Life Beyond Capitalism
On Plough Quarterly’s Issue 21, Beyond Capitalism, Summer 2019: Best. Plough. Ever. When Plough Quarterly is as brave as its Summer 2019 issue, it is truly one of the most fascinating and authentic Christian voices of our generation.
On Peter Mommsen’s “The Economics of Love,” Summer 2019: This issue of Plough was nothing short of a prophetic voice, crying out against mammon in a crooked wilderness. Thank you.
We noticed an interesting tension between the introductory editorial which dismissed integralism, pointing to the “downsides inherent in any attempt to secure the common good through state coercion,” and the point raised by David Bentley Hart, that “small intentional communities committed to some form of Christian collectivism are all very well… but they can also be a tremendous distraction, especially if their isolation from and simultaneous dependency upon the larger political order is mistaken for a sufficient realization of the ideal Christian polity.”
Pater Edmund Waldstein, a monk who cited the Catholic Church’s teaching on the state’s role in securing the universal destination of goods, also noted the struggle of his own monastery to maintain itself as a Christian community within the larger system of capitalism: “The system has its own dynamic, which is hard to escape.” The positive role of political power can also be noted in defending the gardens of “the Bronx Agrarian”; its absence, in the failure to defend the rights of Vietnamese “Working Girls.”
For us as Catholic integralists and radical distributists, we are very interested in how intentional communities of Christian virtue can be constructed, as well as how they can relate to, blossom into, and sustain grassroots political movements. The Bruderhof is an inspiration for the community aspirations of many Catholics; we hope that our Magisterium’s Social Teaching might serve in a similar manner to all people of good will.
In these turbulent times, it is inevitable that we will be driven to ask fundamental questions about politics, liberalism, and Christianity. We are certain that a future issue of Plough on these topics could provide valuable insight.
We would also be very interested in an issue on the practicalities of building intentional communities: how are the budgets balanced, the resources allocated, the work done, the problems solved, and the children raised? Most importantly, how do they begin, especially in a world of economic struggles for so many families and congregations of Christians who also pay homage to mammon, who have to be re-evangelized before such a possibility can even be imagined?
We are eager to read forthcoming issues: so much is required to imagine a Christian culture, economics, and politics beyond capitalism. Your work is a worthy addition.
In his lead editorial, Mommsen poses a stark dichotomy: the “attempt to secure the common good through state coercion” versus the Radical Reformation model of purely voluntary “brotherly community,” and he warns Christians against responding to the “public sin” of capitalism in a political way because he worries that socialist politics will end with coercion.
Although Mommsen’s indictment of capitalism is eloquent and his evocation of Bruderhof life fascinating, his dichotomy is unsatisfying, and he seems to miss the point of convergence between Christianity and socialism. In biblical accounts from the covenant at Sinai to the early church, membership means choosing, but it also means having been already chosen. Voluntarism is only half the story: we cannot choose not to be born dependent and indebted; we cannot choose not to be shaped by and to have a share in shaping those around us.
Beyond the dichotomy between coercion and voluntarism, biblical texts and Jewish and Christian traditions reveal a range of ways to blur the lines between “what I will” and “what is willed by others” (or by an Other): acculturation into community, reinterpretation of tradition, mutual recognition by a community’s members. From blurrings like these emerge the possibilities for human community that we in our era call democracy – including the hope of democratic socialism. Politics need not be a synonym for coercion. If voluntary communities of radical sharing like the Bruderhof are one kind of witness to what Mommsen calls “another life,” might not the everyday agitation and organizing of democratic socialist politics witness to that same life in a different way?
The editors respond: We thank Geoffrey Kurtz and Thomas Hackett for their insightful questions. We plan to focus on the relation of faith to politics in Plough ’s Spring 2020 issue.
Can Markets Be Moral?
On David Bentley Hart’s “What Lies Beyond Capitalism?”, Summer 2019: I am grateful for Hart’s strident critique of an amoral approach to economics that respects neither the Creator, nor humans, nor the environment. But I am unsure whether Hart’s analysis meaningfully describes capitalism at all, given that Adam Smith, the so-called father of capitalism, would also reject an amoral economics. Indeed, the argument of The Wealth of Nations depends on a concept that was once common among Christian treatments of economics: that of the just price. It’s immoral, Smith holds, for capitalists to wield the power of the state to enrich themselves by constraining supply and elevating prices. On Smith’s rendering, capitalism is a moral project.
