Joys of the Quaker Way: One More Branching—Quakers & Capitalism

November 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

One more branching—Quakers and capitalism


So I have laid out the general outline of my joyful experience in unfolding of ministry as a Friend. This has followed a pattern:

Openings, the flaring of bright moments of insight that come as gifts of the Holy Spirit, which I experience as moments of joy that are sometimes quite sublime. Furthermore, some of these openings have led to . . .

Leadings, specific tasks laid upon me by G*d that, even when they have become a burden, and sometimes they have, still in their pursuit I have found fulfillment, a sustained joy in knowing what I am to do and joy in the doing of it. And then, blessing upon blessing, sometimes these leadings have given birth to . . .

Ministries, calls to service that are broader in scope, deeper in demand, and longer lasting than individual leadings—and even more fulfilling, more full of the joy of service to the community and to G*d.

There is one more layer to this onion—what I call my calling. But I have one more branch in my personal story to tell, another instance in which a leading and the study it required uncovered a new door into service, a new opening that led to a new leading and then to a new ministry.

The opening. I was rummaging through Pendle Hill’s library—i forget what I was looking for—when I “happened upon” the book of proceedings of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920. This book was in amongst other books related to the other world gatherings. I knew nothing about this first gathering, or any of them, for that matter, so I sat down to read for a while. And here was a new discovery: the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order and accounts of the debates that it evoked at the Conference, plus hints about an even more intense debate at the 1918 London Yearly Meeting sessions.

London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) had convened a Committee on War and the Social Order in 1915 whose charge was to explore the causes of the Great War. It came back to London Yearly Meeting with its final report in 1918, with a thoroughly-thought out critique and the Eight Principles. The Committee blamed the industrial system—capitalism—in part for the war and the first draft of the Eight Principles, which had been watered down in the final draft after they had been sent to the quarterly meetings for consideration, were quite critical of the economic-industrial system of the time. Meanwhile, the Friends receiving the report were captains of industry in the very system being criticized. In a sense, these Friends were criticizing themselves.

The leading. I was hooked. I now wanted to learn everything I could about Quaker attitudes toward the capitalist system, given especially the tremendous wealth of British Friends through the centuries. Soon, I felt led to write a history of Quaker economics—a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, Quaker economic attitudes, and an economic history of the movement. The resulting research and writing became the unfinished book published in installments as the first posts of this blog (available as pdf files from the link in the sidebar to the left labeled Quakers & Capitalism).

It felt so natural. I had already been studying biblical economics for years. Also I worked at the time as the marketing communications person for a high-end speakers bureau that represented many of the most important thought leaders in the business world and many of the world’s first-tier economists. it was my job to know what these people were thinking and writing and saying, and then present it to the business speakers market. So i was learning how the system worked from the inside, while I was simultaneously learning how Jesus had reformed the economic instructions of Torah.

And I discovered that the history itself, of Quakers and capitalism, was not only fascinating but also virtually unknown to Friends. As I like to put it, the industrial revolution would have taken place without Quakers—but it didn’t. Friends developed most of the foundational, indispensable industries, businesses, infrastructure, and financing of the British industrial revolution, and they became fabulously wealthy as a result. Yet almost no Friends I have ever met know much about it. Every time I give a presentation on this material, it blows my audience members’ minds.

The ministry. Then, following the pattern I was used to now, the leading to write this book led to a ministry of teaching about not only our economic history and our contributions to capitalist culture, but also a prophetic ministry of awakening to economic testimony.

We stand in a similar relation to the capitalist system as we do to the prison system—we helped create something that has become a monster. And not only are we nearly oblivious of this relationship; we are weirdly neurotic about it. Our amnesia in this area is very strange for a community so obsessed with its own history, and so proud of it. i feel that the collective consciousness of modern Quakerism is neurotic about money and economics.

My ministry is to explore why this is so and to call Friends to “stand still in the light” until the shadow we live under in this matter burns away, and we come up through the flaming sword into a new relation to money and our economic system, until we are open to G*d’s wish for us regarding the economic system we helped launch.

Meanwhile, however, the openings, the leading to write the book, the ministry of writing and teaching about Quakerism and capitalism—all this has been a ceaseless cascade of passion, discovery—and joy. I thank G*d for it.

Gift Exchange Economies—An Alternative?

August 28, 2014 § 5 Comments

Well, I’ve been ranting and railing against the capitalist economic system for several posts now, using strong words like “evil” (which I didn’t bother to define) and “dung”. I find it brings out the vitriolic in me; it tempts me to a righteous and poetic indignation. Not so good. Not very constructive, anyway.

