The Holy Spirit of Resistance

Catholic Social Vision

By Ted Schmidt
April/May 1998

Return to Table of Contents
Print Article

Globalization is the most fundamental rearrangement of the world economy since the Industrial Revolution. Proceeding with alarming speed and with virtual assent of the developed nations, this world-wide creation of free trade zones, and deregulated and liberalized economies has become a great boon to transnational corporations but a grievous assault on the common good, the earth, and the lives of most inhabitants of our world.

The signs of growing economic apartheid are everywhere. Consider the following:

  • Inequality between North and South has doubled since 1960 when the richest 20% received 30 times more than the poorest 20%. Today it is 60 times.
  • 80 countries are less well off than they were 30 years ago, through forced liberalization (e.g. relaxing trade laws, lowering wages, labour and environmental standards to be more competitive in the global marketplace).
  • The industrial nations of the world with one-fifth of the population use up to four-fifths of the world's resources.
  • In Canada, the 33 top corporations which supported the Free Trade initiative in 1988, the one which promised "more and better jobs," have cut 216,000 jobs since then, approximately 35% of their labour force.
  • In the 1990s the top 1% of the United States population increased its wealth 150 times faster than the bottom 99%.
  • According to Canadian pollster Angus Reid, there are 2.5 billion unemployed or underemployed people in our world of 5.5 billion.
  • Economist Susan George estimates that between 1982 and 1990, $418 billion in debt service charges was transferred from the South to the North. This is the equivalent of six Marshall Plans.
  • One billion fellow humans live in absolute deprivation, living without adequate food and shelter.

Such a world should be intolerable to Christians.
Yet, despite the cumulative evidence of which the above is a mere drop, many Christians still believe globalization is the way to the future. The economic model, so insensitive to communities and the environment, is the very model which has brought us to the environmental and social abyss. Relying as it does on brutal competition and an export economy, it conspires to shatter local communities generally capable of self-sufficiency.

Initially, people have been stunned by the dominance of capital in our time. Shrugging off the post-WWII social consensus where labour and capital existed in a creative tension, unregulated capital-the motor of the new globalized world-is in the ascendant. As Canadian entrepreneur Frank Stronach well noted, "profit means money. Money has no heart, no soul, no conscience, no homeland" (June 11, 1991, Globe and Mail). Money with no checks and balances, with no `social mortgage,' seeks maximization of profit and not the common good.

In this article, with the help of the thinking of noted economic historian Karl Polanyi, I wish to argue that, just as a worldwide resistance emerged in the advent of the first Industrial Revolution, a resistance which protected people and nature, so, too, today a worldwide resistance to untrammeled capital is forming. For those with eyes of faith, this refusal to accept the New World Order is the work of God's Holy Spirit of Resistance.

Polanyi, writing in 1944, argued that the Industrial Revolution was something completely new in human history. Never before had market forces been allowed to have their way with human communities and with nature. In this stage of capitalism, the economy which was formerly embedded in the small human relationships of small town markets, domestic production and self-sufficiency suddenly became de-linked from these basic relationships. Labour and land in the newly technologized economy had become simple commodities to be priced like anything else.

Today in what is often called the Second Industrial Revolution, this can be seen again. Economics as a discipline has separated itself from the rest of reality. There seems to be little recognition that the industrial economy is but a part of a greater `economy'-the one that sustains us in human communities and in informal relations. The industrial economy is destroying our social and human ecology, and professional economists are seemingly oblivious to this.

Looking back into history to the England of circa 1812, according to Polanyi (and other historians), the sudden insertion of new technologies in the manufacturing process resulted in "the destruction of the traditional character of settled populations..." The people were stunned, dispirited by unemployment and the unravelling of their social existence. But this, as today, is not the end of the story.

People, after their initial shock, began to respond to the new conditions. In the industrial heartland of England, working people shook off the first stunning blow, recouped their equilibrium and started to resist, in the words of the Luddites, "all Machinery hurtful to Commonality." (The Luddites were those who were against the industrial economy because they saw it destroying their communities and livelihoods.) Instinctively they understood, according to philosopher Thomas Carlyle, "Cash payment is not the sole relation of human beings."

Moving beyond the crude but understandable Luddite attacks on the factories, the people agitated for health and safety laws and social legislation. A real working class movement began. This is happening today.

For Christians sensitive to the liberating work of God in Scripture, this movement is inspired by God's Holy Spirit; in this case, not the Comforter, but the Holy Spirit of Resistance. The Resister is responding to the fracturing of the human family and the growing poverty of an increasing number of God's people, not to mention the plundering of the sacred earth herself.

