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The cult of Capitalism

26 September 2015

I passed on one of those illustrated epigrams one finds on Facebook (Warning: Graphic content) as one sometimes does, with the following comment. And then I thought that perhaps that there was more that could be said about it.

RomPope1This has been the central struggle of the Christian faith, at the ideological level, for the last 30 years. This has been at the heart of the Kulturkampf, the “culture wars”. It is this idolatry that has undermined and weakened the Christian faith. It is not so much capitalism itself (which has been around for a long time), but the *cult* of Capitalism that is the problem. And it is the cult of Capitalism that has been the dominant theme of the West since the Reagan/Thatcher years, and through globalization has spread throughout the world. It is the ideology of “There is no god but the Market, and Ayn Rand is its prophet”. I am the Market your god, and me only shall you serve.

A Facebook friend commented that perhaps the decline in Christianity in the West was brought about by the church’s obsession with sexuality. But I don’t think so, though I do think that it was the obsession with sex that prevented them from seeing the elephant in the room.

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what saw you there?
I saw a little mouse under a chair.

We see what we want to see, and the Western churches, especially, became so obsessed with the little mouse of sex, in some cases tearing themselves apart over it, that they failed to see the bigger problem, and the huge betrayal that it represented.

In South Africa denominations that had been quite prominent in the struggle against apartheid seemed to sit back after 1994 and wait for the government to fix the country. In the 1970s many of them had sponsored or supported Sprocas, the Study Project for Christianity in Apartheid Society, which looked for alternatives to apartheid, but by 1994 very few could be bothered to think about it.

The ANC had its own Reconstruction and Devel;opment Programme (RDP), which envisaged quite a large part for civil society (which of course included the various Christian bodies in South Africa), but within a year the ANC had abandoned it for the neoliberal GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistibution). If Christian bodies had anything to say about this, it was not widely reported.

The commercialisation of building societies in 1987, and of mutual insurance societies ten years later (with one of them  even having the chutzpah to continue to call itself the “Old Mutual”, a misleading description if ever there was one) evoked minimal comment from the churches. It looked as though most of the churches that had opposed apartheid, and the ANC itself, had swallowed the Thatcherist line, with hook and sinker as well.

As some readers of this blog may know, I’m writing a book with John de Gruchy on the rise and fall of the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, and one thesis I have is that the decline of the movement in the 1980s was brought about, at least in part, by the rise of the Religious Right in the USA, and the way in which its ideology polluted the stream of charismatic literature (books and tapes) which flowed from the USA to South Africa and other parts of the world. One form that this pollution took was the growth of Prosperity Theology (the gospel contextualised for yuppies), but there were others as well.

RomPope2The extent to which this idolatry of The Market has penetrated into Christian groups of all backgrounds and traditions is alarming. I have been amazed at the number of Christians (mainly in the USA) who are quite happy to defend the thesis that “Universal Health Care is Theft”, and who apparently see no contradiction between that and their Christian faith.

Capitalism is an economic system that has been in existence for a long time. It can be, and has been criticised, modified and reformed. Christians can and have lived under many different economic systems, and none of them will be perfect as long as human beings are not perfect. Marx criticised 19th century capitalism. Some of his criticisms were spot on, others were wide of the mark. Some were spot on at the time he wrote, but are wide of the mark now, because the system has changed and adapted.

But it was Ayn Rand who turned capitalism into an ideology, and her followers who turned it into a cult, and Reagan and Thatcher who turned it into the Established Church of the West, a system whose values and fundamental principles cannot be questioned, and must be imposed on others by varions means, such as Structural Adjustment Programmes. This ideology is sometimes called ‘neoliberalism”, especially by those who are critical of it, because it harks back to the laissez-faire economic liberalism of the 19th century.

The Roman Pope, on his visit to the USA, has reopened the debate in that country, and perhaps encouraged people to think again about things they have never before thought to question. In his explicit mention of Dorothy Day, whose communitarianism is not only an alternative to Capitalism, but ideologically almost in direct antithesis to it, he has opened the way for a wider debate.

For Christians, the Market, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for the Market.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. Monte Asbury permalink
    26 September 2015 4:16 pm

    Excellent: well perceived and well said. Many Americans do respond to critiques of capitalism in the same way they might respond to criticism of a theological foundation. Some have later apologized to me for such rants, saying things like, “But when you criticize capitalism itself, I get mighty defensive.”
    Fundamentalism neuters our faith by confining it to ethereal spiritual matters alone. Having done so, seems like cultural values move into the vacuum, becoming shibboleths protecting the cultural status quo. Ironic, eh?

  2. 28 September 2015 3:12 am

    Excellent Steve. This articulates much of what I have been feeling for many years. I look forward to the book. Its vital that we separate the prosperity from the intuitional/creative
    aspects of what has become known as the charismatic movement. As a post charismatic I often defend its devotional aspects from detractors because they munge the two into one thing.


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