Tuesday 16 October 2007

On Capitalism, God and Mammon

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

In his review of Don DeLillo’s highly acclaimed Underworld – whose sheer size and overall chutzpah established it as the last great novel of the 20th century – James Wood observed that “the book is so large, so ambitious, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ”.

I’ve often thought that the same description could apply just as easily to capitalism. Every attempt to curb its voracious appetite, to “humanise” its world-wide dominion, to place the economy back in the service of the greater good and thus temper its lust for unregulated growth, has not simply failed, but has been assimilated, folded back into the existing economic order and turned into yet another expression of capitalism itself.

Take, for example, the wide-spread use of “anti-globalisation” rhetoric by designer labels and marketing firms, or even the current wave of chic enviro-fundamentalism. In both cases, there is a kind of coming together of opposites, where two trends which are logically opposed (like popular consumerism and radical conservationism) come to occupy the same space, and seemingly without contradiction. So, the exemplary product of global capitalism are T-shirts made in Chinese sweatshops bearing the “World Without Strangers” motto.

But my favourite instance of this absorption of a potential criticism of capitalism into the inert safety of pop culture can be found in the book version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Its back cover features an endorsement, not from Sir Nicholas Stern, nor even from Tim Flannery, but from none other than Leonardo DiCaprio! (I suppose there is a connection between Leo and big chunks of floating ice – but wasn’t his problem that the ice hadn’t melted?)

Yes – capitalism, too, produces its own antibodies. And it seems that nothing is outside of its grasp.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of global capitalism is to have made choice one of those inalienable human rights, to have ensnared the very notion of democracy within an indiscriminate right-to-excess, to have transposed freedom into economic or consumptive terms. This is an achievement that DeLillo grasped in a remarkable way. As he put it in Underworld:

“Capital burns off the nuance in a culture. Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisitions, the flow of information through transnational media, the attenuating influence of money that’s electronic and sex that’s cyberspaced, the convergence of consumer desire – not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices.”

Choice itself has thus become the true object of human longing, a longing that has parasitised or colonised human nature itself. And so it seems that Karl Marx was right: the vision of capitalism that I’ve just described – which embraces the entire globe, which can generate more money ex nihilo through the mysteries of financial derivatives and futures speculation, which can bring together polar opposites in apparent economic harmony – is, in the end, theological. Or, to put it another way, capitalism is Mammon.

So, here’s my question: how can we take Jesus’ statement, “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” seriously when God and Mammon are now in cahoots?

Let me explain. While everyone loves to poke fun at the ridiculous platitudes of “prosperity theology”, the conspiring of God with Mammon is much, much older. Max Weber, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, famously proposed that the capitalist disposition to earn and accumulate arose directly from the Puritan sense of calling which embraces all of life.

But now that the capitalist drive has shifted from thrift to choice, from prudence to indulgence, from accumulation to experience, the way religion operates within capitalism has also changed. Instead of a secularised motivation for work, the function of religion today more closely resembles those medieval rituals that provided sinners with the means whereby to atone for their sins.

We have our own thinly veiled forms of penance – like tithing, charitable donations, watching PBS – each of which makes us feel better about participating in decadent consumerism. And not only that, these forms of penance allow us to participate by relieving any sense of guilt.

And so it is that capitalism and charity can cohabitate. The one lets you indulge, and the other lets you get away with it. The problem at the heart of the matter is that Christianity traditionally has geared itself to dealing with the guilty conscience of the West, how to escape from the consequences of our wrongdoing. No wonder it has so readily been accommodated by capitalism as its ideal religious accessory. It was, of course, Marx that first recognised the inherent connection, the deep symbiosis between actually existing capitalism and various forms of religious belief and practice:

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal basis for consolation and justification. It is the imaginary realization of the human essence, because the human essence possesses no true reality. Thus, the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.… The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion.”

When Marx goes on to insist that a critique of capitalism must begin with a critique of religion (“the criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth”), wasn’t he simply repeating Jesus’ warning, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them”? Such expressions of disingenuous charity – performed for one’s own peace of mind and in the service of Mammon – are the oil in the capitalist machine.

Perhaps the best way of breaking today’s alliance between God and Mammon, then, is to refuse ourselves the false comfort of token acts of charity and fashionable faith, so that we can see our behaviour for what it really is and dare really to live differently.

Now just to be clear, so that no one can come back later and accuse me of coming dangerously close to Marcionite language, let me just confirm that I am absolutely a Marcionite! Radical Paulinism – as Barth recognised in the preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans – represents one of the crucial resources for opposing capitalism, liberal democracy, and the inherent idolatry that sustains them both.


michael jensen said...

