A note on capitalism

by Kim on July 2, 2009

Following the thread of Richard’s post on the NHS …

Such is the apostasy of much American Christianity, particularly of the evangelical variety (though, mercifully, things are changing), that in the US Capitalism is considered to be not only compatible with but expressive of Christianity. Of course given the widespread acceptance of the myth of American exceptionalism and the pledge of allegiance to a flag that often hangs in churches, this Capitalist Captivity is not surprising in a country whose business is - business. Morover, there is a venerable traditon of the “gospel of wealth” in American Christianity. That such beliefs are so tacit and unquestioned demonstrates not that Americans are theological morons (given the existence of Margaret’s Market and Westminster Abbey, the English, if not the Welsh, should not skim stones across the Pond); no, what it demostrates is that Capitalism, and its buddy Militarism, are the Gog and Magog of contemporary (Pauline) powers, which reign, not least, through deceit and absorption.

Now we cannot destroy Capitalism. If we think we can, it simply confirms how complicit in the System we are: the powers are that strong. It also indicates how faithless we are: Christ has already defeated the System - all Systems (cf. Colossians 2:15). So Christians are in a position, at least, to subvert the System both by preaching the word of the cross, naming the devil, reminding him that his days are numbered, and ridiculing him (that really pisses him off), and also through the tactical exorcisms of cooperatvies, Fair Trade, and the like.

And we can teach the two fundamental reasons why Christianity and Capitalism are absolutely incompatible, one sociological, the other psychological - and both, needless to say, theological.

The sociological reason concerns the notion of “private property” that underwrites Capitalism. C. S. Lewis puts it unforgettably in The Screwtape Letters. As the Senior Devil tells Wormwood: “The sense of ownership is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and Hell and we must keep them doing so …. And all the time the joke is that the word ‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father [Satan] or the Enemy [God] will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man.”

A perusal of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Amos and Isaiah, alone shows that the Bible knows nothing of freehold, only leasehold: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). The sabbath regulations (above all, the Year of Jubilee), the laws of gleaning (capitalists would call it “stealing”), the admonitions of the prophets regarding the tratment of the poor, etc., all demonstrate that Capitalism is a perversion of God’s socioeconomic order. For the Christian, (following Aquinas) the ownership of property and the possession of wealth have a specific telos, viz. the common good, which, however, is intrinsically impossible to achieve through the self-interest that drives the capitalist machine.

And the psychological reason for the incompatibility of Christianity and Capitalism? Discipleship, sanctification, growth in holiness is a process of the redirection of the self to the other through the reconfiguration of distorted desires. Capitalism, however, lives and thrives on a diet of distorted desires: the conflictual, antagonistic interpretation of the neighbour; the commodification and fetishisation of the “product”; the stimulation of perpetual restlessness, the vicious cycles accumulation and consumption; the transformation of pleasure into a (patriotic) duty (remember Bush after 9/11: we will not let terrorists derail the American way - we will shop the sonovabitches to death!); and so on.

There is also, as I have suggested, an intrinsic connection between Capitalism and Militarism (as the missile-makers and oil tycoons amply bear witness). If Christians need a nail in the coffin of Capitalism, that’s it. But this post is for Mammon. Mars will barge in again soon enough. “The “Lion of Judah”, anyone?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Wood 07.02.09 at 7:08 pm

Kim, as always, good work.

You may be interested in these osts of my own:

http://www.johnheronproject.com/wp/?p=396
http://www.johnheronproject.com/wp/?p=644

2

DH 07.02.09 at 7:50 pm

Kim, the belief in Capitalism doesn’t mean that the belief doesn’t support care for the poor or that Capitalist do not believe that the poor should be cared for. The fact is Socialism is in fact goes against Christianity in that it promotes the attitude that one doesn’t have to work to eat. If one looks at the “gleaning” it doesn’t go against Capitalism for the crops on the ground that remained are equivilent to money laying on the ground that is picked up.

I will say that Capitalism in the pure for IS wrong in that greed is wrong. One can be a Capitalist without being greedy. For the Kim’s of the world this is an oxymoron but even Abraham owned land and had an estate by working and investing all items which are Capitalist in nature. He even negotiated prices for the purchasing and selling of land one of which was regardin Melchizadek. This concept is Captialist.

Kim, if God put away all systems like you mentioned then why not you mention the condemnation of Socialism as a system in the same energy as you do Capitalism?

You mention “remember Bush after 9/11: we will not let terrorists derail the American way - we will shop the sonovabitches to death”. What would be your answer to the terrorists? It seems you prefer having a dictator in power. I consider that not “Christlike” to force people to live under evil regimes.

3

Kim 07.02.09 at 10:00 pm

It seems you prefer having a dictator in power,” one of the disciples said to Jesus. And Jesus replied, “Get thee to the bazaar, find the gunsmith, and haggle the bugger to death. Then go and whack Ponty.”

4

DmL 07.02.09 at 10:12 pm

Okay, you’re talking about a very different thing, one I suppose you have a different word for. I am certainly against greed and unmitigated consumption, absolutely. However a moderate and god-aware feeling of ownership (bequested, loaned, temporary) is nothing but good for the land itself, and what are ‘talents’ anyway, if it isn’t ultimately our hearts and the soil we grow them in? Unfortunately we live in a mostly secular world, and on a scale of usefulness capitalism is fairly high. Certainly not as high as distributivism. Anyway, the evil in any “system” is only where it intersects with men. Capitalism, socialism, imperialism, monarchism, etc would all work in a perfect world.

