Anti-Capitalism Needs More Than Christian Virtues
Matt Bernico | June 1, 2020
Throughout the gospels, Jesus and his crew are always saying something critical about rich people and the accumulation of wealth. Camels can get into heaven before rich young rulers; we should serve God, not money, resisting the urge to store up our treasures on earth; blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. These ideas have often motivated Christians to be critical of the wealthy and powerful. Historically, many Christians have interpreted Jesus’ words about wealth and accumulation in a way that supports anti-capitalist ideas. But anti-capitalism, like all political outlooks, has to be put into practice.
Political theorists and ordinary people on the left have been arguing about what anti-capitalist practice looks like for centuries. Do we seize the capitalist state apparatus and use it for good? Should we smash the state altogether? Or, is all of that political drama unnecessary? Should we only try to change the system incrementally from the inside, insulating people from the worst of capitalism’s harms? Formulating Christian reasons to be an anti-capitalist is easy, but figuring out how to carry out these ideas concretely is another story.
Ben Wayman and Kent Dunnington ask these questions in a recent article, “Must Christians be anti-capitalist? If so, how?” They make the case that Christians ought to be anti-capitalists, but rather than synthesizing leftist political philosophies like anarchism, socialism, or communism with Christianity, they argue for a lifestyle politics that rejects both the reform of capitalism or an all-out revolution against capitalism. Instead, they argue that specifically Christian virtues, not political projects, should guide Christians in anti-capitalist praxis. But their proposal for anti-capitalist politics as a list of Christian virtues treats the symptoms of capitalism and does not treat the disease itself.
Rather than being effective anti-capitalists, they propose a Christian politics that, in practice, is complementary to capitalism, not antagonistic. Their Christian virtues are certainly commendable, but the problem lies in how they negotiate the political praxis and concrete realization of those virtues. In light of this problem, I want to respond to their argument’s shortcomings and offer a more revolutionary perspective on Christianity and politics.
From Theory to Praxis
Here’s a quick overview of the argument Wayman and Dunnington make. Their approach supposes three possible methods for confronting capitalism: non-complicity, reform, and revolution. In the end, they more or less reject all three approaches. In response to what they see as the shortcomings of each, they conclude that “…to the extent that capitalism shapes our deep character and trains us to see the world primarily as a capitalist, Christians should be anti-capitalist.” They find this expression of anti-capitalism helpful because it “[does] not call, straightaway, for revolution.” Instead, it focuses on lifestyle and communal practices Christians can take up.
Wayman and Dunnington’s anti-capitalist praxis hinges on an assemblage of themes from the gospels where Jesus says something instructive on wealth. They suggest that following four biblically founded “economic postures” can “mitigate against the sinister power of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.” Their economic postures are: “Share, in a way appropriate to you and your community”; “Treat money as a tool, not a treasure”’ “Give sacrificially”; “Serve God, not wealth.”
On the face, this sounds nice—even subversive. Nevertheless, when they move these ideas from theory to praxis, it is clear that what they are suggesting isn’t anti-capitalist at all. Instead, they offer several lifestyle practices that may help communities live within the wreckage of a capitalist political economy without challenging the structure that generates that wreckage. At best, what Wayman and Dunnington propose is not anti-capitalism, but accommodation to capitalism.
For example, when it comes to the virtue of using money as a tool, rather than as a treasure, they offer a nice laundry list of practices, such as, “Community meals, debt repayment (like credit card or college debt), and assistance for those burdened by ongoing expenses like groceries, utilities and rent.” Don’t get me wrong, showing up for your neighbors and community in this way is good; however, it’s not exactly a challenge to “the sinister power of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.” Capitalism doesn’t care who pays the bills as long as they’re paid.
Localized communitarian actions can be good, but without a principled and systemic response to capitalism, these actions cannot challenge capitalism. Instead, they only make accommodations for the continued exploitation of working people and their communities.
In Search of a Political Framework for Anti-Capitalism
When it comes to anti-capitalist practice, Christians need a political frame of reference for analysis and practice, one rooted in the material realities of how exactly capitalism dominates our lives. Trying to theologize politics while forgoing actual politics will inevitably lead to confused suggestions that mistake the symptoms of capitalism for capitalism itself. If Christians find themselves convicted of Jesus’ teaching on wealth, they need a suitable mode of analysis that can envision an adequate political praxis capable of confronting the capitalist political economy.
For instance, some Christians can and have used Marxist philosophy as a powerful analytic tool for understanding how capitalism works and for finding its pressure points. Marxist analyses of political economy reveal capitalism to be an adaptable system capable of turning everything into a commodity to be bought and sold, even the labor of workers. Capitalists are driven to constantly increase profits to compete against other capitalists, but can only do that by keeping employee wages low and productivity high.
However, capitalists don’t see their relentless drive to maximize profits and minimize worker well-being as a moral failure—in order to survive as a firm, capitalists must exploit their workers or face going out of business. Immense wealth in capitalism depends on enormous misery for workers, so Marxists understand that ending worker exploitation requires that workers organize themselves to disempower capitalists.
Marxist analysis insists that nothing short of completely reorganizing the relationships of production can pose a serious threat to capitalism itself. For example, the Christian virtues that Wayman and Dunnington distill are very focused on helping those in your communities who are struggling. Marxist analyses can help Christians practice a more efficacious love for their neighbors by creating a map of the way capitalism works and why our neighbors and community members are struggling so much in the first place.
