The Damages of Capitalism

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There are many different perspectives from which to critique capitalism as it actually exists. Libertarians critique capitalism as it actually exists for accepting far too much government intervention. Leftists critique it for its tendency to centralize wealth in the hands of a small elite. Environmentalists critique for its prioritizing short-term profits over long-term stewardship of the planet. As a Christian theologian, however, I am more interested in critiquing capitalism from a theological perspective. Christian theology is not a compartmentalized exercise but must touch on every part of life, including capitalism.

What is “capitalism as it actually exists,” more simply identified as the global market? It is not the same thing as “the free market,” though many who have fought for more purely free market policies have shaped the global market and pushed its expansion globally. Capitalism is not simply the elements of free market or libertarian ideology. Capitalism is not simply free enterprise, free trade, private property, loaning on interest, etc. These are only some components of capitalism.

Rather, capitalism is “a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life. Other societies have had markets, often on a large scale; but only in capitalism is market dependence the fundamental condition of life for everyone. And that is equally true of capitalists [that is, owners] and workers.”[1] This mass dependence upon the market makes the market the arbiter of life and death for the majority of the world. It is, more significantly, a way of thinking about the world.

Christians skeptical of the claims of the market metanarrative are nonetheless shaped by it, through the practices and rituals associated with daily life, which are inexorably shaped by the selfsame narrative. James K. A. Smith calls these practices and rituals “secular liturgies,” which “constitute a pedagogy, a training of our hearts and loves.”[2] Smith refers to this pedagogical nexus as the liturgy of the shopping mall, which through “visual and visceral media” trains us into its implicit, consumer-capitalist vision.[3] “The mall” is only Smith’s central image for what is actually an omnipresent reality of American life, just as present in the home, the gym, public streets, public schools, television, and computer screens: involuntary, inevitable, intrusive, virtually inescapable. The theology of the market is not merely implicit in its theories, but is enacted upon the individuals and groups who participate in it, willingly or otherwise.

Whereas the defenders of the global market boast increased freedom for all its members, the history of capitalism expansion does not bear this out. Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh observes three significant areas in which, as the market spreads through globalization, it actually produces “unfreedom.” The first is advertising, a multibillion dollar industry that directs and creates both desire and dissatisfaction among populations. Whereas marketing portends to be “information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary,” it is as the same time “a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal.”[4] Indeed, these are interrelated functions: “Marketing can manipulate desire successfully in part because of its success in convincing the broader public of consumers that it is not manipulating their desires.”[5] Cavanaugh seems particularly scandalized by General Motors’s department dedicated to “the generation of dissatisfaction” among customers who own cars that would otherwise long be useful. (One perceives the same trend to an even greater degree today among computer and cell phone marketing.) Secondly, global capitalism leads to the establishment of massively asymmetrical power relations within companies themselves. In 1980, the average American CEO made forty-two times what the average worker for the company made; by 1999 that ratio had increased to 475:1.[6] What Cavanaugh cites is a specific instance of a more general trend within post-industrial nations toward the accumulation of wealth among a small elite. French economist Thomas Piketty argues persuasively that this is not an aberration, but is a necessary outcome of a steady, stable market in which the rate of return for invested wealth exceeds the overall economic growth rate. Except in cases of remarkable growth, as from a non-repeatable technological boom or spike in population, this is the natural working of the market. If Piketty is correct, an “inegalitarian spiral” of wealth imbalance is intrinsic to capitalism, even in societies with a strong social safety net and aggressive investment in “upskilling” the work force.[7] As the owners of capital gain power, labor loses power. This trend is tied in part to the capability of transnational companies to move production overseas, where they pay wages as low as thirty cents an hour, which gives employers the power to say to the workers of a community, “You can accept this, or you can have no jobs. Take your pick.” Cavanaugh cites examples of overseas workers for American and transnational companies, working sixteen-hour days for wages that do not support their livelihood in dangerous and harmful conditions, often under armed guard. Frequently, corporations move production to areas already destabilized by global trade expansion, in tangent with bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have “been pressed into service to promote economic globalization.”[8] A salient instance of this is the rush for American companies to open manufacturing centers in Mexico following the signing of NAFTA in 1994. Proponents of free trade in Mexico had amended the constitution in 1992 to privatize the ejidos, lands that had for generations been communally held and worked by peasants.[9] Janet Parker observes that due to this privatization, “the loss of these communally held lands, which are the life-blood of many indigenous populations, has greatly accelerated.”[10] These decisions were made specifically in order to facilitate a full transition to a market economy, to enable more free trade, yet in so doing it created the conditions in which the exploitation Cavanaugh laments can occur.

Why do companies do this? Cavanaugh notes that it is because they can, but also notes that in many cases it is because they must, which brings us to the third aspect of the “unfreedom” that free-market ideology produces. In an economy of unbridled powers competing, managers and other employees often find themselves powerless to do the things they would want, driven instead by market forces beyond their control. Managers often lament having to close American plants to ship production overseas.