So it’s time to own up once again to the fact that our economic system is not only evil—not only hierarchical and anti-democratic; competitive, if not actually violent; deceitful and manipulative; inherently anti-worker and effectively anti-consumer; carcinomic, rapacious, and unsustainable; oh, and anti-biblical . . .

It is also good, in that it has raised the standard of living for huge numbers of people, arguably in fact everyone on the planet—except for indigenous peoples. It is an extremely creative engine of technological advance, and many of these advances serve the greater human good. Not so much the good of whales and frogs.

But more to the point—what else is there?

When I first started talking and writing about these predicaments of capitalism and Quaker testimonies, the Soviet Union still held sway over millions of people, and inevitably, Friends would respond with: “So, what—would you have us all become communists? Look how well that’s working out.” As if there were only two economic systems in the world. Now, many Americans anyway, think there is only one.

But what about socialism? Some democratic quasi-socialist states, like Norway, are doing quite a bit better than we are by virtually every measure. Many countries have vital socialist parties and manage, mostly, not to fall into chaos or hell, as the true believers in capitalism fear would happen here.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten that fascism is also an economic system, featuring private ownership of capital but state control of the economy. Also basically a failed experiment.

But the economic systems that I find most attractive are the gift-exchange economies that most indigenous peoples have. Had. Virtually all the traditional gift exchange economies on earth have been destroyed by the market economy.

In a gift exchange economy, one gathers power, not by amassing wealth, but by giving it away. Those gifts obligate the receiver to reciprocate in some way at some time. Because people are different, as are circumstances, places, luck, and a host of other factors, some people end up with more power than other people—they have wider networks of obligation owed to them than the complex of obligations they owe to others. They often become chiefs.

The classic case is Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was the first and only man to be the traditional chief of all seven tribes of the Lakota people. He achieved this status by providing many gifts, but one especially—the (temporary) salvation of his people. Sitting Bull saw that the American military strategy was to cut off the annual, seasonal, north-south migration of the bison, kill them off, and starve the plains peoples into submission. Military power wasn’t doing so well, at least not until the invention of the carbine, a short-barreled repeating rifle that could be cocked with one hand and used in close quarters, and thus was suitable for use by cavalry. William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous for his reign of terror across the deep South during the Civil War, and named, ironically, after one of the greatest Indigenous warriors of all time, commanded the Indian Wars for a time; he called the Plains Indians the best light cavalry on the planet, with the possible exception of the Cossacks, another indigenous horse-people.

Anyway. Sitting Bull’s counter-strategy was to cut off the southern bison migration himself and keep what was left of the bison herds in the north. He talked all seven tribes, the Northern Cheyenne, and several other tribes, into cooperating to achieve this. This delayed the conquest of the Northern Plains for almost a generation. Among his own people, he was called He Feeds the People. The Lakota gifted him with this name in recognition of his great gift to them.

In gift exchange economies, you gain power by feeding people. Or by giving them hides, for clothing, shelter, containers, bedding, etc. Or by giving them rights to one of your fishing camps. Or by gifting them with horses, or basket rushes, or . . . You get the idea.

Now, you feed people and provide all these other necessaries, in many traditional indigenous life-ways, by being very good at living with the land, by really knowing it and understanding it, by possessing a sublime eco-intelligence, by possessing valuable skills, by possessing powers of organization and persuasion, by caring about future generations. By giving.

Gift exchange economies elevate social roles, instead of giving people jobs. Instead of working for a wage and then buying your life in parts and assembling it at home, like we do, in a gift exchange economy, you trade goods and services, tasks and labor, favors, songs and dances, names, reputations and loyalties. You sing at my daughter’s wedding; I give your whole family meat that lasts a week; or maybe, two winters later, I take you in when your own hunters can’t find a herd.

Gift exchange economies work for small groups who live in partnership with the land. Scaling one up to serve 300 million people would be a challenge. When everyone lives three or ten degrees of separation from basic production of basics—of food, building materials, energy sources, clothing materials, medicines, etc.—the chains of exchange would become extremely complicated; only computers could keep track. When everyone in the system has quite specialized skills and jobs, trading services would be impossible. When the only thing you could trade is things, you are still locked into the mass production-mass consumption economy to acquire the things you might trade in the first place. So—elegant idea, maybe, but totally impracticable.

