What is the perfect life? What does society around you project as being the idyllic lifestyle? Nice house, nice car, loving spouse, perfect children, tidy garden, laughing friends, holidays to white sandy beaches, all the latest technology…I could go on.
The question, Is Capitalism Sin?, seems like the perfect question for theological/political pontification. Without a practical outworking it can seem as one of those pointless questions academics debate, like how many angels can you fit on a pin head, which may have no relevance to the wider world. However, that depends on the answer. If the answer is yes, then that has ramifications for life. If no, then we keep calm and carry on, to borrow a phrase.
Capitalism is reasonably easy to define. It’s the system of economics where primarily private enterprise owns the means of production for the creation of individual wealth. The means production being concentrated in the hands of a few, as opposed to say a socialist economic model where the means of production, and therefore the wealth created, is in the hands of those producing the goods.
Sin, though, that’s a bit more complicated to define. For 2000 years the church has debated what sin actually is, how it exists within humanity, whether it is passed down through the generations with original guilt, what it’s starting point was and indeed if there was a starting point at all. Around the 4th Century St Augustine had solidified his view that sin was passed down through the generations from Adam and Eve. This was the individuals curse which repentance would cure. In the City of God he writes, ‘Even the infants are, according to the true belief, born in sin, not actual but original, so that we confess they have need of grace for the remission of sins.’ This understanding of sin stuck within the Western Latin church (broadly from which English-speaking churches originate) and sticks through to this day, particularly within the evangelical church.
If we go back further to one of the earliest church fathers, Irenaeus of Lyon, disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John the Apostle, he had a view more much less of inherited sin but rather that sin was a choice. Sin not inherently intrinsic within humanity through sex and procreation, but by free will. In his works Against Heresies, he writes in Chapter 12 ‘Men are possessed of free will, and endowed with the faculty of making a choice. It is not true, therefore, that some are by nature good, and others bad.’ Which doesn’t seem to fit with Augustine’s later pronouncement that we are all born sinful.
During recent history certain sections of the church have focussed solely on the individual nature of sin, that which the individual does wrong – and each section of the church shall define wrong in a different way. Liberation Theologians from the 1960’s onwards called out societies structural sin, manifesting itself in the oppression of the worker. This was however denounced by the Roman Catholic church, particularly by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, latterly Pope Benedict XVI, as being to close to Marxism.
As we can see, sin has been, and is, defined in different ways by different theologians and Christians as we try to work out life and the universe. I want to define sin as that which doesn’t look like God.
I want to define sin as that which doesn’t look like God.
Whatever God is like, if that doesn’t happen – that is sin. Without getting into debate about where it comes from (my essay ‘Is there any place for the doctrine of Original Sin in modern Christian anthropology?’, will give you my answer to that!) this definition of sin allows there to be both an individualistic nature to sin and a structural/societal nature also.
So what does sin within the individual look like? My understanding of God in Christ leads me to worship a God who is loving, kind, parental, self-sacrificing and putting the needs of others above that of self. With my definition of sin, this means that if those things don’t happen, that’s sin; hate, harm, abuse and self-centredness.
Then what does that mean for an economic system? If God is those things; loving, kind, self-sacrificing etc. Does it follow suit that the way we organise ourselves in society need reflect that?
The answer seems to be multi-layered. On the one hand, of course! If we claim God to be the source of all life and perfect then why wouldn’t we want to try and create a society that looks like that? On the other hand, not everyone believes in God or in this sort of God, one cannot simply impose upon people a system based on one’s particular understanding of God. Also, we are not God. Surely, it is at best feeble to pretend we can get anywhere near that?
Even with these arguments against, most of humanity, I would suspect, would be in favour of living in a society that lives up to the ideals of being loving, kind and putting others first, therefore creating society like that doesn’t hinge on each individual having to believe in a God like that. And feeble? Perhaps. But does that discredit attempt?
How does capitalism thrive? How does it work? I would argue it thrives on greed and on selling ‘idyllic’ lifestyles for people to strive towards. Think of the ‘perfect life’ from the start of this article. Major companies, like Apple, don’t really sell phones and laptops anymore. Apple were the innovative ones, the edgy ones, the pioneers but have become slaves to their own success. They can’t do ‘edgy’ anymore or they risk losing their base, getting it wrong and losing out to competitors. So what do they sell? A lifestyle. A life where everything is connected, where you look amazing running beside the beach in LA with your wireless headphones in (who needs a headphone jack anyway) and you are tanned, ripped, and beautiful. You go back to your clutter free house, drink THE best black coffee and work at a desk with nothing but the thinnest laptop on it. And life is good. Not quite the same when sat at a bus stop with your wireless headphones in, in the rain in Basingstoke, working 9-5 for a company reclaiming PPI. I mention Apple not because they are worse or better than anyone else, I just think they are the best at selling the lifestyle.
