes and doves contributes to their efforts.
Pope Francis, “Video Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the Occasion of the Celebration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in the Americas,” August 27, 2016; quoted by Eggemeier and Fritz 207.↩
See Michael Shellenberger, “Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change Are Wrong,” Forbes, November 25, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#7019d7f312d6.↩
Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society, trans. D. Smith (London: Burns & Oates, 1980), 90. See also Eggemeier’s previous monograph, A Sacramental-Prophetic Vision: Christian Spirituality in a Suffering World (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2014).↩
See Friedrich Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” in The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. de Huszar (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960), 371–84, here 384; quoted by Eggemeier and Fritz on 66.↩
David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (London: Melville House, 2015), 52.↩
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), § 222, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.↩
Vladimir Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?” (1902); accessible via Marxist Internet Archive at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/download/what-itd.pdf.↩
Rejecting Neoliberalism, Finding Mercy, and Searching for Justice
Frequently used and rarely defined, neoliberalism is a word shrouded in mystery. All too often, scholars and public figures invoke it as if its meaning is self-explanatory or monolithic, leaving readers unmoored in a sea of vague possibilities. Given this trend, Matthew Eggemeier and Peter Fritz’s Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crisis of Neoliberalism is remarkable for its clarity and attention to systematic definitions across disciplines. Throughout the text, the authors weave together insights from economics, Catholic social teaching (CST), systematic theology, and popular devotions. At each stage, they are as careful and deliberate in defining their terms as they are in building their case against neoliberalism and in favor of mercy as relevant for global economic politics. Send Lazarus attempts to examine and expand on the call of Pope Francis to say no to an economy of exclusion that renders millions of people invisible or expendable to the economic, political, and social life of the community.
By its own labeling, neoliberalism is often positioned as a resurgence of the classical liberal tradition. This contributes greatly to the opacity in how it’s often used. I still remember the reminder I received as a student from Ken Himes that while we talk about liberals and conservatives in American politics, it is all still within the umbrella tradition of liberalism. The ubiquity of liberalism to the American political context opened the door to neoliberalism’s largely unimpeded rise in the 1980s, glossing over the deep structural shifts from politics to economics that came with it. As Eggemeier and Fritz note, “Neoliberalism makes at least two important innovations on the liberal tradition. First, the free in free economy and free trade is drastically relativized. . . . Second, in keeping with the first, government cannot be ‘small,’ but must be large and interventionist, not in the socialist mode of anticipating and providing for human needs but in a hyper capitalist mode of responding to the needs of capital as an abstract, inscrutable force” (3). They go on to offer a provisional definition of neoliberalism as
a politicized mutation of capitalism, where the state’s primary function is to foster market processes, each person’s freedom in civil society is defined in terms of market logics of investment (which does not necessarily implicate direct monetization), and the needs of people and the earth are secondary to those of capital, because the world economy rules supreme as omniscient and unwaveringly just. (3–4)
At first glance, it seems to be a jarring, totalizing, negative definition. In my opinion, Eggemeier and Fritz are not being overly negative but accurately describing the totalizing nature of the particular economic ideology that shaped the current global economic context. If we look back to the 2008 Financial Crisis, part of why so many in positions of power claimed they were blindsided because the dominant economic ideology, self-described as “mainstream economics,” did not admit the very possibility of what had transpired. Testifying before Congress in 2008, Alan Greenspan was forced to admit that he had been operating within an ideology according to which the financial crisis that had happened, simply could not have happened.1 Assumptions about self-regulation and self-correction within the market further expose the built-in assumption of the market as “omniscient and unwaveringly just.” Eggemeier and Fritz helpfully push beyond antiquated debates in which capitalism is only examined as an economic system and the deep totalizing effect of neoliberalism’s subsuming of politics and civil society into economics is ignored. Michael Novak and George Weigel are two examples discussed in the book, whose myopic examinations of capitalism and CST represent the kind of analysis this book sees as complicit in ignoring the economism of neoliberalism and distorting CST.
From its beginning, CST rejected Marxism as a totalizing utopian ideology that is idolatrous and incompatible with the Catholic vision of human dignity and the common good. By focusing on how neoliberalism is the same kind of totalizing utopian economism that is at once idolatrous and opposed to human dignity, this book is helpful preliminary reading for anyone attempting to grasp the true theological depths of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Citing David Harvey, Eggemeier and Fritz explain four types of acquisition by dispossession: “(1) Privatization of public goods . . . to public institutions; (2) financialization through deregulation; (3) the management and manipulation of debt crises . . . and (4) state redistribution through revisions in the tax codes and subsidies and tax breaks for corporations” (75). Operating locally, nationally, and globally, these acquisitive processes of dispossession create the conditions for the current throwaway culture. From the local privatization of water utilities to global neo-colonial practices in which natural resources are not treated as public goods, acquisition by capital’s private interests expressly dispossesses the people. The most egregious examples of this are the dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the world. Thus, Francis exclaims,
It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”2
As a theologian whose focus is CST, I appreciated the effort to examine the tradition’s response to economic ideologies as well as locating Francis’s ethics within the context of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s prior writings. This is particularly important given narrow interpretations of John Paul II that ignore his critiques of capitalism. Like his predecessors in the tradition, John Paul II offered strong critiques of capitalist practices alongside the condemnations of Marxism. This is most clear in his reflections on labor and capital while he was a professor of philosophy, as bishop of Krakow, and finally, as pope. The issue of worsening inequality in the post-Vatican II period is most often examined through the lens of neo-colonialism in CST, which then is one component of the neoliberal economism addressed in this book. Send Lazarus emphasizes this continuity as part of the defense of Francis and the authors’ own development of a political theology of mercy later in the book. However, the growing inequality in economic and political spheres did not draw attention in proportion to the scale of the problem throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the United States, for example, the Catholic Church was reticent to address the problem of inequality alongside calls to address poverty. For example, the US Bishops’ economic pastoral letter from 1986, Economic Justice for All, only lists the data distribution of inequality and does not examine the ethics of inequality in detail or depth, naming poverty and not inequality itself as the fundamental concern. “Extreme inequality”3 was decried with reference to basic needs and participation of the poor; while steadily growing inequality in the system did not seem as urgent given the conventional assumption that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”4 However, the very economic system had changed and previous assumptions no longer held. In the geopolitical struggles of the Cold War, even John Paul II and CST seem to have missed just how dangerously encompassing the economic encroachment into all human life was becoming until it was already dominant.
Pope Francis famously and frequently discusses inequality as a root social problem within and across societies. This is one place where there is a depth and scope to what and how Francis is arguing that is new. However, at the same time, as Send Lazarus emphasizes, this is in deep continuity specifically with Benedict’s writings on the topic. In my opinion, it is particularly helpful to examine Evangelii Gaudium as culminating the arc of CST on global development tracing from Populorum Progressio to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Caritas in Veritate. In fact, it can be seen as the bridge between Caritas in Veritate and Laudato Si’. Though somewhat underappreciated, due to both writing style and the relative accessibility of the current pope’s teachings, Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is a nevertheless significant contribution to CST on the economy. Eggemeier and Fritz emphasize that Benedict is consistent in his critique of both capitalism and Marxism, “insist[ing] that a market conceiving of itself as independent from morality will be fundamentally unstable” (39). Furthermore, such a market is profoundly unethical, as an autonomous vision of the economy coupled with the idea we are “self-sufficient” has led us “to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action” all of which is “thoroughly destructive” of our relationship with God and with each other.5 Within this context, Benedict attempts to amend and clarify his thinking on charity and justice. He identifies justice as the “political path of charity” and reminds us that the demands of justice are a prerequisite for charity.6 There is a tripartite and unified vision that emerges. Send Lazarus dialogues with Benedict’s focus on commutative justice in the economic sphere and distributive justice in the political. To which one could add, contributive or social justice in the realm of civil society, using charity and truth as theoretical controls. However, justice never gets the attention it deserves. Yes, charity goes beyond justice; but without examining social sin and justice in more depth the criteria for meeting requirements of justice, calls for global political authority, more participatory social structures, and an economy of gratuitousness seem abstract. In contrast, Francis spends considerable time examining concrete structures of injustice and proposing mercy as an alternative.
Send Lazarus develops this theology of mercy into a politics of mercy, skillfully weaving together social critique with a more institutionalized approach to the corporal works of mercy. Ultimately, the incompatible divergence between neoliberalism and Christianity is one of theological anthropology in which we are called to love our neighbors—all of them. Referencing Jon Sobrino, they argue for structural mercy “as the basic attitude for the corporate (as opposed to the individual) reality of the church” directing us to face social sin (159). The authors identify environmental destruction, slum proliferation, mass incarceration, and mass deportation as social crises or injustices intimately tied to neoliberalism. Turning to a politics of mercy, they state, “Our basic contention is that if you do not respect these ideas (the doctrine of creation and imago dei) and this practical principle (the universal destination of goods), the earth will be sickened and people will be deprived” (166). In their treatment of the universal destination of goods and earlier in their critiques of neoliberalism’s understanding of private property, though they detail neoliberalism’s violation of both mercy and justice, only mercy gets examined in depth.
A theology and politics of mercy places the gospel call to love your neighbor at the center of our social vision. Without mercy, there can be no solidarity with our neighbor because we find ourselves unable to encounter the other as fully human, equal to ourselves. But mercy is only part of the story, we also need justice. Mercy pushes us to build and enter the field hospital to meet people where they are and minister in a broken world. Justice demands that we build a healthcare system imagining beyond the current crisis. What is missing, I think, in how Eggemeier and Fritz conceive of the politics of mercy is greater attention to justice and its lynchpin: participation. The element in the background of Francis’s contribution to CST and missing in Benedict’s examination of charity and justice is what one finds in the 1971 Synod of Bishops’ document Justice in the World, which proclaimed, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”7 When Francis identifies “the sacred rights” of land, labor, and lodging, he is both identifying basic necessities of survival as well as for participation in the economic, social, political, and cultural life of the community.