The market economy has won. It’s like kudzu: it soaks up so much of the sunlight that no other economies stand a chance.

What to do? We are left with the project of radically reforming capitalism.

We could start with usury laws. These were deregulated under Ronald Reagan, so many of us remember a time when interest rates were regulated more or less equitably, though I doubt that many of us were really paying attention. I know I wasn’t. But you can draw a straight line from Reagan’s policies on interest rates to the Great Recession. And here, unlike with many of our modern problems, the Bible really has something to offer as a starting point.

So let’s start there. Next time.

Mendaciousness—Capitalism and the Testimony of Integrity

August 15, 2014 § 4 Comments

I said in the introductory post of this series on capitalism and Quaker testimonies that, in terms of both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in what it likes to call the open market, capitalism has built lies into its very structure. It also encourages deceit by its practitioners. It lies about its overhead, about the true costs of the resources it consumes and the wastes it produces. And it lies to its end-users in its advertising.

Capital lies.

The material culture of capitalism requires raw materials, resources that come from our Mother Earth to make and do the things it sells to consumers. It assumes that half the balance sheet of the Earth—the planet’s assets—are available for the taking. As for the liabilities, especially the accounts payable—to these capitalism turns its gigantic blind eye.

This cavalier attitude toward the Earth’s bounty should be noxious to anyone or any culture that holds a biblical worldview because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; actually this is only one translation of this passage, and not, I suspect the most valuable one, both to us and to the writer of the Psalm—but that is another post). In this view, the Earth is not even a gift, but actually a loan. God has put it into our hands for right use and we will be held accountable for that use. But, when it comes to economics, our society is anything but biblical in its worldview, and the more conservative you are, and even the more conservative Christian you are, the less biblical your economic worldview is likely to be.

But back to capitalism and the Earth’s balance sheet. The “households” in our economic system factor the current cost of the resources it extracts from Mother Earth into the prices it charges for the goods and services it provides. Businesses pay the current value of these resources in the market. They factor in the cost of the rights to extraction; they factor in the cost of the resource as determined by competition for it in the market; they factor into the end-product price the cost of its transformation into capital goods. It’s worth noting, however, that the players in these markets try to distort the markets or manipulate them in order to get advantageous prices. This works especially well in the international market for raw materials, where the over-developed nations almost always hold resource-rich developing countries at a disadvantage.

However, the current value of a resource is not its real value. We do not really know its real value, because it is likely only to go up over time as the supply dwindles. More importantly, while a given resource (say, molybdenum, which is used in specialty steels, and which only a couple of countries currently produce)—while a given resource may be quite valuable to us today for our consumption, it might be desperately necessary some time in the future to our descendants for something we cannot today even imagine. Capitalism is oblivious to our descendants’ needs and it cares not a whit for the fact that they will curse us for our profligacy.

To account for this unknown potential value of Earth’s assets, we should be creating escrow trust accounts to help our descendants cope with the shortages we are creating. And we should be doing the same thing with the resources themselves; we should be holding some percentage of all that we extract as a trust against the demands of the future.

We do neither of these things. We lie about the true cost and value of our capital.

Waste lies.

We do the same thing with the true cost of our waste management. Capitalism does not figure into its pricing the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which ought to be part of its overhead, and never is. And when—or, to be realistic, if—the bill ever comes due for cleanup, capitalists inevitably try to squirm out of paying; it hurts profits and equity value.

This is especially important for wastes that do not biodegrade, but remain toxic and present in the body and bloodstream and organs of Mother Earth more or less permanently. And because Mother Earth is us—because our very bodies come from her—these wastes remain toxic and present in our bodies and bloodstreams and organs, as well.

The great killer disease of the industrial age was tuberculosis, the destruction of human lungs caused by the use of coal as a fuel. The great killer disease of the post-industrial age is cancer, the mutation of cells by toxic foreign substances. Thus some serious percentage of our healthcare costs should be included in the overhead cost of waste management.

Capitalism pretends that the only cost it must bear for managing its prodigious waste stream is the immediate one of getting it some distance away from its producer and providing for some minimal treatment before it gets poured back into Earth’s bloodstream or buried in her soil-flesh.

The superfund put aside for the treatment of “superfund” sites should be the model for the entire economic system. The goal should be zero toxic, non-recyclable waste returning to Mother Earth, zero toxic substances in our own bodies and those of our children—and a massive escrow account fed by some meaningful percentage of every economic transaction set aside to solve these so-far unsolvable problems in the future and to fund research and care for a public health increasingly threatened by capitalist dung.

