I am going to put forward an argument that is not as popular to make in Christian circles, especially outside of evangelicals, but it is an argument that I think is of vital importance when thinking about Christian witness in the West, amidst the pressures and social struggles we have faced and will continue to face in the future. Capitalism, not Marxism, is the more faithful expression of Christian faith through economics.
However, before making the positive argument, there is some brush clearing that needs to be done in this argument. I am not making an argument that capitalism as it is currently realized in the United States is a faithful expression of Christian faith. In fact, far from it, I would liken the present form of American capitalism to a golden calf, replacing the true worship of God. Of course, I don’t mean that to say that capitalism as an economic system is something divine, but only that that the goodness that is latent within capitalism has come to have been massively distorted because of a few factors.
There are five primary factors I would point to. First, money, which is a means of economic exchange and a form of information used to make economic decisions, has itself become a value and end to itself. This thereby has distorted capitalism from an economic system focused upon free economic exchange to an idolatry of money. Second, there can only be truly free exchange if there is an approximate equity between exchange partners such that one partner in the exchange is not in a position or desperation or servility that requires them to make inordinate personal sacrifices for a minimal gain that only allows them to survive, but does not allow them to thrive. In other words, capitalism as free exchange is not simply about the minimization of overbearing interference from a central, federal government, but also the minimization of overbearing interference by citizens empower by influence and wealth. Third, and this will be something I develop a bit more, but capitalism has begun to be defined unhealthily defined by the competitive aspects of capitalism, where competition is not simply a general pressure to keep prices low and quality high, but it has become a value itself, much like money, where one seeks to maximize growth by cannibalizing the competition. Fourth, because the modern version of capitalism has been largely derived by the value of maximizing profits through the practices of increasing supply and then convincing people to buy product, rather than producing where one sees a niche in need of being filled, the modern brand of capitalism has had to rely on the forces of advertisement in order to maximize profits, leading to the predominant reliance upon appeals to the most basic emotions and motivational instincts of people, including most notably sex, that has an impact on the values of the culture as a whole. Additionally, and finally, this maximization of profits through increased production has contributed to the harmful environment alteration and slow-scale devastation of the globe. It is my contention and hope, however, that none of these five realities are inevitable for an economy built upon free economic exchange, although it is not my purpose here to try to figure out, describe, or prove this.
My purpose, rather, is to present the reason why I think the economic tradition of capitalism, rather than the economic tradition of Marxism, bears the most hope for the future and is the most “Christian” of the two economic traditions. It relates to the engine of human interactions and pursuits that power both economic theories: cooperation or conflict.
On the surface, Marx and Engel’s Communism seems to present a more rosy picture of cooperation, as it imagines a state-less future where an equality rules through society where everyone has what they need, according to other giving based upon what they can. As lofty and ideal as this vision is, and it has drawn many a dreamer, it is not much better than Satan’s temptation to give Jesus what His vocation was pointing Him towards, to rule the nations. Why? Because just as Satan would have Jesus giving in to evil to realize the good of His vocation, Marx’s economic vision relies upon the social conflict as the fundamental engine of progress towards the dream. To the extent that Marxist historical analysis of the emergence of the communist future through periods off social conflicts and classes did not come to fruition, later, post-Marxist perspectives, such as critical theory, fundamentally relied upon social conflict as a means towards achieving equity and equality. It amounts to the means of physical and emotional violence being justified by the ends of peace and equality. Does that sound Christian to you? Or, for those who are progressively oriented and look to (post-)Marxist theory as some sort of economic solution, does it fit with what Martin Luther King Jr. said:
In the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
Even as Martin Luther King Jr. was apparently influenced by the thought of Marxism, was not his means of catalyzing justice done through peaceful means, even as this means of peace stirred up conflict? Where do you think he learned that from, except from the King of Peace, who said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God?”
Or, shall I point to how (post-)Marxist understanding of progress through social conflict sounds eerily similar to social Darwinism, where to the victors of the conflicts go to the spoils? Dream that dream of the equitable future as much as you want, but the pathway to it through (post-)Marxism is a devil-inspired wisdom of conflict, spiraling towards war and justified injustices. Your ideal dream will not exonerate you from participation, because the pathway to hell is laden in pure gold bricks of good intentions. But that dream is used as sheep’s clothing that covers up what destroys.
Capitalism, as least in the ambitions as to how it is supposed to be realized, is the free economic exchange of people. Certainly, there are many mechanism that can distort free exchange with the result of drastic injustices, while it still remains labeled “capitalism.” But the dream of economic prosperity for all is to be realizing by the cooperation of people for each others good. Sure, selfishness can distort the motivations for our cooperation with each other, but does not the means of free cooperation with one another cohere with the ends of equality and well-being for all? Meanwhile, competition in capitalism is not generally understand to be a direct form of competition in which one seeks to take out the other side economically, but rather the competition is understood as bettering one’s own product and services.
If you were to compare the realization of well-being through cooperation or conflict, which one do you think looks closer to Jesus? Granted, Jesus Himself faced conflict that resulted in His crucifixion and warned His disciples that they would be persecuted, but nowhere in that struggle was a mentality of to the victor goes the spoils, at least to the first victor, although the first loser does become the last victor. Nevertheless, was conflict the means by which Jesus brings forth God’s blessing of Abraham to the world, or was it through His faithfulness to God in the face of such an grievous injustice that God’s blessing would be bestowed to the world by Him and by others through following Him?
So, think for a second: which is the economic pathway to walk towards the hope of social justice and holiness? Is it by finding the child of capitalism that can accomplish equity and well-being through free exchange or is it Marxism and his children? This doesn’t mean we can’t learn from Marxism, as Jesus certainly calls us to be shrewd as a serpent, which entails us knowing a bit about the insights of the unrighteous and seeing how they can accomplish things, but the innocence of a dove precludes us from following a system that ultimately relies upon the persistent justification of conflict to realize its goals instead of an economic system that allows one to be person who through one’s economic exchange brings peace, even in the midst of the competitive economic conflict.
To be clear, capitalism isn’t divine and it is susceptible to many distortions and is not immune from idolatries that can turn it into an agent of injustice. But, it is a lot closer to Abraham’s blessing than the children of the de…. I mean Marx.