Don't see how it is Marcionitism: the OT prophets give a stinging critique of a culture of exploitation which innoculates itself to self-criticism by the performance of cultic ceremonies...don't they? The fashion industry of ancient times certainly comes under attack - see Amos and others.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scott - a brilliant and creative post. Your connection of Jesus with Marx's famous "criticism of heaven" is definitely food for thought. (Is this where the "Marcionite" element lies, Michael?)

Anonymous said...

"like tithing, charitable donations, watching PBS - each of which makes us feel better about participating in decadent consumerism"

Almost everything you say is right, except for this bit about PBS. I can assure you, watching PBS only makes me feel much, much worse.

Anonymous said...

The writer makes the deadly mistake of confusing Christianity with Protestantism.
I would refer him to the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Quadrogesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus for an authentically articulated relationship between Christianity and Capitalism.

There is nothing mysterious about derivatives and futures. And believe it or not, in continuity with the ages there are great numbers today who understand the meaning and role of the sacrament of penance. And there is nothing thinly veiled about it.

I would also like to refer the writer to Eric Voegelin by including a quote I lifted from an online site. It seems apposite.

The whole complex of ideas—of "values," "reference to values," "value-judgments," and "value-free science"—seemed on the point of disintegration. An "objectivity" of science had been regained that plainly did not fit into the pattern of the methodological debate. And, yet, even the studies on sociology of religion could not induce Weber to take the decisive step toward a science of order. The ultimate reason for his hesitation, if not fear, is perhaps impenetrable; but the technical point at which he stopped can be clearly discerned.
His studies on sociology of religion have always aroused admiration as a tour de force, if not for other reasons. The amount of materials he mastered in these voluminous studies on Protestantism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Israel, and Judaism, to be completed by a study on Islam, is indeed awe-inspiring. In the face of such impressive performance it has perhaps not been sufficiently observed that the series of these studies receives its general tone through a significant omission, that is, of pre-Reformation Christianity.
The reason of the omission seems to be obvious. One can hardly engage in a serious study of medieval Christianity without discovering among its "values" the belief in a rational science of human and social order and especially of natural law. Moreover, this science was not simply a belief, but it was actually elaborated as a work of reason. Here Weber would have run into the fact of a science of order, just as he would if he had seriously occupied himself with Greek philosophy. Weber's readiness to introduce verities about order as historical facts stopped short of Greek and medieval metaphysics.
In order to degrade the politics of Plato, Aristotle, or Saint Thomas to the rank of "values" among others, a conscientious scholar would first have to show that their claim to be science was unfounded. And that attempt is self-defeating. By the time the would-be critic has penetrated the meaning of metaphysics with sufficient thoroughness to make his criticism weighty, he will have become a metaphysician himself. The attack on metaphysics can be undertaken with a good conscience only from the safe distance of imperfect knowledge. The horizon of Weber's social science was immense; all the more does his caution in coming too close to its decisive center reveal his positivistic limitations.
Hence, the result of Weber's work was ambiguous. He had reduced the principle of a value-free science ad absurdum. The idea of a value-free science whose object would be constituted by "reference to a value" could be realized only under the condition that a scientist was willing to decide on a "value" for reference. If the scientist refused to decide on a "value," if he treated all "values" as equal (as Max Weber did), if, moreover, he treated them as social facts among others—then there were no "values" left that could constitute the object of science, because they had become part of the object itself.
This abolition of the "values" as the constituents of science led to a theoretically impossible situation because the object of science has a "constitution" after all, that is, the essence toward which we are moving in our search for truth. Since the positivistic hangover, however, did not permit the admission of a science of essence, of a true episteme, the principles of order had to be introduced as historical facts.
When Weber built the great edifice of his "sociology" (i.e., the positivistic escape from the science of order), he did not seriously consider "all values" as equal. He did not indulge in a worthless trash collection but displayed quite sensible preferences for phenomena that were "important" in the history of mankind; he could distinguish quite well between major civilizations and less important side developments and equally well between "world religions" and unimportant religious phenomena. In the absence of a reasoned principle of theoretization he let himself be guided not by "values" but by the auctoritas majorum

Matthew said...

"Perhaps the best way of breaking today’s alliance between God and Mammon, then, is to refuse ourselves the false comfort of token acts of charity and fashionable faith, so that we can see our behaviour for what it really is and dare really to live differently."

Hm. I wonder what distinguishes a "token" act of charity from a "true" act of charity.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Scott we haven't met, and I assume from your tone that you are trying to be provocative: for example, speaking of "an alliance between God and Mammon", without putting some suitable subset of those words inside quotation marks, is in violent disagreement with my taste ... but if I squint really hard I can see why you might want to put it like that.