Terminology aside, Hart does not make any concrete proposals for Christian politics today. In rejecting the materialism of capitalism, he loses sight of material realities altogether, and remains in the ethereal.
Hart rightly criticizes the unbridled desire ubiquitous in our economic order, and sees in it the contradiction of capitalism, namely, that infinite desire coupled with finite resources results in the consumption of all. One might hope not merely to limit, but to reorient our desires: to radically reform economic exchange from within by directing our consumption in accord with our true end. Instead, Hart treats an accidental feature of our economic order – the unquenchable thirst for material goods – as substantial, even as he pays little attention to material limits when it comes to the problem of how to allocate economic goods. Extreme generosity to the stranger while neglecting one’s family or neighbors is injustice. In the same way, anarchy with respect to our obligations to others is not virtue, but vice. Rid the world of possessive individualism, and we must still grapple with finitude.
Hart is instructive in his reminder that “the full koinonia of the body of Christ is not an option to be set alongside other equally plausible alternatives.” Christ is Lord over all. Yet, if we consider concrete human existence, we see that the social order is not uniform; rather, we exist as members of a multiplicity of societies with different ends. We need not reduce the church to the level of these other societies, and may instead recognize that the whole world is not the church, even as the whole world is not the family, except in an analogical sense. Communism suits the family well, and it may be fine for the church – but I fear that it might not fare so well outside it.
Not Our Own
On Edmund Waldstein’s “Robin Hood Economics,” Summer 2019: This illuminating essay raises vital wider questions about the nature of agency in an embodied and interconnected world. In positing the universal destination of goods, Waldstein asks us to consider what is – and is not – really ours , and the tension between what might be considered just ownership and its avaricious mirror image. On the one hand, we tend to take more responsibility for what we produce – as Aquinas himself pointed out. As creative beings, we have a special relationship with the fruits of our own labors. At the same time, the relationship we have with what we can hoard is fraught with the potential for sin: to amass more than what we need is not merely to commit an injustice against our fellow man but against a God who has ordered a world for the benefit of mankind, and who is the just and final owner of all property and goods alike.
But we can, and must, go further, asking these questions not merely of the economic sphere, but of all elements of public and private life. The Christian tradition challenges us to see not merely our property, but our bodies and souls, as not fully our own. If we justly own what we create, as Aquinas posited, it is because we exist imago dei: fundamentally belonging to our own Creator. “Robin Hood economics” is, at its core, an understanding not only of the universal destination of goods, but of souls as well.
Why We Need a Labor Movement
On Maria Hengeveld’s “Working Girls,” Summer 2019: Although Hengeveld focuses on Nike and its employment of girls in Vietnam, her arguments would hold for most American and Western companies that intentionally find countries that yield cheap labor and nonexistent labor laws. The piece was well researched and well done, and I appreciated it. I do, however, have a few things I’d like to point out.
Hengeveld brings up the idea that “a bad job is better than no job,” and rightly concludes that it is often used to justify any abuse related to “the conditions under which products and profits are made.” It must not be used in that way. However, from the perspective of some workers, the statement is objectively true. I am an immigrant; I started working at age fourteen. When we first came to America, my parents took jobs that were not commensurate with their education, precisely because “a bad job is better than no job.” When I worked at age fourteen, I didn’t complain about the $3.35 minimum wage I was paid, for the same reason.
It’s a reality that most poor people will accept less money and poor working conditions for the sake of having a job. And yes, that includes jobs that separate families. One woman I interviewed for my book on immigration told me of Western oil companies that brought in Bangladeshi workers to the oil rigs in Basra rather than employ the local Iraqis. They paid the Bangladeshis less, and (since a bad job is better than no job) these men left their families behind in order to work. She also lived in Dubai for a few years and observed the human suffering of many economic migrants there as well.
Poor people in poor places are paid less for their labor than better-off people in wealthier countries, but if their pay meets their local cost of living, this is not intrinsically wrong. We need to be careful not to map our ways onto others. That also applies to exporting our consumer culture. It is a good thing when wealth flows into these poorer places, but it shouldn’t be coming only through Western companies doing business there. These countries are lifted up when we help them create their own products made within their own countries – the work of their hands, which they can export and share with the rest of the world.
