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Mammon Ascendant

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful.  It is by one of my favorite theologians/philosophers, David Bently Hart (see here), and regards the relationship between capitalism and Christianity, and takes a view with which I tend to agree.  Be edified.

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So, there I was, pondering, with an old familiar feeling of perplexity (about which more anon), certain reactions to my reaction to various reactions to the pope’s last encyclical, when it occurred to me that the one thing on which ­Hegelians of every stripe—right or left, theological or materialist, contemplative or activist—are undoubtedly correct is that the logic of history is not the logic of individuals, or of parties, or of states. It is not ideology, that is to say, that determines the course of cultural evolution, but the dialectic of history, which (even if it is not materialist) can never float free of material conditions. Hence Hegel’s famous “master-slave dialectic”: that process by which the material economy of ancient society slowly but inevitably inverted the order of knowledge and power upon which that society rested. History—its meaning, its irony—reveals itself only by way of a ­continuous pragmatic labor, an engagement between spirit and matter; and the final issue of that labor becomes manifest not in the abstractions we profess but in the culture we create.

Take, for instance, American political history of the last thirty-five years. One of the great political masterstrokes of the late twentieth century was Ronald Reagan’s successful creation of a coalition between cultural “conservatives” and fiscal “conservatives,” one that seemed to a great many at the time and for a long while thereafter not only a stable alliance, but a natural association. All at once, Wall Street Journal–reading mandarins began caring about abortion, “family values,” and even school prayer; pro-life Christians and Jews became genuine partisans of supply-side economics, reduced marginal tax rates, and expansive free-trade agreements; and both sides shared just enough traditional American traits (sincere patriotism unburdened by the disenchantments of postwar Europe, genial optimism, the language of self-reliance, pioneer myths, small-town ideals, and so forth) to overcome whatever regional and cultural differences might otherwise have separated them. It was an invincible political force.

But, again, it is culture—not politics—that pronounces the final historical verdict on our transitory ideologies and grand social projects and high ideals. The coalition that Reagan wrought has largely collapsed, and has done so as the result not of external hostile forces, but under the weight of its own contradictions. It has been said often enough that in the long aftermath of the 1960s, it became evident that the “right” had won the economic argument over culture and the “left” the moral argument. At least, I have heard one of my friends say it often enough (usually in a slurred voice and under fairly dim lighting: free markets and free love, corporatism and hedonism, low taxes and high times, Ben and Jerry’s, Whole Foods, Bill Gates . . .).

And, of course, it is true. The social revolution of the late 1960s was a marvelous impasto of cultural, political, social, and moral gestures, many of them more spasmodic than deliberate, and most of them only accidentally associated with one another. The most licentiously self-indulgent hedonism dallied for a gay flirtatious season with the grimly severe moralism of Trotskyite or Maoist rhetoric; the revolution was proclaimed by cossetted children of the middle class who imagined the socialist utopia as an interminable revel of psychedelic drugs, casual copulation, and ever shorter skirts; Madison Avenue was relentlessly denounced by its most servile victims. (And, oh, how I sigh with genuine nostalgia for the idiot happiness of those days.)

But, once the mists had cleared and the lava lamps had dimmed, things began sorting themselves out very rapidly. The economic radicalism faded, but the new social mores persisted, and grew in power, and became the common social grammar. A once very fashionably idealist generation found the adventure of revolution far less exhilarating than the venture of capital; it continued to cling to the old new Bohemianism (which, after all, always sold very well), but realized that endless self-indulgence requires the sort of resources that only canny investment can secure. Apple Records began as a collectivist idyll but a few bats of the eyelashes later was a tightly controlled distribution firm with security cameras at the gate; George Harrison soon learned that it was easier to find time for Krishna and room for organic farming on the sprawling grounds of an English manor house; Haight-Ashbury tie-dye ­mutated into Silicon Valley office casual; the homiletics of public property yielded to the legalese of the public offering; cannabis was just the new Chivas. All that now remained of economic debate were procedural details: the relative preponderance of development and regulation, the shifting balance of power between business sectors and state agencies, and so on.

