Friday, June 26, 2009

Is Socialism the Natural Economic System of Christianity?

In a conversation with a friend about my previous post "The De-Humanizing Effects of Mega-Corporations" this question was posed to me. I said I would think on it and write some thoughts later.

My initial reaction is to say yes. But on further consideration, that is far too simple.

If we just took the Old Testament law, the answer would be a resounding yes. There are some very definite socialist prescriptions in the law. There are provisions for keeping the gap between rich and poor to a minimum such as the cancellation of debts every seven years or the returning of all land to its original owners every fifty years (the year of jubilee). There are commands that effectively establish a welfare state, even going so far as having an effective welfare tax in the form of requiring farmers to leave parts of their fields un-gleaned each harvest so the poor could gather food for themselves. The Torah without a doubt makes a significant point of making sure everyone in the society is provided for and makes this not just an ethical obligation for charity but a legal obligation that the state was supposed to enforce, which certainly seems socialist in its basic underpinnings (though maybe less "sophisticated" in its structure than modern socialist states). I think its important to make a distinction here- these prescriptions could be considered socialist, but I would say this is different from a "communist" state- individual land ownership still existed in ancient Israel, there was not collective ownership of property.

While these laws existed in the Torah, it doesn't seem that this part of the Torah was given much attention in ancient Israel's history. We have no recorded instances of the Year of Jubilee being enacted, for instance. And the prophetic writings condemn Israel repeatedly for failing to care for the poor. In fact, social and economic justice are apparently so neglected that in several places the prophets record God as declaring to Israel in essence (my paraphrase here) "I have stopped up my ears to your prayers and the smell of your sacrifices makes me want to vomit." We can take a couple things from this. First, it seems that while the Torah was socialist, it would appear in practice Israel was not. Second, social/economic concerns seem to be extremely important to the God of Judaism and Christianity. So far, that seems to add up to a socialist norm for Christianity.

The New Testament makes this a little more complicated, however. There is still a strong concern for providing for the lower rungs of society, and even a civil rights movement like note the New Testament declarations that all are equal in Christ- slave, free, Greek, Jew, men, women and every other potentially opposing category are nullified in the Church community. However, there is a striking difference. Whereas in the Old Testament the ethical concern for the poor was a legal obligation written in the nation's "constitution" in the New Testament the church is not a political entity of the same nature. There are certainly political implications to the Christian message, don't get me wrong. Rome in large part persecuted Christianity because Christians refused to worship Caesar and instead acknowledged Jesus as "Lord"- the same term Romans used to pay homage to Caesar. However, unlike in ancient Israel where the Torah was the governing law of the nation, Christianity is an underground group from its conception. So while Christians do things to care for the poor, I think it would be better to consider them a charity group than a socialist government, at least in their early years.

However, Christianity does not stay an underground group. Eventually, it rises to become a very dominant political force in Europe. Over the course of this history, two basic "philosophies" of looking at the world develop in Christianity. One comes from Augustine, the other from Thomas Aquinas. Augustine's philosophy is essentially libertarian. He sees the state as there to protect its people, but his view of human depravity is such that he does not think it can accomplish any "good" (which would include providing people's material needs), and so it’s the role of the church to provide for the poor as a charity. Aquinas has a very different take. He things that the state can do material good, and that society as a whole has a responsibility to take care of the poor and oppressed and neglected who form its lower tiers, a much more socialist (or at least welfare state-ish) position. Part of the difference between these views may have to do with the time periods they wrote. Augustine wrote during the Roman Empire when Christianity was still not a key political power and "paganism" still abounded in Europe (some would say not much has changed…). Aquinas wrote much later, after the fall of the Roman Empire and during the golden age of Church "domination" of Europe. Their different historical situations may have contributed to the differences in their philosophical views on the question of societies obligation to the poor. However, there are other underlying philosophical differences. For metaphysical reasons, I am more inclined to agree with Thomas Aquinas, and because I think his system is logically coherent, to also adopt his view that society can and should take care of its people. I'm not sure I would say I am a complete socialist- I think the markets should be as free as they can be. But I also think that society should be able to provide basic "needs" for everyone in the society- food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. I think the earliest Capitalist thinkers felt the same way, but they believed a free market could provide all these things for all the members of a society (and would therefore be the best way to do that). History and experience I think shows us that this is a bit too optimistic, and so I think some government intervention is required to fill in the gaps.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The De-Humanizing Effect of Mega-Corporations