In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the laborer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.[11]

The same is the case for farmers who find they must change to a monoculture due to the demands of the market even as that both depletes their soil and makes them more dependent on the market and, hence, less free. The same is also true of consumers who might believe sweatshops are unethical, but either cannot afford to or could not imagine a way to purchase clothing not produced in them.

In this way, bodies of various kinds are splintered. Local residential communities become fractured along economic or class lines, leading to ghettoization, suburban sprawl, “white flight,” and gated communities.[12] Relationships between producer and consumer are sundered, as production is moved across the planet, or else occurs virtually in secret, as in most industrial farming in the United States.[13] Post-industrial centers of capital continue extracting resources from the majority world while embodying ways of life that cannot possibly be extended to much of the world: the U.S. alone constitutes 5% of the world population, while consuming approximately 25% of the world’s energy.[14] Thus the First World becomes increasingly incapable of relating morally to the majority at all. Pope Francis argues in Laudato si that the global north has accrued a moral “ecological debt,” owed to the global south, following effects on the worldwide ecology resultant from “the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.”[15] Far from uniting the world, globalization is thus far shattering it.

Even individual, literal human bodies are broken in the market’s machinations. In researching the tendency of aggressive free market capitalists to treat disasters as “exciting market opportunities,” Naomi Klein uncovered decades of what she terms “the shock doctrine.”[16] The shock doctrine rests on the recognition that the expansion of the market into new territories requires steps—the privatization of previously public options, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending—that are deeply unpopular. In order to see these implemented, coercion of entire populations has at times been necessary. In the aftermath of natural disasters, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, rebuilding was accompanied with social restructuring.[17] In the absence of natural cataclysm, however, “infamous human rights violations…were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.’”[18] Klein explores the Argentinean junta’s “disappearing” of up to thirty thousand people during the 1970s, the social upheaval following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Falklands War in 1982, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis in which Yeltsin consolidated power to unilaterally privatize through military force and having opposing parliament members arrested, as well as less extreme instances of social disruption either presaged by or accompanying market transition. By no means did all expansions of the market depend on these kind of violent destabilizing factors, but the most extreme involved both the backing of the U.S. military and the direct involvement of Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, as in Argentina under Videla and Chile under Pinochet. In these cases, large numbers of people were “disappeared” and tortured. Luis Justo, who has since ascended to chair the bioethics department at Comahue National University in Argentina, narrates that

more than 30 years ago I asked my surgical instructor about petechial lesions on the scrotums of some criminals interned in the surgical ward. The shocking answer was, “Oh, yes, the police make them all go through ‘the machine’ before taking them to the hospital.” The machine, the “picana electrica,” was a device for torturing prisoners with electric shocks, usually in the vagina, testicles, mouth, anus, or nipples. I was horrified by the fact itself but no less by the matter of fact tone in which the answer was given. As a medical student I was pretty powerless, but I went to the head of the surgical service and tried to lodge a formal complaint. I was rebuffed without any chance to make my argument heard.[19]

Individual bodies were tortured, not usually to extract information, but in order to intimidate and silence political dissent against changes being instituted. “As a means of extracting information during interrogations,” Klein observes, “torture is notoriously unreliable, but as a means of terrorizing and controlling populations, nothing is quite as effective.”[20] It remains unknown precisely how many of the disappeared were tortured, how many killed, but “from Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade.”[21] There is a sense, of course, in which this partnership is purely indirect. While the Nestlé Corporation will fight to restrict water from being defined as a human right in order to sell that same water to residents at huge profits—a form of economic violence—they do not direct their employees to the murder and torture of those residents.[22] Almost universally, the CEOs and employees of corporations, as well as public investors, are appalled by the violent excesses that can accompany a society in market transition even as their livelihoods are dependent upon it.

However, Klein argues that to the degree that globalization of the market frequently depends on “creative destruction” of traditional (non-capitalist) ways of life this violence is not an aberration, but is systemic. She cites former secretary general of Argentina’s Agrarian Leagues, Sergio Tammasella, who was tortured and imprisoned for five years. During the Argentine Tribunal Against Impunity he was given the opportunity to name individual soldiers who had abused him. Instead, he stated that the abuse he, his wife, and fellow members of the Agrarian Leagues had suffered could not be isolated from the economic interests such suffering served.

Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember—the oligarchy is also controlled by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It’s the structure we have to change. That is what I have come to denounce. That’s all.[23]

It is abundantly clear that the institutions of the market must be reassessed from the perspective of an ethic of life. Hinkelammert and Duchrow write that “every practical proposal regarding alternative institutions and actions is to be checked and judged by whether it is de facto useful to real life and whether anyone was excluded from the process of devising it or would not benefit from its consequences.”[24] They track the development of the institution of property—and the limits imposed upon it—across the history of Israel, noting the ways that the institution adapted to these precise concerns.

