Moral Critique of Capitalist Profligacy

Pope Francis is the 21st century Marx, anatomizing the environment for the full exploitative dimensions of its domination by the structure and practices of global capitalism similar to Marx’s own 19th century dissection of commodity structure (foundations of alienation), exploitive core of property in defining the relations between capital and labor, and profit as the all-absorbing psychopathology of gain. A reading of his papal encyclical, Laudato Si, “Praise Be to You,” transposes the strong moral critique of capitalism, rendered as a statement of faith, and actually rooted in the 13th century teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, onto the secular indictment of the very same institutional political-economic framework, corresponding to an earlier developmental stage, Marx examines—and excoriates—in Das Capital. Do I exaggerate the connection? For radicals who may be disposed to rejecting a belief in God (at times, my own conviction) it would be foolhardy to dismiss out of hand theory and argumentation resting on religion; rather, what is important is to search out the moral equivalences between the secular and religious criticisms of what turn out to be fundamental class relations. Again, Pope Francis-Karl Marx, no, not in every respect, but when it comes to the critical analysis of capitalism, from constructing monopolistic structures of domination to, directly from there, exploiting and creating the further human suffering of the poor, the two are on the same page, and if anything Francis takes up a specificity of industrial problems, as indeed global warming itself, not yet within Marx’s ken. Add, then, to superimposition, an updating of capitalist development.

First let me examine three articles from the New York Times on Laudato Si (credit where credit is due, for in these pages I have often criticized The Times for being wedded to the status quo, overly protective of corporations and US foreign policy), starting with Jim Yardley and Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Francis, in Sweeping Encyclical, Calls for Swift Action on Climate Change,” (June 18). Their opening is excellent, that Francis has “called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, blending a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.” They skirt around capitalism as causal, yet in stating the encyclical “is sweeping in ambition and scope,” their summary comes close: “He [Francis] describes relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment and says apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness are to blame.” And they add, “The most vulnerable victims, he declares, are the world’s poorest people, who are being dislocated and disregarded.”

For Marx, false consciousness, for today’s world, apathy, but for both historical contexts a willingness to tolerate capitalism in the name of technological advancement and economic growth (both of which the working classes in the respective periods, less so in Marx’s, have given it a free pass) than it deserves. By viewing the environment as generic code for that which supports LIFE in all its forms, he deepens the indictment beyond the politics of climate change to the wholesale repudiation of all political-economic-institutional modes of domination, whose purpose is systemic, class-based wealth accumulation directly at the expense, and to the perpetuation, of the poor, a condition which defines the dichotomy between countries of the North and South (a point Francis explicitly makes), entails environmental degradation not least through the privileged (aka economically forcible) extraction of natural resources, and makes of domination an acceptable good of political economy.

But not of moral economy, and what Francis proposes is the fusion of moral and political economy as the means of eviscerating the latter’s exploitative purpose and features. Francis is not a retrogressive character out of the past; technology squeezes the human being into a commodity, strips forests for purposes of agricultural and other modes of development, renders development per se into a curse for working people and the poor, because organized for profit, not servicing human needs. Thus, political economy without its moral dimension liberates the savagery of wealth and probably equally base instincts which, given the greed and fratricidal struggle for control of the capital-accumulation process, almost inevitably leads to war. Laudato Si has as much to say about seeking the welfare of humankind as seeking oneness with God, and for Francis the two are inextricably tied. For the nonbeliever, even the first part, leaving God out of the picture, is the noblest pursuit one can imagine, and the beauty of the encyclical is that he continually uses the phrase “all of us,” we, humankind, not just some, face the consequences of environmental destruction.