The true cost of eliminating carbon dioxide, or uranium waste, or the 50,000 or so chemicals that we have never even tested for toxicity, would be staggering. So we just don’t think about it. Let the great-grandchildren deal with it.

In fact, if we really did account properly in our pricing for the destruction of natural capital and the remediation of capitalist waste, the system would collapse. Short-term greed is the main reason we don’t deal with these issues, but the reason we don’t even talk about it is the existential threat to the system itself that transitioning to an honest economic system represents.

Advertising—marketing lies.

Finally, capitalism depends on advertising for growth in an environment of intense competition for market share. This tempts economic households to psychologically manipulate their consumers through advertising. This manipulation distorts human relationships by turning consumers into objects. It tends to misrepresent the true character and value of its goods and services to make them seem more valuable than they really are. It tends to hide any negative aspects of its products and services. It resists attempts to keep it honest and transparent. The tobacco industry is the classic example. More recently, the lies and subterfuge about credit default swaps and mortgage derivatives brought the entire system to its knees—and taught the liars no real lessons at all.

But misrepresentation of products and services is just the more or less visible surface of its mendaciousness. More troubling really, is the ways that advertising invades and distorts our worldview, our understanding of the good life, and thus our very dreams. It tells us that consumption is good for us; that low prices that allow more of us to consume more, are good for us; that we actually need the things that in reality we simply desire. It tells us that the good life is defined by the things and experiences that we can buy in the marketplace.

The catch-all phrase (in America) for this constellation of lies is “the American dream”—owning your own house and as many good cars as your family thinks it needs, providing a good education for your children, securing freedom from fear of want, healthcare, and acquiring some things that provide, or at least represent, a comfortable life. Now, given the system, who could argue? These are all good things that anyone would want.

Only the earth cannot sustain seven billion American dreams. Nor is it true that you need all these things to be happy or fulfilled. And especially, it is not true that a mass production–mass consumption economy is the only way to have these things.

Is it? Are there any alternatives to this kind of system? These are my first queries for Friends. Here are some more:

How do we remain true to the testimony of integrity when our entire social, and material, and perceptual, and cognitive, and physical, and even emotional environments are totally saturated with lies—with salesmen seeing in me the pathway to their quota, with plastic bubble-wrap for individual pieces of processed cheese product, with images of half-clad women tugging on my pud with the promise of some fantasy fulfillment, with ideas like “the American dream”, with ads and billboards everywhere I look, with false desire trying to crash the gates of my amygdala? Why should our spiritual discernment and environment be polluted by this trash?

And now to the core: Would I be willing to pay the real cost of sustainable resource capital management and waste management with markedly greater prices for everything? And with my or your (probably) stagnant wages, how could you or I? Would I be willing to utterly change my lifestyle to accommodate a truly sustainable economy? For instance, would I accept the inevitable percentage of vermin that bulk food distribution inevitably entails—not just bring my own containers to the store—so that we could limit food packaging to the every minimal and the truly recyclable? How much am I willing to sacrifice, so that Mother Earth—and her creator-logos-the-christ—are not crucified on the cross of our economy instead?

Owner Autocracy—Economic Non-democracy

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Capitalism is inherently vertical in organizational structure. It consolidates power in the hands of the few and the power radiates down in a pyramid through management structures. This dictatorship can be varying degrees of benevolent, but, ultimately, the only power inherently vested in the worker is the power not to work—the power to strike or quit. It took a long time for the power to strike to become a legal right, we are still not completely there, and, since Ronald Reagan sacked the entire air traffic control community as his first official act in office, it’s been losing ground again. Moreover, it stretches things to call the power to quit or strike a “power”, since it makes workers so vulnerable.

Owners and managers decide virtually everything that’s important about your job: who gets to work, when, how, where, with whom, and for whom. They design or determine the time, space, body movements, and actions of your labor, sometimes even your speech. They monitor and evaluate your performance and they hold the ultimate power over you, as well—they can fire you.

Whether ownership is private, corporate, or public/bureaucratic, the system is barely post-feudal in its vertical structure. Since the transformation of European political feudalism and the fall of the sovereign monarchies, we have come to define democracy as the sine qua non of social justice: people should have a say in the things that affect their lives. But we take the tyranny of capitalism for granted. Capitalism is undemocratic.

