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Political Theology Ignores The Neoliberal Market System At Its Own Peril (Jung Mo Sung)

Poverty in Africa

The following is the first of a series of articles on the problem of wealth within the global economic system.

The current globalized world faces two major challenges – an ecological crisis, which shows its most visible face in global warming and the brutal concentration of income and wealth that is generating the greatest social inequality in history and the social exclusion of a significant portion of humanity.

Much has been said about ecology for decades now and more and more we are also hearing about concentration of income. Not only the amazing data, such as the fact that just 8 richest people in the world hold wealth equivalent to the sum of the poorest half of the world (3.6 billion), but the continuing trend of  wealth concentration has led many institutions and international organizations to a critical position in the face of this reality.

Some have criticized this situation from the notion of “economic justice” and the rights of the poor to live a dignified life. Even economic mainstream institutions, exempt from any accusation of leftism or “romantic humanism,” such as I.M. F. and magazine The Economist, have also shown concern about this inequality, not in the name of the lives of the poor or economic justice, but of the sustainability and efficiency of the global capitalist system itself.

Despite broad “awareness” of these problems, many today do not accept the necessity of deep and radical changes in the socio-economic order. Thus the impasse at which we find ourselves is not a result of a lack of rational understanding of the current contradictions of the capitalist model of globalization, as well as the dangers that the system itself is facing in terms of its efficiency and sustainability. Something deeper is afoot.  Even in the face of analyzes of acknowledged pro-capitalist “authorities,” such as the IMF general director or the leaders of the World Economic Forum, the reaction is one of incomprehension and pushback against those who attack the free market and laissez faire economic policies.

My hypothesis is that neoliberal ideology, which once was an ideology in the sense of a system of ideas guiding a specific social class, has been transformed into a worldwide cultural ethos.  Most people, and especially the mainstream media, think within the framework of this neoliberal mythology.

Neoliberalism, which aims to replace historic liberal capitalism, fights all proposals for regulatory intervention in the market on behalf of a new anthropology and a new concept of the sacred. For example, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek’s mentor, says in The Anticapitalist Mentality that the great error of those who struggle for social justice and for fundamental rights, such as sectors of Christianity and unions, “is the idea that ‘nature’ has bestowed upon every man certain rights” (81). For him, there is no right outside the law and contract.

In order to understand the novelty about human rights in neoliberal ideology, we need to distinguish three types of rights: civil rights, political rights and social rights.

Civil rights are negative rights – for example, the right not to be excluded or treated as subhuman,  against certain religious, ethnic, racial minorities, or groups defined by their gender or sexual preferences and practices.  This is what we call today the arena of identity struggles. Opponents of these struggles might be the state, conservative churches, white supremacist groups, etc. The rationale for these rights lies in the recognition of the fundamental equality of all members of our species, the equality of all before the law, and the basic principle that human beings should not be killed, tortured or discriminated against without a legitimate basis.

Political rights, in contrast, are positive rights. Struggles for political rights entail a process of forming the “popular will” in making political decisions.  To the extent that  modern democracies that their power ultimately emanates from the people, the very logic of the modern nation-state recognizes, at least by an abstract principle, the right of all its citizens to participate in political life. For this reason, authoritarian governments that totally or partially suspend this right do so in the name of what political theorist Carl Schmitt called the “state of exception”, on the pretext of an emergency situation or a critical disorder.

Economic-social rights are of a different order than the previous two. Unlike civil and political rights, social rights require that the state intervene in the socio-economic sphere (whether through social programs or economic policies) in favor of those who were denied these rights because they are poor and unable to meet their basic needs. This intervention also necessarily implies the transfer of income or wealth from the richer sector to the poorest sector through taxes. In other words, it would be the role or duty of the state to intervene, in the case of capitalist countries, in the marketplace and to override “market justice” with social justice

Neoliberals, like Hayek, have no problem with civil and political rights. As Hayek says, civil rights are merely a complement of the rules protecting individual domains, and political rights are the individual rights to participate in the direction of government. The problem, he says in Law, Legislation and Liberty,  is the “new positive ‘social and economic’ human rights for which an equal or even higher dignity is claimed. These are claims to particular benefits to which every human being as such is presumed to be entitled without any indication as to who is to be under the obligation to provide those benefits or by what process they are to be provided” (263).