The reporters put Francis into historical perspective, reminding us of a tradition near-erased from our collective consciousness through the suffusion of capitalist ideology in America: “Catholic theologians say the overarching theme of the encyclical is ‘integral ecology,’ which links care for the environment with a notion already well developed in Catholic teaching: that economic development, to be morally good and just, must take into account people’s need for things like freedom, education and meaningful work.” The concept, integral ecology, refers to more than the environment, methods of conservation, sensible consumption, for what is at stake is the complexion of the moral universe as it applies to “all of us,” for, here, one can leave God out of the equation, but one cannot leave out freedom, education, meaningful work—and the eradication of poverty, which is Francis’s first priority. Vincent Miller, chair in Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, is quoted by the reporters in a particularly apt explanation of the general point: “’The basic idea is, in order to love God, you have to love your fellow human beings, and you have to love and care for the rest of creation. It gives Francis a very traditional basis to argue for the inclusion of environmental concern at the center of the Christian faith.’”

What I find exciting here is that Francis treats as a false dichotomy the relation between faith and science, or, if I may step away from the narrowly theological, between moral principle and science. (As Marcuse once noted, in explicating the writings of Lord Acton, science divorced from and not informed by a moral sensibility becomes an amoral framework applicable to the policies of dominant groups, in which empty/neutral social values can be used to justify oppression.) The encyclical forces attention to the way science denies responsibility for its uses. The reporters quote Hans Joachim Schellnhumber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who finds himself wrestling with this problem of reconciliation: “’Within the scientific community, there is almost a code of honor that you will never transgress the red line between pure analysis and moral issues. But we are now in a situation where we have to think about the consequences of our insight for society.’” Scientists may not, but politicians surely will, fall back on the notion or doctrine of abstract science wherein nothing must be allowed to intrude. In practice, an iron wall is erected, so that—as already is sounded in America—the moral factor in climate-control policy is viewed as anticapitalist and therefore anti-American. Francis: “’Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.’”


My New York Times Comment on the Yardley-Goodstein article, same date, follows:

With “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis has become the voice of conscience for ALL of humankind, and I await the leaders of the other world religions to join forces with him. This will not happen, however, because world politics is about imperialism, development via capitalist aggrandizement, and forcible dominion, with supportive roles played by too many religious leaders.

This encyclical is a clarion call to sanity, human decency, and the putting into practice of the meaningful worship of God–and for nonbelievers, living a moral life with respect to peace, social justice, and other aspects of the same meaningful worship. Spoliation is immoral, just as exploitation is. Those who seek to marginalize Francis by building an artificial wall between politics and morality had best begin to come to terms with their conscience for mounting apologia to inequality, privation, human suffering, all in the name of progress.

This encyclical will go down hard in the US, where already lame rationales are used, by conservative Catholics and all who are in denial about climate change, to evade moral responsibility for the welfare, not only of humankind, but every phase of life, including Nature, plants, animals, down to the subatomic level. Francis is calling our bluff. We are destroyers, not propagators, haters, not lovers, fast losing the right to claim human dignity. He has laid down the challenge: the affirmation of life itself.


Coral Davenport’s article, “Championing Environment, Francis Takes Aim at Global Capitalism,” (June 18), is surprising for The Times, when she writes, the encyclical “is as much an indictment of the global economic order as it is an argument for the world to confront climate change,” a shrewd assessment although the two go together. She zeros in on the main points: “It offers blistering criticism of 21st-century capitalism, expressing skepticism about market forces, criticizing consumerism and cautioning about the [societal] costs of growth.” In fact one reason, apropos of our previous discussion, for so many demanding that Francis stick to morals and not meddle in politics, is the standard raised that market fundamentalism is pure science and hence exempt from moral inquiry. The debate already in progress is essentially, rally around the dollar and preserve development, including the globalization of mega-multinationals, rather than rock the boat through extraneous matters. The grounds of dismissal-denial are perfectly predictable.

Environmental economists appear in the foreground of this snow-job, championing the trading of carbon-emission credits as the solution to global warming, which, Davenport notes, Francis in the encyclical condemns, “saying it merely creates new forms of speculation and does not bring about ‘radical change.’” And yet, with the UN meeting in Paris in December to reach an accord, “carbon trading is the policy most widely adopted by governments to combat climate change, and it has been endorsed by leading economists as a way to cut carbon pollution while sustaining economic growth.” And why not, since “economic growth,” as defined by the industrial powers, is sacrosanct, and cap-and-trade the holy grail of energy policy. Francis explicitly has called in the encyclical for the wealthy nations to shoulder the burden of cutting emissions, a major reason that nothing has been accomplished. In a nutshell Davenport notes, “In particular, environmental economists criticized the encyclical’s condemnation of carbon trading, seeing it as part of a radical critique of market economies.”

