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.



The Rich People’s Revival (Good of Affluence #1)

Over the next few weeks, as I research for and write a chapter on the theology of private property, for a forthcoming edited book called Render Unto God: Christianity and Capitalism Reconsidered, I’ve decided I will have to spend some time scoping out the enemy, so to speak.  I determined a couple years ago that I’d heard everything intelligent (and it wasn’t very much) that the conservative Christian apologia for capitalism had to say and there was no point wasting much more time on it.  In particular, I’d opted not to read a couple books that were very popular in my circles–The Good of Affluence by John Schneider, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards–having heard from reliable friends that they weren’t worth my time.  But now, in search of useful quotes that I can use against them in my chapter, I’ve decided to foray back into enemy territory, and actually read these books.  And I’m sure that they will provoke plenty to blog about.  

 So here’s the first post on Schneider’s The Good of Affluence, which I have just started into.  A few years back, I read a truly terrible article of Schneider’s offering, so to speak, a capitalistic soteriology.  So I approach this book with trepidation, but will try not to be more prejudiced than I can help.

The introduction, from its epigraph quoting Michael Novak, “We are going to see a revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people,” to its penultimate paragraph, arguing that rich Christians in the West should feel no moral obligation to help the global poor, was certainly an unpromising start.  That said, in the Acknowledgments, he voices his admiration for “the great Kierkegaard,” which could be a mark in his favor. 

The purpose of the introduction is threefold–to explain why he wanted to write the book, to explain his theological presuppositions, and to summarize what he intends to cover in the book.  The first is quite brief, the second (which essentially boils down to, “I am an orthodox Christian and believe the Bible, even if that is unfashionable”) need not detain us, and the third, since it covers material that we will encounter in full later on, I will not dwell on, though I will flag a couple things to watch out for later.  So this post should be brief, though if you know me, you know it won’t be. 😉

First, then, a few remarks on the section explaining why he wrote the book.  The gist, he says, is that many Christian people today in the West are involved in business, often at very high levels, are making a lot of money, and want to know what they should do about it–what does their faith have to say about it?  (Now, it would be very tempting at this point to simply interject that that’s precisely what the rich young ruler wanted to know, and Jesus had a very straight and simple answer, “Go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”–why need we any other answer?  But I will resist the temptation, and grant that, yes, it may be a bit more complicated than that.)  And he is concerned that there is very little guidance for rich Christians on the subject, since, he says, most historic Christian teaching on wealth has been aimed at Christians who were predominantly poor.  Moreover, most Christian theological voices addressing the question today have had, he thinks, very harmful answers to give on the subject, very negative answers, based on antiquated theology and inadequate analyses of capitalism.  He wants to emphasize the positive, based on “the fundamental biblical theme that material prosperity is the condition that God envisions for all human beings” (3).  This is not, he says, the Prosperity Gospel, because it acknowledges that God often has good providential reasons for wanting people to be poor–but it is closer to the Prosperity Gospel, he says, than the radicalism that considers wealth negative.  

 

Now, I want to flag just a few things at this point.  First are some definitions that I hope he will provide as he goes along, though I doubt he will.  First, is he going to define “capitalism” for us?  He tells us “that the majority of [Christian] writers interpret capitalism and the unique culture to which it gives rise in terms that are quite antiquated.  These are largely the terms received from social theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber” (2).  A large part of his re-evaluation of the theological status of capitalism, he goes on to imply, stems from new and improved understandings of what capitalism is.  It appears that he’s planning to handle that in ch. 1, though, so we don’t have long to wait to see if he satisfactorily analyzes the capitalism he plans to recommend to us.  

One thing that I don’t think that he is going to deal with much if at all is the morality of the money-making itself.  He is interested in the ethical status of the end product–affluence–not the details of how it came about.  He tells us that he is writing to “corporate professionals…who spend the better part of their days producing goods and services in the context of making money.”  But of course, if a “good” is supposed to be something that does someone good, and a “service” is something that helps them out, then “goods and services” like, for instance, cigarettes, addictive junk food, collateralized debt obligations, and predatory short-term loans are nothing of the sort.  But many Christians make their money producing such things.  This needs theological and ethical attention–we cannot accept the lie that the money-making process is morally neutral, so long as it is minimally legal.  But I digress.  

