Godless Capitalism?

Godless Capitalism?

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s American heartland and in an ultra-conservative church “godlesscommunism” was one word, not two. One of the worst things people in my religious context could say about someone was “communist” and that label covered a lot of territory.

I remember when Lyndon Johnson won his election over Barry Goldwater. I went to school the next day and very publicly proclaimed Johnson “a communist.” The teacher gave me a bemused look that communicated “What hole in the ground did you just crawl out of?” But I was only parroting what I heard at home.

During high school I worked part-time for a local home and office cleaning company owned by a leader of the state’s branch of the John Birch Society. He often lectured me as we worked about how President Eisenhower had been a “dupe of the communists” (if not one himself!).

Our home contained books such as None Dare Call It Treason and Masters of Deceit (by J. Edgar Hoover) and pamphlets by “The House Unamerican Activities Committee” (of Congress). Billy James Hargis was a popular radio preacher in our home and his books also appeared on our shelves. I read all of that stuff and lived in terror of a “communist takeover” of America. I remember church youth group events that featured pretend clandestine meetings of Christians with “communist agents” (other members of the youth group in disguise carrying toy guns) bursting in and arresting us. We were paranoid about communism.

To us, then, the only alternative to communism was laissez-faire capitalism. It was the Christian and American way.

Lately I’ve been reading a relatively new book by theologian Daniel M. Bell, Jr. entitled The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (BakerAcademic, 2012). If the publisher wanted to mass market the book they should have titled it Godless Capitalism. (That might have contradicted the message of the book, though!)

Bell is professor of theological ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from Duke University. I have never read anything by him before this, but I now have his earlier book Liberation Theology after the End of History and hope to read that soon.

The Economy of Desire is a provocative book. As I said, a more descriptive title for it might be Godless Capitalism. A, if not the, main thesis is that contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, which has become a global economy so powerful it controls governments, is completely contrary to the Christian gospel and discipleship. It is a ringing call for Christians to wake up and think harder and more clearly about economic discipleship and not just go along with the worldwide trend toward a totally free market economy (which turns out not to be so “free” for most people after all!).

Bell begins his Preface with “This is a difficult book to write, not because what it says is hard to grasp, but because the ‘old ideas’ it challenges are so deeply ingrained in my life, character and desire.” (p. 13) He knows he speaks for many, perhaps most, American Christians with those words because the “old ideas” he challenges are all wrapped up in one word—“capitalism.”

Bell is an excellent writer. Each chapter (at least of the first few which is all I’ve read so far) begins with a vivid anecdote that illustrates its main point. Chapter 1 is about postmodernity and “micropolitics.” There and in chapter 2, which deals with capitalism as an “economy of desire,” Bell provides a heady and sometimes mind-numbing summary of two postmodern thinkers’ ideas as they apply to economics (in the broad sense). They are Michael Foucault and Gilles Feleuze, two philosophers I have always hesitated to study because just listening to people talk about them makes my head hurt. However, I must say that Bell’s descriptions of their ideas is illuminating. I felt that these two chapters gave me a solid overview of their postmodern thoughts especially as they apply to economics.

Chapters 3 and 4 are “What Is Wrong with Capitalism?” and “Capitalist Theology: The Agony of Capitalist Desire” respectively. I recommend that you read these first and then back up and read the first two chapters. (Of course read the Preface and Introduction first of all.) These two chapters, 3 and 4, are stunningly clear, brilliant, challenging and upsetting (as in upsetting the apple cart of common American belief about capitalism).

But let’s stop just a moment and be clear about something. Unless I am mistaken (I may find myself corrected by the rest of the book), Bell is not criticizing “mom and pop store capitalism”—basic entrepreneurship to make a living. The capitalism he is attacking (ferociously, I must say) is “neo-liberal” capitalism. Some might call it “neo-conservative.” However, Bell is using “neo-liberal” in a very specific, technical, economics sense of economic activity unfettered by government regulation. Corporations are allowed, even encouraged to grow in power to the point that they are “too big to fail” and become the tail that wags the political dog of government.

But not to worry! This is not your garden variety, run of the mill diatribe against economic exploitation. Rather, Bell digs down much deeper than most (any?) books on the subject to critically examine the underlying impulses of neo-liberal capitalism theologically. As the title implies, the book is about desire and how capitalism manufactures and controls our very desires. And desires make us who we are (at least to a very large extent). We are what we desire. “Desire precedes being.”

Bell’s main complaint against neo-liberal capitalism is that it is totalizing. It is an ideology we’re not even aware of having. Consumerism is one of its effects. It creates unnatural (and often unchristian) desires in people and drives them, us, to be consumers of things we really have no need or even natural want for. And it is impossible to opt out of it. Even when you see it for what it is, contrary to the spirit of Christianity, idolatrous, there’s very little you can do about it. (Bell’s next chapter, chapter 5 “Is Another Economy Possible? The Church as an Economy of Desire” may point a way in another direction. I’ll blog about the second half of the book later.)

So let me bring this “home,” so to speak. I think it’s not hard to see the truth of what Bell is talking about. I sometimes have a little “disposable income.” What do I do with it? Too often I find myself buying something I really do not need and didn’t know I wanted until I saw it advertised. I work hard to resist advertising. (I’ve blogged about the manipulative methods of contemporary advertising here before.) But sometimes I “just have to have that.” These are things that cost quite a bit of money (or just a little) and are totally unnecessary except to make me feel better because I have them.

Have you ever noticed how stores, especially “big box” stores, lure you into buying things you had no intention of buying when you entered them? I often go to a store, neglecting to pick up a cart as I enter because I am only there to buy a couple “necessaries” and then, halfway through the store, realize I need to find a push cart for all the stuff I’m carrying. As I exit the store with my bags full of things I didn’t plan to buy, I feel manipulated. Sure, I could resist, but it would be an enormous, almost super-human effort always to resist that.

So why does that matter? What has that to do with discipleship? Bell’s main point is the way in which contemporary capitalism distorts our desires—away from God toward money, power and possessions. Capitalism is an economic system of disordered desire. Even if it “works,” Bell argues, it is contrary to the spirit of Christ. How so?