In another sense, however, the notion that two opposed ideologies divided the spoils of the culture between them is deeply false. In truth, no political faction won or lost, because none was involved in the process at all except as one of the forces employed (and then perhaps discarded) by a deeper power. What in fact won the day was a single historical dynamism, a single indivisible cultural philosophy. That its political expressions had been distributed among different parties was a purely incidental matter of process, an especially exquisite example of “the cunning of history,” which effectively hid the true form of what everyone really wanted behind the spectacle of superficial antagonisms. Or rather, I should say: not superficial, but certainly futile. The struggle over “values” was quite real on both sides, as far as personal commitments were concerned. But, once again, the reasons for which individuals act are not the reasons by which history unfolds.

All right. Perhaps I am not as much of a German idealist as all that. But I do believe that the relation between material conditions and moral concepts is never accidental, and that cultural logic invariably discovers the real harmonies and balances and accords that our fleeting intellectual paradigms generally cannot. As late modern persons, we live in a society whose highest values—in every sphere: moral, religious, economic, domestic, cultural, and so on—can loosely be described as “libertarian.” We understand freedom principally as an ­individual’s sovereign liberty of deliberative and acquisitive choice, and we understand individual desires (so long as they fall within certain minimal legal constraints) either as rights or at least as protected by rights. And we are increasingly disposed to see almost every restriction placed upon the pursuit of those desires as an unreasonable imposition. Our natural economic philosophy, then, is of course “neoliberal” (or, as it is also called in America, “neoconservative”) while our natural moral philosophy is voluntarist, individualist, and hedonist (in a not necessarily opprobrious sense). Not only is there no contradiction here; there is an essential unity.

And, in this sense, talk of history’s dialectic is not only pardonable, but probably necessary. The story of how, over a far longer period than thirty-five years, we arrived where we are has been told often before: on the side of ideas, the rise of late scholastic voluntarism, the emergence not only of epistemological nominalism but even of nominalist accounts of the good, theologies that subordinated all divine attributes to the supreme attribute of absolute sovereignty and that increasingly conceived of sovereignty as something like pure spontaneity of will, then the eventual migration of this idea of sovereign freedom from theology to anthropology, as well as the rise of mechanistic metaphysics (and so on); on the side of material circumstance, the rise of the absolute state, the creation of denatured ecclesial establishments, the rise of early market institutions, the growth of an enfranchised merchant class, the rise of the power of large capital in the age of industrialization, the inevitable emergence of consumerism (and so on); and, between the two sides, a dynamic, fluctuating, oscillating, but ultimately inexorable dialectical process. It is an absorbing tale, but it has gone through so many editions by now that even the effort of declining to repeat it is tedious.

Even so, just at the moment I feel as if somehow I have to remark this essential, indissoluble concomitance between the logic of late modern secularity and that of late modern capitalism. It all has to do, I suppose, with those reactions to my reaction to those reactions I mentioned above, and with that old familiar perplexity they occasioned in me. At least I feel I want to confess, if nothing else, the limits of my imagination on one vexing point. Simply said, I have never been able to understand those (almost exclusively American) souls who expend such energy both on lamenting the late modern collapse of so many of the moral accords and cultural values and religious aspirations of the past and also on vigorously promoting the very system of material and social practices that made that collapse inevitable.

The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. Any dominant material economy is complicit with, and in fact demands, a particular anthropology, ethics, and social vision. And a late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessity promotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. The entire system depends not merely on supplying needs and satisfying natural longings, but on the ceaseless invention of ever newer desires, ever more choices. It is also a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions—religious, cultural, social—that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices.

This is what Marx genuinely admired about capitalism: its power to dissolve all the immemorial associations of family, tradition, faith, and affinity, the irresistible dynamism of its dissolution of ancient values, its (to borrow a loathsome phrase) “gales of creative destruction.” The secular world—our world, our age—is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. It is a reality in which all social, political, and economic associations have been reduced to a bare tension between the individual and the state, each of which secures the other against the intrusions and encroachments of other claims to authority, other demands upon desire, other narratives of the human. Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.

