22 July, 2010

On Capitalism

Thank you Karl Marx. Or perhaps more properly Friedrich Engels.

Capitalism is one of those words that is by this point in history just inherently frustrating. Like "existentialism" or "conservatism", there are by now so many different shades of meaning in the word that there exists by now practically nothing of the common ground of understanding necessary for rational communication on the subject. I am particularly attuned to a lot of this right now, partly because of my recent reading of Marxist criticism, partly because of conversations with friends, and partly because Georges Bernanos loathed it.

While there doesn't seem to be much controversy in protestant circles over it (at least not in your average, prosperity-gospel supporting church), Catholics tend to be dramatically divided between accepting and detesting it. As for the wild detestation, I have to blame some of that on the liberation theology that infected the Church in the 60s and 70s. But the really interesting thing is that this is something hated not merely by the pseudo-Marxist liberals (many of whom really do have the best of intentions in hating it, I think), but by solid, sincere, orthodox Catholics as well.

Why? Well, I think some of it is necessarily rooted in a certain hysteria that has grown up around the word for the past 50 years. Since I am not an economist, I take my basic definition of capitalism from Wikipedia (not originally, but for this post):

"Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned; supply, demand, price, distribution, and investments are determined mainly by private decisions in the free market, rather than by the state through central economic planning or through democratic planning; profit is distributed to owners who invest in businesses, and wages are paid to workers employed by businesses."

Usually Catholics who object to Capitalism are objecting to a habit in society of rampant acquisitiveness, exercised with little or no attitude of responsibility towards the less fortunate (certainly what Bernanos hated, although he also hated democracy...mostly because he understood it badly too). But is that at all what is being outlined in this very basic definition of the system, which is how I and my family have understood it for as long as I can remember? Let's see: lack of state control of the products of individual labor and entrustment of those products to the individual to dispose of as he or she sees fit. Now several things come to mind when I read that. First is the analogy to the liberty of the person allowed for in all realms of life by the United States Constitution; it's the same principle, just applied less universally to the economic sphere. Second, where is greed the rule of the system? It's basic justice that a person is allowed to keep freely the result of his own expenditure of energy, whether physical, mental, or imaginative. Just as governments exist for the sake of preserving this and other rights, without ever having its own independent right (in my opinion) to determine that the citizens must exercise their rights in these particular ways, "capitalism" has no prerogative to demand that this uncensored exchange of goods be carried out in some Machiavellian power struggle of the strongest to benefit at the expense of the weak. Oppression of the poor is not in any way some inherent cardinal rule of capitalism.

However, continue to read on Wikipedia, and you'll soon realize where the confusion comes in. Because "Capitalism also refers to the process of capital accumulation." Now, read that out logically and you'll see that it would refer to a process of making capital accumulation the central activity of life, even the element which gives it its meaning: an "ism", as Chesterton observes, is a thing that preoccupies and monopolizes a life: Nazism, liberalism, Catholicism (the only thing that can properly do that, of course, is the last, because it happens to be true. How nice).

Now, that, I have no problems with objecting to. Of course that will end up being Machiavellian: if your only goal in life is to make more money than the other man, than of course you'll be offending basic principles of justice, society will be greedy and materialistic, and the poor will be crushed (or at least despised) by the rich.

Yet the interesting thing is that whereas Marxist propaganda, starting right back there with Das Kapital , has inspired us to generally accept without question the absurd equation of a fault that the system may allow for (greed) with the system itself (free market). And add to this the further absurdity that this fault is in fact destructive of that first definition of Capitalism. If the economy becomes nothing more than ruthless suppression of the weak by the strong, that free-market principle is no longer a free market principle except for the tiny oligarchy of those at the top. To take some examples from history: that's precisely what was happening in American society in the 1800s. The railroad magnates, mill owners, etc. all treating their workers with complete lack of regard for their human dignity and destroying any form of capitalism for these workers (they were not, recall, in control of the products of their work). Then in the 1920s: rampant stock market speculation (greed), with the economy by now so far removed from concrete products of labor, sent the entire system crashing down and paved the way for the beginnings of the proto-socialist welfare state.

And now look at what we have. Greed infecting society on all levels, not the prerogative any more of a few clever businessmen, but everyone's right. And what are we getting now? Strengthened capitalism? Are you seeing increasing control of the money you earn (or if you happen to be a farmer, the goods you produce)? Isn't it more the fact that the attitude of greed supposedly inherent in and peculiar to socialism has in point of fact led directly to an all-encompassing state-regulated economy in which more and more of the individual's earnings are put at the disposal of a Big Brother government to ensure that the avarice which has infected modern society ever since we decided that money is the only thing to live for is at least partially sated...so that we have a populace increasingly dependent on the government for its bread and circuses and no means to the financial independence that could allow us to follow our principles and help our neighbor instead of fund the video-game addiction of some down and out punk who never wanted to work anyway?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An excellent reflection! Thank you for posting this.