Thursday, April 29, 2010

Seeking Clarity

In order to move my thoughts forward beyond asking what some might consider interesting questions regarding a Christian understanding of the state, I think it is necessary to clear the decks, as it were, of such dreck and effluvia from our usual public discourse so that clarity concerning our current situation can be approached. In short - I wanna cut through the BS. A whole slew of terms and catch-phrases, cliches and nonsense is going to be explained away.

First and foremost, precisely because of the centrality of questions of economy, I think I should make clear that any discussion that thoughtlessly bleats out "socialism" or "capitalism" without a clear understanding of what those words actually entail serves far more to dirty the waters than clarify. For instance, all the discussions of the glories of American "capitalism" ignore the simple reality that, by and large, our largest corporations are heavily subsidized by the federal government. Indeed, corporations are legal creations of the various state governments, so they already owe their existence to the state. Anyone who espouses the belief that our government should step aside and allow corporations to act in their own best interests should be aware that, if this were truly the case, many of even the largest would cease to exist.

Thus, reality already muddies our attempts to set clear boundaries between "capitalism" and "socialism" precisely because ours is a heavily publicly-subsidized private sector economy.

Further and related, very often in discussions of economic "theory" (in a vulgar sense, at any rate), we hear that our economy values competition, whereas socialist economies and polities discourage it, and therefore economic growth and general welfare. Yet, the largest corporations actively seek to eradicate competition as inefficient, a waste of resources, and a drag on potential profits. Every law and stricture on corporate action is tested over and over again, seeing if it passes legal muster.

Back at the end of the 19th century, and continuing on through to the beginnings of the Great Depression of the 1930's, much populist rage was directed at a certain sector of the economy that produced nothing, sold nothing, bought nothing, yet was understood by many to be the engine of economic activity. In our normal parlance, they are bankers; since the 1930's breakup of commercial and consumer banking, they are the investment bankers. The populists had a far more colorful term - social parasites. In the wake of the economic collapse brought on in large measure by certain creative "investment products" - most notoriously treating debt instruments as capital and collateral for funding ever greater debt - there has been a back and forth about the question of the role of investment banking in the larger economy. One would think this older terminology, while certainly provocative, might find a bit more traction. The money made and lost by investment bankers, especially in the real estate market with the "bundling" of mortgages, was all just lines in an accounting book. While it is true that many banks and other investment firms - like the insurance company AIG - based their real market value upon these lines, they were by and large unreal. Indeed, the economic collapse was due in no small part precisely to the unreality of the assumed value of so many of these very assets.

The real economy is not a creature of banks. Make no mistake, investment in economic activity is vital; no business would begin, or even continue, without the injection of capital from interested parties who see this or that business as an opportunity for wealth. Banks serve a necessary function as conveyors of investment capital between those who seek to make money and those who seek to use that money for their own purposes. Yet, that is all banks are. Their health and vitality is certainly necessary, but when investment becomes not a bridge between real economic actors, but rather an end in and for itself, the real driver of economic growth - the production of goods and the practice of services - becomes subordinated to the investment sector. When banks no longer serve as a conduit between real economic actors, but increasingly are seen as the real drivers of economic growth, this distortion of their role, almost of necessity, creates the conditions for the general collapse of economic activity.

All of these mundane realities become unclear if we spend our times worrying over nonsensical discussions of "capitalism" versus "socialism", and reduce "freedom" to the ability to make money. Any Christian witness on the State, on social life, on justice becomes meaningless without keeping even this sketchy survey in mind.

"Socialism", at least in its Marxist variety, is most definitely not what we currently have. For Marx, "socialism" was a stage of social development in which the workers controlled the levers of state power through a dictatorship. Marx clearly was not fond of this stage, yet he understood it as dialectically necessary, the historical counterweight to the age of bourgeois freedom and (mostly sham) democracy controlled by the industrialists. The closest real-world examples of a kind of Marxist socialism, it might be argued, are the post-WWII Labour governments of Great Britain, in which all sorts of economic activity from health care to transportation, was nationalized and ownership transferred to the state (it isn't called British Airways for nothing, you know . . .). The kinds of central planning one saw in Stalinist states has absolutely nothing to do with socialism, even less "communism" as Marx understood that term.

To sit around and insist that what I am pondering is some kind of Christian defense of socialism, or that I am blind to the socialist tendencies of our current federal Administration are nonsensical on their face. In the first instance, it should go without saying - but I'm saying it anyway! - that any dictatorial rule is not anything I am interested in defending. Any attempt to address questions of socio-economic and political life of a certain necessity need to grasp the reality of our situation; any Christian attempt to do so must take the further step of insisting that this or that temporal, contingent political or economic philosophy, regardless of its intrinsic merits, must answer to the bar of the cross of Christ, where we come face to face with that most political question of all - do we side with the powers that sought to execute this man to maintain their power?

Virtual Tin Cup

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