It is also a valid concern that the money we pay for T-shirts and sneakers will end up primarily in other hands than those of the locals and workers; that the value of their labor will be extracted but that the reward for that labor will be whittled away by the time it reaches the worker. This is why strong but ethical labor movements are essential all over the world.
The labor movements here in America are a shell of what they used to be. I am keen to see a labor movement comeback. But only when the human person becomes more important than the stuff we buy will such a comeback be possible.
On Eugene McCarraher’s “Comrade Ruskin,” Summer 2019: Socialism is back. The rhetoric and ideas of class conflict have in recent years fueled the growth of social democratic parties – and even more radical movements – in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, as well as bold policy proposals that, if enacted, would transform the economic structures of health care, education, and finance. I couldn’t help but think about the contemporary political scene as I read, with interest, Eugene McCarraher’s latest essay on the communism of the Victorian critic John Ruskin. This could be Ruskin’s moment. After all, his invective against the abuses of the capitalist class and the world that economic elites created – a “confused wreck of social order and life” – rivals and often exceeds the most acute social criticism that the left has to offer. And maybe Ruskin’s dismissal of those court intellectuals of the capitalist order would strike a chord with activists and fellow travelers who call bluff on the supposed constraints of the national debt or the assumptions of the so-called free market. Maybe.
There is, on the other hand, plenty in the work of Ruskin that chafes against the guiding assumptions of a world that, particularly on the political left, has become allergic to the language of religion. As McCarraher argues, Ruskin’s vision of an economic and social order rests, in the end, on metaphysical convictions about the good life and on a decidedly Christian view of a world imbued with sacramental meaning and ends. Consider Ruskin’s polemic against nineteenth-century economics. “The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology,” Ruskin wrote, “is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life: and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction.”
This notion of life, like the idea of human flourishing, is inescapably normative. It characterizes human beings as particular kinds of creatures whose vitality and happiness depend on their lives being oriented toward certain ends. Here Ruskin departs little from Thomas Aquinas and the Christian tradition in general.
And here is the main friction between Ruskin and the tradition of radical thought that Karl Marx helped to create, a tradition that, despite a host of qualifications, revisions, and objections, still animates the political left. Having abandoned the Romanticism of his youth, Marx also abandoned the fight for a world where the social order reflected an understanding of what people are and what people are for. Without addressing these questions, the search for meaningful work and economic justice Marx focused on led to a dead end. Alienation – the division of human life from human work and human community – became for Marx a stepping stone toward a communist future of large-scale mechanization and emancipation. But emancipation for what? Although Marx remains necessary for anyone who seeks to reckon with the exercise of economic power under capitalism, his later work suffers from this evacuation of meaning. He casts a social vision based on conflict rather than on wholeness, in every sense of that word.
That is one reason I would join with Eugene McCarraher in the hopes that Ruskin’s communism would find traction in our moment, when political possibilities are wider than they have been in several generations. His work suggests ways of thinking about work and property where the highest of all the virtues – love, not violence – is the ethic of our economic lives.
On Christian Woodard’s “Who Owns a River?” Summer 2019: “Who owns a river?” That is a provocative question, but one that gets only an indirect answer in Christian Woodard’s poignant river-running piece. John Wesley Powell’s 1878 call for a communal approach to watersheds, largely ignored by the government then and now, gets the most sympathetic treatment. Yet, as Garrett Hardin reminds us in his famous 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” shared resources run the risk of being abused by those tempted to maximize personal gains but externalize their costs. Free-market environmentalists often point to Hardin’s work as Exhibit A in their quest to get more of the natural world into systems of privatized ownership that will encourage management efficiency (at least from a human-centered standpoint). “It all turns on accounting,” they might say. Wendell Berry, however, argued in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture that “It All Turns on Affection.” The question of ownership remains up in the air, but Woodard and friends certainly demonstrated their love for the Green River, and that should count for something.
I lived in Southern Idaho and Utah for twenty-one years and never floated the Green River below Twelve Mile. But I spent so many amazing days fly fishing from the Flaming Gorge tailwaters to Twelve Mile – so rich and beautiful. Thank you for sharing the river with me. I read it like I was there.