In chapter 4 Bell describes the “disordered desires” of capitalism. By means of it we gain “Insatiable Desire” and “Agony for Competition.” Oh, did I say we “gain?” No, according to Bell, those are what we become. Those are not distortions of capitalism, either; they are necessary for capitalism to work. So even governments devoted to capitalism have to join in their promotion.

Have you ever noticed how even “news programming” sneaks in what really amount to commercials for products? The other day I saw an article in a newspaper about a new line of canned cooking sauces that make home cooked meals seem like high-end restaurant cuisine. It was offered as a news article, but it read like a commercial. No drawbacks mentioned.

In a way, although it is much more, The Economy of Desire is a response to Michael Novak’s classic The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism which defends capitalism theologically. The two books really ought to be read together—Novak’s first and Bell’s second. If Bell is right, Novak is totally wrong about Christian theology supporting capitalism. According to Bell, if Novak is right (to defend capitalism because it works), then “God Is Not Redeeming” and “God Did Not Create Enough” and the contemporary multi-national corporation is “Savior and [Adam] Smith [is] Its Prophet” (titles of subsections of chapter 4).

One anecdote Bell offers sticks with me and continues to bother me. He points out how New Orleans’ annual “Mardi Gras” seems to its participants, revelers, a great liberation, when, in fact, it is totally dependent on a kind of human slavery in another country. The beads so cavalierly thrown around and exchanged during Mardi Gras are manufactured in a terrible sweat shop (according to Bell). He goes into great detail about both the “celebration” and the sweat shop that provides its accoutrements. The latter sounds like a concentration camp. The difference is the workers are there “voluntarily” and get paid. But probably no Mardi Gras reveler would want to work there. And if they knew the conditions under which their precious but inexpensive beads are made, they would (hopefully) discard them and never buy more.

I often wonder how some of the things I buy can be so inexpensive. I remember one of my seminary professors claiming that a good pair of shoes ought to cost about one day’s wage. That was his informal litmus test for whether the economy is healthy with wages where they should be. I can buy a relatively good pair of shoes for about fifty dollars. I see signs that say I can buy three pairs of cowboy boots for about one hundred and fifty dollars. Ah, you say, then all’s right with the world because then a person working for minimum wage can afford shoes. That’s not the point of my illustration. The vast majority of American workers can easily afford three pair of shoes for a day’s wage. Does that mean our wages are too high or does it mean the people who make the shoes are earning too little?

What I like about Bell’s book, however, is not revealed in anecdotes like the Mardi Gras-sweat shop connection. What I like is the questions it raises such as whether the fact that capitalism “works” (for a lot of people) is an important question compared with what work it does.

I have long thought that the capitalism I know in America and around the world today is not the capitalism I grew up with. That may have been on its way to this, but it was different—not only in degree but also in kind. Something intervened during the “Reagan Revolution” to turn capitalism in this totalizing direction. Sure, there were things about earlier capitalism challenged by Bell’s critique, but much of his critique aims at the totalizing effect of contemporary world capitalism and its ability to control governments.

For me, a major “waking up” moment was the U.S. government’s bailouts of major banks and financial corporations. They were, it is said, “too big to fail.” The tail wags the dog. Or, better put, the tail has become the dog and the dog the tail.

Often when I rent a DVD I see a statement at its beginning, before the movie begins, that condemns “video piracy” as not a “victimless crime” because it “harms the economy.” Really? But who harms the economy more than the financers who gamble against their own loans—betting they will default—and makes loans to people they know probably cannot repay them? So far, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has gone to prison for “harming the economy” in the recent disastrous financial “downturn” (the “Great Recession”). Numerous people lost their jobs, their homes and some even their lives as a result of it. Our country was seriously weakened by it. Why are the people who caused it by greed not punished? Instead, people who pirate DVDs go to prison. Which harms the economy more?

It is hard to resist the impression that the U.S. government (but not only it) is in the hip pockets of CEOs of major corporations. Oh, not through blatant graft but through unrestrained capitalism driven by greed. Theologian Emil Brunner, in The Divine Imperative, called capitalism “economic anarchy” and condemned it as incompatible with civilization and Christianity. And yet, in the face of evidence and argument most American Christians still defend laissez faire capitalism as part and parcel of Christianity so that to criticize it is literally tantamount to heresy in their eyes. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that for a Christian pastor to preach a sermon critical of capitalism along the lines of Bell’s book he or she would be in more danger of losing his or her job than if he or she preached against the Trinity.

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  • Mike Anderson

    How I enjoy this blog! You are always processing thoughts I have had, or pointing the way for my future thoughts. I’ll be reading Bell’s book. Milton Friedman’s free market proposals, dramatically implemented by Ronald Reagan, Roger Douglas in New Zealand, and the Chilean government during and after Pinochet, have had much opposition on a grass-roots level, including among Christians, but opposition in the United States is just getting started. Neither liberal nor conservative Christians I meet in the USA have much praise for the World Trade Organization, or the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (if they’ve heard of it), or GMO foods. The liberals are more likely to appeal to science and community values, and the conservatives to conspiracy theories, so they are quieter and more individualistic in their responses. My neighborhood attracts back-to-the-land types–gardeners, hunters, and fishermen–but they are both libertarian conservatives and godless (or goddess) liberals, united in their skepticism of corporate culture. Everyone here is looking for a way to “opt out.” I’m not sure I fully understand the libertarian point of view, since they would lower taxes and regulation for themselves and also the corporations, which would continue to give the corporations an almost insurmountable advantage.

    You ask why shoes cost so little, and though shoe manufacturing still requires a great deal of manual labor, it has surely seen efficiency improvements from automation. Automation creates cheaper goods, a loss of jobs, and the concentration of wealth to those who own the means of production.

    Next month I will be in a South American country that I chose specifically for its resistance to neo-liberal economics.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Mike,
      There is much to be discouraged about with how people do the free-market capitalism thing. It tends to have more to do with the people than with the system. If all people were fair, then any system could work (though not all well). If all people were unfair, then even the best system doesn’t have a chance to please everyone.
      “Automation creates cheaper goods, a loss of jobs, and a concentration of wealth to those who own the means of production.” This is as true with sewing machines as it is with tower cranes – and I can’t think how this is a bad thing. It maybe bad for some individuals for sure, but if you want to buy a good pair of shoes or shirt or high-rise apartment building on a budget you’ll get a steal compared to having everything done by hand.

