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    watercolor painting of an octopus entangled in rusty gears

    Capitalism Is Not Natural

    God’s economy is the opposite of today’s reigning neoliberalism.

    By Rodney Clapp

    February 10, 2022
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    • C. W. Ross

      Wonderful. I just ordered the book. I was reminded of Ishmael's assessment of Bildad's ability to reconcile his faith and the murderous nature of his work, "it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends."

    • Daniel Liechty

      Spot on, brother Clapp! The ethos of early Protestantism (‘this worldly’ focus, rational appeal, thrift, industriousness) created a mutually reinforcing environment for the initial stages of capitalism. However, during this time of early stage capitalism, religion still functioned as a powerful limiting force to the more destructive elements contained within capitalist logic. As the inherent logic of capitalism unfolded, these destructive elements increasingly came to the forefront, until finally, in our time we clearly see that all of human values and endeavors are subjected to the ‘icy waters of egotistical calculation’ and an unbending cost/benefit analysis. The logic of maximizing profit eventually totally displaced God as the ‘Highest Good’ toward which we aim, and to the extent that we believe in God anymore at all, we now project the logic of capitalism onto Godself (which is what we mean, effectively, when we posit capitalism as being simply part of Nature – i.e., reflecting the very character of the Creator God.) Seen in this light, what American religion now calls ‘God’ is an example, par excellence, of what in biblical terms is called idolatry – bowing down and honoring in the place of God that which is human made. We must become more clear, bold and assertive in prophetic denunciation of idolatry when we engage in current economic and political discourse.

    • John Smith

      The economic theory doesn’t make a difference. How people behave within that economy makes the difference.

    • Joann Longton

      Sorry---but the first Christians did NOT 'practice communism'. Communism is something that involves coersion---and what was lived out in Acts 2 (only briefly, I might add) was something that ONLY the FULLNESS of the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish in the manner that pleases God. As I am sure you've found, 'living in community of goods' does not stop one from coveting what others have or what one simply does not have. When the Holy Spirit brings us to where we "shall not (even) want" (Psalm 23:1)--then we are closer to what the first Christians experienced when the Holy Spirit came, because it was given freely from the HEART. And --it is the Heart that God is after --and means to change--in ALL of us. However, later on in the epistles, Paul had to take a voluntary collection from people--it was not coerced out of them, because it was not sin for them to own property.

    • Barry Lillie

      All non-capitalistic systems for the distribution of goods and services require coercion and control. They are also not as efficient in reacting to changes in economic conditions. Were you to visit countries with command economies, you would quickly drop any pretense about economic freedom being inferior. Families and groups are entirely free to practice non-traditional, communal living arrangements on a voluntary basis within our current system, but to make it mandatory would make everyone worse off.

    • Daniel Liechty

      This message is spot on. The ethos of early Protestantism (‘this worldly’ focus, rational appeal, thrift, industriousness) created a mutually reinforcing environment for the initial stages of capitalism. However, during this time of early stage capitalism, religion still functioned as a powerful limiting force to the more destructive elements contained within the capitalist mode of production. As the inherent logic of capitalism unfolded, these destructive elements increasingly came to the forefront, until finally, in our time we clearly see that all of human values and endeavors are subjected to the ‘icy waters of egotistical calculation’ and hardened cost/benefit analysis. The logic of maximizing profit has by eventually totally displaced God as the ‘Highest Good’ toward which we aim, to the point that, to the extent that we believe in God anymore at all, we now are prone to projecting the logic of capitalist mode of production onto Godself (which is what we mean, effectively, when we posit capitalism as being simply part of Nature – i.e., reflecting the very character of the Creator God.) Seen in this light, it is clear that this ‘God’ is an example, par excellence, of what in biblical terms is called idolatry – bowing down and honoring in the place of God that which is human made. I suggest that it is necessary we become more clear, bold and assertive in the prophetic denunciation of idolatry when we engage in current economic and political discourse.

    • Alexander Hopkinson-Woolley

      Capitalism is inanimate; it is capitalists who are at fault. If people operate something so that any benefits are unfairly shared, it is the people who are at fault; nothing is either good or bad but use or abuse makes it so. Communism is inanimate; the first Christians may have established a fair variety of communism, as some later Christian groups have done, but the regimes in Russia and China have manipulated the system to suit the leaders at the expense of everyone else. It is true that Jesus, when he attacked the injustices of extortionate practices in the Temple precincts, overturned tables and not people, but it was the practices of those people which he was reproving. We should be preaching what Jesus preached: a kingdom of universal goodwill, as foreshadowed in Isaiah. In such a kingdom everyone treats everyone else fairly.

    • John DiGregorio

      I just don't know what to make of articles like this. Is capitalism corrupt and stupid? Yup and so is communism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism, etc. That's because every creature who ever walked the face of the earth is a sinner (our Blessed Mother exempted). Is the author just exhorting us as individuals to obey Christ's Two Great Commandments and when we inevitably fail to repent and try again? I'm good with that. But I can't help but think that what's being advocated will require coercion when applied on a nation wide or world wide scale. Will the new coercion be more friendly than the current coercion? I'm skeptical.

    • Treyeshua

      Capitalism, cronyism, socialism, communism, as commonly practiced are all fascism. The only ism we can rely on is baptism, particularly the baptism of fire. God's economy endorses freedom, and that includes free markets and free enterprise, in their correct forms, not as practiced mostly today. The entities that allow evil to flourish are large corporations, for under our anti-god laws they are allowed to have limited liability which means limited responsibility. The solution is simple, let large enterprises be proportional liability enterprises, so that the losses are shared with the stakeholders, along with the profits. I'm guessing this already happens in the context of the Bruderhof, which I greatly admire and hope to visit some day.

    This selection excerpted from the book Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of our Age by Rodney Clapp. Copyright 2021 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media. All rights reserved.


    Ask the typical man or woman on the street about economics, and you will get the impression that capitalism is simply a natural phenomenon. Like a mushroom in loamy soil, it arose more or less benevolently, following the laws of nature. But capitalism did not spring into existence full blown as a glittering department store. Nor was it free of (debatable and hotly debated) human intention. It has a history. Recognizing this history means that we denaturalize capitalism. When we naturalize and see capitalism as purely a fact of nature, we place it beyond any criticism. A hurricane cannot be critiqued; it simply is, and humans affected by it can only respond to it as and after it happens. But recognizing that capitalism has a history opens it to both positive and negative criticism – and change.

    The Early Engagement of Christianity and Capitalism

    Telling the story of Christianity’s engagement with capitalism requires glancing back to the Middle Ages. In this pre-capitalistic setting, markets were present and operative but bounded and channeled: “If this was an economy familiar with markets, it was also one which lacked the concept of a market order as a self-regulating system of economic relationships. … Contemporaries regarded economic activity as being subordinated to ethical ends. They assessed its legitimacy in terms of moral imperatives and their attitudes were both enshrined in their economic institutions and expressed in practice.”1

    Under the watchful eye and guidance of the church, trade was allowed but seen as inherently morally dangerous. Finance was “if not immoral … at best sordid and at worst disreputable.”2 It was right for a man to seek wealth to the degree necessary for a livelihood in his station and business. But to seek more than the necessary was regarded as avarice, and avarice was a deadly sin. One was expected not to make profits more than the wages of his work and to carry profits into and for the public benefit. Private property was seen as “a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world. But is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as desirable in itself; the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism.”3 Such an ideal – of course, decidedly not that of the later, state-directed communism of the Soviet Union and China – was represented by monasticism, where property was held in common.

    In this religiously and ethically directed economy, the estate, of whatever degree of wealth, was, as the economic historian R. H. Tawney puts it, “somewhat encumbered. It must be legitimately acquired. It must be in the largest possible number of hands. It must provide for the support of the poor. Its use must as far as practicable be common.” In short, for “the medieval thinkers … society is a spiritual organism, not an economic machine,” and economic activity “is one subordinate element within a vast and complex unity, … to be controlled and repressed by references to moral ends for which it supplies the material means.”4

