Monday, December 13, 2010

#205 Capitalism

If you have spent time within American Christian culture, you have probably inferred that free-market capitalism is God's chosen economic system. American evangelicals are some of capitalism's biggest fans. Christians in many other parts of the world cannot believe this. They have no idea how someone could reconcile capitalism with the teachings of Christ. But in true American spirit, they seem to be reconciled by sheer force of will.

For every ounce that American Christian culture loves capitalism, they detest socialism with equal passion. The reasons for this are murky. If you decide to ask an evangelical how it is that they can subscribe to both capitalism and Jesus' teachings, you should be aware of a few things.

First of all, evangelicals tend to become defensive when asked how capitalism is embraced by people who say they follow Jesus. I mean, in my experience, they will really get their dander up. If you want to have a peaceable, copacetic exchange then you probably shouldn't broach this subject in the first place. But if the Christian you are dealing with doesn't seem to derive their identity from their politics, you might have a reasonable shot at a productive conversation. (A word of warning: even though a conversation is peaceable it is still possible for them to dismiss you. Dismissal is a handy tactic that allows one to remain outside of relationship while superficially appearing to engage you and is Christian culture's modus operandi. Just a heads up.)

This post originally appeared on Beliefnet. The original post and its comment thread can be seen here.


Shaun Somers said...

Hello! Though I'm not an American Evangelical (I'm a Canadian,um, regular christian?), I believe I can explain how I can subscribe to both capitalism and Jesus' teachings.

Capitalism is the only system that is free of coercion. That is, other systems, like the socialism you mention, require a powerful group to take from one set of people and give to another. I find that to be counter to the teachings of Jesus (and the bible in general).

I don't want to be dismissive, and am willing to have a productive conversation - though I realize this blog post is about a year old.

toujoursdan said...

The economic system in ancient Israel is nothing like capitalism (or, a more accurate description of what we have now, corporatism).

First of all it relied mostly on barter. There were no limited partnerships and no corporations that allowed individuals to take modern business risk, but be protected from liability.

There was no concept of fixed work for fixed income. There was no bargaining by employers or by employees for wages or benefits. There was no option for employees to leave for another job if they were unhappy with the current one.

Property was communally owned by the extended family (which had hundreds of members spread out over large agricultural and herding territories), NOT by the individual. You did not have individual ownership of anything.

The patriarch chose your vocation to meet the collective need of the extended family. What you did was NOT based on your individual goals and desires.

They communally decided how your income would be used. Your income was forcably was taken from you to support the extended family's elderly, infirm and probably lazier people too - again it was at the whim of the patriarch, not you.

The extended family even chose who you married, and that was done for family alliances, not for love.

If you couldn't support yourself you could sell yourself into slavery and a wealthy person was obligated to look after your needs while you worked for them. After 7 years they were commanded by God to set you up with a household and means of support. (Deut 15:12-18)

It was all coercive. The prohibition on disobeying your parents is in the Ten Commandments and was a capital offence (Deut 21:18-21). So if you didn't what they decided, too bad for you. Duties (including economic duties) toward non-family members were controlled by the rabbinical courts, which had the power to punish you, including death.

The whole concept of individualism (which is what he bases capitalism on) is a modern concept, borne of the enlightenment. Everything in ancient Israel was coercive. All your life choices were made based on the needs of the collective family, not based on what you wanted to do. All property and income was collectively owned. The only difference was that the extended family took the place of the State and patriarch of the family was an absolute dictator.

The NT isn't much different. Jesus commands his followers to give to the poor according to THEIR needs, not what you choose to give. The earliest Christians held all property in common and gave according to their need (which is where Marx got his idea for Das Kapital.)

The only difference between then and now was the concept of nation-states hadn't been established, but in practise ancient Israel's economic system was far closer to communism than capitalism.

Shaun Somers said...

I am not trying to be dismissive, because I do think that what ancient Israel did was important, but Jesus came to set us free from their system of Law. It was no doubt coercive in many ways.

Paul said that each should give as they have purposed in their heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion.

The system of communal ownership in the NT is certainly what I would consider to be the ideal form of living. But they chose to do so freely. When the system is mandated, it becomes an entirely different thing, doesn't it?

Your point about the current system being corporatism (I would even go as far to call it fascism) is a good one. The problem is most people don't know the difference and blindly support the American system which has been successfully marketed as "capitalism".

Jen said...

I think the issue isn't so much whether or not you can subscribe to both capitalism and Christianity, but rather whether you should subscribe to free market capitalism as a core tenet of Christianity. Many US Evangelicals seems to teach the latter and that is where the problem lies.

Apart from that, in spite of the perception that such a system is free from coercion, I believe the opposite to be true. It's simply a different type of coercion. Much of capitalism relies on subliminal coercion in the countries in which they peddle their products - pushing the image of the American Dream, indirectly implying that certain products will get you beautiful women, using sex to sell things, telling you how your life isn't really complete without products, etc. But more importantly, a number of companies still use forms of more direct coercion in the countries where they produce their products in order to keep costs down in their supply chains. The use of debt labor, forced labor, child labor, unsafe working conditions, and labor obtained through threats to employees and/or their families still exist in many countries and leave us with much larger ethical considerations as to what degree our current capitalist system lines up with Biblical teachings.

Daniel said...

"...other systems, like the socialism you mention, require a powerful group to take from one set of people and give to another."

Wow, I can't think of ANY examples of THAT happening in capitalist society.

Shaun Somers said...

@Jen: When I say "coercion" I mean the use of force to compel someone to do something they otherwise would not do. I don't think there is such a thing as subliminal coercion; though I agree with you that the marketing efforts of companies are often not terribly moral.
To the extent that companies use actual coercion in foreign countries; they are not engaging in capitalism per se. Practicing free-market capitalism would require a company to contract freely in the market with its employees as it does with its consumers. Again remember not to confuse the system that exists in America today with actual free-market capitalism.

@Daniel: It does indeed happen in our "capitalist" society, but when it does we can clearly call it wrong.

Here's a video that I just came across an hour or so ago (made me think of this post so back I came):

Analyst said...

"That is, other systems, like the socialism you mention, require a powerful group to take from one set of people and give to another."

As distinct from the USA where a group of wealthy or well connected people do the same things?

Quote: "Bain invested $6 million in [Wesley Jessen VisionCare] in 1995, an investment that was valued at more than $300 million at the end of 1999."

Andrew Littler said...

I think the obvious and most simple way to look at the whole situation is this: capitalism, or this form of fascism, plutocracy or whatever you want to call it kills people and leaves them to die. Did Jesus ever do that?

And besides, what ever happened to Jesus kicking the banks out of his church? Actually doing that would make this whole situation a lot simpler to clean up.