The Capitalist Worldview – A Moral Critique

The metanarrative of capitalism

In an insightful 1956 essay, Wilfred Beckerman compares the social role of economists with that of colonial missionaries and tribal “witch doctors.” He writes that “the economist not only fulfils the invaluable social function of creating a sense of security and harmony with the economic elements, but fulfils it with an élan, an inventiveness and an array of impressive rites which is a credit to the profession.” This may seem unfair to professional economists, who after all study a great deal of math, yet Beckerman presciently observes that “in an economy, such as that of the United States of America, where leisure is barely moral, the problem of creating sufficient wants…to absorb productive capacity may become chronic in the not too distant future. In such a situation the economist begins to lead a furtive existence.” Writing not long afterward, John Kenneth Galbraith has his finger on the same pulse, and diagnoses “an elaborate and ingenious defense of the importance of production as such.” Continued and indeed escalating production is essential in Galbraith’s view in order to provide economic security. A society will not tolerate production for its own sake, and so desire for products must be manufactured along with those products themselves. Galbraith, in his usual moral authoritarian mode, elaborates, “In this way, economic theory has managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that once was felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless.” This has transitioned into “a world where increased output satisfied the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment—indeed, for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying and lethal desires.” In other words, the desire for production of luxury consumer goods is created not by society, nor yet by consumers, but by economic “science.” Galbraith supports this claim through a lengthy genealogy of production, but not before making the commonsense observation that new consumer desire suspiciously never deviates from products becoming available.

The prescience of Beckerman and Galbraith’s post-war comments is striking. Crucially, their analysis indicates that consumerism is not an aberration, but is the necessary condition for a capitalist economy to subsist. Without directly citing either, Cavanaugh interacts with contemporary accounts that summarize the same effect ongoing today, noting that “in the absence of any objective concept of the good, sheer power remains.” The context for Cavanaugh’s discussion is an examination of the claims of the market to offer freedom, an essential component of the larger market metanarrative, which undergirds the assumptions within which economics as a discipline functions.

The market story assumes, first of all, conditions of scarcity. Without scarcity there is no necessary impetus toward exchange. Because exchange occurs within conditions of scarcity, moreover, inefficiencies present themselves. The goal of economics is the study of such exchanges with a view toward recommendations for minimizing inefficiencies. Among other things, this leads to casting people within the market story as purely economic agents. As economist Nancy Ruth Fox admits, “Neoclassical economists tend to compartmentalize people, viewing them as economic agents who supply labor and demand goods and services. This allows their disparate practices, desires, needs, and wants to be commodified. In fact, for neoclassical economists, essentially anything can be commodified.” In a critique of this totalizing perspective, Long writes,

Economics claims to see the total whole, which is embodied…in the natural workings of the market; and then it requires some people to sacrifice for the sake of this totality. Those sacrifices are then justified on the basis of the natural truth of the totality. They are necessary phases toward the best possible outcome assessment, whether they are willed or not.

Crucial in this statement is the use of the word natural. Within the narrative, economics as such is not fundamentally prescriptive but descriptive (hence, neoclassical economists would object to Galbraith ascribing agency to economic “science” above). Though policy recommendations are an aspect of what economists do, they depend upon a brutal reliance on the mechanisms provided by the market itself, which like the wind for a sailor can be utilized but not directed. (It is for this reason, Fox insists, that economists necessarily appear “cold-hearted” to those who do not “understand.” We are venturing near to Beckerman’s shamanistic description of the economist again.)

Because market conditions are taken as an ontological given, the verity of economic perspectives functions on the same plane as—if not a higher one than—Christian theological perspectives. Whereas a Christian may, for instance, perceive justice as a higher end than profit or efficiency, the economist must reply that that simply is not the case. Such theological commitments are not merely relegated to the realm of the private, but are deemed positively harmful. The central tenets of capitalism demand that only a pursuit of personal gain will lead (through no intention of the pursuer) to increased gain and freedom for all. For neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman, freedom (from outside interference, whether moral or legislative) is both the necessary condition for the market to function as well as the outcome of a free market in the lives of individuals. He writes,

So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another with respect to most of his activities. The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal; the seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers with whom she can sell; the employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on. And the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.

Again, this is all accepted on the level of ontological fact, guided by Smith’s invisible hand. Of those who express skepticism toward the market’s transmutation of self-interest, Friedman writes that “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

Here is where we pick up again Cavanaugh’s argument from before. Cavanaugh, as a theologian, distinguishes between Friedman’s negative account of freedom as freedom from outside interference and the Augustinian portrayal of freedom as freedom to return to God in love. While a market wholly free from outside interference may conceivably contribute to a freedom in the negative sense, it cannot possibly contribute to that positive freedom, which necessarily includes some telos, some account of individual or social flourishing, toward which that freedom might be oriented.

The implicit theology of the market

What does this market metanarrative mean for a Christian political imagination and morality more generally? Daniel Bell identifies several aspects of an implicit theology expressed by the global capitalist market. Basic to any understanding of capitalism is its anthropology. For Bell, “Capitalism does not simply act on a pregiven human subject; rather, it forms a particular kind of human subject, one that relates to its environment in a certain way.” Referring to this construct by pseudo-Linnaean nomenclature, Bell describes several characteristics of homo economicus.