This power corrupts, of course. Given the complete absence of any inherent, structural limits or mitigating counter-forces in the system, we must rely on outside social-political forces for protection against the misuse of this power. For this, we have turned to government. Gradually, centuries after capitalism’s rise to power, we workers have been granted protections from abusive hours, unsafe working conditions, harassment and discrimination according to a very slowly growing list of vulnerabilities.

Capitalism hates this advance in human rights. Naturally, therefore, the handlers of this power do all they can to limit the regulatory power of government. Thus the corruptive influence of power that is built into capitalism’s DNA inevitably infects the political system, and our protection is routinely and systematically undermined. 

Conservatives, whose mouths are constantly shaping the words “liberty” and “freedom” and “individual rights”, define these terms over and against the government only—against the only countervailing advocate we have against capitalism’s tyranny. Capitalism gets a pass. In fact they often worship the power and freedom of the market with a kind of religious fervor. Only our weak, compromised, and late-comer protectors in the government are to be feared.

I might summarize the predicaments for Friends regarding the power structures of capitalism in the following queries:

  • Given that the quasi-feudal hierarchical structure of our economic life inevitably if not necessarily leads to quasi-feudal patterns of discrimination and oppression, what can we do to bring the testimonies of justice and equality to bear on behalf of capitalism’s victims?
  • As a community that has proven over more than three centuries that horizontal power structures do work, how can we do a better job of transforming the vertical power structures of our economic system?
  • As Friends, how can we better promote the concepts and practice of servant leadership, a phrase coined and a practice first championed in the modern era by our own Quaker Robert K. Greenleaf? (Read an article by Larry Spears, the Quaker champion of Greenleaf’s work and servant leadership in our time, published in Quaker Life, titled Servant-Leadership and Quakers.)
  • Does your yearly meeting have a coherent, Spirit-led testimony on labor and worker rights?
  • Most importantly, how can we leverage our education and our Spirit-led testimonial power to begin conceiving a true alternative to this abusive system?

Private Ownership—The Moral Structure of Value in Capitalism

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Capitalism is predicated on the private ownership of capital and of property in general. Only the owners or stockholders are entitled to the profit, the surplus wealth, which the system generates. They usually benefit from other privileges, as well.

By separating the owners of capital from the rest of the participants in the economy for profit and other privileges, capitalism creates a system of value that has moral implications. It says that capital, or property, is more valuable to the system than the labor which transforms it into something of worth in the market, and that the people who own the property are more valuable to a particular business, and in the wider social-political economy, than either those who work for it or those who buy the end product.

The practical consequence of this investment of value in capital and profit is that workers, consumers, even other businesses and industries, are relatively devalued: their needs are of secondary concern to the owners of a particular business, especially when those needs are in conflict with the pursuit or protection of either capital or profit. Workers are always in this position, because they are a cost to be cut.

I might summarize the predicament for Friends, then, in these queries: How does the quasi-moral aspect of an otherwise secular social system influence the actual ethical choices of individuals, especially the people who make the decisions about a business’s behavior? How might the investment of value in capital, property, profit, and owners/managers distort the moral framework of society as a whole? How do we build into our economic system the moral freedom to value appropriately the interests of other stakeholders in the system besides the owners and shareholders? Does your yearly meeting have a coherent, explicit, and Spirit-led testimony on economics and economic justice?

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.

Quaker Testimonies and the Predicaments of Capitalism

November 13, 2011 § 7 Comments


A few days ago, an Oakland policeman shot a young man with a rubber bullet while he was videotaping a police line at the Occupy Oakland demonstration. The man videotaped his own shooting, so you can see that, far from provoking the attack, he was actually trying to confirm that his behavior was acceptable to the police who were dealing with him. This incident illustrates one of the ‘predicaments’ of capitalism, as I call them, when viewed in the light of the traditional Quaker testimonies.

I call them ‘predicaments’ because capitalism is predicated on them: they are aspects of capitalism that inhere in the way the system defines itself and in the ways it operates; they are part of its DNA. And they are ‘predicaments’ for Friends because they violate our traditional testimonies.

