The Moral Bankruptcy of Neoliberalism

WelCom August 2020 Neil Vaney SM Watching thousands of marchers all over the world yelling against the oppression of people of colour [following the death of George Floyd on 25 May while…

WelCom August 2020

Neil Vaney SM

Neil Vaney SM

Watching thousands of marchers all over the world yelling against the oppression of people of colour [following the death of George Floyd on 25 May while in police custody in Minneapolis], it was easy to feel moments of hope and optimism. After the race riots of the 1960s and the economic meltdown of Wall Street in 2007–08 there were similar protests and promises of reform. Nothing much changed. The shadow of slavery still haunts the collective soul of United States. Yet beneath this is an even more malignant slavery, more noxious because it is barely visible.

In the May 26 edition of The CommonWealth Magazine there is an essay by Paul Lakeland SJ on the long-term effects of neoliberalism. Paul is the Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Neoliberalism, described in his brief outline, is the theory most linked to Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-British economist and philosopher who died in 1992. His central thesis is that all human social activity can be explained in terms of wealth, value and price. For these to operate most effectively there is need of a free and competitive market where each person will work most effectively to ensure their own self-interest. This in turn will lead to the most efficient and happiest societies.

The impact of Neoliberalism

This has been the dominant economic philosophy driving the policies of nearly all democratic nations for the last 30 to 40 years. 

Here are some of the outcomes for the USA: 

  • One per cent of the population holds 38 per cent of private wealth while the bottom 90 per cent hold 73.2 per cent of all debt. 
  • At this time one per cent of the population retains more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent. 
  • Globally speaking the situation is even more dire; 42 individuals have as much wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. 

A classic study of these statistics is spelled out in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Inner Level, described by Polly Toynbee of the Guardian newspaper in 2019 as ‘the great classic of inequality research’. Their detailed and piercing analysis shows the greater the inequalities that exist in any society, the higher the levels of violent crime, drug addiction and mental distress. This sits side-by-side with Lakeland’s observation that though the USA is one of the richest nations it is the only one that has no national health system and where life expectancy is declining, not increasing. 

A new phase of Capitalism

It is the social and spiritual cost of such trends that Lakeland goes on to explore that will be of most interest to ministers of the gospel. Many people are vaguely aware of these problems but would agree they are just an inevitable result of much greater choice for consumers facilitated by free international trade with very little in the way of controls or barriers. The state can limit any damage by providing subsidies to keep the lowly paid above the poverty line. Prominent economists and politicians indicate there is really no alternative to this system. The insidious result of this dominant ideology is the assumption that being a consumer with the widest range of products and choices is the height of human freedom and ensures the best chance for fullness of life and happiness. This conviction is reinforced by internet giants such as Google and Facebook. Not only do they know where we are and much of our personal details, they know our preferences and design their algorithms to track and feed our wants and whims. We have moved into an era of what is being labelled ‘surveillance capitalism’. The price of such excessive individualism is that it leads to human dignity and worth being subjugated by market ‘necessity’. Invariably it is those at the bottom of the economic heap with the least power who suffer most. The anger and disenchantment aroused by such policies is manifest in areas such as the American Midwest where large numbers voted for Trump in the hope that his populist policies would restore the work and local communities which had been wiped out. This in turn has helped to fuel distrust of authority and the rise of extremist groups. This has then led to the rise of more authoritarian governments worldwide.

The concept of ‘Spiritual Resistance’

To fight against such ideologies Lakeland describes the path of ‘spiritual resistance’ adopted by a small group of Jesuits during the Nazi occupation of France. They were able to see that it was not the military might of the Nazis that presented the greatest danger but even more the ideology they used to split and divide occupied nations. Presenting themselves as the fulfilment of Christianity they espoused values such as work, family and fatherland with which they drew Churches into compromise and collaboration. 

Among the Jesuits who fought against these trends were Gaston Fessard, Hernri de Lubac and Yves de Montcheuil. They saw themselves as part, not of a political action, but as defenders of the gospel. They regularly published the anti-Nazi journal Cahiers du témoignage chrétien and the more popular Courrier français. De Montcheuil was captured and executed by the Nazis in 1944.

In her work Christianity and the new Spirit of Capitalism the American theologian Kathryn Turner suggests that only Christianity has a powerful enough vision of the unity of the world to fight against the immense global power of neoliberalism. This echoes the repeated call of Pope Francis that Catholics should try to live more simply and stand by the poor. Some of you reading this article may teach in schools, or sit on administrative Boards that can sway public opinion. All of us can show by our lifestyles that we are not primarily consumers and that a wide range of choices is not the most important human freedom. Nor are we destined to keep on producing at ever greater rates till our planet can no longer bear the cost. There are other ways to live with mutual care and respect for one another and for planet earth.

Neil Vaney is a Wellington-based Marist priest ordained in 1969 and is now pastoral director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre. He obtained a PhD in environmental ethics and the theology of nature from Otago University in Otago in 1993 before teaching Christian Ethics in the Catholic Theological College in Auckland for 15 years.