Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University reviewed Occupy Wall Street resident historian Dave Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology for Christianity Today’s Books and Culture magazine recently and I’m just fascinated that such an anti-capitalist view would be espoused in anything published by CT these days. Particularly, he calls the main religion of the US Chrapitalism, an unholy mixture of Capitalism and Christianity and a perversion of the latter that is so far removed from its roots that he calls for a return to Christianity by Chrapitalism’s followers (ie, most of us). However, that hybrid name needs some work. Capitalstianity.
Still working on it.
The Plutocracy’s beatific vision for the mass of Americans is wage servitude: a fearful, ever-busy, and cheerfully abject pool of human resources. Rendered lazy and recalcitrant by a half-century of mooching, American workers must be forced to be free: crush labor unions, keep remuneration low, cut benefits and lengthen working hours, close or narrow every avenue of escape or repose from accumulation. If they insist on living like something more than the whining, expendable widgets they are, reduce them to a state of debt peonage with an ensemble of financial shackles: mortgages, credit cards, and student loans, all designed to ensure that the wage slaves utter two words siren-sweet to business: “Yes, boss.” It’s the latest chapter in the depressing story that David Graeber relates in Debt: debt as an especially insidious weapon in the arsenal of social control. “There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence … than by reframing them in the language of debt,” he writes, “because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”
Alas, we’re living in the early, bewildering days of the demise of the American Empire, the beginning of the end of that obsession-compulsion known as the Amerian Dream. The reasons are clear, if often angrily denied: military hubris and over-extension; a stagnant monopoly capitalism with a bloated financial sector; a population on whom it’s dawning that low-wage labor is their inexorable fate; ecological wreckage that can only be limited or repaired by cessation of growth. The patricians’ task will be threefold: finessing the increasingly obvious fact of irreversible imperial decline; convincingly performing the charade of democracy in the face of popular vassalage; and distracting or repressing the roiling rage and tumult among the plebs. How will the elites maintain and festoon their ever-more untenable hegemony? …
The injustice and indignity of capitalism have seldom been so openly wretched, but as Graeber ruefully observes, just when we need “to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times,” we seem to have “hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.”
Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of “American exceptionalism,” the sanctimonious and blood-spattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.
As Critchley asserts, “ ‘God’ is the first anarchist, calling us into struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state, and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart.” By inciting us to curse and renounce the homespun idolatry of Chrapitalism, Critchley and Graeber can point Christians back to a terrible but glorious moment in their history: when the avant-garde of the eschaton were maligned as godless traitors. We’ll need that dangerous memory in our frightful if doubtless very different time.
Note: That’s what it sometimes feels like. In questioning the morality of a system that allows for and necessitates the starvation of billions of people, the questioners are made to feel like they are proposing shooting babies in the head. I have been called a communist in a pejorative sense – with the assumption that I am an atheist and I don’t believe in God. I am often asked if I hate the US. I cannot blame those who question me – we have all been fed this idea that at its roots, capitalism is a godly, natural good connected with a benevolent God. At its core, we are taught, capitalism is responsible for our well-being through God’s generosity.
But when you live most of your life in poverty and study to find that you may never – like the vast majority of the world – rise from under its boot heel, you start to question the unquestioned goodness of capitalism and whether or not it is of God.
In Graeber’s view, economics’ most nefarious impact on morality is its perverse account of social relations, especially those revolving around obligation and interdependence. Graeber distinguishes between obligations—the incalculable owing of favors, as when you give me something, and I owe you something back—and debt as a precisely enumerable obligation, and therefore calculable in terms of equivalence and money. Conceivable only when people are treated not as human beings but as abstractions, equivalence is the categorical imperative of pecuniary reason, and it sanctifies the self-righteous, skinflint buncombe that parades as an ethic of “character.” Isn’t paying one’s debts the basis of morality and dependable personal character? Especially when translated into money, the quantification of debt can justify a lot of indecent, horrific conduct. Can’t pay me back? I’ll take your daughter, or foreclose on your home, or demand austerity measures that result in famine, disease, or destitution.
Graeber’s alternative to debt and its moral atrocities is communism: “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” (Not, note well, according to their “deserts.”) Knowing that he’ll face a fusillade of umbrage about “totalitarianism,” Graeber insists that communism “exists right now” and lies at “the foundation of all human sociability.” Our lives abound with moments of everyday communism: we don’t charge people who ask us for directions, and if we do, we’re rightly considered jerks. Communism is not “egalitarianism”—which, as even Marx observed, partakes of the boring, inhuman logic of equivalence—and in Graeber’s view, it doesn’t entail any specific form of property. (An unromantic admirer of peasant societies and their moral economy of “the commons,” Graeber appears to endorse what anthropologists sometimes call “usufruct,” in which property becomes a kind of trusteeship dependent on the performance of a function.) A communist relationship—between spouses, lovers, friends—is not only one in which accounts are not kept, but one in which it would be considered “offensive, or simply bizarre” to even think of doing so. Love keeps no record of wrongs—or rights…
As 19th-century craftsmen and workers understood better than we do today, wage labor is the slavery of capitalism: if you don’t own the means of production, you work for those who do—unlike chattel, you enjoy the dubiously ennobling privilege of choosing your master.
Graeber affirms redemption and friendship against the command economy of libertas. Friends and lovers don’t treat each other as servants or vendable objects, so freedom should be “the ability to make friends,” the capacity to enter into human relations that are uncoerced and incalculable. And since friends are naturally communists, they’ll live without thinking of their relations in a way that leads to double-entry bookkeeping; they’ll live in the light of “redemption,” which isn’t about “buying something back” but rather about “destroying the entire system of accounting.” To create a more humane and generous world, we must unlearn our moral arithmetic and throw the ledgers into the bonfire. A communist society of friends requires the abolition of capitalism.
Graeber concedes that Christianity harbors traces of a moral and ontological revolution against the regime of debt. “Redemption” could point to the destruction and transcendence of equivalence; as Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians explained, “our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be.” You can pay off the bank or the bartender; how do you square a “debt ” to God?
Indeed, how does one pay back God? To put it another way, how can we pay back demigods, as our banking and lending institutions are set up as? Us mere mortals?