      • Mike Anderson

        “It tends to have more to do with the people than with the system.” That’s the thought I return to year after year. Certain economic and government systems are better than others at resisting corruption, but once they are compromised the same are perhaps more resistant to correction. Rule of law is very important for a healthy society, and can be eroded both by populist plunder and corporate special interests. I think liberal mixed economies have a lot of merit, but I also know people who have left liberal economies such as Sweden’s because the state became overbearing with its secular values. As to automation, concentration of power can be a dangerous thing.

        • rogereolson

          Denmark is often declared the “happiest society” precisely because of the semi-socialist economic system. It certainly isn’t because of their genes (I’m part Danish) or weather.

  • In the last few years my family has struggled economically in a way which I haven’t experienced before. We’ve had our ups and downs prior to this, but this has been different. We’ve settled into having very, very little as our normal way of living rather than as a temporary, albeit disruptive bump in the road. It’s been very enlightening to me. A lot of it is little things like not being able to afford gas to go to the store as needed. All trips are planned now. And we don’t have TV, so I haven’t been exposed to advertising for a couple of years now. At the odd times that I do catch a commercial, I’m almost always struck at how absurd they are. When I go to the store, I know exactly what I need – usually the exact same items every time and I don’t even think about looking around. What I’ve found is that gradually my thinking about money has been changing – for the better.

    In the past, I was aware of the difference between want and need – but mostly as an abstraction. I knew when I was fulfilling a want but my thinking focused on the value of fulfilling that want – “is it worth it” was the question I would ask myself. Today, I understand the difference between needs and wants in a much starker way. If I can find a way to do without something or not having it would not really affect my life it’s a want. But probably more than that, the needs of others are much more concrete to me. Obviously, I have almost no discretionary income at the moment, but even now I sometimes find myself thinking, “is this worth more than providing a meal for someone?” Sometimes we do spend money on wants like going to a $2 movie as a couple. But on occassion, I’ve actually thought about making a small purchase, asked myself that question and then gone and given a couple of bucks to the homeless guy I saw standing outside rather than say, buying a $3 scented candle. It’s a very small thing, but I think that having so little has really opened my eyes to the amount of excess most of us have.

    I think what has happened is that in order to adjust to having much less than I used to, I have shifted my perspective. I look in my closet and realize that most of my clothes need replacing and it occurs to me that many human beings are lucky to own 2 or 3 outfits. And they have perfectly good lives. I look around my house sometimes and it occurs to me that I have more furniture in one room than most humans own altogether. And its probably never occured to them to feel bad that what they ahve is a bit banged up. I think I’m just becoming more aware of where the threshold for excess begins. And that once that threshold has been crossed, that’s probably money which God has provided to meet the needs of those who don’t have enough rather than to allow me to obtain so much more than I actually need.

    For a variety of reasons, I’m pretty confident that in another couple of years, my family’s income will go back up again. But I think that when it does, we will have a very different and hopefully more Godly understanding of the value of money and how we ought to use it. I wish I knew some way other than being forced to live comfortably under very reduced circumstances to gain this perspective, though. I think that the world is in dire need of a revolution in how we think about money, our responsibilities to each other, what makes for a good life, etc.

    • John I.

      I feel with you, and have had the same experiences vis a vis my relationship with money. I was “encouraged” to move on after a merger 2 years ago (i.e., take a good pkg. now, or less later). IN the last 2 years I’ve had inconsistent work, and seen my annual income drop to less than the national poverty level. Fortunately savings from my previous well paying job (savings now gone), friends, and family have kept us afloat.

      Trusting God for your actual next days meals is quite a revelation, and makes our mealtime thanksgiving very heartfelt and real. It has also made us realize how much God does bless and provide, and how he does it (through brothers and sisters in Christ) and his timing (very good).

      It has made us stick to shopping lists “like white on rice”, and made us think about how much we really value things, and be very aware of where we put our money (and our hearts). To be so fully dependent on God and others for our very food, clothing and shelter results in a lot of very big changes in attitude, life, spirituality, etc.

      Our marriage and family have actually grown stronger, as we prayed together, relied on God, and focussed on Jesus’ “new” command to love one another as he loved us. Those who have prayed for us have told us that they have learnt more about prayer from God as they saw how he did, or didn’t, answer their prayers, or inspired them to pray in different ways.

      God is currently improving the work situation of my wife and I–more work, more steady work, better pay, so we are quite thankful. However, neither of us are salaried (and may never be again, as we have learnt to be resourceful, creative, and less dependent on money) and I still do things like dig basements, paint, do demolition and haul construction debris, etc., despite having 4 university degrees. I’ve actually found that I’m quite good at painting and working with my hands, and enjoy it more, and am no longer clinically depressed (which is what I became when working in the office of a multi-thousand employee business).

      One of the results of all this (and also talking with my brother who went through similar trials, except he lost his house), is that I deeply question our current economic system and the laws that support it.


  • Andy

    Your article is balanced and hard to disagree with. I usually find myself disagreeing with your economic thoughts. Not so much disagreeing as wanting to counter, add a thought or two, and generally say “yes, but also …” Your review here, though, is hard to disagree with. Insightful (as usual).

    I hear you focusing on corporations, and especially inadequately regulated corporations. I’m just putting that out there (maybe I’m wrong, or maybe that insight could clarify the discussion). The other focus would be on out-of-control selfish desires (I’m going to plead guilty on that one!).

    There is more I could say, but I‘m going to stoop to name dropping and leave with a few Clark Pinnock quotes:

    “No system [other than democratic capitalism] has been so helpful to the poor and provided such opportunity to rise out of suffering.”

    “Democratic capitalism at least does not shackle the dynamic creativity of people which is the very source of wealth creation and then replace it with a vast bureaucracy which is notoriously inefficient and basically serves the ruling class in the system.”

    “While market economies have been remarkably successful in raising the standard of living of whole populations, welfare states intended to serve the poor primarily increase the well-being of the administering bureaucracies.”

