Capitalism is Not God’s Dream for Humanity

Capitalism is often deeply intertwined with the American’s idea of patriotism and Christianity, and for good reason. Capitalism, like the Christian life, encourages discipline. As seen through America’s rise as an economic super power over the past century, capitalism can give a man with a good work ethic the opportunity to move from rags to riches, achieving the American dream of full life, liberty, and happiness. In recent years, however, more Christians have questioned the negative affects of capitalism on humanity and whether American Christians should accept all capitalistic ideas as part of their worldview.

Like Victoria Van Vlear, who recently posted an article on Evangelical Outpost called Why You Should Listen to Communists, I believe we can learn more about capitalism and its limitations by studying the economic system that juxtaposes it: communism. Unlike Victoria, however, I am not surprised that communism’s founder, Karl Marx, was able to revolutionize entire countries with his theory. Marx was eccentric, yes. And there is no denying that communism has been used to oppress people in horrific ways. Yet Marx’s ideas point out some serious flaws in capitalism, flaws that we American Christians cannot ignore if we are to be responsible stewards of our possessions and love others well.

Therefore, I’d like to take a Marxist perspective on some of the harmful effects of capitalism. The problems capitalism creates, though different than those of socialism, can still be severe and debilitating. Capitalism creates vast wealth but also immense poverty. It provides jobs and products for consumption, but it also promotes alienation, overconsumption, and exploitation. Capitalism has brought us wealth, but this wealth might come at too great a price.

– Let’s begin with alienation. Marx tells us that capitalism alienates us from the purpose of our labor, because in a capitalistic society the worker ceases to labor out of his or her own will and volition and begins to labor to meet another person’s goal. In other words, most of us are working for The Man. According to Marx’s essay Alienated Labor, man differs from the animal inasmuch as he “makes his vital activity itself into an object of his will and consciousness.” Man creates through conscious, vital activity. As beings created in the image of the Creator, an essential part of our being must be to create and labor to bring our ideas into reality. In a capitalist society, however, we waive our right to labor for our own purposes, trading our labor for wages in order to fulfill the desires of another human being. In Alienated Labor, Marx goes on to argue that the result of this is “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions…and feels himself an animal in his human functions.” In other words, when we sell our labor instead of experiencing the fruits of it ourselves, we can feel enslaved. Work can become the thing we do just to make money rather than a sacred opportunity to exercise our image-bearing quality of creativity. As a result of this shift in our understanding of labor, work becomes the place where we feel least human and least fulfilled, which entirely contradicts the intrinsic nature of labor as an expression of our purpose and humanness. In a capitalist society, our labor is only as valuable as the wage we are receiving. In a perfect society, however, our labor would do more to enhance human dignity: we would see the whole fruits of our labor rather than paper money equivalent to our labor.

– Next comes overconsumption, which is partially a result of alienation from labor. Because his work makes him feel like an animal, man looks to physical pleasure to help him feel more human. It is for this reason that Americans live for the weekend: we have sold our entire week to someone else, working in someone else’s office for someone else’s purpose, so that on the weekend (the only time that wholly belongs to us) we can live in excess for the final and exclusive end of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment. As man grasps at appetitive pleasures in search of purpose, capitalist society continuously uses advertising and stereotypes about economic status to suggest that consuming makes him more human. Capitalism encourages consumption to a fault: industry purposely engineers dispensable things, and the things industry creates still don’t fulfill the majority of humanity’s basic needs. A trip to a majority world country like Swaziland brings the realization that a number of people have cell phones that will break in three years but come from a village that still has no access to clean water. While many go without food, there are thousands of cars in dealerships all over our own country with no one to buy them. Instead of focusing on improving the health of humanity, capitalism has led to an excess of material things falsely deemed necessary and ignored true necessities.

– Finally, capitalism allows for the fulfillment of the purposes of some at the expense and exploitation of the majority. As we grow alienated from our labor and our humanness, we become alienated from one another. As demonstrated in the documentary The Corporation, virtually every corporation in the United States outsources labor from parts of the world where protection for workers simply does not exist. CEOs like Phil Knight of Nike Inc., have, in the past, completely ignored the conditions in their factories because their factories exist halfway around the world.* Few have ever actually visited their factories to see the working conditions, allowing the CEO’s primary focus to be monetary gain rather than concern for the human condition. Capitalist society is structured in such a way that exploitation becomes a necessary evil in order to create competition, and the capitalist can even exploit without coming face to face with the consequences of his actions. In this way, capitalism damages the morality of the capitalist.

I am not positing that communism represents an adequate solution for or response to the problems created by capitalism. I am positing, however, that Marx predicted the negative effects of capitalism that we are experiencing today, and that makes him worth listening to. I never would have been able to identify these problems if I hadn’t read Marx. We ought to listen to communists, and not just to compose better arguments against their ideology. We ought to listen to communists because they can help us see the problems with our system and work with us to respond to these problems in ways that improve the quality of life for the worker.

