Friday, November 21, 2008

Corporatism, Commonweal and the Just Society

Archbishop Lazar Puhalo
University of the Fraser Valley
21 November 2008.

Corporatism, Commonweal and the Just Society

  • Is not this the manner of fast that I have commanded: to loose the bonds of repression, to lift the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free, and that you should break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you shall bring the poor that are cast out to your own home? Is it not that when you see the naked, you shall clothe him; and that you do not hide from your own weaknesses? Then shall your light break forth as the dawn, and your spirit will quickly spring forth: and your righteousness shall go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your recompense. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

  • ....Then the King will say to those on his right hand, Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry, and you gave me food: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in: naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me.
  • ....Then shall the righteous answer, Lord, when did we You hungry, and fed You, or thirsty, and gave You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in or naked, and clothed You? Or when did we see You sick or in prison, and visit You?
  • ....And the King will answer them, I tell you in truth, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

....No society which is governed by ideologies can possibly be a "just society." The original meaning of "justice" (Lat. jusitita; Gk. dikaionsine) is "to balance, to set aright, rightness," etc. It indicates a recompense to those who have been wronged, even if they have been wronged by legal means. Justice did not have a juridical connotation until late middle Latin. It did not and does not mean simply "to punish." Nor does it mean to uphold a given ideology and attempt to force it on the community by means of the state power. In terms of a "just society," we must refer to the concepts of social justice, the commonweal, the common good. By "commonweal," we do not mean corporatism. As an example, in Socrates' Apology, he tells a story that illustrates the tension between corporatism and commonweal. Zeus, Socrates relates, decided to help mankind create a human society. He sent Hermes to distribute the necessary technical and managerial skill to certain people. The result was a society based on self-interest and expertise. Such a society was centrifugal and fragmented. As the philosopher John Ralston-Saul observes, Zeus had created a society based on the corporatist model. The economic and social structures were based on professional self-interest. People were defined and their value established by what they did. In more contemporary terms, this would be the corporatism of consumer capitalism, also based on self-interest and self-centredness: defining people by what and how much they consume.
....Zeus sees the error and decides to remedy it by having Hermes distribute social reverence (aidos) and right-mindedness (diki) to every person. Social reverence signifies a sense of "community," a shared awareness, a shared knowledge of self-constraint and belonging. Right-mindedness relates to a sense of social justice, integrity, freedom, and social order: a shared sense of responsibility. An example of this would be the Canada Health Care Act. Under our health care system, Canadians share the burden for one another, and this is perhaps our highest moral accomplishment as a nation. Those who are ill are not corporatised as "consumers of medical services," but rather are seen as equal human beings with equal access to the basic human right of adequate health care.
....This is what we refer to as "commonweal." It defines people simply as "fellow human beings," as members of a community that we call "humanity."
....Corporatism in a consumer capitalist economic system reorganizes society with the reduction of the individual to his or her status as a consumer. To consume is patriotic; to consume in excess is to raise the level of one's social status. This present economic world order presents us with intense moral and ethical contradictions, arguing that greed, self-gratification, and excess consumption are simply aspects of human nature. This argument, taken from the doctrines of Social Darwinism, is certainly questionable. As author Linda McQuaig observes in her essay, "Lost in the Global Shopping Mall":

  • Perhaps we are in danger of becoming such a culture, but it is important to remember that culture itself is a learned set of rules The concept of the "common good" is one that has fallen out of favour in recent years. Over the past two decades, it has become increasingly common to dismiss the notion that we all share an interest in the broader community, that society is more than simply a collection of individuals all pursuing their own individual material self-interest..... The rapaciousness of certain business leaders has been much in the spotlight recently.... Even conservative pundits appear shaken by the astounding greed and dishonesty at the heart of ... corporate culture. Still, some shrug it off as simple human nature, saying that we are inherently a competitive, acquisitive species, naturally inclined to push our own self-interest as far as we possibly can. But is this the whole picture? Is our society really nothing more than a loose collection of shoppers, graspers and self-absorbed swindlers? "

And as Paolo Virno has suggested:

  • At the base of contemporary cynicism is the fact that men and women learn by experiencing rules rather than `facts'... Learning the rules, however, also means recognizing their unfoundedness and conventionality. We are no longer inserted into a single, predefined `game' in which we participate with true conviction.
  • ....We now face several different `games,' each devoid of all obviousness and seriousness. Only the site of an immediate self-affirmation – an affirmation that is much more brutal and arrogant, much more cynical, the more we employ, with no illusions but with perfect momentary adherence, those very rules whose conventionality and mutability we have perceived.

