Thursday, July 01, 2010


A Sliver of Autobiography

When I was eighteen and in the middle of training to be a Radar Mechanic in His Majesty’s Brittanic Navy, I was stationed in the East End of London, attending the Northampton Polytechnic, undergoing a crash course in physics and the theory and technology of radio and radar. The naval ratings on the course were billeted in a large building in Hoxton that had been a hostel for “fallen girls”; it had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to become HMS some-thing-or-other . (All R.N. shore facilities are “Her/His Majesty’s “Ship”). Hoxton, among the worst of London’s East End ‘slums’, was not a pretty place: rows and rows of houses thrown up in the last part of the nineteenth century, still, in some places with a communal tap for a group of huddled houses, and often noisy at night with drunken brawls. From this dreary area, we walked to the Old Street Underground station and arrived in Islington for our first lecture – 8.00 a.m.

Labor Landslide

Depressed as it was, when the results of the first election after the War (WW II) came out, the whole area erupted with joy and enthusiasm. The people had spoken clearly - no return to closed mines, idle railway marshalling yards and decaying agriculture: no return, in effect to unbridled Capitalism with its endless queues of men picking up a pitifully small ‘dole’, as the unemployment relief was then called. But, of course no patriotic American mentions the ‘C’ word.

Profit before People

There is much that can, and needs, to be said about the Socialist experiments of the nineteen fifties and sixties, but the advent of Lady (the iron one) Thatcher, demonstrated unequivocally that capitalism was still (not, perhaps in its virulent form of the era of the first Factory Acts of the nineteenth century), very much alive, and still much more interested in profit than people.
See: a summary of the Acts and Parliamentary Committees

The religious and ethical issues raised by capitalism are extremely complex, and, so far as I can tell, infrequently mentioned in the main-stream media and in political discussions; this contrasts strikingly with the acrimonious debates about the morality of abortion, euthanasia and the sexual dallyings of prominent politicians. But before I turn to consider what theologians and ethicists have said about capitalism, I want to ponder the flood of news reporting, political rhetoric and Congressional hearings that have engulfed us for almost two months now.

Right-about: Turn

Not long ago, we were hearing cries of anger and pain from the right (not always so very far right either) about government “interference” in our health system. An alarming number of older citizens, while chanting this mantra in a kind of 1984 regimentation, managed at the same time to demand, “hands off Medicare”. Appalling posters and caricatures were waved in the pepped up rallies, and mutually contradictory accusations of Socialism, Fascism, and Communism were hurled at the President. I, for one, could not escape the feeling that all this hate was motivated by unspoken, perhaps these days unspeakable, deep-rooted racial resentments. But that is another issue for another essay.
In the light of all that outcry from the right, one is, I feel, justified in expressing utter amazement that we have recently heard from these same right-wing politicians, apparently speaking in all seriousness, that the President is failing in his leadership by not, in effect, nationalizing the Oil Companies!
The thing that has struck me forcibly is that in all this flood of official reports, populist frenzy, endless news reports and even more ‘expert’ news analyses, I cannot remember once hearing the word capitalism.

Why Taboo Word?:

As I tried to work out why this was so - since it seems very obvious to me that this issue is like an immense dead camel which all discussions tread warily around, - that part of the explanation must lie in the political development (or under-development?) of the U.S political system. My grasp of U.S, history is not as good as my knowledge of British and European history (and even there, there are lamentable gaps), but I think it would be generally agreed that any Socialist movement in the U.S. has been relatively peripheral, and there certainly has never been anything like a functioning Party with substantial representation in the Congress. What is more, the failure of such movements to take off, is as much the lack of support from the working class majority as the active opposition of the upper, plutocratic classes.

Sine qua Non for the “Dream’

America as the “land of promise” for all the millions of immigrants in the last century and a half, has been so tightly tied to the tenets of the inviolability of private property, the absolute right to climb the ladder of social and economic betterment, (hard luck for the head on a lower rung), and, in effect, the embracing of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, that there is a deeply embedded and largely unexamined commitment to unrestrained capitalism. It is this commitment, a majority seems to believe, that makes possible the “American Dream”; at the same time, the actual conditions necessary for entering the dream world are rarely examined: dreams do tend to fade as one awakes to the real world again.

