Capitalism, Liberal Democracy & Social Justice: Who Really Cares?

I have just seen Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I thought it was quite good. It is, of course, entirely specific to the United States, and the financial practices portrayed are less acute in Australia. We must look massively over-regulated from the vantage of Wall St.

The thesis of the documentary is that capitalism is an evil which is incompatible with liberal democracy. The film does a great job of drawing attention to the human impact of the decisions and practices of banks and corporations. It also illustrates how the middle and working classes can be trapped in horrific economic circumstances through no fault of their own, and largely through the greed of those who control the primary financial levers.

Capitalism: A Love StoryI don’t think capitalism is the root of all evil. In attempting to think about economics within a Christian biblical worldview, some tenets of capitalism are clearly held (for example, private ownership: Leviticus 25, Acts 5:1-10). Elements of other economic systems are also affirmed, particularly the call to give generously and sacrificially from our own wealth to meet the needs of others (2 Corinthians 8 & 9, cf. Exodus 16). No economic system is prescribed by the biblical authors; rather we are to wisely steward what God has given us.

However, the film makes the vitally important point that capitalism and liberal democracy cannot exist peacefully side-by-side. At some points they will clash. Economics and politics are not separate. If democracy is for the good of all, then it must place some limits on capitalism; unless we hold capitalism as the more important, which a Wall Street Journal columnist interviewed in the film does openly.

So, that’s the film. What really interested me, though, was the response in the cinema. I saw it in Newtown, and 80% of those in attendance were middle aged, middle class urbanites. Socially aware. Environmentally conscious. Bush-haters (one woman verbally recoiled whenever the former President appeared onscreen). Exclamations of dismay and disgust were (rightly) uttered as weeping mothers recounted their evictions. The film ends with Moore calling those who are watching to join him in a growing social movement against the powers of capitalism. There was applause at the film’s end.

But will anyone really make a difference? It strikes me that even if some who were present do write a letter to the federal government calling for tighter regulation and support those who lose their homes in conversation and via petition, many would be less willing to buy a house for a dispossessed family, or take them in. In a political system with strong government intervention, it is easy to leave ‘helping people’ up to the state. This often severely limits our social consciences. Welfare? Yes, but as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.

The biblical approach to wealth is clear. What we have is not our own. Do not seek wealth, and be radically generous. How do urban, socially aware, middle-class whiteys like me stack up? Are we hungry for justice, or simply angry with those who are wealthier than we? Have we realised that we can’t all be ‘rich,’ or are we finding new ways to justify our own wealth by comparing it to that of others?

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6 thoughts on “Capitalism, Liberal Democracy & Social Justice: Who Really Cares?

  1. Hi Richard,

    thanks for the review and the reflections. Have you ever been to http://www.myfootprint.org/ and taken the ‘ecological footprint’ quiz?

    I did it a couple of years ago now (see http://faith-and-place.blogspot.com/2006/08/whats-your-ecological-footprint.html). It really hepled me see that, even living as simply as i thought i could, and holding all the right opinions, i was still living a life that was, at the end of the day, exploitative. i was still using up more than my fiar share of the earth’s resources – and thus depriving someone else of access to theirs.

    I wonder what your fellow cinema go-ers would make of their results? I agree that we probably have to be far more radically generous than we are, and that we baulk at taking the difficult option, even when that’s what’s required if we’re to live with justice and intergrity.

    do you think we can live justly within a capitalist system? The bible might not say we all have to be socialists, but do you think capitalism can survive biblical critique? is there enough of it that is in line with biblcial principles, and with the practice of good stewardship, for us to retain it – or is capitalism sometihng we need to repent of?

  2. Hi Meredith,

    Excellent questions, as always 🙂

    If we’re talking repentance (as a biblical category and concept) then we need to speak of sin. So, is capitalism a sin? In and of itself, no, I don’t think so. I don’t know enough about the theory of capitalism to know how much of what happens in our government and finance sectors are ‘capitalism’ or are simply things that we have allowed in our particular version of capitalism. Bring on that political economy degree I’m taking next year!