Eggemeier and Fritz’s critical investigation of neoliberalism and call to cultivate a politics of mercy is creative and engaging. Greater attention to justice as participation, which is central to the post-Vatican II CST tradition, would strengthen even further the critique of neoliberalism. Moreover, I found myself wanting to see justice incorporated into the application of the corporal works of mercy on a corporate scale. This is not at all contradictory with what the authors do say about mercy but would instead push deeper into the implications of the recognition that “the freedom that Jesus reveals calls us to live beyond structures of exclusion and social death, which is the obverse of neoliberal freedom” (189).
Bryan Naylor, “Greenspan Admits Free Market Ideology Flawed,” National Public Radio, October 24, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96070766.↩
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), §52, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.↩
US Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (1986), §§21 and 183, e.g., usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf.↩
For more on CST and inequality, see Drew Christiansen, “On Relative Equality,” Theological Studies 45.4 (1984) 651–75, and Kate Ward and Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, “Growing Apart: The Rise of Inequality,” Theological Studies 75.1 (2014) 118–32.↩
Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009), §34, http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html.↩
Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §6–7.↩
Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World (1971), §6, https://www.cctwincities.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Justicia-in-Mundo.pdf.↩
How Can Systematic Theology Generate Policy?
I resonate in my heart with the stance taken in this book. I recognize all the problems identified with our current economy, and I share the faith in the Creator, the Sacred Heart, and the indwelling Spirit. However, my head does not follow my heart immediately, because three interlinked questions remain unanswered:
- What is Neoliberalism?
- Does a politics of mercy rule out all forms of capitalism? Do we have any capitalist allies in the challenge to Neoliberalism?
- Are there gaps in the argumentation?
I. What Is Neoliberalism?
There is an ambivalence in the designation of neoliberalism. On the one hand, it is an ideology, a body of thought with practical relevance, about how the economy might best be structured, about the appropriate relations between the state and economic actors, and by implication, about the proper function of government and politics. “Neoliberalism” on the other hand is also used to label certain economic, political, and legal institutions and practices. Among these are markets and market activity of various types, as well as legal arrangements securing rights. Neoliberalism as ideas and neoliberalism as institutions can be distinguished but not separated. Social and political institutions can only function because they carry meaning for their participants.
Most institutions are the product of a complex history in which many influences have been brought to bear and so they are sustained in a social and political context by a variety of convictions and values as held by different people. For instance, the Bretton Woods institutions, identified (71) as instruments for implementing neoliberalism arose out of a different set of ideas. Critiquing their current ideology as neoliberal does not necessarily deprive the institutions of all possible validation.
The book is not always clear on this distinction, introducing neoliberalism as “the dominant social order in today’s world” (1), but also a “political-economic ethos” (2), the “dominant political and cultural ethos in our world since the 1980s” (3). Cited proponents of the ethos are Roger Scruton and Friedrich Hayek, and its core values are said to be “free economy, free trade, and small government” (3). Our authors offer their provisional definition: “Neoliberalism is a politicized mutation of capitalism, where the state’s primary function is to foster market processes, each person’s freedom in civil society is defined in terms of market logics of investment . . . , and the needs of people and the earth are secondary to those of capital, because the world economy rules supreme as omniscient and unwaveringly just” (3–4).
To this dominant political and economic ethos, understood as a holistic way of life, the authors propose an ethos of mercy, rooted in the message and life of Jesus, and explore how this ethos could inspire an alternative politics and economy. To the comprehensive ethos of neoliberalism that claims all things for the market, they propose the Catholic comprehensive ethos that claims all things for Christ. The pathway they recommend is to build a political response on the corporal works of mercy. However, it is unclear how this strategy will or can recall the World Bank and the IMF to their original purposes.
II. Have We Any Capitalist Allies in This Struggle?
The authors acknowledge the difficulty in pinning down this ethos, and in identifying its principal defenders. However, for a political campaign to overturn the dominance of neoliberalism, it would be strategic to recruit potential allies, especially those who can see the weaknesses within the system. If neoliberalism is a “mutation of capitalism,” perhaps there are critics who uphold and defend ideas central to capitalism but who find them betrayed by a neoliberal interpretation? Examples could be the work of Mariana Mazzucato, who targets the distortions arising from the financialization of the economy, and the fundamental importance of public and state support for innovation.1 Targeting the destructive and counterproductive effects of these distortions does not entail a comprehensive rejection of either capitalist ideas or institutions. Another example is the work of William Kingston, like Mazzucato a professor of innovation, who demonstrates how capitalism is in the process of destroying itself. He roots his critique in the thought of Josef Schumpeter, and highlights in particular the destructive consequences of the policy of deregulation, especially as it has facilitated regulatory capture.2
This raises the question whether the binary option posed by the book is adequate to the situation. Are there no other options? What ethos is available for secular critics of neoliberalism who cannot resonate with the theme of divine mercy? What ethos is compatible with John Paul II’s qualified endorsement of the “business economy” that embraces Christian values but retains the essentials of capitalism? Does Vatican II and Gaudium et Spes provide a complementary approach rooted in appreciation of human dignity, a philosophical rather than a theological stance as offered in a politics of mercy?
III. Are There Gaps in the Argument?
The identification of the Catholic theology of mercy locates the source of motivation for engagement, and the fundamental principles of Catholic social thought such as the Universal Destination of Goods provide pointers for the direction of development of both theory and practice. Is this sufficient to direct policy?
Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ §189 echoes the demand of his predecessor Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus §42 that the free market be constrained within an appropriate juridical framework. Theirs is a moral teaching, and its point is to insist that legal frameworks should constrain economic activity to ensure that it serves common goods. To facilitate the benefits of markets—reduction of mass poverty, improved life expectancy, raised quality of life—and to reduce their threatened harms, legal constraints are required. Hence the moral demand by the popes that laws constrain economic activity and direct it to the common good. That has moral implications for the decision making of both voters and lawmakers. This is the step that I find is missing from the argument of Send Lazarus: concrete suggestions as to how we might amend and improve the juridical framework constraining free markets.
Every defender of capitalism and proponent of free markets will immediately point out that a legal framework is essential to the functioning of markets and of capitalism. No market could function in the absence of moral and legal supports. Two fundamental legal principles in particular are required for the normal economic activity of buying and selling: private property, and the enforcement of contracts.
Only where the law secures rights to property can people have the confidence to trade, assured that the seller is entitled to offer her property for sale and that the buyer can rely on protection in law for the ownership of what has been purchased. The second foundational principle is that contracts entered into must be fulfilled. Without assurance that the trading partner will deliver what she promises to deliver no one would enter a deal to trade. It is the legal framework that adds bite to the moral injunctions not to deceive and not to steal. Without respect for property, without commitment to promise keeping, the production, distribution and exchange of goods would be impossible in our complex world. It is not surprising then that the papal moral teachings reinforce these moral norms. But they add another level of moral injunction. This is the moral obligation to create and maintain legal frameworks to help ensure that social and economic life are grounded on a vibrant moral core.
A juridical framework to ensure markets serve the common good would have to include many more principles than “protect property” and “enforce contracts.” Many additional norms (consumer protection, health and safety of workers, etc.) are all now part of the robust juridical framework constraining economic activity. But, we must wonder, surrounded as they are with so many legal constraints, why do markets not deliver a sustainable quality of life for everyone? Why does economic activity continue to destroy the natural environment and dehumanize and exploit and marginalize so many people? The desired juridical framework must be expanded.
Since Pope Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church has defended private property in the face of a perceived threat from Communism’s demand for the abolition of private property. But the church has also consistently taught the duties of property, insisting that while property might be private in holding it should be common in use. The obligations of property owners include the duty to use their property to provide for human need. This “social mortgage” on property is grounded in the principle of the “universal destination of material goods,” namely, that they are provided by the Creator for the satisfaction of the needs of all humankind. Send Lazarus makes great use of this principle, citing Pope John Paul II in his 1981 letter On Human Work.3
A “strong juridical framework” might be expected to deliver on both of these aspects of the moral teaching on property, both the securing of private property, and the obligation to use property for the good of all. The moral duty to create and maintain such a framework applies to both aspects. A tension is noticeable at this point, since the negative injunction is easier to institutionalize than the positive. In legislating, it is always easier to say what is prohibited than what is permitted. Safeguarding property is done by forbidding theft, robbery, fraud. But in supporting the positive moral injunction that private property should be used for the good of all, it is not so easy to formulate in positive terms what exactly should be done.
Where a holder of property deliberates on how best to use wealth for the good of all, and many positive projects are suggested, there cannot be a clear formulation of duty that directs the agent to one or other course of action. The common good could be served by various projects. Hence the contrast and tension between the two aspects: a wrong action because directly violating a prohibition can be identified easily; but a good action in response to a positive injunction cannot be easily identified as the uniquely right, or the best action. We see this tension in the usual debates about taxation.
