Capitalism as Ideology
Much of mainstream economics presents capitalism as a morally neutral economic system. It does so with two arguments.
The first focuses on the individual consumer (or firm or worker). Capitalism is morally neutral, it is argued, because it is designed to enable individuals to make their own choices based on whatever values they happen to have.
The second focuses on overall systemic outcomes: capitalism generates the largest possible economic pie and we can then choose what to do with the proceeds.
But are these arguments compatible?
Capitalism is not, in fact, morally neutral. The apparent neutrality of individual choice masks the underlying moral assumption that the individual is the final measure of good, and should always trump community choice, and that present choices should always trump those of our forebears. It also fails to account for the unequal nature of many actual transactions, so that frequently the choice of some undermines the freedom of others. My choice to shop seven days a week (or the choice of a superstore to open seven days a week) removes, or at least reduces, the freedom of the families of shop-workers to spend one day a week together, since the chances of both working parents getting the same day off recede and the influence of shop-workers on such economic outcomes is relatively small. The “good” of a family day of rest each week cannot be expressed in a system that only recognizes autonomous individualism.
Likewise, technique and its pursuit of efficiency—a key concept in the support of our contemporary economic structures—is not morally neutral. It may be more efficient for a firm to close down a department that is making little money but it is not always better outcome for those who are made unemployed, even if they are given financial compensation as a result. In other words, the structure that is supposed to maximize individual benefit often costs certain individuals tremendously. In fact, capitalism’s credo—that on aggregate, individuals will be better served by support of capitalist structures—often undermines the good of particular individuals in particular places. This suggests that there are deeper moral questions at stake; it really does matter how we create wealth, not simply how much we create. It matters for people and it matters for the environment. It simply is not the case that the ends of economic growth can justify all the efficient means that may occur to firms in their pursuit of profit maximization.
Far from being morally neutral, capitalism functions as an ideology of the market. Robert Nelson (2000, 2010) has provided the most telling recent characterization of this false god of economic salvation in which the main elements of Christian theology are mirrored in secularized form. At root is a fundamental materialism in which the “evil” of scarcity is understood as the cause of “sin.” All manner of societal ills will be cured, according to this doctrine, if we embrace the salvation offered by progressive economic growth as directed by the high priestly caste of economists.
Capitalism-as-ideology is a primary carrier of secularism in the modern world and received from it the fundamental secular category mistake that led to a whole range of inherently moral economic and political questions being dealt with as if they are value-neutral or merely technical problems. Predictably, but destructively, the result is the imposition on our societies of de-humanising institutions, values, and policies that reflect the values and beliefs of the secular elite.
A basic spiritual truth is that you become what you worship. The ideological nature of capitalism is evident when you consider how it transforms human beings and human communities. A genuine search for truth in any area of human enquiry involves the adjustment over time of theories or hypotheses in the light of appropriate evidence so that they better conform to reality. In the case of economics we find the reverse taking place—institutions are created or changed and policy introduced with the precise goal of trying to make the real world more closely conform to the theoretical models of economics. A high degree of labour mobility is theoretically more efficient, so policies are introduced to enable and incentivize labour market “flexibility.” Policy-makers evidently believe that things “should” be other than what they are and capitalism-as-ideology justifies such changes in the name of economic growth, efficiency, and (bizarrely) the supposed value-neutrality of individual choice. Nevertheless, this attempt to mould human nature and human communities in the image of economic theory is fundamentally dehumanizing and destructive. The sustained attempt to impose the economic model of atomistic detached rational choosers onto the world has in fact hollowed out the individual, undermined human community and detached us from a right connectedness with the environment.
A political economy of despair
These and other critiques of capitalism are hardly new or unique. Many observers have been making similar observations for over a century. Yet capitalism has proven remarkably resilient. Part of this is because capitalism-as-ideology has not always had its way. Whether we think of nineteenth century reformers, the early twentieth century labour movement, or the late twentieth and early twenty-first century environmental movement, we find that changes in the treatment of children, improvements in working conditions, and care for the environment have all humanized the nature of our economic systems to some degree, though these hard-won battles have still to be fought in many countries. Despite these and other very important protections, the fundamental stance of capitalism-as-ideology remains untouched. In each case, all of these changes were treated as concessions in hard-fought political battles, even if some of them are now rationalized after the fact as “aids to efficiency.” Even if it is true that factory workers are more productive if treated well, there were no factory owners making this argument at the relevant time. Instead, those factory owners—such as the Quakers in industrial England—who did treat their workers well and did so against the grain of contemporary practice, were motivated by moral and religious beliefs to do so, not by thoughts of additional profit. Capitalism-as-ideology has excluded such motivations from its lexicon in much the same way that secularism in general has pushed religious and moral discourse out of the public square.