    The Protestant Reformers had largely similar attitudes, though significantly without the overarching, monocular guidance of the Roman Catholic Church, whose singular authority they rejected. Luther insisted that lending should be free, was against dealing in futures or investing in rent charges, and would refuse usurers the sacrament, absolution of sins, and Christian burial. Calvin taught that gathering interest on loans should be lawful but set caps on a maximum rate of interest. In addition, he thought loaning should be occasional, saw lending reprehensible as a regular occupation, and expected loans to be gratis to the poor.5 Historian Brad Gregory summarizes, “The bottom line is clear: like radical Protestants, the magisterial reformers, including Calvin, unambiguously condemned avarice, acquisitive individualism, and any separation of economic behavior from biblical morality or the common good.”6

    Yet changes occurred, affecting behaviors and outcomes in the long term. Luther internalized charity and made the use of money more a matter of attitude and less a matter of outward behavior. He emphasized the doctrine of justification by grace through faith and stressed that a person’s individual relationship with God – trusting in justification – was paramount. “Thus,” Tawney writes, “the bridges between the worlds of the spirit and of sense are broken, and the soul is isolated from the society of men, that it may enter into communion with its Maker.”7 The focus shifted from Christians being a corporate, mutually responsible body of believers to individuals holding certain beliefs: “Since salvation is bestowed by the operation of grace in the heart, and by that alone, the whole fabric of organized religion, which had mediated between the individual soul and its Maker – divinely commissioned hierarchy, systematized activities, corporate institutions – drops away, as the blasphemous trivialities of a religion of works. … Man’s actions as a member of society were no longer the extension of his life as a child of God: they were its negation.”8

    The early Anabaptists, on the other hand, held to a more embodied, corporate Christian ethic. Animated by a vision of communal sharing, they subordinated economics to theology: “In the sixteenth century all Anabaptist groups were hostile to mercantile life and acquisitiveness, prizing manual labor and a materially humble way of life (as the Old Order Amish in North America continue to do today).”9

    Meanwhile, less wary than the Lutherans of the constructive uses of the law, the Calvinists followed a different trajectory. The Calvinist aims not merely at personal salvation but at the glorification of God, the sanctification of the world that is meant to be a theater of God’s goodness and supremacy. In this frame, good works do not attain salvation, yet they can be marks of assurance that it has been attained.

    The Swiss Reformers saw thrift, diligence, sobriety, and frugality as Christian virtues. Though obsolescent in the world of twenty-first- century consumeristic capitalism, these very virtues were necessary for success in the world of early, burgeoning, production-oriented capitalism. And Calvin and later Reformed interpreters addressed their teaching primarily to men of affairs, those engaged in trade and industry, who comprised the most modern and forward-looking persons at a time when commercial civilization was more and more taken for granted.10

    Concerned with nothing less than the sanctification of the world, the Calvinists, where in charge, constructed a panoptic over- sight of their communities. Zwingli instituted excommunication for murder, theft, unchastity, perjury, and avarice. He also outlawed mendicancy and entitled to poor relief no inhabitant who wore ornaments or luxurious clothes, played cards, or failed to attend church. In Geneva, Calvin drafted regulations for markets, crafts, buildings, and fairs. He instituted the control of prices, interests, and rents. In the later Puritan theocracy of New England, tobacco, immodest fashions, toasting with drinks, and buying cheap and selling dear were all forbidden. There they also regulated prices, limited interest rates, fixed a minimum wage, and whipped incorrigible idlers.11

    If many of these restrictions (and their related punishments) now strike us as draconian, it is no surprise theocracy has had its day. In a pluralizing world, few if any communities remain pure (as in Puritan). Instead, the (Reformed) Protestant work ethic has over centuries been secularized and transmogrified. Hard work and attendant prosperity might formerly have served as assurances that one was among God’s elect. In this sense, the Protestant ethic preceded and undergirded capitalism.12 But gradually, the concern for election and salvation wore away. What was left was regnant capitalism, with a divorce of the market and inherited Christian morality. Lutherans, in many ways, turned inward and away from the discipline of the market. The Reformed, denied their theocracies, found themselves baptizing prosperity but also struggling to contain and discipline the market. Both segregated economic behavior from increasingly interiorized theological convictions.13

    The Special Case of Neoliberalism

    Capitalism has lived most of its life up to now in symbiosis with the political regime of liberalism. In this short compass, suffice to say that liberalism emphasizes individual freedom – and especially freedom from the interference of others. Classical liberalism instituted the “free market” and valued small, restrained government. But liberalism has undergone various transmutations over the course of its history. With the shift from classical to reform liberalism through the middle of the twentieth century, largely under the aegis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it chastened the market and, to a degree, empowered government and civil society. But there were those who never accepted this sea change. Since the 1980s, and exemplified under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, they have successfully rolled back the tide and asserted power. The liberal regime under which we now live and labor is neoliberalism.

