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Jacques Maritain's One-Hundred Fifteenth Dream

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Jacques Maritain's One-Hundred Fifteenth Dream

In 1990, Michael Novak penned “The Return of the Catholic Whig,” a declaration that the future of the Church belonged to those for whom classical and Christian philosophy aligned with Friedrich von Hayek. Among the luminaries he endowed with the title of “Catholic Whig” was Jacques Maritain. Maritain’s crucial role in establishing the post-war political order (including the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) have tempted some to laud (or as the case may be dismiss) him as the French John Courtney Murray, with a few interesting things to say about art, or a Catholic John Rawls. This characterization has been buttressed by a selective reading of Reflections on America, The Person and the Common Good, Christianity and Democracy, and other books. Such judgments efface the true image of Jacques Maritain, who was brilliant, politically restless, and above all, quixotic. To call him a “Whig Thomist,” especially under the grimly succinct definition given by Graham J. McAleer (“the conviction that there is, or ought to be, continuity between Catholic social thought and the Scottish Enlightenment”), is a crudely Procrustean falsification. As the postwar global political order continues to dissipate around us, it is important to remember that Maritain saw his own political activity as inadequate and was already planning for a radically different future.

In the fall of 1972, Jacques Maritain met with two members of the Little Brothers who had spent the last seven years in Cuba. Their conversation revolved around Fidel Castro’s recent attempt to eliminate currency. Maritain, fascinated by the staggering ambition of this policy but wary of the totalitarian manner in which it had been implemented, started reading works of political economy at a furious pace. Though he was sick and weak at this point in his life, this conversation called forth from him “a vast and fearful effort of the imagination,” which was eventually put down in the form of a short essay called “A Society Without Money.” Maritain was under no illusion that his attempt to sketch the lineaments of such a society would be adequate to its realization. He set himself the seemingly more modest goal of inspiring economists and all men “disgusted with a civilization in which everything is subject to the absolute rule of the almighty dollar.” Nearly fifty years later, Maritain’s essay remains if anything even more valuable, for we are in a position to see perhaps even more clearly than he did how capital disintegrates, disenchants, misenchants, and evacuates those realities which are most lovely, fragile, and sacred in our world. It does not hesitate, as Pope Francis has shown us in Laudato Si’ and Querida Amazonia, to devour the world herself.

Maritain foresees the coming marriage between capitalism and technocracy and objects to that unhappy union. But not for a moment does he entertain the idea that capitalism can be massaged into something greener, more decent, or more humane. He realizes that the fundamental illusion of capitalism is the very same objection that the Church has always made against usury: money is not fecund. Maritain does not intend this half-way poetic objection to replace Aristotle’s arguments about acquisition without limit. In decrying usury for its unnaturality, Maritain makes usury stand metonymically for a wide range of economic disorders. And even Aristotle makes a poetically etymological attack when he points out that the term for usury (tokos) means offspring and implies that the birth of money from money is a grotesque species of autoerotic breeding. Neither does Maritain blanch from crediting Marx’s incisive treatments of the endemic exploitation which is “the particular and distinguishing characteristic of the Capitalist System. And this was not dreamed up by Marx; all he did was point out the fact, as we would all do, if only we had eyes to see with.”

Maritain was keenly aware that his proposal would be considered trivial, utopian, and foolhardy, if not outright dangerous. Like Alasdair MacIntyre decades later, Maritain accepted the label of utopian in order to challenge lazy evaluations of visionary politics. As Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and Mark Fisher have pointed out, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Even though Maritain calls his essay “poorly organized notes,” it is suffused with the same spirit of proud and refractory hope: “But after all, I’m not moving in very bad company; there was neither gold nor money in Plato’s Republic.”

What were the specific characteristics of Maritain’s proposal? The greatest fundamental change is the replacement of currency with a new medium of exchange which he calls “tokens.” This is not a nominal shift; in one motion, Maritain effectively ends the treatment of currency and labor as commodities. Since all citizens will receive tokens sufficient for material and intellectual flourishing, a number of oppressive and alienating features of modern labor disappear. Wage-slavery vanishes, since there are, in fact, no wages. A minimum amount of work is required from all, but that requirement is half of the time of the average work week (and also includes a month-long vacation at some point in the year). In some respects, this proposal seems to anticipate our current debates about universal basic income. But the difference between a society without money and a monied society with a basic income scheme is one of both extent and quality. Maritain plans for the distribution of tokens to cover expenses exceeding (perhaps far exceeding) basic needs. Besides, no matter what sort of progressive tax is implemented to finance basic income, such a scheme keeps intact the general structure of the financialized economy, something Maritain intends to dissolve entirely. But the basic insight of U.B.I., that no humane society can write off vast swathes of the population as “economic losers,” is certainly something of which Maritain would approve.

Despite the significant role of the state in this plan, Maritain was eager to involve mediating institutions and called for the actual administration of labor (in all forms, including academic) to be assigned to large voluntary associations akin to unions or guilds. All trades would be under the supervision of these bodies. Historical parallels for this arrangement could be found in the Middle Ages, in the German workers’ councils in the late 1920s, and even in our current professional guilds encompassing law, medicine, and academia. Some market activity would be involved, though not without significant management and consideration for the common good. The trade unions which administer labor would also take responsibility for the periodic fixing of commodity prices. The primary criteria the unions would use in determining prices would be the scarcity of the commodity and the time required to produce it. Again, each citizen would be provided enough tokens to secure not only bare existence (including the existence of his or her family) but a dignified existence. Liberation from onerous economic demands would allow significantly more time to pursue higher education (subject in some respect to ability of course) and free creative activity. And not of least importance it would also dissolve the bizarre norm of the modern family in which children do not see one or both of their parents from nine to five.

Not only does Maritain envision an extremely generous basic income; he also insists that the state can and should produce more tokens to fund various creative, commercial, and intellectual foundations. These funds, he says, should be dispensed freely and at will. Even though the state risks “washing millions of tokens down the drain” due to ill-conceived projects or incompetent administrators, Maritain does not want even the smallest residue of state totalitarianism to impinge upon cultural development. He wants, in other words, almost no restrictions on what kinds of activities the state will fund when asked. The many difficulties, social and political, that would result from this are a risk that he is willing to take. This cultural prodigality is where he sees the greatest difference between his scheme and those of Marxist provenance. Since many forms of evil, injustice, and alienation will exist even after the abolition of capitalism, Maritain wants to emphasize that the most significant work, that of reforming human nature, belongs entirely to the Church and Her supernatural means of grace.

For Maritain (like many modern Thomists) there is a crucial distinction between the natural and supernatural end of man that leads to a division of labor with respect to human life. The mandate for the state, says Maritain, is abolishing injustice and enacting social reform. The role of the Church, on the other hand, is to offer the grace of supernatural life and to assist in obtaining the perfection of holiness and charity. Maritain looks with horror on what he calls the attempts to “change man . . . by the process of any temporal revolution whatsoever based solely on the efforts of human nature.” Maritain sees Marxist revolution as both misguided and at the same time not nearly revolutionary enough since it does not reckon with spiritual conversion. Maritain’s construal of the two ends and two powers may be vulnerable in different ways to theologically postliberal critiques, but it is worth emphasizing that he does not reduce the Church to a bare assembly of believers or make appeals to private conscience as Her sole means of exercising social authority. The absolute division between these two missions (political reform and spiritual renewal) seems difficult to parse out even in Maritain, but he sees them as absolutely distinct in his project. “It is precisely because this revolution would have as its final end not at all to ‘change man,’ but solely to bring about the most fundamental changes in his social structures that Christians and non-Christians alike (at least those non-Christians who do not seek to ‘change man’ at any cost) could work together for that truly radical revolution, which for me has become an obsession.”

And although Maritain maintains a view of human nature as essentially stable, he recognizes that different civilizations and social organizations produce mentalities and modalities which inflect that nature. He identifies the wide-spread legal acceptance of usury in the sixteenth century as one such inflection point. This is the moment when taking money at interest became “of absolutely decisive importance for our civilization.” It is worth noting here that in Maritain’s plan for social reform, the financial and business interests who do not wish to donate their assets to the state are allowed to leave freely. The severe penalties are reserved for those who attempt to use new commercial ventures to revive usurious practices in the token economy. Maritain calls the people who would try this “madmen” for the same reason that he sees the sixteenth century as an epochal disaster. Not only is the valorization of usury manifestly perverse and against the wisdom of nature, pagan philosophy, and divine law; it is depressingly ignoble: “There is nothing more humiliating than the consideration of the history of usury in the affairs of men.”

