David Bentley Hart on Capitalism
Whatever else capitalism may be, it is first and foremost a system for producing as much private wealth as possible by squandering as much as possible of humanity’s common inheritance of the goods of creation. But Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such.
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At Plough, David Bentley Hart writes as direct and scathing article as you’ll read about his conviction that capitalism is thoroughly incompatible with the way of Christ. I’m not saying I agree with everything he says, but I think we should take his strong words seriously and have a conversation.
Here, in sum, are the points he makes:
- Definition: “Capitalism, as many historians define it, is the set of financial conventions that took shape in the age of industrialization and that gradually supplanted the mercantilism of the previous era. As Proudhon defined it in 1861, it is a system in which as a general rule those whose work creates profits neither own the means of production nor enjoy the fruits of their labor.“
- “This form of commerce largely destroyed the contractual power of free skilled labor, killed off the artisanal guilds, and introduced instead a mass wage system that reduced labor to a negotiable commodity.“
- “All of this, moreover, necessarily entailed a shift in economic eminence from the merchant class – purveyors of goods contracted from and produced by independent labor, subsidiary estates, or small local markets – to capitalist investors who both produce and sell their goods.”
- “And this, in the fullness of time, evolved into a fully realized corporate system…a purely financial market where wealth is created for and enjoyed by those who toil not, neither do they spin, but who instead engage in an incessant circulation of investment and divestment, as a kind of game of chance.”
- “…capitalism might be said to have achieved its most perfect expression in the rise of the commercial corporation with limited liability, an institution that allows the game to be played in abstraction even from whether the businesses invested in ultimately succeed or fail. (One can profit just as much from the destruction of livelihoods as from their creation.)“
- “The corporation is thus morally bound to amorality.”
- “And this whole system, obviously, not only allows for, but positively depends upon, immense concentrations of private capital and dispositive discretion over its use as unencumbered by regulations as possible.”
- “It also allows for the exploitation of material and human resources on an unprecedentedly massive scale.”
- And, inevitably, it eventuates in a culture of consumerism, because it must cultivate a social habit of consumption extravagantly in excess of mere natural need or even (arguably) natural want. It is not enough to satisfy natural desires; a capitalist culture must ceaselessly seek to fabricate new desires, through appeals to what 1 John calls “the lust of the eyes.”“
David Bentley Hart believes that capitalism in this form is unsustainable in the long run. Why? “My conviction is based, rather, on a very simple calculus of the disproportion between infinite appetite and finite resources,” he writes. Its material advantages come at the expense of its own material basis. The only answer to its unfeasible appetites must come from beyond, and Bentley Hart finds it in the eschatological Christian hope brought by Christ. This hope is not only a beacon pointing to a new creation, but also a radical judgment on present world-systems.
Christians are…obliged to affirm that this eschatological judgment has indeed already appeared within history, and in a very particular material, social, and political form.
DBH finds confirmation for a radically different perspective on economics and social matters related to material possessions all throughout the Gospels, and I will not list the representative passages he cites. They are numerous and clear. In short, he finds that the early Christians, taking this seriously, were “communists” (not, of course, in the modern sense of state-mandated egalitarianism), but in the sense spoken of in Acts 4:32 — “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
The history of the Christian Church with regard to these matters shows, at best, a spotty grasp of Jesus’ teachings, seeking to practice a different way of life primarily in isolated, monastic, or “purist” movements. DBH says this is all good and fine as far as it goes, but the critique such movements offer to the world around them is easily brushed off. These good people are seen as having a special vocation, a prophetic role, but they do not provide any kind of a template for “ordinary” people or societies to follow.
Therein lies the gravest danger, because the full koinonia of the Body of Christ is not an option to be set alongside other equally plausible alternatives. It is not a private ethos or an elective affinity. It is a call not to withdrawal, but to revolution. It truly enters history as a final judgment that has nevertheless already been passed; it is inseparable from the extra-ordinary claim that Jesus is Lord over all things, that in the form of life he bequeathed to his followers the light of the kingdom has truly broken in upon this world, not as something that emerges over the course of a long historical development, but as an invasion. The verdict has already been handed down. The final word has already been spoken. In Christ, the judgment has come. Christians are those, then, who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.
That, of course, raises a host of pragmatic questions about how Christians are to actually live in the world and how they are to plant seeds that will bring about organic, systematic change in world systems that are by nature amoral and focused fully on the bottom line.
Before all else, we must pursue a vision of the common good (by whatever charitable means we can) that presumes that the basis of law and justice is not the inviolable right to private property, but rather the more original truth taught by men such as Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom: that the goods of creation belong equally to all, and that immense private wealth is theft – bread stolen from the hungry, clothing stolen from the naked, money stolen from the destitute.
With this as the Christian, the eschatological bottom line, perhaps we can begin to develop more Jesus-shaped economic and material lives and communities.