To say that there are no rights received from “nature”, or from God the Creator, on behalf of which the state may justify regulation and intervention in the market, is to assert that there is nothing that transcends the market.  As von Mises explicitly says, the market is “beyond good and evil” and we need just to follow it. What is beyond good and evil is the sacred. The denial of fundamental human rights presupposes the sacralization of the capitalist market system.

It is important to note tha t the neoliberalism does not necessarily deny the equality of all people. For neoliberalism, all people are equal before the laws of the market. The market, unlike God the creator, does not have a purpose, it is only a formal system of exchange and information, and, for neoliberals, the best way to optimize the use of scarce resources in order to achieve an economic goal. As all people are equal before the market, for neoliberals the very notion of social classes that presupposes conflict of interests and inequality of power is meaningless. Moreover, social rights are meaningless as well.

Therefore, social justice is also meaningless. There is only market justice. Actually, for Hayek, the notion of social justice is more than meaningless. Is something evil. Hayek writes in Law, Legislation and Liberty that “the gospel of ‘social justice’ aims at much more sordid sentiments: the dislike of people who are better off than oneself, or simply envy, that ‘most anti-social and evil of all passions’ as John Stuart Mill called it, that animosity towards great wealth which represents it as a ‘scandal’ that some should enjoy riches while others have basic needs unsatisfied, and camouflages under the name of justice what has nothing to do with justice.” (259)

To the extent that the market is beyond the “good and evil”, the “how” by which the market distributes  wealth and income cannot be questioned in accordance with the notion of social justice. The one percent wealthiest people are worthy of their wealth and the poor, deserving of their poverty. Social programs that aim to reduce the suffering of the poor – such as public education and health systems – are seen by neoliberals as unfair to the rich, who are obliged to pay these expenses through taxes. Social groups that assume this neoliberal views, that the Pope Francis calls “the idolatry of money”, see themselves badly treated by governments with social welfare programs.

In the literature from theological and religious studies we can find two different notions of idolatry. First is idolatry as misrepresentation of God – worship of an image as God.  Second is idolatry as the worship of a god that demands sacrifices, as some liberation theologians have used. Pope Francis’ critique of “idolatry of money” is of the second type, i.e., the worship of money as a god, as an absolute value and principle for human life.  In this sense the market as something “sacred” demands sacrifices of human lives, inverting the concepts of justice versus injustice. The death of the poor is seen as a necessary sacrifice for the “salvation” for the productive and deserving rich.

The notion of “necessary sacrifices” is at core of neoliberal anthropology and theology. The logic of idolatry makes people, rich and poor, feel attracted and fascinated by market and its promise of personal prosperity through consumerism, granting social status and recognition. However, as “sacred”, the market can also produce the opposite kinds of affects, namely fear and guilt

According to Von Mises, equality under the law gives all people the power to compete with and challenge every millionaire. For him, in a market not sabotaged by government-imposed restrictions, one can only attribute poverty to the fault of the one who is poor.  Therefore, the wealthy are indeed worthy of their wealth, and the poor are guilty of having failed themselves.

It is indeed the case that from a psychological perspective both the working and non-working poor  don’t earn money enough to satisfy their family’s needs and desire and are left with the burden of guilt.  This sense of guilt tends to paralyze them and prevents them from engaging in the social, labor and political struggles that might alleviate their plight.   At the same time, neoliberals consider the struggle for economic justice dismiss their own role in the creation of a system of massive income inequality . So it becomes impossible to have a fruitful dialogue within this environment.

To reestablish the meaningfulness of the political struggle for a more just and socially democratic society, we must recover the notion of fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and the right to a basic income.  These rights must take precedence over the market’s laws and institutions. To that end we must call out forcefully the idolatry of the market along with the assumption that it is “beyond good and evil.”

Without the religious and theological critique of the market as having a sacred status, there is no room for a meaningful political theology. Under the dominion of neoliberalism we can have our various “identity politics”, but not the political struggles for social justice.

A political theology that ignores the neoliberal market system as the centerpiece of its critique is missing the “signs of time”.

Jung Mo Sung was born in South Korea and has been living in Brazil since 1966. He teaches in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Methodist University of São Paulo, Brazil, and has written many books on theological critique of political economy. Among them are Desire, Market and Religion; The Subject, Capitalism and Religion (SCM Press, 2007), and Beyond the Spirit of Empire, co-authored with J. Rieger and N. Miguez (SCM Press, 2009).

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