The subtitle of Pope Francis’ stunning new encyclical, “‘Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” belies the preference of some that a pontiff not venture into economic matters—Jeb Bush, for instance. Etymologically, after all, economics is the discipline of managing a home; the encyclical’s heading therefore presents it as an economics for the world we hold in common. But what kind of economics is it?
As the document’s most uncomfortable critics have pointed out, the pope has little faith in the capacity of the market mechanisms of global capitalism to smooth out our reckless abuse of creation on their own. He is less than sanguine also about the capacity of national governments to do the job, especially since many are in the thrall of the same multinational corporations that profit from doing the damage. With neither capitalism alone nor the strong arm of states to turn to, it is no surprise that critics—Catholic ones most venomously—have accused him of economic naïveté and incoherence.
There is, however, a different sort of economics that helps us see the sense in what Francis proposes—the economics of the commons. This is a tradition that includes the “all things in common” described in the New Testament Book of Acts and the primacy of the common good over private property, upheld from Augustine to modern social teaching. People throughout history have practiced the art of “commoning” to steward goods that states and markets are not equipped to handle. The late Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in economics for her research on how longstanding communities govern resources like fisheries and forests, and today the commons of information is undergoing a revival through practices like open-source software. Communities manage their commons in many different ways, using many of the same tools we use to manage our households—like relationship, custom, listening, ritual and love. Act like a greedy homo economicus at the dinner table, and don’t expect to be offered dessert.
The Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has participated in the development of Catholic economic teaching before and during the present papacy. “From an economic point of view, the environment is a common good,” he told me. “It is not a private good or a public good, which means that we cannot cope with the problem of the environment using market mechanisms per se, or government intervention.” The ideas of Elinor Ostrom and other scholars of the commons have figured prominently in the academy’s proceedings. The Belgian open-source advocate Michel Bauwens and the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, have been invited speakers.
The kinds of remedies Francis proposes for our ecological sins often fit the logic of commoning. He calls for cooperative kinds of business that share wealth rather than accumulating it. He calls for prayer, for repentance and for dialogue—the kinds of things we do when something goes wrong in our household.
Especially controversial are the passages where Francis proposes “systems of governance for the whole range of so-called ‘global commons.’” Some have understood this as some kind of overreaching world government. But Zamagni insists that it is no such thing. Like the World Trade Organization, for instance, this might be something like the very agencies that capitalism relies on, though far more accountable than the W.T.O. to the world’s poorest, who are often the first to hear and suffer from the planet’s groanings.
Commoning is not a replacement for markets or states. Zamagni stresses that the consumerist capitalism that dismays Francis is not synonymous with markets as such. “The pope is not against the market economy,” he says; the problem is an idolatry that imagines markets can solve our moral crises for us. We can respect the usefulness of markets without needing to affirm their omnipotence.
This is the first third world encyclical—drafted by an African cardinal, Peter Turkson, and completed by a South American pope. Like Catholic social teaching in general, it declines to bow before the competing altars of Cold War economics. The commoning it calls for is the wisdom of the ancients, still hidden in plain sight among the “informal economies” at global capitalism’s margins. This is the art, at once, of keeping a loving home and of sharing a precious planet.
Thanks for this. Failing to recognize the commons is certainly not the exclusive practice of the GOP; Catholic tradition, thankfully, is a reminder that the totality of social possibilities, and certainly not all the demands of justice, are not encompassed by the existing political spectrum, here or anywhere. We need to be perpetually breaking out of ideological boxes in order to more completely recognize the challenge of the common good. Thinking of "the commons" is one way of doing that, but overly fixating on it, of course, would mean just hopping from one idolatry to another.
Thanks for this corrective—I may have misprepresented myself, as I completely agree. I don't think that church tradition leads us to a mush of relativism or transcendance of all positions, certainly; rather, that it holds positions that call into question the political lines drawn in secular discourse. For instance, it asks us whether it makes sense for the rights of unborn life to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum from the rights of non-human species, or for just redistribution to be posed against calls for local autonomy.
One of my favorite mantras consists of the entirety of Fr. Dan Berrigan's (highly unpopular at the time) commencement speech at a wealthy Jesuit high school: "Know where you stand, and stand there." The theology of the incarnation demands this, I think. We cannot be forever transcending the demands of the moment. But as Zora Neale Hurston put it, "There are years that ask questions and years that answer."
Thank you for your feedback. It's worth noting that "the tragedy of the commons" is an economic trope that has not fared well intellectually and emperically, even though it has continued to be repeated by those who believe markets can solve every kind of problem. This article describes Elinor Ostrom's refutation of the idea, to the point that Garrett Hardin, who coined the term, rolled back his position. At least as much of a problem, as David Bollier suggests, is a "tragedy of the non-commons."
I think it's highly condescending to claim that Francis is speaking solely from an Argentinian perspective. Many of his ideas about the economy are indistinguishable from those of Benedict XVI—whose Caritas et Veritate drew heavily on the work of Zamagni, quoted above. One doesn't have to look far in the United States, for instance, to see plentiful market failures in the form of poverty, homelessness, and a cruel, embarassing healthcare system.
That said, an economics of the commons shouldn't rule out states or markets. And I think that's related to what Adam Smith argued; as much of a prophet of markets as he was, as you point out, he recognized that there must be other forces that guide us toward the common good.