Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Capitalism: consideration and critique (a post in three parts)

1. Theological Critique of Capitalism and 'Complicity'

Halden at Inhabitatio Dei has returned to his theme of analysis and critique of capitalism on Christian terms, and the extent to which one must go to resist it. Here are his three most recent posts, with the most recent at the top.

On The Possibility of Resisting Capitalism

Modernism and Postmodernism or Early and Late Capitalism?

The Ethics of Complicity

I think each post bears something in it for readers, but the third, the Ethics of Complicity, is particularly helpful. A quotation:

The simple fact is that we are all complicit people, deeply embedded in violence(s) we fail to see, and pervasively compromised by the principalities and powers of this world. The key to proper theological action in a world in which we are all guilty lies precisely in not allowing our complicity to lead to resignation. That is precisely what the ruling powers are always after. Once we can be made to see that our lives are ruled by the powers of the state and the market, we rushed to believe that therefore we should simply become good citizens and good consumers, rather than placing ourselves in the precarious position of being a critic with blood on their hands.
I believe that this is right on. We have too often constructed a sort of 'you're either with us or against us' dualism, which also plays into a wrongheaded moral puritanism which insists that if one is somehow complicit then one cannot resist or challenge what is done.

This sort of dualism seems to assume that I must, at all costs, protect myself: I am complicit in 'x', and so then 'x' must either be permissable (or justified) or else I must extract myself entirely from the world made possible by 'x'. From a Christian perspective we ought to be deeply suspicious of this reasoning - although of course many of us are not and are entirely willing to play the game. One of the core Christian affirmations is not only the existence of sin, but identifying with it - or to put it more simply, the problem is not that the world is sinful and we need to escape it, but that the world is sinful and we are a part of it. Escape is itself sin, as if we were not caught up or complicit in it already. The simple fact is that we are thrown into this world, made by it, and involved in projects endlessly more far-reaching than those defined by our individual wills, not that our wills themselves are untouched by sin either.

The grace of God - knowing God's searching, unfailing, unconditional love, as well as knowing the demands of his justice and holiness - means not that we can withdraw or escape to some realm of untouched purity (as if we needed somehow to earn what can only be received as pure gift), but rather that we can actually be honest about our sin, and begin honestly to name the sin around us, begin addressing it in whatever small way we can. How can we do that if we persist in the myth that either 1) we are untouched by wickedness or 2) the wickedness we are complicit in is actually just fine, thank you.

Or in other words, we need to realise where we are and acknowledge that in order to hear the judgement of God.

2. Affluenza

From a rather different - i.e. nontheological - perspective, I have been reading the book Affluenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane, by Oliver James. In the book, James, who has a background in psychology, does a cross-cultural analysis of several different societies in the world in order to test a hypothesis. His hypothesis is that the social practices associated with capitalism as practiced in the United States, the United Kingdom, and those societies influenced by them - what he terms selfish capitalism - combined with the formation we receive as children is leading to widespread depression and misery. The presence of these two factors (formation and social practices) James styles as the Affluenza Virus, which when fully developed hinders healthy relationships of nearly any kind and - naturally - contributes to a breakdown of society with far reaching effects for both those affected by the virus and those not affected.

Those who have affluenza are motivated by money fame and power and engage in pursuits (careers, relationships, etc.) primarily to serve these ends, rather than for intrinsic ends such as friendship, love, or the inherent interest of an endeavour. The virus causes one to focus primarily on oneself and leads to overwork and a constant dissatisfaction and discontent with what one has. (Especially in the light of these latter qualities, it becomes easy to see how these people are coveted by marketers - they're already halfway towards buying whatever you're selling.)

He engages in this analysis through interviews with people in countries as far-flung as China, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Denmark, and the US and UK. Throughout he gives recommendations to his readers who might find themselves infected with the virus - or who want to be vaccinated against it or vaccinate their children against it.

On the whole I would recommend it; it helped to bolster and nuance some of my own intuitions about the effects of capitalism on people. It is quite eye-opening and something that I would encourage nearly everyone to read. (He will soon be releasing his next book in the US, a closer analysis of selfish capitalism.)

If I were to lodge any criticisms of what I generally consider to be a deeply insightful account, it would be these two: first, I'm not sure that doesn't give Christianity short shrift at one or two points. He seems to have a vague appreciation of 'religion' as one vaccine against the virus, but I think a more involved account would strengthen his case.

Also, of the two factors involved in spreading the virus, it seems that one is more widespread than another. The stories he tells in his book clearly establish the importance of both factors, but even for those who were not given the virus by our parents, we still need to live in a world largely constructed and maintained by those who suffer from affluenza and their miserable overachievement. It seems like this might be even more widespread and influential than the factors surrounding childhood.

Here's one particularly bracing observation:

' In [Erich] Fromm's Marketing Society the consumer must be permanently dissatisfied, or gratified only for the shortest possible time. Satisfaction would stop consumption, which would stall economic growth. This society needs people with an exaggerated sense of the importance of work, a false need for things and an endless desire to consume, no deep feelings or convictions, standardised tastes, suggestibility and uncritical minds. In many commentators' views, this sums up America, the nation that most heavily influences Australia [, which is becoming increasingly like this.]' p. 67

3. Terms

Third, I thought I would take a moment to make some helpful distinctions between various perspectives. This might seem needless - even pedantic - but I've seen enough evidence to the contrary to think otherwise. It is not uncommon if someone expresses concerns about capitalism, especially in America, that one's interlocutor will pipe up with 'well, it's the only system which works', or some other bromide which is not so much true but common. I was expressing some real misgivings about it the other day to a fellow American, who I don't think was completely unsympathetic, but who nevertheless piped up early on with the question: are you a Marxist? I was stunned; it was as if this were the only alternative to capitalism available.

This notion, that this is the only thing which works is a great work of ideology, because it blinds us to any other possibility, even the ones which are all around us and which are working just fine, thank you. More than that, this sort of single-mindedness not only constricts our vision and the possibilities of thinking (and acting) differently, it also fuels growth of the production and consumption machine as we cannot imagine making a living - or constructing our society - in different terms. Or to put it more simply: it distorts our humanity, twisting us into something which serves an idol rather than someone who serves God and our neighbour.

So, in the hope of assisting us to think a little more clearly about these matters, I offer the following differentiation of terms:

+ Expressing concerns about capitalism is not the same as being anti-capitalism;

+ Being anti-capitalism is not the same as being socialist;

+ Being socialist is not the same as being communist;

+ Being communist is not the same as being Marxist;

+ Being Marxist is not the same as being Leninist or Stalinist.

We might as well go ahead and include the following:

+ The free market is not the same as capitalism.

+ Espousing any of the above (including the free market and capitalism) does not necessarily imply a stance on democracy as such.

+ Any of these stances on political economy (including the free market and capitalism) is purely an ideal, a goal to work towards, and never exists in its pure form.

+ Any actual society employs (at least elements of) each of these models in various ways, and several models often co-exist peacefully.

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