Mind you, part of the difficulty of convincing American Christians of this lies in the generous vagueness with which we have come to use the word “capitalism” in recent decades. For many, the term means nothing more than a free market in goods, or the right to produce and trade, or buying and selling as such. In that sense, every culture in recorded history would have been “capitalist” in some degree. And for many, then, it also seems natural to think that all free trade and all systems of market exchange are of a piece, and that to defend the dignity of production and trade in every sphere, it is necessary also to defend the globalized market and the immense power of current corporate entities—or, conversely, to think that any serious and sustained criticism of the immorality, environmental devastation, exploitation of desperate labor markets, or political mischief for which such entities might often justly be arraigned is necessarily an assault on every honest entrepreneur who tries to build a business, create some jobs, or produce something useful or delightful to sell.

But, in long historical perspective, the capitalist epoch of market economies has so far been one of, at most, a few centuries. At least, in the narrower acceptation of the term generally agreed on by economic historians, capitalism is what Proudhon in 1861 identified as a system—at once economic and social—in which, as a general rule, the source of income does not belong at all to those who make it operative by their labor. If that is too vague, we can say it is the set of economic conventions that succeeded those of the “mercantilism” of the previous era, with its tariff regimes and nationalist policies of trade regulation, and that took shape in the age of industrialization. Historically, this meant a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class—purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent artisanal labor or subsidiary estates or small local markets—to the capitalist investor who is at once producer and seller of goods, and who is able to generate immense capital at the secondary level of investment speculation: a purely financial market where wealth is generated and enjoyed by those who produce nothing except an incessant circulation of investment and divestment.

Along with this came a new labor system: the end of most of the contractual power of free skilled labor, the death of the artisanal guilds, and the genesis of a mass wage system; one, that is, in which labor became a commodity, different markets could compete against one another for the cheapest, most desperate laborers, and (as the old Marxist plaint has it) both the means of production and the fruit of labor belonged not to the workers but only to the investors. Hence the accusation of early generations of socialists, like William Morris and John Ruskin, that capitalism was to be eschewed not because it was a free-market system, but because it destroyed the true freedom of the market economies that had begun to appear at the end of the Middle Ages, and concentrated all real economic and contractual liberty in the hands of a very few.

This is a system that not only allows for, but positively depends upon, immense concentrations of private capital and private dispositive use of that capital, as unencumbered by fiscal regulation as possible. It also obviously allows for the exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale, one that even governments cannot rival. And it is a system that inevitably eventuates not only in economic, but cultural, “consumerism,” because it can continue to create wealth sufficient to sustain the investment system only by a social habit of consumption extravagantly in excess of mere natural need or even (arguably) natural want. Thus it must dedicate itself not only to fulfilling desire, but to fabricating new desires, prompted by fashion, or by seductive appeals to what 1 John calls “the lust of the eyes”—the high art of which we call “advertising.”

Now, without question, capitalism works. It is magnificently efficient at generating enormous wealth, and increasing the wealth of society at large—if not necessarily of all individuals or classes—and adjusting to the supersession of one form of commercial production by another. But this is practically a tautology. That is its entire purpose, and it is no great surprise that over time it should have evolved ever more refined and comprehensive means for achieving it. It generates immense returns for the few, which sometimes redound to the benefit of the many, but which often do not; it can create and enrich or destroy and impoverish, as prudence warrants; it can encourage liberty and equity or abet tyranny and injustice, as necessity dictates. It has no natural attachment to the institutions of democratic or liberal freedom; China has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that endless consumer choices can comfortably coexist with a near total absence of civil liberties. Capitalism has no moral nature at all. The good it yields is not benevolence; the evil is not malice. It is a system that cannot be abused, but only practiced with greater or lesser efficiency. It admits of no other criterion by which to judge its consequences.

