"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Plot Goodness

Is capitalism really the bringer of economic gifts that most Christians believe it is? The conventional Christian viewpoint is well summarized by a blogger on the progressive CrossLeft site: ""I personally think capitalism is a neutral system, with its benefits and flaws. Adam Smith wrote that individuals who pursue their self interests in a competitive system often inadvertently create widespread social gains. In the 19th Century, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class of over 100 million people in the U.S. Free market reforms in the 1970s have given China a middle class of over 200 million people today. India has now a middle class of 200 million people due to its free markets."

But is it actually capitalism that brought these benefits? Or was it rather the spirit of creativity and invention that inspired thousands of talented people to enjoy the gifts God gave them? Were these not actually the motivating factors behind the growth of science and technology? Most great scientific discoveries and technical inventions were made by those who enjoyed these studies for their own sake. Closer examination reveals that capitalists feed off the creative activity of innovators in ways that suck them dry of most of the benefits such inventions might have made. A truly creative economic structure could have erected far more inspiring technological benefits than anything that capitalism, with its prematurely truncated vision of humanity, has been able to achieve. Profit, far from being an inspiration to invention, has muddied the sources of inspiration and stopped up the very possibility of a truly creative science and technology. What we are left with are the starved remnants, the stumps of possibility which capitalism has clear cut.

Catholic social teaching teaches us that the dignity of the human person is the measure of a moral society. The current economy system denies the dignity of the human person in a number of concrete and devastating ways.

Let's see what the economics of peace might look like. First, if I own the means of production and you work for me, our economic interests are opposed, as counter-intuitive as this may seem. Most think that since the success of the enterprise depends on both our efforts that our interests must be the same, but this is true only in the ideal. The fact is that the more I as owner retain as profit, the faster my business grows and the more other owners will want to purchase stock in it. That "more" comes partially from you the worker. Theoretically, I could use that "more" to pay you more, but by doing so, I make my business less attractive and lower its stock price. I have yet to detect the slightest granule of Christian moral teaching in this arrangement.

Christianity is about humanization, yet it would appear that Christians are incapable of the moral imagination necessary to transcend the utterly dehumanized vision of "economic man" that has been foisted on us for the past 2 centuries. An economy that thrived on empathy and mutual insight, that strengthened the bonds of charity, that cultivated shared rather than opposed interests appears to be simply inconceivable to most Christians. This seems due to the fact that spirituality has been defined in our culture as something fundamentally apart from daily life, a refuge from the world that cannot be contaminated with political and economic concerns.

The purpose of economics from a Christian viewpoint should not simply be to produce goods, but to produce ties between people. Centuries ago, we could have conceived an economy in which in order for me to do well, I have to be concerned with your well-being, rather than creating a world in which only the most heroic can transcend their self-interest. How could these behaviors be inscribed into the economic system so that we benefit ourselves by seeking benefits for others?

The division of labor also destroys mutual support. Solidarity dies when some are allocated creative, fulfilling tasks and others forced into subordinate and rote labor. Labor is not simply the means of obtaining the wherewithal to purchase iPods, paint thinner, and roller blades. It is one of the primary ways in which we grow as creative human beings, but this only exists for the materially fortunate in our society.

I conclude with the Good Samaritan, "If every time the Good Samaritan went down that road from Jerusalem to Jericho he found people wounded and did nothing about the bandits, would his love be perfect? Spontaneous, simple love, following the dictates of its own concern for persons in need, grows into a concern for the formal structure of society." Stephen Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change

Indeed, if love never grows beyond the immediate act of charity, then the very existence of that love becomes questionable. If Christians can't find it in themselves to think about why so many are poor and starving while the tiny few amass continent-sized chunks of wealth, then they do not in fact really care about the poor, but have their eyes firmly fixed on something far other than those Christ came to heal and save.

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