    Sin is individual, social, and also systemic. There is sin in the world which will happen, and which will affect us, even when we are aware of it and detest it. This is where I think our carbon footprint lies. As far as we go in trying to do the right thing, it is never far enough. We can work against that, but we also can’t be held directly responsible for it. I think. Maybe Calvinist ‘total depravity’ helps us out a little. We just aren’t capable of fixing the problem.

    So can we live justly in a capitalist system? Well no, not perfect justice. But we can never do that, no matter what system is in place. As for surviving the biblical critique? When it comes down to it, what we need to repent of is greed, and I am increasingly of the opinion that capitalism is a system which can’t survive without greed. Or even with it, as we’ve seen, and as is the message (in part) of Moore’s film.

    Capitalism has brought great things: new technologies, medical advances, increasing global wealth. There is far less extreme poverty in the world today than there was 400 years ago. The problem is that the remaining poverty is held in even starker relief because of the accumulating wealth at the top of the system. We need to repent of our greed.

  3. capitalism as a system that can’t survive with or without greed. interesting.

    i take your point about less extreme poverty in the world now than in centuries earlier – and i agree that capitalism has been accompanied by some really beneficial changes. but i would resist the possible implication that, in today’s world, ‘its their poverty, not our wealth, that’s the real problem.’ our wealth actually holds some people in poverty. and thefinite resources of the world could not actually support everyone living at the same standard of wealth as me. (cf the footprint quiz). i think that many of the systems that are in place to produce our wealth are deeply compromised – or sinful, if you want to use that terminology.

    i am at a bit of a loss as to know how to live,actually. do i buy organic groceries, knowing that they’re better for the planet (and my body) – or groceries made with fertilisers, which are necessary to keep global production at levels to feed 6 billion people? i have no idea.

  4. I have clarified my thinking somewhat. I actually think that capitalism is inherently greedy. The theory, or course, is ‘wealth creation’, but in practice that isn’t what happens. I live cheaply at the expense of someone else who makes the same goods but can’t get into the market. So maybe capitalism is indeed inherently compromised.

    The problem is, are there any systems which aren’t? I had a conversation with my Greek lecturer today, who believes that Christian teaching leads inexorably to something akin to anarchism. Sadly, he loves consuming too much to do anything about it! Then again, I’m guilty of that as well. However, even an anarchist society is prone to the selfishness of human beings.

    I don’t know how to live, either. Knowing that God will put everything to rights in his time is a comfort; but that actually gives me more incentive to live rightly now, without telling me how to do it!

    I’ve also tried to do a few small behavioural things: for example, when I drink coffee which isn’t fairly traded, making sure to pray for those who grew and harvested the beans. That doesn’t negate or atone for the inherent injustice in my consumer decision, but it does acknowledge God’s sovereignty and call on him to act. That might just be a cop-out though, and if you think it is, you should call me on it!

  5. great conversation Richard and Meredith…I wonder about these things too and the actual impact of my attempts at a sustainable & just lifestyle.
    A couple of random thoughts:

    i) Jacques Ellul wrote a great little book called Anarchy and Christianity and the main chapter “The Bible as the Source of Anarchy” is a provocative read for Anglicans who like pray to live in peace and quietness…

    ii) Slavoj Zizek in his book Violence talks about the relationship b/w greed, capitalism and compassion – that compassionate philanthropy (like Bill Gates etc) is what keeps capitalism from cannibalising itself (it was written pre GFC)

  6. Thanks Geoff.

    I have read short passages from Ellul; it’s about time I read something substantial! And Zizek is brilliant, but also little-read by myself. I’ll check it out.

    I guess the question with capitalism and compassion is whether or not compassion can ever win out. Those pursuing compassion within capitalism seem to be few.

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