Tag Archives: homo economicus

The teaching of 90-year-old billionaires: Can we be alternative?

What does it mean to love in an era when people have been reduced to “human resources?” I wish it seemed obvious to state that the culture of capitalism dramatically affects how people understand themselves and one another. But I don’t think it is obvious; thus, this blog post.

Is Capitalism the best system?

Not long ago I was watching one of the news channels and tuned in to an interview of a 90-year-old billionaire. He interrupted his young interviewer at one point so he could make sure to say what he wanted to teach. He said, “There is one thing everyone needs to understand. Capitalism is the best system. We tried communism, or at least some did, and it failed. We tried socialism and that does not work.”

The interviewer did not say, “What do you mean by ‘working?’ Are you talking about ‘achieving the most profit with as little expenditure as possible for the shareholders or owners of an enterprise?'” Instead, she just moved on, either swallowing what everyone has been taught or being afraid to contradict it.

I think 90% of the people who enter a Sunday meeting  react about the same way as the interviewer every day. They spend the week moving along with capitalism and the billionaires who run it — and preparing their children to do the same. But are the goals of capitalism and the 1% the goals of Jesus? You can already tell that I am going to say “No.” But do I have a leg to stand on?

The secret philosophy that runs us all

Last April George Monbiot summarized his book for the Guardian. He identified the secret philosophy that drives what most of us do all week and infects what we do on Sunday, too. He says, Today’s capitalism

  • sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.
  • redefines citizens as “consumers“ whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling.
  • teaches that buying and selling has its own morality that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.
  • maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

People are fighting about how to apply this philosophy in Congress right now. Will a generous version of today’s capitalism (like Obamacare) rule our healthcare or will a radical version rule (like in Trump/Ryan care)?

Monbiot says today’s capitalism fights any attempts to limit competition and labels any question of limits an assault on freedom. It teaches:

  • Taxes and regulations should be minimized, public services should be privatized.
  • The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are are market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.
  • Inequality is virtuous: a reward for being effective and a generating wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone.
  • Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

You may have heard those last four bullet points preached from a pulpit somewhere (other than Circle of Hope). Or maybe you just know the viewpoint is assumed, a moot point, in your evangelical church. I have experienced both the preaching and the assumption. For instance, if a variant viewpoint is raised on the BIC-List (our denomination’s listserve), men will come out of the woodwork to reinforce those bullets, as if they were a 90-year-old billionaire interrupting some foolish youngster. They will even marshal the Bible to help make their point, even though everyone knows neoliberalism was not invented by Christians.

Last summer the pope explained this while on a flight from Krakow to Vatican City. He surprised journalists when he told them Muslim attacks on a priest in France were basically caused by neoliberalism. He said, “Terrorism grows when there is no other option, and as long as the world economy has at its center the god of money and not the person…This is fundamental terrorism, against all humanity.” At the time, Americans were in the middle of an election campaign, so they probably did not hear the Pope over all the hubbub about Trump’s tweets. Evangelical Christians were about to overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump, the epitome of what neoliberal capitalism created since Ronald Reagan.

Are we actually pawns in the philosophy’s system?

What if we Christians, we who are bound and determined to follow Jesus in his suffering and transform humanity, become the unwitting pawns of capitalist deformation of humanity in the image of neoliberal capitalism? Our lives teach. The content of our dialogue sets the contours of the culture are always building!

Can a Christian merely exist in the pluralistic, postmodern capitalist landscape? Does capitalism offer a home for Christians? No. Without Christians creating an alternative, capitalism subjects everyone to its will. We still fundamentally believe, don’t we, that one cannot serve two masters? We might normally think about not serving Mammon within the framework of capitalism and consider how to allow Jesus to be the Lord of how we do capitalism. But what if capitalism is, in effect, the alternative god?

Capitalism makes desire an end in itself and diverts our desire from communion with God. That sin causes us to stray from God’s will and design for us. God’s design for us is to desire God and our true selves. Unfortunately, the economic modalities around us pervert that desire. We cannot serve both our capitalism-perverted desire and God’s desire. We must go back to God, which means rejecting the capitalist way. The two are incompatible.

We need to talk about this, because everyone who comes to our Sunday meeting is feeling desire. Assuming that their desires, dominated by capitalism, are healthy and not a cause of their general illness is wrong. If a person is constantly making a deal and can’t make a covenant with God’s people, if they are trained for desiring what they don’t yet have, if they protect their autonomy and freedom at the expense of their faith, should they not learn that comes from neoliberalism and not God, not even from themselves?

Image result for homo economicus

Capitalism creates homo economicus in its image. That being, by its nature, is:

  • Not in community, not collective.
  • Free to choose. Amidst millions of consumer options, we are free to choose what to do (of course, within the confines of capitalism)
  • Self-interested
  • Driven by Insatiable Desire.
  • Competitive.
  • Reduced to thinking Justice is only about fair exchange regulated by contracts and laws. In capitalism, social justice doesn’t exist because the market is beyond justice.

I think most people who read this far are probably trying to figure out how to be the alternative to what is killing humanity. When people come to the Sunday meeting they come as people condemned to being homo economicus. Is there a way out? If we force them to perform within that bondage, aren’t we preparing them to be consumed consumers? Couldn’t we condemn our children in the name of helping them?