    As always, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and inviting us into your living room, as you once said of this blog.

  • Thanks for this post – I’m sharing on Facebook.

  • John H

    The morality of capitalism is an interesting question. Among those that oppose it, there seems to be the feeling that capitalism creates greed. Certainly, advertising attempts to increase demand for “necessities” that are not strictly necessary. However, my reading of scripture is that greed preceded modern capitalism. Indeed, there is a commandment about not coveting. I know of no economic system that will remove greed from humanity. Competing economic systems like communism often hide the greed; but somehow the powerful end still up with the “goodies.” Much of this is part of the fallen world in which we live. The idea of unregulated capitalism seems to be a straw man. If laissez-faire capitalism has ever existed, I am unaware of the time or circumstances. Perhaps the gilded age of the late 19th century comes the closest. Certainly we are now in a time where mass media wields larger influence in elections making large sums of money a necessity for election is a democracy. That tends to make politicians favor wealth supporters and promotes crony capitalism as we saw during the recent financial crises and subsequent to it with the Solyndra loan guarantees and other subsidies to industries who made political contributions. (Not to be partisan, both parties need the money to get elected and both reward their contributors.) However, anyone who thinks modern American capitalism is unregulated never tried to make a living as a small businessman. There are regulations on who you can hire, how much you must pay, work place safety, how you must control manufacturing effluents, how you must label products, licensing requirements, some aspects of pricing, and much much more. The state capitalism that many of us boomers grew up with is gone. The large world dominant American companies who paid high union wages for low skilled work, and cooperatively fixed prices with each other and the government were an artifact of American economic dominance in a world recovering from the devastation of World War II. Once other nations re-industrialized after the war, in the absence of horrendous tariffs, American companies were going to see foreign competition. That has made things harder here but arguably better around the world. Wal-Mart has lifted more third world people out of grinding poverty than that all the development projects of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, NGOs, and the churches. In many cases this has been done through the kind of “sweat shops” discussed by the author in the context of Mardi Gras beads. These “sweat shops” pose a fascinating moral question. People work in them voluntarily because they live in societies where the other options are worse. The moral question is whether it is more terrible to have the sweat shops and “exploit” the workers or not have them and deny the workers the opportunity to earn more and live, even marginally, better than they could otherwise. In the best of all possible worlds, sweat shops would disappear and everyone would earn a comfortable living wage. Enough of the countries where there were sweat shops are moving in this direction to make one hope that this is a natural progression of globalization. Certainly where we are now is far from ideal. However, it remains to see whether there is a viable alternative and to understand the effective path there. Many of the utopian cures for capitalism (e.g., fascism and communism) have been far worse than the disease they purport to cure. Any economic improvement must take into account the fallen nature of those implementing it and those affected by it.

    • rogereolson

      Surely we are not forever stuck with only two alternatives–neo-liberal capitalism (which wants to bring back laissez faire capitalism) and communism. In fact, these are not the only two alternatives. Look at Scandinavia. Sure, there are things about Scandinavian societies I don’t like, but they are simply proof that the above mentioned two alternatives are not the only ones.

    • Joshua

      “The idea of unregulated capitalism seems to be a straw man. If laissez-faire capitalism has ever existed, I am unaware of the time or circumstances.”

      The IDEA is certainly not a straw-man. Even mention regulating the markets, and in conservative circles you are accused of being a communist and socialist (apparently they don’t understand the difference). Laissez-fair capitalism might never have existed IN FACT, but the IDEA is standard dogma among many conservatives, including much of my family. I hear it whenever it comes up. They’re convinced (based on a very selective revision of history over the last century) that regulating the markets drives costs up, employment down, and employers away.

      Of course, they wouldn’t hold to this if pressed, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of deregulations will help, rather than hurt, our economy.

      • rogereolson

        Yes, I know it is an idea. I just wonder if it has ever been tried in a modern, industrialized society like ours. We came close, I think, in the late 19th century, but backed away when we saw monopolies expanding and threatening to become more powerful than the government. We are getting back there, I think.

        • John I.

          The late 19th century highlights the importance not only of laws, but the administration of those laws. Judges of the time were great supporters of laissez-faire and of the inviolability of contracts–even if they were one-sided due to power imbalance and so extremely unfair and unconscionable. Laws were passed that entrenched this type of approach and economy.

          One can never avoid “capital”, and the terms “capitalism” and “communism” merely mask where it is and who controls it. At the time of John Lock, when capital was not yet concentrated in corporations, but in the hands of nobility and the richer merchant class, he developed a theoretical connection between one’s own production and one’s own capital. This connection is largely illusory, but the concept that capital and the control thereof should be widely dispersed and not concentrated is still very valid. Dispersal of capital can only happen in an economy that is open (in terms of information and entry into markets), regulated, and taxed.

          • rogereolson

            In recent years Brazil has undergone an economic miracle partly by “spreading the wealth around.” The rich were hoarding wealth. By putting some of it in the hands of the poor and lower middle class purchasing rose and the economy expanded.

    • Joshua

      Also, “The moral question is whether it is more terrible to have the sweat shops and “exploit” the workers or not have them and deny the workers the opportunity to earn more and live, even marginally, better than they could otherwise.”

      No, the moral question is whether or not (store name deleted) needs to pay its employees so little in order for them to make so much? This is so typical – believing that (store name deleted) is actually doing people a favor by exploiting (not scare-quotes – they are, in fact, exploiting them) on the basis that the alternative is worse, saying that, “It’s their choice,” even as they themselves admit that the alternative “choice” makes it so that there really is no choice.

      • John I.

        calling it either voluntary or better than otherwise masks and avoids our responsibility for both creating the situation and for remedying it.

    • James Petticrew

      “People work in them voluntarily” …. If they have no other choices except starve it’s hardly voluntarily.

  • Ken

    I would suggest that comments like “godless this and godless that” referring to economic systems are in general foolish. Not sure where one ends up if somone can create an economic system that removes opportunity, desire? Remember the Greeks taught us “without freedom there can be no virtue”. I do tire of the constant advertising, especially of fast food. However, the problem is worse than that when I drive by at least half a dozen fastfood resturants anytime I leave my house. Having a great deal of anything takes personal discipline – and well I fail from time to time. So you have the special elites determing who has enough so the rest of us don’t self-abuse. A better answer for me is to live openly with my virtuous friends and encourage one another.
    You could save the moniker of godless for Michael Foucault. If he were alive I believe he would take it as a compliment.

