Fratelli Tutti Challenges the Utopia of Neoliberalism

A left economic agenda is actually reasonable and – dare we say it – moderate. Our rhetorical focus should be on the de facto extremism of so-called centrists themselves, and Pope Francis' recent encylical shows us why.

On October 3rd, Pope Francis traveled outside of Rome for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic to visit the hometown of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, on the eve of the 13th century friar’s canonical feast day. After celebrating Mass in the crypt where the saint’s remains are interred, the pope formally signed the third encyclical letter of his pontificate, and the second to take its title from the writings of the earlier Francis: Fratelli tutti. Not only does this new document contain much for critics of global capitalism to applaud, but the framing of its systemic critiques potentially offers important strategic lessons for those working to build a more democratic global economy.

Encyclicals are one the most authoritative kinds of doctrinal statements that a pope can issue. While historically these were narrowly focused on clarifying the Church’s position on a particular theological question, in recent times they have tended to be much broader in scope. Francis’ previous encyclical, 2015’s Laudato si’ (which also begins with a quotation from Francis of Assisi) is often described as being “about global warming,” when in fact it deals with climate change only briefly and by way of illustrating how environmental degradation is merely a symptom of the deeper crises afflicting the modern world.

Likewise, Fratelli tutti, Italian for “brothers and sisters all,” has as its stated focus the question of “fraternity and social friendship,” but ends up ranging widely over such topics as fake news and international law. (Despite some controversy about the alleged sexism of the title, which could plausibly be translated as simply “brothers all,” the first line of the English version makes clear that the pontiff intends for it to be read in an inclusive way; St. Francis, he relates, “addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel.”)

As is the case with much of the thought of Pope Francis – and what often vexes both his progressive and traditionalist critics – Fratelli tutti is at once orthodox and innovative. Its commentary on economics, for instance, is clearly in continuity with the writings of the popes since Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum on the conflict between capital and labor is generally taken to inaugurate the modern tradition of Catholic social thought. Yet it is also notable for being the first encyclical to explicitly condemn “neoliberalism” and the “magic theories” invoked to justify its depredations. (Even Francis himself has until now been generally hesitant to go beyond more generic condemnations of “the prevailing economic system” or “an economy that kills.”)

Its characterization of Catholic teaching on political economy as a middle way between ideological extremes is also standard fare. Beginning with Leo XIII, recent popes have consistently sought to present the Church’s social doctrine as an alternative both to theories that unduly exalt individualism, like laissez-faire, and to those that would allow the individual to be swallowed up in a collective, like Soviet Communism. Francis considers another binary, that of “globalization and localization,” and explains how universal fraternity involves a balance between the two, “a healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family”:

“We need to have a global outlook to save ourselves from petty provincialism. When our house stops being a home and starts to become an enclosure, a cell, then the global comes to our rescue, like a ‘final cause’ that draws us towards our fulfilment. At the same time, though, the local has to be eagerly embraced, for it possesses something that the global does not: it is capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment, of sparking mechanisms of subsidiarity… Just as there can be no dialogue with ‘others’ without a sense of our own identity, so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots… ”

According to Francis, this tension manifests in the political arena as a struggle between tribalist “populism” and cosmopolitan “liberalism,” both of which breed indifference to the needs of the vulnerable, albeit for different reasons: the former because it “exploits them demagogically for its own purposes,” and the latter because it ultimately does nothing more than “[serve] the economic interests of the powerful.” He laments how “‘[o]pening up to the world’ is an expression that has been co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries.”

This dynamic is all too familiar here in the U.S., where anger at a political establishment that presided over decades of deindustrialization, outsourcing, and increasing precarity for the working class has fueled the rise of reactionary forces and helped bring Trump to power, yet the response of many elected Democrats is to deflect attention from the root causes of these trends and insist that we simply need a return to “normalcy.” To apply the pope’s schema to our own context, one pole would be represented by xenophobic nationalists who blame immigrants for all of our economic woes, and the other by respectable CEO’s who proclaim the value of diversity while exploiting foreign guest workers to undermine labor standards. It’s a dangerous moment indeed when you’re more likely to read about how “[c]orporations embrace a progressive agenda that from an accounting perspective costs them nothing” not in the platform of the Democratic Party, but in a book by Tucker Carlson.

Pope Francis calls for “a world that provides land, housing and work for all”; says that “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere”; and insists that “[t]he right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use.” If someone described to you the economic vision of Fratelli tutti but told you nothing about its author, you would probably describe it as “left-wing.” Yet true to the social encyclical brand, these ideas are credibly packaged as a middle way between extremes.

And why shouldn’t they be? The pope is not engaged in any deception here. In a very real sense, a left economic agenda actually is reasonable and – dare we say it – moderate. People on the left are understandably squeamish about any talk of “third ways,” given the history of Western neoliberals like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embracing the term to describe their own politics. But perhaps progressives, democratic socialists, and other leftists should put aside their squeamishness and try a similar rebrand.