The civil authorities charged with particular responsibility for the common good have to devise a suitable juridical framework to ensure the second part of the moral principle enunciated by the popes, namely, that property holders have obligations to use their property for the benefit of all, especially the most needy. Without wishing to suppress or supplant the philanthropic motives of the propertied the legislators may decide on a system of taxation as the most efficient and equitable way of ensuring that property is used to meet human needs. Paul VI encourages them to do so in support of the duty to aid development: “Government leaders, your task is to draw your communities into closer ties of solidarity with all, and to convince them that they must accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace.”4
A similar ambivalence can be found in the teaching on the other fundamental principle at the base of all markets that contracts should be fulfilled. John Paul II writes on the centenary of Rerum Novarum: “The principle that debts must be paid is certainly just. However, it is not right to demand or expect payment when the effect would be the imposition of political choices leading to hunger and despair for entire peoples.”5 That freely undertaken duties should be fulfilled is affirmed, whether it be a contract of employment or a contract to deliver goods or services, or to repay loans. But the duties are qualified, and it is these qualifications that need to be incorporated in a strong juridical framework. Francis in Laudato Si’ highlights a similar difficulty with unjust international agreements that allow stronger countries to take advantage of the vulnerability of weaker countries where they locate polluting industries or dump contaminated waste.6
Can the ethos of mercy generate proposals for the strengthening of the judicial framework that might constrain economic activity and direct it to common goods?
Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (London: Lane, 2018); also, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (London and New York: Anthem, 2013).↩
William Kingston, How Capitalism Destroyed Itself: Technology Displaced by Financial Innovation (Cheltenham, UK: Elgar, 2017).↩
John Paul II, Laborem exercens (1981), see §14, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html.↩
Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (1967), §84, see also §47, http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum.html.↩
John Paul II, Centessimus Annus (1991), §35, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html.↩
See Francis, Laudato Si’ (2015), §§173, 182, 198, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.↩
Exiting the Econocene
One can think of Send Lazarus as one of several recent attempts to revive the notion of “economism” and the critique against it. I would especially count amongst these Christian Laval’s L’homme économique,1 which remains untranslated in English, but develops the critique of economism underlying his important recent study of neoliberalism, La nouvelle raison du monde2 (coauthored with Dardot), which combines Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives in a similar manner to Eggemeier and Fritz. It is in the nature of the theological objections raised by the authors against neoliberalism to exceed the sort of argument one finds in political economy and critical theory. For example, David Harvey’s analysis of neoliberalism as class war is given an exemplary (and much needed) theological expansion through the further specification of the present social system as a programme of market sacrifice (4). By contradistinction, the authors do not quite treat the critique of economism as a kind of Marxism in need of Catholic elevation. When the “critique of economism enters CST” in Laborem Exercens (24), it is not clear whether it enters from within or from without. I say this because the tendency to treat the notion of economism as a mere Wojtylaism cuts off John Paul’s often extraordinary reworking of the original Leninist-Gramscean critique from other redeployments of the notion since the 1980s—redeployments I would otherwise regard as congenial to Eggemeier and Fritz’s project. I will attempt to develop the trajectory of their thought in the direction of these other developments in this essay, focusing especially on the idea of economism as subsumption and John Paul’s social teachings.
The notion of economism has also come to play a crucial role in a recent tradition of “ecological economic” thinking concerned with the limits of industrialization in late capitalism. Joel J. Kassiola,3 John B. Cobb Jr.,4 and most recently Richard B. Norgaard5 have all developed a post-Marxist critique of economism where the economistic reduction of human life entails an elevation of economistic thinking to a religion. The result, as Eggemeier and Fritz might put it, is a kind of “sick, constructivist project” (126). Cobb Jr. states this most directly:
[Our] culture is “economistic,” and the spirit and ideology that move it constitute “economism.” Economism functions today as our shared religion. The world it is producing is increasingly disturbing.6
Norgaard, on the other hand, suggests that the economistic logic of contemporary capitalism has become so pervasive that we have moved beyond the era of the Anthropocene, where human ecoproduction becomes, through industrialization, the main driver of geological change, to the era of the Econocene. Norgaard uses this term to emphasize that the economy is “the world’s greatest faith-based organization,” whose reproduction requires routine affirmations of faith in a perverse “everyday cosmos” that has “coevolved” alongside the material reconstitution of the geosphere.7 As Norgaard reminds us, Frank Knight (by far the cleverest of the founders of the Chicago School), explicitly argued that, because the principles “by which a society or a group lives in tolerable harmony are essentially religious,” the economic problem of our species would only be solved once we became religiously economistic.8 And Eugene McCarraher is surely right to suggest, in The Enchantments of Mammon, that far from being an agent of disenchantment, capitalism “has been a regime of enchantment, a repression, displacement, and renaming of our intrinsic longing for divinity.”9 However, it is arguably only with neoliberalism, with a more recent subsumption of humanity under capital (that can be discerned since around 1973), that such an economism becomes readily apparent. Eggemeier and Fritz define economism as a form of subsumption, whether as the “subsumption of human subjectivity made in God’s image to an impersonal force called capital” (24), or the “subsumption of all life to economic or market logic.” (It is not clear how technical their use of this term is, though they would perhaps not find too disagreeable Marx’s general definition of subsumption as a process by which the social relations of production penetrate the labor process.)10 Insofar as they speak of a diachrony of economisms throughout modern history (something implicit in Laborem Exercens), their thought is open to the possibility of a periodization of capitalist history on the basis of economisms, which is to say, on the basis of different periods and forms of subsumption.11 And, it has been suggested, that in a world of industrial overproduction where capitalism has nearly come up against its own limits of colonial expansion,12 it has become possible to theorize a final subsumption of labor by capital and, therefore imagine the possibility of exiting this Econocene.
Notwithstanding the more obvious concern with synchronically competing economisms (“West-capitalism” vs. “East-communism” ), periodic historical thinking is crucial for John Paul in Laborem Exercens. Indeed, economism is primarily introduced there as the founding logic of early industrial capitalism (what Eggemeier and Fritz frequently refer to as “early capitalism”). When John Paul complains in 1980—“at the dawn of the neoliberal era” (21)—that the word and concept of mercy “seem to cause uneasiness in man who, thanks to the enormous development of science and technology, never before known in history, has become the master of the earth and has subdued and dominated it,”13 he is not being prophetic about neoliberalism, as the authors, I think, problematically imply, but lamenting what immediately preceded it, namely the postwar highpoint of industrial modernity, which John Paul in Laborem Exercens qualifies as preferable to “early capitalism,” when economistic ways of looking at work were much more widespread.14 “Since then,” he adds, “explicit expressions of this sort have almost disappeared, and have given way to more human ways of thinking about work.”15 But is this still the case, forty years later? Have we not returned to Edwardian levels of inequality,16 as well as to an explicitly economistic discourse about work? By contrast, when John Paul later warns of the danger of repeating, after the collapse of communism, the errors of “early capitalism,” his words are indeed prophetic, but they prophesy the present. At various points, Eggemeier and Fritz appropriately refer to this repetition as a “relapse” (16) and as a repetition of capitalism’s early “sin” (56). This becomes significant if we identify early capitalism’s founding economism with its original injustice—the history of primitive accumulation—which Marx called its “original sin.”17 It then becomes especially apposite, in light of David Harvey’s analysis of neoliberalization as never-ending accumulation by dispossession, to speak of neoliberal economism as a relapse or return to that original sin.
John Paul was in many ways a radical critic of postwar industrial capitalism in the West, but he failed to consistently recognize that neoliberalization was emerging with the decline of that industrial economy. One of the major outcomes of this decline was the collapse of the Eastern Bloc (accelerated by neoliberalization set in place by the communist regimes themselves). And in warning against a relapse into early capitalism’s errors, John Paul failed to recognize that the determinate form of the victory achieved over communism was already the victory of neoliberalism; it was already a relapse. At the same time, it is this very emphasis, in John Paul’s early analysis of capitalism, on a relapse to economism that makes Send Lazarus’s critique of neoliberalism (as economism) possible and effective. I have perhaps overemphasized this notion of relapse in this essay. This is because I think that it is sometimes undermined by Eggemeier and Fritz’s tendency to think of neoliberal economism as having led in various ways to a series of (climatological, migrational, employment, etc.) crises and to correspondingly construe the critique of economism as a refusal of market solutions to such crises (99–100). The fact is that economism is not what “caused” these “crises”; capitalism did. However, capital is especially prone to reproduce itself through an intensification of economistic reductions of labor during periods of discrete crises. Economism is then how capitalism frequently gets itself “out of” these discrete crises. This is not mere market “creativity” but a problem arising from the fact that capitalist accumulation entails proletarianization alongside an increase in technologies that throw laborers out of work, creating what Marx called the “Lazarus-layer”18 of the working class—the infamous “industrial reserve army.” And this becomes a much more serious problem in the neoliberal era when the unemployed decreasingly regulate the labor market and increasingly are rendered redundant.
