30 March 2010

Christian Economic Life - Post 2: Capitalism

Capitalism. What, exactly, is it? Is it a process of running an economy? Or is it a philosophy, or a set of beliefs? And what, if anything, is the "opposite" of capitalism?

My take on popular American culture is that capitalism is regarded as both a way to run an economy and as a philosophy. I also think that, in popular American culture, the opposite of capitalism is communism. Socialism is the soft-form of communism, but it is still viewed as a form of stealing: stealing from those who have worked hard in order to give to those who do not work hard.

I also think that the specter of The Cold War is embedded deeply in American culture. And, since major social experiences typically live on for generations, our culture will carry the shadow of the Cold War for many decades into the future. The shadow of The Cold War provides us with the belief that "Communism and socialism are the enemies of Christianity and the enemies of capitalism, therefore capitalism is a Christian virtue."

This causes many Christians to view capitalism in a very uncritical way. After all, God clearly does not want us to have a communist or socialist society, therefore God must want us to have a capitalist society.

It might surprise some people to hear that I'm actually in favor of capitalism. I'm also in favor of socialist values and I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive.

But I don't believe in free-market, laissez-faire capitalism. I don't believe in the capitalist mantra that allowing capital and labor to flow into and out of sectors according to the laws of supply and demand will result in the greatest social good. I also don't believe in "trickle-down". As I say these things, I also acknowledge that the question of "How should an economy be regulated?" is a difficult one with no easy answers.

And, if I believe in socialism, I'd much rather that the socialism was embedded in our value system of how we want our society to behave. What I mean by that is that my dream is a society where there is a broad consensus that governments, communities and individuals will work to "love their neighbor".

In sum, I believe that capitalism can be used as an operating system to further an objective (philosophy) of "the greater good" or "loving one's neighbor". Using a capitalist operating system doesn't necessarily mean having to follow a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy. And pursuing a philosophy of "pursuit of the greater good" in our society doesn't necessarily have to mean top-down direction and, as far as I am concerned, it certainly doesn't imply iron-fisted totalitarianism.

I'm imagining at least one person saying that pursuing an approach of "loving one's neighbor" is not something that can be legislated, that it requires a conversion experience. I agree. But I am talking here about a Christian approach to the economy. But I also think that, to a large extent, European Socialism does embody more of a social consensus to love one's neighbor and to look out for the poor. I do believe that, however much empathy an American individual might have for those who are down on their luck, that as a society we believe in and embrace the pursuit of profits as the greatest social and spiritual good that we can collectively pursue.

Your thoughts?

9 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

The difference between capitalism on the one hand, and socialism and communism on the other, is that capitalism was not, at least originally, in ideology. Socialism and communism began as ideologies, prompted by some of the weaknesses and failures of capitalisn. They started because people began to think "there must be a better way".

The "free market", which is related to, but not identical with capitalism, did start as a kind of ideology, mainly propagated by 18th-century Enlightenment thinking by people like Adam Smith.

But the one who really gave capitalism an ideology was Ayn Rand, who was as atheist as Karl Marx, and whose thinking was even more alien to Christianity than Marx's.

Christians can, and have, lived under many different economic systems. Part of our witness as Christians is surely to try to make all of them more just, especially the ones we happen to be living under. But above all, as Christians, we should not idolise any of these systems. And that is the problem: many have turned them into idols. And when that happens, the difference between capitalism and communism is simply a denominational one; they are just two denomination of the same religion. For one the name of the deity is "the dialectical forces of history", and for the other it is "the free rein of the the market mechanism". But economics, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for economics. The economic forces are among the principalities and powers that we struggle with. See Notes from underground: The Invisible Hand

PamBG said...

Steve - Thanks for your comments and additions and I've added your blog to my feed.

It was, of course, Adam Smith who came up with the idea of "survival of the fittest". It was an economic term before it was used by biologists.