However I really must call on you to clarify terms when you say "let me just confirm that I am absolutely a Marcionite!". Marcionitism was a heresy the last time I checked --- and I see no disdain for the Old Testament as such when I read the Pauline corpus, radical or otherwise.

In my ignorance, I cannot comment on whether Barth truly does agree with you in his preface to the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans. With this reference you acclaim the position you're espousing as a crucial resource "for opposing capitalism" and liberal democracy, and the idolatry undergirding them. But that does not make it right. Islamist iconoclasm is likewise a crucial resource in opposing these things, and yet the Christian church once resolved on a more satisfactory answer to such concerns ... even if the memory of it is almost lost.

(I refer to Oliver O'Donovan's brilliant account of these matters in Common Objects of Love, which, by chance, I was reading just this afternoon.)

Anonymous said...

Well, he had me until he claimed radical Marcionism and then had the chutzpah to attribute such to Barth! Not only, as Mike Jensen says (good to be on the same side) did the Hebrew prophets rail against Mammon and exploitation of the poor, that is the position of the entire Bible (except maybe a few Proverbs)! Further, neither Jesus nor Paul had Marcionite tendencies.

Finally, as one who has been a convinced social democrat since my teens, I would say that one can oppose capitalism without opposing liberal democracy!

Halden said...

"I would say that one can oppose capitalism without opposing liberal democracy!"

My jaw's on the ground at that statement, Michael! That just strikes me as incredibly naive. Capitalism created liberal democracy and the latter is unintelligilbe without its capitalist underpinnings.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post. I, too, am not quite sure what you mean by being a radical Marcionite. Perhaps you mean something different by this, then what I am used to.

Also, Michael, I think Halden raises an excellent point and it is a good discussion to have. Can we oppose capitalism while supporting liberal democracy? I think this is actually quite relevant to the point Stephen is trying to make here.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant Scott, not Stephen.

Anonymous said...

Capitalism did NOT create liberal democracy! It is true that early capitalism grew in the same soil as democracy--and that both Enlightenment types like Locke and Smith and early Christian democrats like Richard Overton, Roger Williams, and others promoted "free trade"--but this was not in the modern globalized greed, but as an alternative to aristocratic monopolies!

Liberal democracy is not an end in itself for Christians. The church can and has thrived under many political systems. This point is made forcefully today by Hauerwas and clones, but it does not originate with them by any means. (See Barth's How to Serve God in a Marxist Land or Bonhoeffer's scathing critique of American liberal Christianity as "Protestantism Without Reformation" for two examples.)

But as John Yoder showed in For the Nations (a rebuke to the argument Hauerwas makes in Against the Nations) the gospel has done better in liberal democracies than elsewhere. Liberal democracy, I would argue, is what Bonhoeffer calls a "penultimate good." It has shown a remarkable ability for internal correction--in a way that capitalism has not.

Halden said...

I suppose, Michael, on an intellectual level you could distinguish between a different, more ideologically acceptable formulation of democracy which could be distinct from captitalism. However, I think you can only do so by ignoring some of the central historical elements that gave rise to liberal democratic states, namely the industrial revolution and corporate prodcution (i.e. capitalism). The idea that once we had democracy and then later capitalism came along and messed it up is simply historically wrong. Democracy as we know and have ever known it instatiated in history has always been sustained and contained by the economic forces of production and capital.

And this gets at the real problem, which, simply put, is that notions of a non-capitalist liberal democracy are formalized abstractions. The only democracy we know is the one that exists. And what exists is a political-economic system so endemic that the idea of somehow created a new democracy is simply fanciful. I suppose a fundamental point is that I really don't find Yoder's account of democracy persuasive, as much as I find him persuasie on most other fronts.

Anonymous said...

And this gets at the real problem, which, simply put, is that notions of a non-capitalist liberal democracy are formalized abstractions. The only democracy we know is the one that exists.

