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Friday, 24 November 2006

Karl Barth on capitalism

“Fundamentally, the command of God … is self-evidently and in all circumstances a call for counter-movements on behalf of humanity and against its denial in any form – and therefore a call for the championing of the weak against every kind of encroachment on the part of the strong. The Christian community has undoubtedly been too late in seeing this in face of the modern capitalistic development of the labour process, and it cannot escape some measure of responsibility for the injustice characteristic of this development…. The main task of Christianity in the West is … to assert the command of God in face of [capitalism], and to keep to the ‘left’ in opposition to its champions, i.e., to confess that it is fundamentally on the side of the victims of this disorder and to espouse their cause.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 544 (KD III/4, pp. 624-25).


Anonymous said...

From the sociological point of view... christianism is one more factor to produce, enforce capitalism. Weber and Marx did this assumption from different points of view.
But the justice aim of Marx, and the freedom aim of Weber come from the Bible.
I´m realy sorry to see how, as christians, we can pass by in history without historical conscience: our story as sons of God comes from a historical reading: the Bible. We need to see ourselves as historical sujects and in this excercise... go against evil sistems (as capitalism is).

Thuloid said...

Well, sometimes I think it's useful to be reminded (as this quotation does) how little competence a theologian may have in economics. So I'm grateful for this remark by Barth, lest I come to think that faith and considerable intellectual gifts (his or another's) are proof against speaking foolishly out of one's depth.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Great quote!

John said...

What you fail to acknowledge is that the "church" aligned itself with the profoundly anti-human Roman Empire--slaughter slaughter everywhere!!
And has been an integral part of the profoundly anti-human western imperial misadventure ever since.Slaughter slaughter everywhere! A misadventure based on the drive to total power and control.
Capitalism is the inevitable historical manifestation of that toxic meme.
Did you notice that the recent coronation of the new pope was in effect a celebration of IMPERIAL POWER?

Anonymous said...

I always believe that God and apparently that the church should be on the side of the poor and the victims.

Ryan said...


apparently you like gross oversimplification, misunderstanding (the coronation, for one), and making controversial accusations without substantiation... and dislike the actual complexities of history done by serious cultural and intellectual historians. I hope this changes!


kim fabricius said...

Don't you love the Red Pastor's characterisation of capitalism as a "disorder"? A fortiori with the ethical vacuum and wanton destructiveness of contemporary casino capitalism otherwise known as globalisation. I would refer all readers to a book that has been flagged up before on F&T: Kathryn Tanner's rigorous, realistic, yet hopeful Economy of Grace (2005).

Ben Myers said...

I agree, Kim -- "disorder" is very expressive here. Of course, the word translated as "a disorder" (eine Unordnung) could just as easily be translated: "a mess"!

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

In addition to Tanner's fine work, I'd recommend M. Douglas Meek's _God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy_ (Fortress, 1989). Top-down, transnational-favoring globalization wasn't as advanced when Meeks wrote as now, but the basic theological and economic problems were identical.

The Red Pastor of Safenwil is still saluted by this lonely democratic socialist in the U.S. South!

Petter Ö said...

Yes, a challenging quote. The answer to this disorder is of course not that of communism. This should be where a "theology of freedom" cuold play a big role.

It's impossible, I think, to imagine a society without some sort of exchange symbols (such as money), and also to imagine a society without some sort of regulations of the system of exchange (such as taxes or labour laws).

Basically the disorder of "capitalism" for me means that today companies act rather internationally, whereas labour laws and taxing are formed nationally, und thus can't stand up for common right. So I think we should act for such rules and taxes in UN, EU and in other regions of the world (included of course alla nations, states, cities...).

dan said...

Amen, to the quote. More could be said in response to some of these comments, but I doubt that there would be much point in doing so.

Thuloid said...


While it's basically impossible to imagine a society without trade, it's not impossible to imagine one without money, as such have existed. But likewise, it's not impossible to imagine one without taxation or labor laws, though it's nearly impossible to imagine a state without taxation (but there have been many societies that had little to no labor regulation).

As to international companies vs. national boundaries, I'm not sure that's actually the issue. A company may operate in both Britain and the United States (and within the United States, in several states each with their own labor regulations)--each of these regulations does apply to its own territory. Are you objecting that no state is able to impose its will universally, thus "standing up for common right"? We might as well object that I am not able to impose my own will universally--is that an impediment to the common good?

crystal said...

Liberation theology :-)

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Crystal, you're right. Although Latin American liberation theologies began in Catholic circles, many others attracted to various liberation theologies have decidedly Barthian pedigrees: Letty Russell, a leading feminist theologian began as a Barthian; Juergan Moltmann started with Barth; Robert McAfee Brown and Frederick Herzog, two of the most insightful U.S. interpreters of liberation theologies are Barthians; In South Africa, John de Gruchy, Allan Boesak, & Charles Villa Vicencio used hefty amounts of Barth in their theological resistance to apartheid and continue in post-apartheid S.A. Although most of John Howard Yoder's published work on liberation theologies is critique (he was asked to give critique and wrote "on assignment"), close reading also reveals many sympathies--far more than with Yoder's more famous disciple, Stanley Hauerwas. The list could be greatly multiplied.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

thuloid, the many "free trade" treaties of the WTO have usually included "trumps" to local labor, safety, and environmental laws.

Thuloid said...