I have identified five such predicaments:

  1. Private ownership of capital: Individuals (or the stockholders of corporations) own and control the money and goods or services that generate income when sold in the market; they own the means to produce these goods or provide these services—property, patents, machinery, etc.; and by virtue of this ownership, they have more or less exclusive access to the business’s profits and perquisites.
  2. Owner autocracy: Capitalism concentrates economic sovereignty—the right to make decisions about the company’s actions—in the hands of the owners of capital and, by delegation, their managers, in an overall system of vertical organization.
  3. Growth: The health of a business and of the system as a whole is determined in terms of growth; furthermore, the primary locus of value, the goal of the system, is profit, that is, surplus wealth, which is also a kind of growth. Capitalism assumes that economic growth has no limits.
  4. Mendaciousness: Capitalism lies to itself and to its participants in two ways, in regard to both its accounting methods and its conduct of competition in an open market. First, it deceives itself about the nature of capital and of overhead: It does not account for or take economic responsibility for the real value of the natural resources it treats as capital, or the real, final cost of disposing of its wastes safely, which is part of its overhead. It systematically undervalues both. And it deceives its customers in its marketing and advertising: it’s dependence on advertising in an environment of competition for market share tempts it to psychologically manipulate its consumers and to withhold information from them and from regulators. Capitalism lacks integrity.
  5. Competition: Capitalism is inherently competitive and assumes an ‘open market’ relatively free of direct government or collective social control. It makes everyone and everything both a competitor and an object of competition.

The Oakland shooting illustrates the predicament of competition: Competition inevitably leads to conflict; it is, in fact, an organized form of conflict. And conflict inevitably leads to violence. I don’t mean ‘inevitably’ in the sense that every instance of conflict will lead to violence, or even that any instance of conflict will necessarily lead to violence. People can always avoid using violence to ‘resolve’ a conflict (of course, violence never does resolve a conflict). But capitalism generates so much conflict that some of it inevitably turns violent because that’s how humans are.  Capitalism is inherently violent. Thus it violates our peace testimony.

Capitalism competes for everything and it drags everyone into its competition: Companies compete with each other for resources, labor, energy, customers, research breakthroughs, our attention, even our dreams. Workers compete with each other for jobs and for advancement; they compete with their employers for their compensation and work conditions. Industries compete with each other. Nation states compete with each other. And the economic system itself competes with all the other stakeholders in the planet’s ecosystems for the resources it needs to survive and to grow.

Does competition have to lead to violence? Enlightened business owners and national leaders can rely on cooperation and mutual understanding to resolve competing claims. This is most possible when the system is working well and no parties are near the particular edge or shortage that they fear. For capitalist competition is predicated on shortages—there is no need for competition if there is already enough of what everyone wants. But the system has these edges—these divisive thresholds—that necessarily separate the participants when they are reached—when oil supplies are threatened, for instance, or when employees demand new rights that cut into profits. And the disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom—between economic classes at home or between the overdeveloped and the developing countries of the world, for instance—these disparities create a distance of experience and worldview that undermines understanding even when intentions are good.

Of course, competition is creative, too, as its apologists so often claim. In their competition, and Apple drive each other to keep innovating and we get the iPad2 and the Kindle Fire, competing visions of the tablet. In the competition with the Soviet Union that Sputnik ignited, we got a generation of incredibly creative and productive scientists and engineers.

But we also get the Luddites smashing the mechanized frames of their early adopters in the British textile industry, and the violence of the state and then of the mobs in response. We get Pinkertons gunning down workers in their picket lines in the early days of labor organization. We get the first and second Iraq wars.

Because one of the defining characteristics of the state is its (theoretical) monopoly of deadly force, the dominant powers in the system—corporations—turn to the state to protect their interests. This is what gave that man in Oakland that ugly, painful, temporarily disabling bruise on his leg. The police almost always defend private property and the interests of the owners of capital, rather than workers, consumers or the integrity of the natural world. That young man was lucky, in a sense; that could have been—and often has been—live ammunition.

But we must acknowledge that that rubber bullet shooting escalates the conflict: the viral video of unprovoked police assault and all the other incidences of police violence we can see now on YouTube give the flywheel of violence another kick. They feed more energy into the feedback loop of violence: Demonstrators tussle with police lines => Police fire tear gas canisters => Black robed anarchists torch stores => Policemen shoot peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets => . . . What’s next? I could not help but think of Kent State.

What to do?

Commitment to nonviolence and training in nonviolence prevailed in the civil rights movement. It doesn’t stop the violence, but it cuts it in half because one side won’t use it. It interrupts the feedback spiral. It helps in the competition for “hearts and minds.” And it is the right way to go. And it does address the seeds of violence in individual people. But it does not address the causes of violence, the genetics of violence embedded in our economic system.

So we are left with the queries: How can we reform capitalism in ways that will value cooperation at least as much as competition? And what can we do to break the feedback loop that escalates its competition into conflict and this conflict into violence?

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