Break out your Papal Tiaras, rock your rosaries, and stoke your stigmatas, because the one-and-only steward to the sanctified seat of Saint Peter; the Internationally Infallible Grand Poobah of Apostolic awesomeness himself — Pope Francis — is touring America.
This fall’s papal visit marks the first time that the Argentine-born Francis (née Jorge Mario Bergoglio) has placed his slippered paws onto U.S. soil, and he’s causing quite a stir, especially among American wingnuts who haven’t taken kindly to Francis’ refusal to act like Ayn Rand in a white beanie.
The Pope has uttered a number of heresies — from sorta embracing gay rights, to voicing the scientific reality of climate change, to challenging the near worldwide neoliberal consensus on the supposed divine perfection of unfettered market capitalism — all of which have made him the target of spittle-flecked wingnut rage. Indeed, ever since the southern cone-spawned Pontiff first warmed St. Peter’s throne, U.S. conservatives have questioned whether the earthbound vicar of Hay-Seuss knows anything at all about economic stuff.
Bow-tied white Urkel George Eff Will, for example, accused Francis of demonstrating “fact free flamboyance” by critiquing the wonders of capitalism. “Francis deplores ‘compulsive consumerism,’ a sin to which the 1.3 billion persons without even electricity can only aspire,” Will huffed. Similarly, Pat Buchanan — America’s lovable, Nazi-coddling crazy Catholic uncle — whined that, “Today we have a pope for whom free-market capitalism is the ‘unacceptable ideological commitment.'” Not to be outdone by the latter crazies, radio sewer gas vent Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly lambasted the Pope’s critiques of the free market. He once called the Pontiff’s points “pure Marxism,” and warned that Francis’ U.S. vacation will be an excuse for “a week of trashing capitalism.”
And it ain’t just the conservative echo-chamber that delights in Pope-splaining capitalism to the Pope. As CNN reports, Republican politicians — Catholics among them — scowl at Francis’ “liberal-leaning views.” In a typical gripe, former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds chided his Popeness, claiming that, “Personally, I think if you think of the quality of life that has been delivered to millions of people around the world and freedoms that we find for people around the world, most of it has happened because of innovation due to capitalism.” Moreover, the disaffection with Francis’ critiques of capitalism has filtered through the American wingnut-o-sphere. Politico reported that the Pope’s popularity has nose-dived among American conservatives in general, with only 45 percent having a positive opinion of the Pontiff.
Make no mistake: Pope Francis is still very conservative (he upholds the Church’s traditional hard-line stances on abortion and women’s roles), but his criticisms of capitalism’s excesses have revealed that American conservatives are, in a key way, kinda Marxists themselves. Just hear me out.
To understand what I mean when I call U.S. wingnuts Marxists, you first have to look at what the Pope actually wrote about capitalism as it’s practiced in the world today. In Chapter 2 of his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium — a chapter tellingly titled Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment — Francis criticizes “the new idolatry of money” before laying out a stinging rebuke of capitalism’s flaws. “The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose,” he writes, “the worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare…their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
Indeed, the major thrust of Francis’ argument is that extreme free-market capitalism reduces human existence to a vacuous exchange of goods and currency. Capitalism therefore measures human worth, human dignity, and human spirituality on a purely materialistic, monetary scale. Pope Francis further lambasts a world-wide “economy of exclusion” driven by “trickle-down theories” in which “the powerful feed on the powerless.” In his most cutting observation, which is worth quoting in full, he notes that:
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the “leftovers.’
Above all else, Pope Francis criticizes a capitalist system that promotes materialism and consumption as the only significant ideological measuring points of human purpose. You need not be Catholic to see appreciate his points, and it’s precisely these pointed critiques that irk materialist-oriented American conservative Marxists.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels — perhaps the most famous critics of capitalism behind Barack Obama — developed a theory about human social development known as Historical Materialism, a.k.a economic materialism, and it’s a theory that Pope Francis’ conservative critics seem to have embraced in full. Historical Materialism is a theory of history in which material production drives human social development. As historian Kaleb Shimp writes, Historical Materialism “asserts that economic forces are the primary forces that propel man through history as social classes interact,” and it essentially locates all changes in human social organization within the shifts in the material production and consumption of the necessities of life. Taken to its logical end, Historical Materialism suggests that human existence has been, and always will be, defined by materialistic needs and desires. It doesn’t leave much wiggle room for alternate agents of historical change such as religion, spirituality, gender, non-economic cultural ideas, etc.
Hence, we come to the mind-blowing irony of American conservatives’ complaints about Pope Francis. When wingnuts like George Will and Rush Limbaugh chide the Pope for criticizing “compulsive consumerism,” they frame their critiques under the rubric of free-market capitalism’s seemingly limitless materialistic benefits. Global neoliberal capitalism mustn’t be examined and challenged, so sayeth the wingnuts, because it provides real material benefits to people. After all, the need to endlessly produce and consume is the be-all and end-all of human existence! Marx and Engels must be smiling down approvingly from their non-existent workers’ paradise afterlife.
But don’t take my word for it! Ask dunderheads like George Will, who Pope-splained to Francis that “Our flourishing requires affordable, abundant energy for the production of everything from food to pharmaceuticals. Poverty has probably decreased more in the past two centuries than in the preceding three millennia because of industrialization powered by fossil fuels.” In other words: capitalism produces a lot of stuff (much of it admittedly great), but to criticize its relentless — even soulless (to use a papal phrase) — drive to turn human existence into an endlessly repeating excercise in the relations of production is just not cool, Pope. Karl Marx himself couldn’t have said it better.
Of course, in framing their scorn for Pope Francis in Marxian materialistic terms, conservatives are missing the essence of the Pope’s actual points. Unlike the conservative Marxists, Pope Francis is focusing on spiritual, not materialistic, concerns when he examines capitalism. He writes in his Apostolic Exhortation that, “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.” In other words, Pope Francis is going beyond the materialistic limitations that plagued Marxist philosophy for centuries. Instead, he’s arguing that human life is about far more than the making, selling, and buying of material things. A factory worker in China driven to the breaking point by militaristic wage slavery might be materially fulfilled, but mentally and spiritually, she’s likely an absolute wreck. Pope Francis is speaking for that Chinese factory worker, as well as for every other human being who has been beaten down by profit-obsessed plutocrats. Goons like George Will, by contrast, just want to line the plutocrats’ pockets in the name of “flourishing.”
So the next time you hear some free-market conservative wax materialistic when complaining about the “liberal” Pope Francis, remind said conservative that they’re putting forth the best argument for materialism since Karel Marx. Viva la (conservative) revolution!!