Just Because It Isn’t Capitalism Doesn’t Mean It Is Socialism

Just Because It Isn’t Capitalism Doesn’t Mean It Is Socialism November 5, 2020

Louis Le Breton: Mammon /Wikimedia Commons

It is common for some people to say to each and every critic of capitalism, because they are critical of capitalism, they must be socialists, and if they are socialists, they must not be given credence since socialism is erroneous. Such an argument an ad hominem fallacy, because whether or not a critique is accurate does not depend upon if someone is a socialist or not. Indeed, if the reverse were done, and someone denounced a capitalist criticism of socialism merely because it was capitalistic, they would likewise follow the same fallacious form of argument.[1] Nonetheless, what is especially wrong with this argument is that it assume anyone who does not support capitalism, any criticism which questions capitalism, must be socialism. This is far from true. Capitalism and socialism are merely two of many possible economic systems of thought. There are many more which are possible. And it is possible for someone to follow no system, thinking all attempts of system building fails, and it is better to deal with issues as they arise. That is, someone might think systems as a whole are faulty constructions which fail to match reality; they might contain elements of truth in them, but they also ignore many other elements, indeed, features of the truth which transcend human thought, so that by trying to follow a particular system ends up deficient insofar as the fullness of the truth is ignored.

Pope St. John Paul II understood this. He saw how many people were playing the downfall of communism as indicative of the rightness of capitalism. He said that fighting against communism and socialism does not leave capitalism as the alternative which must be upheld: “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.” [2]

If we are not to limit ourselves to capitalism we must stop asserting any and all criticisms of capitalism are “socialist” and to be rejected. Not only is this because there are alternatives to capitalism, some of which are not systematic, but also because many things which socialists criticized capitalism for have proven to be true. Indeed, the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism have long been a point in favor of socialistic critiques of capitalism, and those critiques have long been held by Christians as they study Scripture and it teachings concerning the treatment of the poor and its denunciation of greed. Indeed, this is as it should be expected, since capitalism is about the accumulation of wealth, and so, it follow the dictates of Mammon.

St. John Paul II pointed out that the abuses of unregulated capitalism led the church to denounce the “inadequacies” of capitalism, showing that the church cannot and must not be seen as supporting pure capitalism. Those problems remain evident, even in a system which has had some regulations placed upon it, showing that not only does pure capitalism lead to moral problems, we have not yet balanced the system with all the regulations needed to insure justice in society:

In spite of the great changes which have taken place in the more advanced societies, the human inadequacies of capitalism and the resulting domination of things over people are far from disappearing.[3]

The problem with pure, unregulated capitalism is that it relatives every other good to the good of the market and its dictates; the market is not concerned about justice, which means, it is not concerned about the dignity of any particular human person:

But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required “something” is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity. [4]

Thus, John Paul II made it clear, we must not support the ideologies use the markets as the sole means of determining justice. We must promote the good of persons as well as the common good.  Insofar as systematic Marxism or systematic capitalism follows closed systems which employ a form of economic materialism as the basis of their social governance, they place ideologies over people, ideologies which they are unwilling to reform, making neither of them acceptable:

This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. For from the point of view of development the question naturally arises: in what way and to what extent are these two systems capable of changes and updatings such as to favor or promote a true and integral development of individuals and peoples in modern society? In fact, these changes and updatings are urgent and essential for the cause of a development common to all.[5]

Pope Benedict XVI, likewise, tells us that we must look beyond economic systems, economic models, in order to promote justice and charity. Thus, we must not use “commercial logic” as the source and foundation for our understanding of what is good:

Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.[6]

The concern of commerce is not the common good, nor even the good of persons, but the logic of monetary accumulation and how to attain it. Economics can be used to accumulate and create wealth, but in doing so, it ignores the common good and what is needed for personal human growth; those who have money can use it to generate more and accumulate more while those who do not have it, will find themselves further and further cast aside. Thus, even if there is some development in society due to capitalism, it does not diminish the problems associated with capitalism, but only help highlight them as the differences between those with wealth and those without it become more extreme, as Pope Francis warned:

Some economic rules have proved effective for growth, but not for integral human development. Wealth has increased, but together with inequality, with the result that “new forms of poverty are emerging”. The claim that the modern world has reduced poverty is made by measuring poverty with criteria from the past that do not correspond to present-day realities. In other times, for example, lack of access to electric energy was not considered a sign of poverty, nor was it a source of hardship. Poverty must always be understood and gauged in the context of the actual opportunities available in each concrete historical period.[7]

The logic of capitalism must not stand as the basis for government and justice because its concerns are not of justice. Reducing our lives to commercial logic is to objectify the human person and turn them into a commodity to be balanced by other commodities. To point this out is not to be socialist, though it can and will find itself in agreement with many socialistic critics; to confuse the commonality between such critiques as to suggest they are one and the same is to suggest a motorcycle and a bicycle are the same thing, because both are vehicles with two wheels: while there will be many elements between a motorcycle and a bicycle which will prove to be the same, the differences between the two show they are not the same. Thus, there are various criticisms which can be, and are given, to pure Marxism side by side with criticisms of capitalism.

John Paul II, however, worried that people, accepting various criticisms of Marxism, would end up promoting radical version of capitalism, because they would end up believing capitalism would be seen as the only legitimate system:

Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces. [8]

John Paul II knew that we would encounter people who would not listen to or heed the criticisms of capitalism, that capitalists would become triumphalistic and denigrate anyone who criticizes its methodologies and its failures. Why is it, then, so many Christians, so many Catholics, have not heeded this? Why is it that every time a failure of capitalism is established, people denounce that criticism as socialism? Why it is that every time someone suggests a regulation which is needed for society, that such regulation is considered socialism? Why is it the church’s teachings against socialism, though not properly understood (since it is nuanced) are promoted over the church’s teachings against unregulated capitalism and its radical attempt to overturn justice? Because Christians are not listening to Christ, to his promotion of the poor and oppressed.  Instead, they heed the rich and powerful. Likewise, Christians no longer seek after the common good, no longer follow the dictates of loves, dictates which promote solidarity over individualism; instead, they have become selfish and cruel, seeking only their own interests. The church, however, strongly contends against such a view point; it points out the state, not market interests, should govern, and it should do so looking for the sake of the common good, so each person is shown dignity and respect, as Pope Benedict XVI declared:

It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods. This has always been emphasized by Christian teaching on the State and by the Church’s social doctrine.[9]

Promoting the state is to promote justice over economics, and this is exactly why the state is important:

It is the task of the State to provide for the defence and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. Just as in the time of primitive capitalism the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, so now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual. [10]

The state  has a duty to override the injustice inherent in a market system when the market is absolutized. For the absolutizing of the market turns money into an idol, indeed, it only resurrects one of the most ancient idols of all, Mammon. For that is what the market is about. Shall we follow it? Christians, if they are to be true to Christ, cannot. They must either follow Christ, and his dictates, especially when they go against capitalist economics, follow the dictates of Mammon; they cannot follow both (cf. Matt. 6:24):

A certain brother asked an old man: “Father, be king enough to tell me what I should collect in my youth in order to have it in my old age?” The old man answered: “Either win Christ and take thought about yourself, or win money so that you need not beg. Thus you must choose between the Lord God and Mammon.”[11]

The choice remains. So many have tried to take that choice away from us and say the only answer is Mammon, that is, the capitalistic system. It is not. We must turn away from such an ideology. Opposing capitalism is not socialism. It is rather, the deconstruction and rejection of a false idol. We must look beyond systems, beyond ideologies, and begin to promote the common good and what supports the dignity of all if we want things to get better.

[1] Thus, not everything socialists say are wrong, just as not everything capitalists say are wrong, but on the other hand, neither are absolutely correct.

[2] Pope St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus. Vatican translation. ¶35.

[3] Pope St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus,  ¶33.

[4] Pope St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, ¶34.

[5] St. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Vatican translation. ¶21.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate. Vatican translation. ¶36.

[7] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti. Vatican translation. ¶ 21.

[8] Pope St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, ¶42.

[9] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est. Vatican translation. ¶26.

[10] Pope St John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, ¶40.

[11] Paschasius of Dumium, “Questions and Answers of the Greek Fathers” in Iberian Fathers. Volume 1. Martin of Braga, Paschasius of Dumium, and Leander of Seville. Trans. Claude W. Barlow (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1969), 124.



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