Rusty, Clanking Machine

It appears, in the last analysis, that the relationship between the government and the many powerful corporations that, in theory, operate at its bidding is hopelessly ambiguous (one might say dream-like), defined in a vast corpus of Congressional Acts, Presidential Executive orders and the operation of an army of “regulatory” agencies. The confusion appears to be demonstrated in the outcry against a moratorium on the drilling of new deep wells out at sea, which goes along side shrill denunciations of the Administration for ‘not cleaning up the mess’.

I had already written the previous paragraph when I came across Hendrick Hertzberg’s comment in the current New Yorker. He points out that it is the “out-of-control of a dwindling resource” that lies behind the Gulf disaster, and suggests that the most efficient way to deal with this would be a realistic tax on carbon production together with a reduction in the payroll tax. He continues:

This is what some European countries have done, and it may well be what Obama would do if he had the kind of legislative power that European prime ministers have and many Americans of all political persuasions, assume that he has, too”. [As an ex-pat Brit I wonder what that says about the US educational system?]
But the President does not have that kind of power and so he is attempting to achieve “the maximum that…our rusty, clanking legislative sausage machine is capable of delivering”. (
June 28, 2010 p. 18).

his ‘rusty machine’ has failed dismally to develop some viable alternative to naked, uncontrolled capitalism: an alternative that would give structure to the balance between government and free enterprise.

Contrast with Britain

There is I think, a striking contrast here with the British scene, where the vested interests of the “landed classes” began to converge with those of the new captains of industry. Indeed, the latter quickly surpassed the old aristocracy in wealth, frequently marrying off their daughters to a Duke or Marquis, and sending their sons to Eton or Harrow, the unquestioned leading public (i.e. private) schools in the land.
There was, though, a distinct difference between the two classes regarding the poor. The aristocratic tradition staunchly believed in noblesse oblige, and agricultural workers, though often grindingly poor, at least had a primitive social support system provided by the great house.
The plight of the industrial worker was far different, and the reports of the working conditions of the first half of the nineteenth century are hair-raising to read. (see Web reference above).

Beginnings of Control

It was out of these conditions that the Liberal Party, even though committed to a policy of laissez faire, began to establish regulatory laws: six year olds could no longer work for more than twelve hours underground; factory workers must be given a break to go to the bathroom; some minimal standards were established to protect workers against flailing drive belts and grinding gears.
By the turn of the century, however, a more radical politics emerged in the form of the Labor Party, which, after WWII, came to power with a landslide victory. A much more ‘socialistic’ program than anything the Liberals had envisaged was put in place with uneven results over the next half century.
Overall, however, Britain has had a much more controlled form of free enterprise capitalism than has ever existed in the U.S.A., and the present Gulf disaster has revealed some significant confusions. Not a few in the Republican party would agree with Rep. Joe Barton if it were at all politically possible, while the further right (Tea Partiers et mult al.) exhibit an apparent approval of the worst excesses of the British Mill owners of the 1830s and the U.S. Robber Barons later in the century. At least these folk seem to know where they stand.

The Moderates’ Bind

It is the rest who appear lost in a deep fog: the behavior of BP is seen by most as flagrant, but they operate very freely, almost independently, under a complex system of legislation that the government, committed to the rule of law, is bound by, and which, as I suggested above, is the deeply ingrained position of many working people. (What else could account for so much support the Republican Party from that group when such support is clearly inimical to the longer-term well-being of workers?)

Theological & Ethical Issues

Is there anything that theology and the history of Christianity can teach this nation which proudly claims to be “One…under God”?
It might be worth pointing out right at the beginning that the New Testament has immensely more references to the use of money and the treatment of the poor than it has about how people should behave in bed (or perhaps on a sea shore or a mountain top). Moreover, the majority of the references are not exactly gentle about the rich.
This would suggest that at the very least our contemporary imbalance of emphasis on the two ethical issues is strikingly at odds with the New Testament writings and the teaching of Jesus. [I am well aware that the contrast between what is recorded in the gospels and the teaching of Jesus would not be accepted universally, but it is widely acknowledged in biblical studies, and does not preclude some relatively reliable conclusions about Jesus’ teaching].

