In my last post I made two claims:
1.) The rise of the bourgeoisie is giving theologians fits.
2.) The bourgeois identity and ethic is very resistant to change.
Let me unpack #1. Many theologians consider bourgeoisie existence to be a kind of spiritual failure. Its focus on personal discipline (e.g., piety, prudence, thrift, sobriety) and its role as the engine of market economies makes bourgeoisie existence a pale vision of what Christianity should be or aspire to. Thus, there are frequent theological calls to reclaim or rediscover an identity, ethic, or mode of living that pulls us out of bourgeoisie existence. Christian living is to be more than personal piety and self-control. The Kingdom of God should not be squeezed into the bourgeoisie work week. A Higher Time, a Liturgical Time, should rule our lives rather than punching the bourgeoisie timeclock.
But for over 200 years, from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to this very day, these theological appeals ("Bourgeois existence is killing us!") have had little effect. Just why these appeals have had such little effect is the subject of this series.
And that brings me to #2 above. Why is bourgeoisie existence so resistant to change?
The answer to this question, to be argued across this post and the next, is this: The bourgeoisie have been then most effective psychological and sociological innovation the world has ever seen in creating both social peace and freedom from debilitating poverty. Consequently, any alternative mode of existence or identity will have to be equally if not more effective in creating peace and prosperity. For example, I have no doubt that many theological recommendations create, in local pockets, a greater sense of community and relationality. But it remains to be seen if those formulations are engines of social transformation, creating society-wide peace and prosperity for people both inside and outside the faith community.
But is it true that the bourgeoisie changed the world for the better? To make that argument let's start, in this post, by looking at life before the dawn of the bourgeoisie.
To make my argument I'd like to use the analysis of Gregory Clark in his book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Clark, a historical economist, makes the following argument: Life before 1800, in all cultures, was governed by what Clark calls the Malthusian Economy.
The central dynamic of a Malthusian Economy is that population growth and material living standards are negatively correlated. Specifically, with finite goods to go around living standards drop when the population grows. Conversely, when the population declines material living standards improve. There is more land, resources, and work to go around.
The trouble is as material living standards improve birth rates go up and death rates go down. Which means the population starts growing again. This pushes down material living conditions (poverty is created). As material living conditions get more pinched death rates start to exceed birth rates. The population declines. Once the population thins, material living conditions go back up. And the dynamic repeats. In short, the Malthusian Economy is governed by an equilibrium that keeps the population centered on what is known as the subsistence income. Clark shows that the subsistence income from ancient Babylon to England in 1800 has been remarkable stable.
Now here is the important point for our purposes. If population and material living standards are negatively correlated any force that increases the population (e.g., reduces death rates) is, in the long run, bad for the people. Population increases in the pre-1800 world drove standards of living down (i.e., created poverty) and created a Malthusian pinch. In short, anything ostensibly good (grew the population) was, in actuality, a long term bad thing. Conversely, anything that thinned or reduced a population (e.g, increased death rates) while seemingly a bad thing was, when viewed globally and across the long term, actually a good thing.
Think that through. Pre-1800 anything that drove death rates up created long term benefits for the people. Clark lists some of these Malthusian virtues (p. 37):
Conversely, anything that decreased death rates was a Malthusian vice. Clark's list includes:
The logic here is hard to escape. If there are limited resources (only so much farm land or work to go around) then during a time of peace and hard work death rates drop, birth rates go up, and the population grows and grows and grows. The finite supply of work and food gets spread thinner and thinner. Poverty, disease, and class violence increase. Soon the population boom is lost to the bust created by plague, war, or chronic poverty.
I'd like for you to meditate upon this analysis and its implication for theology. In the Malthusian era a Christian "peaceable kingdom" ends up creating poverty and war. And this isn't the result of intrinsic human sinfulness. It's a birth rate issue. Peaceable kingdoms grow populations. And it doesn't matter how much you share in your church and have "all things in common." If the population keeps growing eventually you have nothing to share with.
In short, prior to the 1800s any attempt at Christian community is going to get snuffed out by Malthusian pressures. Love, pacifism, charity. They call create war and poverty.
Clark calls the Malthusian Economy the Malthusian Trap. And we can see why. Unless wealth is created we remain stuck in the Malthusian situation where good is bad and bad is good. The only way to get out of the Trap is to create wealth commensurate with population growth. If that can happen, if wealth can be created, then we can escape the Trap. Once out of the Trap the world looks more sane. Peace and charity come into their own as the virtues we know them to be: Good things for us and the world, short-term and long-term. But we have to get out of the Trap before that can happen. And guess who got us out of the Trap?
In my last post I made two claims: