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The Church of Economism and Its Discontents

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

The triad notions of Market Fundamentalism, Rugged Individualism and Corporate Collectivism construct the pyramid that exploits the people and the planet for the gains of the few.

In 2013, the newly minted Pope Francis released a torrent of energy directed at the capitalist world. In his "Joy of the Gospel" he wrote:

"Humanity is experiencing a turning point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time, we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “Thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality."

It is from the spiritual grounding that Pope Francis provides above, as well as from many other spiritual teachers of different cultures around the world that the Center for reGenerative Ecology, Education, and Enterprise Development (CREEED) is built upon. Pope Francis is right to highlight the many innovations brought about by the Industrial Age, the myriad ways that human life has thrived because of the technologies around us. But the larger point, that of a deep discomfort with the status quo, that of a world that is more and more for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many and at the expense of the planet that we are concerned.

The first notion that must be dispelled is that of Market Fundamentalism. This refers to the the reduction of all social relations to market logic, and often appears in critiques of political movements and neoliberal economics. Our concern here is with market fundamentalism as a widely held system of faith. This modern “religion” is essential for the maintenance of the global market economy, for justifying personal decisions, and for explaining and rationalizing the cosmos we have created. Although economics is cloaked in the rhetoric of science, the modern economy runs on faith. To begin to understand why faith is so essential to the operation of markets, consider the following scenario:

Imagine that a small number of people realize that our market-based food system is vulnerable to the rapid spread of plant and animal disease, the planetary limits of phosphorous use, the possibility of droughts hitting all of the major areas of grain production, and myriad other problems. These people would likely start trying to develop ways of growing food themselves to ensure their own survival, buying as much fertile land as possible. Now, imagine that this insight spread to more and more people. As these people lose their faith in food markets, they would walk off their jobs and try desperately to grow their own food. If this behavior became widespread, the economy would soon collapse, and the vast majority of humanity would starve, leaving the whole socioeconomic system in shambles. Is such a scenario any more difficult to imagine than a global financial crisis resulting from the bursting of a bubble driven by the belief that homes always go up in value?

“Planet Earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. If we don't learn that -- nothing is going to work. The beauty of the universe came into being without human consultation. The universe will never function that way again." - Thomas Berry

The second myth of the Industrial Age is that of Rugged Individualism. This particularly American term refers to the notion that individuals alone are responsible for their success in life and that their outcomes are not influenced by their starting point. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research study found that "73% of Americans believed success in life was determined by hard work rather than forces outside of their control".[4] We call upon a new economic paradigm that brings people together, rather than pitting them against each other. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a new economic ideology known as distributism was developed in Europe. According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right,[5] and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism, therefore, advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership.[6]Co-operative economist Race Mathews argues that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.[7]

Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism,[14][15] which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitive.[16] Thomas Storck argues: "both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenmentand are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism.[17][18] In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life".[19]

At the top of the pyramid we find the result of a society built upon the dual notions of Market Fundamentalism and Rugged Individualism, that of Corporate Collectivism. The industrialists and the wealthy in society have created a mutual aid society amongst themselves for their great profit at the expense of the planet and the people. During the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately this truth has only become greater exacerbated. Winston Churchill famously said "Never let a good crisis go to waste" and the 1% has taken great advantage of the pandemic to further cement their hold on the wealth of the world. According to the Guardian,

"the top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 92%, and the 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of American society – 165 million people. While millions of Americans have lost their jobs and incomes during the pandemic, over the past year 650 billionaires have seen their wealth increase by $1.3."[20]

Beyond accumulating wealth, the richest of the rich are also making unprecedented land grabs, across the world and in particular in the United States. Today, one percent of the world’s farms control 70% of the world’s farmlands. [21] In addition, individuals such as Bill Gates are buying up farm land in the United States at a rate never before seen. The dual consolidation of wealth and land accumulation by the wealthy will have devastating consequences if not fought against. It is with these dire foundations, that we turn to some examples of a compassionate brand of capitalism.

One that is not solely focused on short term profits at the expense of all else. Take the example of the Mondragon cooperative enterprises in Spain. This mighty company grew from a single worker owned cooperative in 1956, to a series of interrelated companies that today employ some 80,000 members. Centered in the Basque region it continues to succeed despite Spain's economic challenges. It is the most successful example of a long running (since 1956) commercial enterprise that honors labor as well as capital and sees human welfare as the priority.

We must create a new brand of capitalism (conscious capitalism) that retains those aspects of the system that encourage human initiative but discourages those aspects of the old system (of industrial-financial capitalism) that limit access to information, encourage greed or extreme self centeredness, and reward “phony productivity”. At the same time we must find ways to:

• foster better markets (for goods, services and capital) with more transparent information and lower cost of participation

• facilitate an outpouring of

relevant, coherent and useful information

• strengthen penalties for deception that distort the market and cause serious harm

• make capital more widely available for socially valuable initiatives (learning for instance from micro finance)

• take all real costs into account (significantly reducing externalities and the tragedy of the commons)

• focus innovation on real productivity that benefits the many as well as the few

• allocate rewards in a way that encourages socially valuable risk taking and ambition while simultaneously discouraging greed

• reduce, rather than expanded, income disparity

• place a premium on civility and cooperative competition that creates widespread social benefit

• justly rewards those responsible for successfully launching socially beneficial enterprises

• strongly encourage leadership and management the brings out the best in people at all levels of the society

This can be accomplished by seeding a series of interconnected trans-local communities that are in close communication and mutually beneficial commerce with similar communities in their region and across the globe. These communities must embody a richly textured meaning making system that gathers wisdom and color from a wide variety of perspectives and a diverse mix of historic cultures. At the same time it must have immediate access to the latest knowledge in a wide variety of disciplines and be able to turn that knowledge into know-how in highly innovative and effective ways. The economic order should encourage and reward creative efforts to provide greater real value across the broadest swath of the society. It should also place a premium on providing meaningful work for young people seeking to find an authentic place in society. Initially a small number of model communities should be established as proof of concept projects to work out challenges and perfect the concept. These communities should benefit from existing efforts and integrate current initiatives wherever possible.

It is from these philosophical groundings that the Center for reGenerative Ecology, Education, and Enterprise Development is formed. Please join us in our journey to bring about a new paradigm built upon love and compassion and not greed and exploitation.

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