Maybe it’s time to start turning the tables and asking who the real extremists are: those who believe in playing it safe by taking every feasible step to limit carbon emissions and reduce the risk of catastrophic damage from climate change, or those who would rather roll the dice and hope that tinkering around the edges will be enough? Those who believe that a wealthy society can responsibly and efficiently provide health insurance for everyone who needs it by creating a gigantic risk pool consisting of the whole population, or those who entertain pie-in-the-sky ideas about the supposed wonders of a private insurance market? Neoliberalism should not even have a claim to, let alone a monopoly over, the language of prudence.

On the subject of healthcare in particular, polling has shown an apparent paradox. A 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that a majority of Americans, including 58% of independents and 77% of Democrats, would support “Medicare for All.” Yet the same survey also found that by a margin of 55%-40%, Democratic voters preferred candidates who sought to “build on the existing ACA [Affordable Care Act]” rather than those aiming to “replace the ACA with Medicare for All.”

Some might say that enthusiasm for “Medicare for All” would be dampened if it were described in less glowing terms or if the fact that it would require raising taxes were made explicit; in fact, the KFF poll itself found that this is likely the case. But the second question suggests another way in which framing effects matter: talk of “building on existing policies” seems to make the typical Democratic voter less nervous than talk of “replacing existing policies,” even if the replacement is something they support in the abstract. It’s undeniable that cautious incrementalism has an aesthetic appeal. “Centrist” or “moderate” politicians (at least in the Democratic Party) benefit from the perception that they are practical and unconcerned with “purity tests.” This fact is implicitly acknowledged by anyone who embraces the logic of “moving the Overton Window”: would Joe Biden be proposing to “build on the ACA” with a public option without the threat of an increasingly organized movement for a “more extreme” single payer system?

This is not an admonition for democratic socialists to eschew the “s-word” out of fears about redbaiting. Such tactics will be used against leftists (or even corporate-friendly Democrats) regardless of how they self-identify. Rather, it’s a suggestion that the rhetorical focus should be on the de facto extremism of so-called centrists themselves rather than on portraying democratic socialism as a revolutionary break with mainstream politics, even if the actual changes that socialists seek would be revolutionary in their impact on people’s lives.

A template for this kind of approach has actually been offered by none other than Senator Bernie Sanders, who has consistently identified himself as a democratic socialist throughout his career (quibbling about the accuracy of the label notwithstanding) yet whose broadsides against the Democratic establishment tend not to involve talk of “moving the party left,” but rather of making the party less beholden to corporate interests and more attuned to the needs of working people. These may sound like the same thing to committed Sanders supporters, but to many Americans, especially those who are disenchanted with and disconnected from the political process, the messages can be received quite differently.

The “left/center/right” political spectrum is deeply ingrained in many of our heads. Ultimately though, this is just one simplified model among many of the multidimensional topological space of political ideologies. Just as the three stars in Orion’s Belt would seem to be ordered differently if viewed from certain distant galaxies, so too might “leftism” appear “centrist,” and “centrism” and “rightism” appear “extreme,” if understood from an alternate vantage point. In any event, those who don’t spend a lot of time immersed in the world of media punditry already think about ideology in ways that can seem incoherent to those who do. Exit polling from the 2016 Democratic primary in West Virginia found that, of the 40% of voters who said they wanted the presidential nominee to be “less liberal” than Barack Obama, more than two thirds voted for Sanders over Clinton.

At various points in Fratelli tutti, Francis almost sounds embarrassed, as if acknowledging that the reader probably thinks him an unserious idealist for spouting off about “universal fraternity.” In his discussion of the virtue of “political charity,” he sheepishly offers that it “may seem naïve and utopian, yet we cannot renounce this lofty aim.” While exhorting the international community to guarantee that developing countries are not crushed by foreign debt, he admits that “[c]ertainly, all this calls for an alternative way of thinking. Without an attempt to enter into that way of thinking, what I am saying here will sound wildly unrealistic.”

Once one makes the required mental shift, however, it becomes clear that there can never be “real and lasting peace” without “a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation.” Francis identifies and confronts the reflexive embarrassment that “idealists” have been conditioned to feel about their ideals, but then pushes past it. After all, what is the alternative? “The notion of ‘every man for himself’ will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic,” he writes. Or, as Slavoj Zizek – someone increasingly unlikely to agree with the pope about very much at all – put it almost twenty years ago, “[t]he ultimate answer to the reproach that… radical Left proposals are utopian should thus be that, today, the true utopia is the belief that the present liberal-democratic capitalist consensus could go on indefinitely.”

Fratelli tutti is valuable not only for what it says, but for how it says it. It demonstrates how an “ethic of solidarity” can be recast not as wishful thinking, but as the only responsible way forward. The pope asks both followers of Jesus and “all people of good will” to “dream… as a single human family… brothers and sisters all.” We may be dreaming, but it’s not a pipe dream. We should not concede to the skeptics that it is.

Matt Mazewski is a PhD student in economics at Columbia University and rapporteur of the University Seminar on Catholicism, Culture, and Modernity. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattmazewski.


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