A while back a friend of mine asked me a question(s) in a dialogue we were having concerning Capitalism, justice, and Christianity. It is an honest question and in these times of Gap and Apple’s Red Campaign, Bono, Toms shoes, ad infinitum, I think it maybe an important one for anyone actually interested in disseminating the philosophical or theological problems with the current market system—I am tempted to say all encompassing reality, or at least the state of the situation—today.
My response will begin with a twofold preliminary theoretical step. First, I offer a theological reflection that will likely be meaningless for anyone not committed to the Christ event, and unfortunately probably for some who assume they are. The second is a philosophical point, a philosophically registered aporia, via Zizek, or rather an uncovering of an attempt to cover over an aporia within the constant proliferation of Capitalism with a conscious. After this, and a somewhat long digression, I will offer a “concrete” response to the two questions.
1. Rob Bell’s main missions ministry at his church revolves around microeconomics in countries in Africa and even in MI. He talks about how there are “BEAUTIFUL” elements of capitalism and that when you basically just give the poor and oppressed money you are not helping them. His format is built around giving the poor and oppressed money to be creative with that through basic steps, which build their economy.
2. Patagonia, the clothing company. Their founder and current leader Yvon Chouinard talks about something called “natural capitalism.” In his book he explains that the reason they exist and continue to desire to make a profit is to (a.) Champion environmental causes and (b.) Be an example of what a healthy and wise business should look like.
In his usual no-BS manner Stanley Hauerwas gets right to the point. Because I think his position is precisely correct I will quote it in full. Brushing away the typical justifications Hauerwas states,
“Christians, particularly in capitalist social orders, are told that it is not wealth or power that are the problem but rather that we must be good stewards of our wealth and power.
However, Jesus is very clear. Wealth is a problem. That capitalism is an economic system justified by the production of wealth is therefore not necessarily good news for Christians. Alasdair MacIntyre observes that Christians have rightly directed criticisms toward capitalist systems for wrongs done to the poor and exploited in the name of producing wealth, but
‘Christianity has to view any social economic order that treats being or becoming rich as highly desirable as doing wrong to those who must not only accept its goals, but succeed in achieving them. Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.'”
Put as simply and succinctly as possible; 1.) Capitalism’s telos is the acquisition of wealth and 2.) Jesus was radically skeptical of wealth, to the point of viewing it as dangerous. Thus those who follow him should be skeptical of a socio-political-economic order that situates all other goods and goals in a descending relative hierarchy in relation to this one. While critiques of capitalism that focus on the radical inequalities that it creates and perpetuates are justified, correct and worthy of recognition by all concerned with justice for the poor, Christian or non, for the Christian these critiques do not reach far enough down. The Christian, one who claims to follow Christ or at least be trying to—Cornel West reminds us what an audacious claim this is in today’s society; must begin where he did.
For any who would wish to argue otherwise, that is, to claim that Jesus didn’t consider wealth a problem I place the burden of proof on them. I have no desire to trace the argument back that far in this peace, nor do I feel the need. I simply see this claim as axiomatic in every since of the term. Further, if one is really in such a place to question this claim it is likely do to one’s subjective position, or setz im lebein, and thus no simple argument will make much difference. If the history of exegesis shows us one thing it is that Scripture can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, which are often based more on presuppositions or ruling ideologies then inscrutable methodologies. Even further still, I believe that Gadamer is right in suggesting that there is likely no methodology that will ensure a perfect interpretation, but rather interpretation is always a translation with some being better and some worse. However if you disagree with me please feel free to say so. Mu interpretation is not beyond scrutiny. But enough…
Philosophically Registered BS
As I ended the theological section with an axiom, I will begin the philosophical section with one: just because certain chocolate can make you crap doesn’t mean it’s the solution to your lack of bowl movements.
Slavoj Zizek deploys a useful, fun and brilliantly simple theoretical tool in his “chocolate laxative”. He points out that with the chocolate laxative one is able to use the very substance that constipates, chocolate, to overcome the constipation. The problem thus becomes the solution.
Zizek suggests that the philanthropists George Soros and Bill Gates function in this same way. Soros, the massively wealthy financial speculator, spends half of his day speculating on capital and the other half working with philanthropic organizations or on charitable projects. While with Bill Gates we have, “the cruel business man (who) destroys or buys out competitors, aims at virtual monopoly, (and) employs all the tricks of the trade to achieve his goals.” After doing this Gates turns around to give back to the very people whom he stepped on.
