Pope Francis and the dehumanizing nature of contemporary economies
One of my favorite churchmen was Dom Hélder Câmara, the cardinal archbishop of Recife in Brazil. A short little figure in a simple brown cassock, Dom Hélder was very much a friend of the poor. He is famous for saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Two recent books go a long way toward explaining what lies behind Dom Hélder’s remark. Benjamin McKean’s Disorienting Neoliberalism analyzes the nature of the neoliberal political theory that dominates so much of the global economy today. Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method traces the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Cold War to ensure that developing nations did not stray from an American-dominated capitalist model, an effort that cost millions of lives, always in the name of fighting communism.
McKean, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, begins his study with two tragedies. The first was a December 2012 fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when some 125 people were forced to continue working when smoke began drifting into the factory, then died because there were no emergency exits and the regular exit was locked. A few months later, a far worse tragedy took place nine miles away when another garment factory collapsed, killing 1,132 and injuring another 2,500 workers—some of whom had pointed out cracks in the structure the day before but were forced to enter and work under threat of dismissal.
Because the garment industry represents 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, factory owners and politicians routinely ignored or violently repressed workers’ demands for better wages and safer conditions. What mattered were the demands of the markets, sustained by global supply chains, the interconnecting processes of designing, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, advertising and marketing inexpensive clothing for U.S. corporations like Walmart, Disney and Sears.
Coordinated by multinational companies that easily cross borders to avoid state efforts to regulate corporations, global supply chains have increased corporate profits but also exacerbated income inequality.
Coordinated by multinational companies that easily cross borders to avoid state efforts to regulate corporations, these global supply chains have increased corporate profits but also exacerbated income inequality, even in developed countries. For example, as McKean notes, “In 1965, the CEOs of the 350 largest firms in the United States earned twenty times as much as an average worker; in 2017, CEOs earned 312 times as much.”
Though the meaning of the term “neoliberalism” is often contested, there is wide agreement that it embraces various market-oriented views associated with free-market capitalism and economic libertarianism. It sees the market as the highest value. Theorists like Walter Lippmann, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman argue that when left to itself, the market can produce the best results. In other words, it should remain free, unregulated. The role of the state is to enforce contracts, protect property rights and free trade. Social safety nets are not important; they discourage self-discipline by permitting people to avoid the consequences of their decisions.
In such a vision political freedom is limited, and there is a rejection of state policies that might endanger the freedom of the market. “Even when an injustice is involved, the neoliberal view rules out action to end it,” McKean writes. Workers are treated as entrepreneurs in competition with each other, as independent contractors who need to sell their services to secure adequate employment, often from various part-time jobs.
Seeking alternative “orientations” to neoliberalism, McKean develops John Rawls’s egalitarian liberalism. Rawls sees the demands of justice as requiring solidarity as the way to orient our actions and political responsibilities, working for justice in an unjust world. He describes this as a “natural duty.” For many egalitarian liberals who follow him, the way to resist economic injustice is to re-politicize the economy by emphasizing the state’s sovereignty over the market, but the coercion this involves can violate freedom. This is not a solution for McKean. Neither is an orientation to reactionary resentment or to humanitarian engagement.
Benjamin McKean: “Even when an injustice is involved, the neoliberal view rules out action to end it."
McKean insists that there are always going to be winners and losers, and if one group is losing, it must be because others are cheating. This is the Trumpian argument against American jobs lost to China, making Chinese workers competitors with workers in the United States. Further, stressing the political agency of the privileged tends to emphasize the differences between them and the disadvantaged, frequently giving rise to resentment. The solution McKean recommends is to ally oneself with social movements that create networks of commitment and accountability, a process which, while often messy, can transform our self-understanding from entrepreneurs in competition with each other to partners in political action.
Neither Rawls nor McKean raise the question of the ultimate grounds for the demands of justice. In other words, their arguments are pragmatic rather than metaethical or theological. This recalls the famous 2004 debate in Munich between Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas about whether the modern, democratic state could justify its presuppositions about law and human rights without a metaphysical or religious foundation. Habermas answered positively, while Ratzinger responded in the negative, arguing that if human rights are based only on social consensus, the process of grounding them remains fragile. The shocking invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is evidence of how fragile that social consensus is.
Bevins, an award-winning journalist for The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, opens his book with the story of a young girl who fled Indonesia with her family during the growing violence in the struggle between communism and capitalism that would lead to the slaughter of close to a million people, only to arrive in Brazil two years before the military replaced its young democracy with a violent dictatorship. The story of these events, in which the C.I.A. played a major role, is the struggle for independence of largely non-white, Third World nations against a resurgent colonialism. Their leaders, most of whom were not communist, associated the United States with its mostly imperialist Western European allies, while the Soviet Union was seen as a friend against colonialism. The Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955 brought many of them together, seeking to become independent nations, free of their racist colonial past.