This exclusion of moral discourse is one of two major reasons, I argue, for capitalism-as-ideology’s ability to rebuff so much criticism over time. Questions that are inherently moral—such as the stable value of a currency, the creation of debt by the banking system, or the hiring policies of firms—are treated as merely technical problems to be solved via the appropriate analysis of monetary, financial, or labour economics. This reductionism not only hampers open debate of the real issues at stake but also removes decision-making into the hands of a particular elite group, uniquely qualified to “manage” society by virtue of their technical expertise.
A similar effect is achieved by the constant conflation of “the market” with “economics” and “capitalism” such that it becomes impossible to question one without apparently challenging the others. This constant conflation, apparent in such phrases as “free market economics” or “free market capitalism,” falsely identifies a particular economic theoretical account of how markets work, or simply the market itself, with the particular capitalist story about what the market is for. This conflation renders opaque the possibility that there may be other accounts of the market, and alternative stories of what the market is for, that break out of the stale discussion around capitalism versus socialism.
The net result of the opaque nature of language around political economy is a sense that there is no alternative to our current system. This is a powerful psychological barrier to sustained and relevant moral discourse and is reinforced by the constant reiteration of popular phrases via the media which depersonalize and objectify “economic forces” as if economic change were not actually the result of human decision-making. A sense of inevitability is reinforced by the repeated presentation, especially at election times, of false alternative futures in which “right wing” parties advocating more market compete for votes with “left wing” parties advocating more state. Regardless of who we vote for, we end up with more market and more state. That is, the culture of the market under the story of capitalism, the culture of efficiency and growth, is constantly extending itself into more and more of our lives. Whether in education, health care, or the justice system, we are increasingly pressured to think and behave as individual consumers, or as producers of services for sale. Moreover, anti-monopoly legislation seems unable to prevent the ever-increasing concentration of commercial power in all sectors around a few enormous firms. At the same time, we end up with more state as government expands to deal with more and more “market failures,” regulatory requirements, and distributory compensation as the task of “scientific management” of the economy toward the goal of maximal economic growth becomes ever more complex. The result of this apparently inexorable rise in the power and unaccountability of big business and swollen states is an increasing despair and fatalism that anything can fundamentally change, which in itself magnifies the threat to human freedom that capitalism-as-ideology poses.
Imagining the Jubilee—an economy of hope
What is needed at this time then is not simply a clear critique of capitalism’s shortcomings, though that remains important. This will only add to our sense of frustration if we do not also begin to imagine an alternative and inspire the hope to search for it. The most important first step in this journey is to dispel the myth of value-neutrality in so-called social sciences like economics and reinvigorate public debate around the explicitly moral and spiritual questions that political economy inevitably raises.
To imagine an alternative to the story of capitalism-as-ideology, I turn to the Christian faith. In the biblical tradition, economic activity is depicted as something that is intended to bring together and sustain a relationship between God, humanity, and creation. In Genesis, for example, the work of humanity in cultivating the earth, making it fruitful, guarding, keeping, and caring for it is described in exactly the same language as that used later of the priestly tasks in the temple. Economic life is inherently religious because it is a form of worship taking place in the temple of God’s creation. The fall of humanity into sin is a failure to guard, keep, and care for this place of intimate relationship safe from the evil of pride and autonomy—sin fractures all the relationships that work and economic activity cultivate: those with God, with one another, and with creation itself. Redemption thus involves restoring these fractured relationships, and the primary biblical motif for redemption in the economic realm is “Jubilee.”