So we have Soros who after a life time of financial speculation—if one is informed in the least about the causes of the current financial meltdown the connection between financial speculation and injustice should be a given at this point, if not read a paper or see here—turns around and gives back to the community, which is now the world, alongside Bill gates. Zizek locates them on a genealogical spectrum alongside, “Good old Andrew Carnegie (who) deployed a private army brutally to suppress organized labor in his steal works and then distributed large parts of his wealth to education, artistic, and humanitarian causes.”Zizek labels this liberal-communism and suggests that according to its ethics the ruthless pursuit of profit is justified by charity. “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.”
Objections and Digresion
It is worth noting two objections at this point. The first objection comes from a friend in the business world. This person simply pointed out that what I suggested was wrong with Bill Gates; squashing the competition, aiming at virtual monopoly etc., is simply good business. I was tempted to say, pace Hauerwas, that this is exactly why Christians should not be allowed to study business within a capitalist social order. Instead I suggested that this person might want to think long and hard about the way of life that they are being discipled and disciplined into within their current form of employment. Of course this is not to demonize this person. The Church in the West has long neglected to consider the capitulation it has made in its unwillingness to allow Christ into all areas of its life. When salvation becomes little more than an individual transaction between one person and Jesus and leads to little more than the lack of masturbation and getting drunk (or at least really drunk often) the Church has likely succumbed to the principalities and powers of the age.
The second objection is that if one is to refuse to use or accept charity that comes from less than admirable sources than where will it come from? The answer is that it will likely not come, or least not as much as has been coming. This is a real problem. The horrifying reality is that non-profits, including many churches will likely stop functioning and things will get worse for the majority of those already on the underside of history.
(Of course, one must not ignore the fact that this subjective objection is likely connected to one other little problem. If I refuse to accept money from, buy products from or participate with businesses or people that are not just in their economic dealings life will get worse for… me!)
To get back to the point, Zizek suggests that the reason these liberal-communists and their chocolate laxatives must be rejected is that they are the quick fixes that allow the system to continue to grind on, grinding up the masses as it does. The chocolate laxative may momentarily loosen your stool, but it will not fix the main cause of the problem. In order to do that one must stop living off of chocolate and eat some roughage, which doesn’t taste all that good to a palate used to sugar, cocoa and butter.
One possible danger in Zizek’s answer, for me, is that it is in danger of making the same mistake that every other purely human revolution, insurrection, or rescue mission has made. That is, in view of what must be achieved some sacrifices must be made—some heads of the aristocracy, some infidels, a couple of thousand Iraqi or Afghani civilians lives or the massive suffering and starvation of many of the wretched of the earth who depend on the charity of the liberal communists. For the Christian this is always unacceptable. People are not goods to be used no matter how lofty the purpose but persons to be loved. (Of course how this love works itself out is what is in question here.)
Many theologians have told us, rightly, that the poor are the sight of the in breaking and redeeming work of Christ. This is different than being the subjective location of, or potential for, the revolution. One must be careful that in order to achieve one’s end, the end of capitalist hegemony, an end that I believe is completely in line with the Gospel, one does not sacrifice those who cannot choose otherwise.
This does not mean that on the other hand we shut our eyes and continue to rejoice in liberal communists and chocolate laxatives. We cannot be content to wear our Tom’s Shoes and Gap Red T-shirts while drinking our fair trade coffee and going about our day pleased with the current social order. There has to be a third or middle way, a political option better than Elizabeth’s ecclesial via media.
What might this mean for us today? I will stop squirming around the obvious and state it. Socialism is the only option. Possibly even Communism if one thinks of it as the philosopher Alain Badiou does. Badiou states that philosophy can and must think under the name Communism the following,
“Egalitarian passion, the Idea of justice, the will to break with the compromises of the service of goods, the deposing of egotism, the intolerance of oppression, the vow of an end to the State; the absolute pre-eminence of multiple-presentation over representation; the tenacious militant determination, set in motion by some incalculable event, to maintain, come what may, the proposition of a singularity without predicate, an infinity without determination or immanent hierarchy; what I term the generic, which—when its procedure is political—provides the ontological concept of democracy, or of communism, it’s the same thing.” (Philosophy and Communism)
This utopian, in the best sense of the word, vision is not far off from what theology terms the Kingdom of God—at least on an existential level, while its ontological grounding maybe very far indeed—and as such it is similar to what the Church strives for as well. The Church strives for shalom, made manifest in the life of God. The in breaking of Trinitarian ontological peacableness that is already present in the ongoing life of Christ, which is his Church; though not necessarily all who claim to be.
