In a post published on Friday, I discussed a recently established group, the Tradinistas, who seek to wed a traditional Catholicism with socialism. In that post, I began an assessment of the Tradinistas’ attempt at a Catholic socialism to date, which I will continue in this post. I argued that the Tradinista case for a Catholic socialism is based on a bait and switch. The “bait” is the adoption of a definition of socialism broad enough to ensure its compatibility with Catholic teaching. The “switch” is the advocacy for a particular form of socialism as if it had been established that this form is compatible with Catholic teaching, when that is far from the case.
As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the problems with Strand’s definitions of socialism and capitalism is that the terms are defined along different axes, “socialism” in terms of “communal control” of the market and capitalism in terms of the wage system. As I also noted, one problem with these definitions is that there is no reason why they could not coexist. But a more important problem is that in the Tradinistas’ writings, the abolition of the wage system is implicitly included in the definition of socialism, even if it is never explicitly included. And here is where the Tradinista project runs into a serious obstacle: their arguments for why the abolition of the wage system is morally necessary run counter to what Catholic teaching actually says.
In the second essay, Strand attempts to show the compatibility of the Tradinista perspective with various passages drawn from papal encyclicals, especially Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Here we can see the bait and switch strategy on a smaller scale: Strand first establishes the apparent compatibility between a socialist principle and a particular passage from an encyclical, but then interprets the principle in a way contrary to that intended in Catholic teaching. I want to focus on two issues in particular: Pius’s treatment of the just labor contract, and of who is due the fruits of labor.
In QA, Pius rejects the notion that “a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature” (#65), its justice dependent on the conditions of the hiring. Strand likewise affirms that “a socialist can also agree that a contract of hiring is fine, taken abstractly, but that the matter is once again different when we move to a concrete level.”
For Pius, the primary condition for a just labor contract is the just wage, a wage sufficient for a decent living for the worker’s family (##71-72). This idea is of course drawn from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891, #45) and is central to all subsequent Catholic social teaching.
For Strand, by contrast, labor contracts become unjust when they are made “under duress,” when they are “market-dependent.” It is a “structural injustice” of the capitalist system that “one typically has no genuine ‘choice’ to be a worker,” for “one must sell one’s labor-power to some capitalist” for the sake of one’s livelihood. Although the rhetoric suggests that the problem here is coercion—they work under duress, compelled, forced to work in a coercive system—as I will explain later, in reality it is that they are forced to work for wages. As an alternative, Strand proposes a system in which labor is “de-commodified,” which here means “the state . . . provide[s] citizens with the basic goods and services necessary for life” so that one’s livelihood is no longer dependent on selling one’s labor. As Strand further explains in the third essay, under such a system work would become more of a leisure activity, something freely engaged in for enjoyment or in pursuit of luxury goods.
What we find in Catholic social teaching is quite different. Here, it is precisely the fact that the worker is dependent on wages to obtain a decent livelihood, through the acquisition of property, that there is a moral obligation for the employer to pay a just wage. As Leo writes in RN:
It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs . . . . (#5)
And likewise, Pius in QA:
As We have already indicated, following in the footsteps of Our Predecessor, it will be impossible to put these principles into practice unless the non-owning workers through industry and thrift advance to the state of possessing some little property. But except from pay for work, from what source can a man who has nothing else but work from which to obtain food and the necessaries of life set anything aside for himself through practicing frugality? (#63)
In Catholic social teaching, the problem with work is not that people are compelled to work for wages to obtain a livelihood, but that in working the person is treated like an object rather than a subject (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #7). De-commodification, therefore, does not consist in providing people with a livelihood independent of work, but rather in making the work through which people earn their livelihood fully human. Labor is first of all de-commodified by the worker being paid a just wage, but also through worker participation in labor unions and through shared ownership or worker participation in management (Strand does endorse these latter policies, as well, but considers them insufficient until the wage system is abolished in toto).
Strand further explains that while people should be free to work toward their own livelihood on their own private property, they should not be obligated to, and in reality this “is certainly not possible for all of the things that they need in order to survive at anything like a ‘modern’ standard of living.” Hence the ministrations of the state.
Strand has apparently given no thought to how the state would pay for any of this, which seems like a very serious lacuna. Strand does assert a right to fair taxation, but it is not at all clear what will be taxed. Remember, after all, that under Tradinista socialism individuals will only possess property sufficient to sustain a basic livelihood, and even then some will choose not to work, having their basic needs met by the state. And further, Strand argues that private businesses should not be allowed to engage in the production of commodities for sale on the market, i.e., beyond the requirements of basic livelihood, because this would create “a drive to accumulate, expand production, and cut costs, with the result that some firms are driven off the market; successful firms become bigger, while unsuccessful producers become wage-laborers.” Therefore, it seems that taxes could not come from property or income, since this would cut into people’s basic livelihood, or from sales, because of the dearth of market activity.