The Jubilee provisions are set out in Leviticus 25 and are developed as a major eschatological theme by the prophets, especially in Isaiah 61, which is quoted by Jesus at the inauguration of his ministry. The Jubilee “year of the Lord’s favour” takes place every fifty years as the centerpiece of a nexus of socio-economic institutions and provisions designed to ensure the permanent socio-economic inclusion of each Israelite family in the community and to establish a relation between community and place. The main elements of the Jubilee are that liberty is proclaimed to the whole society and everyone returns to their own family property, as originally allocated. Debts are cancelled and slaves freed. The land also receives an additional Sabbath rest free of cultivation.
The Jubilee sets out to provide a secure place of relationship in the land that cannot be destroyed by economic hardship or greed. Each Israelite family was granted a roughly equal land-holding following possession of the land. The Jubilee laws are designed to ensure that each family continues to maintain such ownership over time, so that the relationship between God, a worshipping community, and the Stewardship of God’s land is not broken. The Jubilee laws would prevent the accumulation of ownership in the hands of a few wealthy farmers and the permanent alienation of any Israelite families from the economic and social foundation of their society.
If a family falls into economic difficulty because of poor management or a bad harvest, the first safety net is that fellow Israelites are obligated to lend to them without charging interest. There is an obligation to repay, but the debts are cancelled if unpaid at the end of seven years. These provisions strongly align the interests of the lender with the borrower. If the family is still in trouble, their land can be sold but only on a leasehold basis. The price is to be determined based on the number of years until the next Jubilee year and the family is then to be offered work as hired labourers. The text also prohibits a freehold market in land since that could permanently dispossess families of their economic stake in the society.
Clearly the economics of the Jubilee embody a completely different socio-economic vision to that of capitalism, despite the fact that the Old Testament basically supports markets and private property. Unlike that of capitalism, the logic of the Jubilee is explicitly relational and linked closely to notions of physical place that centre the theological concepts of home, belonging, and dwelling with God and God’s Creation. The system exists to protect the ability of people to serve God in community and recognises that persons have their identity in community, not in isolation from others. The social goal of this biblical vision is not economic growth or efficiency but relational peace or shalom.
The Jubilee can be read as part of, and as the culminating part, of the Exodus narrative, itself prototypical of Christ’s deliverance of all humanity. In Pharoah’s Egypt, an economic crisis leads first to widespread indebtedness, then to dependence on Pharoah and his regime because of the loss of any means of production as the people sell their cattle and land to buy food, and then finally to slavery. Israel are delivered from this slavery by God and the Jubilee represents a new way of living in God’s Promised Land that will reverse the logic that leads to this downward spiral from debt to slavery.
The parallels to our own context are obvious. Global capitalism is experiencing crises of increasing depth and frequency. Each one leads to yet further indebtedness, increasing inequality in society, increasing dependence on the state and big business, and increasing debt slavery for literally millions of people. Our society desperately needs its own Jubilee that will reverse our downward spiral into debt slavery and environmental destruction.
We are of course, living at great distance from the spiritual, cultural, and economic assumptions of ancient Israel. Might the Christian tradition provide anything to help us find a modern Jubilee? Two things that may strike us in considering the biblical Jubilee is that although the biblical horizon affirms markets, unlike capitalism it places a deliberate restriction on capital mobility by banning the freehold sale of land. Moreover, it bans the charging of interest, thereby limiting debt accumulation and removing the incentive for financial capital to be mobile (that is, it is not possible to earn a higher return somewhere else). From these restrictions flow many of the different outcomes of the Jubilee model, yet these are achieved without the need for state intervention. Rather than believing that markets automatically create good (or the least bad) outcomes—as “right wing” economic liberals do—or trying to correct market injustices after they have occurred through the tax and welfare system—as “left wing” interventionists do, the Jubilee institutions shape markets by setting boundaries to the areas of life that can be traded and thereby direct markets along a different course.
Consideration of the economics of the Jubilee thus suggests that the marked disconnection and alienation that we experience from others and from places, as well as our growing indebtedness and the destruction of the environment, stem from these two central features of the modern global economic order: unrestricted capital mobility and unrestrained debt creation. Moreover, it also suggests the kind of orientation to adopt in reforming these two aspects of contemporary capitalism.
Editor’s Note: A more fulsome treatment of this same topic by the author can be found in Oslington, editor. The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics. Oxford University Press. Forthcoming October 2013.