In his Essay on the Economic Effects of the Reformation (IHS Press 2003) (1923), the Irish historian and economist George O’Brien defined “the capitalist spirit” as the “distinctive point of view…[in which] the accumulation of wealth is looked on as a good in itself” and “economic activity and gain become ends in themselves and not merely means to an end.” From this “spirit” comes two overarching normative claims about economic life, both of which are antithetical to Christianity.
The pursuit of gain for its own sake having been admitted as the whole duty of man, all artificial barriers in the way of attainment of this end must naturally be swept away.
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In a capitalistic age, morality itself must submit to be judged on the basis of its tendency to produce a profit or loss. Honour is good because it is useful in obtaining credit, punctuality because it helps to render industry efficient, and so on. The whole of modern commercial ethics might be summed up in the phrase: “honesty is the best policy.”
The first normative claim animates libertarianism, an ideology which certain Catholic and non-Catholic Christian apologists and think tanks claim is compatible with, if not ordained by, Christianity. Not so fast says James K.A. Smith in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times. Though Smith writes out of the Reformed tradition, he notes rightly that “Christianity is incompatible with libertarianism — an ideology rooted in social atomism that pits all against all in a war of wills.” Where Smith may falter a bit is in maintaining that “[c]apitalism is not inherently libertarian” since almost all libertarians claim, with some plausibility, that any form of capitalism which abides outside of a libertarian ordo is ersatz capitalism or, to use their preferred term, “crony capitalism”—the vile union of state power and commercial interests (as if there has ever been any other kind). True capitalism, that is, capitalism which functions as its most rabid proponents claim it should, is effectively libertarian capitalism with little-to-no government intervention in the functioning of the economy. According to the libertarian worldview, both taxes and regulation are judged “artificial barriers” which “must naturally be swept away.”
The second normative claim that O’Brien identified amounts to this: all morality is subordinate to economic interests. If a moral precept conflicts with economic efficiency and the “free market,” then the precept must be either redefined so that there is no conflict or swept away as a dusty old prejudice from a bygone era. If neither option easily presents itself, then there is always the privatization of morality; everything becomes a matter of “personal choice” or “preferences.” Pornography, which represents a billion-dollar industry, cannot be publicly outlawed, but people may choose, privately and in accord with their own consciences, not to purchase it. Blasphemous “art” such as Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” (discussed briefly here) is an insult to God, but we have no right to stop its public display; we can just choose, privately, not to see it. If there is no “market demand” to see either pornography or Serrano’s despicable photo of a crucifix submerged in urine, then both will go away. But so long as there is a demand, who are we, as a society, to restrict the supply?
In reflecting on the capitalist spirit, it would be wise to join O’Brien’s positive analysis of that spirit with the theological context provided two decades later by his fellow countryman, Fr. Denis Fahey. By relying on the towering thought of the Thomistic tradition and the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, Fr. Fahey wrote clearly on the Satanic origins of the capitalist spirit in The Kingship of Christ and Organized Naturalism (1943):
Satan aims at the concentration of property in the hands of a few, either nominally in those of the State, that is, in those of the party in power, or in those of the money-manipulators. He knows that, given fallen human nature, this will lead to the subordination of men to production of material goods and to the treatment of all those not in power as mere individuals, not as persons. For this he favored Liberalism or Individualism and now favors the reaction against Individualism—Collectivism and Communism.
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Satan aims at a monetary system by which human persons will be subordinated to the production of material goods, and the production, distribution and exchange of material goods, will be subordinated to the making of money and the growth of power in the hands of the financiers. He is pleased that money is employed as an instrument for the elimination of the Divine Plan and for the installation of Naturalism.
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The decay of the ideas of membership of Christ and of solidarity with Christ in the Mass, of which the Guilds of the Middle Ages were the embodiment in economic life, has proved disastrous for human personality. The attempts to remedy the evils that have arisen as a result of modern disorders do not go to the root of the evil. Power is steadily passing into the hands of the few.
The spirit of capitalism does not flow from the Gospel. It is, at its core, a revolt against the Gospel and the proper ordering of society under the Kingship of Christ. Do not be deceived by the propaganda of pro-capitalist Christians which presents a false either/or between capitalism and communism; both are to be rejected. Similarly, do not succumb to the temptation to equate markets with capitalism; the former preceded the latter in history and will continue to exist long after capitalism has been cleared from the earth, either by a spiritual renewal of socio-political organization or the eschaton (in which case neither markets nor capitalism will matter anymore). The Holy Catholic Church, the pillar and ground of the truth, provides sure principles for a rightly ordered economic ordo, one which draws life from the Christian spirit rather than the dark and all-too-attractive lies the evil one has set loose in the world to mislead souls into avarice and greed while blinding well-intentioned Christians to the Godly order they are called to work for.