He says on page three, “It is very widely presumed in Christian theology today that the economic condition of affluence is not a very good one for Christians to be in.  It is widely presumed that this condition is almost inherently a bad one for hearing and responding with faith and integrity to the Gospel” (3)  This, he will argue is wrong because oversimplistic.  Yes, there is a way of being rich that is bad, but “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  I merely note briefly that these statements are actually not in contradiction.  Those who believe that the condition of affluence “is almost inherently a bad one” for faith could still very well hold (and many probably do) that “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  What Schneider really has to do, then, is not to show that “there is a way to be affluent that is good,” but that this goodness so outweighs the risk of being affluent in a bad way that it justifies treating affluence as basically good, instead of choosing to focus on, as Jesus does, the potential pitfalls.  I also want to note a potential equivocation, which I noted repeatedly in Calvin and Commerce.  There are some no doubt who think that wealth ipso facto is bad.  But I don’t think they are as many as they are made out to be–at least, as long as we’re not talking about exorbitant, luxurious wealth (which, come to think of it, Schneider may be).  Most, I think, who are portrayed as such as actually think that wealth itself is good, but that it is bad for someone to be in a relative position of wealth over against others who are decidedly poor.  So to say, “the Bible says riches are a good thing” gets you nowhere that Schneider wants to get to, if the Bible says that riches are a good thing for sharing, rather than holding onto for oneself.  Schneider will have to upfront about arguing not that merely that affluence is a good thing, but that inequality, affluence in the face of poverty, is a good thing.  Thankfully (if that adverb is appropriate), it appears that he is willing to be upfront about this, given his remarks at the end of the introduction about why rich Christians shouldn’t feel any obligation to help the global poor.  

A final thing to note in this section.  Schneider is also upfront about the fact that he is going to be arguing against the general consensus of historic Christian teaching.  I’m glad to hear it.  Many writers of Schneider’s persuasion seem blissfully unaware of what St. Basil or St. Chrysostom or even the ever-reasonable Aquinas had to say about wealth.  Schneider is confident enough in his biblical exegesis to set aside the witness of these, suggesting that historic Christian testimony on wealth is “as much a product of ancient economic times [does that go even for Martin Luther and John Wesley, I wonder?] as it is of the full biblical narrative” (3).  Very well, but this means that his biblical exegesis must meet a very high bar.  Let us go ahead and turn to that.

 

Schneider spends the last few pages of the introduction summarizing the argument of the book.  The first chapter will discuss “the workings of modern capitalism,” but after this, it will be all biblical argument.  Chapter two will cover creation, chapter three exodus, and chapter four exile–all of these narratives of Scripture, he will argue, show us that God wants his people to prosper materially–affluence is a good thing.  I merely flag again the fact that if God wants all his people to prosper, then the affluence of some at the expense of others is not necessarily a good thing.  

Chapters five through seven will cover Jesus and his teaching–here Schneider promises to argue that Jesus was not really poor, as generally asserted, nor did he particularly identify with the poor in his ministry–he identified with all equally but differently.  Nor did he call for his followers to become poor.  This should be interesting stuff, to say the least, and Schneider certainly has his work cut out for him.   

Chapter eight will focus on the book of Acts, in which he will argue that the portrait of the early Christian social life functions as no more than a narrative ideal that is not necessarily normative for us.  He will then look at Paul and James’s teaching on wealth, and again argue that their “moral arguments must be used very cautiously in our day”–or, to be more blunt about it, “they do not provide a normative framework for spiritual and moral teaching in our day” (11).  Well, at least he’s honest about it–you gotta give him that.  I think it would be fair to summarize all this by saying that he’s going to use the Old Testament, with its affirmation of affluence, as an interpretive grid by which to show that the apparent criticisms of wealth in the New Testament cannot be taken seriously as they stand–which seems to me precisely backward as a Christian hermeneutical posture.  But that is, of course, to oversimplify–we’ll wait and see the details of the argument.

Finally, in his epilogue, as I’ve already mentioned, he says he’s going to deny that “the world-shrinking effects of globalism generate strong obligations for any wealthy person in an advanced society to any poor person in an underdeveloped one” (11).  It’s rather bold of him to come right out and say this, though depending on what he means by “strong obligations,” it might be a truism, or it might be reprehensible.  I’ll be curious to see, though I can’t say this kind of statement at the outset wins him much sympathy from me.

 

Well, that’s all for the introduction.  Hopefully being this wordy at the outset will help me be more concise later, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that.