Godless Capitalism?

Godless Capitalism? February 17, 2013

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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