In the ban on interest of the Book of the Covenant (after 722 BCE) the point is to prevent a threat to life through the property mechanism of debt. Deuteronomy (622) adds the periodic cancellation of debt and debt bondage, if they have come about at all through the ownership mechanism. In the holiness law of the priestly writings (sixth century BCE) property is finally stripped of absoluteness because the earth and people “belong” to God and therefore people only have usage rights to the earth—with the consequence that every generation has to regain access to its own means of production. In the light of the political and ideological absolutization of the property-based economy brought about through the Hellenistic and Roman empires, faithful Jews and Christians can only opt to resist. They choose between God and Mammon and set up alternatives in small, attractive groups that freely share their property so that there are no poor in their midst.[25]

This is an historical—indeed, a Biblical—example of economic institutions being adapted and rebuilt from the bottom up. Similar proposals are on offer today. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) offered to every person in a society is one way to create a sort of virtual commons, empowering and protecting the most vulnerable in society without creating the same kinds of inefficiencies and patronizing stigma as means-based welfare.[26] The Movimento Sem Terra movement in Brazil struggles for fundamental land reform, an obvious necessity when homeless individuals and foreclosed homes ceaselessly coexist.[27] Cavanaugh points to cooperative corporations, which attempt to navigate Christian values and capitalist aims by embracing distributism, the form of “third-way” economics championed by Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. A prominent example is the Mondragon corporation, which is worker-owned and -governed. Within the company, “The highest-paid employee can make no more than six times what the lowest-paid makes; 10 percent of surpluses are given directly to community development projects.”[28]

Whatever policies one finds attractive and tenable, what is clear is that capitalism as exists is destructive of life on earth, destructive of relationships, and to the degree that it shapes Christian believers in ways contrary to the love of God and neighbor and stewardship of the earth, can rightly be called antichrist. Believers are thus impelled to condemn such a system and work for its conversion to something that brings life and promotes flourishing, both in our backyards and across the globe.

                [1] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Capitalism’s Gravediggers,” Jacobin, 12 April, 2014, accessed 19 April 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/capitalisms-gravediggers/.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Character Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2009), 94.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 16.

[5] Ibid., 16-7.

[6] Cavanaugh, 18.

                [7] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).

[8] Janet Parker, “And God Said, Let There Be Many,” in Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy, ed. Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143.

[9] Maria Teresa Vazquez Castillo, Land Privatization in Mexico: Urbanization Formation of Regions, and Globalization in Ejidos (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-3.

[10] Parker, 149.

[11] Cavanaugh, 22.

[12] David Gruesel, “The Injustice of Gated Communities,” Think Christian, 19 April, 2012, accessed 16 April, 2016, http://thinkchristian.reframemedia.com/the-injustice-of-gated-communities.

[13] Matthew C. Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation (Washington, DC: Humane Society of the United States, 2008), 23-36.

[14] Smith, Desiring, 101.

[15] Francis, Laudato si, sec. 51.

[16] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 9.

[17] Klein, 8.

[18] Ibid., 9-10.

[19] Luis Justo, “Argentina: Torture, Silence, and Medical Teaching,” British Medical Journal 326, no. 7403 (June 21, 2003): 1405.

[20] Klein, 126.

[21] Ibid., 15.

[22] See Kelly Price, “Nestlé: The Global Search for Liquid Gold,” Urban Times, 11 June 2014, accessed 16 April, 2016, https://urbantimes.co/2013/06/nestle-the-global-search-for-liquid-gold/; Matthew Boesler, “Bottled Water Costs 2000x More Than Tap,” Business Insider, 12 July 2013, accessed 16 April, 2016,  http://www.businessinsider.com/ bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7.

[23] Klein, 127.

                [24] Franz J. Hinkelammert and Ulrich Duchrow, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 161.

                [25] Ibid., 162.

                [26] Scott Santens, “Why Should We Support the Idea of a Universal Basic Income,” Huffington Post, 26 June, 2015, accessed 19 April, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-santens/why-should-we-support-the_b_7630162.html.

                [27] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, 171.

[28] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 27. From the perspective of free-market ideology, there is no difference between this organization and Nestlé, to the degree both are free from state intervention and both consist of entities entering into contracts uncoerced. While the market lacks any mechanism or perspective by which to say which of these situations is “better,” a Christian account can clearly point to the good that Mondragon does: “Not only is the company successful and laborers highly satisfied with their work, but the communities in which Mondragon plays a significant part enjoy lower crime rates, lower rates of domestic violence, higher rates of education, and better physical and emotional health than neighboring communities.” Apart from these sorts of universally relevant measures, this cooperative form of management accords with Cavanaugh’s reading of the eucharist itself, as “the very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ.”

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