Claudia enjoyed her two weeks of fame on the T&S blog, and I am looking forward to my time in the blogger’s chair. We have few enough venues for informal exploring and reflecting, and this seems to be one of the best.
My initial question is: Are capitalism and the gospel at odds with one another? I am not thinking about greed and cruelty, the usual line of criticism against capitalism, and I am not suggesting socialism as a better course. My thoughts were spurred by the General Conference talk on “the heart of a mother.” As I listened to the talk, the speaker (whose name I missed on my web-originating broadcast) was promoting motherhood over against career, and that is where I think capitalism undermines the church and the gospel.
We often say that cultural systems like capitalism and democracy are neutral on gospel issues. Neither one cares about your religion. You can be Catholic or Mormon under capitalism without suffering any handicaps in the pursuit of wealth. What I wish to challenge is precisely this sense of neutrality. Capitalism may not care about your religion (it is essentially godless itself), but it cares deeply about certain things: about savings, investment, and hardwork. The capitalist system offers fabulous rewards to those who save and invest, who prove skillful in corporate management, and who work hard. The best of these people receive immense salaries and considerable notoriety. They are promoted, given perks, honored, awarded authority and power, confirmed in their masculine identities, counted as important.
The capitalist system does not denigrate others who play more lowly roles like artists, or school teachers, or mothers. They are acknowledged and even applauded but they are not honored and rewarded with the high impact labels and responsibilities that go to corporate executives and useful talent and certainly not with the wages. The players outside the corporate system are marginal to capitalism as producers of wealth but also marginal as figures of note.
This may not undermine the gospel in farm economy or in other systems where capitalism is only one system among many. But when it attains the immense power that it possesses in the United States, it can come to control human values and to pervade the entire cultural system. When we ask what do you do, we want to know what place you have in this vast, interlocking corporate system that includes universities, museums, and charities, as well as business corporations. If you are not part of that network you are in danger of having a null identity. “Slipping into irrelevance,” is the way one mother put it to me. That is what I think the Conference speaker was getting at. She was trying to reinforce the family cultural system against the onslaught of the corporate system that has its roots in corporate capitalism.
It is a pitiful effort, though many influential voices are being raised in this cause. Kim Clark at the Harvard Business School has been preaching the doctrine of family and community ever since being made Dean. Words for the family are spoken frequently at law school and business school commencements. Family is rudimentary enough and compelling enough to have many allies. But despite all this, there is a danger that these will be words flung in the teeth of the gale. The corporate system is too entrenched, too powerful, too pervasive. Our young women will embrace family values, to be sure, but they will continue to go to law school and medical school in increasing numbers. Reading the handwriting on the wall, they will go for careers. Heroically, they will do their mothering tasks as well, with the help of cooperative husbands, but they won’t defy the mandates of the corporate world. They will demand a part in the vast cultural system that dominates the nation. They will indeed have hearts of mothers but they will own a tailored business suit. With so little to protect them in this demanding culture, the pure mothers, those with no careers, are in danger of becoming increasingly bitter and defensive.