Working for a better Future?
On May 1st (appropriately) I attended a half day event in Manchester organised by CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network) that explored the relations between Catholic Social Teaching and thought, relationships with trade unions and what the future of work might hold.
There was much hearking back to Cardinal Manning and his influence over Rerum Novarum as well as some references to more contemporary church documents such as Laudato Si. Bishop William Kenny was at pains to say that ‘work’ is not the same as ‘paid employment’; we each have a vocation to which we are called, and the activities associated with that vocation (whether paid or unpaid) constitute work.
It was suggested that Cardinal Manning’s thinking resonates with contemporary society partly because of the financial crash ten years ago. Since then there has been a resurgence of interest in what ‘The Common Good’ means. Manning claimed for labour the rights of Capital. For instance, labour has the right to operate collectively and organise into trade unions (and older readers may remember being urged that it was the duty of Catholics to join a trade union!).
This was all very interesting but what does it tell us about the Fourth Industrial Revolution which, as far as anyone can tell, is in the process of taking off right now? How will the advent of the self-driving vehicle, the widespread use of robots outside of factories and the increasing application of artificial intelligence (in fields such as medicine and the law) change the world of work?
There were no straightforward answers provided but the discussion did provide insight into the framework that Catholic Social Teaching can provide to help explore these issues. If the faltering neo-liberal consensus about economics continues to hold sway, then the results will be a
greater disparity between rich and poor and much greater loss of dignity in work than is evident today because of unjust zero hours contracts and extensive monitoring of employee behaviour. The ‘gig economy’ means that many people are self-employed. How do we develop new forms of organisation that can help protect the dignity of work in this new situation – where each is person is a company of one (so going on strike isn’t going to have much effect!)?
In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict talked about a ‘civil economy’ model where there was recognition that ‘Profit’ is a shared achievement of capital and labour and must be treated as such – and not thought of as purely belonging to shareholders. Profit must relate to purpose – and work with real social value is what must be pursued.
Capitalists who are speculating most definitely fall outside this idea of delivering real social value. In May 2017 Pope Francis warned workers and business leaders in Genoa against the highly touted idea of “meritocracy” in the workplace and the economy. The idea, he said, takes a positive, “merit,” and “perverts it” by mistaking as merits the “gifts” of talent, education and being born to a family that is not poor. “Through meritocracy, the new capitalism gives a moral cloak to inequality,” because seeing gifts as merit, it distributes advantages or keeps in places disadvantages accordingly, he said. Under such a system, “the poor person is considered undeserving and, therefore, guilty. And if poverty is the fault of thepoor, then the rich are exonerated from doing anything.”
Such systems of economy are antithetical to our Catholic Social Teaching. Bishop Kenny remarked that the dignity of each human person must have pre-eminence of over things such as market forces and the freedom of capital, for example.
The discussion felt a bit in isolation. Anna Rowlands expressed this point very well when,
towards the end of the event, she suggested that we needed to find ways to make Catholic Social Teaching a ‘living tradition’: ways in which it is not just a cognitive process (passing on a body of knowledge) but something that must live in people’s lives.
Way back in the 1980’s the J&P Commission had a working party on ‘The World of Work’. Perhaps it is time to look to set up a 21st Century equivalent?