This last point, moreover, needs to be particularly stressed, at least in America, where many of capitalism’s apologists are eager (perhaps commendably) to believe that our market system is not only conducive of large social benefits, but possessed of deep structural virtues. This belief often leads them both to exaggerate those benefits and to ignore the damages, or to explain them away (like good Marxists preaching the socialist eschaton) as transient evils that will be redeemed by a final general beatitude (“rising tide” . . . “all boats” . . . “supply-side” . . . “trickle down” . . . “Walmart may destroy small businesses and force the formerly well-employed into inferior jobs, but, hey, think of the joy that all those cheap—if occasionally toxic—Chinese goods produced by ruthlessly exploited laborers will provide the lower middle class in its ceaseless fiscal decline!”). But, given the sheer magnitude of capitalism’s ability to alter material, social, economic, and cultural reality, to cherish even the faintest illusions regarding some kind of inherent goodness in the system is to risk more than mere complacency.

Yes, venture capital built Manhattan—its shining cloud-capped towers, its millions of jobs, its inexhaustible bagels—but the cost of a world where Manhattans are built has to be reckoned in more than capital. And one does not even need to travel any great distance to assess some of the gravest of them. One need go no farther than the carboniferous tectonic collision zones of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky to find a land where a once poor but propertied people were reduced to helotry on land they used to own by predatory mineral rights’ purchases, and then forced into dangerous and badly remunerated labor that destroyed their health, and then kept generation upon generation in servile dependency on an industry that shears the crests off mountains, chokes river valleys with slurry and chemical toxins, and subverts local politics. And what one must remember is that all that devastation was not the result of one of capitalism’s failures, but of one of its most conspicuous successes. All the investors realized returns on their initial expenditures many thousands of times over. Those who win at the game can win everything and more, while those who lose—who more often than we care to acknowledge lose everything and forever—are simply part of the cost of doing business.

None of which is to deny that capital investment can achieve goods that governments usually cannot. While it is certainly not the case that, say, the world’s rising mean life span or the increase in third-world literacy are straightforwardly consequences of globalization, it certainly is the case that global investment and trade have created resources that have made rapid medical progress, improvements in nutrition, and distribution of goods and services—by private firms, charities, governments, and international humanitarian organizations—possible in ways that less fluid commercial systems never could have done. There are regions of sub-Saharan Africa currently enjoying the kind of economic development that once seemed impossible because certain governments and businesses (such as numerous small technology firms) have set aside generations of post-colonial prejudice and finally begun building businesses there.

On the other hand, untold tens of thousands of Africans have died as a result of large Western pharmaceutical firms, concerned for their market share and their proprietary rights, exerting fiscal and government pressure to deny access to affordable antiretroviral drugs manufactured in Thailand and elsewhere. The market gives life; the market murders. It creates cities; it poisons oceans. And throughout the third world, as well as in less fortunate districts of the developed world, the price of industrialization remains (as ever) environmental damage of a sort that cannot be remedied in centuries, along with all its attendant human suffering. The World Health Organization, on very judiciously gathered data, estimates that roughly 12.6 million persons die each year as a result of environmental degradation, particularly pollution from industrial waste products. This being so, it seems only decent to wonder whether a thriving market system might be run on more humane principles—which is to say, on principles alien to capitalism as it has always existed.

