Many Christians argue
for capitalism on the grounds that markets and private property support man’s
rightful freedom, and doing away with them means poverty and tyranny. That
seems a strong argument, so in response opponents of capitalism need to say
that the current system has additional features that make it intrinsically bad
and worth getting rid of.
Earlier this year,
the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, a severe critic of capitalism, responded to such demands. In effect, he defined capitalism as a system in which workers
sell their labor, and what they produce becomes the property of the owners of
capital. That system is evidently what we have, since most workers are salaried
or wage-earning employees of corporations controlled by shareholders. More
controversially, Hart argued that such a system is oppressive and destructive
in various ways, and profoundly anti-Christian. (He didn’t suggest a practical
alternative, but more on that later.)
Others have discussed his arguments that capitalism is necessarily destructive and
oppressive, and I won’t add to what’s been said. Instead, I would like to
consider his objection to capitalism as intrinsically anti-Christian. My
presentation differs from his in some ways, but I hope it brings out important
aspects of the issue.
The objection is
based on a line of thought that owes something to Marx (like anyone else, Marx
might be right about some things). That line of thought tells us that current
methods of production depend on economies of scale, minute division of labor,
and large capital investments. Those conditions mean that production is
organized in ways that put those who control large pools of capital in the
driver’s seat, while workers become instruments of production with little
control over how economic life is carried on.
suchthe thought goesare primarily concerned with profit. A particular
capitalist might consider something else more important. Such idiosyncrasies
don’t change the overall picture, however, since those who put profit first
will end up winning the race for wealth and control, and thus determine the
system’s tendencies. The result, then, is an economic system organized ever
more rigorouslythat is the famous “discipline of the marketplace“for a single
purpose: private profit.
That result spills
over to the whole of life. That’s because of the importance of economics in daily
life; the enormous success of capitalism in generating wealth; the size,
energy, and global reach of the private actors involved; the ability of modern
markets and technology to turn everything into a profit-making opportunity; and
the growing integration of public and private elites due to similarities of
education, crossover of personnel, and the interest the powerful always have in
cooperating with each other.
As the capitalist
system develops, the theory continues, more and more aspects of life become
integrated with it. Others grow dependent on a system of government
administration and social services that grows up to make life easier for the
larger capitalists, and to maintain the efficiency, stability, and popular
acceptability of the overall system.
The result is that
the point of education becomes training young people to be useful to employers.
Medical care becomes deeply concerned with economic efficiency, so it promotes
abortion of the defective and euthanasia of the burdensome. Fast food, commercial
entertainment, and daycare replace domestic life, and make women as available
for productive use as men. Career and consumption become the main sources of
personal identity as family and community life decline. Culture becomes
commercial pop culture, which achieves popularity by promoting hedonism and
thus consumer demand. And ever-expanding production of ever-more varied
consumer goods means enormous resources are devoted to advertising designed to
boost demand further.
The result is that
all of life becomes absorbed into the capitalist system and its adjunct, the
regulatory social services state. Practices and ways of thinking that emphasize
career, consumption, accumulation of wealth, and other mundane gratifications
become altogether pervasive. The highest moral standard becomes “social
justice,” which is redefined to mean a more equal distribution of material
goods, and is considered necessary to limit instability due to individual
insecurity and concentration of wealth and power.
The resulting way of
life, even its highest ideals, is obviously anti-Christian. To resist, though,
is to break radically with ways of living and thinking that are almost
universally accepted, and are constantly drummed into us by our social
surroundings. Hence the complaint that capitalism is anti-Christian.
The picture certainly
bears a resemblance to much of the world around us. Many people, of course,
would modify the account in various ways. I myself would put more emphasis on
the growth of government and the one-sided emphasis on scientific and
technological thought, a difference that likely makes me less anti-capitalist
and more anti-statist than Hart.
That may not matter
much. The trends that impress me result from competitive pursuit of power, but
they point in the same direction as trends resulting from competitive pursuit
of wealth. Either way, the outcome is a system that tends to merge public and
private, absorb everything into economics and power, and promote a wholly
this-worldly way of life. So there may be little difference between global
statism that accepts capitalism as an adjunct and global capitalism that
accepts comprehensive regulation and social services as adjuncts.
But where should we
turn? Hart only hints at alternatives. He would evidently reject socialism,
since that makes the state rather than the workers own everything. Nor,
apparently, would he favor European-style social democracy, since that system
is still capitalistic, and it promotes the abolition of authorities between
individual and state, a tendency he deplores.
It appears he would
approve a system of family businesses and small cooperatives in which the
owners are also the users of capital, but suggests no way such a system could
be brought about. Instead, he advises us that Christians have no enduring city
in this world, but we should do what we can in the everyday business of life to
bring about goods and avert evils. Such efforts may have some effect, and he
suggests that they might conceivably promote economic localism of the sort
It’s hard to argue
with the general drift of his advice, but impossible not to want to add to it.
What would “doing what we can” look like today? And if we can’t avoid
capitalism, which seems likely, what should we do to mitigate its less good
It seems our
immediate response should include devoting more effort to the obviousdo right
and avoid wrong, attend to family, friends, and local community, cultivate
intellectual and spiritual life, and so on. It should also include limiting our
immersion in the electronic mediaFacebook, Twitter, YouTube, the 24/7 news and
spin cyclethat distract us from ultimate goods and from concrete relationships
But public action is
also needed, if only to limit the intrusiveness of the system. More and more of
lifechild-rearing, education, livelihood, entertainmentis institutionalized,
and institutions are becoming more integrated with each other even globally.
These changes merge the personal into the political, so public authority
increasingly feels itself called upon to reconfigure attitudes and human
The results are
notorious. The Supreme Court tells us that the only possible motivation for reluctance to accept
same-sex marriage as marriage is a desire to injure people. Accordingly, the
law now demands, on pain of crushing financial penalties, that bakers and
photographers join in celebrating such unions. Failure to do so might be construed
either as a violation of social justice, a violation of consumer sovereignty,
or an irrational refusal of a profitable business opportunity.
The insistence on
dragooning people into celebrating what they deplore doesn’t stop there, and it
won’t stop until everyone everywhere is forcibly united in cheering on every
aspect of an egalitarian consumerist culture. But to resist dragooning will
require a radical change in public understandings, especially those held by our
leaders. A more humane way of life will require particularity and boundaries to
thrive, for example, and that means walls as well as bridges.
But where are the
intelligent, respected, and eloquent voices calling for that? Populist
rebellions are not enough. What we need most of all, in the Church as
elsewhere, is intelligent, established leadership that understands what current
trends mean, and is willing to break with them rather than trying to act as
their advocate and partner.