I Got a Bone to Pick With Capitalism (And a Few to Break)

The driving power of capitalism, as [Michael] Novak correctly emphasizes, is the desire of the individual to better his material condition. It is the unleashing of this power from the restraints imposed by traditional Christian morality that has transformed static societies into the dynamic and growing society of which we are a part. No one can deny either the reality of the motive force or the magnitude of what it has achieved. The name the New Testament gives to the force in question is covetousness. The capitalist system is powered by the unremitting stimulation of covetousness. The apostolic advice that a person should be content with food and clothing (1 Tim. 6:8) is not compatible with the development of our kind of society, and it would be better to acknowledge that frankly, as Novak does. The shrine has to be vacated if capitalism is to flourish. Modern capitalism has created a world totally different from anything known before. Previous ages have assumed that resources are limited and that economics- housekeeping- is about how to distribute them fairly. Since Adam Smith, we have learned to assume that exponential growth is the basic law of economics and that no limits can be set to it. The result is that increased production has become an end in itself; products are designed to become rapidly obsolete so as to make room for more production; a minority is ceaselessly urged to multiply its wants in order to keep the process going while the majority lacks the basic necessities for existence; and the whole ecosystem upon which human life depends is threatened with destruction. Growth is for the sake of growth and is not determined by any overarching social purpose. And that, of course, is an exact account of the phenomenon which, when it occurs in the human body, is called cancer. In the long perspective of history, it would be difficult to deny that the exuberant capitalism of the past 250 years will be diagnosed in the future as a desperately dangerous case of cancer in the body of human society- if indeed this cancer has not been terminal and there are actually survivors around to make the diagnosis

The debate between the capitalism of the so-called free world and the socialism of the Soviet Union and its allies has become as intellectually barren as it is practically perilous. Each side can point with devastating effect to the failures of the other, but each becomes ridiculous when it tries to conceal its own. Both parties have exhausted their moral and intellectual capital. But a genuinely missionary encounter of the gospel with our culture can go behind this futile and infinitely dangerous conflict to challenge the common beliefs on which both sides rely, beliefs that have long been regarded as axiomatic but are in fact false. Of course, as contemporary history proves, Christians can live and bear witness under any regime, whatever its ideology. But Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all.
-Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans], pp. 113-115



2 thoughts on “I Got a Bone to Pick With Capitalism (And a Few to Break)

  1. I just started writing a short book on being a Christian Anarcho-Capitalist. I completely am shocked at the comparison of capitalism to cancer. It’s a slippery slope argument. I’ll be posting some stuff on this soon.


    • I don’t see Newbigin’s attack as a slippery slope argument at all- it’s pure description that culminates in a “Thou art the man!” hook. What he’s attacking is the ideology of capitalism more than the principle of a free market, for instance (p.s. Just how “free” is any so-called “free market”?), the ideology that sees it as the antidote to all prior/present evils. That ideology is the fruit of the Enlightenment. The self-obsessed consumer impulse of the West (not to mention the large-scale corporate bail-outs we’ve seen the past few years) are all the rotten fruit of this rationalist (anti)narrative now ruling our culture (and every culture we’ve smashed and recast into our image).


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