Some Much-Needed Clarity on American Empire

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart has at last given us a sneak peek at some of the refreshing and illuminating thoughts on “empire” (which is to say, in our current setting, American empire) that have been gestating inside his fertile brain for the past couple years.  His uncanny ability to bring balance and clarity to highly polarized discussions thick with the fog of war is a great asset for this controversial topic.  Many right-wing Christians still need to be brought to a sober reassessment of their nation’s evildoings, but without losing all sense of perspective and hurtling headlong into whichever left-wing or anarchist ideology promises the most fervent denunciation of American empire.  

In his mini-essay, “Towards a Sensible Discussion of Empire,” Leithart offers ten modest theses, many of which are “truisms . . . so obvious that it is telling that they have become controversial.”  Indeed, it is remarkable how many of these truisms will immediately cause many readers (including myself) to bristle, become suspicious, or even to start casting accusations like those of one commenter who compared Leithart’s argument to something that might be “made by a German academic in defense of the Nazis during the period of their rise to power.”  Such suspicion is perhaps not a bad thing—we should always be suspicious of any claim that appears to serve the interests of those in power—but it should not keep us from being sensible, and recognizing the difference between a truth and the abuse of a truth.  I won’t of course repost the whole essay here, but will simply call attention to a couple of the most fruitful contributions it makes.

First, Leithart seeks to demystify the concept of “power” somewhat, by inviting us neither to demonize it, idolize it, or too narrowly define it.  On the one hand, he tells us right out of the starting gate that power is evil not by nature but by abuse, and although often abused, “in itself, power is preferable to powerlessness.”  “It is better to have the power of sight than to be blind,” he points out.  And yet he ends by reminding us of the transience of worldly forms of power: “Empires end, yet the world keeps going. . . . Much as the current world system depends on the U.S., the future of the world does not ultimately depend on our ability to remain the world’s superpower, nor does our survival as a polity. We do not represent the end of history.”  Between these two claims, he invites us to reflect on the variety of the forms that power takes, in a very provocative paragraph:

Abuses of power can be arrested only by an exertion of power. To rescue a victim, or to save a people from genocide, you have to exert power. Possession of power imposes an obligation to protect the weak. The power exerted in response to an abuse may not take the same form as the abuse itself. A persuasive orator can pacify a mob. Martyrs exercise a mystical power beyond the imaginations of their persecutors.”

Although the initial summary statement might appear more or less equivalent with the claim “force must be repelled by force” (as one careless reader seemed to take him as saying), it becomes clear that something more nuanced and interesting is being said.  Of course, force may need to be repelled by force, physical power overcome by greater physical power—Leithart’s stance here is forthrightly a just-war one—but the repelling power may be of a different kind altogether, and indeed, a non-physical power, like that of the orator or the martyr, may be far more powerful, as he suggests.  This, I think, is a clever and key move.  Too often, we tend to think of “power” in a very negative light, and treat all these other means as “powerful” only in a metaphorical sense.  But Leithart invites us to here to refuse to fall prey to the temptation to identify coercive force as the essence of power; power in itself is something much more pluriform and mysterious, and violence is but one, and in the end, one of the least powerful, of the forms of exercising power.  He also forces us to reckon with the fact that the martyr’s is an exercise of power, not merely a renunciation of it, echoing themes from his Defending Constantine and highlighting the problems with a lot of fashionable rhetoric.  To be sure, it is a renunciation, but the renunciation is simply a means to exercise a greater power.  The martyr’s sacrifice is not a despairing suicide, or a mere passive acceptance, but a triumphant conquest of his foe, just as was the cross of Christ.  We fear that using the language of “power” and “conquest” in this connection will give us a militaristic Christ, but perhaps such co-optation of the language of power is actually the best antidote to militarism.

