Capitalism as a theology

Capitalism, a non-Christian theology of the Age of Reason

By Gwydion M. Williams

Capitalism is a view that life is lived just for the accumulation of money.  As such it is just as much a creed as the Christian notion that of life as a preparation for Heaven, or the Buddhist idea of calming the emotions so as to achieve the contented non-existence of Nirvana.

Business people hardly ever view life as lived just for the accumulation of money.  It’s what they do and how they are measured as successes or failures.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, most business people would have denied being part of any capitalist system.  They were agents of ‘free enterprise’ within a mixed economy.  It was only relentless propaganda by the left that got the Keynesian system reclassified as ‘capitalist’.  And opened the door for Thatcherism and for believer in the old theology of capitalism as pure greed.

Capitalism as an ideology was invented by Adam Smith, and his invention is quite different from any of the actually existing business and commercial systems that have existed from his time to ours.  The Wealth Of Nations was popular and respected, not because it described existing realities, but because it justified the general commercial expansion in ways that looked respectable to thinkers trained in the abstract idealism of the European Enlightenment.

For Adam Smith, as for the French ‘Economistes’ or Physiocrats, economic development was part of Enlightenment.  And yet ‘enlightenment’ rested on foundations that it barely understood, until they began to crack with the French Revolution.

The 18th century ruling class supposed that their own rule was ‘rational’ and would be even stronger if they cleared away the superstitious nonsense that had become bound up with social norms.  Some wanted a purified Christianity, others like Smith were Deists, believing in God but seeing Jesus as mistaken and Christianity as a disastrous decline from the Civilised Paganism of pre-Christian Greece and Rome.

And yet it was Christianity as actually applied in Western Europe that was the basis for the existence.  It justified arrangements that they took for granted but which had been enforced violently over the centuries, and were to be questioned again when enlightenment undermined tradition.

The English conquest of Ireland was begun by the Pope, and was completed by Oliver Cromwell.

This is one of those things known to be a fact, but not normally treated as a ‘fact of history’, and definitely nothing to do with the emergence of modern Industrial Capitalism.  Capitalism ‘occurred’ in 18th Britain for no particular reason, or because Britain was ‘free’ – free in a sense compatible with commercialised slavery, press-gangs for the poor in the home population, penal law over Ireland, massive displacement of the peasantry by enclosure etc.

Defining ‘freedom’ in a way that allows for all the faults and hypes all the strong points is a nice way of proving the especial merits of English freedom.  Provided you don’t notice that exactly the same sort of reasoning could prove that almost any other society in human history was the ultimate in human freedom.

Freedom in a crude unphilosophical sense – people largely free to live as they wished – was not all that well developed in 18th century Britain, nor in the wider Latin-Christian civilisation of which it was a part.  Only Christians set out systematically to destroy all other faiths in the territories they controlled.  Jews were a partial exception, the Jewish origins of the faith could never quite be glossed over and so Jews survived despite much persecution and oppression.  Whereas every other non-Christian faith was successfully rooted out, and we forget that Christianity was not native to Europe.

Intolerance also applied to most minority variants from official Christianity.  Islam will accept anyone as Muslim if they accept a few general statements of faith, and will also allow that non-Muslims may live and worship if they are ‘people of the book’,  Whereas the version of Christianity taken up by the Roman Empire under Constantine defined itself in huge tracts of complex philosophical pomposity.  A process that would be comical except that people died for it and were killed for it, with very many more Christians killed by Christians for supposed heresy than the pagan Roman Empire had ever killed in its own attempts to suppress Christians who would not join the cult of Emperor-worship.

You can well argue that this had very little to do with the actual teachings of Jesus and his immediate followers.  Indeed, it was the vast gap between Gospel teaching and the complex philosophical pomposities of the Church hierarchy that allowed for the great schism of the Reformation.

Britain functioned as part of a very singular civilisation, the Latin-Christian.  It was unusual in being very expansionist and very ill at ease with itself.  And the fact that Europe in the 18th century was functioning very well with the religious issues unresolved.  And Britain’s unexpected venture into industrial capitalism is very much connected with the failure of the Latin-Christian tradition to work as a system of ‘organised virtue’ in the way that happened in all of the world’s other great civilisations.

Critics of industrialism might call it diabolical, a sin against ‘eternal truths’.  Defenders might ask which eternal truths, pointing to the way that each Christian faction undermined their rival’s claim to truth.  The upholders of reason constantly referred back to the way in which religion had produced chaos and war, not harmony and peace.

Within the Latin-Christian framework, Cromwell and the Pope might seem to be opposites.  From a wider viewpoint, the difference was just a factional dispute within a single Modernist world view.

England had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, part of the defeat of the Counter-Reformation attempt to impose a version of Catholicism that was even more extreme and unreasonable that Mediaeval Catholicism. England then merged with its old enemy Scotland through the dynastic accident of James the Sixth of Scotland being Elizabeth Tudor’s heir.  Complex religious struggles within both Scotland and England – a process that properly began with the ‘Bishops War’ of 1639 and 1640, and was only really settled with the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746.

1746 saw the decisive defeat of the Roman Catholic Stuarts, a line called ‘pretenders’ by the English history books, but with vastly more traditional right to rule than the unpopular Hanoverian Georges I and II.  The same year saw the return from Oxford of a young lowland Scot called Adam Smith.

To Smith, the accidental and temporary peace he grew up in seemed ‘natural’, and so did the growing commerce.  If he’d spent time in Birmingham or the North of England, he might have noticed it was Puritans and especially Quakers who were pioneering the new Industrialism.  As it was, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the official norm he grew up with, and he must have seen commerce as part of the erosion of its power.

British Industrialisation was Free Enterprise but not especially capitalist.  An expansion of power and wealth by factory-owners who were interested in power and social control as much as money.  And who were often also members of some Puritan sect, and more interested in fitting their workforce into their own idea of Christian virtue than in just making money out o them.

The difficulty is, the Old Testament or Jewish Law is clearly in favour of small well-divided property, suspicious of vast accumulations of property except perhaps in the hands of the anointed monarch.  And the New Testament is written from a viewpoint of poor men oppressed within the Roman Empire, keen on the virtues of poverty and the wickedness of wealth.  Puritans managed to wriggle round these points, as the US ‘Fundamentalists’ still do.  But they also very badly needed the apparent rationality of Adam Smith’s Economic Theology.

I say a lot more about Adam Smith in my book, Wealth Without Nations, available from Amazon Books.

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