Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Anti-Capitalism: An Incoherent and Inadequate Position

Further to the last post, some of my interlocutors on this blog might be insulted to have me call them "socialist." They probably think of themselves as "Anti-Capitalists" (and in some cases as "Anarchists.") Anti-Capitalism attributes all the evil in the world to capitalism and uses capitalism as a catch-all for everything that is dark, evil and harmful to flowers and bunnies. But what can anti-capitalism mean in 2009 except some form of socialism (or conservatism, but my interlocutors clearly reject that)?

I actually think that a lot of people who are attracted to theology (and literature, history, art, and other liberal disciplines) do not really think the issue through very carefully. All the academic and cool people are anti-capitalists and only up-tight, middle-class conservatives and rich businessmen are capitalists. So they end up attending anti-globalization protests and voting for Obama by default. They are what used to be called "fellow-travellers" by the conservatives and "useful idiots" by the hard left.

Somewhere Yoder wrote that, as bad as Constantinianism is, anti-Constantinianism can be just as bad. Whenever a black and white ideology (or anti-ideology) begins to take hold, there is the temptation to reform the world at one fell swoop and this over-reach always leads to disaster. Yoder always argued for piecemeal reform focusing on one injustice at a time and looking for modest, but postive results. He was highly suspicious of such ideas as solving the problems of the world by eliminating capitalism. Anti-capitalism is as disreputable an idea as anti-Constantinianism, in my opinion.

When you talk about capitalism, it is necessary to distinguish between aspects of capitalism that arose in the Enlightenment (see Adam Smith for example) from aspects of pre-Enlightenment Western culture that are part of the modern, captialist culture.

Think, for example, of the concept of limited government. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece and the various Aztec empires had no such concept. It is a contribution of the Christian West (with honorable mention to the early Roman republicans). Rooted in Augustine's philosophy of history, the doctrine of the Two arose as a primitive but highly suggestive division of powers. The idea that the Emperor is not all-powerful and that subjects have a powerful defender in the Church is embedded in the fabric of Western civilization - and is one of its glories. If you want to talk about the origins of the idea of limited government, you have to go back to the Magna Carta, the English revolution, and the evolution of Parliamentry democracy.

Or take the notion of private property. Last time I checked, the Ten Commandments were acknowledged by even the most radical German higher critics to pre-date the Enlightenment. The notion of private property changed radically in the post-Enlightenment period as the notion of ownership changed from that of possession to that of consumption. (See Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, pp. 118f) Land was not always just a commodity; there was a time when the idea of enjoying the land for its own sake and the notion of a hereditary responsibility for preserving it for the sake of the community as a whole was not unknown in England.

My point is that Anti-Capitalism is just not sophisticated or nuanced enough to understand what has been lost in the Enlightenment and it has no tradition of though to look to in order to prevent it from swerving from one extreme (individualism) to the other (collectivism). Conservatism is not an ideology, but is in essence a reverence for tradition. Of course, reverence for a tradition is stupid unless there exists a tradition that is humane and good. Modern political correctness notwithstanding, I believe that there is much that is worthy of respect and honour in the Western tradition and to adopt an ahistorical anti-capitalism and anti-Constantinianism is to place oneself at the tender mercies of a modern collectivism that has ravaged the 20th century and shown itself to be even worse than the ancient collectivism that Westen Christendom transcended.

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