What would you think of capitalism if you were born in a country that had developed a market economy by the dawn of the 20th Century and was ranked among the ten wealthiest nations per capita in the world—but one hundred years later had dropped to seventieth with little of that wealth having trickled down to the poorest in society? Such was Pope Francis’ experience with capitalism in Argentina and his pastoral letter Evangelii Gaudium cannot be understood without it. We all begin with our culture and his would discourage anyone, especially someone so moved by concern for the poor.
It is not difficult both to dislike and to criticize consumerism. It is often as vacuous as it is unattractive. Last week, for example, my wife took me to something called an ‘outlet village,’ an expanse of shops built in faux Eighteenth Century style that sold designer products at allegedly low prices (though, wanting nothing in particular, they seemed high enough to me). There was actually a queue to obtain entry into Prada whose products are hardly those of first or primary necessity. However deep our economic crisis, this was no queue for rations in wartime; and though I am far from an egalitarian I felt uneasy that there were so many people wanting and even eager to pay hundreds or perhaps thousands for what seemed to me to be aesthetically cheap and vulgar gewgaws while so many people await their heating bill with extreme anxiety and trepidation.