One can do nothing at all with a textbook definition of democracy, which again is only a cliché. It is no use to you to know that there are three forms of government, a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy, and that in a monarchy one is at the head, that in an aristocracy several rule, and that in a democracy all rule. It is also no use to you if you know that in the democracy the people rules and that there is the great principle of popular sovereignty. All of that is of no use at all for a human understanding of democracy. One must draw upon other definitions of democracy, which are not intended as definitions in the textbook sense but as empirical observations of intelligent human beings.
I will now give three such definitions. The first is from George Santayana, the American philosopher: Democracy is the unrealizable dream of a society of patrician plebeians. If men were all patricians, which however they are not, then a democracy could work. But since the majority is made up of plebeians, the greatest objections can be raised against the practicability of a democracy.
You see that this definition is geared to the human problem, but it is no textbook definition. You cannot write it down and take it home as a dogma about democracy. But there are still other views on democracy that complement this one, without their thus being false. [Winston] Churchill once defined democracy as the worst form of government with the exception of all the others. All forms of government are bad, because they have to take account of the human factor of imperfection. Democracy is a wretched form of government simply for the reasons Santayana mentioned in the first definition. . . . A third such definition is from the American humorist Mark Twain, . . . [who] says democracy rests on three factors: “freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.”
. . . . Every society that works, a society of patricians, is based on courtesy, on compromises, on concession to the other people. Whoever has a fixed idea and wants this to be carried into effect, that is to say, whoever interprets freedom of speech and freedom of conscience to the effect that the society should behave in the way that he considers right, is not qualified to be citizen of a democracy.
The political interplay of [every functioning society] is patrician. It is based on the fact that one thinks a lot about what the others do, but does not say it; that one is always aware that in the society there is more than one good to achieve, not only the good of freedom, but also the good of security, the good of welfare, and that if I specialized in one or other of these goods, I could thereby bring the whole society into disorder, because I could destroy the balance between the realization of goods on which the society is based. . . . If I harden myself with a particular idea and pursue only this goal, this one good, then in reaction there arises the counterstasis, the counterhardening, and with this the impossibility of social cooperation.

Aric Clark said...

@ Scott Stephens,

Marvelous post. You got everyone's attention with your Marcionite comment at the end, which I assume you'll clarify when you get a chance. If you DO mean a kind of rejection of the OT you'll be making a mistake since the prophetic critique of cultic complicity in the domination system is powerful and pervasive and probably the basis of Jesus' similar temple critiques.

@ Halden/Micheal

I think Michael has a point about Liberal Democracy being distinguishable from capitalism, if not historically at least intellectually, because we do see a remarkable number of liberal democracies at the present trending toward socialism. Whether they originated alongside or within capitalism, it seems reasonable to suggest that they are not inextricably wed to it.

Halden said...

But yet, Aric, I think that even in those cases you see the way in which capitalism is constantly able to absorb such counter-movements into it's very fabric. I'm thinking of Zizek's work here. The problem with capitalism is that there's preciously little that is infinite udulations cannot encompas, that's why even if we can intellectually distinguish democracy and capitalism (which I grant), I don't thnk we can materially distinguish them.

The only thing that might have a chance at being able to extricate itself from the ever-expansive flow of capitalism, in my view is the church reborn into a true catholicity. That is why we must pray (among other things).

Anonymous said...

Liberal democracy, as we think of it today, usually has connotations connected to human rights, or at least to “rights” in general. Liberal democratic constitutions, then, are based on preserving what the authors of such constitutions articulate as being the fundamental rights within the society.

The reason the West has entrenched its liberal democracy within the context of capitalism is mainly because of the personal values of its earliest articulators, most notably John Locke. Locke maintained that the protection of rights was the most fundamental and basic responsibility of any government, which, from my liberal democratic mind, seems to be about right. The association with capitalism, however, comes from Locke’s necessity to make property rights the most important in his own view of a constitution.

So, in essence, it is a historical accident that one of the “patricians” of liberal democracy was obsessed with property rights (a fact which probably stems from the political and economic situations of the time) and that the authors of the most influential liberal democratic document (the American constitution) took their cues from him. All this to say that liberal democracy can theoretically be conceived outside of capitalism, we are just not used to doing it.

I would have to stretch myself to connect what this has to do with 'Faith and Theology', so I will leave that for others, but regardless of the relevancy of this post, I like how this article, and the site in general, make me think. Many thanks, Ladies and Gentlemen.


Anonymous said...

I think theologians are becoming quite jealous of and unhinged by the material success(es) of global capitalism. If they would tend to the "unseen" side of the faith, they might regain the relevance they desire (besides publishing back and forth). The market can't replace this message nor does it compete with it. This is radical Paulinism, or Marcionism if you must, which regards the social agenda of the prophets as too fleshy even if admirable in a limited way.


Ben Myers said...

Halden, I think you're absolutely right to observe that "the problem with capitalism is that there's preciously little that its infinite undulations cannot encompass". That's exactly the crucial point -- and that's why (as you say) it's pure fantasy to dream of some kind of non-capitalist democratic state, or even of any economic alternative to capitalism.

