“In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism, and not just capitalism but savage capitalism. People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case… today.” -Fr Robert Sirico
When I was young I used to walk, almost daily, past The Finger Factory. It stood just north of downtown in my hometown. From its bowels came the rhythmic sound of pounding presses, spitting out metal pieces of automobile parts. No, there wasn’t a sign out front saying “The Finger Factory”; that is just what we called it, because if you went to work there, for just over minimum wage, it was not unlikely that you would lose a finger before long in the presses. My friend Jack got a job there, and sure enough, within six months he lost a finger. Jack was a guitarist, and fortunately for him he lost the pinky on his right hand, the least essential finger for someone who plays guitar.
A few years later I lived in southern Maryland, where I worked for a contractor who got a lot of work from the tobacco farmers in the area. The tobacco farmers were old Episcopalian families, while the sharecroppers were black Catholics, heirs of slaves who had been evangelized by the Jesuits. Much of our work was repairing their homes, and I saw firsthand the appalling third world conditions in which they lived.
Later still I lived in the South Bronx, and witnessed the sweat shops hidden from view, where women slaved in hot warehouses over sewing machines for very little money.
And more recently I have seen the lives of people up close who work at minimum wage for huge, and hugely profitable, corporations: Walmart, the fast food companies, retail stores.
And I recently read a book by Tracie McMillan, The American Way of Eating, in which she recounts her experiences working in the farm fields of California’s Central Valley, at a Walmart, and for Applebee’s. (An aside: Ms McMillan grew up the next town over from mine, where I lived for a while and began my career as a letter carrier). While her main emphasis is the way food is handled, and the rather routine ways safety is ignored, she also saw firsthand the difficulty that the capitalist system deals to the working poor, and chronicles the many injustices they experience.
And Lord knows that there is plenty of evidence that conditions in the developing world are even worse.
I note all this because none of this occurred in the 19th century. These lives were lived not during the pontificate of Leo XIII but in the days of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. For anyone to say that the days of brutal capitalism are far behind us either indicates how far out of touch the person claiming this is, or that he is deliberate dissembling.
Perhaps it is the former; Fr Sirico, for example, probably does not have a lot of contact with the working poor; his days are spent rubbing shoulders with wealthy CEOs and their cronies, or among his fellow clerics.
And clerical culture, as anyone who has seen it firsthand can tell you, is ridiculously bourgeois, even among religious orders. I know this because I spent time living in rectories as a seminarian, and in monasteries when I was seeking my vocation. The norm is servants cooking and cleaning for you, an open bar and television in the evening, and a credit card issued to you for your use. One Franciscan (!) monastery I visited had a bowling alley in it. (Of course this has inspired a more ascetic reaction and many newer and smaller orders do not live like this).
So perhaps Fr Sirico does not ever see any of this evidence that capitalism continues to brutalize. But it is hard to believe that he never sees the various statistics and charts and graphs that have proliferated in recent years proving beyond doubt that the free market economic theories held by neocons and neolibs alike and reigning for the last thirty years have resulted in a harsher realty for the poor and working classes and increased concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the elite.
Maybe he doesn’t get out much, but surely he reads.
Maybe we don’t have children chained to their factory benches or miners worked to death or people simply fired for becoming disabled on the job. We can thank the labor movement for that.
But yes, Father, capitalism is still savage.