Putin, the Pope and Steve Bannon

Putin, the Pope and Steve Bannon November 22, 2016

Buzzfeed has posted a transcript of a 2014 talk that Trump strategist Steve Bannon gave to a meeting of the Human Dignity Institute, an effort to promote Christian faith in European politics.

Bannon’s main target is “crony capitalism,” which was most obviously manifest in the bailout of the banks after the 2008 bubble burst. No one was held responsible, no one was prosecuted. That was the moment, he thinks, when ordinary people realized that neither the political nor the financial system cared about them at all. Bannon sounds for all the world like a recent Democratic candidate for President: “the financial crisis . . . is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks.” The bailouts were “absolutely outrageous” because they “bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management.” And these accountable parties were bailed out by “middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites.”

For Bannon, the deep problem with crony capitalism is that it detaches economic life from its foundations in Judeo-Christian beliefs: “if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did.” This earlier form of religiously-founded capitalism generated enormous wealth and raised up a middle class.

Today’s capitalism enriches the few, but inequality isn’t the most fundamental problem. Bannon thinks the root problem is “a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.” This is evident in “state-sponsored capitalism” in China and Russia. This is the kind of capitalism that Francis I witnessed in Argentina and the kind of capitalism he opposes. It is “a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people.” Detached from the guidance of Christian faith, crony capitalism sets up “a different set of rules for the people that make the rules.”

Bannon thinks that “the Ayn Rand or Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism” has the same basic problem. Sounding like a Catholic personalist philosopher, Bannon condemns a capitalism that “looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost—as many of the precepts of Marx—and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive.” Christians in business and finance should be guided by a set of theological/ethical questions: “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”

Bannon makes clear that he considers Putin’s Russia a “kleptocracy” and a form of crony capitalism. At the same time, “we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what [Putin’s] talking about as far as traditionalism goes—particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism—and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. . . . Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he’s playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it’s something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand.”

I’m not a fan of Breitsnark News. And Bannon doesn’t convince me that “strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors.” Bannon doesn’t reckon with the potential evils of nationalist movements. If capitalism becomes corrosive when detached from Judeo-Christian moorings, so does secular nationalism, which easily slips into a substitute religion, sometimes an aggressively violent one.

It’s clear from the transcript, though, that Bannon’s worldview is religious not racist. Only someone who takes “Judeo-Christian” as a code phrase for “white” would think otherwise. In short: It’s the religion, stupid.

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