How many cheers for capitalism?

Increasingly, we live in a system that tends to merge public and private, absorb everything into economics and power, and promote a wholly this-worldly way of life.

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.

Capitalists as such—the thought goes—are 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 rigorously—that 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 distributists favor.

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 results?

It seems our immediate response should include devoting more effort to the obvious—do 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 media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the 24/7 news and spin cycle—that distract us from ultimate goods and from concrete relationships and realities.

But public action is also needed, if only to limit the intrusiveness of the system. More and more of life—child-rearing, education, livelihood, entertainment—is 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 relations.

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.

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About James Kalb 151 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).