    • Joshua

      “Remember the Greeks taught us ‘without freedom there can be no virtue.'”

      I suppose the problem is: we don’t seem to be more virtuous with it.

      • rogereolson

        There is a difference between freedom as ability to act responsibly and freedom as in “I have the right to be unlimited”–a current advertising campaign slogan.

  • Joshua

    “In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that for a Christian pastor to preach a sermon critical of capitalism along the lines of Bell’s book he or she would be in more danger of losing his or her job than if he or she preached against the Trinity.”

    Absolutely. Failing that, it would certainly drive certain congregants out of the church, in the same way that Greg Boyd’s “Myth of a Christian Nation” did. This is the unfortunate result of holding to political/economic convictions with religious fervor, while holding to ACTUAL religious convictions with NO fervor. I can’t think of a clearer case for nationalistic idolatry.

  • Percival

    It’s been many years since I read Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, but I remember it differently. It struck me, at the time, that his defense was based on the idea that free enterprise rewards those who serve others which allows them to serve more people. My memory is notoriously faulty though, and your recommendation to read both books is sound.

    • rogereolson

      In my opinion, Novak there stretches very far and hard to make such counterintuitive claims for capitalism.

  • JohnD

    Oh dear me. You can’t be going there, Dr. Olson. You can’t be falling for it. You must re-read Moral Man and Immoral Society again in full. Moralists like Bell lack, in Niebuhr’s words, “an understanding of the brutal character of the behavior of all human collectives…Failure to recognize the stubborn resistance of group egoism to all moral and inclusive social objectives inevitably involves them in unrealistic and confused political thought.”

    Do not be confused.

    And the essence of Capitalism is not desire or consumerism. It is freedom. Get that wrong and all errors flow forth.

    • rogereolson

      Who says Bell is advocating “collectives?” I don’t see it so far. Do you know something I don’t know about Bell? Have you read the book? Surely “collectivism” is not the only alternative to neo-liberal capitalism. And who says “freedom” is the highest good?

      • JohnD

        Niebuhr’s use of the word “collective” is not in the limited form you think. It is the counterpoint of the individual, whether in “races, class or nations.” In that respect, it is indeed what Bell is advocating, de facto.

        Nor did I say that “freedom” was the “highest good,” but that it is the essence of capitalism, as opposed to “desire” or “consumerism.” If you get this wrong, the discussion will never be right.

        • rogereolson

          You just need to read Bell’s book and then respond.

      • Kevin McKee

        I think the comment regarding “freedom” is very telling. The theology that espouses that “greatest of rights individual freedom” is not christianity, it is libertarianism. That position, which lies at the heart of neo-liberal capitalism is what is causing all the problems of capitalism. Christ calls us into community, not individualism. I am not an advocate of communism or collectivism, but I am an advocate of communitarianism and limitations on the capitalist ideal. Some of your notes regarding this book harken back to a small book written in the 60’s “Small is Beautiful”, which argued partly from a religious perspective for capitalism that limited itself in community betterment, rather than strictly corporate growth.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi JohnD,
      I agree with you about the essence of Capitalism – allowing the buyers and sellers to work it out on their own without some bully telling them what the terms of sale have to be. I can’t think of anything more evenhanded and liberating than the freedom proposed by the free market. It may not be the ultimate highest good in life, but for a group of both believing and non-believing people, it’s the best I’ve seen actually work.
      I’d be interested to know what Bell might propose to remedy or replace those things he dislikes. Of course we know generally what it is, but it would be interesting for him to put it forward with a defense.

      • rogereolson

        I doubt you know what it is. I’ll blog about that later–after I’ve finished the whole book. 🙂 But in response to your first statement, what do you think about laws prohibiting gouging–for example in the aftermath of a hurricane when, without such laws, people would pour into the area charging $10 for a glass of water?

        • Tim Reisdorf

          … Laws prohibiting gouging – I dislike those laws. Your own one-sentence story betrays itself; if people are pouring into the area to sell water at $10 per glass, then some enterprising soul will also wander into the disaster area to sell for $9 per glass. Others will also pour in (seeing how much money the last guy made) to sell water for $8 per glass until a balance is achieved. Markets will balance over time so both the buyer and seller will be happy. It is the silly laws that prohibit gouging or set price floors that screw up the market.

          Bell will propose a government control over various aspects of the market. It may be dressed up with fancy phrases like “Smart government”, but it is all the same. Either people have freedom to trade with each other or some entity will control it to a greater or lesser degree. If people can’t be trusted to buy and sell on their own, then the people in charge will make rules about it.

          • rogereolson

            You are assuming too much about Bell’s alternative. Read the book. He doesn’t go where you think he will go at all. I do; he doesn’t. (So far as I can see at this point.) Obviously we think very differently about these matters and probably always will. We are entrenched in our own views. I think one of government’s main jobs is to protect the weak and the poor.

        • Andy

          Tim and I seem to agree on these economic matters, but I’ll add a reply, anyway. I learn a lot here and am usually over my head on most topics 🙂

          The classic case is ice after a hurricane. If you leave the price the same (which is artificially low after a hurricane), then a house of guys will buy up a store’s ice for a hurricane beer party. But if the price is allowed to rise, maybe from $1 to $10, then the customer who needs ice to keep his insulin cold will have a supply available to him. The higher price sorts out the true need. At the artificially low price, there is no ice available to the medical customer who would gladly pay $10. The same happened to me on hotel rooms after a hurricane: At a higher price for one room I decided against 2 rooms and crowded all 4 kids on the floor in one room for the night. But taking only one room because of the higher price left anothert room available for someone else, not because of my niceness, but because the price encouraged me to keep it to one room.

          • rogereolson

            The clear solution is to, after a hurricane, limit purchases of necessities such as ice.

          • John I.

            Who does the limiting? and for what reasons? And by what process? And how do we know or check if it is being done fairly? or if it is achieving its stated aims? All of that leads to extensive and expensive bureaucracy. Moreover, it necessitates a central planning and a non-economic way of assigning value–and behold the success of Russia, Cuba, etc. in doing so.