 

Second, Leithart manages to be simultaneously forthright about the wickedness of empires, including our own, while also keeping this within proper perspective—a balance that seems to elude most Christian discussions of the topic.  On the one hand, we are reminded that many empires, and certainly our own, in fact do a great deal of good, intended and unintended, alongside their evils (as many contemporary intellectuals such as Niall Ferguson have been eager to point out), but this is quickly counterpointed with the insistence “The benefits from empires do not excuse the behavior of empires. We cannot give ourselves a pass on international folly and injustice by congratulating ourselves on the good things we do”—a principle that Ferguson does not appear to have grasped.  He enumerates just a few of our own unexcusable evils in a paragraph that is quite restrained overall (“Native Americans have many legitimate complaints against the U.S., as do Latin American countries” might be a little understated), but which still will discomfit many right-wing Christians at points (“While we Americans congratulated ourselves for our Christian charity in civilizing the Philippines, other Americans were killing Filipinos or herding them into concentration camps. For decades, we have deliberately dropped bombs on civilians and slaughtered hundreds of thousands.”)  

I will confess that I am not entirely satisfied with the balance that Leithart seeks to strike here; I think he goes too far, in his paragraph headed (sensibly enough) “American hegemony is not an undiluted evil”, in concluding “Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the neoconservatives are right.”  Of course, he is trying to be provocative, but I am still not sure that I would agree with the proposition (to which I take it he is alluding) that “on balance and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world today.”  To “consider the alternatives” is a very difficult matter, both historically and morally, but I would like to see it asserted, a little more clearly than it was in this brief sketch, that many of America’s evildoings in the past few decades are not merely occasional incidents of bad behavior, but have been systemic and pathological.  On the other hand, Leithart is writing in First Things, so I expect there’s a limit to how far he can deviate from the Neuhaus party line.

In any case, I eagerly await the promised harvest of further reflection on this subject, to which Leithart intimates these theses are preparatory.


The Ambiguities of a Christian President

Although I’ve been planning to write up a fairly critical review of Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith, that would perhaps not be the most politic thing to do when he is busy trying to critique me (on my review of VanDrunen) over at his blog right now.  So, in a spirit of camaraderie, let me voice an odd point of sympathy with Hart’s book.  

In it, he is chiefly concerned to argue (among other things) that we should not be voting for our political candidates on the basis of their Christian faith or values, and in fact should be very leery of them trying to bring those convictions into office with them.  Their Christianity simply does not have anything relevant to contribute to rightly governing our country, and we should vote simply based upon political considerations.  While I dramatically disagree with him on the larger issues, being convinced of the relevance of Christianity to public life, the importance of governing a country in submission to Christ, etc., I find myself oddly in sympathy with him when it comes down to practical questions like, “Who do you want to win in 2012?”

 

Last week, I finally decided to try and educate myself a bit on the 2012 contenders, and I was reading an essay about how Republican contender Michele Bachmann is apparently a zealous conservative Christian.  And not just a generic evangelical, but someone influenced by Reformed writers in the remote little neck of the ecclesiastical woods in which I was brought up–people like Francis Schaeffer and even R.J. Rushdoony and Steve Wilkins, if this article was telling the truth.  Now, even if I may have some significant differences with these Christian thinkers, they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.  So here is a legitimate presidential candidate who is about as closely-aligned with me theologically as anyone I could ever expect to run (at least, given what I gleaned from this one article…I am still largely ignorant of Bachmann’s background).  Shouldn’t I be cheering her on?  

On the contrary, I’ve found myself instinctively repulsed by her, despite (perhaps even because of?) her explicit invocation of Christianity.  This may well be quite unfair, but if I were to vote strictly on feelings (and don’t worry, all you conservative readers out there–I wouldn’t vote strictly on feelings, and my reason might well end up somewhere rather different), I’d be more comfortable voting for Obama than for Bachmann.  Weird, huh?  