The people in our communities are suffering because capitalists exploit their labor through low wages in order to keep their own profits high. Beyond labor and wages, our communities are also held captive by the extortion of the landlord class through exorbitant rents and racial displacement through gentrification. Whether through labor or rent, this logic of accumulation is central to the way capitalism operates. This kind of exploitation isn’t a bug of capitalism, but a feature.
While this description of capitalism may sound foreign to many Christians, it’s the lived reality of millions of workers in the US today. To provide some perspective, research by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that even a small reformist measure of raising the federal minimum wage to $11.80/hr would give a pay raise to more than 18 million workers. Raising the minimum wage even slightly higher to $15/hr would raise wages for 40 million workers. The point here isn’t that a higher minimum wage will topple capitalism—it won’t.
Rather, it’s that these numbers expose just how many people’s lives are being systematically limited and exploited by the very nature of capitalism, which is compelled to cut costs and keep wages low. Capitalist exploitation buys chunks of human life for less than subsistence wages. Capitalists consume the labor of workers to produce vast amounts of wealth and leave their workers with next to nothing. Wage labor is an evil that sits at the heart of the capitalist political economy. Capitalism transforms people from beings made in God’s image to a commodity to be devoured by bosses.
We can and should support members of our community through communal lifestyles and mutual aid, but we can also enact a systemic and efficacious Christian love by ending capitalist exploitation altogether. These types of social ills are only visible if we think about the economy in primarily material terms rather than solely moral terms. When bosses pay workers meager wages or landlords raise the rent, this is not only because the boss or landlord has fallen prey to some particular vice, but because exploiting individuals through low wages and high rents is exactly how capitalism is supposed to work.
Living a more communitarian life cannot be a replacement for taking part in the organization of mass political movements against capitalism and the oppressions that intersect with capitalism: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and coloniality.
The list of virtues that Wayman and Dunnington develop from biblical themes aren’t bad, but without any sense of the material realities of political economy they are misapplied in that they mistake a communitarian ethic of localized struggle to be sufficient to counter the global, hegemonic power of capitalism. Through Marxist analysis, Christians can reinterpret these virtues as more revolutionary practices that may help them be better participants in the struggle against capitalism and its intersecting forms of oppression.
Rather than sharing with neighbors to keep them afloat, for example, Christians could practice critical solidarity work like sharing their resources to contribute to strike funds or organizing mass debt resistance. Rather than centering anti-capitalist praxis on helping neighbors pay for rent and groceries—obviously, they should still do that—Christians can also join tenant unions and work toward treating housing as a human right rather than a commodity to be bought and sold. An effective Christian virtue and love that seeks to end capitalism’s ills should be centered on building power alongside the dispossessed in order to distmantle the very system that robs us of meaningful communal life.
A Revolutionary Past—and Future
While Wayman and Dunnington primarily look to the gospels and the early church fathers for guidance on how Christians should deal with wealth and capitalism, it’s also worth considering other examples of how Christians have dealt with wealth and capitalism in more revolutionary ways.
For example, in 16th-century Germany, Thomas Müntzer, a preacher, found that his faith led him to speak out against the powers of his time. As a result, he led German peasants in what would later be called the German Peasants’ War.
In a less eurocentric example, around the same time as Müntzer, the indigenous people of southern Mexico were spurred to an all-out revolution by the miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary. Jeff Conant, a historian of southern Mexico, writes in his book, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, that, “The stories are well known in Chiapas of the Virgin of Candelaria whose appearance in 1712 inspired an army of 3,000 Tzeltal campesinos to arm themselves with machetes and farm implements…”
Likewise, In the 20th century, Christians across the world found that their Christian convictions led them to Marxist political analysis and participation in revolutionary movements. In 1965, Camillo Torres Restrepo, a Catholic priest, espoused what he called an “efficacious love” that led him to join the National Army of Liberation, a Marxist guerilla army, in Colombia to fight for those Jesus called “the least of these.”
These are only a few brief examples which demonstrate that many Christians have interpreted Jesus’ teachings on wealth in systemic and revolutionary ways that reject the supremacy of the rich entirely and engage in struggles directly. These historical accounts of Christian anti-capitalism should incite contemporary Christians to investigate the ways their Christianity might direct them toward something similar.
Christians have often taken their religious convictions into mass revolutionary movements and uprisings. Now that wealth inequality is at an all-time high, Christians cannot withdraw into communitarianism, cloistered or not. Instead, Christians need to revitalize their political imagination with examples and analyses that can throw capitalism itself into question, rather than living alongside it.
At every turn in the gospels, we learn that God cares about the poor, the imprisoned, and the marginalized. It’s up to Christians in any given contemporary moment to learn how best to apply their particular Christian love to those for whom God is most concerned. Only in developing a political praxis that finds a way of doing away with capitalism altogether—which means going beyond the Christian tradition to find examples of people who have successfully done so—can Christians come to love their neighbors more fully.
Matt Bernico is an independent researcher, journalist, and organizer in the Fight for $15. He has a Ph.D. in Media Communication from the European Graduate School. His primary research interests are at the intersections of religion, politics, and technology. You can hear more from him on the podcast he co-hosts, The Magnificast.
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