Realizing some of the flaws of capitalism helps us remember that the American Christian is not inherently a capitalist. To be a rich Christian (and that includes us—most American Christians are rich compared to the majority of the world) amidst poverty and hunger is to contradict the main focus of the Christian faith: human reconciliation and flourishing and the advancement of God’s kingdom. You might believe that the pros of capitalism outweigh the cons, but Christians, at least, should think hard about what it means to subscribe to any system that does not promote human flourishing for all.


*Nike has, as of late, improved their social responsibility. For details, click here.

I :heart: My Boss: Achieving Employee Efficiency

Two facts: It has been pouring rain in Southern California for three days.
I can be an incredibly stubborn person.

Added together, they created the scenario in which I refused to drive to work and instead literally waded down sidewalks covered in a foot and a half of water. One mile and thirty minutes later, I was sloshing through the lobby to the back.

I spotted my store manager Bruce in the office. “Hi Bruce! Hey, do we have any spare socks around here?”

“Socks?” He looked at me inquisitively. “Why would we have socks? Hey—you’re wet!”

An astute observation. “Yes, Bruce,” I said wryly. “I am very, very wet. My socks are very, very wet.”

Resigned to developing incredibly wrinkled and fusty feet over the next six hours, I clocked in. Fifteen minutes into my shift, Bruce walked up and threw a plastic bag at me. Inside were two brand new pairs of socks. He had gone out into the pouring rain to buy me dry socks.

I was still slightly shocked and whelmed with gratitude when Maria, an assistant manager, came over to say hello. “You’re wet!” she observed.

“That’s because I swam to work.” She laughed, shot a ‘you-crazy-kid’ look my way, then told me to go drink some tea or coffee while she covered register for me. Which I did…after changing my socks.

In a free-market economy, businesses are often criticized for treating employees like commodities instead of people. In response, companies argue that competitive markets don’t allow certain luxuries: labor is expensive–eight dollars an hour doesn’t include ‘chat’ time. Have fun off the clock. Efficiency is a necessity.

Hopping through the breakroom on one shod foot to retrieve a towel, I realized something: Efficiency may be necessary, but it isn’t only found within a two-dimensional definition.

My part-time job is at a Panera Bread bakery/café. Our store is profitable and creates quality product, but also, all the workers (managers included) hug each other hello and goodbye. Everyone genuinely cares about each other, and asks about school and work, relationships and history. Of course, like any group of people who spend many hours together, there’s also drama and intrigue, quarrels and alliances. At quarterly full-store meetings, there’s sometimes yelling and maybe a little cursing—but there’s a lot more laughter and even greater teasing.

I call that capitalism done correctly.

There are alternative ways to pursue success. Machiavelli offers some advice for the ambitious in his ‘how-to’ political guide, The Prince:

…it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both…Men worry less about doing an injury to one who makes himself loved than to one who makes himself feared. For love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men, wretched creatures that they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so; but fear is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective.

Applied to business, perhaps Machiavelli would suggest that a company will achieve maximum employee production by being feared by its workers, extracting labor through the threat of suspension or lay off. In Capital, Karl Marx describes economic ambition along the same lines. “Capital is dead labor,” he writes, “which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

I’ve worked at cut-throat businesses where employees complete tasks under fear of management. They do the bare minimum, getting away with everything they can, and are generally unhappy. Any conversation between co-workers is almost exclusively complaints about management. Who wants to make a profit that way? What a miserable manifestation of free-market economics.

Companies functioning under the belief that efficiency requires fear should think again. My co-workers and I work hard—not because we are afraid of being fired, but because we respect and have affection for our managers. Everyone—manager or hourly—is allowed to make mistakes without fear of punishment. We’re human. Does that detract from the store’s ability to compete in a fierce capitalistic economy? No. Profit/People isn’t an Either/Or.

The amount of ‘regulars’ at our store astounds me. I’ve worked in other restaurants, and none compare. I believe that the general rambunctious joy of the employees has a lot to do with that: I know that I, for one, actually look forward to work, and that cheerfulness is expressed in playful banter and sprightliness between myself and the customers. I thought the ‘whistle while you work’ song was merely Disney optimism. And then I started whistling while I worked. I’ve convinced a customer to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” with me. I’ve, after closing, smacked a co-worker with a baguette while singing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”

Maybe–probably–‘corporate’ would disapprove of these antics. I actually don’t know much about the ‘corporate’ office, other than that they are the creators of regulations and paperwork. Their view of employees might differ from that of the managers I see every day, but it really doesn’t matter. Profit is made at the grassroots, made in the interactions between company and consumer. A business that wants this level maximally effective should adopt a broader perspective than what can be seen on paper, and encourage their management to establish community with employees.

Labor expense might go up a little, and maybe there will be an occasional dry socks expense. Bruce probably spent around $10 for those socks–included with them, though, he also got one fiercely loyal and hardworking employee. ‘