Jul 15, 2013

Even Christian conservatives are critiquing capitalism

There's been a resurgence of critiques of capitalism since the financial crisis of 2008.

Or, to phrase it as a Guardian headline writer did, "Karl Marx is going mainstream." Last Summer, the British paper reported:
Sales of Das Kapital, Marx's masterpiece of political economy, have soared ever since 2008, as have those of The Communist Manifesto and the Grundrisse (or, to give it its English title, Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy). Their sales rose as British workers bailed out the banks to keep the degraded system going and the snouts of the rich firmly in their troughs while the rest of us struggle in debt, job insecurity or worse.
The resurrected interest isn't just British, either. It's here in Germany and can even be found in the US, where "socialist" is a popular political slur. The slur, though, isn't quite as much of a slur as it once was.  During the last midterm election cycle, a Pew poll found that the 29 percent of Americans said they had positive feelings about the word "socialism." That number was much higher when only younger Americans were considered. Nearly half of those under 30 respond positively to the idea of socialism, the poll found.

Bhaskar Sunkara -- who is one of those younger Americans, and is also the editor of one of the newest leading left-of-liberal journals, Jacobin -- thinks this new interest can be attributed to the financial crisis, the time that's passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union ("The cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway," he writes), and with capitalism's failure to deliver the promised future.

The resurgent critiques of capitalism aren't just coming from the left, though, either.

There's also an apparent new willingness to raise questions about capitalism from the right. Even in quarters where there's little tolerance for Marx's thinking, little sympathy for socialism, one can find what appears to be a new openness to critical questions about capitalism. The resurgent, post-2008 critique of capitalism goes beyond the Marx revival.

First Things
At First Things, for example, a journal that can't credibly be construed as leftist, it has recently been argued that "out political challenges mostly flow from the triumph of capitalism. And American conservatism is in trouble because it can’t acknowledge much less respond to this fact."

The editor, Catholic theologian R.R. Reno, clarifies that such criticism is not an attack on capitalism, per se, any more than warnings about the dangers of sunburn on the beach are attacks on sunshine. Nevertheless, it is a critique, an argument for fetters on the "free" market.

Reno writes,
The triumph of economic freedom is a good thing. It’s made possible a global economy that has lifted and promises to continue lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But that’s only part of the story. If American conservatism is unwilling to face the fact that economic freedom creates social and therefore political problems -- political problems that will require in one way or another limiting economic freedom -- it will be irrelevant to our age.
There is, of course, a Catholic tradition here that Reno is continuing. To a certain extent this is not new, and doesn't date from the financial crisis. Catholic theologians have long argued and the church has regularly taught that the logic of markets leads to certain immoralities, injustices and oppressions, while at the same time reaffirming the rightness of many of the basic conditions and functions of capitalism. The argument is an argument against excesses. It's not a novel argument that Reno is re-raising.

It's my impression, though, that this argument hasn't been made in public very much, and Reno's article is a change in that regard. It's a critique that has been easy enough to find in theological circles, but it's been confined in those circles to some extent. In the US, Catholic concerns about capitalism have been marginalized, while concerns about abortion, the family, the death penalty, and even questions about the justice of a war like the 2003 invasion of Iraq have been much more prominent.

When Reno raises the issue of capitalism, then, and says capitalism is a problem, it's not a new argument, but may be considered a sign of new openness to critiques of capitalism on the right. It's a conservative instance of this cultural moment where the claims of a "free" market are being called into question.

It could also be just a quirk of the editorial policy of First Things. That magazine is not averse to trolling it's core audience. And yet, there are other conservative religious journals which one wouldn't associate with leftists or Marxists where there also seems to be a new openness to these sorts of questions.

Front Porch Republic
One relatively new journal -- Front Porch Republic -- is more or less dedicated to this kind of critique. It has been a platform for various arguments about right-of-center alternatives to capitalism, especially distributism, and also versions of localism. The journal hasn't invented these alternatives and the associated critiques, but it has done a good bit to promote them. The journal has worked to popularize anti-capitalist thinkers, such as Hilaire Belloc, who haven't been very popular in the past, as well as to call attention to traditional conservative arguments for restraints on the "free" market.

Front Porch Republic, notably, started in 2009, right after the financial crisis, at the very same moment Marx was "going mainstream." The editors note the historical moment's import in the journal's founding:
The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation .... We come from different backgrounds, live in different places, and have divergent interests, but we’re convinced that scale, place, self-government, sustainability, limits, and variety are key terms with which any fruitful debate about our corporate future must contend.
This isn't Marx, and it's a long way from Sunkara's Jacobins, but it is a critique of capitalism.