When John Paul was decrying the evil of unemployment (defined as a lack of “suitable employment for all who are capable of it”),19 he was doing so from the standpoint of a society in which, as Max Horkheimer put it, even those who do not work “have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.”20 Eggemeier and Fritz are no doubt aware that we have moved beyond that situation (even if they do not associate John Paul’s standpoint with this supplanted past). “In today’s world,” they affirm, “a situation somehow worse than early capitalist exploitation arises” (49). They quote Francis who understands that the indignity of exclusion is different from that of mere unemployment. For there is now a group of excluded people who “are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”21 There is, in other words, no longer any “suitable” employment for the Lazarus-layer, partly because, as Francis once again acknowledges, there can be no infinite growth through further commodity production. The relapse into early capitalism’s economism has therefore been an even deeper fall into misery. A logic or economy of sacrifice therefore arises, which manages the surplus population of those excluded through incarceration, deportation, and war. But if the economistic relapse is a kind of return to the errors of early capitalism, this is because capitalism survives its worst crises through a renewal of its “original sin.” Hence, while Quinn Slobodian (whom the authors quote extensively) is in a sense correct to say that early neoliberalism was concerned to “encase” capital against the demands of labor (67–68), its real “necessity” derived from the fact that by the 1970s capital had eliminated its traditional mechanisms of recovery.22 There was no longer a peasantry in the core, therefore unemployed workers could not be expelled from the cities.23
In this sense, neoliberalism was adopted for the same reason as capitalism: “survival.”24 The real opposition to its regimes must therefore be an opposition to survival and what survival has become: work. I have arrived at this point late, though some will have seen it coming. My concern is that there is no longer any way to simply will an economy that “guarantees” Francis’s three Ls of land, labor, and lodging. The pope himself recently admitted, in his Urbi et Orbi, that it may be time to consider providing people with a universal basic income. This would be a neoliberal solution, but one which may arise from the correct recognition of the fact that we are facing the end of work as we know it. I was struck by Eggemeier and Fritz’s use of Matthew 9:13. The point really is to learn to desire mercy and not sacrifice. But what if there is no longer any mercy in work? There certainly has never been any dignity in it for most who have lived and labored. The traditional socialist scheme for the raising of the Lazarus-layer was Trotsky’s “militarization of labor.” This survives in today’s nostalgic calls for a universal job guarantee. This is a nostalgia for the righteous workerism of the past; a lingering desire for work. Faith in the Econocene becomes a desire for work. But what if this desire for work is irretrievably a desire for sacrifice? Jesus calls “not the righteous but sinners.” Does work save us or simply ground us within the city? My admonishment of Send Lazarus is this: that it sees too much of our salvation in work. But perhaps I simply disagree with John Paul when he says that “man develops through love for work.”25 If this is true, then perhaps “man” has stopped developing. I certainly agree with Henri de Lubac, when he defends the distinction between the salvation of the soul and the interests of the city:
It might be thought that by establishing the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, between religion and politics, between the salvation of the soul and the interests of the city, the Gospel provided a principle that led away from social action. It is the contrary that has happened, and logically so. For, by releasing the germ of spiritual freedom that is deep within each individual, that distinction forces us to see in him, no longer merely the subject who must be used in the building of an empire or the citizen who must play his part inside the city, but the personal being in whose cause we must be interested. The Gospel had to make us, as it were, come unstuck from the earth, to make something emerge in us which escapes the earth, so that interest in the social problem might itself break free from that interest in the city and its cohesion which led sway in the ancient world.26
C. Laval, L’homme économique: Essai sur les racines du néolibéralisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2007).↩
C. Laval, and P. Dardot, La nouvelle raison du monde: Essai sur la société néolibérale (Paris: La Découverte, 2009); for the translation, see The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, trans. G. Elliott (London: Verso, 2017).↩
J. J. Kassiola, The Death of Industrial Civilisation: The Limits of Economic Growth and the Repoliticisation of Advanced Industrial Society (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). ↩
J. B. Cobb Jr., The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank (London: Macmillan, 1999).↩
R. B. Norgaard, “Economism and the Econocene: A Coevolutionary Enterpretation,” Real-World Economics Review 87 (2019) 114–31; “The Church of Economism and Its Discontents,” Great Transition Initiative, December 2015, http://www.greattransition.org/publication/the-church-of-economism-and-its-discontents.↩
Cobb, Earthist Challenge, 1.↩
Norgaard, “Economism and the Econocene,” 114.↩
F. Knight, “The Newer Economics and the Control of Economic Activity,” Journal of Political Economy 40.4 (1932) 448–49.↩
E. McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (London: Harvard University Press, 2019), 4.↩
K. Marx, “Results of the Direct Production Process,” Collected Works, vol. 34 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 93.↩
This was originally suggested by Jacques Camatte in Capital and Community, trans. D. Brown (London: Unpopular Books, 1988), 46–75.↩
A. Benanav and Endnotes, “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital,” Endnotes 2 (2010).↩
John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia (1980), §2, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30111980_dives-in-misericordia.html.↩
Though by no means do I reject the authors’ correct implication that an era of unease with mercy continues, in the form of neoliberal economism, forty years later.↩
John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981), §7, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html.↩
J. Cribb, R. Joyce, and D. Phillips, “Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2012,” Institute for Fiscal Studies (2012).↩
K. Marx, “Capital, vol. 1,” Collected Works, 35:704.↩
K. Marx, “Capital, vol. 1,” Collected Works, 35:638. Lazarusschichte is Marx’s translation of the Neapolitan lazzaroni, which derives from the Latin lacerus, meaning “ragged” or “torn.”↩
John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, §18.↩
M. Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 51.↩
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), §53, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.↩
As James Boggs argued already in 1963: “Automation replaces men. This of course is nothing new. What is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go. The farmers displaced by mechanization of the farms in the 1920s could go to the cities and man the assembly lines. As for the work animals like the mule, they could just stop growing them. But automation displaces people, and you don’t just stop growing people even when they have been made expendable by the system. Under Stalin the kulaks and all those who didn’t go along with the collectivization of agriculture were just killed off. Even then, if they had been ready to go along, Stalin could have used them. But in the United States, with automation coming in when industry has already reached the point that it can supply consumer demand, the question of what to do with the surplus people who are the expendables of automation becomes more and more critical every day”; Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011), 102. See also Benanav and Endnotes, “Misery and Debt.”↩
As Norgaard points out, to the extent that agricultural production endures it is also thoroughly marketized, with farmers becoming so specialized that most rely on supermarkets for their food; see “The Church of Economism and Its Discontents.”↩
This is broadly the conclusion reached by Robert Brenner in his Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550–1653 (London: Verso, 2003); see esp. 240–392.↩
John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, §11.↩
H. de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, trans. E. Beaumont (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 143–44.↩
More than an Ethos
Contesting the Material Formations of Neoliberalism
In Send Lazarus, Eggemeier and Fritz offer a significant contribution to the theological and ethical engagement with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism was a particular project within the longer history of liberal economics. The book engages multiple strands of the contemporary critical literature on neoliberalism. As a result, it offers greater critical specificity for a critical response to our neoliberal era than more genealogical approaches or generalized critiques of capitalism.
The structure of the book is clear and coherent. The authors aim to disclose the nature and workings of neoliberalism, to critically evaluate it from the theological and moral perspective of Catholic Social Thought, and to develop a structural response drawing upon a politics of mercy and the works of mercy. The authors’ constructive move is careful to portray the conflict between Christianity and neoliberalism as not merely a matter of individual morality, but of a political conflict on the level of structures.
Neoliberalism as Ethos
Eggemeier and Fritz approach neoliberalism using the concept of “ethos,” which they describe as “a holistic way of life” (6). Carefully incorporating multiple analyses of neoliberalism, they draw heavily from Wendy Brown’s account of neoliberalism as an “ontology” or “reality principle remaking institutions and human beings everywhere [thus] neoliberalism has come to be our way of life.” It “disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities—even those where money is not at issue” (77, quoting Brown).
This approach construes neoliberalism as an ideological project that seeks to enact a set of normative judgments about the human person and society through economic policies and structures. Drawing on Philip Mirowski, the authors describe neoliberalism’s success as the result of its ability to combine “a utopian vision of market society with concrete reforms that subtly pushed society toward realizing this vision” (160). This fits with Friedman’s description of the intellectual dimension of the neoliberal project as developing “alternatives to existing policies” in preparation for moments of crisis when they might be deployed.
This provides the model for the book’s critical response. The authors aim to contest neoliberalism where it has won its “most decisive victories,” namely on “the level of imagination” (162). They offer a “politics of mercy,” applying the works of mercy in a “fourfold schema.” Beginning on the level of normative ideas, they examine each work of mercy as a “theological ideal and social principle” then develop short-, medium-, and long-term proposals for implementing these ideals (161).
Beyond Ethos: A More Material Account of the Neoliberal Project
As a contribution to the conversation about the nature and challenge of neoliberalism so helpfully advanced by the authors, I would like to consider some of the ways in which neoliberalism is not adequately captured in the framework of “ethos” or “reality principle.”
There is no question that the neoliberals engaged in a sophisticated ideological project. Mirowski documents how, from the beginning, the “neoliberal thought collective” was acutely aware that their proposals for reworking society were not only out of favor in the age of Keynesian hegemony, but that their very idea of freedom as comprehensive market competition was simply not a way of life many would freely choose.1 Thus, they intentionally undertook an ideological program to promote their vision by crafting language with broader appeal. Exiled from the universities, they developed the modern think tank both to refine their ideas and to translate them into policies that could be implemented by politicians favorable to their vision and deployed in times of crisis. The movement thus employed both ideological formation and political opportunism (cf. Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”)2 to advance their project.
Eggemeier and Fritz advance theological engagement with contemporary capitalism by attending to the particulars of neoliberalism. However, their tendency to portray it as an idealist ideological project misses important dimensions of its power. This idealist tendency is widespread in Christian theology.3 The authors’ broad engagement with the literature of neoliberalism certainly addresses many of its material aspects, but their synthesis leans heavily on its imaginative and idealist ideological victories.
Such an approach does not fully capture the means by which neoliberalism has achieved its manifold successes nor does it comprehend the range of its ideological power. To do so, we must attend to the more material aspects of neoliberalism’s power. In particular, two dimensions of the project that are less easily seen: (i) the productive power of the ideas they sought to implement and (ii) the formative power of the policies and structures that their successes have created.
The Material Power of Hayek’s Idea
Neoliberalism’s efforts to extend the model of market competition throughout society was guided by a very specific and revolutionary insight. In a 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek offered a deceptively simple defense of the efficiency of markets over central planning for allocating scarce resources.4 He argued that the knowledge necessary to respond to a shortage of a resource needed for production (ways of reducing its use, substituting other materials, etc.) was so dispersed among actors in countless firms that no planning board could ever hope to survey and compile it. The price signal, a “mechanism for communicating information,” provides the means for dispersed knowledge to be actualized to reorient production to respond to a shortage. This argument was revolutionary. (It was selected as one of the twenty most influential articles from the first century of the American Economic Review.) Hayek reimagined the market as far more than set of practices for allocating scarce resources, rather, it became, in his telling, a system for processing information.