Homo economicus is sheerly individual, indeed, “sovereign…not dependent on or subject to others except to the extent that she voluntarily enters into relations with a view to her own interests.” (This accords with Hauerwas’s indictment of liberalism, in which “the individual is the sole source of authority.”) There is no possibility here for tribal identity or any other so-called “oppressive traditionalist and collectivist economies and societies.” Naturally, this understanding comes into conflict with the unity of church. While homo economicus can sovereignly enter into a church body if the cost-benefit analysis justifies such a decision, one cannot at the same time say that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4).

The capitalist individual is characterized by a self-determining freedom to choose. Bell further observes that this negative freedom cannot be simply supplemented by an added-on concept of positive freedom, because to do so would be to work at odds with the guidance of the invisible hand: this is why pure free market advocates argue against benevolent campaigns such as Fair Trade. Additionally, the capitalist individual is a self-interested “interest maximizer” with an “insatiable desire.” Within the market metanarrative, not only is this self-interested acquisitiveness not a vice (as in the Christian conception of greed), it is salvific. Friedman describes it as “one of the strongest and most creative forces known to [humans], the attempt by millions of individuals to promote their own interests, to live their lives by their own values.” This is troubling to Bell, as “the emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.” This acquisitiveness must be troubling to pastors, theologians, and liturgists as well, as it indicates that the market-formed individual coming to the communion table has been disciplined never to feel satisfied.  

Finally, Bell observes the effects that the existence of such individuals has on society at large. Given the conditions of scarcity that the market economy assumes, any number of acquisitive individuals are necessarily in competition with one another for finite resources. Simply put, “Capitalism orders human relations as struggle and conflict.” Aspects of this competition afflict even the “winners,” as marriages in bourgeois societies transmute into “(short-term) contracts subject to a cost/benefit analysis, children become consumer goods or accessories, family bonds are weakened, and our bodies are treated like so many raw materials to be mined and exploited for manufacture and pleasure.” Much more devastating, however, is the effect of economic competition on the “losers,” the poor who live in rich societies, as well as whole nations and people-groups exploited to the benefit of richer nations. As Bolivian indigenous leader Nilda Rojas Huanca has put it, “The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding.” Huanca refers in part to the impoverished working class, but also to the veins of the earth, as resources are extracted from colonized and post-colonial territories to create consumer goods for the colonizers—a process Naomi Klein refers to as “extractivism.” It is increasingly accepted both by scientists and concerned theologians that creation is also “losing” amidst this economic competition. As Pope Francis writes in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si, climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Francis also recognizes that “its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

Yet capitalism is not structured to recognize these bare facts as unjust. From the perspective of the market, justice is “solely a matter of enforcing the terms of voluntary, contractual exchanges. Justice does not mandate that those exchanges result in a particular outcome or even that exchanges be made possible in the first place.” Like its account of freedom, the market’s account of justice is purely negative. This is in bald contrast to Paul’s logic in 1 Cor 11, where he censures the privileged believers for leaving too little of the “one bread” for the rest. Paul did not diagnose a scarcity, but a greed proceeding from a lack of recognition of the body.

Just as the market offers an implicit account of the human, it offers an implicit account of God. If the individual under capitalism is homo economicus, God is Deus absconditus, an absentee god. The clearest substitute for the Christian God in capitalist thought is the invisible hand, which providentially transforms individual pursuit of self-interest into common benefit. Yet according to Adam Smith and his inheritors, the invisible hand can do this only by unintended consequence. Altruism will proceed through self-interest, but conscious attempts at altruism—a mandated living wage, for example—will interfere with the machinations of the system, hurting rather than helping. Hence, not only are compassion and other virtues unnecessary, they are positively disincentivized.

Concomitantly, Bell recognizes the market’s conception of God as one who explicitly “is not redeeming.” While the market narrative itself does not recognize sin, Christian capitalists may. They must, however, understand sin as an “ineradicable given,” in Michael Novak’s terms, the harm of which can only be minimized through efficient economic arrangement. Christian defenses of the market thus maintain their intelligibility only by resolving prematurely the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the eschatological reign of God. For Bell, this non-redeeming quality reduces the capitalist conception of God to an idolatrous vision that is atheistic, deistic, or Stoic. This vision is atheistic in that it necessarily operates as though God were not, deistic in its reliance on self-operating and -maintaining principles (Smith, like most of the intelligentsia of his day, was a Deist), and Stoic in its vision “of sovereign individuals, proprietors of their own bodies, who move through the trials and tribulations of this life, making the most of their capacities and endowments, hoping thereby only to endure, to survive, expecting no redemption.” Further, the God of capitalist logic is necessarily one who never creates or provides enough. The agony of competition described above does not proceed from improper human selfishness, but is called forth by the very qualities imbued in creation: “Humanity is created with desires that cannot be sated, and then humanity is set in a natural order that is incomplete and lacking.”

The result of this maladjusted view, incompatible with scriptural depictions of God, humanity and the life of virtue and discipleship, is that capitalism results in great destruction not only to those it harms, but distorts the way everyone involved in the system understand and approach the world.

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