Monday, November 1, 2010

Capitalism, Socialism and Theological Anthropology

My friend, Matthew Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy, has a post discussing the recent debate between Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute and Jim Wallis of Sojourners at Wheaton College in which he marvels at how similar the two of them sounded. He writes:

The real story of the evening, though, was how similar Wallis and Brooks sounded throughout the night. Wallis was clear he did not want to destroy capitalism, but called it a “tool” that should be evaluated by its fruits. He spoke positively of the importance of trade at lifting countries out of poverty, and suggested he wanted a multi-faceted approach to solving income inequality. Throughout the evening, he positioned himself as a pragmatist who simply wanted to do what works. If he is opposed to capitalism, it is entirely on those grounds.

At the same time, Brooks was able to affirm that equal opportunity sometimes required intervention by the government in order to level the playing field, particularly (and maybe exclusively) in the realm of education. At that point, he took over the pragmatic mantle and suggested that government simply hasn’t done a good job in that sector. The clearest moment of agreement came when Brooks hammered subsidies for the way they give America and Europe an unfair advantage in sectors like cotton, a critique that Wallis gave full-throated affirmation to.

Not finding any great philosophical of theological difference between the two worries Anderson. He suspects that the bigger questions are ones of theological anthropology rather than economics:

I have reservations that beneath Wallis’ positions lie an anthropology that treats humans as primarily consumers, rather than creators and producers. I haven’t read enough (though I’m changing that) to know that for sure, so I register it simply as a worry. Either way, it would have been interesting for the conversation to move into those deeper questions. The question “what “works?” begs a gigantic “for what?” and that latter question is not properly the realm of economics, but is rather the sphere of theological anthropology.
On this point I heartily agree with Anderson and think that he is moving in exactly the direction we need to go. But his (admittedly tentative) conclusion somewhat surprised me.
Finally, I have become increasingly convinced that the central problems of our global society are not tied to whether our society is capitalist or socialist, but whether it is consumerist and materialist–which everyone seems to be. I am not suggesting that capitalism and socialism are equally productive of human flourishing. I happen to think they are not. But capitalism tied to materialism and consumerism may be far more destructive to society than when socialism is so tied. That doesn’t mean that we should solve the problem by substituting socialism instead. That would be simply to try to remove the symptom without curing the disease. But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life.
What does it mean for society to be "consumerist" or "materialist"? What do these terms even mean? They do have a certain meaning when used within a Marxist analysis of the evils of capitalist society, but is that the same as their meaning within a Christian analysis of sin and sanctification? I suspect not. Many people use a Marxist approach to link economic growth, free enterprise, materialism and consumerism together as part of one great evil called capitalism. This seems to me to confuse matters greatly because the last two items on that list are sinful distortions of the first two items, which themselves are necessary to human flourishing.

I agree that we cannot eliminate consumerism and materialism by implementing socialism; the Eastern Europeans were highly materialistic and consumerist under Communism and one of the main things they wanted after throwing off the Soviet yoke was Western consumer goods. Where I think Matthew loses his focus a bit is in the final sentence where he seems to yield for a moment to the Utopian temptation by writing:
But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life.
Capitalism is an economic system designed for a fallen world in which Christianity has great influence and part of that influence in the cultivation of a healthy skepticism about the degree to which fallen human nature can be overcome in this age between the first and second comings of Christ. Capitalism can be viewed as a set of institutional arrangements designed to civilize greed in much the same way as marriage is designed to civilize lust. A system that understands that (1) humans are selfish and (2) humans are social and need each other to flourish and then comes up with a plan to make #1 contribute to #2 is ingenious. Admittedly, this is not a very Utopian view of the world; but that is not a bug, as they say, but a feature.

I understand the impulse that leads one to throw up one's hands in despair and pronounce a plague on the houses of both the capitalists and the socialists. Truly, both are less than the kingdom of God. But the difference is that one knows it and the other doesn't and that is the whole difference in a nutshell.

Capitalism is an economic system that can be demonic if it functions without any moral limits, but if it is kept in check by natural law, limited government, the division of powers, etc., it helps us create wealth and contributes to human flourishing. Socialism, on the other hand, is a Utopian scheme which does not recognize that human nature is fallen and is therefore dangerous.

What my argument comes down to is this: socialism has an inherent theological anthropology that is heretical and anti-Christian while capitalism has an inherent theological anthropology that is partially right (it recognizes fallen human nature as inherently greedy) yet incomplete (because it does not recognize or specify norms for human flourishing inherent in human nature). But on the whole, Christianity is far more compatible with capitalism because it is a matter of supplying the missing positive human telos to a system that at least recognizes the fallen character of human nature. In the case of socialism, by contrast, Christianity has to start out by challenging its fundamental presuppositions about human nature right from the start.


SATheologies said...

Dr Carter,

Thank you for this. This is a good theological view on capitalism and socialism.

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