Secular manifestations of this resistance include groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, anti-poverty groups, those popular movements like the Zapatistas in Mexico and all nonviolent defenders of the common good (including our own Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace). These are people motivated not by gain but by a genuine defense of our collective international interest. They would include those agitating for decent pay in Malaysian sweat shops, those defending the rights of Indigenous people in Brazil and elsewhere. The list is endless and inspiring. They range from ordinary people fighting environmental degradation like clear-cutting, pollution, and toxic dumps, to academics on the cutting edge of a more human approach to measuring what is true economic value.

The Social Teaching of the Church
The Roman Catholic Church here and elsewhere is responding as well in ways that are sometimes quite prophetic and hope-giving. To conclude this article, I would like to suggest that Catholic social teaching not only encourages a deep skepticism about globalization, but in fact promotes resistance to it.

Looking at Pope John Paul II's social encyclicals (Laborem Exercens, 1981; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987; and Centesimus Annus, 1991) we can sum up as the Canadian bishops did in 1993 that Catholic social teaching "hinges on two fundamental gospel principles: The preferential option for the poor and the value and dignity of human work, which derives from that special dignity bestowed on every person, for we are all created in the image of God."

Because of these two fundamental principles, public social policies are then called for. They are:

  • The needs of the poor have priority over the wants of the rich;
  • The rights of workers are more important than the maximization of profit;
  • The participation of marginalized groups takes precedence over the preservation of a system that excludes them.

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II recalls a principle, "always taught by the Church-the priority of labour over capital. Humans are made in God's image, money is not." Work, the pontiff insists, is a fundamental dimension of humanity's existence and the state "must act against unemployment, which in all cases is an evil when it reaches a certain level."(18)

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II reminds us: "All private property is under a social mortgage and that the common good is to be honoured. The goods of creation are meant for all."(39) The Pope cheers on "the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor" and their "nonviolent demonstrations" challenging the inequities brought about by globalization.

As globalization accelerated, John Paul II sharpened his criticism of the free market. In Centesimus Annus (the 100th year after Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum), "The State," he insisted, "must provide for the defense of common goods such as the natural and human environments which cannot be satisfied by market forces." Important needs always escape the logic of the market.

Our own Canadian bishops echoed this distrust of growing market fundamentalism. "The Church," stated the CCCB (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) in October, 1996, "continues to express grave doubts whenever the economic agenda heightens the polarization between rich and poor." Which is exactly what is happening.

In 1993, the same Social Affairs Commission of the CCCB lashed out at the effects of globalization: "Widespread unemployment is a gaping wound in Canadian society today," referring to the growing alienation occasioned by untrammeled market forces. In remarkably strong language, the statement recognizes that financial institutions in control of information technology "can out-manoeuvre workers' organizations by shifting capital." It goes on to say that "driven by the manic logic of capitalism" the free market simply emphasizes greed and self-interest. Certainly one of the strongest statements in Canadian episcopal history follows: "Business as usual is not good enough... you cannot stand by and wait for market forces to create suitable jobs..."

In May, 1996, the Social Affairs Commission boldly named the moment, "The end of this century's reigning ideology is profitability before dignity, profits before people, and competition before solidarity." It was the October, 1996, statement, The Struggle Against Poverty, which was most graphic, outlining the salient features of our globalized world in Canada:

  • The faulty economic tabulation of most federal governments which do not tabulate most of the productive work of women ($11 billion today);
  • The shameless abandonment of Aboriginal people;
  • The 19% poverty rate of children ("a damning indictment of the present socio-economic order");
  • The polarization between rich and poor;
  • The unequal structures of the international free market system: the $1.8 trillion debt of poor countries.

To the bishops, it is obvious that "a new global ethic" is called for. "It is no longer logical to blindly equate economic liberalism with social advancement."

What to do?
The bishops state it simply: "Take up the path of solidarity with the poor and their organizations in order to transform the world."

Catholics all over the world are now becoming aware of their counter-cultural social vision. They are increasingly recognizing the call of God to active citizenship in building the Reign of God rather than accepting the hopeless parameters of a New World Order of exclusion and passivity so powerfully promoted by massive corporations. Christians, nourished by a longer and wiser tradition, are rediscovering the God of history who is among us especially in movements which set out in partisan solidarity with the poor.

This challenge will rise inexorably in the next decade: to know more fully, to embrace more concretely, and internalize more deeply, the God of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of Resistance, alive in history and in the prophetic body of our Catholic social teaching.

Ted Schmidt is a columnist and member of the editorial board of Catholic New Times, an independent Catholic newspaper.

Return to Table of Contents
Print Article