While the original context of the argument was the socialist calculation debate, Hayek and his followers would go on to argue that the market was a more effective means for processing information than democratic deliberation and intellectual synthesis. Its assumption and embrace of ignorance was fundamental to the transformation of civil society into the so-called marketplace of ideas.
Hayek’s idea can be read as an ethos, a totalizing utopian vision for society that aims to rework great swaths of social interaction in the model of a market. It certainly is that. But Hayek’s argument is, first and foremost, an enormously powerful idea for producing policies and reforming structures and institutions. Neoliberalism has succeeded not simply because of its machinations to enact its agenda, but also through the profoundly productive power of this theoretical construct. It enables people to do things. It is not simply an ideology that describes the world, but one that enables the material reconstruction of society. We must reckon with the material power of this idea to remake society according to market logic.
Hayek’s argument has become, in Stephan Metcalf’s words, “the idea that swallowed the world.”5 It has been applied to a vast range of policy problems: school choice; debt-funded higher education; individual retirement accounts; and health care markets. It is implicit in the structure of the social media platforms that dominate contemporary social relations and have all but absorbed the print media which once provided the infrastructure of civil society.
The Coercive Construction of Freedom
From this perspective, we can begin to glimpse the broader dimensions of the ideological power of neoliberalism. It functions in a manner akin to what Foucault called a dispositif: an “apparatus” of knowledge and power imbricated in mechanisms and institutions.
Neoliberalism’s coercion is hidden in a positive construction of freedom as choice and competition. Unlike other sorts of ideological structures such as Soviet communism, its power is not manifest in a “no.” Rather, control is effected by offering a vast array of potential “yesses” configured as market choices. Neoliberalism’s greatest and most subtle power is to offer mechanisms of agency that facilitate individual, competitive action. These dimensions of action are hypertrophied in neoliberal societies, while forms of collective action are underdeveloped and dispersed. Opportunities to participate in market activity are myriad: from school children seeking to monetize their YouTube channels to the latest start-up refining its pitch for venture capital. While the odds of success are daunting, the pathways of action are clear and well worn. The great works of our age are private, exemplified well by the various tech billionaires for whom having a space program—once the province of nation-states—has become de rigueur.
This construction of agency can be profoundly disciplining. Debt-funded higher education and individual retirement accounts offer profound constraints in the guise of opportunity. Students are offered the freedom to major in anything they like, as long as it will produce an income sufficient to repay student loans. The fundamental human experience of vulnerability in old age is repackaged as an issue of the decision to save and sufficient risk tolerance. These freedoms subtly and profoundly orient our life energies to focus on individual concerns.
Among the most powerful loci of the neoliberal construction of agency are social media platforms. Here the power of Hayek’s idea is manifest in its ability to inspire the algorithms that reconstruct social relations as a market for attention, affiliation, and identity formation. Once again, the coercion is imbricated in positive forms of agency. Social media present a way to connect with and interact with others. Their interfaces subtly but indelibly interweave images and utterances of friends with market metrics. While one is technically free to post just about anything, those posts are engaged (or not) in a marketplace of attention. To participate is to consent to those rules. For a generation that has grown up on Instagram and YouTube, identity and self are imbricated in the logic of those market rules.
Eggemeier and Fritz cover this territory with their discussion of Brown, Lazzarato, and Konings on the formation of the neoliberal self, but a reliance on Mirowski’s account of the role of media as the “theater of cruelty” for forming neoliberal subjects pulls their conclusions away from these more explicitly material accounts of formation to symbolic and conceptual ideological formation.
This more material account of neoliberalism’s ideological power reveals two new loci in which we must seek to counter its influence: theoretical and practical.
If Hayek’s idea of the market as an information processor has power, not simply because it has been successfully imposed, but because of its ability to inspire and guide the construction of policies and structures, then we need to contest it on this level as well. Because of the Christian normative rejection of the strategy of marketizing society and self, we must also contest this on the level of a productive ideas. Eggemeier and Fritz helpfully articulate a multi-scale agenda that aims to provide outcomes consistent with Christian norms and ways of proceeding. Some of these proposals involve encounter and awareness, some particular policies, and others massive strategic realignments of global political economy. These proposals focus heavily on normative evaluations and outcomes.
We also need ideas that can inspire the specific mechanics of constructing policy and structures. Consider the enormous plasticity that digital technologies allow. What guidance for constructing algorithms can be derived from Christian understandings of creation, anthropology, and society? What mechanisms would we propose for a health care policy? What means would we propose for funding higher education?
This is no small task. Hayek’s was an epochal (and destructive) idea. I have argued elsewhere that John Paul II’s notion of solidarity and Pope Francis’s notion of integral ecology both contain an imagination of complex interrelatedness.6 Likewise, both the history of political thought and contemporary ecology evince myriad geometries of relation far beyond the cramped exchanges allowed by the price signal between market participants. These certainly have critical contrastive value to expose the constraints of market structures, they might also have productive value as a source of more complex models of relationship.
Hayek’s idea was conceived in an era when data processing was limited to double entry accounting ledgers using fountain pens. Such a system required profound simplification. In an era where even fully relational databases have been surpassed by “ontology” coding languages that enable dynamic modeling of the semantic relationships in a dataset, technology can accommodate much more complex models of relationships. Yet, still, Hayek’s market model reigns. In order to contribute, theology will need to not only offer moral evaluation of outcomes, but also develop its imagination of the nature of social relationship.
The formative impact of neoliberal policies offers a second front of contestation. Policy is an area that Send Lazarus addresses well in terms of questions of justice, inclusion and mercy. A more material analysis suggests another motivation for a Christian effort to contest and reform neoliberal policies. They are problematic not simply because of their unjust, sacrificial outcomes. But also because of their power to form us as isolated individuals through the market-based structures of agency and discipline they build. Thus, the church is invested in challenging such policies for both matters of social ethics and theological anthropology.
In Send Lazarus, Eggemeier and Fritz have advanced theological engagement with contemporary capitalism significantly by focusing on the specifics of the neoliberal project. I look forward to the continuation of the debate they have so advanced.
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (London: Verso, 2013), 332; quoted Eggemeier and Fritz, 160. See also Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).↩
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).↩
Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).↩
F. A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35.4 (September 1945) 519–30.↩
Stephan Metcalf, “Neoliberalism: The Idea the Swallowed the World,” Guardian, August 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world.↩
“Integral Ecology: Francis’s Spiritual and Moral Vision of Interconnectedness,” in Vincent J. Miller, ed., The Theological and Ecological Vision of Laudato Si’: Everything Is Connected (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 11–28.↩
“I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me”
Migration in the Shadow of Neoliberalism
In the Judgment of the Nations, Jesus identifies the various corporal acts of mercy: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35–37). These corporal acts of mercy require that we provide for our neighbors their basic material and physical needs. How should we understand the import of the Judgment of the Nations in our globalized and interconnected world? To avoid abstract and tiresome philosophical and theological reflection,1 consider the urgent plight of migrant populations.
According to a recent estimate from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there are approximately 258 million people living in a country other than the one of their birth.2 While some choose to migrate from impoverished countries and settle in affluent ones, an increasing number of people are forced to do so. Following the collapse of colonialism, one reason for migration is cultural and religious persecution. For others, it is to escape severe poverty: the chronic deprivation education, food, healthcare, housing, and water. And for others still, it is increasingly because of environmental change and degradation. While lacking an official designation from international agencies, the World Bank projects that there could be 143 million so-called climate refugees by 2050: people displaced because of desert expansion and sea level rise. These climate refugees will predominantly come from already vulnerable populations in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.3
What’s more, since the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the topic of migration from one country and immigration to another has been the subject of heated debate. While the UDHR (Art. 13) and subsequent human rights documents affirm that each and every person has the right to leave their own country, the claims made in these articles conflict with others. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affirms that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own” (Art. 12.1) but also recognizes restrictions on immigration that are “provided by law” and are “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedom of others, and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant” (Art. 12.2). What concerns are implicated by the refugee crisis?
One the one hand, there is the moral status of individuals who have been displaced by climate change, religious persecution, and severe poverty. On the other hand, states have the right to self-determination, including prioritizing the rights and liberties of their own citizens and determining who they may admit as immigrants and on what terms. How should we adjudicate these competing claims between individual status and state sovereignty? While idealized moral, political, and theological arguments demand admitting far more immigrants,4 our present global political order is determined by neoliberalism: “a politicized mutation of capitalism, where the state’s primary function is to foster market processes” whereby “the needs of people and the earth are secondary to those of capital, because the world economy rules supreme as omniscient and unwaveringly just” (3–4). Or in theological terms, neoliberalism is a “comprehensive program of market sacrifice” (4).
Thinking about the very human costs of issues such as migration and the very inhumane worldview neoliberalism proffers is what concerns Matthew Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz in their timely and important book, Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crisis of Neoliberalism. To respond to the logic inherent to the neoliberal worldview and how this logic has permeated our moral and political communities, they draw from Catholic Social Teaching, focusing especially on the magisterial writings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Through doing so, they emphasize Christian mercy rather than neoliberal sacrifice, personalism rather than economism,5 as the proper response to the cries of our neighbors. On the whole, Eggemeier and Fritz (1) highlight how neoliberalism shapes us; (2) evaluate neoliberalism’s political and social formations in light of Catholic Social Teaching; and (3) offer Catholicism’s comprehensive moral and theological vision as an alternative. In other words, their project isn’t merely critical but also constructive. How does neoliberalism fail to deliver (or better: make impossible) the corporal acts of mercy and how might we envision economic, political, and social institutions that do?