            Furthermore, it is self-evidently difficult to get people to agree on the assigning of values, given that their worldviews and senses of values differ so greatly. Moreover, narrow self-interest often leads people to assign far greater value to their own needs vs. the needs of others. Who settles the disagreement and how?

            The virtues of economic assignment of value is that such decisions are made quickly, at a low level (i.e., personally, no bureaucracy), in / with a more neutral medium ($), with a medium that is tradeable for incommensurable goods (i.e., one may not want to trade an apple for an orange, but would trade an apple for money which can then be used to buy oranges). And though there are frequent and often troublesome exceptions, by and large the monetary value of something does reflect the value given to the object or action by the participants to the transaction.

            Hence, after a hurricane, the monetary assignment of value leads quickly to a higher valuation of hotel rooms by both the owner and the renters, leads simultaneously to quick decisions to squeeze into one room, and to the immediate availability of the other room. To assign the room by limitations of necessities would require a bureaucracy, the time to set one up, the time to access and use the bureaucracy, bureaucratic penalties to avoid favouritism and inside deals, etc. One only needs to look at Africa or South America to see how government assignment of necessities leads to vast corruption and inequality.

            No easy answers.

    • John I.

      All economies use capital.

      The important issues include “who controls it?”, “who benefits?”, “how is it distributed?”, and “how is it regulated?”.

      One cannot give a blanket blessing to a particular nation’s economy just because the simplistic term “capitalist” is used to describe it.

  • Don

    Capitalism can be abused but that isn’t the fault of capitalism; rather, it is the fault of abusive people. The system itself is the best one ever devised to bring the best products to the greatest number of people. If someone is working for a bad company, capitalism allows that person to take his/her skills to another employer. An employee can do this any number of times until he/she finds a company that treats its employees well or the person can form a company. When goods are cheap, the same people that make the cheap goods and receive little pay, can afford more goods because goods are cheap. Cheap goods enhance the lives of ordinary people. Ordinary people today have luxuries the very wealthy could only dream of in the past. No one wants to pay more for a good than he/she has to. I’ll bet when you went shopping for the computer you are using right now, you sought out the best product you could buy at the best price. Capitalism allowed you to do that. Any other system would have provided you with a shoddy product. Competition is built into the human spirit and as long as contestants play be the rules, it is fair and good. Companies are not “too big to fail”. What happened was that a quasi-socialist government decided to bail them out. That isn’t the fault of capitalism. Capitalism with a safety net for the truly disadvantaged, truly disabled and the elderly is the best economic system ever invented.

    • rogereolson

      You haven’t addressed the main points I made based on Bell’s theological critique of capitalism.

    • Joshua

      You don’t think that there are companies too big to fail? Do you believe that our biggest banks can tank and our economy would still be stable? It kind of makes it difficult to understand the recession we’re just beginning to pull out of. The only thing “too big to fail” means is that allowing them to go out of business puts our whole economy in jeopardy. I’ve heard people argue about the justice of it all, or the necessity of it all – I have never once heard someone argue the non-existence of it all.

    • John I.

      It is, in fact, a result or product of the system itself, and not merely the people in it. Structures (laws, institutions, social mores, etc.) shape, constrain, and direct peoples goals, actions, and possibilities. These aspects of the “system” are extremely powerful. Moreover, the embedding of the system allows people to justify their actions on the basis of conformity to the accepted system and to avoid engaging in critique or taking responsibility.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Capitalism is an easy punching bag. It can and has been used for very evil endeavors. It is an analog to democracy in the political arena. Democracy is the worst sort of political system – except for all the others. So it is also with Capitalism and the competing economic models.
    TBTF is an excuse people use not to bring justice to the situation – and the situation gets perpetuated. The idea of the tail wagging the dog (then becoming the dog) seems right on.
    People actually have gone to prison for the loan deals of the 2000’s. They made loans to people that are not likely to ever repay, and then quickly resell these loans to other banks mixed in with better loans so their tracks (and butts) are covered. Loan bundling has been a serious problem that has not been adequately addressed IMHO.
    I think that a proper Christian response to difficulties of Capitalism is to live simply and live small, to guard the wallet and the mind, to be open-handed to the needy and miserly to the greedy (ourselves, marketers, government, etc.).

    • rogereolson

      I just read an article the other day claiming that nobody has gone to prison based on his or her involvement in bringing about the Great Recession. Can you name one who has?

      • Pam Hall

        We grew up in the same area at the same time. I remember being taught in school that we would NEVER have to worry about facing another Great Depression, because lessons were learned and laws were put in place that would prevent that from ever happening again. (the Banking Act of 1933) As we now know, over the decades, lobbyists for Wall St. banks worked tirelessly to rid the country of these pesky laws and in 1999 largely managed to (they have yet to kill the FDIC ) We all remember Bernie Madoff, guilty of losing rich and famous peoples’ money in a ponzi scheme. He will remain in prison for life+ for his horendous crimes. The rest of us are left to wonder …..welllll, what about the rest of us, doesn’t what happened to everyone else matter? While the answer to that seemed to be welllll…….noooooo; maybe not so fast. The Newly Elected Elizabeth Warren is on the Senate Banking Committee!!! She asked the regulators the other day “When did you last prosecute a banker! “(you know the ones) They couldn’t tell her, which tells You they Haven’t. I get a feeling Wall Street bankers will not like Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts.

  • Jack Harper

    Professor, Bells book sounds like a prophetic word for our time. In your reading this book, did you detect any social gospel motif or was it strictly that capitalism appears unchristian? Was he implying that wealth in and of itself is bad or unchristian like?

    • rogereolson

      Not wealth in and of itself but disordered desire is the pernicious product of capitalism (according to Bell).

  • Steve Rogers

    As others have noted, terms like greedy, exploitative, power abusive and the like are human characteristics. Whatever the economic system it will always be limited by the character of those driving it. Given the huge ecological impact of extraction (oil, mining), the wars being fought over control of resources, the “volunteer” slavery so widespread to service mindless consumerism, and the incredible income disparity that is being promoted and vigorously defended in many seats of power, I agree that it is time for us all to rethink our participation in this way of doing things.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great article Roger, and another book for the reading list! The following thoughts were mostly jotted down as I read. They came to mind with little effort, and this may be obvious. Yet, no comments have suggested anything along this line. Maybe my thinking is twisted.