Prophetic Tradition in the New Testament

When we turn to the NT, we find Jesus firmly in the prophetic tradition in sayings about the poor and the misuse of power: both in his recorded sayings and in the writings of the earliest followers the same themes recur; the rich man who built new barns; the parable of Dives and Lazarus; the Rich young man to whom Jesus said, “sell all you possess and give it to the poor”; a camel struggling to get through a needle’s eye; Peter’s address to Jesus, “we have left everything to follow you”; the Beatitudes, and especially Luke’s highly radicalized version of Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit”, which becomes “blessed are the poor”: period. These are just some examples of a radical criticism of the lack of compassion so often displayed by the powerful and rich. We have heard very recently just how relevant these criticisms still are when people who cannot find work are characterized as Hobos.

Poverty in Church History

Christian history has witnessed movements that involved total renunciation of ‘the world’. Very early on, this rigorous interpretation was inter-twined with Hellenistic elements of thought, which denigrated the material world and regarded sexuality as demonic. These movements in turn, set up fierce theological and ecclesiastical tensions, evidenced very much later by the Papal suppression of the Franciscans because of their advocating extreme poverty in the 14th century, and the heated discussions of the Reformation period.
A consensus emerged favoring a via media. Total poverty and some communal form of living was not required: possessions were not sinful, though they could all too easily become an occasion for sin. The dangers were underlined for the church as a whole by the lives of ascetics and by the network of Benedictine communities that peppered the medieval map of Europe.

Usury Dethroned

Perhaps this mediating position was an important factor in the rise of a merchant class, though its move to something like modern capitalism was checked by the Church’s continuing complete ban on usury (which, in effect, regarded money as an artifact: the money gained was not from a service, or from a product).
It is fairly widely held, though increasingly questioned, that it was Calvin who loosened the bind and suggested that earning interest was not in itself wrong. Dennis McCann writes:

“Calvin’s reinterpretation of the biblical arguments against usury, especially those based on Deuteronomy 23.19-20...enabled Christians to participate fully in the development of the institutions of the modern Western financial system.” (Christianity: The Complete Guide, Ed. John Bowden, London 2005. p.186. Quoted hereafter as CTCG).

This is not to say that Calvin would have approved of the contemporary failure to examine the ethical issues raised by global corporations as his comment on Acts 16.15 suggests:

“Many place angelical perfection in poverty, as if the cultivation of piety and obedience to God were impossible without the divestment of wealth…Many fanatics refuse rich men the hope of salvation, as if poverty were the only gate to heaven, although it (poverty) sometimes involves men with greater disadvantages than riches. But Augustine reminds us that rich and poor share the same heritage. …[And] we must beware of the opposite evil, lest riches hinder or so burden us that we advance less readily toward the kingdom of heaven”. (Quoted in Bouwsma, Calvin, 198).

Christian Reactions to Industrial Revolution

Commentators point to the undoubted fact that “in modern times, Western Christianity has been perceived as the religion of rich and powerful people” (Michael H. Taylor CTCG 959), and the novels of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century provide overwhelming evidence of this. The same trend is glaringly present in the mega churches of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and sits uneasily beside a rather older frugality preached by John Wesley and his followers.
Donald Hay, in an excellent article in Modern Christian Thought (MCT) edited by Alister McGrath, points out the peripheral influence of Christian Theology in the last two centuries, the period of intense development of economic theory and practice leading to our present situation; this means that economics is saturated with utilitarianism. It is, says Hay, “almost exclusively an Enlightenment discipline ". He goes on to note however, that there has been a constant flow of commentary and criticism from historians and theologians in the last 150 years. The evangelicals of the 1850s deplored the many social evils of the industrial revolution, but their tone of superior morality and a view of divine providence that suggested people should keep and be satisfied with their “station” in life, was somewhat cold comfort.
More humane and more theologically sophisticated were the incarnational views of F.D. Maurice, which were “taken up by the Christian Socialists in the latter half of the nineteenth century and by Charles Gore and William Temple in the first part of the twentieth century”. (MCT pp. 136f).

Hay points to the significant contribution to the discussion of ethical issues of capitalism by a group of scholars who came to be known as Christian Socialists, (would such an oxymoron be remotely possible in the U.S.?): B.F. Westcott, Charles Gore and Scott Holland. “They rejected the concept of the economic system as a natural order of cause and effect uncontrolled by any moral responsibility”. (MCT p. 137).

The Roman Catholic church has also produced a steady stream of commentary, mainly in the form of Papal Encyclicals, the first of which to bear on the modern situation was Rerum Novarum (Dealing with conditions of labor). Issued in 1891 by Leo XIII - New Things –suggests a rather late entry into the field, but it did insist on justice for working people and advocated a degree of governmental control of private enterprise. As was normal in papal pronouncements it took the opportunity roundly to condemn Socialism, and frown sternly on Democracy.

