Pope Francis recently declared that “Where there is no work, there is no dignity.” This utterance was in keeping with John Paul II’s extraordinary encyclical of 1981, “On Human Work,” a profoundly Hegelian meditation on the master/slave dialectic and the meanings of necessary labor—-I read it with great curiosity because I was then in my own Hegelian phase, and because I thought it was another sign of the “third way” that had been (re)emerging in Eastern Europe since the late 1950s.
I’m not as excited by Pope Francis as my comrades, though, because John Paul II turned out to be the intellectual thug who erased the legacy of liberation theology, and because the Church’s genuine opposition to capitalism has taken deeply reactionary forms since 1892, with the publication of Rerum Novarum. Meanwhile, I would note, communism and fascism embodied equally reactionary forms of the same intellectual opposition: as social movements, they were both anti-liberal and anti-capitalist. Not incidentally, they also glorified productive labor and denounced the parasites of monopoly or finance capital.
I’m reminded of this ugly correlation—-of the fact that the critics of capitalism often come from the right wing of the political spectrum—-by Thomas Edsall’s website column on the safety net in the New York Times, posted 12/20/2013. Here’s the bottom line of his argument, which he derives from Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute:
“The economics of survival have forced millions of men, women, and children to rely on ‘pity-charity liberal capitalism’ [transfer payments, entitlements, etc.; this is Konczal’s locution]. The state has now become the resource of last resort, consigning just the people progressives would like to turn into a powerful force for reform to a condition of subjugation—-living out their lives on government subsidies like Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and now Obamacare.” (my italics)
Now, Thomas Byrne Edsall is no reactionary. He is by any political measure a progressive. And yet the implications of this argument are, to me at any rate, profoundly conservative if not downright reactionary. Notice, to begin with, how the welfare state appears exactly as it does in Paul Ryan’s dream world, as the oppressor of the poor—-a greedy bureaucracy that produces dependence. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that this paragraph was written by a Tea Party enthusiast, particularly in view of the reference to Obamacare as a “government subsidy” that will subjugate the poor, to be sure, but also create a permanent constituency for the Democrats, the party of “pity-charity liberal capitalism.”
Notice, then, that the only alternative to this benignly fascistic version of liberalism is a “bold” public policy commitment to full employment. On this Konczal and Edsall are extremely emphatic. It’s a bleak, even barren horizon they conjure.
Between work on the one hand and dependence on the other—-between having a job and being subjugated-—there is nothing to be seen or done, not from their standpoint. Quite apart from the logical inconsistency of this “alternative”—-a policy of full employment will create a class of public servants who are at least as dependent on the state’s largesse as anybody who receives Medicaid—-you have to wonder how Konczal and Edsall made their way back to the 19th century, when the either/or choice between work and dependence was a cultural commonplace because the material footings for a welfare state hadn’t yet been laid.
That is not the choice before us. And Thomas Edsall, of all people, ought to know it.