Here, I will first and briefly rehearse and signal my agreement with several of Eggemeier and Fritz’s arguments against neoliberal views about immigration. But I will also indicate issues that remain unresolved for both Catholic theologians such as them and religious ethicists and liberal political philosophers such as myself.
On Eggemeier and Fritz’s telling, our present policies and views about immigration are the result of the “complex interaction between a history of racialized immigration laws with economic-political convulsions associated with neoliberal policy” (118). On the former, American citizens are now well acquainted with the Trump administration’s explicit actions toward and rhetoric about immigrants. From referring to certain populations as undesirable to forcefully separating families at the US-Mexico border, we witness violent actions and callous words that are wholly inconsistent with Christian commitments to loving our neighbors. On the latter, Americans actively benefit from migrant labor: for example, the Mexican worker who toils in the fields of Central California and produces the very foods upon which we rely.
In both, we undermine the dignity of the migrant worker and the personal value of their work. While migrant laborers contribute to our economic and social good, they are at the very same time deprived the substance of the common good: legal status and the accompanying rights and liberties. In other words, what neoliberal views about migration do is reduce migrant laborers and their value to what they are able to produce. This occurs against the sometimes silent but always present threat of deportation,6 which is intimately connected to for-profit deportation services, that “generates docile laborers with few legal protections and little or no access to social entitlements” (120). Drawing from the work of Nicholas de Genova, Eggemeier and Fritz expand on deportation, noting that it is deportability rather than deportation per se that renders “undocumented migrant labor a distinctively disposable commodity.”
As Eggemeier and Fritz state, these views and practices are entailed by neoliberalism’s comprehensive program of sacrifice: it is what Pope Francis calls an economy of exclusion. Coupled with an idolatry of money (cf. Matt 6:24), Francis holds that such an economy “devour[s] everything which stands in the way of increased profits” and is one “where the powerful tend to feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”7 What’s more, because of neoliberalism’s comprehensive vision, we are formed to be indifferent to exclusion and suffering, the “inevitable consequence of a faceless economy insofar as it forces individuals to focus on abstract and impersonal metrics rather than then preservation of dignified life and sustainability” (125–26). We don’t have to think hard to notice the various ways, in both thought and practice, in which we are implicated in perpetuating such a system. We admit immigrants when they benefit us: people who have desired skills; people who “share our values”; and people who won’t be parasitic upon our way of life. We reject them when they won’t: people who have nothing to sell but their labor; people who don’t share our values; and people who are desperately searching for the means to provide for themselves.
Against neoliberal sacrifice, Eggemeier and Fritz explicate a theology of mercy, one that offers a different picture of reality than neoliberalism. Particularly germane to immigration is what they call a neighbor anthropology. Drawing from Francis’s reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) and the Judgment of the Nations, they note that Francis equates the least among us with Christ. The considerable normative force of this equation is that “those who treat these people mercifully show mercy to Christ, fulfilling his law” (147). This biblical teaching, amplified by Francis, demands that we assess both ourselves as individuals and the institutions that we participate in and benefit from with an eye toward mercy rather than sacrifice—whether we are a Christ for our neighbors.8
How does this theology of mercy bear on immigration? After reminding readers about the history of Jews and Christians as foreigners, aliens in Egypt and in Jerusalem, they note that early Christian theologians commended Christians to “practice the hospitality of welcoming and sheltering strangers” (196). From these and other foundations, Eggemeier and Fritz argue for a sanctuary politics that “structurally embodies the inclusive hospitality of the Catholic tradition in response to the plight of migrants and refugees” (197). Over and against the exclusionary history found in the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Bracero Program (1942–1964), and other such policies, a sanctuary politics demands that we “work to build a social order in which no person is branded as illegal and the threat of deportation is eliminated once and for all” (198). “Sanctuary,” they write,
means a place of Christic inclusion, a place of radical hospitality. Sanctuary proclaims a challenge to Catholics to live up to the hospitality that Christ demands and that, in its concrete practice, the Eucharist rarely accomplishes. Sanctuary, like Eucharist (thanksgiving) demands a new politics, a politics of mercy. . . . Sanctuary politics as a politics of mercy would represent a thoroughgoing repentance from the merciless, racist ethos of neoliberalism. (203–4)
And toward this end, they advocate for short-, middle-, and long-term goals toward the realization of this politics, including a shift in our conscience (198–99), grassroots experiments in hospitality (199–200), and ultimately the restructuring of society as a whole (200ff.).
In the previous section, I rehearsed Eggemeier and Fritz’s indictments of the corrupting force of neoliberalism and its ethics of sacrifice, especially as it bears upon the urgent issue of migration. I also noted how they develop their alternative vision, which they root in Catholic Social Teaching and an ethics of mercy. The vision they offer for a politics of sanctuary will become all the more urgent when we think about the disastrous effects that climate change will have upon the environment and the billions of people who will be forced to migrate as a consequence. I’m in agreement with Eggemeier and Fritz’s indictments of neoliberalism; I also join with them in their call to rethink how our economic, political, and social systems promote justice for some and injustice for others, especially the least among us. In this final section, though, I want to pose some remaining moral and philosophical concerns. To frame these concerns, I ask: “Are there limits to hospitality?”9
One enduring concern is whether the bonds of loyalty among our compatriots lends support to the view that we may prefer the well-being of compatriots over and above the well-being of others. For some liberals, civic loyalty does in fact lend support to this view: we are implicated in economic, political, and social institutions within a particular nation-state in ways that we aren’t at the global stage. These bonds of loyalty don’t permit us to harm others; but they do suggest obligations to protect and promote our way of life. When faced with the absolute suffering of others and the relative misfortune of our compatriots, there are concerns about how we should adjudicate these competing demands. For some thinkers, the absolute suffering of another would require us to prioritize another instead of the relative misfortune of our compatriots. For others, though, there comes a point at which we can no longer prioritize the absolute suffering of another. The boundary for this point is philosophically vague but many theorists believe it exists.
A further concern is about the relationship between individual dignity and state sovereignty. While injustice affects us all, the responsibility for justice is discrete: following John Rawls’s emphasis on the basic structure as the site of justice, the state is responsible for upholding rights and liberties. I earlier noted that human rights doctrine struggles with adjudicating the competing demands of individual dignity and state sovereignty. But this is also a problem in Catholic Social Teaching. For example, in Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the Catholic Bishops of the United States and Mexico write, “The Church recognizes the right of sovereign nations to control their territories but rejects such control when it is exerted merely for the purpose of acquiring additional wealth. More powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.”10 And a few paragraphs later, the Catholic Bishops note that the “Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights.”11 While the Catholic Bishops hold that these teachings complement each other, it is less than clear what counts as “reasonable limits on immigration.” Resolving the philosophical ambiguity about reasonableness could lead to concrete normative moral and political recommendations.
And finally, we are sinful beings. As Francis notes, the external deserts are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.12 What can we expect of ourselves, individually and collectively? And what how should we respond when we aren’t able to perform the corporal acts of mercy? Realists are pessimistic about the possibilities of a this-worldly ethics and politics. Utopians envision an ethics and a politics that may only be possible in the kingdom of God. Navigating between pessimism and utopianism requires identifying our creaturely limits and possibilities and articulating a normative ethics and politics in light of them. But in the meanwhile, what sort of ethics and politics should be used when the migrant is at our border? And how should we respond when we can’t let them in?
For those lucky enough to live affluent lives in the Global North, the extensive and intensive suffering of others can’t be ignored. For those working in ethics and theology, the task is to develop an ethics and politics that is able to respond to the suffering stranger, especially when they are at our very doors. Eggemeier and Fritz’s book signals the urgency of these issues and begins articulating responses to them. In our neoliberal world, continuing this work is our moral, political, and religious responsibility.
This phrasing is from Francis, Laudato Si’ (2015), §17, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.↩
See the dataset available at the United Nations Population Division, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/data/UN_MigrantStockTotal_2019.xlsx.↩
See esp. Joseph Carens, “Aliens and Strangers: The Case for Open Borders,” Review of Politics 49.2 (1987) 251–73.↩
On personalism and economism, see John Paul II, Laborem exercens (1981), http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html.↩
I highlight this case because I’m both the child of immigrants and a Californian: because my immigrant parents’ labor is valued, I have benefited from the economic, political, and social goods that my American citizenship affords me; as a Californian, I have witnessed how migrant Mexican laborers—those toiling in fields, mowing lawns, and cleaning homes—have been treated as subhuman, from being injured while working without the means to seek medical assistance to not being paid for their work without having the means for legal redress.↩
Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), §§56 and 53, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.↩
For Eggemeier and Fritz’s reading of Jon Sobrino’s view of mercy, see Send Lazarus, 158ff.↩
See also Jessica Wrobleski, The Limits of Hospitality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012).↩
US and Mexico Bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope (2003), §36, https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/strangers-no-longer-together-on-the-journey-of-hope.↩
Strangers No Longer, §39.↩
Francis, Laudato Si’, §217.↩
Between Mercy and Sacrifice
Send Lazarus opens with a clarity as to its framing and directness as to its aims that, to the authors’ credit and readers’ benefit, are characteristic of the book as a whole. The framing lies in the Matthean Jesus’s injunction, cited by Eggemeier and Fritz on the book’s first page, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:13; cf. Hos 6:6). This verse has been the focal point of several addresses by Pope Francis and captures a core theme across his papacy. The opposition it sets out tracks with the contest that Send Lazarus identifies as its guiding aim: to elaborate a Catholic critique of neoliberalism. More specifically, Eggemeier and Fritz contend that what they call a Catholic ethos of mercy challenges in theory and must be made to challenge in practice—as a Catholic politics of mercy—the “comprehensive program of market sacrifice” (4) that is neoliberalism, which is indeed “today’s dominant sacrificial system” (1). The “not” of Matthew 9:13 is thus transposed with maximal force in this context; insofar as Catholicism and neoliberalism are tied to mercy and sacrifice, respectively, they stand in “fundamental conflict” (9). Despite the omnipresence of neoliberal ideology (the water to twenty-first-century fish, we read on p. 2), these are “rival systems” (11) that present anyone who confronts their reality, and especially Catholics, with “a decision between them” (12).