In his opening address, Indonesia’s charismatic first president, Sukarno, described the event as the “first intercontinental conference of colored people in the history of mankind!” But 1955 also marked the beginning of a decade of C.I.A. efforts, using propaganda and covert operations, to replace their leaders and undermine their movements, sometimes supplying lists of individuals to be eliminated as communists or alleged communists in countries around the world, including Brazil, Iran, the Philippines, Vietnam, the Congo, Guatemala, Iraq and Indonesia. Much of this took place under John Foster Dulles, obsessed with fighting communism and safeguarding the rights of multinational corporations, and his brother Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA.
At the time, Indonesia had the world’s largest communist party after the Soviet Union and China, but it was independent and unarmed. It was also the least corrupt, its leaders disciplined and effective in the aid it brought to the poor. The strongest anticommunist force was the army, as well as the radical Islamists. As Sukarno moved to the left, pushing a moderate land reform program, a rebellion broke out in some parts of the country, and Washington began supporting the rebels, hoping to destroy the government or divide the country.
After the C.I.A. operative Frank Wisner received the authority to spend $10 million to back the rebels, C.I.A. pilots began a bombing campaign against some of the islands, revealed when Allen Lawrence Pope, a C.I.A. pilot, was shot down in May 1958. The United States worked to destabilize the government, supporting anticommunist members of the armed forces, and training many in the United States; weakening the country economically to protect U.S. business interests, especially its oil companies; and spreading propaganda. The opposition to Sukarno from the right continued to grow.
On Sept. 30, 1965, a group of mid-level army officers known as the September 30th Movement seized seven of the country’s highest-ranking officers in a midnight raid, allegedly to prevent a “counterrevolutionary coup.” By 9 in the morning, six of the generals were dead; only one managed to escape. Responsibility for their deaths and for the plot itself remains unclear.
Pope Francis: "The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith."
But not the result. By Oct. 2, the right-wing General Suharto, considered by the C.I.A. to be anticommunist and “friendly” to Washington, had seized power. He shut down all media except for those controlled by the military. Even though Sukarno legally was still the president, U.S. and British propaganda supported Suharto, who used the murder of the generals to bolster his regime, producing a three-hour film still shown each year, while also dedicating a massive marble monument in Jakarta to their memory.
The propaganda produced by these foreign agencies, designed to demonize the Indonesian communist party, may also have supported a gruesome Indonesian narrative of the murder of the generals by sexually depraved communist women who mutilated their sexual organs, though both U.S. and British documents remain classified.
Also in October of that year, military and paramilitary forces in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh began a campaign of arresting and killing suspected communists. As the slaughter spread throughout the country, it was encouraged by the American ambassador, who provided lists of suspected communists (as U.S. officials had done in Guatemala in 1954 and Iraq in 1963). The victims eventually numbered between 500,000 and a million, with another million put in concentration camps. The 2012 award-winning documentary film “The Act of Killing” re-enacts some of the murders.
On March 6, 1967, Sukarno was forced to hand over executive power to Suharto. Bevins cites historian John Roosa: “Almost overnight the Indonesian government went from being a fierce voice for cold war neutrality and anti-imperialism to a quiet, compliant partner of the US world order.”
By 1969, both Indonesia and Brazil had become anticommunist military dictatorships opposed to anything resembling socialism, land reform, workers’ rights or unionization, or challenges to economic monopolies. When Salvador Allende was elected in Chile in 1970 despite C.I.A. efforts to the contrary, the Brazilian government began working with right-wing elements in Chile to overthrow him. Soon the phrase “Jakarta se acerca,” or “Jakarta is Coming,” or simply “Jakarta” began appearing, first in two articles detailing the mass murder of communists in Indonesia, then on murals and flimsy postcards sent to officials in Allende’s government.
The killings began shortly after Allende was overthrown and General Augusto Pinochet became dictator. Pinochet quickly brought in several Chilean economists who had studied at the University of Chicago; they made Chile a test case for neoliberal economics, which would soon structure developing countries as well. And so the subjects of our two books come together in a new imperialism.
Some of the opposition to Pope Francis comes from his opposition to neoliberalism. In his encyclical "Fratelli Tutti," the pope says: “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle”—without using the name—as the only solution to societal problems” (No. 168).
The two books are well-researched and documented, though their styles are quite different. McKean’s language is that of the academy; it is rather dense with long sentences and frequently abstract. Bevans writes as a journalist; his book is much easier to read, though it needs an index and bibliography. But both help us better understand our world today.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “The violence of modern economies,” in the April 2021, issue.