Strand does recognize that the goods provided by the state have to come from somewhere, which leads to arguably the most troubling Tradinista proposal. Strand argues that, so that the basic goods needed by all can be met, individuals may be compelled to work for the state, for example by “a diminution in their guaranteed, state-provided basic goods and services.” So workers also labor under duress under socialism, as well. Recognizing this apparent contradiction, Strand argues that under socialism compulsion is “ordered to the common good” whereas under capitalism it is ordered toward private interests, because the former is compulsion by the state whereas the latter is compulsion by capitalists. But this argument is faulty, for under capitalism workers are not compelled to work by capitalists; Strand even recognizes this in a footnote, adding that workers are instead affected “by the structural compulsion to work for capitalists,” but this completely changes the argument. The “structural compulsion to work” is exactly the same under capitalism and socialism: people must work to produce a livelihood, one way or another. Tradinista socialism then adds the further compulsion of having to work for the state at risk of losing one’s livelihood. So the problem with capitalism, for the Tradinistas, is not that people are compelled to work, but rather that they are compelled to work for capitalists. And this is because the capitalist wage system leaves workers “forced to accept low wages.”
This leads us to our second bait and switch. In his consideration of labor relations, Pope Pius XI says that “[I]t is wholly false to ascribe to property alone or to labor alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced.” Strand claims to agree with this, asserting that “this principle – that ‘whatever has been produced’ should not be ascribed either to labor or to capital alone – is certainly compatible with socialism.” In a footnote to a preceding section, however, Strand also notes that “the value of the product is due both to labor and capital – or, in Marxian terms, ‘living’ labor and ‘dead’ labor,” that is, to the workers currently engaged in production and those who previously produced the machines now being used by the former workers. But the point of Marx’s distinction between living and dead labor is precisely to show that the fruits of labor are due entirely to one class, the working class, whereas Pius’s clear intent in QA is to assert that those fruits belong to both the working and the owning classes, because both contribute to the value of the product. So here again Strand uses a seeming agreement to assert the opposite of what Pius says.
Let me explain further. When Marx claims that capital is “dead labor”, by “capital” he is referring to the means of production, the machinery and tools used to produce goods. In the passage from QA cited above and what follows it, Pius uses “property” and “capital” metonymically to refer to the class of people who own those machines. Pius, unlike Marx, believes that owners and managers contribute something to the value of products that the physical labor of workers does not, beyond simply providing the machines produced by other workers. Pope John Paul II spells out more clearly what this source of value is in Centesimus Annus: “[T]he ability to foresee both the needs of others and the combinations of productive factors most adapted to satisfying those needs . . . constitutes another important source of wealth in modern society” (#32). Marx largely thought of work in technical, mechanical terms, failing to see the full role of knowledge and insight in the production process, and more importantly in the formation of the business firm itself, but this is recognized in Catholic social teaching.
Because Marx insists that the labor of the working class is the only source of a product’s value, he concludes that the wage system is inherently unjust, that workers are by definition paid less than what they are owed because the owners take a portion of the revenues as profits. This line of argumentation seems to be the only reason why the Tradinistas insist that the wage system is in principle unjust, but the argument is both contrary to Catholic teaching and to common sense. This is why Catholic teaching insists that workers can be paid a just wage, sufficient for a decent livelihood, within the wage system. Catholic teaching does not insist that the tasks of physical labor on the one hand and planning, marketing, etc. on the other must be divided among different classes of people, nor that the latter alone must be associated with ownership; multiple forms of cooperative ownership, co-determination, and so on are encouraged. But neither is it morally unjust for a business firm to be divided in that way.
The Tradinista argument for the compatibility of Catholicism and socialism is based on a bait and switch: an overly broad definition of socialism to ensure its supposed compatibility with Catholic teaching, and then advocacy for a specific form of socialism that is made compatible by taking statements of Catholic social teaching out of context. There are other aspects of their agenda that are problematic or need further development, as well, that are beyond the scope of this post. For example, there is no treatment of praxis (see Centesimus Annus, #26): Not only do they not offer even the beginning of a plan on how to implement their ideas, it is not at all clear how their ideas arise from a reflection on the realities of contemporary economic life, where over three-quarters of workers are employed in the service sector rather than in producing goods in factories, or where profits in the financial sector have grown from 10 to 50 percent of total non-farm business profits since the Second World War. Ironically, both Marxism and Catholic social teaching agree that reflection has to be rooted in concrete reality, and the Tradinistas are therefore out of step with both.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.
The economic crisis of 2007-08 contributed to an increasing sense of disillusionment with the mainstream economic thinking of the left and particularly of the right, and as a result a number of heterodox ideas and traditions have gained renewed interest. This disillusionment has led to a great deal of ferment in Catholic circles in particular because Catholic social thought offers an intellectually rich tradition of thinking on economic issues that does not fit easily into mainstream categories.