What I’d Say at the Vatican’s Economic Conference (if I were Bernie Sanders)

by Matt Stannard

Bernie Sanders will speak at an April 15-16 conference at the Vatican: “Centesimus Annus 25 Years Later.” It’s rather important that a primary presidential candidate who began as an insurgent and who has no overt religious political agenda would be speaking at such an event, but before assessing this, it’s important to understand the significance of the conference: It’s a soft repudiation and re-thinking of the Catholic Church’s institutional anticommunism.

Pope John Paul II, a staunch anti-communist, wrote Centesimus Annus in 1991, against the backdrop of the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It strongly defends private property rights but also defends labor unions. It equates socialism with capitalist consumerism, in that both deny the dignity of the human person. It basically calls for welfare capitalism. It blames atheism for class struggle, but also admits that free markets don’t satisfy many human needs. Importantly, it points out that there may be other economic models besides capitalism and socialism.

But the encyclical conflates socialism with Stalinism, and its condescending attribution of class struggle to nonbelief and misdirected indignation seem historically and morally obsolete after (a) seeing the human costs of the former Soviet states’ transitions to market economies, and (b) ignores the actual history of “socialism” as a multifaceted movement that both precedes and, in some people’s opinions, pre-empts bolshevism (at least, there is a conversation to be had there, and John Paul II was reactionary on these questions).

The April 15-16 conference acknowledges that much has changed since 1991, and hints without coming out and saying that John Paul II’s perspective may have been limited by its historical context.

. . . it is eminently appropriate for the Pontifical Academy of Social Science to organize a symposium on the 25th anniversary of Centesimus annus. Remaining faithful both to St. John Paul’s own intellectual preparations for the document and to the Academy’s own charter, this gathering will not be a commemorative event but a serious academic discussion. Papers and the conversations they generate are not intended to be confessional or fideistic or simply celebratory of past insight in either tone or content. The symposium will focus on two major questions. The first concerns the changes in the world situation – economically, politically, and culturally – over the past 25 years. The second will investigate how Catholic social teaching has engaged the world in order to ask how best the Church can do so in the coming years and decades.

And, of course, the conference is self-conscious of the role of Pope Francis in promoting a far more egalitarian, anti-capitalist religious treatment of the economy than Catholics or other major Christian churches have put forward in recent memory. And the Pope, says the conference web site, is intimately involved with the planning of this conference.

Sanders is in a position to articulate a uniquely American, secular moral vision of economic justice. Indeed, the moral, value-laden essence of Sanders’s stump speeches and various media artifacts eclipses public consciousness of his actual policy positions (although it is silly to suggest, as some have, that Sanders doesn’t understand economic and finance policy or is making only vague promises–see this and this and this).

For those of us in the economic justice movement, the Sanders campaign has simultaneously been an exciting and frustrating test case for whether conventional American politics can give so-called “democratic socialism” a seat at the table which it arguably hasn’t had since Michael Harrington visited the White House. It’s been exciting because, after the last 24 years–8 years of right-wing Democratic Party neoliberalism, then 8 years of all that was George W. Bush, and 8 more years of Democratic Party neoliberalism–even a social democrat getting a hearing on the American stage, and a moral conversation about economic inequality and insecurity, have tremendous promise for energizing the ongoing, multifaceted economic justice and sustainability movements.

It’s been frustrating because we aren’t discussing some of Sanders’s most powerful ideas and allies. Sanders calls for postal banking, has sponsored legislation on enabling worker-owned enterprises, wants more transparency (and presumably is open to a reconceptualization of) the Federal Reserve, and when asked about the Bank of North Dakota, described it near-perfectly and said he loved it. But little of that has come out in his campaign, not just because the mainstream media is ignoring it, but because Sanders is ignoring most of it. He came on strong on postal banking, but while he’s continuing his messages about breaking up big banks and tax equity, his earlier “new economy” proposals just aren’t part of his campaign formula.

I’m not naive about the constructed political reality of elections, but with thousands of policy initiatives, cooperatives, intentional communities, grassroots economic initiatives, defining the real landscape of economic activism today, I know what I would say at the conference at the Vatican next week, even from the perspective of being Bernie Sanders. I’m sure whatever Sanders says next week will be decent (my utralefty friends, I apologize), but this is what I would say if I were him–emphasizing the parts of his own policy and organizing history I wish Sanders would fearlessly emphasize now.

1. Economic justice requires restructuring, not only redistribution

It’s easy to see why redistribution is the dominant paradigm among establishment leaders concerned with economic justice. But the politics of redistribution, like the politics of philanthropy, ultimately depend on, and maintain, the hierarchy between the haves and have-nots that is the foundation of economic and ecological injustice. Tens of thousands of groups worldwide are engaged in building a new economy based on cooperative economics and non-hierarchical modes of production and distribution. This is the foundation of true, sustainable economics.

2. Markets are not necessary to manage essential resources, are tools at best, and work better when tightly regulated, not fetishized

The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, and countless historical and living examples, shows that neither markets nor central governments are necessary to manage common resources. Although many in the sustainability movement call for “parallel” economies, markets alongside common management, history shows that markets tend to consume the commons rather than exist in symbiotic relationship with them. Proponents of market distribution have a seat at the table, but should have to answer critical questions about externalities and inequality if they want a voice in building a just and sustainable economy. They shouldn’t enjoy special presumption.

3. Privatization of the Commons must be resisted

Privatiztaion has mostly been a disaster for communities around the world–not just because privatization privileges financial shareholders over material stakeholders, but because the vision of privatization alienates us from our universal stake in the heritage of our Commons. Whether conceived of as the stock of a divine creator, or the fountain of all living beings, economic justice begins by recognizing the source of all value in the Commons.

4. Climate egalitarianism is essential to human survival

We must stop the artificial heating and destruction of our planet, and must do so in an economically just framework. To ignore the plight of working people in a panic-stricken rush to deal with the causes and impacts of climate change is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Likewise (and this is another problem with single-minded redistributive strategies), to eliminate poverty by standardizing and subsidizing ecologically unsustainable practices is incredibly dangerous. Both half-strategies ignore the principle that exploitation the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants are an interrelated whole.

I realize I’m pushing the envelope in relation to the Bernie Sanders of the presidential campaign, but Sanders has fellow-traveled with grassroots economic justice, even if he hasn’t always led with it. He gets why worker cooperatives are more successful and moral than traditional capitalist enterprises. He gets why people embrace socialism (however precise its definitional parameters) even though it’s . . . complicated. Although he’s a mess and to the right of the Pontiff on foreign policy, they have more in common than not on economics, particularly concerning an imperative of solidarity.

Of course, this was just a thought experiment. I’ll be contemplating and sharing my four arguments above this weekend at the “Materializing Empathy” webinar, which in conclusion I’ll shamelessly plug.

Matt Stannard is Policy Director at Commonomics USA and a member of the Board of the Public Banking Institute.

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