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Economics as if people matter

God knows it’s a terrible way to die: of thirst, in agony, alone.

Such was the fate of 150 “John Does” buried unnamed and generally unmourned in the little local cemetery at Holtville, a border town in California’s Imperial Valley.

For these unknown immigrants, who risked the extreme weather and terrain for a better life -- and lost -- Fr. Cecilio Moraga at Holtsville’s St. Joseph’s Church recently organized a no olvidado (not forgotten) procession to draw attention to the problem.

It’s a national and international problem, not merely a local one.

And it’s a problem that poses highly provocative questions: Who is to blame? As this is the wealthiest power in the world, is U.S. economic imperialism somehow at fault? Are we to blame? All of us?

Directly? No. Indirectly, yes.

While that statement alone is sufficient to bring capitalism’s various claques shrieking out of their moneyed aeries, looking for bleeding heart liberals to attack, exploring the answer in fact does two things. It reminds us yet again that the capitalistic way works to the detriment of the poor and undermines economic justice, and it shows just how countercultural Catholic economic teaching genuinely is.

If only we could find a way to live it.

The United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not set out to steal the world. But a few decades into the 20th century, Americans realized it could be done.

It had been stolen before, of course, but on a smaller scale. In 19th-century London as in 19th-century New York, the hyper-bourgeoisie -- the truly, truly wealthy -- organized their clubs and spheres of interlocking interests until they controlled most of what they wanted to control -- though opposition from political parties and organized labor then was still a factor.

Two world wars later, the United States had superseded British colonial imperialism with its own newer and bigger clubs: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund being two of the most useful. Individual and corporate U.S. capitalists and their political and ideological allies have restructured first their own society (by gaining control of the U.S. government, regardless of which party is in office) and then international governance (by controlling the aforementioned proxy governments plus the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and the rest).

All this consolidation has taken awhile to achieve. And down through three decades to the present echo the predictions of a business school professor in Arizona who warned, “One day the world will be run by 500 corporations, and who’s to say the world will be the worse for it?”

Well, the Catholic church for one.

It is often pointed out that, with the United States’ emergence as the only economic power, the world has no alternative model.

But that’s wrong. It does.

Catholic social teaching says people matter more than profits. That there are no “illegal” immigrants -- only people seeking jobs. And that “work is the key to the whole human question” -- to quote Pope John Paul II in one of the milder propositions of Catholic social teaching.

Among barriers to economic justice is lack of a serious forum in which to debate the alternatives, of arenas in which to test the alternatives, of moneyed networks to support the alternatives. Further, there is no pressure by sufficient numbers of people to keep the alternatives in the local, national and international public eye.

There is, in fact, little longing in this country to discuss anything that suggests others come first, that our desires should play second place to other people’s needs.

So, yes, the 150 unknown dead in Holtville’s cemetery have died in vain. For now.

But our attention to the little procession -- totally religious, completely apolitical -- is akin to the buzz of conscience. The procession speaks of compassion, of concern.

And as long as consciences buzz, as long as compassion and concern are alive, the chance -- the hope -- of a shift toward greater economic justice cannot, must not, be ruled out.

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001