Does Labor need a global resurgence of religion?

Tesco’s turning their workers into banded cattle, or at least that’s the way Brian Dijkema tells it in Canada’s National Post. Earlier this year, reports surfaced that workers at the grocer’s Dublin distribution center were “forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take bathroom breaks.” Writing for the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead described it as “vaguely menacing and dehumanizing.” There’s nothing vague about it.

This menace and dehumanization has its anchor set firmly in what Charles Taylor calls one of our ‘pathologies of the modern moral order,’ the instrumentalization  and economization not only of material reality, but of human labor and life itself. We’ve gorged aplenty on radical critiques of ‘capitalism gone wild,’ but – argues Taylor – it is not the economic system itself that is properly the center of our concern, but rather the monopoly of the modern logics of efficiency and consequentialism. As Gideon Strauss, writing for Comment magazine, says “Market economy? Yes! Market society? No!”

This month I joined Catholics and Protestants in Rome to discuss the enduring insights of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. Rerum Novarum, too, was written in a period of rapid and disquieting economic and social change. Where the Pope wrote on ‘the new things’ others, like Abraham Kuyper, were writing on ‘the social question,’ wondering how peace, how mutuality and solidarity, could exist between an increasingly polarized capital and labor.

We still wonder that, and you don’t have to be especially religious, or be reading papal encyclicals, to realize the urgency of it. Like Dijkema, you can witness the banding of Tesco workers and wonder if this isn’t menacing and dehumanizing, if efficiency is really the best or priority virtue, if it should monopolize public and even private spheres of life. Charles Taylor agues in A Secular Age that to think beyond the dichotomy of efficiency and consequentialism necessitates a background, often an inescapable one (he calls it a ‘horizon’), against which not only our ends but also our means gain shape and meaning. What, after all, is an economy for? The efficient distribution of goods is essential, sure, but the economy is not exhausted by it. Work for man, not man for work! – argues Rerum Novarum, yielding an essential moral vocabulary for understanding not only the dignity of work, but its basic human condition. Through good work we are made more human. Good work is a gift, a vital one, to being fully human, not just a means toward an end, but an end in itself. And when the monopoly of efficiency overtakes the dignity of human work an economy has failed.

That, at least, would be the judgment of Rerum Novarum. Efficiency is a central virtue to any economy, but it is not the only virtue. Efficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of economic success. To get deep into the guts of economic systems, we need a moral vocabulary beyond what mere secular economics provides. That moral vocabulary, it seems to me, is nowhere more prominent than in global religious discourse. Rerum Novarum is one example. There are more (Abraham Kuyper, among them). Maybe, to get deep into the guts of the economy is to end up, suddenly, surrounded by religion.

About the author

Robert Joustra

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