What’s the matter with capitalism?

No, I’m not proposing a communist or even socialist utopia (I live in the real world), I’m talking about Danel Bell’s book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. He talks instead about God’s ‘Divine Economy’ and how it triumphs over the capitalist economy of our world today.

But first, this interview with Michael Sandel sets the scene from a secular perspective: What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of the market.

Does capitalism work?

You’re asking wrong question, says Bell. When Christians argue over that question one side will hurl their stats at the other, the debate is ‘as endless as it is fruitless.’ According to Bell its obvious productive capacity has proved that it does work. But it’s the wrong question. What we should ask is ‘what does capitalism do?’

What does capitalism do?

Many accept that capitalism often exploits the poor and perpetuates injustice. But that’s not the whole story of what it does. In fact, Bell argues that capitalism would still be wrong if it made everybody rich. He turns to the Christian belief in human purpose. What did God make us for?

People are for desiring and delighting in God and reflecting God’s glory. We are created for friendship, for communion with God. The Trinity is a communion of love into which we are invited. Of course, this friendship is not merely a matter of me and God, of me and Jesus. After all, Scripture reminds us we cannot be friends of God if we hate our neighbours and that redemption involves breaking down the walls of hostility that divide peoples; hence, the commandments as succinctly summed up in the exhortation that we “love God and neighbour.

But what does capitalism say people are for?

The question, What are people for? has everything to do with capitalism because capitalism embodies a very different answer to the question than the Classic Christian tradition. Put a bit more pointedly, the capitalist economy of desire is a manifestation of sin because it both corrupts desire and obstructs communion. Capitalism is wrong because it discipline distorts human desire. it corrupts desire so that it no longer flows according to its proper, created end; it twists desire and in so doing obstructs our friendship with God, one another and creation. In other words, the problem with capitalism is not simply that it may not work but that even if it does increase aggregate wealth, even if made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it still is wrong and is to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality. The problem with capitalism is… that it does not facilitate, and instead actively works against, the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity.

Capitalism is premised on scarcity (the idea that there’s not enough for everyone), on competition (making our relationships means to getting ahead) and it promotes insatiable desire. It turns neigbours into competitors. It encourages us to desire the wrong things. The ‘invisible hand’ takes the place of God, but this god is a harsh and fickle master; there’s no guarantee that if you work hard and invest well the market will reward you.

Is there another option?

Well yes. Bell’s book doesn’t just leave us with that depressing state of affairs – he points us to what Jesus has done and his Kingdom as the answer (it always is). God is ‘healing our desire of its capitalist distortions’ so that we can desire what is good. Discipleship is ‘the redemption of desire, this faith and hope that desire can be healed’.

But what exactly is God doing to heal desire of ‘its capitalist distortions?’ Bell turns to Jesus work to ‘overcome the capitalist economy of desire’ in the atonement and its effect on human desire: the ‘Divine Economy’. And I’m going to quote this whole section directly because he articulates it much clearer than I could.

Our consideration of what God is doing now to heal desire of its economic distortions begins with the Christian doctrine of the atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross. In particular, it begins with what is commonly called the satisfaction or substitutionary account of Christ’s work on the cross… developed most notably by the medieval theologian St Anselm…

Typically the satisfaction or substitutionary understanding of the cross holds that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the debt to God humanity incurred on account of sin, that Christ is the sinner’s substitute on the cross, paying the penalty of that sin. Anselm’s argument can be summarised as follows: in the face of human sin, which is an offence against God’s honour, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict accounting of what is due. However, because humanity already owes God everything, it has no surplus with which to repay its debt. In this situation, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, and pays the debt through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is the result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.

At first glance, this account of Christ’s work on the cross might not seem particularly relevant to either the matter of economics in general or to liberating desire from the distortions of capitalism. On the one hand, it appears to have little to do with economics, with the circulation and use of scarce resources; on the other hand, insofar as it might have some indirect relevance, it does not appear to present a serious challenge of any sort to the capitalist economy of desire. Indeed, to the extent that Christ’s work of redemption on the cross seems to work entirely within a logic of scarcity and debt, communitative exchange, equity and strict accounting of what is due, it would appear to reinforce the material logic that underwrites the capitalist economy of desire. Divine accounting, it seems, is not that different from capitalist accounting. Just as capitalism functions according to a contractual logic of debt, equality/equivalence (via the dollar and dominance of exchange value), retribution (as in an exact accounting and rendering what is due), and finally death (for it is death that gives scarcity its power), so too, apparently does the atonement. Redemption requires a full settling of accounts, communitative justice. Christ’s death is an exchange accounted equivalent to our debt that settles the divine-human balance sheet.

