Calls to destroy capitalism and boycott Facebook and Google resonate well with Franciscans. They are a way of dealing with our anger at the greed of corporations and the selling of our personal lives to advertisers. My Facebook wall is filled with slogans against this consumerist plague.
But slogans are not an effective way to critique capitalism. Slogans have no hope of achieving their purpose, because capitalism is so entrenched that its power permeates everything we do. Our slogans will simply accrue to capitalism’s benefit as we use Google or Facebook to shout them. Religion scholar George Gonzalez puts it this way, ‘Capitalism buys and sells futures and shares in the ideas of its own enemies.’
A more thoughtful response will admit the value of capitalism. In the 19th Century, wealthy Christians wanted to respond to the growing urban poverty, and used the new technologies of the industrial revolution to raise many out of poverty into respectable working lives. They poured money into enterprises that not only gave workers the financial means to house and feed their families, but gave them consumer goods, infrastructure like electric lighting, and the sense of well-being that only meaningful work can supply.
The surplus money generated recycled into this system, and most of us in the West have seen the final results of this Christian endeavour in our living standards. Think of the difference in housing, consumer goods, entertainment, and communications in the last fifty years. These are the fruits of capitalism, and few of us protesting its evils are willing to give them up.
In the urbanisation of India and China today, we are seeing millions being lifted out of poverty annually, as the benefits of capitalism trickle down.
When I was young my parents taught me that I should always spend real money that I had actually had earned or owned. I should restrict debt to buying a house, and I should ensure that any shares I owned were shares in real life productive industries.
A rule of thumb current in the sixties was that CEOs should earn no more than four times the wage of their lowest paid employee, and that virtuous companies produced useful goods or provided useful services.
Most people failed to acknowledge the importance of the creative tension between unions and bosses. For this system to work at all the employers need to insist on making a profit to continue the operation of the industry, and the workers’ associations need also to insist that workers are paid fairly and that conditions uphold human dignity.
This ‘modest capitalism’ works. I am neither Calvinist nor conservative, and I believe, for example, that relying on the ‘trickle down’ effect is an abrogation of responsibility, but I understand that this system has its value and should not be easily abandoned. What makes me angry is the distortion of this system. We know the symptoms:
1. Executives paid thousands of times more than their lowest paid employee.
2. People exposed to risk through virtual money, derivatives and futures which relate to nothing in the real world.
3. The commodification of human beings to be sold by giant corporations to advertisers.
These expressions of greed should be condemned, but slogans are not sufficient. We need to understand more fully how the system we have inherited actually works and to thoughtfully articulate good reasons why these practices despoil the vulnerable and destroy our community.
I submit that the responsibility of Franciscans (who are called to be sensitive to the use and abuse of money) is to grow in their understanding of economics, to be real about how capitalism lifts people out of poverty, and from that position of understanding articulate their critique of greed.