 

Is Darryl Hart right then?  Does theology have nothing to do with politics?  Well, not quite.  Certainly, with Hooker we could acknowledge that theology may not map onto politics in any clear and straightforward way, and such are the complexities of political life, the silences of Scripture, and the limitations of our ability to apply it, that Christian commitment might be able to manifest itself in any number of varying political commitments.  Perhaps this is part of what’s going on. 

I’d like to think, though, that my objection actually arises more from my fear that Bachmann, like most other Christian conservatives I’ve encountered, actually is not nearly Christian enough in the way she approaches politics.  If you read her statements on “Issues” on her campaign website, it’s hard to find anything beyond a tired old regurgitation of the same old neo-conservative slogans about the importance of protecting the free market and helping business grow, and the importance of looking out for America’s interests in the world and standing up to its enemies.  I’d rather vote for a candidate who doesn’t know Christ (though Obama sincerely claims to and I will take that at face value) but who nonetheless applies some of his warnings against the danger of wealth and his admonitions to love our enemies (not that Obama necessarily has done that very well), than a candidate who claims to make Christ central to their politics, but shows no sign of having ever really listened to some of these central teachings.  

This is, of course, over-hasty as an indictment of the religious Right–I recognise that issues of economics and national security are quite complicated, and you can’t just wave the Sermon on the Mount at them (many of my bloggings here over the past year have been focused on trying to think how some of these Christian teachings ought to intersect with the practical issues of modern politics).  But this is an attempt to explain in a nutshell my gut aversion to candidates like Bachmann.

 Of course, there is another, more pragmatic dimension, and on this point I probably am closer to Hart–there’s something to be said for voting for someone you disagree with, but consider competent, than someone you agree with, but who’s likely to run the ship of state into an iceberg.  When electing someone to government, one must first and foremost have faith in their ability to govern, not merely in their good intentions.  And most of the current Republican front-runners seem committed to radical ideologies that seemed doomed to disaster.  So, ironically, the conservative in me might rather vote for someone more liberal.

 

In any case, if you’re reading this, and know more about the current candidates than I do (which probably describes pretty much everyone who might be reading this), by all means jump in and clear up my false impressions and conclusions.  Even if I don’t vote (which I have trouble imagining I will), it would be helpful to know what’s the landscape’s really like back there in my troubled homeland.   

 

PS: I just realized that having singled out Palin for criticism a couple months ago and Bachmann now, and no other Republican candidates, I may be coming across as somehow misogynist.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason; rather, the main reason, i think, is that I seem to encounter their names much more frequently in the media than any other Republican contenders (and because Christian conservatives seem particularly enthused about them).


The Late Great United States: A Lament

Today, August 2, 2011, the US Congress managed to agree not to send the country headlong into bankruptcy.  While we may be glad that the threat of financial Armageddon was averted for the time being, it would be an understatement to call this a Pyrrhic victory, coming as it did at the cost of the last shreds of American credibility abroad and unity at home.  Indeed, perhaps someday this day will be remembered as a symbolic milestone in the decline and fall of the American Empire.  Certainly, whether you mourn or celebrate the end of American hegemony, it is an occasion that calls for a pause for sober reflection.  

It is a perhaps clichéd now to declare that we live in the twilight days of America’s world domination; indeed, I suspect that just as the 20th century is now seen as the “American Century,” the verdict of history will mark 2001, the turn of the century, as the turning point, the year when the engine of American economic growth sputtered to a halt, when America sought to flex its muscles in response to external attack and gained nothing from the exercise but the hatred of former friends, when a maverick Texan president decided to take the country on a glorious John Wayne expedition against the enemies of civilization that ended up as a ride into its own sunset.

Yet it was only the events of the past couple weeks that succeeded in bringing the fact of our decline home to me–the recognition that we live at the end of an era, on the cusp of uncertain and perhaps unhappy days.

