From Wasteland to Promised Land

7. Detours in the Wasteland: Marxism and Liberation

iberation theologians have been influenced, in varying degrees, by aspects of Marxism such as some versions of dependency theory and the concepts of alienation, surplus value, class struggle,and socialism. But they have not been slavish devotees of Marx, nor have they ignored other significant secular movements such as Freudianism, existentialism, and phenomenology. Still, although it is now being used with increasing reservation, Marxism still retains a measure of vitality in liberationist thinking, and the influence of Marxism has distorted the socioeconomic outlook of liberation theology.

Alienation is a concept co-opted by the youthful Marx from Hegelian idealism. In Marx's view, alienation refers to how we are separated and misled by the projections of human experience in both abstract thought and social institutions. This is a harmful separation that divides a person within as well as from others, undermining a sense of being truly whole and "at home."

Marx found the source of alienation in the exchange relationship in general, and the wage relationship in particular. Under this system, a person sees work and its products as external to him or herself, a means to satisfying other ends, and work relationships (bosses, employees, co-workers, etc) also as means to other ends. No longer protected by patriarchal associations, feudal bonds, religious sanctions, etc., the worker is thrown into the "cash-nexus" of capitalism and confronts directly the impersonal market, which faces him as a tyrant and an anarchic force that neither employees nor employers are able to predict, control, or understand.

According to Marx, capitalist alienation is not a matter of the division of labor per se (since this is a universal feature of all economies) but "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour" which reduces the person to a functional cog in the machine.

Liberation theologians have linked the conquest of alienation with the abolition of the profit system, leading to the emergence of what Gutierrez calls the "new man" -- free, unselfish, creative, socially responsible -- the shaper of his own destiny. "Our revolution," proclaims Jose Porfirio Miranda, "is directed toward the creation of the new human being." The liberationists' most massive systematic effort, a five-volume work by Juan Luis Segundo, is entitled Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity. All this accords with the Marxist view that human nature is plastic and can be transformed by structurally altering material relationships. But it does not accord with the traditional Christian acknowledgement that human nature is sinful and can be transformed only through the operation of divine grace in human hearts.

For Marx, since commodity production is most developed under capitalism, so too is alienation and exploitation. This exploitation is hidden by "the fetishism of commodities" -- the social relations between labor products mediated by money. The measure of exploitation, for Marx, is found in the difference between the value of labor (wages paid) and the value of the commodities sold. This difference, realized as profit by the capitalist, Marx called "surplus value". Capital itself is nothing but stored-up labor, Marx wrote, deserving no further return (i.e., interest), and sterile without the application of current labor. It creates no value but simply absorbs it. New value is produced by current labor, but the worker is nominally paid no more than the value of the necessaries of life habitually required by the average laborer. Surplus value, the difference between this and the market value of his product, thus constitutes "stolen wages."

Marx's fallacy is his failure to recognize that capital tremendously enhances the value-producing power of current labor, without which current labor would be very nearly sterile. If people had not stored up labor by refraining from immediate gratification, and instead using and often risking their wages to increase wealth, capital would not exist.

Initially, stored-up labor is the only source of capital; later, the rent of land can be converted into capital. But Marx viewed capital even in its initial formation as the expropriated product of the labor of others. To the extent that he was partially correct in this, the expropriation, as he himself indicates, must be laid mainly at the door of the landowner.

Marx's dialectical materialism holds that social classes are determined by historical development of various modes of production, and that class struggle must inevitably lead to a dictatorship of the proletariat, a transition on the way to the abolition of all classes and the emergence of the classless society. Yet in Latin America, the proletariat -- Marx's industrial wage-workers -- constitute the top quarter of income earners. The truly marginalized are the tenant farmers and other agricultural workers along with the jobless or underemployed urban slum-dwellers. But Marx considered the agricultural workers of his day to be hopelessly reactionary, and the urban lumpenproletariat to be hopelessly degraded into beggars, criminals, and "scabs."

Liberation theology, however, borrows from Marx to suit its own vision. Substituting the poor for the proletariat, liberationists hold that theology must grow out of the revolutionary practices of the marginalized and exploited masses. But, the poor exhibit the same range of tendencies as other classes, from the virtuous to the vicious, a fact which complicates liberationist claims that the poor are special repositories of the truth.

In spite of the recent collapse of socialist states, socialism, or a perception of it, still has a strong hold on many who are trying to overcome economic oppression. Marx was vague as to the structure of a post-revolutionary society. Describing the aims of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx wrote, "It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labor, into mere instruments of free and associated labor," and, he declared, "this is Communism." This sounds surprisingly consistent with a free market and with the goals of genuine land reform, but it is far from consistent with what he really meant by communism: the total abolition of the market.

What is supposed to happen after the inevitable overthrow of capitalism? Production will be for use and not for profit, but at first the products will be distributed (by means of noncirculating labor certificates) in terms of the amount of socially useful labor each individual performs. In the "higher phase" of communist society, distribution will be according to the formula "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

Marx gave little more detail beyond these hints of labor certificates and central planning. What are the criteria planners would use in allocating both material resources and labor (human beings)? And how would this process not contradict Marx's vision of freedom to shift from one occupation to another at will, even several times a day? And what is to prevent the initial dictatorship from becoming a self-perpetuating oligarchy?

Liberationists ignore the history of state socialism, which has time and again introduced capitalist "impurities" to correct its dismal performance -- beginning as far back as Lenin's "New Economic Policy." These measures have been necessary because socialism's view of human nature as either naturally noble or almost totally malleable is fallacious. While many do respond unselfishly and heroically in crises such as war and natural disaster, such behavior cannot be sustained in a large-scale way as a regular day-to-day routine. Insofar as populations can be conditioned to behave selflessly, they are also reduced to regiments of biped ants.

An economic system is best founded on the assumption that people are basically self-centered. And the art of government, Archbishop Temple observed,"is the art of so ordering life that self-interest prompts what justice demands."

The critique made here owes a lot to the work of Michael Novak, particularly his book Will It Liberate? But while Novak takes liberation theology seriously and seeks genuine dialogue, he is disappointing, not so much in what he says as in what he fails to say. (This may be why he is perceived by many liberationists as an apologist for North American capitalism.) While he speaks of the need to use the taxing power in Latin America to promote and maximize economic creativity rather than repress it, nowhere does Novak offer a model of such enlightened tax policy -- and nowhere does he advance any concrete suggestions as to how to address the land question. Yet the two, tax reform and land reform, are indeed intimately connected; true liberation demands both.