....At this point we may also refer to the corporatization of morality and, to some extent, of Christianity. And here we have one of the primary reasons why Christianity itself has lost much, even most, of its influence in Western nations. It is no longer seen as having any true moral authority. The concept of commonweal — the common good — is foundational to an authentic sense of morality and to the idea of a just society. A clear and profound doctrine of commonweal is affirmed by Jesus Christ with his two great moral imperatives, ("love your neighbour as yourself" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). Christ makes the love of neighbour (together with unconditional love of God) the very foundation and essence of the Law and the Prophets. The fulfillment of such a moral imperative certainly requires a direct encounter and interaction with culture and society. Unfortunately, this is an encounter that has been either abandoned, corporatized or reduced to outbursts of legalistic, juridical moralism by many Christian bodies. This is often coupled with the utopian fantasy of the mythological "godly nation." This leads to a deconstruction of Christianity by blending it with the unfounded socio-cultural constructs of this utopian fantasy. This in turn undermines the concept of a just society by reinterpreting the concept in the juridical terms of rules of externally correct behaviour. This approach corporatises human beings into categories which often prevent the effective encounter with human catastrophes and social injustices. When people are corporatised as "godly" or "ungodly," or "good" and "bad" in a moralistic way, punishment too often becomes the definition of "justice." In such a circumstance, there is little chance of a healing of social problems. Interaction with society under these concepts often consists primarily in scolding politicians and demanding that the law enforce on all citizens the sort of behaviour considered to be correct according to a given ideology, whether or not it ultimately has an overall positive effect on that society. We must avoid the inner contradictions of moralism and address the whole scope of true morality. Contrary an ideological approach, the Christian community must engage society and culture in a creative and interactive way. This would entail a deep sense of social justice, not juridical justice. The healing of social injustices can prevent as much crime, and sometimes more effectively, than juridical concepts of justice.

Justice, Morality and Moralism?
True morality consists far more in how well we care for one another rather than in what sort of behaviour we demand of others, and so it must certainly be tied to valid concepts of social justice.

....Some years ago, when a large body of us had gathered in Ottawa to protest the civil sanctions against Iraq because about 500 children were dying each day because of these sanctions. I approached a group of Pro-life protesters in Ottawa. I asked them to join our protest because of the death of all these children. The members of the group were essentially very right-wing Christians, and they were quite rude and openly hostile to our protest. They refused, in an openly condemnatory manner, our invitation to express a sincere pro-life position by joining us in protesting the deaths of these thousands of children in Iraq. Yet, how can Christians consider it to be an authentic expression of morality or "pro-lifeism" to oppose the killing of unborn children while ignoring the killing of children who are already born? Is it truly moral to protect the lives of unborn children while ignoring or trivializing the fact that they will have to grow up in a world where, because of our own excess and ideologies, they will not have sufficient food and many of the necessary natural resources will have been squandered and climate change will have made their lives precarious and uncertain?
....It is neither just nor moral to deny global warming for the sake of a religious ideology. It is genuinely evil to deny it in order to protect corporate profits. Is it actually moral to demand that governments enforce the sort of correct personal behaviour that our own ideologies demand while turning consumer capitalism into a religious doctrine that cannot be subjected to critique and criticism? One fatal flaw in the preaching of Christianity that has had negative effects in North America is the failure to distinguish between morality and moralism. From an authentic Christian point of view, true morality has to do not only with salvation but with every aspect of our inter-human relations; it is not simply a system of correct behaviour.
....True morality is not a system of law which, if obeyed, makes one a moral person. Nor does holiness consist in ultra-correct behaviour; rather it consists in perfect unselfish love. It is necessary to have laws relating to ethics and civil conduct for the sake of society, but such laws have little to do with the change of a person's heart and an inner transformation into the image of Christ's love. Morality is not a form of bondage but a path of liberation. True morality cannot be expressed in a society that does not base itself on concepts of social justice and the care for all the members of that society equally, no matter what their circumstances.
....When we speak of "the law of God," we are not speaking of an ordinary, worldly notion of "law." God's law is not given to repress us but to protect us. If we are driving along a dangerous highway and the signs warn us to slow down because there is a dangerous curve in the road, that is a "law." The speed limit is set by law. If we disregard that law and crash over a cliff because we are driving too fast, we do not claim that the government punished us by making us crash. On the contrary, the government tried to save us from serious injury or death by making that law. This is precisely the meaning of the "law of God," of our system of morality. God has revealed to us a manner of life that can keep us from much pain and suffering and from many disasters. He has called upon us to realize that his law is a law of love, and that we should obey it out of love and trust in him, not from fear of punishment. Moreover, such true morality constrains us to imitate God's love in our dealings with the world. This is the essence of true morality, that it consists far more in how well we care for one another rather than in what sort of behaviour we demand of others, and so it must certainly be tied to valid concepts of social justice.
....When we speak of true morality, we are not referring to simple obedience to a system of law but a free accord with a system of spiritual healing. The authentic Christian spiritual life really does provide us with the means for moral healing, but even among our own people, we see so many who never experience such healing. This is because they encounter only moralism: "Obey this law or God will do something bad to you." There can be no such thing as a just society when that society is manipulated by fear and fundamentalist religious aggression. No just society or true morality can be manifested in the face of an arrogant and condescending ideology such as the "rapture" theory. Rapturism (which has no roots in ancient Christianity), corporatises humans into sharp categories of "us" and "them," of "they" who deserves to suffer and "we" who do not. It also innately disregards the human destruction of our biosphere, positing that those unworthy humans who are corporatised as the "left behind" deserve to suffer the ecological consequences, and so nothing should be done about them.
....Moralism does not take into account what is necessary to actually heal a person and deliver them from the bondage of their inner suffering so they can lead a moral life; it thinks only about condemnation and punishment. But let us indicate how these ideas have a direct bearing on our subject. Our modern consumerism inclines a society not only to excess but also to self-centredness and indifference. One can opt to blame such attitudes on Satan, but when one does, let him remember that the power of Satan in our lives can be defeated only by means of unselfish love, by adopting a sincere sense of commonweal—to love your neighbour as yourself—in place of a desensitized self-interest. There is no such thing as Christian morality without an inner struggle toward unselfish love, self-constraint, and a sincere concern for the welfare not only of those around us but also for future generations. Moralism condemns, usually with arrogant self-righteousness, while the spirit of a true concept of morality seeks one's own moral healing and the moral healing of those around us so they might be liberated from bondage to inner human suffering. It must be based in concepts of an effective social justice and the desire to contribute to a truly just society. This is the concept of morality that can keep us alive spiritually in our consumerist and corporatised secular culture without resort to recorporatising it with a religious ideology in place of a living, vital Faith.