The chapters that follow these introductory claims fill out the stakes of this decision in richly researched, creative, and compelling ways. But what came to occupy a large share of my interest is what lies “between them” in another sense, namely, in a kind of gray area, a space of ambiguity and overlap between mercy and sacrifice that crops up explicitly at a few key points and, to my mind, hovers throughout the book. This is an observation that begins in the textual exposition of these concepts that Eggemeier and Fritz present but ranges beyond to broader considerations about how such a space of overlap complicates the stark opposition between Catholicism and neoliberalism and what implications it may bring in tow, first in the realm of political ecology treated by Send Lazarus and then with respect to methodological questions I organize under the heading of political theology.
I learned a great deal from this book and am grateful for the opportunity to engage in the crucial conversation it advances. I hope it will be clear enough that the questions I pose stem from the kind of reflection that is only possible in the midst and in the wake of reading such a well-composed argument; in that sense they are inevitably and, for me, happily, dependent and dialogical.
Given the structure of “fundamental conflict” that grounds Eggemeier and Fritz’s overall argument and is ably elaborated across each chapter’s specific discussions, it is striking to find several instances where the negation of sacrifice by mercy (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”) is more fluid, perhaps more vexed, than it first appears. The authors’ exposition of the centrality of mercy in Catholic Social Teaching (chapter 1) is the forum for the first two of three I’d like to mention. John Paul II’s vision of a “holistic culture” that would counter the reductive tendencies of economism involves people who possess a capacity for “personal sacrifice” (alongside self-control, solidarity, and readiness to promote the common good) (32). This minor note meets a major one when the chapter comes to Francis. Eggemeier and Fritz flag a footnote from Evangelii Gaudium in which the pope cites Thomas Aquinas on the superlative virtue of mercy, as a statement that resonates deeply with the crux of their argument. They write,
“We do not worship God through external sacrifices and gifts for God’s own sake, but for ours and our neighbors’; indeed God does not need our sacrifices, but wants them to be offered to him for the sake of our devotion and our neighbors’ welfare.” Hence mercy, by which we supply the needs of others is a sacrifice more acceptable to him, since it leads more clearly to the welfare of our neighbors, in accordance with Hebrews [13:16]: “Do not forget to do good and to share, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (47)1
Here it seems quite clear that God does desire sacrifice, albeit of the proper kind, and furthermore that mercy itself is the exemplar of such pleasing sacrifice. A similarly positive valence on sacrifice embedded in and as mercy characterizes the authors’ powerful conclusion to chapter 5’s discussion of a Catholic response to the crisis facing migrants:
Sanctuary, like Eucharist (thanksgiving) demands a new politics, a politics of mercy. With sanctuary, properly applied, a true and living sacrifice (making-holy) can be accomplished, offering to the living God a holy ethos marked by mercy instead of offering to the lifeless market a corrupt ethos of expulsion as is the case with neoliberalism. (204)
These examples and a small handful of others uphold the overall contrast between mercy and mercilessness, but render any boundary between mercy and sacrifice considerably more blurred.
I read these passages with interest not out of a desire to nitpick on a matter of consistency, but rather because the initial opposition—mercy, not sacrifice—had prompted some hesitations at the outset and I was curious to see how the dichotomy would play out.
For one, doesn’t Catholicism have quite a lot to do with sacrifice? To be sure, sacrifice can mean many different things and maybe therein lies the rub. Yet the text encourages movement between at least some different senses as it interprets, with recent popes, the meaning of mercy and sacrifice in contemporary politico-economic contexts. Within this circuitry, surely any opposition suggested in Matthew 9:13 must be somehow relativized by the integral role sacrifice plays in Catholic faith and practice, for better or worse—from soteriology to ritual and understandings of martyrdom and discipleship. That intersection is already visible in Eggemeier and Fritz’s sketch of the contours of ecological mercy. They impugn environmental destruction as “the most massive illustration of neoliberal sacrifice” (98), with the idea of “sacrifice zones” featuring prominently in this assessment. At the same time, another face of sacrifice is deeply entangled with the calls to limit overconsumption through “voluntary asceticism” coming from Pope Francis (103) and many other advocates of environmental responsibility, both religious and secular.
The authors astutely note, however, that an emphasis on individuals “could play into the neoliberal playbook of responsibilization” (170). To this I’d add the further fold that some neoliberal proponents of geoengineering are fond of taking aim at the “green austerity” promoted by “traditional” environmentalism—a forced and unnecessary sacrifice, especially for the global poor, as they often stress, from which they are poised to provide a merciful dispensation through economically profitable techno-fixes. This sort of tangle underscores the unsettling power of neoliberal capitalism’s “creative-destructive” dynamic. And while there is no doubt a “culture of indifference,” a recognizable environmental dilemma contends with something like a culture of confusion, where who sacrifices and who is sacrificed gets hazy, and where the right way to show mercy feels conflicted and overwhelming. If “the rich man” were today to show mercy to Lazarus during his life, through the personal and structural proposals Eggemeier and Fritz sketch, would these actions helpfully be described as a “pleasing sacrifice,” per the passage from Evangelii Gaudium cited above? Would anything be gained or lost by doing so? Is dives the twenty-six multibillionaires who own half the world’s wealth (179–80) or anyone who has ever flown on an airplane? Do pleas for ecological asceticism redound to just one more way the richest of the rich callously call “send Lazarus”? Might they be both that and a powerful theological antidote to the idol of infinite growth? This is, in any case, a gesture to the potential productivity of tracing the interactivity between species of mercy and sacrifice in narratives of social justice-oriented creation care.
Stepping back, I’d like to focus on what the conceptual overlap between mercy and sacrifice might signal for the way these notions relate in regard to the basic confrontation, Catholicism against neoliberalism, of which they are representative in Send Lazarus.
The confrontation receives a twist inasmuch as these rival systems are both characterized as theological. Eggemeier and Fritz follow Quinn Slobodian’s claim that neoliberalism (in at least one manifestation) is a “negative theology”; build on the language of idolatry that permeates papal critiques of the totalizing pretense of economisms; and develop Wendy Brown’s insights into “political rationality’s ‘ontological thoroughness’” (77). This sharpens the fundamental conflict at issue into one between a Catholic ethos of mercy and a quasi-theology of sacrifice. So, for example, neoliberalism’s mercilessness is that it “sacrific[es] all but a few ‘winners’ to the fictitious god of economic growth” (6). As far as I can see, the authors’ attestation of the “theological resonances” (138) of neoliberalism operates at that level, as an indicator of the comprehensive power of sacrificial ideology that is parallel in structure to Catholic mercy, though obviously deficient and warped.
Here I wonder what difference it might make to pursue the conceptual admixture between mercy and sacrifice I have outlined. This would not function to suggest that neoliberalism is any less vicious or merciless than Send Lazarus assiduously conveys, but instead to ask what part Christianity has played in the ideological-material apparatus that undergirds neoliberalism’s assault on creaturely well-being. In other words, I’m drawn to consider the absence of the genealogical move that I take to be one key component of major trajectories in political theology. Some of this work takes a cue from Carl Schmitt in exploring the theological foundation of modern political ideas and neoliberalism specifically. Adam Kotsko’s work on the relation of demonization in biblical and medieval theodicy to the pivotal notion of individual freedom in neoliberalism is one example.2 Eggemeier and Fritz footnote his argument when they treat Pope Francis’s discussion of neoliberalism as a “demonic” form of “corruption” (125–29), which may, admitting of the projects’ differences in “style and substance” (232), suggest one avenue for elaborating the intersecting as well as parallel interrelation of Christian theology and neoliberalism.
I also have in view political theologians’ many probing considerations of the constitutive intertwining of Christianity with colonialism, slavery, and these together with capitalism. Crucially, Eggemeier and Fritz demonstrate a robust sensitivity to the importance of history and context over and against economistic fantasies of the market as a level playing field. Their discussion of “racial capitalism” as it has mutated into “racial neoliberalism” is a case in point (110–13). Yet, as Amaryah Shaye Armstrong describes in a recent essay on Cedric Robinson’s understanding of racial capitalism, the racialization of our contemporary political order cannot be untethered from the Christian paradigm of redemption, which is itself bound up with a racialized ordering of existence.3 From this vantage, Catholicism and neoliberalism can no more be strictly counterposed than mercy and sacrifice. (This follows on the characterization of neoliberalism as a late-arrived form of capitalism, which is well supported in Send Lazarus; their exact relation in the book is an issue I had hoped to address, but will leave for another conversation).
I don’t think this historical ambiguity undercuts the significance of the authors’ own outline of the shortcomings of CST on race or their proposals for how to strengthen it; a political-theological angle of this interrogative kind could, I expect, complement their fine-grained account of contemporary racial dynamics on display in mass incarceration and mass deportation. However, I suppose I continue to think through the extent to which the oppositional argumentative structure—captured in “mercy, not sacrifice”—hinders a reckoning with the more difficult and troubling legacies of Christian self-definition.
