This is a guest post from my Jeremy Fackenthal. He is a fellow Claremont Phd, Baptist, and late night talking partner. Be Ye Provoked!
The last couple of weeks have been really outstanding for the system we call universal capitalism. The US has a debt problem and lost its AAA credit rating, marking its decline in the world financial scheme, Italy has a debt problem, Greece has a very naughty debt problem, global markets are down, and people aren’t buying stuff they really don’t need. This is not good news in a world where growth is the major indicator of a good economy, happiness, and evidently a pleasing sex-life.
I recently read Terry Eagleton’s latest book Why Marx Was Right, in which he takes the ten most popular critiques of Marxism and debunks them in order to show that Marx’s socialist theory remains a valid philosophical and economic option today, and one that might even be preferable to capitalism in the long run. It seems that writing about socialism or espousing socialist ideals can still be risky business, even in a country where some deeply misguided people try to convince us that our government is already practically run by socialists. In the past, ideas such as these even got some people killed–sometimes in the style of Roman crucifixion. So I applaud Eagleton for unabashedly taking a stand for Marxism and for providing some very intriguing (and often quite witty) reflections on the history of Marxist thought and its relevance today.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about socialism versus free-market capitalism, and religion has not be absent from the conversation. Sunday’s Washington Post faith section featured this excellent op-ed by describing the road from Christian socialism to Ayn Rand-style capitalism. Given all this attention, I thought it might be interesting to blog through Eagleton’s book, chapter by chapter, noting some places where Marxism and the Gospel are perhaps not so far apart. Eagleton’s book lends itself well to this task because it takes criticisms of Marxism and aims to prove the critics wrong. In doing so, it provides a fairly easy-to-understand intro to Marx and socialist theory.
Eagleton’s first chapter combats the critique that Marxist thought is finished and out of date because we now live in a world of apparent social mobility in which class is no longer an issue. Oh, if only that were the case. Eagleton’s main point in this chapter is that Marxism is a critique of capitalism, and so as long as capitalism is around to be critiqued, then Marxism still has a job to do. Rather than Marxism outgrowing its use, many Marxists around the early 1980s simply gave in to overwhelming capitalist fervor. And rather than classes disappearing due to social (upward) mobility, the rich became richer and the poor remained poor. Eagleton gives some startling statistics, such as the World Bank’s figure that in 2001 more than 2.5 billion people in the world lived on less than $2 a day, and he points to capitalism’s role in the looming issue that will define the 21st century–climate change.
Neither Eagleton nor I are naive enough to say that capitalism hasn’t brought about its fair share of fabulous advances. I have an iPhone and can hardly imagine life without it. I’m guessing Terry Eagleton does not, but I’d venture that he probably uses a computer and the internet, both products of capitalist advances. Nevertheless, the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor, or even the rich and the middle class, continues to grow by leaps and bounds points to a drastic flaw in the notion that capitalism should be good for us all.
Obviously Jesus wasn’t a Marxist, since Marx and the ideas he developed did not come about until 1800 years after Jesus’ death. But it would be equally (if not more) anachronistic to say that Jesus liked free-market capitalism. Jesus may not have read passages from Marx’s Captital in the synagogue, but he certainly wasn’t reading from Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman or Adam Smith either. Instead, he read from the Hebrew prophets, and hence from folks who didn’t mince words but told it like it was. In the end, justice prevails, and this especially includes economic justice. Like Gregory Paul (see link to Washington Post op-ed above), I see the overwhelming trajectory of the Biblical narrative pointing toward economies in which justice prevails and not toward the type of economies in which a relative few amass great wealth at the expense of all the others. Since this second type of economy is what we continue to live with, I agree with Eagleton that Marxism is not and cannot be dead and finished. Likewise, social gospel style Biblical commentary cannot be dead and finished either. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t a Marxist, but evidence points toward the idea that he favored just economics in which the rich give up their riches (Matthew 19:16) and the poor inherit the kingdom (Luke 6:20).