Note: This is an excerpt from the new book Redeeming Capitalism. As this excerpt suggests, Barnes sets the Christian message of redemption against both the moral emptiness of our current “postmodern capitalism” and the naiveté of revolutionary utopias.
Whether driven by political will or economic theory, well-meaning people creating an economic utopia are destined for disappointment from the first, beginning with the obvious hurdle of the mere size and complexity of the global economy. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned The Communist Manifesto in 1848 the world was a very different place. With the exception of industrialized Britain, most of the world’s economies were still agrarian. While increased urbanization had clearly begun and consumption of non-food goods and services had added to overall GDP, the greatest economic shock of the times, the so-called European Subsistence Crisis, was triggered by the Irish Potato Famine, not factors related to industrialization or capital flows. The world’s population stood at just over one billion people and the entire global economy (which was dominated by the British Empire) was estimated to be worth around $1 Trillion USD
Today, you’ll find a very different picture. With over seven billion people living on the planet, the global economy is worth nearly $80 Trillion USD. 20 countries produce approximately 80% of the world’s wealth and the economic landscape ranges from agrarian to industrial to post-industrial. While all of the major economies are interconnected through a vast array of trade agreements, political alliances and perhaps most significantly, electronic interactions; they are also separated by significant political, cultural, religious, legal, technical and economic differences. Economic homogeny is a virtual impossibility in a system as large and complex as today’s global economy where homogeny is fundamental to utopia.
Besides the size and complexity of the global economy, many who seek an economic utopia fail to discern different kinds of inequalities, some resulting from nature, rather than the failure of systems.
Resources are not evenly distributed around the world, nor are people’s skills and abilities. There are also large demographic, population and climatic differences that contribute to economic inequality. Added to those differences, are the problems of unexpected influences and unintended consequences. Sometimes events, whether positive or catastrophic, natural or human-made radically alter the economic landscape. History has shown that many well-intentioned attempts to solve one problem have resulted in the creation of even more serious hazards down the road. This persistent problem of utopian failure may be acutely seen in the economic degradation of closed economic systems, where the desire to equitably re-distribute wealth ultimately destroys mechanisms for the creation of wealth.
Finally, there is the problem of what theologians call: “The Fall”, i.e. the corruption of the created order and human sinfulness. Since the time of the Enlightenment, philosophers have tried desperately to suggest that societies’ problems may be permanently solved through nothing more than the application of human reason and natural benevolence. History has proven this to be folly. While human ingenuity and our propensity for right behaviour has solved many of the world’s ills, our predilections for power, pleasure and personal aggrandizement have also created the opposite effect.
The 20th Century has seen a rise in proponents of utopian ideals maintaining the use of “revolutionary terror” as a necessary evil. As Mao Zedong famously stated: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and whether through military force or other coercive tactics (including punitive taxation), it doesn’t take much for a well-intentioned utopia to become a feared and despised dystopia.
If utopia fails to provide an answer, what are people of goodwill to do when encountering an economic system completely out of control, such as we have with postmodern capitalism? As posited at the very beginning of this book, when it comes to our current socio-economic predicament, the greatest challenges we face aren’t structural in nature, they are moral; so we must look to moral constructs, including those rooted in our religious traditions, for guidance. Redemption is one such construct that warrants our further consideration.
A Model of Redemption
The Oxford Online Dictionary defines redemption as “the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil”. While it is often used in reference to an individual’s eternal state of grace (i.e. “salvation”) it may also apply to any attempt at correcting errors of the past. One of the most important things to understand about redemption is that it is a process of healing, not a ready-made cure. It involves an acknowledgment of the past and the errors inherent therein and requires honest and probing assessments of past actions, their causes and their effects. The objective here is not to replace capitalism with an alternative economic system, but to overcome the “sins of the past” by addressing the moral issues that produced the current crisis. Rather than formulating a quick fix to a problem that took generations to create, this approach seeks to transform our economic system by reclaiming the moral values that once undergirded it.
In the following chapters, we’ll explore various tools that are at our disposal in our efforts to redeem our economic system. These include a cache of wisdom from across various cultures and traditions and include not only the cardinal virtues mentioned previously, but other universal virtues, such as faith, hope and love; tragically expunged from the lexicon of business and economics.
As we mine the depths of religious wisdom it is important to note that space here does not permit consideration of all faith traditions. We will concentrate on the Judeo-Christian tradition as it holds a unique position of influence in the West. That is not to suggest that other traditions, both religious and secular don’t have much to say about ethical business conduct or economics – they do. What I hope to demonstrate however is the universality of biblical and theological principles relating to business and economics that are applicable despite the complexity and the diversity of our global economic landscape.