In Daniel Bell's new article in The Other Journal, he thus argues that the only "alternative" to capitalism is the Kingdom of God:

"What is the alternative to capitalism? ... It is the Kingdom of God.... This is to say, the question of alternatives is finally the eschatological one of the appearance of the Kingdom. Which implies that the question of alternatives is rightly answered only confessionally....

"[E]ven here and now in the midst of the descending darkness of capital, we have at our fingertips — as close as bread and wine — all that we need to resist until Christ comes in final victory. So, as the prophet Isaiah says, we are not trapped in an economy that does not satisfy. In other words, we are not all capitalists, even now."

Halden said...

Good stuff. I hadn't gotten to that article yet. Bell's book on Liberation Theology after the End of History is a superb theological critique of capitalism.

You may also be interested in the quote I just posted from Eugene McCarraher, here.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether it's worth clarifying exactly what we mean by capitalism/global capitalism? In particular, is there a distinction to be drawn between capitalism as an economic system, and capitalism as a social/cultural phenomenon (much like Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory vis-a-vis the kind of philosophical/social Darwinianism of Richard Dawkins).

The reason I think this is valuable is the simple fact that (as economic historian Angus Maddison demonstrates) capitalism is the only method of arranging our economic affairs in such a way that wealth actually grows - and that has meant hundreds of millions of people have not starved to death (who otherwise would have) precisely because of captialism.

This is hardly to be opposed! In fact, it would seem eminantly to fit into something for which we could pray for leaders, "so that we may lead a quiet and peacable life in all godlines and dignity".

Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto argues in his book The Mystery of Capitalism, that the only realistic way forward for dealing with developing-world poverty is introducing capitalism, which means the legal framework for property rights, which unlocks 'the mystery of capitalism'.

To put it provocatively, it seems that supporting capitalism an expression of compassion!

Anonymous said...

May I respectfully suggest we all take another little look at O'Donovan: Ways of Judgment, especially pp.63-65 and chapter 10.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Its John in Melbourne.
Please check out this site which gives a very disturbing analysis of the world situation and what we need to do to turn it around.

1. www.ispeace723.org

Contrary to Katay it essentially argues that capitalism has INEVITABLY brought the world to this situation. Capitalism being an extreme form of social Darwinism or the war of all against All and everything.

Objectification anti-"culture" dramatised all over the planet.

Anonymous said...

There are lots of comments here about the evils of capitalism and liberal democracy, but Scott's more profound point seems to be that capitalism is a theological reality. It's hard to know what to say about that point - but it's an extraordinary idea.

This seems to be one of Zizek's most profound ideas as well - as he writes in The Fragile Absolute, p.14: capitalism produces "the spiritualization of the very material process of production. While capitalism does suspend the power of the old ghosts of tradition, it generates its own monstrous ghosts. That is to say: on the one hand, capitalism entails the radical secularization of social life ..., [but] this reduction of all heavenly chimeras to brutal economic reality generates a spectrality of its own."

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see Michael Westmoreland-White citing Bonhoeffer's distinction between ultimate and the penultimate things, because however insightful Zizek and the Marxist critique of capitalism might be, there is still a need to deal with the question of what sort of political regime is better suited to handling penultimate issues of government. Bonhoeffer is also insightful regarding the dangers of a radicalism that wants only to talk about the kingdom (the ultimate) while rejecting any talk of the penultimate. It is important to avoid both radicalism and compromise:

"Radicalism hates time, and compromise hates eternity.
Radicalism hates patience, and compromise hates decision.
Radicalism hates wisdom, and compromise hates simplicity.
Radicalism hates moderation and measure, and compromise hates the immeasurable.
Radicalism hates the real, and compromise hates the Word" (Ethics p.156).

If we agree that the kingdom is the only ultimate answer to the problems of capitalism and democracy, the question we still need to face is what sort of penultimate regime is relatively better. So what do those of you who are scorning liberal democracy prefer?


Andy said...

It's all been said, but I might as well through in my two-cents' worth.

There are more important things than battling against Capitalism. Its sheer ubiquity, the fact that it is so universal that it creates its own antibodies, makes the dream of overthrowing it fallacious. j.k.'s citation of Zizek is important here. Zizek is fond of quoting Lacan's injunction to the 1968 revolutionaries: "As hysterics, you want a new master. You will get one." While capitalism is a corrupt system, the hope for the world is not a revolution against capitalism, but Jesus Christ. The Church and the Gospel should be our salvation. So at the end of your post when you claim (hyperbolically, I suppose) to be a Marcionite, you have gone too far afield. You have made the truth of the Gospel, which is neither bound to Paul nor complete with Paul, secondary to fighting capitalism. Which means you have already declared Mammon more important than God. Be very careful. Preach Christ at all times...I believe the rest will follow. For example, I think St. Dymphna's reading suggestions from the RCC could be very helpful.

