The goal of the Church and Postmodern Culture Series is to examine some aspect of postmodern theory and determine what it might mean for the church. In this, the latest book in the series, theologian Daniel M. Bell, Jr. mines the thought of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault to see what they might be able to teach the church as it confronts capitalism.
However, not all Christians believe the church ought to “confront” capitalism at all. Some Christians defend capitalism as beneficial to, or at least compatible with, Christianity. But as series editor James K. A. Smith writes in the foreword, “By locating the challenges for Christian discipleship in arcane cults or sexual temptation or the ‘secularizing’ forces of the Supreme Court, evangelicalism tends to miss the fact that the great tempter of our age is Walmart.” We are content to ask ourselves whether capitalism works, but Bell asks the question, “What work does it do?”
When Bell criticizes capitalism, what he means by “capitalism” is not the free market, but the dominion of the market—the marketization of all of life. Bell does not propose socialism or communism or any other economic system as a viable alternative. Rather, he pits capitalism against what he calls “the divine economy.” He writes, “By setting Christianity against [capitalism] I am suggesting that the market should be neither total nor free. That is, it should not be the central institution in life and society, nor should its capitalist logic go unchecked. More specifically, I am suggesting that the market, and indeed the discipline of economics, should be subordinated to theological concerns.” The market economy, for Christians, should be subordinated to Christian virtues like generosity and justice.
The main insight that Bell takes from Deleuze and Foucault is that capitalism is an economy of desire. That is, in spite of the claim that capitalism enhances freedom, it actually disciplines desire in a way that precedes and shapes what choices people are able to make.
Bell’s alternative to capitalism is not a blueprint that he intends the world to follow; it is a call for Christians to act economically the way they say they believe. We were, Bell says, “created to desire God and live in communion with one another in God” rather than pursue individualistic self-interest, as capitalism instructs us to do. We were meant to find our rest in God, rather than experience a restless and unrelenting desire for more stuff. We were meant to serve the common good, because our neighbor has a claim on us; we are not limited to voluntary associations, as capitalism has taught us to believe. Bell claims that capitalism’s Christian defenders tend to have a distant God who is not active now in bringing about human sanctification. If God is not active, and we are left to shape life as we see fit, then all we can do is manage sin, and capitalism is superior to the economic alternatives. But even though the kingdom of God has not yet come in its fullness, God is active in bringing it about even now; and so an alternative to capitalism is possible.
There is more food for thought in this book than can be contained in a short review. Even though it is challenging reading, particularly in the early chapters when Bell is discussing Deleuze and Foucault, it is rewarding. Bell does give examples of how the divine economy is being hinted at even now, such as L’Arche and the Catholic Worker movement, but I wish that he had made room to go into more detail and to tell more stories about how they challenge capitalism. I recommend it to any Christian who is interested in economics.