Marxism OR Catholicism



WORDS | Jordan Heckendorf

On Thursday 16 October at Macquarie University,  I attended a lecture entitled “Pope Francis versus Capitalism: Where does Marxism end and Christianity begin?” presented by Dr Robert Tilley, of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, in what transpired to be a rather tumultuous talk. The lecture spanned the chasm of the ‘so goods’ of a Marxist vision and the perils of capitalism. Entwined within this, was also the enormous present and future benefit of ‘communal worship’ within the universal and international church of Roman Catholicism. I don’t know why I went, considering the high opportunity cost of being educated that was incurred by going. Maybe it was my attraction to controversy, or maybe seeing real life Marxist specimens up close who are not ‘being political’ was just too good to resist. More likely, it was the allure of the ‘free gourmet sandwiches and juice after the talk’, of which I did enjoy.

Dr Tilley began his lecture with a number of defining negatives. Definitions such as the term ‘ideology’ does not equate to ideas, per se, enacted through political vision and competence. Instead, ‘ideology’ is a series of false ideas and intellectual trickeries used to guise the gullible and distort class consciousness. Capital, in the Ricardian-Marxian sense, does not equate to money. Fair enough. This is all rather harmless, logical framing used for the rigorous and intellectual analysis of Pope Francis’ Latin Marxism to come right? Not quite. This would be the beginning of Tilley’s solipsism.

Tilley begins his, what can only be described as a diatribe, by listing various assertions. Ideology is a string of false ideas that create hazed political judgment on the part of the demos. Capitalism reduces all to commodities, where everyone’s existence is ‘fluid’. ‘Fluid’ being a term that Tilley would use repeatedly and which was never actually defined. The dreaded neoliberalism is defined as ‘hyper-capitalism’ and is associated with the 1970s – and Thatcher, of course! This just replaces one question begging word with another. Although despite this, Tilley trumpets, Marx did not oppose capitalism, per se, but rather viewed it as necessary for the growth of communism. This is true, but seems only to be used to ‘haze political judgement’, by having one truth anchor the rest of the presentation in the realm of plausibility.

Tilley goes on to say that capitalism is not the ‘free market’ or ‘private property’, but the ‘ideal of autonomous individual’ a ‘false autonomy’. The ‘self-replicating nature of money’ is capitalism, a system that has turned the Church’s moral constants of the past into the fluid uncertainty of today. Then Tilley again attempts at framing his modern Marxism class analysis by stating that the bourgeois are not necessarily middle class and the proletariat not working class. In one unsubstantiated statement Tilley effectively rids these terms of any definitive grounding and connection with reality. Nonetheless Tilley then continues and asserts that the bourgeois are the ‘pretenders’, the ‘capital apologists’, those relishing in the ‘absence of metaphysics’, ‘fluidity’ and ‘benefit from the separation of value and meaning’. Tilley positions himself and his vision as being; ‘anti-Rand’, ‘anti-neoliberalism’, ‘anti-free trade’, ‘anti-liberal’, ‘anti-market autonomy’ and ‘anti-secular’. Unsurprisingly, given the title of the talk, and the fact that its organisation was done by one of Macquarie’s Catholic student societies, he was avowedly ‘pro-Catholic’.

Besides the point that no definitions were given, which effectively meant that words would have no fixed meaning to allow discussion and debate, Tilley made unsubstantiated assertions. For example, the assumption that Ayn Rand is the architect of whatever capitalism means to Tilley. Capitalism is first and foremost, never defined, Tilley is just against it. Secondly, even if he settled of a definition Rand could hardly be considered its top or only intellectual leader. Tilley instead just describes what he is against, and in this binary dichotomy that must therefore mean Marxist-Catholicism, which becomes clear as he lurches from one talking-point to another. Not surprisingly he is anti-every perceived evil and attributes it to ‘capitalism’.

Roman Catholicism is the ‘only church’ and the ‘true church’. He does not extrapolate, in any way, as to how Pope Francis’ experience with South American cronyism may have shaped his definition of capitalism. Instead, Tilley tirades against supposed capitalist creeds such as: ‘the survival of the fittest’, ‘trickle-down theory’, ‘debt’ and ‘relativism’ in his Marxist crusade against the bourgeois, protestant, ‘fluid’ and ‘autonomous’ foe. In Tilley’s opinion, both Pope Francis and Karl Marx are both prophets, and justify his ‘least bad’ solution, which consists of solidarity within the church and strongly-worded letters.

Tilley read from two scriptures, an assortment of the works of Marx and Engels and the Book of Matthew. Tilley cannot be critiqued for his enthusiasm in reading the words of Marx. Tilley is like a Renaissance humanist uncovering the idealised virtues of Antiquity through the haze of undiscovered brilliance. It is as if Tilley believes the solutions to every real or imagined woe is buried somewhere in the works of Marx. Tilley then covers his bases, by filling the structural cracks of Marxism’s faulty assumptions and false presuppositions with the mud of an institutional religion.

The double religiosity of Tilley is probably epitomised with his Biblically allured assertion ‘Capitalism is Mammon’. Next in a paleo-religious inspiration was the Catholic Church’s historic hostility to lending money at interest, seen through the Usury laws, spoken of by Tilley given in a somewhat favourable, if not, ambiguous light. Although it is hard to understand whether this is from a Marxist view that interest is merely the exploitative ‘profit’ of the lender, rather than an allocation of a financial resources over time. Tilley never quite explains whether he his extolling of financial backwardness is an inflation of the churches significance. Instead, it is just another vague talking point that is justified by one prophet or God or himself with minimal substantive reference to text or evidence, before whisking off to the next malice. What can be grasped is, apparently lending to God is okay, but not to your fellow man, in this cocktail of faith, assertion and lack of definition.

The marriage of Catholicism with Marxism is made by the claim that it is ‘not a personal religion’ as there is a ‘visible communion and solidarity’ amongst members of the congregation, and presumably their God. Institutionalised religion is claimed to be the cure for all the ‘bad things’ caused by ‘capitalism’. In this sense, Marxism ends in diagnosis and the Church is the forward treatment. Protestantism, apart from being the work of the bourgeois devils is flawed. Protestants are ‘alone before God’ and ‘autonomous’. The church is secondary, middle-class, ‘vacuous’, ‘fluid’ and disposed to the whims of the individual. The lecture reached its conclusion and so began a session of questions and answers. The first question being roughly ‘has the economy replaced God?’ With Tilley’s response being in the affirmative stating, ‘we serve the economy’. Amongst this predominately Catholic audience, the cut and thrust absurdity of what Tilley was saying seemed hardly noticed at best, and relished at worst. It was here that I stopped scribbling notes. I’d done my time, and it was time for those sandwiches.