This can also be seen in other religious conservative journals. The most recent online edition of Comment, for example, the journal of a  Neo-Calvinist think tank Cardus, which is "dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture," includes an article arguing for a "biblical" alternative to capitalism. (Full disclosure: I wrote for Comment under a previous editor). In that article, Paul Williams writes:
In the biblical tradition, economic activity is depicted as something that is intended to bring together and sustain a relationship between God, humanity, and creation. In Genesis, for example, the work of humanity in cultivating the earth, making it fruitful, guarding, keeping, and caring for it is described in exactly the same language as that used later of the priestly tasks in the temple. Economic life is inherently religious because it is a form of worship taking place in the temple of God's creation. The fall of humanity into sin is a failure to guard, keep, and care for this place of intimate relationship safe from the evil of pride and autonomy -- sin fractures all the relationships that work and economic activity cultivate: those with God, with one another, and with creation itself. Redemption thus involves restoring these fractured relationships, and the primary biblical motif for redemption in the economic realm is 'Jubilee.'
The idea of "Jubilee," according to Williams, conflicts with what he calls "capitalism-as-ideology." He calls for a critique of capitalism -- or at least the ideology associated with it -- that challenges the idea that the mechanisms of the capitalist markets are morally neutral, and challenges the "sense that there is no alternative to our current system" (emphasis original).

Though the comparison would likely horrify both parties, Williams arguments are in some senses similar to those made by the French philosopher Alain Baidou. Baidou argues that "the existing world is not necessary," that it is only because "we accept the inevitability of the unbridled capitalist economy" that we "cannot see the other possibilities that are inherent in the situation in which we find ourselves" (emphases original). Baidou calls this claim, that things can be other than they are, that a politics of emancipation is possible, "the communist hypothesis." Williams clearly isn't talking about communism when he speaks of an alternative, yet he, like Baidou, starts his critique with an attack on the idea that capitalism is inevitable, alternatives impossible. The common starting point is that things could be different, and that those possibilities should be thought.

The alternative being entertained in the pages of Comment is not a Marxist one, and not something that could be described as "left of liberal." Williams holds a chair for Marketplace Theology and Leadership at a Christian graduate school in Vancouver, Canada, and he's previously worked as an economic advisor for major global corporations. The publisher of Comment, Ray Pennings, recently wrote that "growing sense of class identification" in Canada is a "reason for concern," and suggests economics shouldn't be a major, central political issue. No one would confusing Pennington for a mainstreamer of Marx. Nevertheless, there is a critique of capitalism happening at Comment.

There's a tradition here, too, that's being continued. This also is not exactly new. North American Neo-Calvinists have long critiqued capitalism, making arguments for the necessity of the values of stewardship and vocation. The market is good, according to Neo-Calvnists, not to the extent that it's totally unfettered, but to extent it is shaped and limited -- in a real sense, disciplined -- by Christian morality.

In many cases, though, this argument has not been articulated as a negative, a warning about capitalism, but as a statement about potential, and possibility. It has been a critique only in the softest, gentlest version of that term. Neo-Calvinists have generally made their arguments via statements about the good that Christians can do in business.

For example, the previous editor of Comment, Gideon Strauss, wrote,
The whole world of making products, providing services, buying and selling, building companies, establishing relationships of trade -- marketplaces filled with businesses and their customers -- can be a vibrant expression of what it means to be human in God's wonderful creation .... the original promise of business activity and market relationships is being redeemed, and we can work with courage, lead with love, and expect our efforts to bear fruit of very long-lasting value.
One can also find authors in Comment praising the important work of sales, calling for Christians to recognize the sacred in their office cubicles, calling for reconsideration of cubicles, and listing "50 things I love about business."

The critique, such as it was, was more like a call for a value supplement to capitalism. That's quite different than talk about jubilee.

The argument that Williams is making can be detected in each of these pieces, and one can connect what Williams says about the need for an alternative that arises from "jubilee" with these other articles. But the tenor is different. The negative point is much sharper. The shift may only be a shift in tone, a shift of emphasis, but such shifts are still important. What seems to be happening is a new willingness, a new need to critique capitalism.

That openness seems to date from 2008. Whether or not this is all a matter of passing grumblings or something more significant remains to be seen, but there is, right now, a broad and diverse range of sharp critiques on capitalism. It's broader, even, that has generally been noted. There's a lot of public interest from a lot of different quarters. Such arguments have seemed more palatable, more possible, and certainly more popular in the last few years than they have been for a long time.

It does seem that Sunkara's right about the historical causes of this, too. The financial crisis and the broad consensus among the political class about how to respond to the financial crisis ("too big to fail") opened up the possibility of serious critical questions. The counter argument for the necessity of capitalism, the boogie man of Stalinism, isn't as powerful as it once was. And, for a not insignificant number of people, the promises that capitalism makes about the future now kind of all sound like the same sort of fantastical sales job one heard from the hucksters of the housing bubble, the huskers of the dot com bubble, and from all the masters of the universe who stood to profit from the financial crises they helped create.

It's even more true, it seems, than Sunkara suspects. The resurgent critiques capitalism aren't just happening among the left-of-liberals: there are even a number of North American Christian conservatives of various stripes raising protests against the existing economic order.