In that vein, I raise a second hesitation I had on first reading the opposition in Matthew 9:13. This stems from the verse in question’s proximity to claims of pharisaical hypocrisy and its direct and indirect implication in patterns of Christian supersessionism and anti-Judaism that rely in no small part on these contrastive hierarchies (e.g., grace vs. law). Of course, this valuation has also been turned against “papist” forms of Christianity.4 The instability of the signifiers points to the speciousness of these claims, yes, but is also precisely the cause for worry. Again, it’s worth saying that sacrifice especially, mercy perhaps less so, is a saturated concept, laden with associations to the point of being overdetermined. Any project has to make choices, adopt a working definition, and proceed. There are, as ever, constraints of space and genre. Eggemeier and Fritz carefully delineate their source material and make consistently clear that their target is market sacrifice, whose specific cruelties they detail time and again; there is plenty in the book that implicitly contests the kind of problematic interpretation I’ve surfaced. Still, in light of the insidiously regenerative nature of anti-Semitic positions, whether outright denigration or conspiracies (today witness QAnon), and however tenuous their basis may be, I don’t think it’s semantic fixation to wonder how far responsibility extends in a contemporary theological deployment of terms that partake of this violent history.
Nor do I have a ready answer. I ask myself both of the above questions as someone who is glad to see Catholic theology mobilized decisively against neoliberalism and is, like Eggemeier and Fritz, interested in the potential of systematic theology to lead this and other charges. Insofar as I am therefore invested in how to interpret the tradition rightly, I wrestle with how to take account of the entailments—unintended, affective, historical, and otherwise—that attach to the scriptural and systematic categories we engage, in hope, and with desire that they work to liberative effect. Cautious and even wary reflexivity seems particularly important when it comes to that to which true or authentic faith is opposed. And I think it becomes still more pressing when theologians are impelled by the urgency of contesting bad theology. (On that note, I have a lurking uncertainty concerning the role of the neoconservative contingent Novak et al. in the book: as necessary as it is to counter their agonizingly influential defenses of neoliberalism, does their presence facilitate an absolving legitimation of “good” theology?) I’ve been challenged to see, in ways I probably haven’t internalized in my own work, the damage done by a deep self-exculpatory tendency in Christian theology.5 Then again, stalling out in crucial ethical territory has real risks. Faith claims count. Interpretation matters. I’ve suggested that dwelling on the relationship of political theology—itself internally varied, of course—and systematic theology might be one way to highlight some of these tensions (though I’m not convinced those descriptors are always helpful). So too the notion of critique, whose positive as well as negative aspects Eggemeier and Fritz put forward early on (5). The problem I’m posing may be whether “Catholicism” can be simultaneously the agent and the object of critique in the nuanced sense they describe and, if so, whether working through the overlap between mercy and sacrifice would be equally as revealing for a rejoinder to neoliberalism as addressing their contrast.
The first sentence is from the S.Th. II-II, q. 30, a. 4, quoted by Francis in EG n. 41; the second sentence is Eggemeier and Fritz’s gloss of the rest of the quotation, supplemented by the verse from Hebrews.↩
Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018); see also Devin Singh, Divine Currency (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).↩
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, “Christian Order and Racial Order: What Cedric Robinson Has to Teach Us Today,” Bias magazine, June 3, 2020, https://christiansocialism.com/cedric-robinson-racial-order-christianity-socialism/.↩
E.g., Martin Luther, The Misuse of the Mass (1521); see Vilmos Vajta, Luther on Worship (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg, 1954), 36.↩
Cf. Marika Rose, A Theology of Failure: Žižek Against Christian Innocence (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).↩
Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz
Introduction and Response to Travis LaCouter
In grateful response to Travis LaCouter’s masterful introduction, we want to offer a few introductory words of our own (with the curator’s permission). For us, for Matt particularly, we are extraordinarily thankful to have a former Holy Cross student organize this symposium, introduce it, and read us so well. We both see LaCouter as an extraordinarily successful graduate of Holy Cross, and now we are proud to have him as a colleague in the Department of Religious Studies. LaCouter identifies the main thrust of our argument: we are attempting to diagnose the contributing factors to the wounds of our world, to condemn them, and to open alternative futures for Catholic social thought and for our world.
We do not see neoliberalism as the singular cause of our world’s wounds (we also do not see “neoliberalism” as singular, even if the singular noun would suggest this). Instead, we see it as contributing to and exacerbating multiply-caused crises of slum proliferation, mass deportation, mass incarceration, and environmental destruction, among others, and doing so as political economy, political rationality, and formation of everyday life. Among the weaknesses of Catholic social teaching, for all its strengths, is its failure so far to examine deeply and specifically enough the political economy, political rationality, and everyday life that has played a major role in contributing to, intensifying, and sustaining these forms of oppression and marginalization.
One of the reasons for this deficit is that CST has focused on combating Marxism and communism. While this has been necessary work, also important and exigent is fighting the other “side,” namely, capitalism, which on our read has become largely neoliberalized over the past forty-plus years. There are fragments in CST throughout the 1990s–2000s that point to criticisms of neoliberalism, but it is not really until Pope Francis that they become more thematic, and even then incompletely so. The primary critique of economics coming out of CST is a critique of economism, a totalizing economic approach to social and cultural life. On a continuum, you can see evidence of economism in various forms of communism, socialism, democratic socialism, and capitalism. It is important to identify where, when, and how it occurs and, at least on CST principles, to reject economism where, when, and as it takes shape. The overt atheism of communism made it a particular target of opportunity for critique of its forms of economism, but capitalism has often been less heavily critiqued by CST because it seems less inimical to religion. Pope Francis is hardly the first, however, to point out that capitalism’s seeming tacit acceptance of religion hides the fact that, at least in its neoliberal form, capitalism is the most potent carrier of idolatry in our world today. Religious believers, Catholics in particular, should take notice, and critique accordingly. In Send Lazarus, we do.
LaCouter depicts this all with uncommon deftness in his largely laudatory introduction. But for all his praise of Send Lazarus, LaCouter raises a chief reservation. He argues that we align ourselves too closely with critics of utopian projects and that we thereby fail to offer a substantive alternative to neoliberalism. With this suggestion he identifies a tension between realism and utopianism that plays across the reviews in this symposium (and which is identified explicitly by Bharat Ranganathan), with at least one reviewer urging greater realism than we provide in Send Lazarus (Patrick Riordan, SJ) and another requesting bolder utopianism (Dritëro Demjaha), and still others playing within this tension (Elizabeth Pyne) asking for greater materiality (Vincent Miller) or a more visionary account of justice (Meghan Clark). Because this is a tension that we find emerging throughout the reviews, we should provisionally clarify our position on the matter.
We share LaCouter’s concern with making sure that Catholicism observes what we could call an incarnational proviso: that this-worldly activity is significant and imposes obligations on Catholics for taking material matters (economics, politics, and so on) with grave seriousness. At the same time, we want to retain an eschatological proviso: that perfection in this life and in this world will never be fully realized. We maintain that these two together are characteristic of a Catholic approach insofar as the incarnation demands that we take materiality, this world, and politics very seriously, and an eschatology of God as the end of history demands that we acknowledge our finitude and our limits, even as we try to stretch them. LaCouter thinks that we grant too much to the eschatological and too little to the incarnational, and by doing so we let neoliberalism off the hook, ceding it too much rhetorical ground and disallowing sufficient action to overturn its material projects. At this level we disagree with LaCouter concerning prudential judgment. One way of framing his critique is that he seems to fear that our reliance upon Benedict XVI (he gently chides us for invoking Benedict’s warning against “this-worldly utopias”), which could make us into Augustinians of an undesirable stripe. One could well imagine that LaCouter is issuing a warning about doing theology in the postconciliar period: that liberation theology has been the primary exponent of utopianism in theology, and Benedict XVI (as Joseph Ratzinger) famously became its opponent, on the grounds of a kind of Augustinian realism. While it is true that we draw the eschatological proviso largely from Benedict XVI, we utilize him as we do all the popes, as normative coordinates for CST; we thought it strategically important to engage papal thought in the depth we did. But we could easily have gathered the eschatological proviso from other theologians, interestingly, on the liberation “side”: Johann Baptist Metz, Dorothee Sölle, Edward Schillebeeckx, Ignacio Ellacuría, Jon Sobrino, Elizabeth Johnson, and Shawn Copeland.
The objection may still remain, so we should mark our difference from Christian realism, if this would mean that all we can do is manage the disasters of history a little bit more humanely, per Reinhold Niebuhr, Michael Novak, and even, arguably, Benedict XVI. There is another option: sin exists, and precisely because of this we should imagine and vigorously support utopian horizons, even if they will never be fully realized. Our aim was to move between the incarnational and eschatological provisos, which entails acknowledging deep, persistent individual and structural sin in our world while simultaneously pressing for utopian alternatives. We stand by this as a theological position.
Our theological work in Send Lazarus is part and parcel of work in a political-economic-cultural register, where we strive to move beyond the binary often drawn between reformism and revolution. To frame this in political terms, we subscribe to a vision of a radical reformism, that affirms utopian projects but accepts reformist consequences (Cornel West, Enrique Dussel, etc.). What does radical reformism look like in Send Lazarus? We claim that neoliberalism is a utopian project that has been partially realized in our world. Our response is in kind: to provide ingredients and an initial playbook for a utopian project that we know will only be partially realized. In chapter 5, we put forward the CST principle of the universal destination of goods and the political principle of abolitionism as the utopian horizons that respond to the material and racialized sacrifices of neoliberalism. We put these forward precisely as utopian horizons, and then, in a reformist mode, we offer examples of direct action and structural reform based on the works of mercy which would seek partial realization of the utopian principles in the long term. This is the way we performed the tension between the incarnational and eschatological provisos, reformism and revolution. Depending on a reviewer’s disposition, they will find us too utopian or pragmatic, but our position is that we need both in productive tension, as a demand of Catholic theology and political pragmatism. LaCouter raises a legitimate concern but we hope that this explanation goes at least some way to responding to the issue. We continue our response as we reply to each reviewer.