Rerum Novarum: Still Informing Our Social Policy.
By Jim O'SullivanThose thinking that the rift with the church over recent years has removed its influence from vital areas of state policy are badly mistaken
Rerum Novarum, for the uninitiated, is a papal encyclical (1891) on the rights and duties of “capital” and “labour” in response to the growing social tensions created by an absence of distributive justice. Although acknowledging the interdependence of both, it came out against sovereign governments managing the affairs of state in a way that would give tangible recognition to it.
While it conceded that capital cannot be produced without labour, it emphatically refused to grant that each member of a community was accordingly entitled to a reasonable share of the capital produced by that community. In addition it found no qualms with a position where small coteries could own and control all the land and resources, while the majority were regarded only as “labour” to be used to exploit those resources in the interests of the owners in the first instance and being entitled only to what “capital” regarded as a fair wage.
Much of the encyclical’s focus is on what is referred to as the “negative methods” of “labour” in seeking redress and “positive methods” to encourage the wealthy, with promises of heavenly rewards, to practice generosity and compassion through “setting up private organisations to assist workers and their families in times of need”---charity in other words. (Charity here has grown to become a multi-billion euro business led by CEOs on equally impressive huge remuneration packages. None of them it appears are that keen to await the hereafter for their rewards.)
Those with little were to meekly accept this charity with humility and to work diligently for their masters regardless of the pay and conditions. This archaic view, written at a time when monarchs---all crowned in a religious ceremony of some kind or other---still held considerable power (and everything else besides), seeped into political orthodoxy via those groups and partys who represented the interests of the property owner. Rerum Novarum gave credibility and respectability to a system that oversaw gross inequity of both opportunity and share-out of resources.
I must confess that I have never shared others enthusiasm for “Summer Schools”; regarding them generally as part of the “tourism sector”---and photo ops for politicians and other celebrities. However, from time to time, politicians can reveal at such gatherings a little of what informs their attitudes---which in turn informs us of their deep held views and prejudices.
Attention was drawn to the McGill event by the rambunctious (what else?) back door arrival of Phil Hogan. Having upended the peace and tranquilly of the place he settled to give interviews to the media arrayed before him.
It was here that such an insight was glimpsed. When asked about the household charge and the consequences for those that could ill afford it he mumbled about it being the “law of the land...services have to be paid for” and then the default soundbite of the scoundrel everywhere “...so that we don’t have to tax jobs “
This has all the appearance of classic noachian “give unto Caesar...” guff. The populous must meekly accept taxes unfairly levied whether they can be afforded or not---“capital” decrees it.
An Taoiseach also put in an appearance at McGill---reports don’t state which door he used---but he delivered an extraordinary speech in which, among other things, he claimed that he is leading a government that is endowed with “reforming zeal” The impression left was however, that he and his colleagues are stuck firmly in the “truths” that flow from Rerum Novarum.
The overall claim made regarding “reform” is fantastical---nothing of any substance has changed this past 18 months. Cronyism, cute hoorism, arrogance, a huge and growing gap between both ends of the socio-economic scale and ineptitude still abound in equal measure to what went before. Inequality in Ireland has worsened since the Coalition entered office, yet the crucial issue of social justice is hardly mentioned other than in the context of how the government plans to continue increasing “corporate welfare”---justified by the spurious claim that this will somehow “create” employment.
(Is it possible that Kenny has failed to notice that uring his 18 months in office the rich have got considerably richer while the poor have gotten miserably poorer? The crisis is now one of disparity which is being worsened creating a downward spiral in which more and more have less and less disposable income thus killing economic activity where it counts most---at a local level.)
As the speech ambled on Kenny quoted Declan Costello’s “Just Society”---apparently in an effort to underline some commitment or other to social justice;
“We have, it is true, achieved freedom from foreign rule for most of our country, and our citizens enjoy freedom from arbitrary arrest, but freedom is much more than the absence of tyranny . . . it only becomes real when economic and social conditions permit the full development of the human personality.”
Those waiting for an insight as to how government reform would create the “…social conditions” that would “…permit the full development of the human personality” were left with the gaping disappointment that must have been felt by the devout on reading Rerum Noverum all those years ago.
Evoking Costello is odd in the context of a speech that would have gone down a storm at a Tea Party function. Kenny covers the entire area of social issues by references to “competitiveness”---a euphemism for actually cutting the wages and benefits of workers; “downsizing the public service”---again workers losing their jobs and services being cut; “reinventing our welfare system”---the same workers, now unemployed, having vital supports hacked away along with any remaining vestiges of their dignity---and then the bizarre “reactivation process” which is supposed to help the unemployed get back into work in an environment where 450,000 are unemployed and jobs are nonexistent. The “reinventing” of the welfare system has seen many waiting months for payments, being treated like wayward children, having their honesty and integrity questioned, lone parents again being spied upon and thousands forced to labour in far off lands away from family and friends. As I write, news is breaking that 3 out of 5 applications for Disability Allowances are being refused under this “reinventing of welfare”.
Kenny makes clear, by deed and omission, that he regards welfare supports as optional and at the whim of “betters” By contrast, in all of this, not the slightest suggestion that any effort will be made to “reinvent” our taxation system so that some level of distributive justice might be possible. In fact “capital” is to be mollycoddled and nursed through “this difficult time” and given every assistance to protect and hang on to material possessions, some ill-gotten. In short, the government partys regard “capital” as deserving while “labour” must make do with “charity”.
In musings later in his life, clearly frustrated with successive political failures to correct disparity, Declan Costello raised the omission of any constitutional guarantee regarding distributive justice.
It is obvious that the constitution does not afford any protections to those with no access to the means to fend for themselves. In modern economies the only such access for the vast majority is provided by a job. There is no guarantee of a job and when unemployment arises there is no constitutionally protected entitlement to ensure access to a fair and/or reasonable share of national wealth to sustain a dignified living. This is compounded by the state’s failure to establish and fix a relationship between top and bottom incomes---particularly in times of economic upheaval. Those that fall on hard times must resort to the charity of strangers (Classic Rerum Novarum----and why not, many believe that each clause of the current constitution was first read by John Charles McQuaid for approval).
In essence what this means is that the citizen in Ireland is stuck in a social contract whereby he/she must observe rules, on pain of sanction, while having no corresponding guarantee of sharing in the common wealth created should job opportunities not exist---while at the same time watch others continue to live high on the hog.
When a government with “reforming zeal” arrives and begins to reform in the interest of social justice it will be readily visible---most involved with social justice issues could draft the necessary constitutional clause with little difficulty. We await with exhaustible patience.
In the meantime, Rerum Novarum rules, OK.