The “Occupy London” protest at St Paul’s Cathedral has raised many issues. The presenting problem is, of course, capitalism.
But what is “capitalism”? It is where you have a business with private (i.e. non governmental) ownership and a work-force who exchange their labour for wages. The owners (the corporation or joint-stock company) that provide the capital (and are responsible for the business) take no wages but control and share the profit from selling the goods produced or the services rendered.
However, the word “capitalism” carries symbolic freight. It now stands for all that is disliked about the business world in general. Especially in mind are bankers and bosses with their bonuses and other perks such as severance packages after their businesses have failed. So UK protests against capitalism often mean:
“We don’t like a lot of what is going on in the City of London, or the Government at Westminster, because many of us now are having to pay a lot more for student grants/ mortgage deposits/ petrol etc., and the poor need a better deal. So we want something done about it.”
But exactly what is the issue and what is to be done, apart from the Government spending more money, is seldom articulated.
The alternative to capitalism is “socialism”. But socialism as previously experienced is seen as even more of a problem. It is seen as impractical economically for the modern world. 1989 and the defeat of the socialist and tyrannical Soviet Union, it is argued, made that clear.
Under socialism, as currently understood, the means of production are put into common ownership; and the Government acts as an administrative machine promoting equality and the elimination of systems of power (especially the “class” system). The Government also seeks to “distribute” wealth from the rich to the poor through taxation and to guarantee individual rights. However, such socialism is seen by genuine atheistic Marxism as merely a transitional economic programme before the final classless utopia where there is to be no private property. But too much Government control under any system ends up with great waste and too many inefficiencies to achieve even the most noble of ideals. And because so many other areas of life can be said to relate to the economy this control is likely to increase and become totalitarian.
However, with socialism’s demise millions around the world thought a new age would dawn. It did not and for a number of reasons. Now, it may be feared, some old-style Marxists may be seeing their chances in the current economic turmoil. As Anthony Daniels has said:
“Why should the philosophy of a man who died a century ago, whose prophecies have been confounded, and whose followers have caused some of the greatest catastrophes in history, remain the single most important intellectual influence in the world today, more important by far than that of men of more profound insight? Marxism answers several needs. It has its arcana, which persuade believers that they have penetrated to secrets veiled from others who are possessed of false consciousness. It appeals to the strongest of all political passions, hatred, and justifies it. It provides a highly intellectualised rationalization of a discreditable but almost universal and ineradicable emotion, envy. It forever puts the blame elsewhere, making self-examination unnecessary and self-knowledge impossible. It explains everything. Finally, it persuades believers that they have a special destiny in the world. For disgruntled intellectuals, nothing could be more gratifying. The end of Marxism is definitely not nigh.”
The fundamental issue
It is true that Marxism has been a “religion” for so many. But the main problem today is not a resurgence of Soviet-style Marxist socialism. Rather it is the adverse effect of the influence of Marxism, with its atheistic world view, on the Christian world-view in the West for much of the 20th century. There has been massive “cognitive contamination”.
Since the 1960s, among many politicians, educators and journalists the Marxist assumption is now axiomatic, that ultimately human existence is economic. All human problems, therefore, reduce themselves in the end to a lack of material resources. But this Marxist conviction is “false consciousness” if ever. But it is the fundamental issue in the current debate. For as Jesus said (echoing the Old Testament):
“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mat 4.4).
A society needs far more than the satisfaction of material needs - the legitimate business of economics. In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, the then young Peter Drucker, a great founding “guru” of business studies, wrote this in his Future of Industrial Man:
“Economic security as a political programme ignores the most important lessons of the last twenty-five years [the mid-war years] that economic satisfactions are only negatively effective in society and politics. The absence of economic satisfactions creates severe social and political dislocations. But their presence does not by itself constitute a functioning society.”
Certainly neither capitalism nor socialism explain everything. They are simply economic programmes (or tools) to achieve other ends. So those “other ends” need to be right. Also people engaged in these programmes need to be acting morally. Currently too many are not. The recent documentary film Inside Job reveals some of the corruption at the highest levels. Interestingly the film reveals that financial immorality and greed goes hand in hand (exactly as, in Ephesians 5.5, the Bible says happens) with sexual immorality (in this case, the regular provision of high class prostitutes).
Since the advent of New Labour in the UK all are now “capitalists” - but of which sort? It was Archbishop William Temple who said that two of the great moral ends of any social order are freedom and fellowship. It can reasonably be argued that the right-leaning capitalist majors on freedom, while the left-leaning on fellowship; the right seeks to restore the balance when the collective state ignores or frustrates personal opportunity and initiative; the left seeks to prevent personal economic freedom unfairly frustrating the collective good. Then again the right is concerned to fulfil the biblical mandate of “being fruitful and replenishing the earth”, for it is concerned with wealth creation. The left, however, is concerned to obey the biblical command to secure a fair deal for the poor and oppressed. All these concerns are vital. But when you have lost the Christian world-view that undergirds those ends of freedom, fellowship and basic morality, expect problems! These we have got. There is undoubtedly unbridled greed at the top and naked envy at the bottom.
Especially at the time of the Reformation, through Calvin and then through the English Reformers, Christianity played an important part in the emergence of capitalism. But at the same time Christians have been among its most relentless critics. As Richard Neuhaus says: “In some ways, this is neither unusual nor objectionable. It may even be laudable. The Christian message directs human beings to strive toward great achievement, and the same Christian message insists that all such achievements kept under critical judgement.”
Brian Griffiths, now Lord Griffiths, of Goldman Sachs, in his book Morality and the Market Place sees the problems with both Capitalism and Socialism. “Capitalism suffers because of inadequate limits on the exercise of freedom” while Socialism “suffers from an inability to put adequate constraints on the urge to control.” But this “inability to resolve the basic tension between freedom and control” is the crisis of secular humanism; and that comes from the crisis of human nature called “sin” which needs the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit for changing lives. So Brian Griffiths sees the urgent need for evangelism:
“Christianity starts with faith in Christ and it finishes with service in the world … Because of this I believe that evangelism has an indispensable part to play in the establishment of a more just economic order. Obedience to Christ demands change, the world becomes his world, the poor, the weak and the suffering are men, women and children created in his image; injustice is an affront to his creation; despair indifference and aimlessness are replaced by hope, responsibility and purpose; and above all selfishness is transformed by love.”