Does this mean that the Church can unequivocally and unreservedly hold hands with those in favor of the destruction of capitalism? No, not unequivocally and unreservedly. The Church must seek to live in contra-distinction to violence in all its forms, especially killing, no matter whose name it is in. The Church claims to follow one who laid down his life instead of fighting for it and whose action God the Father vindicated through resurrection. Unfortunately what the Church, at least the church in the West, has done is hold hands with those on the other end of the ideological spectrum while they kill and subjugate in the name of democracy and development. And this is exactly where the Church can and should join with a Zizek or a Badiou. While capitalism may not be of the same violence as Islamic extremists or Blackwater mercenaries, it is a systemic insidious violence just as damaging to human life as any other.
In the 1970’s theologian Leonardo Boff wrote Ecclesiogensis, attempting to establish the ecclesial significance of the Base Communities in Brasil. He poignantly and prophetically laid before the Roman Catholic Church its choice,
“For the church as great institution, the crucial option is becoming daily more difficult to escape: either continue good relations with the state and the wealthy classes represented by the state or take the network base communities seriously, with the call for justice and social transformation that this will imply.”
Boff goes on to point out that what comes with the first option is security, financial support and aid, while with the second comes insecurity and official displeasure. However, what is to be gained by the second option is the Church’s very prophetic mission, “carry(ing) to the throne of God the cries of justice that rise up from the bowels of the earth.”
While America occupies a different political locus than 1970’s Brazil, the question remains the same for one main though divergent reason. America’s and Latin America’s political space has, at least since the early 20th century if not before, been continually traversed by the same set of political and economic interests and players. The fate of one has been explicitly tied to the fate of the other from political coups, CIA backed death squads and torture training to corporate maneuvering and exploitation. While one central player or agency is not able to be isolated in the material realm what connects all the multifarious players and agencies is the need for Capital to expand, flow ceaselessly, and reach new territories.
We are getting way off track.
- First Rob Bell. Why is it that Capitalism must be assumed in order to empower the poor with financial resources attached to stipulations? Sure in the current state of things, under the reign of capital, there is no other option, but this does not imply a necessary correlation between empowered poor people and the systemic force that was the cause of their poverty. Rob Bell’s read of his church’s humanitarian projects is a simplistic one based on the logic of the chocolate laxative. It is my belief that the church must continue in her humanitarian aid/missions work, while nevertheless refusing to accept that just because the current social-political-economic order makes this aid possible it is necessary or even justified. Why must we allow our imagination to be short circuited so early and easily? After all we hope for nothing less than God’s shalom. I believe that the real answer to this question lies in the fact that we know, albeit implicitly or sub-consciously, that our way of life is dependant on the current order, just or unjust. We would rather have our nice cars, homes, and lives and be able to give a little back in order to subvert our consciences’ cries for justice.
- As for Patagonia I believe the chocolate laxative applies here as well. Who can afford to buy Patagonia’s products except for those who are made wealthy by the current state of things? The company as a whole is able to exist by selling its products to those on the receiving end of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation. If everyone refused to exploit nature, harm the environment, and or burn fossil fuels the economy as we know it would fall apart.
(I am not even going to mention the refusal to exploit workers. I do not know Patagonia’s production practices but with the incredible fuss they make over their environmental practices and the absence of any information on their production conditions I would not be at all surprised to find that they are less than just. This maybe a fallacious assumption. If anyone else knows please inform me.)
This is Marx’s second obstacle to capital—environmental resources. This doesn’t mean that blockage from an environmental resource cannot be circumvented and thus overcome—this has been the case throughout the history of capital and could be so with even the fossil fuel problem; however, with the level of dependence we now have on fossil fuels as a whole and crude oil in particular—not to mention toxic waste, destruction of the Amazon, etc.—it is highly unlikely that a radical change in business environmental practices would not cause a devastating blow to the economy as a whole.
The point is that Patagonia’s environmentally response profit is made possible by a host of other factors within capitalism, namely the surplus value made possible by the willful destruction of the environment. Choinard’s argument makes it seem as if Patagonia, and its profit margin, existed in a bubble. It does not.
My point is not to demonize Patagonia or its owner. I actually like their clothing and, the meta questions left aside, as a whole they seem to run their company fairly well. What I am concerned with is letting this one example function as an apologetic for the entire capitalist system. It does not and must not be allowed to.
I hope that this long rant answers my friend’s question and that it will stir up some discussion.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew
 Slavoj Zizek, Violence
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogensis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church. 8
 One only need think of the current state of Honduras to get the picture. Why won’t the US and the international community at large do more than impose a nominal chastisement on the new regime?
 In a way I am being reductionistic here. There are always a plethora of factors, social, political, cultural, religious, that lead towards and sustain poverty. Yet, it is possible to argue that for the last several centuries there has been one main (emergent?) agency driving all other factors from colonization, to slavery, to democracy, etc. This claim is an incredibly bold one in need of an incredibly long tracing out, which I am entirely unable to do here.