Perhaps, though, I am allowing myself to drift away from my original point. Even if it were not so—even if fully developed capitalism, per impossibile, operated without any destruction of ecologies, communities, and lives—it would still carry moral costs that would render it ultimately antagonistic to any but an essentially secularized culture. At least, it could not coexist indefinitely with a culture informed by genuine Christian conviction. Even the fact of the system’s necessary reliance on immense private wealth makes it a moral problem from the vantage of the Gospel, for the simple reason that the New Testament treats such wealth not merely as a spiritual danger, and not merely as a blessing that should not be misused, but as an intrinsic evil. I know there are plentiful interpretations of Christianity that claim otherwise, and many of them have been profoundly influential of American understandings of the faith. Calvin’s scriptural commentaries, for instance, treat almost all of the New Testament’s more consequential moral teachings—Christ’s advice to the rich young ruler, his exhortations to spiritual perfection, and so on—as exercises in instructive irony, meant to demonstrate the impossibility of righteousness through works. Calvin even remarks that having some money in the bank is one of the signs of election. But that is offensive nonsense. The real text of the New Testament, uncolored by theological fancy, is utterly perspicuous and relentlessly insistent on this matter. Christ’s concern for the ptōchoi—the abjectly destitute—is more or less exclusive of any other social class.

What he says about the rich youth selling all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, and about the indisposition of camels trying to pass through needles’ eyes, is only the beginning. In the Sermon on the Plain’s list of beatitudes and woes, he not only tells the poor that the kingdom belongs to them, but explicitly tells the rich that, having had their pleasures in this world, they shall have none in the world to come. He condemns those who buy up properties and create large estates for themselves. You cannot serve both God and mammon. Do not store up treasure on earth, in earthly vessels, for where your treasure is, there your heart will also be. The apostolic Church in Jerusalem adopted an absolute communism of goods. Paul constantly condemns pleonektia, which is often translated as “excessive greed” or even “thievery,” but which really means no more than an acquisitive desire for more than one needs. He instructs the Corinthian Christians to donate all their profits to the relief of the poor in other church assemblies. James says that God’s elect are the poor of this world; the rich he condemns as oppressors and revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them, because the rust of their treasure shall eat their flesh like fire on the last day. And on and on. This is so persistent, pervasive, and unqualified a theme of the New Testament that the genius with which Christians down the centuries have succeeded in not seeing it, or in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means may be among the greatest marvels of the faith.

But, again, even if it were not so—even if there is a way of possessing wealth purely as a blameless stewardship of God’s bounty, or if the system could function as well in a society with more equitably distributed capital, or what have you—the problem with which I began remains. As a cultural reality, late capitalism is not merely a regulatory regime for markets, but also a positive system of values, necessarily at odds with other orders of desire, especially those that seek to limit acquisition or inhibit expressions of the will. We may think we are free to believe as we wish because that is what our totalitarian libertarianism or consumerist collectivism chiefly needs us to think. But, while our ancestors inhabited a world full of gods or saints, ours is one in which they have all been chased away by advertising, into the hidden world of personal devotion or private fixation. Public life is a realm of pure elective spontaneity, in every sphere, and that power of choice must be ceaselessly directed toward an interminable diversity of consumer goods, and encouraged to expand into ever more regions of fiscal, moral, and spiritual life. We are shaped by what we desire, and what we desire is shaped by the material culture that surrounds us, and by the ideologies and imaginative possibilities that it embodies and sustains.

This is not to say that believing Christians, Jews, and other retrograde types cannot live peacefully amid the heaven-scaling towers and abyss-plumbing indulgences of late modernity. Believers of every kind are strangers and sojourners in this life, and should not seek to build enduring cities in this world. Still, all of us must make our livings, and seek to provide for others, and that means buying and selling, hiring and being hired, seeking justice and enduring injustice. That is the business of life, and conducted well, it can bring about many good things. And who knows? Perhaps it is possible to reimagine a real market economy on a more truly human and humane scale, of the sort envisaged by E. F. Schumacher or various other religious “economists of the small.” After all, the exchange of goods, the common commerce of everyday life, the community that exists wherever one person trades one “gift” for another—all of these are natural goods, part of the corporal grammar of community, and can usually in some way exhibit a generosity more original and more ultimate than any calculus of greed or selfish appetite. But, beyond that, the claim that capitalist culture and Christianity are compatible—indeed, that they are not ultimately inimical to one another—seems to me not only self-evidently false, but quaintly (and perhaps perilously) deluded.

David Bentley Hart is a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute of Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.

Originally published in First Things in June 2016 and can be seen here.

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