Closing Considerations

1) It seems clear from an empirical point of view, that some forms of Capitalism work better than many forms of Socialism: producing better living standards, wider opportunities and happier lives for very many people.

2) On the other hand, it is equally clear that capitalism, left to itself in Smithian fashion, quickly produces unacceptable inequalities, which have a deleterious effect on Society as a whole: incomes, education, health care are endangered for the poor as the rich become richer (often staggeringly so) and the poor, poorer (with a rapidity that should embarrass us).

3) Religion has been enlisted by both sides (Prosperity Churches), and some biblical verses. For example, ‘the poor are always with you’ can be read (and used) like so many of Jesus’ sayings, in more than one way. It may be quite pragmatic, that is to say, experience shows that this is a (sad) fact of human history: a more ominous view of the saying might be that poverty is, as it were, built into the order of things, an item of the lex naturalis . Such a view is quite explicit in many economic theories of the last two centuries, which suggest a pool of unemployed people is required ; it will hardly be a surprise to note that this is a view held by Adam Smith and his followers.

4) Clearly, the churches cannot legislate (though there are still a few theocracies in the world where the religious authorities can dictate to the State). One of the strategies of those who have moral qualms about capitalism has been to set up countless agencies staffed largely by volunteers doing magnificent work to alleviate some of the more obvious suffering caused by the capitalist system: hunger, homelessness, unemployment, severely limited educational activities – there is no need to prolong this gloomy list. Tacitly, this may seem to endorse the first interpretation of Jesus’ words about the poor, weakening the drive for direct action. Hay, whom I have already quoted, says of this situation:

“While personal charity and concern for the poor are to be encouraged, the claims of economic justice require that action be taken by governments to ensure that no one is left in poverty”. (MCT p. 66)

5) But here is t
he rub: U.S. elections over the last thirty years suggest that half the electorate (some times a bit more, sometimes less) vote precisely on the grounds that government should keep its hands off (except, of course, when a disaster like the current one is about to have grave financial consequences for conglomerates. Then those on the Right feel free to castigate the Administration and forget election slogans of “No Socialism”).
A further problem is the growing political influence the religious right (particularly discernible in the eight years of the Bush Presidency). Too often, the religious drive is transmuted into a passionate jingoism: a very strong military, and readiness for pre-emptive action are paramount; ethical issues of personal behavior are more important than social issues; and, sometimes, a reversion to early nineteenth century views about the divine ordering of master and servant is openly expressed. Clearly if these ideological positions form part of the majority in an election result, one can hardly hope for government action; and when the party of the right, with support from the much further right, is not the majority, strenuous reaction to, and blocking of, any proposed legislation which aims to improve the lives of those blighted by unregulated capitalism, can be expected.


So what can middle-of-the-road Christians and many others (very probably a larger number) who share the same moral concerns, though not professing any specific religious faith do?
Writing in 1926 R.H. Tawney pointed out the failure of the theological community to keep up with the rapid changes of the industrial revolution:

In an age of impersonal finance, world-markets and a capitalist organization of industry, traditional social doctrines had nothing to offer, and were merely repeated when, in order to be effective, they should have been thought out again from the beginning and formulated in new and living terms” (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Penguin , p 184).

At the time, it seemed to Tawney that the churches had failed miserably in meeting the challenge, but I have noted the writings of F.D. Maurice, and the cogent pamphlets and books put out by the Christian Socialists following him, which might suggest some modification of his stringent criticism. Indeed, the final part of the 20th century and the first decade of this one have witnessed an increasing pressure on the part of the Vatican and main line Protestant churches to draw attention to theological and ethical issues of poverty, power and the structure of capitalism.
What the individual can do is continually to exercise her/his social conscience; to support those seeking election to public office who convincingly display an awareness of the moral dimensions of society, and who are not beholden to the pressures of capitalist lobbyists.
However, much we can achieve by “good works”, we must continue to insist that government has an important and legitimate role in the ordering of a just society.

Perhaps, too, we should take every opportunity to remind people just how deeply capitalism is embedded in our society: to such an extent that we do not mention it because we take it so much for granted, and, therefore take for granted as inevitable, deprivations and injustices that ultimately conflict with our Constitutional principles.

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