 

To be sure, on paper we are still a mighty nation, teeming with people (around 300 million of them, and more immigrating every day) and money.  Although all empires must come to an end, the pieces are certainly there for us to pull together and eke out another several decades at the top of the pecking order.  Indeed, there is still no lack of commentators–particularly on the Right–claiming that our weakness is all in our heads, and that that all America needs is to shake off its self-doubt and reassume its destined role as Empress of the nations.  But whatever our resources may be on paper, history offers some sobering examples, such as the last days of the Persian Empire, in which an army of a million men melted before 50,000 Macedonian upstarts.  The lesson here is simple: without the capacity to act as one, any quantity of resources are useless.  And if the last few weeks prove anything, they prove that that capacity is far beyond our reach.  Sure, in theory, we could recover it, could agree to recognise one another as fellow citizens and engage again in rational debate.  But it hardly appears likely, especially when the demographic one might expect to be most pushing for charity and the pursuit of the common good–conservative Christians–seems most hell-bent on an atomistic society based on competing assertions of “rights.” 

I will not echo the tired chorus of Christian leaders that all this is the mark of divine disfavour for an ebbing faith, and that, but for our lack of faithfulness, America’s prosperity and power would know no bounds.   After all, I’m not at all sure that God is a fan of global hegemony–at least not by creatures–nor of boundless material prosperity.  Rather, I tend to think that if we’d been more faithful, we might in fact find ourselves living a bit more humbly and simply.  In any case, rather than seek the ultimate cause of our current malaise in the inscrutability of divine providence, let us seek rather the proximate cause–our own actions.  

 

Myriad vices could be listed, perhaps most of all our prodigality and taste for instant gratification.  But all these could perhaps be overcome, or at the very least, their noxious impacts blunted, by unity and resolution of purpose, a sense that we needed to transcend our differences and tackle such serious problems together.  Perhaps this was too much to expect of a populace as drunk on self-gratifying materialism as ours, but just maybe we could hope that our leaders would show such a spirit, especially when, by late 2008, after eight years of military, economic, and fiscal misadventures, America seemed to be derailing fast.  Perhaps the crisis would shake us out of complacency and division, and help us together seek a solution.

Whatever you think of his politics, Obama certainly offered America its most convincing opportunity at a fresh start, at a symbolic end to disunity, in decades.  The nation’s first black president, he symbolised a nation that could overcome enormous differences and prejudices; he was young, he was eloquent, he was, as much as one could expect, “outside the establishment.”  Even those deeply opposed to his policies should have welcomed the hope of transcending partisanship that he seemed to offer.  But the grand new experiment was torpedoed before it got off the ground.*

No sooner was Obama nominated than the so-called “Christian Right” promptly forgot (if it had ever remembered, which seems doubtful) the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Obama was promptly demonised as a threat to all that was good and wholesome and American, and the Right not only resolved, but publicly confessed, that its number one priority was no longer to govern the nation (a concept to which, indeed, it seemed ideologically opposed) but to undermine Obama.  The attitude seemed to be that of a child, who, jealous at not being offered some privilege, resolved to at least make life thoroughly miserable for its sibling who had.  Throughout the past two years, the rest of the world has watched in growing unease as the ensuing display of childish political squabbling has reduced America’s government to near-impotence.  

All of this has reached its climax in the last few weeks of “negotiations” about the debt ceiling.  There is certainly more than enough blame to go around for the embarrassing spectacle that has played out, enough that most of the leaders involved ought to retire from politics in shame.  There have been plenty of cowardly retreats when a principled stand was called for, and stubborn assertions of principle when an intelligent compromise was called for; there have been bluffs that should have been called, and bluffs that never should have been made.  But the lion’s share must surely go to the Republicans, who had, after all, long since abandoned any pretensions at governing.  If you ever needed proof that elections mattered (and I had long dismissed them as a waste of time, since all the candidates were crooks anyway), this was it.  Last November’s “Tea Party” triumph has ushered into office a cadre of politicians committed to political tactics that represent either disgraceful depravity or else, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt, delusionality.  Their policy appears to have been to hold the entire nation at gunpoint unless it consented to capitulate to their ideals, ideals that seem to display only a passing acquaintance with reality.

