POPE AND POVERTY

In his first major speech on the financial crisis, Pope Francis called on people to restrain their obsession with materialist consumption and wealth accumulation. He exhorted world leaders to serve the poor and not allow themselves to be deluded by blind market forces.
Encouraged by this I downloaded his Apostolic Exhortation – Evangelii Gaudium. I was pleasantly astonished to discover its hidden passion and analytical depth. Although it was aimed at the Catholics, I venture to suggest that Pope Francis was addressing the whole of humanity … irrespective of people’s religious or secular affinities.
Structural causes of poverty
Most astonishing for me was his reference to the ‘structural’ causes of poverty. I had not expected that. Mainstream writers on poverty seldom (indeed, never) refer to ‘structural’ causes of poverty, not even the Nobel Laureates Amratya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. As for Marxists, they think they have a kind of monopoly of inquiring into the ‘structural’ causes of social injustice. The Pontiff is no Marxist, but in some ways he is deeper, for he has another level of consciousness – divine or spiritual consciousness – that most Marxists lack. I will come back to poverty again, but let me first elaborate on the last point.
Six Levels of Consciousness
I believe that there are (at least) six levels of consciousness, only some of which we as ordinary mortals are aware.
First is ‘self-awareness’ – consciousness about one’s own self as a physical mortal being and about one’s identity.
Second, ‘other awareness’ – consciousness about ‘the other’, not as an enemy but as another human being.
Third, ‘nature awareness’ – consciousness about the environment – including trees, bees, butterflies and tigers.
Four, ‘system awareness’ – consciousness about the global system of production and distribution of the means of personal and social existence.
Five ‘divine consciousness’ – awareness about the ‘Supreme Being’, however defined – either as an ontological something ‘out there’ or as a spiritual experience ‘inside’ the person.
Six, ‘awareness of the subconscious’ – the hidden impulses behind the conscious which a psychoanalyst might help one to become aware.
The reason I go into this is to underscore the point that while most of us are aware of only some of the above layers of consciousness, the politicians, especially when in power, are usually aware of only the first one – ‘self-awareness’, in particular his or her power and how to sustain it. For them ‘the other’ is the enemy; the ‘environment’ is to be exploited for profit; ‘the system’ is the one that serves something called ‘national security’ in whose name horrendous acts of cruelty are inflicted on ‘the other’; ‘the divine’ is either non-existent or a religious ritual to justify acts of cruelty; and ‘the unconscious’ is simply left to the psychoanalyst, or to bad dreams.
There are some rather exceptional people who are aware about all the six dimensions of consciousness. Pope Francis, I think, is one.
The underlying causes of poverty
The Pontiff has said – repeatedly – that life for ordinary people has become worse, not just in the countries of the South but also in the rich countries of the North. People struggle to survive – often an undignified existence. In his Evangelii Gaudium, this is what Pope Francis says:
‘188. The Church has realized that the need to heed this plea is itself born of the liberating action of grace within each of us, and thus it is not a question of a mission reserved only to a few… it means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter’. (Emphasis added)
Pope Francis then expounds on the word solidarity. ‘The word “solidarity” he says, ‘is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.’
The theme of structural causes of poverty is reiterated.
‘202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.’
The Evangelii Gaudium goes on to elaborate on what Pope Francis means by structural causes. I will leave this to the curious reader to explore this for him(her)self. It is important that we read this document for one’s enlightenment and in solidarity with the people for whom it is written – the Wretched of the Earth (a phrase I borrow from the French-Martinique psychoanalyst, Frantz Fanon).
The ‘Other’
In our time, the ‘other’ is defined by the West’s political leadership and the dominant media as the ‘Muslim fundamentalist’. For Pope Francis, this is nothing short of a fraud committed by the spin doctors of Western politicians and Christian fundamentalists.
‘252. Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”…. They also acknowledge the need to respond to God with an ethical commitment and with mercy towards those most in need.’
And, further down:
‘253. In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition…. Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.’ (Emphasis added)
I have read the Koran (Qur’an), and I testify to the Pontiff’s claim that contrary to the oversimplified view of the teachings of the Prophet, Islam is not a violent religion. I will not go deeper into this very significant issue of our time. Contrary to biased historians, Islam spread from the 7th to the 11th centuries not by the sword but by the ‘word’. Of course, there were many Muslims who violated the Prophet’s word – namely, that “There should be no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). And yes, there were many wars during this period. But these wars were unleashed mainly by Christian Crusaders blessed by the ruing Pontiffs of the time – a historical irony (given Pope Francis’s position on this matter today).
Has Pope Francis a future?
I don’t know. Whatever one might say about the Pontiff’s future, one thing is certain: poverty will not end unless its structural causes are analysed and dealt with.
I give a little historical note to make this point. In the 1960’s the developing countries of the South attempted to challenge the structural causes of poverty in their countries. They called for a new dispensation – a New International Economic Order (NIEO) – and it led to the creation of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964. Its creation was also associated with the ideas of Raul Prebisch, its first Secretary-General. He, among others, had developed a theory to counter the mainstream ‘growth theory’. This counter-hegemonic theory – known as the ‘underdevelopment’ theory, or ‘the Centre and periphery’ theory, and or the Latin American ‘Dependencia theory’ – analysed the structural causes of enduring underdevelopment of the South.
What happened to that alternative vision? It died. With the rise of the neo-liberal ideology in the 1980s the idea of NIEO died. The Dependencia School was marginalised; and with it, the ‘UNCTAD issues’ – such as technology transfer, terms of trade, and the scrutiny of transnational corporations – were taken out of UNCTAD. The present dominant structure on issues of trade is the World Trade organisation (WTO) which, without the ‘UNCTAD issues’, has become a club of the rich and powerful.
The entire UN system is hostage to the agenda of the rich and powerful, although from time to time, the countries of the south are able to express their independent opinion in its General Assembly – such as on the issues of Palestine and Cuba. But the GA (unlike the Security Council) has no teeth – it cannot enforce its resolutions. The result that positive initiatives taken by the countries of the South get watered down. A good example of this is the ill-fated Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which reduced a structural problem into a statistical numbers game. The At the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the UN launched the so-called ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ as its post-2015 development agenda. Once again, this did not address underlying structural causes of continuing underdevelopment of the countries of the South. The UN simply changed the goal posts from MDGs to SDGs. Take a lesson from History – SDGs are a smokescreen just like the MDGs.
Take Pope Francis’s wisdom in order to chart out the future of humankind – address and deal with the structural causes of poverty; and do not treat ‘the other’ as enemy. I know this is easier said than done. But the first step is the most difficult. This step was taken by many before Pope Francis. But Francis has added his significant voice to delegitimizing a market based, neoliberal ideological ‘growth’ model of the rich and powerful. Now it is for the rest of us to take further steps. It is time for Intifadah, for Chimurenga, for struggle against oppression, exploitation, and injustice. (For a definition of these terms, see my first blog ‘Global Intifada and National Chimurenga’. (Posted on September 27, 2013)

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