• Pope Francis has issued a scathing indictment of neoliberalism.
  • The pope blames the ‘dogma’ of neoliberal economics for making us more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • He calls for greater multilateral cooperation and a focus on human dignity.

“The story did not end the way it was meant to,” Pope Francis wrote recently, deftly excommunicating about a half-century’s worth of economic ideology.

In a striking, 43,000-word-long encyclical published last Sunday, the pope put his stamp on efforts to shape what's been termed a Great Reset of the global economy in response to the devastation of COVID-19.

The “story” he’s referring to is neoliberalism, a philosophy espousing austerity, privatization, deregulation, unbridled markets, and relatively weak labour laws. While it’s been faithfully told through innumerable economists and policy-makers since the 1970s, and put into practice in prominent ways, the pope believes this tale has now worn thin. He is not alone.

Neoliberalism’s free-market orthodoxy has been blamed for making health care systems and livelihoods especially vulnerable to the pandemic, and has drawn a clearer line under the need for active government intervention.

Pope Francis criticizes the “dogma of neoliberal faith” in his encyclical, adding that “the fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom.” He advocates for a political life not subject to the “dictates of finance,” and for making human dignity the focus of new, “alternative social structures.”

The encyclical comes as many countries have seen new surges in coronavirus cases, and as the economic fallout continues to disproportionately affect frontline workers and the poor. Lower-middle income countries have been hit with the sharpest declines in working hours and labour income since the pandemic began, and an estimated 96 million people may now be pushed into extreme poverty by next year.

Image: World Economic Forum

The encyclical, entitled “Fratelli tutti” (“Brothers, all”), also calls for greater multilateral cooperation among countries, and urges a reform of the United Nations – so the “concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth,” and the weakest among them can be guaranteed basic freedoms. The pope addressed the UN last month, urging member states to rebuild after COVID-19 in ways that involve less military spending and better treatment for refugees and women.

Racism is also covered in the encyclical, as something that shows “our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.” The pope likened racism to a virus, which often “goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting.”

The pandemic has exposed the racism undermining many health systems, placing people of colour at greater risk – and the protests against systemic racism triggered by the killing of George Floyd this past May have continued in places like Louisville, Kentucky.

Populism, too, is covered – as something that can be used to exploit the vulnerable while serving the economic interests of the powerful. The pope calls instead for “a better kind of politics” that genuinely serves the common good. Media and other types of reports have noted that many countries with populist leaders tend to have suffered inordinately from the ravages of COVID-19.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has weighed in on economics and inequality amid the pandemic – this past Easter he suggested that it presents a chance to consider a universal basic wage that acknowledges and dignifies the “essential tasks” performed by informal workers deprived of their income. (Institute of Economic Affairs)
  • The commercialization of medicine and the prioritization of private over public interests have been accentuated during the neoliberal period starting in the 1970s, according to this article, and have reduced society’s capacity to respond to health crises. (National Institutes of Health)
  • It may feel like a lifetime ago, but the protests that rocked Chile last year were largely focused on the inequality generated by decades of market-oriented reforms. This paper argues that “the neoliberal experiment is dead” there now, and may be replaced by a welfare state modeled on the Nordic countries. (VoxEU)
  • The populist political actors who pushed Brexit varied, but according to this analysis what they had in common was that they presented a challenge to Britain’s debt-driven neoliberal growth model, which is reliant on continuous house price increases and consumption. (LSE)
  • In Poland, the election of MPs from the far-right Confederation party was evidence of younger voters assimilating a post-Communist, neoliberal ideology that idealizes individual achievement and sees inequality as a result of inferior biological characteristics, according to this analysis. (Social Europe)
  • The pope’s address to the UN last month, in which he says the pandemic presents an opportunity to “realize everyone’s right to basic health care,” and urges leaders to guarantee that the poor and vulnerable will have access to vaccines, can be viewed here. (United Nations)
  • Many of the pope’s concerns about the response to COVID-19 have been echoed elsewhere. This analysis cites responses in the US and Europe that have been inadequate and nationalistic, and have often worked at cross purposes due to a lack of coordination. (The German Marshall Fund of the United States)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to the Role of Religion, COVID-19 and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum