Creative destruction means that you get both

I liked R.R. Reno’s summary of the parallel, seemingly contradictory effects of global capitalism on societies:

Because global capitalism often destroys traditional forms of social organization, it tends to make people more vulnerable, especially the poor, even when they’re less poor than they used to be. It’s foolish to imagine that ready availability of TVs in the slums of Buenos Aires makes up for the loss of the finely woven social safety net of a traditional village, however impoverished. Yes, people move there because they rightly see the modern market economy as the source for greater material well-being. But they also rightly want to be an integral part of a larger society in which their voices are heard and needs addressed.

By my reckoning, it’s this vulnerability—the danger of becoming an anonymous, throw-away person in a global economic machine—that Pope Francis wants us to see. He urges that we “eliminate the structural causes of poverty.” That’s been tried, without success. More germane to the social problem is his call for “small daily acts of solidarity.” We may not be able to win a war on poverty. But we can share our lives—and our society—with the poor.

His whole interpretation of the populism characterizing Pope Francis’ Evangelium Gaudium is interesting.

Hat tip: Peter Leithart

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3 comments

  1. I appreciate that Reno is broadly advocating capitalism and straining to interpret Francis as merely admonishing individuals toward more moral values, but he also seems to retain some of his own populist undercurrents that I’m unsure how to interpret. The first paragraph you quote is a good example I’ll dissect:

    Because global capitalism often destroys traditional forms of social organization,

    That is true to the extent that people have more options, and their choices can effect change.

    it tends to make people more vulnerable, especially the poor, even when they’re less poor than they used to be.

    I’m not sure what metrics Reno has in mind, but my guess is that he’s either idealizing the past or misattributing capitalism.

    It’s foolish to imagine that ready availability of TVs in the slums of Buenos Aires makes up for the loss of the finely woven social safety net of a traditional village, however impoverished.

    Yes, that would be foolish, but who actually imagines that? I see straw where man should be. 🙂

    Is that even representative of the choice facing the poor? Is he insulting them by implying that they have chosen TVs in that false dilemma?

    Yes, people move there because they rightly see the modern market economy as the source for greater material well-being.

    I appreciate the way Reno phrases this. Elsewhere, he frames capitalism as doing this or that with the flavor of an external actor, whereas it is more accurate to say that when a certain people have a choice, they tend to choose this or choose that.

    But they also rightly want to be an integral part of a larger society in which their voices are heard and needs addressed.

    What is he advocating here? How should their voices be heard and their needs addressed? I feel like he’s avoiding the crux.

    Ah, perhaps I’m being too suspicious and overcritical. I suppose I’ve been jaded by politicians whose rhetoric presents multiple, irreconcilable faces — extolling capitalism while implementing statism.

    Still, Reno is surely far less statist than Francis, even as he struggles to agree with him.

  2. When Reno says, “It’s foolish to imagine that ready availability of TVs in the slums of Buenos Aires makes up for the loss of the finely woven social safety net of a traditional village, however impoverished”, I think that he means not that the poor have chosen TVs but rather that economic change has both made the TVs possible and altered things at the rural level.

    So, say that there’s a poor farming village with the kinds of cohesive social networks that he’s talking about. Industrialization makes better agricultural machinery possible, and higher yields. The profit motive encourages the land owner to push for these higher yields, disrupting the village’s subsistence farming. More food and advances in nutrition and sanitation mean that many more villagers survive to young adulthood, where there are less farm jobs anyway because of the mechanization of farming. So they go to the city for jobs, which are tough to find.

    Most of the stuff in the previous paragraph is good, and it vastly overwhelms the bad (More food, more productivity, more people living longer lives? Yes, please.) I don’t want to idealize rural poverty, as it is fashionable to do. But it seems logical to me to suggest that global economic conditions that encourage material factors to take precedence over non-material factors like traditional ways of life could help produce the sense of isolation from a sense of meaning that Reno talks about.

    You’re right that capitalism doesn’t “do” things to people, but economic conditions do both create new possibilities and make some old ones less possible, right?

  3. Well said, Scott. I still resist ascribing it to “economic conditions” rather than people, but you are right: better options arise and old jobs can become less valuable to others. Some change is inevitable. You cannot maintain doing the exact same work independently of the outside world if you depend upon trading with the outside world (which would except the self-sustaining kind of subsistence farming, at least). Some of the Amish come to mind in achieving that balance, for example.

    But it seems logical to me to suggest that global economic conditions that encourage material factors to take precedence over non-material factors like traditional ways of life could help produce the sense of isolation from a sense of meaning that Reno talks about.

    To some extent that is true, just as natural conditions such as drought or flooding are likewise “material factors” that might encourage dispersive migration.

    And when they do migrate, what do we see? We see those who are somewhat successful bring their family and then extended family and so on and they develop social support systems that are a microcosm of their original culture and traditional ways of life.

    Fraternal societies come to mind in that mix, which notably died out due to government solutions, not capitalism. Indeed, I think that government entitlements and perverse incentives are the cause of far more modern isolation from each other and from a sense of meaning than capitalism or nature. We come to depend upon government instead of each other, and it increasingly becomes our medium for connecting to each other, inherently impersonal at a distance.

    Reno’s false dichotomy is not simply that no one is literally trading their social safety net for TVs, but also that no one really needs to — technology and social safety nets are largely independent concerns.

    The situation which you describe would create a demand for such social nets, so if people in the cities are not voluntarily adapting their former social safety nets or developing new ones, then there is a reason and I highly doubt that reason is capitalism.

    So I still think that Reno is misattributing capitalism and I’m suspicious of the way he phrases his conclusion.

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