I can tell you meant to be inflammatory, but be careful that you do not let go of Christ in the attempt to persuade. Another heretic against the capitalists really doesn't accomplish much. The love of Christ against the world could change everything.

Anonymous said...

I don't have the educational background to really speak to most of the comments, but would point out that as I view the Bible, you cannot have any real freedom without personal property rights, as is pointed out by others. Having property implies income, without which one cannot be charitable. In addition, without the right to keep (at least some) of the fruits of my labor there is very little incentive to labor, as is evidenced in the general attitude of many who are on the dole. (On keeping some fruits: in the USA the feds will take 35 to 40% if you make much at all, and in Canada I am told that with a six figure income-I don't make anywhere near that- it is 51%)
The excesses of capitalism are manifestations of greed, of course. I think the exesses of socialism are the same thing, greed for power on one hand, and the desire to get something for nothing on the other.
Frankly, I prefer to take my chances with capitalism, for all its ills.
As has been said, again, Jesus is the answer. In the USA, many Christians do not pay their tithe, average giving is reportedly as law as 3% across all denominational lines. Perhaps if the we, the Church, would get our own house in order, we might be an influence of greater weight.

Patrick said...

I believe greed is certainly wrong, but I really don't believe capitalism and liberal democracy are to blame. Greed is a heart issue. Thinking that opposing capitalism and liberal democracy will end greed is no different from the christian right's attempts to legislate their own morality on the world. Both are two sides of the same coin, as far as I can tell. I guess that's what happens when you give up on the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

Anonymous said...

For those of you who may be interested, Karl Barth's short reflection on "Poverty" can be found at: www.smallbusinesslearning.net/small_a/barthonpoverty.html
For a short piece, it is remarkably clear and subtle.

Kip Ingram

Halden said...

Patrick, I don't think anyone here (except perhaps for Michael, who can speak ably for himself) is advocating the "replacing" of capitalism with something else, let alone something which would eliminate the "heart problem" as you call it of greed. In, fact most are saying just the opposite, capitalism is so pervasive a system that there is really nothing that can oppose it without becoming incorporated into it. Anti-globalization groups are just as much a part of the global economic system as anything else.

However, your mention of the "heart" issue is important because, while the impulse to greed and avarice is certainly engrained in all of us, capitalism is a perverse regime which effectively trains us in greed. The problem with capitalism is not, as Dan Bell points out in the article that Ben linked to above, that it does not work, or even that it causes poverty. The problem with capitalism is that that it warps our desires, training us to view all people as objects of antagonism, strife, or exploitation. Capitalism de-forms our desires and our loves, drawing them away from God towards the accumulation of comodities. That is why the church must strive to be an alternative to capitalism in which our desires are re-formed in Christ.

Anonymous said...


"The problem with capitalism is that that it warps our desires, training us to view all people as objects of antagonism, strife, or exploitation."

That's largely a necessary part of evolution. Capitalism fits naturally into our biological nature to obtain the needs of survival and status within the community. But outside of that evolution and capitalism are not zero-sum games but often a cooperative venture fostering virtues of charity and care for weaker members as it is in the interest or ability of the whole group (e.g. ant colonies). I think the burden is on those who think of the "kingdom of God" as an alternative that they indeed have escaped evolutionary/capitalist models of competition, cooperation, status-seeking.

"Capitalism de-forms our desires and our loves, drawing them away from God towards the accumulation of comodities."

Isn't this opposition of God and commodities rather crude and unnecessary? In any other thread such a division between "stuff" and spirituality would be rejected immediately, but in anti-capitalist rants everything seems permissible. Like puritan guilt about "sex", it seems theologians have an automatic revulsion concerning "capital".


Anonymous said...

Does having/using a computer and an internet blog and reading books that cost money, trees, and horses to make count as indulgence in capitalism? Does writing a blog about how we need to stop indulgence in capitalism count as a penance?

Whatever this blog says, I can't find the Marcionite underpinnings or explicitness, but I only read the patristics, I don't do much reconstruction of their opponents ideas.

I still wonder, though, if this is radical enough. I know of people who get second jobs so that they can give more to the poor or to their dying church. I don't think this is a form of penance, it is an expression of their love of the gospel. I know of other folks who work less to spend more time with the poor, the sick, and the elderly. These people don't have the resources to fix the whole problem of capitalism as mammon, but without being of that system, or purposely serving it, within that system they display Christ crucified. Again if pastors abandoned hospital visitation because of the participation of the patients in the insurance/medical moneymaking monster then there would not be much work for pastors.