    “And it is impossible to opt out of it.”
    A kind of irresistible ‘grace’

    “But sometimes I “just have to have that..” “.
    Your will has been altered such that you are exercising your ‘free’ will in a manner compatible with the merchant.

    ” I feel manipulated”
    And we have been.

    “Capitalism is an economic system of disordered desire. Even if it “works,” Bell argues, it is contrary to the spirit of Christ.”
    Are there any theological systems about which we might draw similar conclusions?

    “Those are not distortions of capitalism, either; they are necessary for capitalism to work. So even governments devoted to capitalism have to join in their promotion.”
    Do we know of any theological systems that have influenced politics in a similar manner?

    “If Bell is right, Novak is totally wrong about Christian theology supporting capitalism……. if Novak is right (to defend capitalism because it works…..”
    It’s a logical system, right? How can it not be right?

    “……..Novak there stretches very far and hard to make such counterintuitive claims for capitalism.”
    Stretching far and wide is usually a prerequisite to making counterintuitive claims.

    “And who says “freedom” is the highest good?”
    Well, if it has been ‘given’ by the ‘good’ so as to make us compliant (compatible) it can become close to the highest good.

    “The difference is the workers are there “voluntarily” and get paid. ”
    Hunger has its way with the human will. Witness child workers everywhere that they can be found – which is far too many places.

    “….the fact that capitalism “works” (for a lot of people) is an important question compared with what work it does.”
    There has to be a lesson here on the theological side as well.

    “….a major “waking up” moment was the U.S. government’s bailouts of major banks and financial corporations.”
    When and how will ‘ the great gettin’ up mornin’ come for much of evangelical theology?

    “I would go so far as to suggest that for a Christian pastor to preach a sermon critical of capitalism along the lines of Bell’s book he or she would be in more danger of losing his or her job than if he or she preached against the Trinity.” Or, at least have so much ‘splanin’ to do that he/she? might as well quit.

    And, I can’t resist extending Don’s comment “When goods are cheap, the same people that make the cheap goods and receive little pay, can afford more goods because goods are cheap.”
    So we should all work for nothing so everything can be free. Isn’t this where Dr. Olson’s post began?

  • MF

    Great thoughts… Sounds like a book I’m going to have to read. It does seem that capitalism has become somewhat of a runaway train – moving well beyond its ideals of personal freedom and opportunity. As you point out, the consumerist desire it feeds seems almost impossible to resist. Rampant capitalism is not to blame for the origins of greed, but it sure does give it fertile soil in which to flourish. Personal freedom is an important value, but surely so is compassion and justice for our fellow humans – if unchecked capitalism causes the unjust treatment of others in order that our personal desires might be satiated, then perhaps we need to re-examine our own hearts… at least I know that I do! And if, as nations of consumers, we are finding the overwhelming tide of the system too difficult to swim against, then perhaps it is time to review the system itself.

  • Ken

    It is probably doubtful that there are any pure economic systems out there. That seems to be one of the main points in the book “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”, just in case someone is looking for a good read from a leading economist. I do favor a system that’s essential element values freedom over security. Not sure if I’m understanding, Dr. Olsen , why you so disfavor the American Government bailout of the banks. A pure capitalistic system would have left the banks to fail. A communistic system would own the banks. So are you favoring a more pure capitalistic system ours being too socialistic?

    • rogereolson

      I favor a system that regulates banks and other corporations so that none become “too big to fail” or are allowed to engage in financial practices that endanger the whole economy.

      • Josh T.

        I’m currently reading a book written by Neil Barofsky, the former Inspector General in charge of monitoring the TARP program. It’s a fairly interesting read if anyone wants to look it up (it’s called Bailout). I think Barofsky would concede that a bailout of some sort was necessary, but he would contend that the details of TARP were handled very poorly (including ignoring warnings and suggestions from the Inspector General), consistently favoring the banks and hurting other types of business entities, homeowners, and taxpayers.

        I personally think it might be possible to bailout the institutions and then effectively regulate them to reduce the risk of further problems, but it appears that both Bush and Obama administrations did not handle that as well as they could.

  • Thanks for this review. I just ordered Dr. Bell’s book since this is the first I have heard of it. I took his ethics course at LTSS about six years ago.

    I often wonder how much better off we would be if our tax system had been based on taxing of consumption rather than incomes, profits, and investments, and our economy had been based more on investment, learning, and intellectual development than on consumer spending. I believe we would be a much more frugal, more peaceful, less worldly and happier people today. And of course our environmental impact would be much less than in our current economy that both depends on and thrives on spending and consumption.

    Capitalism is fine. Consumerism is a disaster.

    • rogereolson

      See today’s post on this. I had already composed it before seeing your comment.

  • hevangel

    I haven’t read Bell’s book, but from what I have read from this blog entry, I have good reason to believe Bell is just attacking a straw-man version of Capitalism.

    For example, real Capitalism would not tell people spend their disposable incoming buying useless things, instead they should invest their disposable incoming.

    I highly recommend the reading of “Capitalism, the unknown Ideal” by Ayn Rand to understand what capitalism REALLY is.

    • rogereolson

      Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand. The nemesis of everything compassionate and kind. I watched an old video of her on youtube (a segment of Phil Donohue’s talk show from the 1970s) scolding people for being charitable. I read all of Ayn Rands books long ago and concluded her philosophy is the opposite of anything even remotely resembling Christianity.

