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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/1/15

The Pope's Eco-Encyclical and Mario Vargas Llosa's New Book (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Bloom invokes Shelley words about "easier pleasures." Vargas Llosa is also concerned about such easier pleasures, even though he does not happen to use exactly those words. However, like Bloom, Vargas Llosa is concerned about the imaginative poverty.

Now, in Pope Francis' eco-encyclical, he presents himself as a committed public intellectual on the world stage along with Vargas Llosa.

Now, in his eco-encyclical Pope Francis discusses the throwaway culture of consumerism. For all practical purposes, what Vargas Llosa refers to as our contemporary culture of spectacle overlaps considerably with what the pope refers to as the throwaway culture of consumerism. In the throwaway culture of consumerism, advertising campaigns involve the culture of spectacle.

Vargas Llosa says, "Advertising plays a decisive role in forming taste, sensibility, imagination and customs" (page 28). In two places he writes powerful encomiums about Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian critic, but without mentioning any of his works specifically (pages 38 and 207). However, McLuhan's first experimental book THE MECHANICAL BRIDE: FOLKLORE OF INDUSTRIAL MAN (1951) featured advertisements and McLuhan's short commentaries on each of them.

Unfortunately, neither Vargas Llosa nor Pope Francis mentions the Jewish American media critic Neil Postman's book AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW BUSINESS, 2nd ed. (2005; 1st ed., 1985) or the British novelist and pacifist Aldous Huxley's 1932 dystopian novel BRAVE NEW WORLD. But Vargas Llosa does mention the British novelist and essayist George Orwell's 1948 dystopian novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (page 198).

But Pope Francis is far more critical of free-market ideology than Vargas Llosa is, even though he is not uncritical of it. In the United States, free-market ideology is championed especially by economic libertarians such as the Koch brothers.

Pope Francis criticizes free-market ideology for being based on what he refers to as the technocratic paradigm. What the pope refers to as the technocratic paradigm has also been criticized by Postman in his book TECHNOPOLY: THE SURRENDER OF CULTURE TO TECHNOLOGY (1992).

In effect, Pope Francis calls for a paradigm shift. But he do not use this well-known expression.

In addition, the pope does not use the well-known expression social Darwinism. But many of the trends that he connects with the technocratic paradigm can be characterized as involving social Darwinism. For what the technocrats might consider to be collateral damage to people and to the environment concerns Pope Francis.

Typically, the technocrats who favor the technocratic paradigm are engaging in closed-systems thinking, not open-systems thinking. Even though Pope Francis himself does not happen to use these terms, he in effect is advocating a paradigm shift away from closed-system thinking and toward open-systems thinking. Open-systems thinking is more holistic than the technocratic paradigm is. Technocrats who use the technocratic paradigm do not consider the big picture. Instead, they simply expect a certain amount of collateral damage to be part of their standard operating procedures.

Curiously enough, even though Vargas Llosa seems at times to favor the so-called free-market ideology and implicitly the technocratic paradigm (see, for example, page 179), he perceptively discusses the long history of Roman Catholic popes criticizing capitalism:

"The Catholic Church and capitalism never got on well. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, various popes, in encyclicals and sermons, have railed against a system that, in their opinion, encouraged an appetite for material wealth, egotism and individualism, accentuated the economic and social differences between rich and poor and led people away from the spiritual and religious life. There is an element of truth in these criticisms, but they become less persuasive if they are placed in a broader historical and social context: the positive transformation caused in society as a whole as a result of private property and a free economy, where companies and managers compete under clear and fair rules to satisfy the needs of consumers. . . . The free market, an unsurpassed and unbeatable system for the allocation of resources, saw the emergence of the middle class, which offered political stability and pragmatism to modern societies and has given the immense majority of citizens a decent life, something that had never happened before in the history of humanity" (pages 176-177).

Jung says that the American religion is middle-class respectability.

Subsequently, Vargas Llosa also says, "The great failure, and the crises that the capitalist system faces again and again -- corruption, the spoils system, mercantilist manoeuvres to gain wealth by infringing the law, frenetic greed and fraudulent activities by bank and finance houses -- are not due to inherent faults in the institutions of capitalism themselves but rather to the collapse of moral and religious values, which act as a curb that keeps capitalism within certain norms of honesty, respect for one's neighbor, and respect for the law. When this invisible but influential ethical structure collapses and disappears in many areas of society, above all among those that have the most responsibility in economic life, then anarchy spreads, bringing about an increasing lack of confidence in the system that seems to function only for the benefit of the most powerful (or the biggest tricksters) and against the interests of ordinary citizens who lack wealth and privilege" (page 180).

In addition, Vargas Llosa cogently criticizes the Roman Catholic Church. He says that in "those Third World societies where the Catholic Church still has the power to sway the making of laws and the government of society," we "see what is happening there vis--vis film censorship, divorce, and birth control," so we see that "when Catholicism is in a position to impose its truths, it doesn't hesitate to do so any way it can, and not only on the faithful but also on all the non-believers within its reach" (pages 189-190).

No doubt it would be fascinating if Vargas Llosa were to write an essay about Pope Francis' eco-encyclical.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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