But nobody has to sign onto those treaties--the WTO has power only insofar as various states opt into it. Now, admittedly, they may find other states less cooperative in trade if they don't, but that's just a matter of no party having universal authority. If in Thuloid's kingdom we want to set a 500% tariff on the importation of plastics from Michael-land, we can do that, regardless of what the WTO says. And if other parties find this disagreeable, they can refrain from trading with my country or apply whatever regulations they like on their own terms. The only alternative to this (mutual free association) would be the application of force, which I'm sure Michael-land doesn't prefer.

Petter Ö said...

Thuloid, I'm not sure I follow you. I didn't say "without money" but but "without...exhange symbols (such as money)". I don't know of any society or state without some sort of exchange symbols or labour regulations, do you? I'm neither an economist nor a historian, but I'm eager to be better informed in both areas...

I don't object that my or my (or some other) state's will can't be imposed universally. I pray that God's will be imposed. In deed I think I see that this and that will is very much fallen from God's will. And therefore, I suggest that we make common agreements for common good.

To comment on your kingdom-parable, I'd suggest a united kingdom with no big need of large importation-tariffs, but rather with VAT for the sake of common good.

Since my English is far from perfect please be indulgent and correct my misunderstandings.

Ben Myers said...

Petter, your English is perfectly eloquent.

In fact, it's nice to see such geographically diverse input to this discussion: as far as I can tell, there are comments here from Mexico, Japan, Thailand, Sweden, etc.

crystal said...

Thanks for the info, Michael - I don't know much about Protestant theology. It's good to see we have stuff in common.

Thuloid said...


I was a bit slippery in talking about money/exchange symbols--I should have said that I mean anything used roughly like money to be money (whether it's a coin, a bank note, a cowrie shell or whatever). I didn't mean to confuse. Even so, there have been societies that got by with pure barter--they just aren't much like our own. As to labor regulations, well, I don't think there were many in 10th century Iceland. A state in the modern sense certainly can't get by without money (taken broadly, as symbols of exchange), but one can imagine a state that doesn't regulate labor (and in fact, there have been some that regulated it almost not at all--the United States in its first decades had remarkably little in this category).

I'm all for common agreements. They seem to be about the best we can manage, though always deficient to the extent that we are fallen creatures (our wills do not correspond to God's will).

Petter Ö said...

Thuloid, it now seems to me that we pretty much share a common agreement on the principles here.

Ben, thanks for encouraging me. I'm happy to be part of this diversity, even though I have to have my digital english-swedish-english dictionary open all the time, it's surely worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

Petter, Thuloid, Ben...
Here I´m without too much teology reading and with my basic english, just as a christian who keeps studying sociology.

I´m really afraid how Marx has been misunderstood, not readed and even hidded in his aproach to capitalism.
Marx let us see "money", "trade", "value" as a social relationship; Marx remember us that all that we produce is not appart from us, and shouldn´t take power on us. Money, trade, globalization are human products; it shows the way we get involved with other humans and the way we transform the nature.

Is there any chance that we as christians, could read "again" Marx, without being an activist of "Liberation theology", without partidism activity and with a critical point of view, just as the Frankfurt School philosofers did?.

Greetings from Mexico.

Petter Ö said...

Carolina, yes, I think Marx will, and should, be read again and again, hopefully in the way you suggest.

Saludos de Suecia

Thuloid said...


Well, I'm much less enthusiastic about Marx than you are. To me, a problem is that he uses basic terms and concepts(money, trade, value) in extremely unusual, even deceptive ways. He also equivocates, changing the definitions as he goes to suit his arguments. So his economics are simply incorrect, of no more use to us than reading the work of a scientist whose views have long been disproven. There are some interesting philosophical ideas at work, of course, and those are worth some study (but should be approached with great caution).

I'd also say it's worthwhile to read Marx in order to understand him and to recognize where he goes wrong, so that the same mistakes can be identified in later thinkers.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I've always believed that Marx's critique of capitalism was unanswerable. It's Marx's solutions that I find misguided.

Thuloid said...

Well, I think you're right that his critique of capitalism and his solutions are somewhat separate problems. But I guess I'd start earlier and say that his critique of capitalism is where he starts the cheating. Obviously that makes him of little use for me--I'm not convinced he understood capitalism all that well.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I come from a long line of union employees, thuloid. I think Marx understood capitalism very well. Weber was right in saying that Marx completely misunderstood the way bureaucracies grow (thus the delusion of the "withering away of the state") and there are several other relevant criticisms. But I have seen the alienation of labor from its products first hand and much of the rest of Marx's critique of laissez-faire capitalism. (Social market capitalism did not exist for Marx to analyze.)

But Marx's best ideas were stolen, secularized bits of Scripture.

Thuloid said...

Let's be fair, Michael. Laissez-faire capitalism didn't really exist for Marx to analyze, either--though the type and degree of regulation in the economy varied across Europe and over the course of Marx's lifespan, it was always significant.

And speaking of secularized bits of scripture, I'm not sure the alienation of labor from its products isn't one (and likewise, that it has anything much to do with capitalism vs. any system outside the Garden of Eden).

Anonymous said...

The Marx´s epistemical roots explain how are chained theory and praxis. We can´t separate his capitalism critique from the political "solution". What I think we need to separete is the Marx "solution" from the "political left solution". Marx was not readed enough, even by they who took the power in his name.

Michael... i´m agree that "Marx's best ideas were stolen, secularized bits of Scripture". The historical determinism of Marx comes from a secularization of the biblical aproach to human history. Idolatry become to alienation. When Marx explains alienation, he even quotes Isahias passages about idolatry.

Of course that everything gets in terrible distortion when someone doesn´t recognices God as the Author of the human destiny in history, and after read Scriptural concepts without faith in its inspiration. Marx did´nt produce anything more than another kind of idolatry.

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