I’m sat here, in my flat in rural southern England typing on a Japanese Laptop, checking American based social media on my Chinese phone, wear a t-shirt made in Bangladesh, before I jump into my Japanese car and drive to a German supermarket to by some French bread to have with my Italian soup. Capitalism thrives on greed. More than that though it thrives on exploitation. My question is, where did all this stuff come from?
Modern technology is incredibly difficult to make. The minerals required to sustain the batteries and the hardware are incredibly difficult to mine and incredibly dirty to mine. They also happen to be in abundance in places where there is civil and military unrest, the central belt of Africa for example. Your phone may be designed by someone who is well payed, maybe even knighted, but who it is made by? How much are they paid? Where were the resources from that phone bought from? Were they bought at all or were they ‘acquired’?
The same can go for classic example of chocolate or clothing. Who picked the coco beans or the cotton? How much were they paid? If we buy a cheap 100g bar of chocolate from a supermarket that’s not Fairtrade/UTZ/Rainforest Alliance or a t-shirt for £2.50, the reality is they were probably made by slaves or at least other human beings exploited in forced labour or working in life-threatening conditions. Just think of the Rana Plaza textile factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2014.
‘I want’ is the lifeblood of capitalism and ‘I need’ is the cancer. I need this new xxx. Do we really need more stuff? Do we really need that shinier thing? Why? What is missing that makes us need to fill our lives with stuff? Within capitalism those questions are brushed aside because that would lead to the downfall of the system itself. If people stopped buying stuff they didn’t need, the system would collapse. So keep buying it, after all, you work hard, you deserve that new thing. My question is, does the person making it deserve it too?
‘I want’ is the lifeblood of capitalism and ‘I need’ is the cancer.
A very wise and close friend said to me recently when mulling over the state of the world over a cup of tea (don’t worry it was Fairtrade), ‘I have got to a place where I think to myself, is my need for that chocolate bar greater than the need of person who made it to be free?’
Is my need, greater than their freedom?
Is buying this thing being loving, kind and self-sacrificing towards the person who made it? The answer is probably no and if the answer is no, then, according to my definition, that’s sin. Why? Because that greed and desire of ours perpetuates the slavery of others.
Capitalism also only thrives on the exploitation of others by always paying people less then the value of the goods they produce. If I am a company owner, I employ people to make something to sell, in order for me to make a profit and become rich from that, I have to pay the workers less than their value, or I won’t make a profit. I exploit my workers in order to make myself richer. I may treat them well, I may give them insurances, extra holiday, pay above the minimum wage but in order for me to make a profit I need to pay them less than the value of that which they produce. Is that fair? Just? Kind? Loving? Self-sacrificing?
Juxtapose that to a company that employs people and makes them co-owners in the company. The profits are shared amongst the workers. One person at the top isn’t paid an obscene amount and one person on the shop floor isn’t paid a pittance. Each of the workers takes part in the decision-making process of the company. For the worker it’s ‘our company.’ That boosts morale, that increases productivity, that in turn increases turnover and so on. Yet in this model, the worker is paid at the value of what they produce.
Which one seems more loving, more kind, more self-sacrificing, more Godlike? And, in pure economic terms, which was seems more sustainable for a long-term productive, enthused, hardworking workforce?
What, then, about you and I? You have probably drawn the conclusion already that I do think capitalism, in its very essence is sin. So what can I do about it? How can I/we live within a system based on greed and want without being complicit within it? In some ways, we can’t. The system is what it is in other ways we can be very dissenting. We can choose not to get more stuff.
We can choose
to not get more stuff!
We can choose to buy Fairtrade only. We can choose to keep the car just that little bit longer, because it works just fine. We can choose to keep the phone with the 0.001” smaller screen than the new one…because it works just fine. I’m not advocating we all go around wearing torn clothes, driving clapped out old bangers, playing snake on a Nokia 3310, although life was simpler then, wasn’t it? I am, however, suggesting that perhaps we need to see through the lifestyle that is sold to us as ‘perfect’. Not give into the want/need/greed cycle because somewhere around the world, another human being will be suffering because of our greed. And that is something we can do something about.
This Christian hope, of course, is this: sin never has the final word.
Sin never has the final word.