    The face and substance of politics change under neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a panoply of cultural and political-economic practices that sets marketized competition at the center of social life – even as the sole ruler of social life. It aims to create a society that does not merely include markets but is based on the market and where there are, right down to the dirt under the fingernails of flesh-and-blood individuals, only agonizing private enterprises. “In neoliberal society, the capitalist market is no longer imagined as a distinct arena where goods are valued and exchanged; rather, the market is, or ideally should be, the basis for all of society.”14 Politics is no longer primarily a negotiation of where the line between public and private falls (as in classical liberalism), for neoliberalism “works to erase this line between public and private and to create an entire society – in fact, an entire world – based on private, market competition. … Consequently, contemporary politics take shape around questions of how best to promote competition.”15

    If an earlier liberalism imagined people as fundamentally and finally individuals, freed of the need for or interference from other individuals, neoliberalism sees people as individuals existing at the behest of the market, pitted in competition against one another.

    The Fuller Economy of God

    But for all its talk about freedom and comprehensiveness, the neoliberal capitalistic market occludes significant economic dimensions and practices. In the long view of human history, the neoliberal market is unique in its claim for an economy that stands apart and insulated from communal morality and spirituality. The ancients, for example, saw the economy as nested within a moral frame – the means of the economy (in biblical Greek, the oikonomia) were meant to serve ethically determined ends. Of course, we should not romanticize this oikonomia, for it was “generated by slave labor and the denial of citizen rights to women.”16 But it reminds us that our wisest, oldest philosophers sought to interpret and enact economy in light of morality.

    Furthermore, the church through its history has tried to practice economy in an ethical context, as we saw earlier in our review of the history of church’s early engagement with capitalism. Stipulations concerning usury, for example, run well into the modern period (and some usury laws, however defanged, are still on the books). Christian socialism, which calls the market to moral account, has a venerable if checkered history, though it is too easily and too often simply neglected.17 Even Christian accounts quite friendly to capitalism usually break neoliberal rules and seek to have capitalism answer to certain extra- market moral norms or demands.18

    We should have theological concerns about subsuming all of life under the control of the market, without moral and spiritual guidance.

    At a basic level, the market qua market exhibits moral idiocy. This can be confirmed by a walk through the common drugstore. Cigarettes are stocked adjacent to smoking-cessation aids. Diet and weight-loss concoctions sit next to high-calorie snacks and sugar-loaded beverages. Fertility pills are down the aisle from contraceptives. In actual practice, no sane consumer can be or is guided simply and solely by the market.

    watercolor painting of an octopus entangled in rusty gears

    Book cover illustration by Chloé Gray

    Speaking at an equally basic level, every minimally working human economy has a strong, underlying communistic dimension. At first blush, this may sound shocking and revolting. But think not of state-directed and state-compulsory communism, as in the Soviet Union and China, which are indeed revolting. Think instead of consanguineous family, where all goods are shared in common. Think of close friendships or tightly knit neighborhoods, where snowblowers and mowers and tools are freely passed back and forth, or a hand is lent with moving house or barn building. Think of bystanders rushing to help a child who has fallen onto subway tracks. Think of the aftermath of natural disasters such as storms, fires, blackouts, or an economic collapse, where each gives of their ability to each according to their needs.19 Then, often if not always, people resort to a “rough-and-ready communism.”20

    Think too not just about morality but about common pleasures. As David Graeber puts it, “Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.”21

    All this is because we are always already social creatures. For Christians, who believe all people are created by one God, fallen in one man (Adam), redeemed through one Savior, and destined for one new heaven and new earth, this claim should come as no surprise. With a theological overflow, we can agree with Graeber: “Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.”22

    Think again – and this time of the earliest Christian believers and the new first family called church. In the immediate wake of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). And, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32–35).