Although pre-dating the concept of capitalism, there are also Puritan roots to the idea of the rich and successful being individuals who are morally deserving: that was considered a sign of having been elected by God. I may explore this in my next post because I also think that this concept is deeply embedded in our thinking.

You said But above all, as Christians, we should not idolise any of these systems. And that is the problem: many have turned them into idols. I totally agree. I do hope that I'll be able to address these issues as well; I think that will be a challenge.

Steve Hayes said...

Have you read R.H. Tawney's Religion and the rise of capitalism? I looked on the Good Reads sit and interestingly enough found no mention of it or him -- I wonder if they have censored it.

PamBG said...

Steve, thanks for the citation. I've not read it. This isn't really my "specialist subject"; I just want to do some thinking about it. I'll check the book out (so many books, so little time!)

I've just moved back to the US after 20 years in the UK and 22 years abroad and I'm seeing a lot of US Christian bloggers asserting that working for the common good constitutes stealing (taking from one group - the deserving - to give to another group - the undeserving). There also seems to be a frequently chanted mantra that all giving must be "cheerful". Which seems to me "I get to decide to whom I give and I get to decide at random whether or not I feel like sharing." (Hey, I'm not a cynic! *grin*)

toujoursdan said...

My biggest critique of modern capitalism (in any form) is that it commodifies people and objects.

I blame modern capitalism for the the pillaging of the planet. It's the transformation of forests into palm oil farms that is causing the extinction of the orangutan, the overfishing of oceans that has caused the collapse of fisheries, the burning of fossil fuels to sustain an ultimately unsustainable lifestyle that is causing climate change and sea level rise. Now we have Obama opening up the coastlines to further oil recovery in the U.S. and even in an environmentally aware country like New Zealand, they have decided to open up their national parks to heavy mining.

Nothing has value unless we can pull it out, turn it into something and sell it. People don't have value until they can be used to create wealth.

Historically the rĂ´le of government was to take the edge off of capitalism through the welfare state and through effective regulation. But social capital continues to fall, governments become more aligned to business and less to their social mandate and the weak and vulnerable suffer.

I think in the long run capitalism will be proven to be as big a failure as communism was. The planet is finite, but capitalism only works if there is infinite growth - an expanding population and expanding economy (more production and more consumption) as well as the belief that bigger returns make taking a risk worthwhile. One day the environmental limit will collide with the ponzi scheme and that limit will win.

PamBG said...

My biggest critique of modern capitalism (in any form) is that it commodifies people and objects....Nothing has value unless we can pull it out, turn it into something and sell it. People don't have value until they can be used to create wealth.

Excellent points, thank you. I was going to write next on the relative perceived value of capital and labor - I think I'm going to refer back to this, with your permission.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism is pure ideology.

The ideology of a power seeking MEME which intends to gain total power and control over -- and hence the universal destruction of every thing.

The origins of capitalism run hell deep.

It is the inevitable manifestation of the drive to total power and control over every one and every thing at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project.

Plus institutional Christianity became a power and control seeking political "religion" and thus an integral player of the Western imperial project, when it was co-opted by the Roman state.

This very stark image says it all.

www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html

Also:

www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel14.html

Cheryle said...

I'm always struck by those who are quick to point to our nation's founding documents to shore up their arguments for capitalism and against socialism. Somehow, they seem to miss the last line in the Declaration of Independence, wherein our forefathers proclaim, "...we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

Has a socialist ring to it, don't you think?

jay said...

Hi Pam, You said:
"There also seems to be a frequently chanted mantra that all giving must be "cheerful". Which seems to me "I get to decide to whom I give and I get to decide at random whether or not I feel like sharing."

I agree, I think giving should be about about 'giving sacrificially'. Society would do better then. But that would mean 'everyone' giving sacrificially, not just the few like the woman in the bible who gave her last penny, or dime if you like, compared to those who were giving just what was required, and maybe looking for a way not to give even that.