Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism

July 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

I believe we have to question whether participation in the capitalist economy brings Friends into conflict with our traditional stands on peace, simplicity, economic justice, earth stewardship, community, and the right sharing of world resources. I am led to believe that it does. This is a predicament.

I use the word ‘predicament’ deliberately to mean not only the dilemmas that capitalism presents to Friends but also to indicate that capitalism is predicated on assumptions that necessarily bring Friends into conflict with their traditional witness testimonies. I am not arguing that enlightened participation in a capitalist economy is impossible, or that capitalism does not have its good points. Only that it has structural evils that one cannot avoid, that dynamics of human behavior and interaction are built into the system that necessarily lead to conflict, violence, social and economic injustice, materialistic excess, and damage to Earth’s ecosystems. Oh, and it violates the gospel of Jesus.

I see five basic predicaments of capitalism that challenge Friends’ lives in the light of their own testimonies. These are quite inter-related and sometimes it hardly makes sense to separate them, except that it’s so hard to make sense of them if you don’t. The five predicaments are:

  1. Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own the goods and services that generate income when sold in the market, and they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services. It puts into private hands things that properly belong to the community and to future generations: mineral resources, agricultural resources, water, the wealth of the oceans. As currently structured, the community is cut out of the deal.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community, equality, and right sharing of resources.
  1. Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It competes for everything—resources, labor, energy, markets, customers, attention, even our dreams. Competition inevitably leads to conflict; inevitably over time, though not in every instance, conflict leads to violence.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of peace, economic justice, and right sharing of world resources.
  1. Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization. Until recently, the social history of capitalist economies in the over-developed world has been evolving toward increasing democratic governance; those for whom free-market capitalism is a religion give capitalism the credit. However, capitalism itself remains feudal in its governance structures; it is inherently undemocratic.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimonies of community and equality.
  1. Growth: Capitalism determines the health of a business and of the system as a whole in terms of growth; at all levels, its command is to expand—or die. Furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the whole system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits and it pursues this goal with no structural limitations. Tissue that grows without limits is called cancer, and this disease is killing Mother Earth.
  2. Capitalism violates the Quaker testimony of caring for the earth.
  1. Mendaciousness: In terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an “open market”, capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in three ways: about the nature of capital, the nature of overhead, and in its advertising.
  2. It does not take economic responsibility for the real value of the resources it treats as capital, which it almost always consumes without replacing, and it does not build into its pricing either the known real value of these resources or their unknown potential value to future generations. Meanwhile, it is drawing down the resource capital of the entire planet at a now catastrophic pace.
  3. Furthermore, capitalism does not figure in its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. When—if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.
  4. Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of competition for market share. This tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers through advertising. Advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams, with desires that drive human behavior independently of real human need or broader social welfare; and that’s even when it is telling the factual truth.
  5. Capitalism lies—it violates the Quaker testimony of integrity.

Capitalism’s meta-predicament lies in the very structure of the system itself as a whole, the way it structures our relations with each other socially and politically and our relations with our Mother Earth. Capitalism wrongly structures these relations and it cannot do otherwise.

But the meta-argument about the rightful role of an economic system in civilization will have to wait for another post, as will fuller discussions of each of these predicaments. And then there’s Jesus.

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§ 4 Responses to Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism

  • Rich Accetta-Evans says:

    A brief critique that will probably sound more grouchy than I intend it to be: I am no apologist for capitalism, but this post leaves me flummoxed on at least three levels: First:  it is aimed at “participation” in the capitalist economy.  Wouldn’t that include creating, buying. selling, consuming, giving away, or throwing away anything at all within the framework of the society where we live?  To the extent that society in John Woolman’s day was already “capitalist” wasn’t he “participating” in capitalism even while he rode in steerage on his final trip to England?  I think he lived a pretty righteous life, and he surely witnessed against all kinds of cruelty and injustice, yet he didn’t manage to avoid participating in the economy of his time nor was that he seemed to be trying to do.  He tried, instead, to lessen his need for and dependence on the benefits that society offered to give him at others’ expense.   Second: “capitalism” has taken many forms over the centuries.  Depending on our definition it probably exised in George Fox’s day, in Woolman’s, in Marx’s, and in Piketty’s.   Yet it was a different animal in each of these incarnations.  That puts this discussion on an abstract plane that’s diffiult to relate to.   Finally, I don’t think we should speak of behaviors as “violating” our testimonies.  Rules can be violated.  Testimonies can either be upheld or neglected, but not “violated”.   If I go to war or voluntarily support it I have failed to uphold the testimony against war.  If I appropriate/exploit the labor of another human being I am failing to uphold a testimony (if there is one) on fairness and justice.  But if I am to be “in the world” (even while hoping to not be “of” the world), then I will inevitably be “participating” in that world.  Just as Jesus did when he became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.   – – Rich    

  • Yes, the rapaciousness of unfettered capitalism is bone-chilling.

  • It looks like this will only be the second reply.

    If this posting met with relative silence from the world, Steven, I can only think that it’s because your readers took it in and said to themselves, “He’s got it completely right.” I did.

    And Treegestalt, I think that you’ve gotten it right where you’ve written, “Maybe we could collectively turn to God.”

    Maybe your readers have been silent, Steven, because your posting sent them into a state of prayer (or whatever they may each individually call it) as they realized, “I don’t know what I should do. What does Love require? How may I withhold co-operation from this evil system in a way that doesn’t oppress my neighbor, and that encourages general repentance? What might I advise everyone else to do?”

    I trust that the Lord will give us the answer if we wait for it with willing hearts. I believe I’ve now entered into waiting worship around this query with the two of you, and perhaps other readers who haven’t yet spoken.

  • treegestalt says:

    The trouble with this ‘competition’ isn’t a matter of ‘conflict’ being bad! In theory competition is a functional way to produce improvement and optimal performance; the trouble is that this competition tends to be about the wrong things. ‘Large’ outcompetes ‘small’ for reasons that have nothing to do with improved performance or serviceability, and have everything to do with concentrated ‘power-over’.

    My conversation with the clerk in the copy-service a few years ago:

    Copy services were an easy way for people retiring with savings to ‘go into business.’ Such businesses, left unchecked, would compete in pricing to the point of making the business unprofitable. Larger outfits, whenever this started to happen, would lower their prices to below-cost. Little copy services — no matter how nice or efficient or anything else — would then rain out of the sky until only the larger outfits survived — and could raise prices considerably above cost again. The whole process was — if nothing else — unnecessarily rough on nice old people with savings & too much faith in the system.
    —–

    In any case — as I look forward to you saying at greater length — Capitalism is not what Jesus told us to put our faith in; neither is it quite the way of life he was talking about.

    ——

    A sort of mom-&-pop capitalism might well be compatible — or at least might constitute a viable framework for ‘Right Livelihood’ — but only with social action of some sort to limit the size of businesses. ‘Over the right size’ would have to lead to boycotts, not eager patronage… The pervasive ‘anti-integrity’ power of advertising (and of needy-greedy behavior) would have to be curbed somehow…

    Maybe we could collectively turn to God and thereby ‘let all things take their rightful place’?

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