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Rerum Novarum revisited

We may be better-fed slaves but slaves nonetheless.

We may be better-fed slaves but slaves nonetheless.

When I was a young man, in the mid-1960s, socialism was the rage and we were told it was the means to liberate the working class. Many years have flown by since then and I have been blessed with a life experience that has enabled me to realise that a social awareness that neglects the transcendent is doomed to fail in realising workers’ best interests.

It cannot be denied that in reaction to the evils of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries, left-wing ideology played a role in harnessing the collective solidarity of the working class that led to the establishment of trade unions and social welfare. Unfortunately, unbridled socialism over-reacted and led to the curtailment of private property and one’s initiative, resulting in the command economies that crippled the positive development of many countries.

Even Malta was not spared the high-handed implementation of socialist policies that brought the country to its knees, placing democratic institutions in dire peril. Only those blinded by partisan fanaticism will overlook the bitter episodes that marred Malta’s recent political history under Dom Mintoff’s watch.

But if socialism did not deliver, it is not much different to the version of capitalism being propagated so aggressively today, where citizens are pawns of big business interests and corporations.

The principles for a healthy economy that respects the dignity of man lies in the concept of widely distributed ownership

Both economic ideologies have one very dark feature in common: the total disenfranchisement of the individual. We may be better-fed slaves but slaves nonetheless, where decisions on our destiny as responsible individuals eager to earn a living, is largely outside our control. How often do we hear of industries going bust or closing down because of mismanagement, mergers or business being transferred elsewhere?

However, the philosophy to break out of these two destructive and alienating economic methodologies is within our reach and needs to be discovered more widely and exploited more eagerly. The principles for a healthy economy that respects the dignity of man lies in the concept of widely distributed ownership.

This was championed by Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on social justice Rerum Novarum published over a hundred years ago. Since then, over the years, subsequent popes have added to this corpus of knowledge and wisdom.

I had the remarkable good fortune of coming across the late E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful. His profound wisdom and good sense captivated me as he spelt out the principles that should underpin sound economic activity. I read most of his books and learnt about his life’s journey, passing from Marxism, to Buddhism, then towards Christianity and Catholicism. I could not but fail to be amazed by the rigour and brilliance of his logic.

His spiritual journey was matched by others, such as those of G. K. Chesterton, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and, more recently, Joseph Pearce. Despite the fact that these intellectuals had such disparate backgrounds and life experiences, they all came to the same conclusion: Humanity must be placed at the heart of economic life where small private enterprise of every type must be encouraged and protected.

In his book Small is Still Beautiful, published in 2006, Pearce revisits the core values expressed and promoted by Schumacher. Pearce effortlessly portrays that such ideas are not the fruit of escapist wishful thinking. He presents practical examples of the adoption of Schumacher’s philosophy and ideas that are underpinned by social teaching of the Catholic Church.

These real success stories prove that the ideas are sound and give rise to positive and harmonious economic endeavour.

klausvb@gmail.com

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