Monday, May 19, 2008

The Anti-Capitalist Mentality

The flip side to the "salvation by politics" view of reality I criticized in a previous entry is the anti-capitalist mentality, whereby capitalism is scapegoated, leaving Government (who else?) to come to the rescue of the oppressed masses.

In The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, Ludwig von Mises enumerated a laundry list of reasons for this curious state of mind. There is, firstly, resentment, from a variety of sources. The transition from status society to capitalism bred resentment from those who by birth were others' betters, who occupied positions of leadership in society not by merit but by bloodline. In their view the "new man" could never efface the stain of his humble birth. But in a capitalist society the opportunity for social advancement is open to all, regardless of birth.

Similarly the resentment of the intellectual, who does not look askance at lineage or lack thereof but rather at cultural refinement. Capitalism enables those to advance who do not possess any apparent class or good taste. In fact, its commercialism positively favors the least common denominator, the mass-produced, common forms of culture, whether in art, literature, cinema, music, or what have you.

Resentment is also felt by those who for whatever reason feel as if they have been skunked by those who have done better or become more well-off. Educated professionals may feel as if their income does not match their true worth to society, and resent those who have been rewarded by that society, whose "achievements" may be trivial indeed on any scale of eternal values.

And, finally, resentment is felt simply by those who do not have what others do. Capitalism fosters not equality of outcome but equality of opportunity, but that distinction is lost sight of when envy takes root, and when its flames are fanned by demagogues using the political process to promise rectification of the alleged injustice, and to the degree that citizens are taken in by this prospect, ensuring for themselves an ever-expanding power base.

Mises has some interesting things to say about the entertainment elites, the stars who have made it big, and why they become anti-capitalist. It has to do with their utter dependence upon popularity. The hype which raised them to stardom could just as easily cast them into utter oblivion. They come to believe that in a communist or anti-capitalist system they would occupy positions of status without being subject to the whims of the entertainment marketplace.

This resentment and envy truly lies at the heart of the anti-capitalist mentality. How, then, did capitalism take root in the West? For, as Helmut Schoeck emphasized (Envy, 1969), it is this factor which has kept peoples and nations from economic advancement in the first place.

The answer lies in the atonement-oriented social order of Western civilization, otherwise known as Augustinianism. I have addressed this point in my book Common-Law Conservatism, and I work it out further in my book Covenant and Capital (forthcoming). The gist of it is, that all civilizations have tried to find a way to achieve atonement for the burden of guilt which they generate. And all civilizations generate guilt, for all civilizations are mired in sin -- the doctrine of original sin, for those of you who are ignorant of Christian theology. The problem is, guilt is conflated with debt. And indeed, guilt and debt are correlate phenomena, which is why many languages, including German and Dutch, use the same word for both. (And in fact the King James Version of the Bible (Matthew 6:12) translates Jesus' words as "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" -- the Greek word for debt [opheilema] being the same as for sin.) Now then, capitalism, being built on debt, is conflated with guilt-generation, guilt and debt being left undistinguished. Therefore the institutions of capitalism are not allowed to grow beyond a minimal level -- the one civilization in a greater degree, the other civilization to a lesser degree -- because the level of guilt (debt) they create is unbearable.

But the Atonement set forth in Augustinianism separates guilt and debt by separating atonement from the administration of justice. The Atonement is achieved once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross; the church administers the sacrament of Holy Supper as the celebration of that work. Thus atonement is removed from the repertoire of the organized political society, leaving the administration of justice and the capacity to enforce the regime of private law in the hands of the state. And this liberation, brought about by the Augustinian separation of church and state, allowed the civilization of capitalism to be engendered.

The "guilt" that capitalism engenders, debt, fuels the drive for atonement which underlies the religious fanaticism all civilizations have exemplified. For consider that it was the most capitalistic societies of the ancient world, the Phoenician and Carthaginian, which also exhibited the most blatant and revolting forms of the quest for atonement: child sacrifice.

The flip side of debt is interest, which then becomes the target of obloquy. The aristocrat Aristotle best formulated this criticism:

As this is so, usury is most reasonably hated, because its gain comes from money itself and not from that for the sake of which money was invented. For money was brought into existence for the purpose of exchange, but interest increases the amount of the money itself (and this is the actual origin of the Greek word: offspring resembles parent, and interest is money born of money); consequently this form of the business of getting wealth is of all forms the most contrary to nature (Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1944), ch. 1, sec. 1258a-b).
Taking offence at money begetting money -- interest -- lies at the heart of the anti-capitalist mentality. It lies at the heart of Marx's critique, for the capitalist simply skims the surplus value from the labor of the working man, rather than himself working to earn that value. Unearned income, that -- which is why capitalism is exploitative and why it must be overthrown. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, realizing this, set about defending interest precisely as earned income (see the introduction to his monumental Capital and Interest). His effort in the end may have proved unsatisfactory, but his motivation was unimpeachable.

Ultimately, the capacity for capitalism can only be found in the ability to separate atonement from justice, guilt from debt. It is this which then allows the regime of interest to be established, which is nothing other than the regime of private law -- the two are inseparable. (The concept of property premium makes this clear.) That is why capitalism is the product of the Augustinian West. And that is why it cannot be sustained if that civilization is allowed to be destroyed by multiculturalism, relativism, and a false doctrine of the neutrality of the state. For the "neutral" state, by abandoning the Augustinian distinctive, dismantles the separation of atonement and justice, and opens the door to the return of the politics of envy.

No comments: