Making All Things New (Good of Affluence #2)

In his first chapter, Schneider sets out to explain why it is that modern capitalism is not in fact open to the kind of objections routinely leveled against it by modern theologians, and why modern affluence is a good thing, free from the condemnations that have been typical of the Christian ethical tradition.  Believe it or not, I actually have some positive things to say about Schneider's approach, and, to keep these reviews from having too negative a tone, I'm actually going to organize this post around three things that Schneider does right (under each, though, I will discuss the weaknesses and shortcomings that relate to each of these strengths).

First, briefly, the basic structure of the chapter: Schneider's main argument consists of claiming that modern capitalism represents a fundamentally new achievement in human history.  As something "new," he will suggest that older critiques of wealth and acquisition do not necessarily apply to capitalism anymore; as an "achievement," he will argue that, far from being critiqued, capitalism should be celebrated for the enormous good it has done in the world.  Then he will address moral critiques of capitalism--that it is founded on injustice--followed by spiritual objections--that it leads to materialistic vices.  All this being done in just the space of 27 pages, one should not expect him to do any of these things very thoroughly--the purpose is merely to clear the ground somewhat, attempting to establish a predisposition in favor of capitalism and affluence before embarking on his theological vindication.

Of course, this does pose rather a problem for the rest of his book.  For Schneider is honest enough to acknowledge that many of the objections he canvasses, if true, would thoroughly undermine his case and necessitate a very different evaluation of capitalism and affluence, and a very different use of the biblical material he is going to look at.  So to the extent that most of these objections are left relatively unaddressed, he embarks on the remaining seven chapters with a very shaky foundation indeed.  More on that below.


What is Capitalism?

Now, the first thing that Schneider deserves compliment on here is his relative restraint in praising capitalism's accomplishments over the past couple centuries.  Of course, the key word here is "relative"--there is a real tendency to idolatry in some literature on this subject, even among Christians, hailing capitalism as the savior of the human race in terms that seem appropriate only for Christ himself, and suggesting that it has transformed the world for good more than any other development in history--surpassing, it would seem, even the preaching of the Gospel and the birth of the Church.  Schneider generally avoids that sort of rhetoric, though he does make fairly dramatic economic claims for capitalism's success in liberating the human race from poverty. 

And of course, this leads to a potential objection: what exactly do we mean by "capitalism"? As I feared in the introduction, there simply is no real attempt to answer this question.  Schneider appears to mean something like "the advance in technology and economic development originating in the late 18th-century," but if that's what's meant, then one might ask whether or not we should credit the Industrial Revolution, rather than capitalism per se, with all these accomplishments.  (Presumably Schneider would reply that the Industrial Revolution depended upon capitalism, but that merely continues to beg the definitional question.)  Adam Smith is, as usual, identified as being somehow or other at the root of all this, but there is no real engagement with his work or analysis of what, if anything, he did to create "capitalism."  At one point Schneider says that, prior to the nineteenth century, "Except in Adam Smiths' book, the concept of [economic] development did not exist" (20).  But that is manifestly false, ignoring the fact that Smith's work stands at the end of a long discussion among eighteenth-century proto-economists on the rapid economic development they were witnessing.  Schneider, thankfully, does not use the term capitalism in the vacuous sense so often employed by its right-wing defenders--"respect for private property," "economic freedom" or something like that (although at one point he does say that capitalism stands for fundamentally Christian ideas like "the validity of private property, the primacy of the individual, the importance and dignity of work, and the basic character of freedom").  Indeed, in his emphasis on the newness of capitalism (see below), Schneider stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from co-belligerents like David Hall, who sees "capitalism" beginning with the Reformers, or Rodney Stark, who sees it as the legacy of the Christian Middle Ages.  I appreciate Schneider's honesty at this point, but in the absence of clearer definition, it leaves us with the impression that "capitalism" might mean merely "modern technology and industry," in which case its accomplishments might be achievable under a more just system of production.  

But the problem with this lack of clarity is that Schneider apparently has something very specific in mind, even though he never tells us what it is.  For he is confident enough of what capitalism is that he can inform us that, whereas in 1941, there were only two capitalist countries in the world, the US and the UK (huh?), there are now precisely twenty-five, no more, no less (though he doesn't say which twenty-five).  This is, to say the least, mildly maddening.    

Moreover, when he credits capitalism with enriching not merely the rich, but also the poor, it is important for us to understand exactly what it is he is talking about.  For it may be plausibly argued that the dramatic decline of real poverty in the US and Britain in the twentieth century, which Schneider makes much of, is actually the result of governmental restrictions upon industry, protections of labor, and redistributive programs--otherwise, we would have a few Rockefellers and a bunch of paupers.  Schneider himself seems to confess as much when, after describing how well off the "poor" are in modern America, explains that this is due to "welfare, food stamps, unemployment provision, and rent subsidies, all of which supplement the earned income of the poor."  If all this may be described as an achievement of capitalism, then Schneider's capitalism is clearly not the government-free free-marketeerism that most Christian capitalist literature endorses.  

 

Nothing New Under the Sun?

Second, I appreciated Schneider's emphasis (already mentioned) on the newness of modern capitalism.  This means (as I mentioned in the introduction) that he does not ignore the fact that the Christian ethical tradition is against him on most of his core arguments, nor does he try to argue that the Bible gives us a model of a capitalistic system, as is the rule in similar literature.  On the contrary, he maintains that since we now have to do with a fundamentally new phenomenon, the concerns voiced by Scripture and tradition, while they should be listened to respectfully, may be set aside as antiquated--they just don't really apply to current economic realities.  Whatever you think of this, it is better than distorting Scripture to fit your script.  Of course, at this point, it might be easy to score cheap rhetorical points by labeling this as a kind of liberal relativism, but I won't do that--Schneider's argument here is in fact potentially legitimate.  It follows the same logic by which we might argue, for instance, that I no longer have a duty to marry my brother's wife and "raise up seed to him" if he should die childless.  But Schneider will have to demonstrate that the relevant changes have, in fact, occurred.  And here, I think, is one of the weakest points in his argument.  

Essentially, this is the change that Schneider identifies: in the ancient world, wealth was all based on land, and hence static.  The only way to increase one's wealth, then, was (according to Schneider) by means of war, taxation, or outright theft.  Nowadays, however, the rich do not make their fortunes at the expense of the poor, says Schneider, but by wealth creation.  So when Augustine said that the rich had a duty to give all their surplus to cover the necessities of the poor, he was quite correct, since there was no way to create wealth for the poor, and the rich had probably come by their gains by injustice.  But today, things are quite different, and we can safely disregard these concerns.  There is actually perhaps something to this, and I found some of what Schneider said here helpful in understanding the shocking rhetoric of the early Church Fathers.  

Unfortunately, it would seem that Schneider has to give both an unjustifiably negative portrait of ancient economic realities and an unjustifiably positive portrait of modern economic realities in order to make his dichotomy hold.  For it is simply not true that in the ancient world, the only way you could get rich was by outright forcible annexation.  Of course, that was common enough, but often, I expect, it worked something like this.  Your neighbor has a small farm, and you, by fortune, inheritance, whatever, have a somewhat bigger and better one.  Your neighbor has a stroke of bad fortune--say, his milk cow dies--and so you decide to take advantage of your superior position and offer to sell him milk at a very high price.  You thus grow somewhat richer and he somewhat poorer.  Similar things happen from time to time, and gradually you increase your competitive advantage over him, which enables you to make better connections, sell more produce than him, etc.  Finally, he falls on such hard times that he offers to sell his farm to you and work on your land in order to make ends meet.  So he becames a day-laborer and you a landlord, and you pay him minimal wages, thus growing richer and going through the same process toward other small farmers.  

In other words, a process not very different from how many modern rich people and large corporations got to be so prosperous.  

But of course, it's also rather worse than that, for Schneider is frightfully naive if he really thinks that the modern West's affluence doesn't come at the expense of anyone else.  Modern technology and industry does allow for wealth-creation, to be sure, but except in industries like finance (which has its own perils), this has to be primarily based on underlying natural resources, just like in the old days.  And unfortunately, these resources did not simply land in the grateful lap of the US, or the UK before it.  Does Schneider really think it is a coincidence that the US's vast economic expansion has occurred over a century in which it has been almost constantly at war and has deployed its military all over the world (in over 150 countries as of current count)?  Or that the nineteenth century expansion of British GDP that he raves about occurred at the same time that it was conquering India and South Africa (to name just two of the colonies with the most extensive natural resources)?  One gets the feeling that Schneider doesn't know the first thing about modern geopolitics.

On this point, it's also worth noting that Schneider's attribution of the whole Christian tradition's stance on wealth to "ancient economic realities" is rather difficult to sustain.  After all, he himself notes that this tradition includes Aquinas (13th century), John Calvin (16th century), and John Wesley (18th century).  As Rodney Stark notes in The Victory of Reason, trade, commerce, and technology (in short, the instruments of Schneider's "wealth creation") were advancing rapidly already in the time of Aquinas, and it's a joke to pretend that an ancient Near Eastern models dominated the economy of John Wesley's England.  The fact is that Aquinas, Calvin, and Wesley were all well aware that it was possible to get wealthy without directly stealing or killing.  But, however one became wealthy, they were very concerned about the moral implications of remaining wealthy, especially while others were poor.

Of course, there is another dimension to Schneider’s “newness” claim, though it is much less clear than the first part: that the capitalism we face today is fundamentally new even compared to nineteenth-century capitalism, so that Marx and Weber’s assessments really don’t apply anymore.  Unfortunately, though he makes a great deal of this point, it really isn't clear what he means by it--all it seems to boil down to is that now we are even richer by far than the nineteenth century was.  But why that makes older objections to capitalism outdated is not clear.  For myself, I am largely convinced by Benjamin Barber's thesis that modern capitalism is fundamentally different from that of Weber's day--but in ways that make it much worse.  Barber argues that capitalism is no longer about producing necessary and highly useful tools and resources, and making basic necessaries more obtainable, as it was in the nineteenth century, but instead about trying to persuade people (through a constant and overwhelming barrage of marketing) to buy things they don't really need.  Interestingly, Schneider actually appears to concur--what we are now witnessing is the rise, he says, not of a middle class but of an "overclass"--a group of phenomenally wealthy people who spend almost all of their income on luxury items.  And this, he seems to think, is a great thing.

 

This, then, is my third compliment to Schneider.  He does not beat around the bush, and pretend that what he is arguing for is an obvious good--like the end of poverty, or minimal prosperity.  No, it is not capitalism's ability to produce these that he is out to defend (although he does give it credit for this as well).  He is out to defend affluence--the existence of multi-millionaires and billionaires, of Mercedes and jacuzzis, and of an economy ever more geared toward such people and such products.  This is courageous of him, I think, but it also of course raises the bar enormously of what his theological argument will have to demonstrate.  But this will have to be discussed at more length in a follow-up post.