Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“On the Condition of the Working Classes”

THERE ARE ONLY TWO acceptable economic and political ideologies in the United States, and these two opinions, remarkably, happen to precisely coincide with the mainstream positions of the two major political parties.

Whereas Evangelical Protestants can be reliably found in one party, and while agnostics can be largely found in the other, Catholics are evenly split between the two. It isn’t too surprising that the best predictor of party membership in the United States is religious thought: for the roots of modernity and contemporary political systems are found in the heretical religious ideas developed in the late Middle Ages — and, of course, ultimately from the Fall of Man in Eden. Neither party comes even close to encompassing the entirety of Catholic social thought, but rather, each selects certain parts and disparages the others.

Tradition often falls away, not because it is not good, true, and beautiful, but merely because it is not understood. Traditional methods of organizing society are not fully understood until they are done away with. This happened in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after the French Revolution spread itself throughout Europe, and similar revolutions happened throughout the Americas. Very many traditions were wiped out by those promoting heretical ideologies, and it took decades to sort out the consequences of the changes. In the 1840s, Catholic theologians started a serious analysis of these changes, and a pupil of these theologians, Vincenzo Pecci, later Pope Leo XIII, promulgated the conclusions of this study in his famed social encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum.

The core ideas in Catholic social thought is that man is made in the Image and Likeness of God, and that we ought to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are even to love our enemies, and to love our fellow Catholics. How does the economics of Modernity go against these? We find a short explanation in the beginning of Rerum Novarum (which is known in English variously as “On the New Things,” “On Capital and Labor,” or “On the Condition of the Working Classes.”). Emphasis added:
3. In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen's guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

4. To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.
We see here that Pope Leo strongly contradicts the ideologies of both American political parties. We have many social problems, and many proposed solutions to these problems, but who, if anyone, gets to the root of these problems? Where did they start? Pope Leo tells us that it started when “the ancient workingmen's guilds were abolished in the last century.” I know of no one at all who proposes the reestablishment of the guilds as a future solution to our economic problems. Current proposed solutions merely perpetuate the problems outlined by Pope Leo.

Under the traditional system, guilds were confraternities of workmen, chartered by the government, which regulated a trade, craft, or industry within a locality. Guild members not only were workers, but they also owned their business, means of production, and set their own working conditions. This had many advantages for workmen: they were not tied to any particular schedule imposed by an employer, nor was their income fixed as we find with employees, but instead would keep the profits generated by their business. The guilds themselves usually served as insurance providers, taking care of dependents of a member if they became incapacitated. Guilds did not have to worry about new competitors nor were guild members always attempting to subvert each other, for “a rising tide floats all boats,” and a guild was clearly for mutual benefit.

If we find a similar institution all over the world, and in all ages of history, then we can assume that this institution is somehow rooted in human nature, and is not a mere convention of a particular time or a passing whim of a ruler or polity. Marriage is one such institution, and guilds are another. Guilds were found in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, throughout Medieval Europe, and were also found in India, Persia, China, and western Africa, and traces could even be found among the tribes of North America.

Guilds were hardly perfect, but they were a great factor in the stability and harmony of cities, general society, and families.

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