It was only with the advent of the legalization of usury in the sixteenth century that, as Maritain puts it, the empire of material goods was severed from the domain that considers the total good of human beings. The world of finance, of business, of economic activity writ large established “an absolute value of its own, independent of those superior values and norms that give life its human dignity, and which furnish the measure of human life in its wholeness.” The “field of human action found itself cut in two” and in an insidious and twisted application of the Gospel, the left hand no longer knew what the right was doing. Maritain admits that after the emergence of a market civilization (starting in the twelfth century) far too many casuistic justifications for lending at interest were accepted among the theologians; yet there were still victories. According to Maritain, Benedict XIV and Leo XIII deserve particular praise for Vix pervenit and Rerum novarum respectively. By intervening at crucial moments of economic transformation, these popes manifested the social wisdom of the Catholic Church. And, as a byproduct, they cemented the status of the Roman Catholic Church as the only institution that has the possibility to establish an organic link between classical and modern criticisms of liberal political economy. Even Louis Althusser, an ardent materialist and (somewhat idiosyncratic) Marxist, told an Italian interviewer in 1980 that without Catholics the hegemony of capitalism would never be overthrown. “In my view, today social revolution or a profound social change depends on the alliance between Catholics (I am not saying the Church, though the Church can also be part of it), the Catholics of the world, all religions of the world, and communists.” Althusser failed (or refused) to realize that it is precisely because of the visible hierarchical structure of the Church that Catholics as a whole are most useful in such an alliance.

Though it may have unsettled the late Michael Novak (if he had allowed himself to guess the truth), Jacques Maritain was not a proponent of anything resembling so-called “Whig Thomism.” The man who wrote “from the point of view of the economic system, the communist solution seems better than the capitalist solution” had more in common with Saul Alinsky than with Hayek. In point of fact, Maritain did have a correspondence and friendship with the aforementioned American democratic organizer spanning many decades. Though no one could pretend that they were without substantive philosophical and theological disagreements, the fact that these two figures admired each other should belie any facile or convenient interpretation of Maritain’s life and work.

Though many have tried to domesticate his thought, Maritain remains a strange and elusive figure. What other character of the period began as a scientific materialist who formed a suicide pact with his lover but (with help from such disparate influences as Bergson, Maurras, Peguy, Garrigou-Lagrange, Bloy, and Mournier) ended up in a devoted, loving, and celibate marriage while turning down the last recorded offer of a lay cardinalate in history? One wonders what he might say about, for example, . the selling of the Piraeus (with which Plato’s Republic begins: “I went down yesterday to the Piraeus”) — to Chinese corporate interests? Xu Lirong, chairman of the corporation which swallowed the long walls of this legendary port, celebrated the transaction by incanting “Let the ship sail and bring the Golden Fleece.” The force of enchantment which surrounded this visible manifestation of the military and philosophical height of Athens now abets efficient and profitable commodity trading. Mammon has grown bold enough to absorb what Sparta could not destroy; the hero Medea failed to poison has become a slogan for corporate greed.

Maritain, a lover of Plato, and one who prized utopian imagination, would no doubt feel the mythological proportions of our spiritual crisis. In his essay “The Crisis of Culture” Andrei Belyi, the greatest of the Russian Symbolists, drew on a different myth to describe capitalism:

The Rhine flows furiously in Basel: here, overturned into streams, the radiant sun weaves golden rings, flying, spilling and breaking into streams against the stony shores populated by a multitude of Nibelungen waging fierce wars with the gods for the Rhine gold; the whole history of capitalism, which has brought us to the horrors of the world catastrophe and the destruction of contemporary culture, can be viewed as a materialization of the solar flecks playing on the surface of these waters: the return of the gold to the Rhine can be viewed as a return of the riches belonging to the natural elements — back to the natural elements.

As Maritain said, “Communism, Capitalism, neither system is good; and to resign oneself to accept the lesser of two evils is unworthy of the human spirit. Only one solution appears just and good, and that is a society without money.” To strive for anything less than a largely unimagined future is to surrender to our basest instincts. Maritain’s dream of a society without money is valuable not for any particular policy mechanism he proposes, but for the permission it gives us to refuse the present and to imagine a different future. We are already, at this very moment, being forced to re-evaluate what constitutes normal political life; as we live in this heightened state of awareness at the contingency of economic arrangements, we should exercise all of faculties — theological, philosophical, perhaps most of all poetic — in service of similar dreams.

Andrew Kuiper’s work has appeared in Church Life Journal, Touchstone, and many other publications.

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