Yet notwithstanding its widespread popularity, this reading of Paul and Anselm is a profound misreading. It reflects not the divine economy of salvation revealed in Scripture, expounded in the tradition, and lived out by the church, but rather reflects the way that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire that was beginning to emerge during Anselm’s time. As a result, we have blurred vision (like the blind man at Bethsaida) and so misinterpret the work the crucified (and resurrected) Christ was doing; we misconstrue the character of God’s economy that heals desire of its sin.

When understood rightly, the atonement is neither irrelevant to economy nor a tacit endorsement of the logic of the capitalist economic order. Rather, rightly understood, the cross reveals the gift of Christ as the incarnation of a divine economy that turns the capitalist order on its head

God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin. Anselm then goes on to say that God does not demand bloodshed, that divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and that God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. All of which is to say that whatever is happening on the cross, it is not about a strict settling of accounts and a rigid enforcing of commutative justice. Indeed, as Anselm argues, in the work of the atonement, God in Christ both dismisses any debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created.

What is going on, Anselm says, is not God collecting on accounts receivable but rather making good on God’s intention on creating humanity… Sin is indeed an offence against God’s honour in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted… Sin is an offence against God because it is the thwarting of God’s desire that humanity enjoy, find its rest or communion in God… As such, honour is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. God’s honour demands not that one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions for humanity not be thwarted.

I’ll stop here or else I’ll end up just typing out the whole book for you.

All that was a long way of saying that what was happening at the cross wasn’t a settling of accounts according to a capitalist economy but a cancellation of debt and a display of immeasurable generosity. The ‘divine economy’ is not like the capitalist economy.

What does the ‘divine economy’ mean practically?

Bell explains that Christ’s work of atonement ‘renews desire in its true modality of gift, donation and unending generosity.’ It’s exciting stuff. Because God has been so generous to us, we’re freed from seeing the capitalist economy as an ultimate reality. We already have everything we need. Having received Christ, our life ‘becomes a surplus with which to serve our neighbours.’

You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that you, by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

In this reality:

  • Everything we have is a gift from God. We are not ‘possessive’ like in capitalist possessive individualism.
  • The material stuff God gives us is not simply for meeting our own needs but the needs of others. Sure, there’s still private property, but private property no longer means having the right to do ‘whatever I want with my stuff’ but becomes a means of serving the common good. Ownership is not a licence but a responsibility.
  • We are freed to give in a way which honours the receiver of the gift. Christians don’t give out of their wealth to demonstrate their benevolence, expecting the ‘needy’ person could give them nothing in return. They acknowledge everything they have is a gift from God anyway. ‘Being vulnerable to receiving is a prerequisite of Christian giving.’
  • We are freed to work for the common good and serve others.
  • We can find rest from the rat race and the market. Rest is found in communion with God.

Now I completely skipped all the French philosophy Bell engages with, much of his analysis of postmodern capitalism and I hardly touched all the implications of God’s generosity to us in Christ. You must read this book. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


2 thoughts on “What’s the matter with capitalism?

  1. It might help to clarify what capitalism is and what it is not. Capitalism does not encourage greed and materialism. It recognizes that humans inherently have an interest in bettering themselves (self-interest), and it takes advantage of that desire to better society as a whole. In other words, takes something which might be considered evil and turns it to a great potential for good. If this is wrong, then it was also wrong for Jesus to say “Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.” He didn’t say, “Stop being self-interested and love others instead.” No, He said love yourself and add to it love for others. Seek your own good and seek the good of others also. (Philippians 2:4) This, I believe, is a closer estimation of the “Biblical economy” than what Bell is proposing.

    • Yes loving ourselves is healthy, but Jesus didn’t say love your neighbour by loving yourself as capitalism would have us believe is possible.

      Re the redemption of evil issue – I think there’s a difference between harnessing an unhealthy desire to achieve good (as capitalism might do) and actually redeeming desire. Capitalism would fall apart if we desired to love our neigbours – it doesn’t redeem greed so much as thrive upon it and even demands it. Hope in capitalism is going to put Christians in a bind – when we start believing that greed and self-interest is the route to the common good we’re going to struggle to know what love actually looks like.

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