    “Simply said,” David Bentley Hart observes, “the earliest Christians were communists … not as an accident of history but as an imperative of faith.” And if time and circumstances meant that not all subsequent Christians evinced communism as fully and intensely as the earliest, a call toward a vision of service to the common good echoed through the patristic period, founded on a truth taught by Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom: “The goods of creation belong equally to all, and that immense private wealth is theft – bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute.”23

    Nor did such hopes, dreams, and practices cease with the patristic age. We can think of monasticism and mendicancy as well as such present-day movements as the Catholic Workers, the Bruderhof, and the (usually Protestant) New Monastics. Such “purist” movements have great value and pertinence, as does the less “purist” yet still significant giving in face of need – serving at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, donating cars and groceries – that happens day to day and week to week in ordinary urban, suburban, and rural churches.

    God’s Great Economy

    When the church, whether “purist” or “ordinary,” shares and gifts after the way of Christ, it participates in God’s great and overweening economy.

    This gracious and comprehensive economy is perhaps most concisely defined in the Letter to the Ephesians 1:9–10. There we read that God has “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan/economy [Greek, oikonomia] for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth.”

    God’s economy is comprehensive in that it gathers in sums up “all things in heaven and on earth.” Beside God’s economy, revealed in Christ, the neoliberal economy is puny and constricted. The market as neoliberalism sees it (as a gigantic information processor) cannot and does not contain or process care for the weak and the “loser” – in a word, mercy – or care for creation or nature as good in itself. It does not embrace community, covenant love, grace, or miracle. But in the great economy of God, all these realities live. And they can thrive.

    Footnotes

    1. Keith Wrightson, quoted in Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 260.
    2. Tawney, R. H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. 1926. Reprint, London: Verso, 2015, p. 45. Tawney concludes provocatively: “The unpardonable sin is that of the speculator or middleman, who snatches private gain by the exploitation of public necessities. The true descendant of the doctrines of Aquinas is the labour theory of value. The last of the Schoolmen was Karl Marx” (48).
    3. Tawney, 45.
    4. Tawney, 45 and 73.
    5. Tawney, 104 and 115.
    6. Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 268.
    7. Tawney, Religion and the Rise, 105.
    8. Tawney, 106–7. Relatedly, the historian John Bossy observes that the word Christianity, before the seventeenth century, signaled “a body of people.” By and after the seventeenth century, it meant “an ‘ism’ or body of beliefs” (Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. P. 171).
    9. Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 265.
    10. Tawney cites a Puritan pamphleteer who wrote in 1671, “There is a natural unaptness in the Popish religion to business, whereas on the contrary among the Reformed, the greater their zeal, the greater their inclination to trade and industry, as holding idleness unlawful” (Religion and the Rise, 206).
    11. 26. Tawney, 125, 123, 135, 136.
    12. At least to the degree sociologist Max Weber was right in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings. 1905. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 2002.
    13. See Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 270–75.
    14. Wilson, Julie A. Neoliberalism, Key Ideas in Media and Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 2018. pp. 2–3
    15. Wilson, 23.
    16. See Leshem, Dotan. “What Did the Ancient Greeks Mean by Oikonomia?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 30, no. 1 (Winter 2016).
    17. Typical contemporary accounts of socialism, such as in Sunkara, Bhaskar. The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. New York: Basic, 2019, often entirely ignore Christian socialism. For a significant and compendious exception, see Dorrien, Gary. Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.
    18. See, for example, Waters, Brent. Just Capitalism: A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016. See also Ahn, Ilsup. Just Debt: Theology, Ethics, and Neoliberalism. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017. Working within a capitalist framework, Ahn draws on Islamic, Jewish, and Christian ethics to propose a more just conception and management of debt.
    19. For an exploration of post-disaster communism, see: Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. New York: Viking, 2009.
    20. Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Updated and expanded ed. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014, 96.
    21. Graeber, 99.
    22. Graeber, 99.
    23. Hart, David Bentley. “What Lies beyond Capitalism?” Plough Quarterly (Summer 2019): 36 and 38.
    Contributed By

    Rodney Clapp is an editor at Cascade Books in Eugene, Oregon. He is a former columnist for the Christian Century and the author of several books, including New Creation: A Primer on Living in the Time between the Times (2019). He lives in Wheaton, Illinois.

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