As the debate over the economy rages, one common dichotomy keeps resurfacing to frame the whole topic in drastic shades of good vs. evil. The opposing forces are Capitalism (good) and Socialism (evil). Complex narratives often get reduced to such simplistic terms, and we prefer it that way. “Economics is complicated,” we say, “just give us a good guy and a bad guy.”
This narrative sustained us throughout the Cold War, so it should be no surprise that we would return to that well to provide a sense of normality in uncertain times. Now, though, the enemy isn’t a foreign nation with a maniacal goal to undermine God’s very own United States of America. No, now the enemy is within. Within our cities. Within our government. Within our White House.
Outside of the rabid, hyperbolic ravings of the media, though, most any economist will rationally explain that Obama and the Democratic leaders are about as close to Socialists as Wiley E. Coyote is to eating the Roadrunner. Taxation has been part of our government (and governments from the beginning) for a lot longer than Marxist theory has existed. Paying taxes in order to provide for societal services isn’t socialism, it’s democracy. If it was socialism, then the US has always been a Socialist nation.*
What has really come to light in all this rhetorical nonsense is that America is no longer a Christian Nation.** It’s a Capitalist Nation.
One Nation Under Mammon
Capitalism isn’t an economic theory, it’s a religion. Within Capitalism, there are tenets of faith, holy books, priests and prophets and a heaven and a hell (on earth). Other economic theories are the false religions. To maintain the religion analogy, Socialism can be thought of Islam to Capitalism’s Christianity (though, as I’ll point out later, Christianity and Capitalism are not compatible bedfellows). I’d argue that Communism, in this analogy, is Atheism. But I’ll get to that.
Capitalism is a religion of greed. It rewards it and teaches, as Gordon Gekko famously said, that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The central tenet of Capitalism is that the accumulation of wealth is all that matters. Just as Christianity can be reduced to, “Jesus died for your sins,” once you accept the central importance of moneymaking, everything else is just details. Free Trade versus Fair Trade might as well be Calvinism versus Arminianism. It’s all just a means to the end.
Capitalism as a religion has some rather ominous parallels to Christianity. Both teach that everybody is equal in the eyes of their deity, yet reality shows us this is not true. Both put a great deal of trust in authority figures (Bankers and CEOs; Priests and Pastors), but that trust is frequently and routinely abused. When that trust is broken, there is public contrition and promises of penance and change. Then a few months pass, and it happens all over again.
What truly makes Capitalism a religion, though, is that despite these broken promises and abuses of authority, the laity remains faithful. For devout Catholics, it doesn’t seem to matter how many children are abused by priests. And after the years of being told that hard work and determination will earn them a place in millionaire’s heaven have proven false, the poor and middle class still hold fast to the belief that their stairway is near.
The promise of Capitalism is not completely empty. It wouldn’t last if it were. Some people do rise up in Capitalism out of the depths. We have our great parables and legends of men (yes, men) whose ingenuity and business acumen led them out of the wilderness of proletarianism. These are fine stories, based largely in reality, though some of the rougher edges have been smoothed over through the years of retelling. But the most important facet of these stories is the promise they sell. These people’s faith in Capitalism was rewarded, and so will yours.
Like Christianity, there is no question that Capitalism can work. The question is whether the religion’s promises are being fulfilled, or if it’s merely a happy confluence of self-fulfilling faith and good luck. After all, there is a chance that a cancer patient who was praying for miraculous healing is going to go into remission. It could be God. It could also just be odds. Religions always urge us to look at the examples of the promises fulfilled and ignore the far greater instances of promises unfulfilled.
The top 1% are Capitalism’s success stories, the saints and revered luminaries of the faith. And as long as we focus on them and their roughly 40% of the wealth, it sure looks like a religion of winners. There are also a great manye who have made a good living in our capitalist society. They might not be millionaires, but they worked hard (or smart) within the system and now they make $200,000 a year. Maybe their parents were immigrants, or poor farmers or maybe they were orphans. They lived by the tenets of Capitalism and they have been rewarded for their faithfulness.
Certainly this substantiates the religious claims of Capitalism, right?
Well, there are wealthy people in Socialist China, too.
The fact that people can succeed through Capitalism doesn’t prove its infallibility anymore than the fact that some members of AA successfully recover from alcoholism proves there is a higher power. We must never forget the power of positive thinking.
Even before a single economist existed, there were people getting wealthy and people staying poor. This is the natural way.
The Root of All Evil
The irony of Capitalism and Christianity co-existing as the dominant religions of America is that at heart, they are diametrically opposed.
That’s a Bible verse. And not from the ridiculous Old Testament that you don’t have to care about anymore because of the “New Covenant.” This is in 1 Timothy, an epistle of Paul. So it’s not even from that crazy commie Jesus. This is Paul, the guy who is quoted when Christians want to condemn homosexuality. And he’s being pretty straightforward here. Love of money = Root of all evil. There isn’t a lot of room for interpretation.
I feel obligated to bring up the fact that Jesus frequently speaks of taking care of the poor and says that the rich pretty much have no chance of getting into heaven and tells a rich man that the only way to be perfect is to sell all he possesses. I realize that the teachings of Jesus are all but ignored by modern Christians (conveniently they’re marked in red so you know what to skip), so I’m sure this paragraph won’t mean a thing.
It takes a daft bit of theological acrobatics to somehow erase all of Jesus’ anti-wealth teachings and portray him as a Capitalist. But don’t worry, there are some theologians out there willing to put in the work.
The problem with Christianity is that, if you actually know the Bible, it’s a pretty hard religion to live up to. It asks a lot of its faithful. Capitalism, on the other hand, pretty much just asks you to be greedy and self-interested, which explains its appeal.
One of the greatest strikes against the theory of Communism as conceived by Marx (which, opposed to Socialism, is not state-sanctioned, but rather exists without a state) is its lack of God. Despite it being the standard practice of the early church, Communism as an economic theory is seen as atheistic, and thus opposed to America’s values.
While I know that Communism can certainly exist within the framework of religion (as is easy to see), I think that atheism is an apt point of reference in light of the Capitalism/Christianity paradigm.
True Communism is a utopia. It simply will not succeed as long as there are other economic systems in place. It also cannot succeed as long as humanity’s greedier nature runs rampant. Communism (in the true Marxist sense) only exists once other economic systems have created such an overabundance that the need for personal ownership is moot. Instead of thinking of Communism as a contrast to Capitalism or Socialism, Marx conceived it as the natural end of economic evolution.
Marxist theory is rightly criticized for being unrealistic in our world. Human nature may never evolve out of its state of possessiveness, but that doesn’t mean that Communism, as an ideal, isn’t worthy of consideration. I can’t imagine anyone would argue against living in a world where anything you could possibly want was available to you just so long as you put in your fair share of work. You might doubt such a world could exist, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t enjoy it if it did.
In the same way, I believe a world without any religion or faith in god would be utopia. I believe that atheism is the highest form of thought and peace. Imagine a world where your purpose and meaning was completely self-actualized, where you didn’t fear eternal punishment or have to figure out the laws of some inscrutable being. Instead, the only laws were humanist by design and people did not seek to destroy other people in the name of religion or personal gain.
Again, you very well could say that such a world will never exist. “It’s a pipe dream.” Perhaps you’re right. But that doesn’t make it any less appealing as an ideal. Especially when you consider how crummy the world is in the wake of religion.
Forcing everyone to be an atheist would not suddenly bring about utopia. Religion exists as a way to subvert humanity’s basest propensity for selfishness, greed and evil. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it makes things worse, but over the course of human nature, religion has generally helped enforce a social ethics that has maintained our species. If we were to suddenly be rid of religion, we’d certainly see a sudden surge of criminality and antisocial behavior.***
In the same way, Communism can’t simply replace Capitalism. As much as I detest many facets of it, I recognize that Capitalism is necessary, like duct tape on a broken pipe. Communism can’t be implemented, it must come about naturally of communal understanding and overabundance of production, just as Atheism comes most naturally of study and reason.
Religion is a powerful force, though, and even those most harmed by it are hard to deconvert. In fact, they are usually the hardest to pull away because cognitive dissonance won’t allow them to believe that they have devoted themselves to something so detrimental to themselves. They double down their faith.
Right now, I believe we are seeing that doubling down. Generation upon generation of Americans have been faithfully following the tenets of Capitalism without reward. While the Wall Street protests represent a portion of America growing fed up with Capitalism and turning away (maybe not to economic atheism, but at least agnosticism), the majority of America is simply doubling down with Capitalism and, counter-intuitively, siding with the Corporations even in the wake of so much fraud and malfeasance.
Just as more people turn to faith in God in tough times, this recession has people seeking comfort in the promises of Capitalism. And even though those promises are proving to be largely empty, they want to believe.
Sometimes, that’s all any of us want.
*Obama’s detractors seem to have gotten confused about what Socialism is, actually, which is no surprise. The closest Obama’s policies have gotten to Socialism was the “take over” of the auto industry, which turned out to be a success.
**Not that it ever was. But for the sake of argument.
***But it wouldn’t be the atheists to blame.