Lately I have been working on a crew that installs above ground pools. It’s a great summer job for college kids! The other day as we were driving between job sites, a thought occurred to me. There are a great many jobs that exist that are not things anyone would aspire to be.

Think about kids dreaming of what they want to be when they grow up: either something glamorous, like an astronaut or a movie star, or something "noble," like a doctor or a teacher. We can think of lots of other vocations that fit under those categories, and as we get older, we often expand our definitions of these categories and add new ones of "aspired-to" vocations.

Yet there are a number of careers that we would never aspire to. We might end up working in such a career, but never because we set out to do that. We simply fell into it and never got out. Careers like working on an assembly line or as a greeter at Walmart. But why do we consider these to be careers that are undesirable, things we would never set out to do? What makes other careers more honorable, things we would aspire to?

This may be one of the great ironies of capitalism from a philosophical viewpoint. Capitalism begins with the idea of ownership- if we own our own means of production, we are going to work in "creative" ways to promote our livelihood. The idea is that we have a vested interest in our own success, and so we are willing to put forth effort to achieve that success, especially when driven by competition. The theory of capitalism is that individuals driven to succeed will develop new ideas, new means of production, and the most efficient use of resources and thus create the most robust economy. But this theory developed in a day when markets where much smaller and more localized, when the internet and mega-corporations were not even on the horizon. I think in a twist of irony, the progression of capitalist economics, built on the idea of ownership, has in effect destroyed that idea.

Lets say I own a local shoe store. Or that I work for a locally owned shoe store, either will work. I have a vested interest in the success of that store, I have "ownership" by which I mean a stake in its success. So I work to make the store succeed (per capitalist philosophy). But lets paint a different scenario. I work in the shoe department at Walmart. I find it hard to argue that I actually have any stake in the success of this store. The store is simply too big for me to make an impact anymore. If I do poorly, I loose my job and the store moves on, not even feeling a bump in its progress from my failure. Even if the particular store I work for does fail and close, the corporation is so large it will hardly notice. Likewise, if it does well I cannot claim any sort of responsibility for that really. My contribution is simply insignificant. So the concept of ownership is completely meaningless in this scenario. I don't have a stake here, I am just a meaningless "tool" in the eyes of the corporation.

In both scenarios, we might argue that I have a concern for my own personal success, but I think in each case this means something completely different. In the first, my personal success and the success of my business go hand in hand. So things like efficiency and competitiveness and ingenuity will mark both. In the second scenario, however, my personal success is something completely different from the success of the company I work for. My personal success becomes a matter of mere survival- do I still have a means of sustenance?

This is not meant to be a rant against Walmart, by the way. I will admit I am not particularly fond of the place, but I'm not a Walmart-hater.

Here is what I am really getting at- the reason the concept of ownership is so important to capitalist economics is philosophical. Capitalism developed out of enlightenment philosophy, which is particularly humanist. Self-determination is at the heart of the capitalist system. We are more likely to take the initiative in our own lives if we feel we have self-determination, and for capitalism this is derived from the concept of ownership. If we own (or in the case of the worker in the local shop who doesn't actually own it, have a significant stake in) the means of our own success, we will work to bring that success about.

So the loss of the concept of ownership in the wake of corporations too big for the individuals who are part of them to matter is ironic on two levels. First, on a purely economic level it undermines the very foundation of the system that brought these corporations about. But secondly, on a philosophical level, it attacks the self-determinism and humanism of the very philosophy that brought that system about. It in essence erodes the role of individuals as real "humans" in the sense of having control of the shape of their own lives. They are instead merely pawns swept along in the wake of a much larger creature.

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