WASHINGTON, December 5, 2014 — The funeral for Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa and icon of the fight against apartheid, was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela died at the age of 95.
Mandela’s fight against apartheid won him worldwide admiration and a Nobel Peace Prize, but it also earned him a place on the United States terror watch list, from which he was only removed in 2008. American critics of Mandela and of his African National Congress (ANC) long accused him of being a communist fellow traveler, and the ANC of being a puppet of the Soviet Union.
If his effect on American politics was divisive in life, his death has produced a measure of unity. President Obama flew to Johannesburg on Air Force one with former President George W. Bush and former first lady Hillary Clinton. Former Presidents Clinton and Carter flew to South Africa separately. A delegation of congressional Republicans and Democrats also went to the funeral.
Yet some Americans remain hostile to Mandela. That he was a terrorist and a communist puts him beyond the pale of forgiveness. The sin against capitalism is the unforgiveable sin.
Pope Francis finds himself in a similar situation. Widely admired for his humility and concern for the poor, he has drawn fire for his criticism of capitalist practice. He is relegated to the category of Marxist dupe by American conservatives, who seem almost offended that he doubts capitalism is God’s ultimate gift to humanity.
Capitalism is without a doubt one of the most powerful engines for good and human progress in history. Marx recognized that no other system was so powerful a creator of wealth, and his masterwork, “Capital,” shines with admiration for what capitalism has wrought. Capitalism has been a force for democracy and modernization around the world, increasing individual liberty at the expense of state authority. It threatens tyranny and loosens the states grip on individuals.
But it does that at a cost. Capitalism is not a system of morality. It doesn’t require that we be happy, it only expands the possibilities. Its capacity to make us miserable is as great as its capacity to make us happy. It can give us the means to enjoy full and rich lives, and it allows us to be cold, self-centered materialists. As it points us to modernity, it trashes tradition and challenges cherished institutions. It is pitiless and amoral. It makes us rich enough to do what we want and to be ourselves. If who we are is brutish and nasty, then capitalism gives us the means to build hell on earth as readily as to build heaven. If we want it to be good, we have to provide the goodness ourselves.
An economy, even a capitalist one, is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Markets are not a holy relic. We don’t praise them because they are good regardless of the results; markets are only good to the extent that they produce liberty, wealth, and a better tomorrow. They’re good only if we are good.
Francis has not suggested destroying the ark of capitalism, but only steadying it. He calls business a “noble vocation,” not a blight on humanity. He doesn’t want for capitalism to be replaced, but only for capitalists to care about the poor, for us to value people more than capital, and for us to love profits for the good they can do, not for the toys they can buy.
Mandela once said that happiness came from the possibility of making money, and he had no interest in turning South Africa into a bastion of anti-capitalism. Why, then, did he stand with communists? We might as well ask, where were the western conservatives and capitalists who stood with him? American revolutionaries took help from French royalists, not because they wanted to build a new Versailles on the Potomac, but because they needed to take help where they could get it.
Mandela fought against one of the most cruelly repressive regimes in the world. It kept its black majority in bondage, without a say in government, with strictly limited economic rights, forced always to carry a pass with them to show that they had a right to be where they were. Apartheid was demeaning and degrading to the human spirit, and it had to be destroyed. Mandela took his help where he could get it.
“Give me liberty or give me death.” Mandela risked death, and he spent 27 years in prison because he wanted the right to vote, to work in any job his skills would allow, and to associate with whom he pleased. Why was that desire noble in our Founding Fathers, and a sin for Mandela?
Communism is a terrible and cruel system that has created more human misery than most of us can imagine. It was the worst failure of 20th century politics and economics, but it persisted as long as it did because communists often understood something American conservatives don’t: Ultimately, hardly any one cares about economic theory. They care about how they live, whether their lives are getting better, whether their children have hope for lives better than their parents’. Suffering today is bearable if hope is there in front of us.
Communism held out the promise of hope but could never deliver on it; communism is a lie. Capitalism can deliver, but it makes no promises. Capitalism, like democracy, is for adults. It delivers a better world if we work for it, if we show self restraint, if we care about what happens to our society, and if we demand that it deliver not just profits, but a better world. It rewards careful, long-term thinking and punishes childish impatience.
Pope Francis leads a church whose leadership for centuries was more concerned about the needs of the corporate church than about its members. The scandal of pedophile priests was covered up and enabled for decades because bishops and cardinals cared about the church as an organization, not as a body of believers in Christ. They treated the church like a collection of buildings and rituals, not a billion souls who expect it to be good.
Whatever Francis’s qualifications as an economist, he reminds us, as Mandela did, that the ultimate value of church, state and economy is its ability to find value in individual lives. Justice isn’t an enemy to capitalism or to the church; it’s essential to their survival. If capitalists and Christians cared about the poor among them and if they cared about justice, we wouldn’t need government to do much but police the borders and send representatives to state funerals.
Profits matter, and so do the rituals of the church, but if we don’t have a passion for mercy and justice, the rituals are a dead letter, the profits a whitewashed tomb. Mandela wasn’t perfect, and some of his allies were monsters. Francis isn’t perfect, and some of his ideas are probably economic nonsense. But they remind us also of the power of ideas, and of the importance of each of us to bless the lives of those around us. For that they deserve our admiration, and the world is better for having such men in it
Reprinted from Communities Archives