It is a fact that certain ideas die hard, suffering a long senescence before passing forever into “the ash heap of history.” And no set of ideas, especially for those of religious persuasion, seems to be suffering a longer decline than the idea that “Christianity is the religion of which socialism is the practice.” While most “Christian socialists” these days are reluctant to make such an argument in its most brazen form, the World Council of Churches (WCC) continues to serve as a clearinghouse for assertions that facts have long since led most people to discard as false.
In a recent edition of the WCC’s Ecumenical Review , Ulrich Duchrow, a professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg University and author of Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action , writes a lengthy article exploring many of the themes contained in his book. If one was expecting a careful articulation and highly nuanced presentation of neo-liberal (really, paleo-Marxist) thought, disappointment is in order.
The opening lines of the article are shocking; such a bald assertion of a demonstrably false proposition strikes one as a historical artifact of the ideological battles of former days. “Since the breakdown of historic socialism,” Professor Duchrow writes, “the category of private property has practically disappeared from the discussion of economic justice.” Perhaps news arrives slowly in Germany, but “since the breakdown of historic socialism,” the issue of private property has been at the center of most discussions of economic justice.
Even a cursory glance at the world scene shows this to be true. Failure to take into account the work of internationally acclaimed scholar Hernando de Soto in Peru and Egypt is the most glaring omission in Professor Duchrow’s article. De Soto’s efforts, especially over the last decade, have brought to the attention of the international community the intrinsic connection between private property rights, economic development, the alleviation of poverty, and the development of the institutions of civil society. As a result of de Soto’s intellectual activism, such ideas have even gained some currency with the United Nations.
Unfortunately, Professor Duchrow sees the United Nations as a vehicle for promoting ideas contrary to de Soto’s. Even though Professor Duchrow thinks little of private property rights, he believes property rights could accomplish a great deal more by “linking private productive property to strict criteria of social usefulness as determined by democratic institutions in the framework of the U.N., which needs to be reformed accordingly.”
Of course, this idea is the exact opposite of de Soto’s thesis and is probably even a little too ambitious for the U.N.’s global engineers. Apparently Professor Duchrow has failed to read the U.N.’s recent Arab Human Development Report, a report examining the many issues confronting a region that has been politically and economically intractable, despite its great wealth. The report, authored by Arab intellectuals commissioned by the U.N., clearly acknowledges that the lack of political freedom, corruption-free governance, and the necessary means to form capital are at the heart of poverty in the Arab world. As a result, it seems even the hard-edged global socialism of the U.N. will retreat in the presence of sound analysis.
Nearly every statistic measuring global poverty, including the U.N.’s own studies, indicates that poverty is on the decline , especially in those nations that have moved toward increased international trade and have adopted systems of the rule of law and private property protections. Those nations showing the greatest success in economic development and in the alleviation of poverty are the ones that have embraced and protected property rights. Many African nations, such as Kenya, are illustrative of the move toward the institutions of the rule of law and property protections in the formation of their government—with the lead in developing such institutions taken by religious leaders. Nations that fail to offer such protections continue to experience degrading poverty. Nowhere is the failure of historic socialism more apparent than in places like Cuba and Iraq.
Reports and statistics aside, is there really an “alternative to global capitalism” now that “historic socialism” has failed? Not likely. While many Christians protest what they understand to be the pernicious effects of global capitalism, the market system itself is a source of hope and prosperity for the world’s developing nations. Increased global trade has opened new markets, and with it, new opportunities for the products of the poorest nations. What Professor Duchrow and his colleagues would likely call exploitation, the poor people of the world are more apt to call employment, opportunity, and development.
The “alternative” offered by Professor Duchrow under the guise of neo-liberalism is really no alternative at all, at least not a new alternative. Rather, it is the very same “historic socialism” that is acknowledged to have failed. It’s high time socialism’s advocates, Christian and otherwise, confront the causes of that failure.