Two men in their 70s have been addressing massive crowds and sparking the imagination and passions of American progressives. Both have been featured on the cover of Time magazine.
On a first look, however, they couldn’t be more different. One is a Jewish American self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” politician from Vermont; the other, a Catholic religious leader from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, however, share a moral vision of the limitations and real-life repercussions of our current political-economic system as well as a sincere desire to change it.
This surprising intersection of political-economic ideas rooted in morality also reminds us that many people of the sixties generation not only have a history in common, but have become highly successful and moved into positions of considerable influence. Moreover, the huge response in America, to the Sanders campaign in particular, tells us something important not only about the state of this country, but also about what people with conviction can accomplish, despite their age. The moral courage in the face of systemic challenges demonstrated by both leaders recalls the sixties generation they are both a product of; Sanders as a civil rights activist amidst intense social turmoil and the pope as a young religious leader during a time of military dictatorship and right-wing death squads.
The pope has condemned the arrangements of our current political-economic system. Early on in his papacy, he set the tone:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
Recently he has struck an even more radical tone. “An unfettered pursuit of money rules,” he told grassroots organizers in Bolivia. “That is the dung of the devil.”
Sanders, while not often calling out capitalism by name, similarly challenges the injustices and inequities it generates and explicitly calls himself a socialist. Long before his Sept. 14 speech at Liberty University, Sanders articulated his critique of our unequal economic system in moral terms. “I think this goes back to the Bible,” he told Mother Jones shortly before launching his presidential campaign. “There is something immoral when so few have so much and so many have so little.” At his Liberty University address, Sanders declared:
It would be hard for anyone in this room today to make the case that the United States of America, our great country, a country which all of us love — it would be hard to make the case that we are a just society, or anything resembling a just society today … when we talk about morality, and when we talk about justice, we have to, in my view, understand that there is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.
These remarkable indictments of the system resonate because more and more people are coming to terms with the inability of small gestures of reform to address a host of deteriorating or stagnating economic, social and environmental trends: rising inequality, high levels of poverty, continued discrimination against women and people of color, staggering levels of incarceration, increasing corruption of the political system and looming ecological catastrophe, to name a few. The system is broken, and what is needed is systemic change — not simply changes in policy but a radical rethinking of the structure of the economy and society.
This point is clear to both Sanders and the pope. “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” Francis has said. “This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself — our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say — also finds it intolerable.” In his Liberty speech, Sanders directly referenced and affirmed the pope’s statement that “the worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
Francis and Sanders also agree on at least one strategy to begin changing the fundamental structure of our economy: democratizing wealth through worker ownership. Sanders has made worker ownership a key element in of his Agenda for America, proposing “assistance to workers who want to purchase their own businesses by establishing worker-owned cooperatives.” He also introduced major legislation last year supporting such ownership. Speaking to the Confederation of Italian Cooperatives earlier this year, Francis declared, “Cooperatives must continue to be the engine that relieves and develops the weakest part of our local communities and of civil society.” The expansion and creation of cooperatives was vital, he urged — especially at “the existential fringes where hope is in need of emerging and where, unfortunately, the present sociopolitical system seems, instead, fatally destined to suffocate hope, to rob hope, increasing risks and menaces.” Worker cooperatives — institutions that directly democratize the ownership of the workplace and capital — not only generate revenue, provide jobs and build up an independent economic base for the community over time, but point in the direction of larger systemic shifts away from elite capture of our economy and towards cooperative enterprise and community ownership.
The moral case for economic transformation has a climate dimension as well: Both Sanders’ Agenda for America and Francis’ remarkable environmental encyclical insist on the need for a reorientation of our economic and energy systems toward more sustainable alternatives.
As a historian, I know that ideas usually don’t matter all that much in the history of the world — except at those points of protracted crisis where old systems have stopped working and new systems begin to take their place. At those key moments in history, ideas — and the moral vision that animates them — become capable of sparking far-ranging transformative change. In our own time in history, we should not dismiss the fact that the leader of one of the world’s great religions and an increasingly viable candidate for the presidency of one of the world’s most powerful nations have each put on table the need for systemic change in the direction of democratic ownership and a truly just and sustainable economy. That their message is being eagerly received by enthralled audiences suggests that we are approaching an inflection point in political-economic concern, and serves as a reminder that those who think the status quo lasts forever rarely reflect on how the opening stages of historical change often begin.