Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Paul II and Marx

John Paul II is clearly a philosopher who has thought a lot about Marx and about themes of work and alienation that were important to Marx, having first been treated basically as a slave by the Nazis, working in a quarry, and then later living in a regime where almost everyone was treated as a slave of the state. I find striking that John Paul and Marx, while both agreeing about the possibility and actuality of the phenomenon alienated labor, have a major disagreement. John Paul II (and here I am particularly thinking of his first encyclical, Laborem exercens) has the idea that no matter how oppressive the work, it is possible for the worker to do it with dignity (indeed, personal dignity is literally inalienable, and it is possible to make one's work connect to this dignity). The worker can herself ensure that she is not alienated by working in a way that exhibits virtue (the official translation of Laborem exercens talks of the virtue of "industriousness", probably not the best word in English). This does not, of course, in any way excuse the dehumanizing employer or slave-owner, but it does mean that the employer or slave-owner will in fact fail at dehumanizing the worker if the worker holds on to working with virtue. (Here, I guess, we have an instance of Hegel's master-slave dialectic, though John Paul does not allude to it. The employer or slave-owner will in such a case only dehumanize herself.)

Towards the end of The Acting Person, Wojtyla reflects on a related question: the question of what attitude one could have towards an oppressive state. There are two opposed vices to be avoided: on the one side, acquiescence in evil; on the other side, taking oneself completely out of the life of this state. The virtue is in between. It is the virtue of solidarity which, among other things, involves one's doing one's work for the state (with dignity, presumably), but with a willingness to dissent where dissent is called for.

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