Somehow, we need to risk acting according to the Lord’s economy that is

  • Spirit formed
  • Communal
  • Self-giving
  • Generous out of eternal abundance

After all this theoretical sounding writing, it may seem difficult to think about how to apply it. So will we just go back to being led around by the invisible hand and letting our faith be invisibilized by living under its shelter? Obviously, I hope not. Let’s keep exposing the powers for who they are in the spirit of today’s image of the atonement: Christus Victor. Jesus is our leader in that, present with us, every day.

Homo Economicus at Christmas

black fridayWere the pundits were right and the “Black Friday” holiday was toned down a bit this year? I am praying that fad dies. God has answered my prayer many times, it could happen.

Maybe the 1% have stratified income so much that it is impossible to be as gluttonous as the general populace once could be. Or maybe we have already been sold so many internet connections that “Cyber Monday” is what I should be praying about, now — I’m not sure. I can only hope that one day capitalism can lose its grip on the Baby born in poverty, who was soon to be the Refugee, and then the Executed. My hoped is always stoked at Christmas time.

Homo Economicus’ engines are also stoked at holiday time. The holiday points out the competition for how humankind is going to see themselves. Will it be “Child of God?” — that probably still owns the hearts of most of my readers. But “homo economicus” probably gets a majority of our attention.

“Homo economicus” is how the proponents of a capitalist view of the world see the nature of a human being and human desire. When one relates to God she is formed from the heart out. Likewise, capitalism forms a particular kind of human, one that relates to the environment in certain ways – like they rush to stores on Black Friday in response to a trumped-up frenzy.

There are many aspects of homo economicus that might be so normal to most of us that we would not even consider them topics to think about. But if we are going to celebrate Christmas, it might be wise to think about them. Let’s just try one on today. (Is “try one on” just another of a zillion shopping metaphors we use to define our reality?).

Above all things, “homo economicus” is an individual. There is nothing generally wrong with that — being a secure, capable individual is a good thing. Jesus is certainly in favor of the dignity of the individual – especially when it comes to individuals coming up against oppressive systems (like sin, death and evil!). What capitalism does not tell you when it lifts up the individual is that it is also an oppressive system that makes you an individual in its own image. It teaches us that if we do anything that is collective or if we feel that being part of a community is a given we are surrendering our freedoms to make voluntary associations built upon individual choice.

So lets start there. Here are three of capitalism’s assumptions about being an individual that wreck Christmas.

1) Homo economicus assumes he or she is autonomous

They think they are in charge of all choices and responsible for all judgment. They think no one is born with any innate or involuntary ties to community, including their family.

So when God, who is in charge and responsible, chooses to be born into a family and forms a radical community, that’s a challenge for homo economicus. The capitalist tribe (but don’t call them a collective) is working hard to erase the incarnation by changing the character of the holiday to meet their perpetual economic interests. I don’t think it is a plot or anything, or even conscious; it is just what they do.

BaptismOfJesus2) Homo economicus thinks he or she is self-made

Capitalism encourages creativity and self-expression over obedience. Thus the poor are always told to create their way out of poverty according to the rules of the economy. If they are disobedient – won’t create themselves and stay dependent, or if they subvert the laws that protect the economy, they are punished. Tom Peters says, “We are all CEOs of our own companies: Me, Inc.” as if that is just a reality.

So when John the Baptist, our Advent person of the week, refuses to compete with Jesus and tells his disciples “I must decrease and he must increase” that seems kind of crazy. He’s obviously giving away the brand he made and de-creating himself – at least according to homo economicus.

3) Homo economicus thinks he or she owns their body and its capacities and have no obligations to society to use themselves in certain ways.

Homo economicus is not an individual like a hermit, they are an individual like a predator looking for someone a bit further down on the economic food chain – or they are at least trying to get to the IPhone 6 before someone else while supplies still last. They have been taught that reality is looking out for oneself. Like Michael Novak bleakly describes, these individuals “wander alone, in some confusion, amid many casualties” on the “wasteland at the heart of democratic capitalism [that] is like a field of battle.”

Killings By Police-ProtestsOur friends had a die-in at the Eagles game last night — at the Eagles game, the scene of the society’s exalting of battle all for the entertainment of those who can pay — the perfect capitalist event.  They looked a lot like baby Jesuses, laying out in the cold, being jeered by disappointed, many drunk, game-losers. They were prophesying; demanding that black lives matter. They were like God in Jesus, laid in a tomb to break the power of sin and death, subjecting divinity to the indignities of humanity. In the incarnation God takes on a body and then completely submits that body to the good of others. That is how a child of God is fully himself or fully herself. We are not submitted to evil forces and so surrendering our individuality, we are individuals full of the obligations of love.

I can only hope that Black Friday dies. Maybe the U.S. Americans will tire of being in a traffic jam of self-interest every time they leave their doors or log on. Already my friends tell me they are sick of social media because everyone seems like the CEO of ME, Inc. and it is tiresome to be subtly (or not-so-subtly) manipulated for someone’s self-interest every time you look at Facebook.

Many of my friends hate Christmas for similar reasons. I think they hate the Christmas stolen by homo economicus and turned into a capitalist holiday. If that’s you, please don’t hate Christmas and don’t hate the people who probably don’t consciously know they are ruining it any more than you consciously thought of them as having a philosophy. Jesus is still wheedling his way into some manger-like situation waiting to surprise them with the fact that they are saving their lives and losing them.