catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 21 :: 2003.11.07 — 2003.11.20


The spirit of capitalism

I don’t suppose that there are any real communists left out there.

No, Castro doesn’t count. He’s just a power-addicted old coot hanging on by his fingernails and making life miserable for everyone around him.

And the various tiny sects of Trotskyites don’t count either, even if the Socialist Workers Party still makes a lot of noise at anti-war demonstrations. To quote Marx out of context, “by communism I do not refer to some imagined, possible communism, but to communism as it actually exists.”

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it became possible for someone like Francis Fukuyama to claim that we had reached the end of history. Fukuyama claimed that the collapse of “socialism as it actually existed” meant the final historical victory for liberal democratic capitalism. The wars of ideology were supposedly over, and only this one kind of political economy remained possible. To use the acronym made popular by the supporters of Margaret Thatcher in early-1980s Britain: TINA. There Is No Alternative. Communism is dead. Capitalism rules. Forever.

Even back before the collapse of communism, many apologists for capitalism argued that there is no Third Way. The notion of a Third Way, made popular by Tony Blair and poorly co-opted by Bill Clinton, is an ancient one, but in the twentieth century it was most often used to suggest that it is possible to forge an economic life that is neither capitalist nor socialist.

Now that communism and socialism are no longer part of the discussion, does that leave us with nothing but capitalism? Must we go along with Christian democratic capitalists like Michael Novak, who claim that the question is not if we are for or against capitalism, but rather what kind of capitalism we want?

Neocalvinists believe in markets. We believe markets to be a good way—maybe the only healthy way—to structure interactions in economic life. We don’t only believe this because of the historical evidence from the complete failure and ghastly horror of socialism and fascism, but even more because we consider markets to be built into the very design of economic life. Markets as the proper setting for economic interaction, for buying and selling, are in our view a feature of the structure of reality. So we support the idea and the reality of a market economy.

But this does not mean we support the idea of a market society, what Warren Bennis calls “a bottom-line society.” Human life is not all about economics. Contrary to rational choice theory, we human beings do not, and should not, make all of our decisions simply in terms of cost/benefit analyses.

While economic life needs room to flourish and protection from the encroachment of excessive government intrusion, it also needs limits. The sphere of economic life not only provides businesses with space for the wealth-generating manufacture of products and provision of services and labour unions with a space for negotiating fair participation in these activities, it also sets the outer limits for business and labour.

There are many spheres of human life where economic considerations appropriately play a role but do not dictate decision-making. Families, schools, and hospitals all have to balance their books, but they don’t exist to balance their books. In each of their cases, love, learning, and care, respectively, trump the bottom line.

One of the great challenges facing us is cultivating a society in which economic markets can flourish without overwhelming other spheres of human life.

Support for markets in the sphere of economic life does not simply translate into capitalism. “Capitalism” may be convenient shorthand for “market economy,” but it carries baggage that goes well beyond the structuring of economic life in a bazaar-like fashion.

The leading neocalvinist critique of capitalism is still that of the Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard in his magisterial Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society (translated by Josina Van Nuis Zylstra, published by Eerdmans in 1979).

Goudswaard defines capitalism in this way (pages 11 and 34):

Modern capitalism is that societal structure (1) in which the legal order, the prevailing public morality, as well as the organization of socio-economic life grant unobstructed admission to the forces of economic growth and technological development; and (2) in which those forces subsequently manifest themselves by way of a process of “natural selection” as it is given shape by a continual competition in the market between independent production units organized on the basis of returns on capital.

According to Goudzwaard the spiritual climate of the modern West is congenial to capitalism because of four characteristics (page 34):

  1. The urge for economic and technological renewal is considered essential to man’s self-realization, which is attained through interaction with nature. (Renaissance)


  3. The urge for economic and technological renewal is made possible by the notion that free competition belongs to the providential plan as embodied in the natural order in which the equilibrium of the market leads to social harmony. (deism)


  5. The urge for economic and technological renewal is justified from the outset by the legal norms of the revived natural law conception which regards every price as just if it is a result of free competition, and which further views the task of the government as limited primarily to the protection of already existing rights of property and contract.


  7. And, finally, the urge for economic and technological renewal is also justified from the outset on the basis of the moral norms of a utilitarian ethic, developed in particular after 1750, which evaluates human activities only in terms of utility effects and which considers the increasing acquisition of goods for humankind as the most important source of utility.

The challenge that faces us, I believe, is to work out an economic way of life that is not based in these characteristics of the capitalist spirit, but that is instead guided by the teachings of the Bible and attentive to the creational design of the world.


This is not in the first place a theoretical challenge. No doubt we need a neocalvinist economic theory. But more urgently we need to network reflective Christian practitioners, business people, trade unionists, legislators, conscious customers, who are trying to embed their daily work in a communal Christian way of life, who read the Bible to gain the perspective of a Christian worldview on basic economic questions, who are seeking to bring glory to God in the marketplace. Theory must flow out of life, and serve life. We would do well even if we just start talking to each other, gaining what Eugene Peterson calls “the wisdom of each other.” So what are you doing? What have you tried out? What has worked, and what not? How do you make sense of your efforts, failures, and successes, against the background of the true story told in the Bible, of a world created, judged, sustained and redeemed through Christ? What keeps you going? What questions are you asking?

Discussion topic: Is it working?

So what about the author’s final questions? What are we working toward as we seek an economic way of life based on biblical principles? How are you cultivating these principles in your daily work?

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