On being anti-anti-capitalist


I’ve been thinking about “anti-capitalism” again, prompted by the publication of an e-book on “Occupy Faith” and consequent discussion in the URC’s Facebook group. The URC saddened me by committing itself to learning from “Occupy” at its last GA and this reminded me of that. So why am I anti-anti-capitalist? Perhaps I’m “at ease with poverty” as someone suggested? Maybe I’m indifferent to the plight of the destitute? Perhaps I’m in favour of exploitation and the despoliation of nature?

I don’t think it’s for any of these reasons, but then, how well do we really know ourselves?

The reasons I think I’m against anti-anti-capitalism include:

  1. I’m not wild about anything that is as purely negative in its definition as “anti-capitalism”. In general the term “anti-capitalist” has replaced the terms “socialist” or “communist” because of a loss of faith in those alternatives to capitalism. What’s left is a general feeling that “capitalism” is to blame for all the ills of the world so we should be against it. In the absence of something to replace “capitalism” with this seems to me irresponsible and self-indulgent.
  2. “Capitalism” as a term is, anyway, nearly meaningless. I suppose it must mean the combination of private ownership, markets, and wage labour, probably with the addition of markets in capital (stock exchanges, sophisticated banks, joint stock companies and so on). This covers such a massive range of possible societal forms, from Sweden to Russia, from the USA to Germany, from contemporary China to Turkey, that I’m not sure being against them all makes sense.
  3. In general I think it’s based on a very fundamental mistake about the way economic life works that fails to distinguish modern from ancient subsistence societies in ways that make a real ethical difference (I’ll return to this below).
  4. Theologically it invites us to adopt a very primitive notion of the relationship between action and result (against which the Book of Job argues) and this is disastrous (again I’ll expand below)

Capitalism and ancient agrarian societies

Much of the anti-capitalist rhetoric depends on the idea that if some people have much more money than most people they must somehow have stolen it. This relies on the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth that is then divided among all the people there are and that he best (fairest) outcome is one where everybody has about the same.

This actually has some validity in societies where the productivity of labour is pretty much a constant.  Each working person will produce a certain amount of wealth and anybody who has more than that amount can only do so at the expense of somebody else. Ancient agrarian societies (probably up to and including early medieval feudal societies) have at least something of this character.

This underpins the notions of justice in the Old Testament, which is very concerned with the distribution and access to land, the precondition of producing your own wealth autonomously and having control over it (hence the idea of Jubilee which frees debt-slaves and returns land to its “real owner” according to the original division of the land after the conquest and slaughter of the Canaanites).

Modern (“capitalist”) societies just don’t work like that, as has been clearly understood since at least the 18th Century. A sophisticated division of labour allows for and a continual improvement in productivity, which enables increase in the total stock of wealth, while market competition acts as a spur that drives this process along. There is not a fixed stock of wealth to be divided but an ever increasing stock from which people draw according to their ability to command existing wealth or to acquire new wealth. There is a dynamism in the system that allows everyone to get steadily better off, although at different rates, which is the dominant story of the last 300 years.

This shifts what economic justice looks like. It is no longer simply a matter of making sure everyone gets a share that is predetermined. Other factors come into play, among them what will best serve the common good of increased wealth, the interplay of economic justice with other recognised values (like personal freedom) and a principle of rewarding “merit” however that might be defined (minimally it will involve economic productivity and probably willingness to take risks).

What remains unchanged is the other aspect of the Biblical notion of economic justice, which is a societal responsibility to take care of those unable to take care of themselves (the Biblical “widows and orphans”). This is a real issue of justice but is in no way in conflict with “capitalism” which in reality, if not in the minds of its ideologues, has always depended on the state to regulate and manage a range of social matters, not least money.

The theological explanation of suffering (theodicy)

This is where things get really messy. I think “anti-capitalism” often involves the unspoken assumption that if something (unusually or distressingly) bad happens someone must be to blame. This is a strong theme in the very bad advice Job’s friends give him and which is decisively repudiated when God finally speaks in that Book.

The mainstream of Christian tradition does indeed believe that suffering (and death) are the consequence of sin. It also believes that we are all implicated and all dependent on God’s grace for salvation. It does not believe particular bad things are attributal  to particular sins.

The great flaw of the Occupy protests, in my mind, was that they seemed to believe that if bankers hadn’t been naughty in various ways there would have been no credit or business cycle, no poverty or starvation, and no reason for anyone to worry. This is nonsense. It had been obvious for some years that global trade imbalances and a credit boom were unsustainable, the only question was the way they would “unwind”.

Government policy around the world colluded with the financial system in stoking and encouraging the credit boom for short term advantage and in defiance of all that was known about the likely consequences (“this time it’s different” was actually an amazingly popular phrase in the mid-noughties.

This doesn’t mean that capitalism is finished or that a viable alternative exists. It just means we have to find ways to move forward. To imply that the answer is to be nice and if things go wrong someone is being nasty is infantile and (theologically) deeply harmful.

1 comment
  1. Phil Baiden said:

    Hey, we agree on something!

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