 

What can we expect as a result of all this?  The near-term consequences, of course, are a fallout of even more intense acrimony and partisanship, and worst of all, of posturing and demagoguery, as both sides seek to convince the American people that it was all the other side’s fault.  The forthcoming election season promises to be the worst in modern memory.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world, incredulous at the display they have just witnessed, will lose all remaining respect for us, and think twice about becoming more entangled with us than necessary.  The rating agencies, having witnessed Exhibit A in political paralysis, and our complete inability to make costly decisions, will most likely conclude that our debt problems will continue to worsen, and will downgrade our credit rating accordingly.  The political wranglings and half-hearted solutions will continue for a few years, until the day of reckoning can be put off no longer, and severe economic contraction is the cost of addressing the debt problem.  And when that happens, it is all too probable that the partisanship we have witnessed recently will look like child’s play in comparison.

This long slow descent into economic doldrums, political paralysis, and financial insolvency is the way that most empires pass into their uneasy senescence.  Few go out in a sudden blaze of glory like Carthage, or the implosion of a house of cards, like the Soviet Union.  Most simply decay from within, and are gradually rolled back from without.  Even if you are unhappy with the ugly story of American hegemony, as am I, its looming end is surely a cause for unease.

For few great nations, in their decline, see the handwriting on the wall and simply determine to accept their fate and make a quiet retreat from the world stage.  Accustomed to nothing but success and prosperity, their people first resort to denial, fervently maintaining, with increasingly shrill nationalist rhetoric, that they are still destined to lead, and then turning to scapegoating, as one class turns on another, or the nation as a whole turns on its neighbours.  In some cases, such as the decline of Spain in the 17th-century, the nation is simply doomed to chronic political discord and economic depression as its slowly deflates over decades.  But the results of France’s decline in the 18th century, and Germany’s in the early 20th, provide far more worrying test cases.  The only promising predecessor is Great Britain, who managed to bow fairly gracefully off of the world stage from 1900 to 1950, handing on the torch to America, and assuming a dull but comfortable emeritus status.  But the ease of Britain’s transition owes much to the existence of a daughter-nation who could take up her mantle, and perhaps more to the fact that two World Wars allowed Britain to decline without losing her honour, and inspired enough continued patriotism to keep her from falling into the devastating internal discord that has torn so many other decaying empires.

In any case, I will make no prognostications for the future.  I will not join in with the alarmists who see Red China as the great new enemy, spreading a pall of tyranny over the world, nor the optimists that think that in the new global marketplace, all will spontaneously unite in the peaceful pursuit of commerce and prosperity.  But in any case, Americans and their leaders must wake up to the sobering truth that the days of their children will not be as the days of their parents, and the sooner we abandon false hopes for the future, the better. 

 

Whatever happens, “the grass withereth, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord stands forever.”

And yet, we may still mourn the fading of the flowers.

*See follow-up post for clarification

All Part of the Imagery

For my light reading lately, I’ve been enjoying a bit of vintage Noam Chomsky–What We Say Goes (a collection 2006 interviews).  In light of my recent post on Sarah Palin, I found this little nugget particularly intriguing:

“…about people here calling Bush names, that’s very constructive–for the radical right.  It is as if these people have been programmed by Karl Rove.  Rove wants to have the liberal critics ridicule Bush because he says ‘nucular’ and ‘misunderestimate’ and talks with a probably fake Texas accent.  In fact, my suspicion is he’s probably been trained to make grammatical errors–he didn’t talk like that at Yale–so he’ll be ridiculed by liberals, and then he can say, ‘See, those elite liberals who run the world and are sitting around drinking French wine and eating quiche don’t understand us ordinary guys.’  Regular guys like the guy working on the assembly line and George Bush, who is going back to his ranch to cut brush.  That’s all part of the imagery.”


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.