Business Connect Host 2015: The Costs of Capitalism

I'm continuing to reflect on my time at the Business Connect Host event on Jersey. In this post I want to talk about the effects of capitalism upon our lives.

Specifically, I want to reflect on the presentations made by Eve Poole and Mark Sampson. Both Eve and Mark made a variety of criticisms about capitalism, Eve drawing from her recently published book Capitalism's Toxic Assumptions and Mark from both his doctoral work and the life he shares with his intentional missional community.

One of the points I took away from both Eve's and Mark's presentations was an appreciation of the various ways capitalism forms and malforms us.

Specifically, beyond any economic criticisms we might make about capitalism what is undoubtedly the case is that capitalism shapes us into a certain kind of human being, a human being with particular desires and imagination.

For example, according to Eve one of the toxic assumptions at the heart of capitalism is that competition always produces the greatest good. Economically speaking, competition can struggle to find cooperative, nonzero sum outcomes--the "win/win" scenario. But for the purposes of this post I simply want to ask about the spiritual cost of competition upon our lives.

How does a life spent competing in a capitalistic economy affect us--emotionally, spiritually, cognitively, relationally and behaviorally?

Of course, you might deny that you are competing. But you are. You compete to get a job against other applicants. You compete to keep your job, get promoted at your job or get a raise. And your place of work is competing against rivals in the marketplace. If those rivals win you lose your job. So you compete against them. And your nation's economy--of which you play a part--competes against the economies of the world.

If you're working you're competing.

So it's reasonable to ask: How is this lifetime of competition affecting you? Affecting us and our communities? What is the spiritual fruit being produced by this steady diet of competition?

And yet, someone might retort, while these criticisms are important is there any other option? What other choices do we have? Communism? Surely that's a dead end, right?

Such questions go to a point Mark made at Host: Capitalism has destroyed our imaginations.

The fact that "Capitalism vs. Communism" is the only choice we can see before us is, more than anything, a vast failure of imagination. Free markets vs. central planning exhausts our economic imaginations. Beyond those two options, we can't even imagine another world. Which is shocking given the economic diversity we witness across human history.

Mark suggested that one of the reasons we need to cultivate and protect alternative economies is that, like protecting endangered plants, you never know when you might need them. Some endangered plant might wind up being the cure for Ebola. But if that plant goes extinct we'll never find the cure. It's in our self-interest to keep that plant around. You never know.

Similarly, alternative economies preserve systems that pre-date and thrived before the rise of capitalism. We might need these systems at some future date. We might, in fact, need them now.

Regardless, these alternative economies--new worlds in the shell of the old--cultivate the imaginative capacities necessary for social critique and social change.

You can't change the world if you can't imagine it.

And that ability to imagine has been slowly and steadily eroding.

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9 thoughts on “Business Connect Host 2015: The Costs of Capitalism”

  1. One thing I have observed over the last thirty to forty years is the conservative Christian's growing reverence for those of wealth, specifically those who are at the top of the corporate world. I do not believe for a moment that these Christians have become greedy, craving more than they have. Most of them are hard working, contented people. What I do think I see is their fear of the changing social norms in this country and the naive assumption that these people of wealth have what they have because they have lived strict and disciplined lives while following good ol' American values; thus, a baptism of Capitalism.

    In their minds the competition is not so much for the wealth as it is for the disciplined way of life that creates the wealth. Never mind that they have witnessed the toppling of great financial institutions from sheer greed while watching many of the financial leaders be led off to jail in handcuffs. They deal with these the same way they deal with religious leaders and celebrities who fell while holding others to a higher moral standard than they did themselves, in that they are just bumps in the road to conveniently forget once they are past.

    Someone once said that this country will never have a social revolution because we have too many wanna be millionaires. I really do not believe that to be the case. What I do believe is that we still have a large segment that trembles with change, and capitalism for them has been the narrow, stable power that keeps everyone united, moving in the same direction. However, the new shock is how companies themselves have become aware of the growing changes in this country and are adjusting. It is going to be quite interesting to see how those who have trusted capitalism to be a strict and guiding influence respond.

  2. Providentially, Richard, I read your column and then yesterday's New York Times, which contains Paul Krugman's column "Fighting the Derp." And that follows last week, when I listened to Walter Brueggemann's series on Jeremiah, and a couple of his other talks. All of it reinforces your central point. Not only do we lack imagination, which is bad enough, but sometimes, its literally killing us, and it is affecting the world we leave behind for succeeding generations.

    I'll give just one example. I have been to Canada a number of times, and have been blessed to have a number of Canadian friends, as well as a few European friends. None of them can understand how we put up with the "American" health care system. I have never talked to a single Canadian who would take our system over theirs. And yet over and over again, I talk to my fellow citizens, and they are convinced not only that our system is better than Canada's, but that Canadians think so too. We don't have to imagine a health care system that truly takes care of everyone, because dozens of other countries already have such a system. But when told about it, "Americans" literally can not imagine that such a system really "works." People in this country die every year from diseases and conditions that would be treated early and efficaciously in Europe and Japan. And that's just one example.

    John, I basically agree with you, except on one point. How many of the men and women who were actually responsible for the economic crisis in which they made millions or billions while others lost everything were ever handcuffed? Much less charged, brought to trial, or convicted?

    This is already a great series, Richard, and I look forward to reading more.