Besides, it seems that radical Paulinism is exactly what the puritans tried to appropriate with their sense of "calling that embraces all of life." You know that idea that God is summing up all things in Christ, (that is as radical as Paulinism gets) why not start that summing up in your own life.

I could have entirely understood this, but my desiring to understand theology comes from a desire to know God and build up the church. I see great capacity for this manner of thinking to build up the church, because financial penance is not radical enough either, capitalism for all the freedom and choice is entices us with, like the freedom to borrow a computer away from my home and respond to a blog.

Anyhow, I don't know what I'm talking about, but I hope a contributed something.

Anonymous said...

read "understood" as "misunderstood" in paragraph five

Matheson said...

Halden, your last comment is extremely helpful in clarifying your position vis-a-vis capitalism. For you it seems, the problem is the deformation of human existence itself at the hands of commodity fetishism and reification. (And this is an entirely different order of criticism to debates over whether captialism is the cause of poverty.)

But I'd be interested to know whether Scott agrees. Is the problem that of commodity fetishism and reification, or does he have issues of distribution (i.e. poverty) also in mind?

Another thought: the critique of capitalism articulated in the comments above seems to be heavily indebted to the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists (Zizek being the exception). And fair enough. But why is no one commenting on the work of the second and third generation critical theorists who have provided some substantive proposals for moving beyond the extreme pessimism of the first generation? (I have in mind here especially the work of Habermas and Honneth.)

Could it be that as Christians we rather like the post-war Frankfurt School stuff because it paints a picture of despair, into which the light of hope held out by the gospel can shine more brightly? But i worry that this might be a cheap ploy. Slavery to sin and Adorno's "totally administered society" may overlap, but they can't simply be conflated!

Anonymous said...

Hi everybody. This is great stuff. I am a political science student at the University of Victoria (CAN), and after I graduate this year, I am planning on doing a masters in the field of political applications in theology (or maybe the other way around). I am already aware of the political nature of such theologians as Bonhoeffer, Barth, O'Donovan and a few others. This discussion on capitalism has really interested me, however, and I was wondering if anyone had any pointers on further reading to do in this area. Thanks for all the good ideas, and keep up the good work.


Ben Myers said...

Hi Geoff -- a belated response to your excellent comment: "Does having/using a computer and an internet blog and reading books ... count as indulgence in capitalism?" The answer is Yes -- and if you feel enticed to buy any of the books which Scott mentions, I'll even get a commission from Amazon, which in turn helps me to buy more books! (Bill Gates was on to something when he described cyberspace as "frictionless capitalism" -- i.e., as capitalism in its purest form, uninhibited by the troublesome friction of labour).

Seriously, though, I think this is Scott's point in this post: every critique of capitalism is already benignly assimilated. That's why there's not much point in dreaming of a political alternative to capitalism (as though capitalism could be resisted through democratic elections), much less an economic alternative (as though capitalism could be resisted by re-organising capital). Instead, there's a need for a theological response to capitalism -- or rather, for a divine response which is enacted in the life of the church.

Anonymous said...

"So, the exemplary product of global capitalism are T-shirts made in Chinese sweatshops bearing the 'World Without Strangers' motto". An excellent point, Scott - and that sentence captures the whole problem with the Left today.

Matheson said...

Ben, I'm still unclear what the "theological response to capitalism" is which is "enacted in the life of the church". Is this not a different pattern of social relations? And can't these patterns be explained in concrete terms which contrasts them with those of capitalist relations? And if the former are not compatible with the latter, then we must as Christians be required to live in a why which does buy out of the capitalist system (at least at some level). But I want to know how and where this ought to happen.

Without such an account it seems that all this theological talk is just another form of "religion" criticised by Marx, i.e. oil in the capitalist machine, as Scott called it. It allows us to oppose capitalism while participating in it with a clear conscience, even regarding our participation as unavoidable and inevitable.

Jason said...

This is good, bracing conversation, good for stimulating thinking: we bear a debt of gratitude to Scott and Ben.

While I am quite sympathetic with the Christian critique of capitalism and the proposing of human alternatives, I am left with two sets of questions by this post and these comments.

First, it seems that 'capitalism' has served as a catch-all term; granted, it serves to designate a massive, multi-faceted phenomenon, but might we achieve some clarity through differentiating terms? Capitalism seems inherently opposed to the notion of a liberal democracy, inasmuch as it concentrates value and power in the hands of those with capital. It is manifestly true that we typically associate capitalism with liberal democracy in the US, but this association might well be false: it might be less than genuine liberal democracy. Whether this synthesis works in the US is a distinct question from whether liberal democracy is itself worthwhile. The economic systems best suited to a genuine liberal democracy are socialism and the free market (the latter not necessarily being identical with capitalism). So would it assist the debate to be more explicit about our definitions, viz. capitalism, consumerism, free market &c.?

I am also slightly bemused by the ideality of all the talk. For example, Ben said, quoting Halden, "it's pure fantasy to dream of some kind of non-capitalist democratic state, or even of any economic alternative to capitalism." But what are we to make of Western European nations which are determined to maintain a synthesis of free market/capitalism and social democracy? (Even France under Sarkozy or the UK under Blair/Brown are and are going to remain social/capital hybrids, certainly relative to the US - not to say there haven't been massive changes in the proportions of the syntheses.) Is the bete noire here lurking in the background the untrammelled capitalism of the US? But why in our critiques is there so little explicit engagement with existing syntheses? The ideality of our criticism seems to risk our response being ideal as well, rather than embodied and functioning in the uncomfortable, conflicted messiness of the world - a less that fully human response, and, in my estimation at least, a less than fully Christian response as a result.

I realise that you both are making a larger point about Capitalism's ability to enfold criticisms within itself, and make them a part of itself: fine. We only critique capitalism from within: fine. But it seems to me that we are always products of our culture and circumstance and yet are able - as Christians, through a historically-mediated revelation - to arrive at new human possibilities. We always critique from within, and are able to do so on the basis of that 'within'. (In fact, it is only the last four hundred years or so that has brought it home to us that there might be something other than 'within'.)

a. steward said...

Boy, this is a fantastic piece. Thanks, Ben, for hosting Mr. Stephens. I checked out a few of his other essays and he is a very incisive critic. Not sure where we might have been able to insinuate a marcionistic bent until he mentioned it, but this is still great. For me, the most stinging example of capitalism's ability to comprehend its objectors came when I saw Ramones t-shirts for sale at Nordstrom's. I also thought of a Kierkegaard quote, that sees this phenomenon from the other side: "the malignant objection desires nothing more than the continued existence of that which it protests" - or something like that.

Drew said...

The argument has shades of Fukuyama's 'end of history' about it...

Patrick said...

Thanks Halden. I think I understand what the point is better now.

However, the use of the term "opposing" in the article makes it sound as if capitalism and liberal democracy themselves are evil, which I don't believe they are. They're flawed like all human creations are. And their flaws can encourage sinful behavior. But I think it would be better to say that we are opposing the bad behavior influenced by capitalism, liberal democracy, etc, than to say we're actually opposing capitalism and liberal democracy.

To me it's akin to saying we're opposing the internet, when someone is against the sinful behavior the internet might encourage. We're not against the internet. We're against the sin. Does this make sense? Or would you say that you are opposed to the internet?

wes said...

I have been reading Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is response to the attack on capitalism in America. President Obama sat under black liberation theology church and I’m not surprised at the content of his policies and values. He is not the problem but evidence of a philosophy at work. I have also considered my self a long time believer in the protestant work ethic. My final source of all truth is the Bible. So what does the Bible really teach: Actually if you are open enough to look at all scripture you find that hard work, individuality, and personal charity are all supported. The Bible is both a book of prosperity and a book of suffering burdens (of our own and also those of others). Prosperity is never from the government and charity is never assumed to be instituted from the government. I’m convinced that Rand speaks prophetically to ideas and opinions that we are currently experiencing but the book is not a role model. I’ll stick to the Bible for that. From the Bible: unjust scales and measures, bearing false witness, laziness, gluttony, perversion, selfishness, and other sins are rampant in our society. Stealing from one group and giving to another is another great sin. Jesus threw out the money changers. Our government has also become a den of thieves. Christians ought to think long and hard about their so called justice. Liberation theology and collectivism is calling evil good and endorsing theft. Its not about what we can get but Lord bless us so we can give.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Oh man, this made me day! Thanks stupid guy named Wes!

Fat said...

With respect and without taking sides; Anthony Paul Smith - how do you come to make that post and comment?

Anthony Paul Smith said...

Say what in the who now?

Fat said...

Do you dissagree with Wes's comment/s?
Do you agree?

I would like further explanation of Wes' last two sentences but in no way could I call anyone stupid for writing here.

Anthony Paul Smith said...

I obviously disagree with Wes's "reckonings" (to call them comments is to give them far too much credit). I have no problem calling someone stupid if they are stupid, especially if they say something really stupid like what is said in those last two sentences.

Fat said...

I have never agreed with Forrest Gump's mother neither would I call what was written by Wes stupid - even though at face value I don't agree with the prosperity doctrine which ensues from it.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.