Economism is an unfamiliar word in the English language, a word that although used by some Marxist writers beginning in the late 19th century, was first employed in a Catholic context by St. John Paul II in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. There he defines it as the “error… of considering human labor solely according to its economic purpose” (no. 13). It is, the pontiff wrote,
an error of materialism, in that economism directly or indirectly includes a conviction of the primacy and superiority of the material, and directly or indirectly places the spiritual and personal…in a position of subordination to material reality.
With this in mind, consider the following from The Economist magazine, that reliable promoter of capitalist thought, from a few years ago.
A new generation is on the move in Europe, migrating from the fringes of the continent in search of work…. For the people of eastern Europe, migration is a way of catching up with western incomes; for those from the crisis-hit southern and Celtic periphery, it is a means of escaping mass unemployment.
This is the way the EU was meant to operate. Goods can move to the consumers; workers can move to the jobs. Migration can relieve the public finances of countries in a slump and fill labour shortages in booming economies. Even so, Europeans remain less mobile than Americans. At their summits, European leaders call for greater mobility to ease youth unemployment and boost growth.1
The rest of the article deals with concerns expressed by some EU politicians about excessive immigration into their countries from other parts of Europe. All this perhaps sounds rather quaint now when the concern is over migrants from outside Europe. But regardless of that, what we should notice here is the underlying economism of the author. Movement of people is sort of like movement of goods, for people are, apparently, merely workers waiting to take jobs. That these people might have family ties, that they might be part of a complex social fabric upon which even the political stability of their home countries depends—all this is nothing compared with the need to fill jobs and, of course, “boost growth.”
It never occurs to the writer that if jobs, if the economy itself, is for the sake of people, not the other way around, then we should first attempt to create jobs where people live, rather than move people around like interchangeable nuts and bolts.
But is this practical? Haven’t government and even business efforts to create jobs often failed? Isn’t it better to simply let market forces create those jobs wherever the lure of cheap labor and large profits dictates? This, indeed, is the logic of capitalism and its usual manner of working. Capitalism, by which I mean the separation of ownership and work, creates a class of persons whose interest in the economy is not primarily in creating a useful and well-made product, but in making anything which will sell. The owners of capital, by and large, have an entirely different relationship to their product from a craftsman. A craftsman certainly hopes to support himself and his family by means of his work, but his work usually means something to him, he is an artist of a sort, someone for whom his work and his product are more than merely a way of making money. Hilaire Belloc contrasted these two approaches in this way:
But wealth obtained indirectly as profit out of other men’s work, or by process of exchange, becomes a thing abstracted from the process of production. As the interest of a man in things diminishes, his interest in abstract wealth – money – increases. The man who makes a table or grows a crop makes the success of the crop or the table a test of excellence. The intermediary who buys and sells the crop or the table is not concerned with the goodness of table or crop, but with the profit he makes between their purchase and sale. In a productive society the superiority of the things produced is the measure of success: in a Commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success.2
But what, one may ask, does this have to do with the question I originally raised, the question of whether workers should leave their homes and communities to find work, or whether work can be found or made for them where they live? If we understand economic activity as distributists do, as a human activity intended to supply mankind with the goods and services appropriate for human life, we will notice a remarkable fact. People are both producers and consumers. The same person needs to consume and generally is able to produce. So in every place where people live there is a need for consuming things and a possibility of producing things. If economic activity is regarded as an important, but nevertheless subordinate, aspect of human life, then people will as much as possible produce what they consume in the place where they live. Why would they not? Why should family and community, culture and traditions, be treated as trivial matters in contrast to economic activity? Of course there are legitimate instances where this is not possible. But for the most part, God has arranged the world so that our need to consume and our capacity to produce balance each other nicely.
But this is not how capitalism understands things. If the owners of capital perceive an opportunity of producing more cheaply in some other place, then, off they go. They shift production, close a factory, all in obedience to making the highest profit possible. I do not deny the necessity of a business to make a profit in the sense that there must be something left over after costs to reimburse those involved in the enterprise, but I do deny that this something left over need be as great as possible, or that it is just to disrupt a locality in search of higher and higher profits. If economic activity is firmly kept in its secondary role as something that ministers to, but does not dominate, a healthy social life, then the possibility of seeking larger profits will seem a mean and unworthy goal if accomplished at the cost of disrupting the social fabric of a locality.
Another way that capitalism disturbs the balance between production and consumption is by teaching people that they are primarily and essentially consumers first. The article from The Economist I quoted above gives as one of the reasons for immigration the desire of “people of eastern Europe … of catching up with western incomes.” When people see on television ads for consumer products that might be rare or costly in their own country, or even see television shows or motion pictures in which such products are used or consumed, this tends to fuel a desire to possess these products. I am not speaking of people in genuine poverty here, for I acknowledge the legitimate desire to achieve a standard of living congruent with human dignity. But when a population is living at the level of “frugal comfort,” as Leo XIII expressed it, then there is little or no legitimate reason to relocate in order to be able to afford the latest in gadgets and devices. But capitalism’s logic includes fostering a desire for an ever increasing level of goods, since its existence requires a continuing expansion of demand.
In Centesimus Annus St. John Paul II speaks of “the right to possess the things necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family” (no. 6). And in the same encyclical he writes in another passage (no. 36),
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward “having” rather than “being,” which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.
God has created us so that we must make use of external goods to exist, and to achieve a fully human standard of living. But such a standard of living by no means requires all that today’s consumer economies turn out. If we acknowledge the truth of what John Paul wrote about economism and about having and being, then we can hardly embrace and defend an economic system that fosters both the desire for material goods as an end in itself, and in practice regards every other human activity as merely territory ripe for conquest by the logic and spirit of commerce.
In a distributist economy small businesses or local cooperatives will always tend to be rooted in the place where they exist and function, since their owners will see themselves as more than producers or consumers. They will be connected by a multitude of family and cultural ties with the places where they live. They will be first of all spouses, parents, children, parishioners, citizens, members of this or that cultural or social group. Obviously they will need to engage in some kind of economic activity, but they will not do so as people disconnected from the place where they live. They will recognize that if economic activity exists for the sake of human life as a whole, then the slogan, “Goods can move to the consumers; workers can move to the jobs,” is part of Satan’s strategic plan to disrupt family and community life in the service of mammon. Workers are human beings and it is wrong to treat them as mere factors of production, at best to be moved about whenever capitalist profit dictates, at worst, to be left to starve in a place that capitalists have abandoned. In either case, people need to take charge of their own work and their own jobs, so that goods and workers are no longer regarded as on the same level, and workers are seen to be first and foremost what they really are—human persons.