A Wealthy Republic?

I begin with a disclaimer: I have nothing against money. I like money and I am happy that after years of struggle I finally have enough to be relatively worry-free and even able to help others when given a chance. At the same time I am aware that money is a two-edged sword. In the form of the capitalistic economic system it has brought about a higher standard of living for more people than could have been imagined by folks like Adam Smith when he was promoting free enterprise in the eighteenth century. But I do wonder if it has brought greater happiness to a great many people — as Smith thought it would. And as one who read his New Testament carefully for many years in his mis-spent youth, I am aware of the inherent contradiction between the basic principles of capitalism and the values promoted in the New Testament where, we are told, the poor are blessed and it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

This latter concern was given impetus when, as an undergraduate, I read R.H. Tawney’s compelling book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. It opened my eyes to the contradiction I had dully sensed. The history of the organized Christian church, and the machinations of “Christians” everywhere attempting to explain away the words of the New Testament have been fascinating — and upsetting. But it wasn’t until the Protestant revolution that the lid came off, as it were, and folks were given a free ticket to claim their Christian affiliation while at the same time pursuing unlimited wealth. We now have self-proclaimed ministers of God like Jesse Duplantis flying about the country in their private  $45 million jets and living the good life in their palatial homes after they have preached an inspiring sermon to the many who arrived at the service in the huge amphitheater in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

But I never fully appreciated the tensions that were everywhere apparent during the colonial period between the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of the new Republic. It didn’t worry Alexander Hamilton and his followers who would prefer to have the President and the Senate serve for life — in imitation of the English King and House of Lords. But it worried a great many more colonists who followed Thomas Jefferson in his suspicion that those focused on wealth and prosperity would make poor citizens of a republic built on the notion of the Common Good.

In his excellent book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, to which I have referred a number of times, John Murrin points out the struggles of the early colonies with the problems of great wealth. Many at that time worried, along with Jefferson, that excessive wealth in the hands of a few would plant the seeds of a new aristocracy. After perusing numerous newspapers from the period, Murrin tells us that the colonial attitude, generally, was one of concern, worry that:

“The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals. It threatened to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Or again,

“In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.”

And this has, indeed, become a larger and a larger problem as today we seem to find ourselves in a “democratic” country ruled by the very rich who pick and choose their politicians as one might pick cherries from a bush, and then tell them precisely how to vote on key issues — lest they lose their high-paying jobs in Congress and state legislatures. It is a deep and perplexing question just how far the pursuit of profits and wealth blinds us to the larger questions that surround the notion of the public good: the cares and genuine concerns of those around us. It is a political conundrum and a serious moral problem that we might all do well to ponder.

I do not have the answer, but the Scandinavian countries seem to have a suggestion for us in the form of Democratic Socialism which they have embraced and they are reputed to be the happiest people on earth at the moment.  Raw capitalism is driven by avarice and encourages self-interest in the name of healthy competition — not qualities designed to help a democratic society grow strong, to promote the common good. Curbs on raw capitalism, which we have seen from time to time in this country (and which the current Administration would eliminate), put a bit in the mouth of the beast which it finds annoying but which still make the common good a possibility — remote perhaps, but still a possibility. A good start to much-needed reform would be a fair tax system that closes the loop-holes for the wealthy and for corporations and taxes them at the same rate as everyone else.



Good Books

There is an ongoing quarrel in academia about whether or not a book can be called “great.” The postmodern critics who have taken control of the academy and now edit the journals and determine the curricula insist that so-called “great” books are simply books written by dead, white, European, males and as evidence of pervasive male hegemony the same books are continually selected to be read by captive college audiences of young people who don’t know any better, thereby assuring that they will think like those who went before them.  Since there is clearly a political agenda involved, it is said, let the agenda be one that is approved by the postmodernists themselves. So it goes. I have argued in print against this point of view and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn any more. I think it is tiresome, academic exercise and the result is that young people no longer read the classics.  In any event, perhaps we can at least agree that there are “good” books.

One such book is part of the “masterful tetralogy” The Sea of Fertility written by Yukio Mishima. In the second of these books, the hero, young Isao Iinuma, is an idealistic ultra-conservative in Japan prior to the Second World War at a time when Japan is in a depression and the hero is convinced the nation — and especially the Emperor — can only be saved by people like himself from the “barbarians” from the West who are busily imposing their materialism on Japan. He forms a group of like-minded young men and they target a number of leading figures who, Isao is convinced, are determined to bring Japan to ruin in the name of industrial capitalism and higher profits for themselves. As I read this bells were going off all over the place, and especially when I read Isao’s assessment of the man he regarded as enemy #1, Kurahara, an immensely wealthy capitalist who is described by the narrator as “”the unmistakable incarnation of a capitalism devoid of national allegiance. If one wanted to portray the frightening image of a man who loved nothing, there was no better model than Kurahara.”

I pondered the descriptive phrase “capitalism devoid of national interest” and thought of the many wealthy Americans who think only of themselves and not of their fellow citizens. Their attitude works its insidious way through society by way of those wealthy few who have bought themselves politicians who answer to their every whim. I have had a problem with capitalism ever since I read R.H. Tawney’s classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in college. I was struck by Tawney’s conviction that there is an inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity, and have for years wondered how on earth this country, which insists that it has its roots in Christianity could embrace free-market capitalism — an economic system that stresses selfishness finding a home in the bosom of a religion that stresses selflessness. But Mishima’s point does not focus on capitalism, per se, it focuses on “capitalism devoid of national interest.” That is, Isao’s target is a man who “loves nothing,” who embodies the ideal of capitalist selfishness, who has no interest whatever in the well-being of his country or the people who live there.

Is it only me, or does this ring bells with you as well?

The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!

Irreconcilable Differences

When I was in college back in the dark ages I wrote a senior thesis titled “Dollars and Sense.” It wasn’t that good, but it started me on the path to investigating what seemed to me even then the inherent contradiction between Christianity and capitalism. I had read R.H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and later studied Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And while in college I read Karl Marx’s Capital. Later I taught courses in Marx’s theories, especially as found in the first volume of Capital. It makes for tough but fascinating reading and, no, it doesn’t make me a “commie” — it is well to know what tunes the devil is playing. I learned some important things.

To begin with, Marx was a lousy economist. Most agree about this. He based his economic theories on the labor theory of value, which insists that the value of a commodity is determined by how much “homogeneous” labor goes into the making of it. This theory has since been dismissed out of hand. But while he wasn’t a very good economist, Marx was an excellent moralist. In fact, if you look closely, his moral theory comes right out of the New Testament as does much of ethical theory in the West. I doubt that Marx would have admitted that, however, as he thought religion the “opiate of the people.” But it remains the case.

He was deeply disturbed by the fact that private ownership of the means of production under capitalism requires that human beings have to sell their labor, thereby becoming commodities themselves. This reduces persons to things. The capitalist, while admittedly taking risks, exerts little labor of his own while exploiting the labor of others. That is, he uses other people while growing rich himself. The further problem, as Marx saw it, was that the man (or woman) who labors is separated from the product he or she makes . He called this “alienation.” And it was these factors, all of them moral considerations, that Marx believed would bring capitalism to an end.

In Marx’s view, the moral contradictions within capitalism would eventually bring about a revolution that would result in socialism in which the state would end up owning the means of production thereby allowing the workers to begin to realize the actual worth of their labor. But this was to be a transitional stage to communism, an egalitarian society in which all owned the means of production, no one exploited anyone, there was no alienation of labor, and everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labors. This, of course, is an ideal and it is surprisingly like the ideals of Christianity. Indeed, it might describe life in a monastery.

We must be careful not to confuse the communism of Marx with what we called “communist” states, such as Russia under Stalin, or China or Cuba. These were or are, strictly, not communistic states at all. They are socialist/totalitarian states run by a small group of powerful men who denied all rights to their citizens and ran things with an iron hand. Under communism, as Marx saw it, there would be no political state — it would “wither away.”

In the end, the most interesting part of this intellectual journey, for me, was coming to the realization that the basic principles of capitalism — whether they be viewed through the eyes of critics like Marx or the sympathetic eyes of Christian thinkers like Tawney and Weber — are in direct opposition to the ideals put forth in the New Testament. There is simply no way a doctrine that talks about giving away one’s wealth and not serving “Mammon” could be reconciled with a doctrine that is all about accumulating as much wealth as possible, though attempts have been made.

Thus, those who in this society embrace what they call “democratic freedom” (while meaning free-enterprise capitalism) and who at the same time call themselves Christians, are living a lie. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: you can’t have it both ways. And any attempts at compromise will be awkward at best, though there are a great many decent, charitable people in this country who do good while at the same time doing well. That is possible.