  • Aaron

    Great stuff Roger. It amazes me that not only are these banks “too big to fail”, but now also it seems “too big to prosecute”. Another blog I enjoy following is that of William K Black, a former bank regulator during the S&L crisis and professor of economics and law at UMKC. He has a book out called, “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One”, that I would recommend anyone read if time permits. I first began getting interested in this when I took my first forensic accounting class a year and a half ago. Ever since I’ve been convinced that the average American simply doesn’t know how big of an issue fraud really is, and the best thing to do is get the information out.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, I’ve been a victim of this myself. Many years ago I put some savings into a CD at a “financial institution” that bore a name with the word “bank” in it. It was a S&L. (Most people here probably don’t even remember the huge S&L scandal and recession it caused in the 1980s). Before purchasing the CD, however, I called the state’s banking commissioner who reported to me over the phone that he had no reason to believe the S&L/financial institution was in any trouble. Soon after that it collapsed and I lost most of the money. (Some of it came back in increments over several years as the state liquidated its assets and distributed them to depositors.) News reports made clear that the state banking commissioner WAS investigating the S&L and had good reason to suspect it was in serious trouble even though he reported to me it was not. As it turns out, the state banking commissioner was conducting a fraud investigation at that time (of the S&L) but not telling anyone–including prospective depositors. Eventually the S&L’s principles all went to prison. They were involved in blatant fraud and the banking commissioner was really not hindering it until it was too late.

  • PatrickG

    If anyone honestly thinks that this is “capitalism unfettered by regulations,” said anyone needs to take a look at the real world, stat. There are enormous volumes of regulation, which, by the very nature of regulation, allow well-connected groups to evade the rules while the rest of us are crushed. Btw, too big to fail is itself a kind of regulation- in unfettered capitalism, the market would have wiped the offending banks from existence. Oddly (not really), it was the statist, the interventionist, who wanted to save the banks from the discipline of the market.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not convinced that is the case.

  • David Naas

    Thank you for this article and review. For more years than I can want to contemplate, I have been arguing against the absurd confluence of conservatism (Edmund Burke style) and the subservience paid to rampaging capitalism. Both “godless communism” and “godless capitalism” are destructive of society, of family, of church. Why “conservatives” have been reluctant to speak of this is evident — their jobs at university, press, or pulpit have been paid for by the people with money. Even Russel Kirk felt the need to abandon Burkean conservatism for a dash of “business conservatism” from time to time. Maybe if the rabid rightists and loony leftists can be marginalized, we can rationally approach our brave new world.

  • John I.

    Fodder for the debate: Argentina in the 1990s followed the IMF policies and requirements re economic reform towards Chicago school* style capitalism. The result was a disaster for most people.

    *The Chicago school of economics has also been very influential in legal decisions concerning contract law, etc.

  • John I.

    One should also note that Brazil, like Argentina, followed a policy of (1) economic / business deregulation and (2) directly linking the local currency the U.S.. dollar (Argentina went for a strict 1 to 1 linking, Brazil’s linking was more loose).

  • Y

    Jesus, our most famous Jew, encouraged cooperation; he also spoke very harshly to those who incorporated competition into their ideas of salvation. And yet, after almost two thousand years, we are still fighting. “My daddy (God) is bigger than your daddy (God)” and “My daddy (God) likes me more than he likes you.” Not until we stop limiting The Sacred Spirit to the faces and motivations of humanity will we “get” it. We all have places on the tree of life, if we simply choose to grow as a small part of a huge system, not worrying about whether the blossom is better than the bark, or the leaves are more important than the seeds. In the grand scheme of nature, even death feeds new life.

    In the tiny Appalachian community of Coker Creek, there is still the institutional memory for the most American of values, cooperation. In industrialized America, we have forgotten these virtues; greed has long since supplanted human need. It is a travesty of Christianity to continue to call America a Christian country while we allow corporations to create poverty for the majority of our citizenry. Poverty is, and always has been, powerlessness. Slavery, lack of access to conception control, and herding of humans into cages for the purposes of corporate convenience has created a frightened caged-animal society.

    In the beginnings of American immigration law, we had people declare their abilities and prove that they had places to contribute to our society in productive manners. We also had families and friends identified who would vouch for those entering our country. Our corporations are protected from any responsibility in the dehumanizing affects of creating their human automatons, and yet our Supreme Court offers them protections as people with conscience and culpability. There is no Christianity in corporations because there is no personal accountability. Christians are, by definition, cooperative and accountable to each other.

    Christian cooperation still works in parts of rural America. Those who have been around forever don’t easily accept outsiders; they look for others of “good (productive) character” to vouch for the integrity of the newcomers. They are happy to teach you what they know about survival, but only answer questions that others respectfully ask. The community long survived by trading goods, information, and talents with neighbors. Much is accomplished by barter.

    Unfortunately, without increasing the numbers of families willing to go back to the times when we knew and taught the difference between need and greed, our country continues to make a mockery of the bedrock values that made Judeo-Christianity (and our early small communities) great. Unfettered capitalism has replaced Judeo-Christianity, pretending that worldly material success and leadership by fear is “God” ordained.

    We continue to feed the anonymous, unaccountable masses created by corporate greed, crumbs from our tables to keep them out of our orchards, where they should be picking the ten percent we leave on our vines. We don’t press them to learn how to do for themselves by assisting and asking respectful questions of those who know how to “make do.” We treat children and the poor like dogs that are acceptable as long as they are not visible or raising their voices.

    We have allowed religions to hand out tax-payer funds as if they were donations of charity. We have created a devil’s deal by allowing clergy to preside over legal contracts. The “God’ that is on our money is the god of greed. The “God” in our Pledge of Allegiance is the god of war. Is it any wonder that so many of our youth are anesthetizing themselves instead of continuing to search for good examples in their own communities? Is it any wonder that so many people are rejecting the man-made faces of “God?”

    The mission of the masses is to see and connect to The Sacred Spirit in all of society. We must help each other to identify, trade, and teach our strengths fairly and respectfully. Maybe rural boot camps for all citizens would be a place to start. It was successful as The CCC during The Great Depression; it can succeed again. Coker Creek could serve as a model classroom. Mountain Mama Mamie could be our Appalachian Survival School’s dean.

    The Ruritan Club could serve as headquarters, and the Coker Creek Elementary School could teach Appalachian community ways. Housing and additional classroom space for teachers and students could be provided by Coker Creek Christian Camp, Coker Creek Village, and the various rental properties in the area. The Heritage group could recruit instructors and advertise programs. The properties that are being used in the traditional ways would be classrooms for practical internships.

    Let’s create communities instead of relying on the bubbles that corporations build and destroy at will.