What’s Wrong with Capitalism? A Review

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.

Review of The Battle, With Reference to WORLD Magazine’s Endorsement of It

I am not a regular reader of WORLD magazine, but when I picked up a copy of it a few weeks ago and saw that it was their yearly “books issue,” I was curious to see what they had named as their Book of the Year. When I read that they had named as their book of the year The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Arthur C. Brooks, I was even more curious. WORLD is a Christian magazine, and The Battle is a book that deals primarily with politics and economics, but not from a distinctly Christian perspective.

I was sufficiently curious after reading the article that I checked The Battle out of the library and read it.

The book is made up of four chapters. In the first, Brooks uses polling data in order to neatly split America into the 70 percent who think that free enterprise is a good idea, and the 30 percent who think that government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a good idea. Brooks calls them the “70 percent majority” and the “30 percent coalition,” and argues that the 30 percent coalition has wielded a disproportionately large amount of influence, especially over young people. In the second chapter, he gives an example of this influence by detailing the narrative about the 2008 financial crisis given by the 30 percent coalition, and Barack Obama in particular. Brooks argues that the claims made by this narrative are false.

In the second half of the book, Brooks moves from directly criticizing the 30 percent coalition to making proposals for how the 70 percent majority can win the culture war. He argues that the 30 percent coalition has a worldview that is “fundamentally materialistic,” but the 70 percent majority has a worldview that is nonmaterialistic. Though they can sometimes have a reputation for only being concerned about money, they are really concerned with human flourishing. He argues that earned success, rather than money, is at the heart of free enterprise, and earned success is the key to happiness. In order to win the war, the 70 percent majority needs to “reclaim the morality of their worldview” (97). In addition to the claim that free enterprise is about human flourishing, four other principles he lists as central are 2) “We stand for equality of opportunity, not equality of income”, 3) “We seek to stimulate true prosperity, not treat poverty”, 4) “America can and should be a gift to the world”, 5) “What truly matters is principle, not political power” (103). He ends the book by calling for leaders who are committed to “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and defending free enterprise” (126).

The book is a quick read, an entertaining read, and in some places even an inspiring read. However, I still have many questions about why WORLD, as a Christian magazine, chose to endorse it as Book of the Year.

The dichotomy that Brooks draws between the 70 percenters and the 30 percenters makes for an appealing argument and even better rallying cry, but ultimately I think that his dichotomy is a false one. While socialists and free enterprisers do seem to be the ideologies that draw the most supporters at the moment, Christians should not be made to feel as if they are forced to choose between one or the other. Brooks spends the early part of his book citing polling data to make the case that free enterprise is really what the majority of Americans want. To me, this indicates nothing more than the fact that the false dichotomy between free enterprise and socialism has thoroughly permeated our culture, including many Christians. Rather than listen to the people, like Brooks, who seek to get them to choose between socialism and free enterprise, Christians should seek to find a way of living and doing economics that is genuinely Christian. While the Bible is not an economics textbook, we can glean some insight from it regarding what Christians should prioritize economically. And the Bible does not appear to be completely friendly to either free enterprise or socialism.

To be sure, there are some places where the Bible does seem to be friendly to free enterprise. Economist and theologian Johan Graafland, in his article, “Market operation and distributive justice: An evaluation of the ACCRA confession,” states,

The Bible indeed mentions many texts that express the right to private property, condemns stealing (Ex. 20:15, Lev. 19:11, Prov. 23:10, Ef. 4:28), require compliance to contracts (Jer. 22:13) and demand rectification if the principle of justice in transfers is violated (Ex. 22:4-7, Lev. 5:14-16, 6:1-5, 22:14, Num. 5:5-8, Prov. 6: 30-31)… There are also many texts that support the capitalistic principle of moral desert. Trade should be honest. One should use true and honest weights and measures and not cheat the other trading partner (Deut. 25:13-16, Ezek. 45:10, Mic. 6:10, Amos 8:5, Prov. 20:10). So one should be rewarded in accordance to what one really brings to the market. Many texts in the Old Testament and New Testament support the idea that effort or productivity should be rewarded. Jesus applies this principle in the parable of the three servants (Matt. 25: 29) and the parable of the Gold Coins (Luke 19:26). Also in the Kingdom of God, everybody shall be rewarded in accordance to his or her deeds (Matt. 6:3, 19:29, Luke 6:38, 18:29-30). The apostle Paul defends a similar standard (1 Cor. 3: 8, 12-15, 1 Tim. 5:18, 2 Thess. 3:10).

(Thanks to my friend Jeremy, by the way, for turning me on to Graafland’s work)

On the other hand, there are biblical texts that are less friendly to the sort of free enterprise that Brooks argues for. According to Graafland,

[T]he Bible commands several institutions that protect the poor, independently from the causes of their poverty…. For example, the poor received food during the sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10) and from what was passed over in the first harvest (Deut. 24:19-22). The hungry were to be allowed immediate consumption of food in the grain fields (Deut. 23:24) and farmers should not cut the corn at the edges of the fields, but leave them for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10). Other examples are the law of the tenth (Lev. 27:30, Num. 18:21, Deut. 12:6, Amos 4:4), the law to share with the poor food at the harvest festival (Deut. 16:11) and the prohibition on demanding interest from the poor (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25: 36, Deut. 23:19, Prov. 28:8). Thus, aid to the suffering is not merely a matter of personal duty to be merciful.

Num. 26:52-56 shows us that upon entering the promised land, Israel was commanded to divide it so that every tribe would have land proportionate to its size. All tribes, clans and families were assured that they would have enough land for their needs. Also, in Dt 15:12-15 we find that slaveholders were required not only to free their slaves in the Sabbatical year, but to provide them with means of subsistence. Of course there is debate regarding the extent to which these Old Testament laws should be normative for Christians, but it seems at the very least that Christians have a duty to fulfill the basic needs of the poor. This was not just a matter of personal giving in the Old Testament; it was a matter of law. It should also be pointed out that the poor were still responsible to build up the capital they were given, and in this I do agree with Brooks.

By endorsing this book as Book of the Year, it seems to me that the editors of WORLD magazine have missed an opportunity. They could have used this book as a chance to talk openly as Christians about the best way to do economics. They could have praised The Battle for the ways in which it reflected a distinctly Christian view of economics, and critiqued the ways that it didn’t. Instead, there is only one criticism of Brooks’s book in WORLD’s review: “Brooks here should do more about the importance of biblical faith, since many people who have ‘earned success’ apart from a sense of God’s sovereignty and love hit a wall of meaninglessness as they age.” It seems to me that WORLD is wholeheartedly endorsing Brooks’s free enterprise worldview which claims that earned success is the key to happiness, but recommends he adds a little faith as a garnish. I don’t think this is an effective way to go about teaching and encouraging people to have a Christian worldview. Rather than starting with an unquestioned acceptance of free enterprise in forming our worldview, we should start with God’s story as it has played out primarily in the Bible and also in the history of the church. That should be our starting place, not adding faith to another worldview as if it were merely another ingredient. The Christian worldview centers on Jesus, and Jesus is not mentioned in The Battle. If nothing else, that ought to give us pause.

The mistake that the folks at WORLD make in naming this book as their Book of the Year is that they believe both the free enterprisers and the socialists when they say that there are only two ways to live. They chose the less offensive of the two options (and yes, despite my criticism I do think free enterprise is the less offensive option of the two), but in doing so they have taken their cue from the world and lost an opportunity to discern how to do economics in a Christian way.