Like defense intellectuals populating our think tanks, environmental economists are the Swiss Guard–or better, shock troops—mounting the barricades in defense of monopoly capital.   And Harvard, where I received my doctorate ages go, seems a haven for both today. Take Robert N. Stavins, director of its environmental economics department; he says in an email to the reporter: “I respect what the pope says about the need for action, but this is out of step with the thinking and the work of informed policy analysts around the world, who recognize that we can do more, faster, and better with the use of market-based policy instruments—carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems.” Ah, those “policy analysts,” so bright, humane, selfless. Stavins then dismisses Francis because he came from the developing world, Argentina, horror of horrors, thus reflecting the views of a “’small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations.” For his ilk, and they are legion, the foregoing becomes the ultimate put-down.

If I have not said it, God must share His/Her godhead with the Market as the essence of divinity. And when the two are seen as one, it’s time to run for cover! Davenport points out that critics of global warming may be playing into the hands of the apologists: “the encyclical’s criticism of market forces, and its references to sacrificing economic growth to protect the environment, could have the unintended consequence of strengthening the arguments of opponents of climate change policy.” God-ordained profit, dragoon the poor, give whatever expression to degradation possible, but don’t mess with the free market. Francis isn’t buying, and in the US we can expect from tactful to head-on vilification, perhaps especially because, as the reporter observes, “A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.”


Finally, Goodstein’s article, “In the Footsteps of Popes Seeking Worldly Change,” (June 18), is important in placing Laudato Si into theological context, thus undermining Francis’s critics who insinuate his communist leanings or ignore his historical roots in Catholic social teachings. Key here is Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), 1891, which sets forth the workers’ right to organize—while also accepting private ownership of property. This is the basis for these teachings, to be followed by Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963) on the danger of nuclear annihilation, Paul VI’s Popularum Progressio (1967) on the obligation of wealthy nations to help the poor ones, and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009) on the economic inequality created by globalization. In another shrewd assessment, this time, by Austen Ivereigh, a papal biographer, we find Francis jumping back to Leo in terms of significance (the intervening encyclicals not receiving the attention or controversy, however much deserved, now obtaining), because Laudato Si, going beyond earlier church documents referring to an environmental crisis, “is intended to provoke action—to cause an enormous ‘conversion’ in how humans understand their place and responsibility to a planet that is in peril.”

Goodstein grasps the meat of Francis’s ideas in the encyclical: “[He] puts forward a profoundly theological document, grounded in Catholic teaching, but one in which spiritual and secular matters are knit so closely together that the table of contents promising to segregate them into sections is a bit deceptive.” And she picks out what for me was a sublime theme: “Throughout the paper, like a recurring chant, Francis intones that everyone and everything is interconnected–to God, to creation, to fellow human beings.” That is what makes Laudato Si so beautiful to me, and so radical. At rock-bottom Marx would have been moved by interconnection as the fabric and substance of reality, and why Francis could and does connect environmental degradation to the institutions, values, and practices of capitalism. Not coincidentally, she points out, Laudato Si is named for St. Francis of Assisi’s canticle, in which Francis’s own recurring invocation of “brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth,” derives from the earlier one.

Let this be the encyclical’s message, as summarized by the reporter: “He [Francis] attributes the environmental crisis to wealthier, industrialized countries that extract resources to feed an insatiable desire for consumer goods. Christians also, he said, have been seduced by this consumerism, despite the tradition of monasticism and teachings on simplicity by St. Francis and others.” Present-day Francis puts it this way: “’Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’’” No wonder Francis is feared as dysfunctional to the political economy and, equally, the very culture, of monopoly capitalism.


Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at