5

DmL 07.02.09 at 10:13 pm

I should say, the thing I am thinking of must certainly have a different word for you.

6

Tony Buglass 07.02.09 at 10:58 pm

“The fact is Socialism is in fact goes against Christianity in that it promotes the attitude that one doesn’t have to work to eat. ”

Utter rubbish. Socialism teaches “from each according to his means to each according to his needs” - that means people work as they are able, to feed the community, and they as members of the community benefit from the fruit of total labours of the community. Those who are unable to work are supported by the community. Those who are simply unwilling may find community pressure to make them work.

Neither socialism nor capitalism can be sanctified as THE poltical expression of Christianity. But your caricatures do not address any understanding of socialism that I have met.

7

Earl 07.03.09 at 1:11 pm

Long live “apostate” American Christianity… dynamic, effective, alive and unapologetically evangelistic! For if that is apostasy, then how much better it will be when Christendom and the whole world entire mirrors such apostasy. If this is captivity, then would that the whole world were in such chains.

Even in only secular experience, by economic opportunity, personal freedom and quality of life produced, Capitalism is more compatible with Christian faith than any historical demonstration of either socialism or its more rabid communist cousin.

It may only be myth that America is exceptional. Perhaps America is only normal. Perhaps America only appears exceptional when compared to other nations. Maybe other nations need to aspire to a new normal.

At least within evangelical American Christianity, there is a great deal of emphasis on the Gospel. Of course there are fakers to be found… sometimes they are found even to misrepresent not only the Gospel but the Truth. This is true on either side of the Atlantic. The difference is that in America such charlatans are far outnumbered and outproduced by the myriad of faithful pastors and the multiplicity of effective local churches that know, live and proclaim the Good News of salvation by personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

As regards militarism, in over 200 years America has managed to press its case on the world stage without any need for rescue. Yet even in living memory and witnessed to by countless monuments and untold crosses that mark the graves of American servicemen, the United States has acted militarily to hold a razor of tyranny away from the throat of continental europe. Today the one and only reason reason why no one goose steps in London is the same reason German is not the national language of France… i.e., when we had other fish to fry in the Pacific, our nation first pulled British chestnuts out of the fire that has been built by the post-WWI failure of old europe to stand up to the apocalyptic threat of an austrian paperhanger.

Destroy Capitalism? One may as well set your throne on the shore and seek to command the tide! But like the extreme of communism and the more domesticated socialism, even Capitalism is not superior to the claims of Christ. Considered from a secular perspective, Capitalism is supreme. From a Christian perspective, it is condemned. If there is hope, it is not that Capitalism would be destroyed but that it might be redeemed. If experiments such as FT, etc., are successful, those experiments will have to be successful within a Capitalist world. There is no other.

Ownership is simply stewardship of possessions. It is equitable. It is efficient. It is entirely and completely within and reflective of the Biblical witness. In use and accountability of the individual (there’s I go again!), by any significant measure ownership of private property provides the best service of public good. Demonstrated in historical experience, there is no significant example of socialism or communism producing any equivalent public or private good.

My thoughts in this matter come from a experience as one who has been employed in a “mom and pop” family business, who has begun and run his own business (producing sufficient income to pay for two degrees), as one who has known and interacted with numerous small businessmen and not a few owners of major enterprises. These businessmen have successfully produced products and services. They have employed many multitudes of people who otherwise would have had no employment. They have given untold amounts of money to projects in local communities that directly benefited the lives of all the residents. Without apology I will take that sort of benevolent Capitalism over any sort of misty eyed advocacy for shared misery. Again, if that is the consequence of “self-interest that drives the Capitalist machine,” then I will gladly oil the chains and grease the wheels of that wonderful machine by which so many millions of lives have been blessed. Of course it may be that my perspective is flawed. I have never had much use for intellectual daydreaming and coffee cup complaining about “the way things are.” I am much more inclined to appreciate those who look at the way things are, then roll up their sleeves and work to make things the way they ought to be.

8

Kim 07.03.09 at 3:12 pm

Jeez, Earl, the thought of being in your church on a Memorial Day weekend scares the bejesus out of me. Him too if he were there.

You say you’ve never heard of Monty Python. I find that hard to believe. After this risible harangue, you could be mistaken for one of their sketch writers.

9

Earl 07.03.09 at 3:50 pm

Without apology Memorial Day is recognized in our worship services as a time to remember those men and women who have given their lives in the service of our nation. There are even said to be churches in England where the stained glass speaks with that same respect of those in whose memories poppies are worn. Inside those ancient sanctuaries I expect that there are to be found those persons bowing their heads in prayer who actually know to Whom they are talking. And believe it or not, some of those persons will be wearing poppies. I seriously doubt God is afraid of poppies or the people who wear them. There is no reason for anyone else to be afraid.

10

Beth 07.03.09 at 4:22 pm

Earl, do you do weddings and bar mitzvahs too?

11

PamBG 07.03.09 at 9:40 pm

Inside those ancient sanctuaries I expect that there are to be found those persons bowing their heads in prayer who actually know to Whom they are talking.

Bowing their heads to the almighty dollar and to their own pride and arrogance.

12

Rick O. 07.03.09 at 11:42 pm

As the sadistic prison warden observed in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
I sense a disconnect between academia and the proletariat.

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