The Corporatisation of Morality

....The corporatisation of morality may be a product of radical individualism or simply of an egoistic ideology. Organizing and spending large sums of money to protest and lobby against certain forms of personal behaviour may be useful, but there is an inner contradiction that is inexcusable when the same organizers refuse to condemn corporate immorality or organize and finance lobbying about environmental issues that relate to the very survival of whole populations and the health, welfare, and survival of future generations. The destruction of the environment is every bit as immoral and kills just as many children as does abortion. Any sincere "pro-life" movement that does not wish to be riddled with internal contradictions that undermine its veracity, should certainly be in the forefront of the environmental movement. Any truly just concept of morality will encompass corporate and environmental immorality with the same fervour that it addresses what it considers to be personal immorality. It is urgent for us, as moral human beings, to recognize that future generations will pay a terrible price for the excess and overindulgence of our era. We cannot separate spirituality from moral responsibility and here, consumerism poses yet another challenge. Since consumerism thrives on over-consumption, not only must products not be durable, as we mentioned before, but they should not be reasonably "upgradable" either. Computers, for example, are discarded and replaced regularly. Let us look at the injustice and moral tragedy of this problem.
....In Canada alone, 140,000 tons of computer equipment, cell phones, and other types of electronic equipment. are discarded into waste disposal yards every year. That is the weight of about 28,000 fully-grown adult African elephants. This results in 4,750 tons of lead, 4.5 tons of
cadmium, and 1.1 tonnes of mercury being leached into the water system and food chain every year. These toxic heavy metals are already creating havoc on people's health and causing a loss of drinking water reserves. Future generations will pay a devastating price for all this: for our addiction to "convenience," speed and the status symbols of a callous and indifferent society, the very status symbols that help to corporatise us.
....Whether we care enough to do something about it or to resist this aspect of consumerism is both a social justice and a moral issue. It is also a barometer of our spirituality.
....Yet we need not succumb to what J├╝rgen Habermas calls "personality systems without any aspiration to subjective truth nor secure processes for communal interpretation." This is why it is so important for us to consider the role that authentic morality can play in this unfolding drama of our present era. We cannot have such a role if we opt out of the political dialogue and refuse to engage culture and interact with the society around us in a creative and healing way which aims primarily for a truly just society.Without this, there can be no authentic system of morality.