  3. How much should we blame competitiveness on capitalism instead of on human institutions (and human nature) more generally? I'm thinking that our slavery to death is at the root of our competitiveness, and not capitalism itself. (After all, it's not as though people in communist societies just gave up being competitive!)

    Put differently, it seems to me that it is our competitiveness that drives capitalism, and not capitalism which drives our competitiveness. To me, then, the solution isn't to change our fundamental politico-economic structures — which is an enormous and likely impossible task (and also a task which is not clearly the task of Christians in the world, at least not to me) — but to change ourselves (or to allow God's Spirit to change us) not just as spiritual beings but as political and economic beings.

    I think your point about imagination is a powerful one — and I think that it shouldn't be restricted to imagining different economic macro-structures, but imagining ways in which we ourselves can live differently within the world and imagining churches as distinct politico-economic (and not just spiritual) biosystems. Which is why I love your (imaginative) suggestion a while back to have churches run laundromats. And there's so much room to explore and imagine here: churches starting health insurance collectives, multi-family living spaces, etc., etc.

    I guess the point is that we should worry about the micro-economies we can change before we start worrying about the macro-economies we maybe can't.

    Just thinking out loud. Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

  4. I would agree with Joseph's remark about the slavery of death being at the root of our competitiveness. Although, I would interject that 'self interest' is seated in between the two.

    When we think through economics 101 and remember the foundational principle of the opposing forces (supply and demand) we are reminded how commonplace it is for us to think of the world in terms of scarcity. Additionally, Adam Smith believed that it was in human nature to be concerned about its own 'self interest'. This (human self interest and scarcity), then, when fully manifested, is what breathes life to the competitive attributes in capitalism. There are numerous examples of this in capitalism but, when thinking about people and opportunities, perhaps the most useful example would be the example of an organizational chart. Narrow at the top, wide at the bottom. The shape of a triangle. This undoubtedly communicates the need for being competitive. It says, you have to improve and be better than everyone else in order to be promoted (accepted at the top). Additionally, this necessarily communicates that you aren't enough as you are.

    But is it human nature to be self-interested? Is it Christian nature to be self-interested or others oriented? If we see Jesus making space for/serving/loving the other as they are, then what does that mean for His followers? Like Richard said, all too often these conversations move back and forth b/w Capitalism and Communism... we need to reignite our imagination. In order for a spark to become a flame, it must touch, impact, and transform its surroundings. Likewise, in order for our imaginations to be more than simply intellectual, they must react with our communities. They must make space for the other.

    In my experience, more often than not, those who are opposed with alternatives to capitalism are those who are benefiting from it. When these conversations arise, the cries shift from the powerless to the powerful because those in power are afraid of losing the security, comfort and control that was won in their competitive struggle to the top. Perhaps, bourgeoisie Christians need to be rebuked like Peter was in Mark 8. Maybe, then, we (like Peter) might be able to set our preconceived notions aside and hear Jesus' call to follow Him. A call that commands anyone who wishes to be His disciple to deny themselves, to take up their cross, and to lose their life for the sake of loving God and others.

    Richard, I thought your example yesterday of creating a business around friends who are coming out of jail / prison was a perfect example to kick-off the conversation.

  5. I think it would be interesting if competition was reserved for the creation of things, be that a new toaster, art, music or sporting prowess rather then necessities of life. I think the basic problem though is that you either need everyone to reach a consensus on how to live together or you need an authority figure that can impose a new system, both of which seem impossible. But I still find the small communal attempts at a new way of living together interesting and worthwhile, though they seem to have limited lifespans due to the above factors.

  6. I wonder about this point:
    You can't change the world if you can't imagine it.

    Specifically, a Marxist--or, in fact, Marx--would point out that we might have to change the world even if we can't imagine what we'll change it to. If revolution means that more people get to make decisions that they did not get to make before (understanding that, at least in Marx's opinion, communism is the ultimate destination of democracy--communism's totalitarian turn came after Marx), then you cannot predict what will follow a revolution. After all, these are new decisions, made by virtual unknowns (at least in terms of what they'd choose). In other words, it is impossible to say what will happen if there is economic or even true electoral equality. So, in order to change the world, we may have to admit that we cannot imagine what the alternative might be; the fact that we cannot tolerate the present may have to be enough.

    I am mostly convinced at least of Marx's point, at least in this, but I realize it's a hard sell.

  7. I am not sure if if everyone assumes that competition always produces the greatest good, but the fact is that the technologies that have come about by this capitalist competition have indeed made many aspects of our life much easier and I may argue more rewarding.

    On a recent trip to Minneapolis, as we were driving along in out air conditioned car, I asked my daughters how long the trip would take by hoarse and buggy. Well they proceeded to get on their smart phones and after a little Googling, they came up with a figure of about 12 days (It took us about 10 and 1/2 hours in the car).

    The car, the air conditioning, the smart phones that work almost anywhere, and even Google are all a product of the capitalistic competition model.

    I can agree that this competition does produce some less than optimal cultural / behavioral conditions, but these are the very things that we as a community battle and it could be said that they (the less than optimal cultural / behavioral conditions) would be with us in some form no matter what type of economy we would have.

    Yes, the church does have it's work cut out for it, but let us not forget our many blessings either.

  8. I still have imagination..wrote a 350 page book on my imagined world...unfortunately my family needs me to provide. Here I come capitalism. "Unenthusiastic yay!"

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