Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Turbo-Capitalism, Economic Crisis, and Economic Democracy

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Turbo-Capitalism, Economic Crisis, and Economic Democracy

Article excerpt

My subject is the economic calamity of our time, the vision of economic democracy expounded by the social gospel movement of a century ago, and the relevance of economic democracy today.

The field in which I teach, social ethics, was invented in the early 1880s by tile social gospel movement, the greatest surge of social justice activism ever waged by the mainline churches in this country. It was based on a doctrine of social salvation, which was based on the emerging ideas of social structure and social justice. The key to the social gospel was its novel claim that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice. Social justice became intrinsic to salvation; salvation had to be personal and social to be saving.

This social gospel was above all a response to a burgeoning labor movement. Trade unionists blasted the churches for doing nothing for poor and working class people. The founders of the social gospel realized it was pointless to defend Christianity if the churches took an indefensible attitude on this issue. Virtually all social gospelers took for granted that if modernity was a good thing, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism. The predatory spirit of capitalism had to be transformed or replaced by the cooperative ethos of economic democracy. Here, as usual, Walter Rauschenbusch put it best: "Political democracy without economic democracy is an uncashed promissory note, a pot without the roast, a form without substance. . . . Capitalism has overdeveloped the selfish instincts in us all and left the capacity of devotion to larger ends shrunken and atrophied."1

The social gospel had many faults and limitations, beginning with its moralistic idealism, but it paved the way for modern ecumenism, social Christianity, and the deep involvement of the churches in the civil rights movement. It created the ecumenical and social justice ministries of American denominations, and expounded a vision of economic democracy that is as relevant and necessary today as it was a century ago.

To put it in contemporary terms, the social gospel was a response to the first historic wave of economic globalization, the one that started in the 1870s and faltered in the 1930s. The second historic wave began in the 1980s and faltered in 2008. Karl Marx, foreseeing the first one, famously predicted: "All that is solid melts into air." That sounds familiar, but Marx was not warning merely that the stock market might vaporize your pension, mortgage, or job. His point was that global capitalism com modifies everything it touches, including labor and nature, putting everything up for sale and at risk.

Nothing is exempt from the pressure of competition. Social contracts and places of rest have vanished under threats of obsolescence and ruin, while the global market exploits resources, displaces communities, and sets off wealth explosions in wild cycles of boom and bust. Political journalist Thomas Friedman, a celebrant of the second wave, calls it "turbo-capitalism." Economic globalization - -the integration of national economies into the global economy through trade, direct foreign investment, short-term capital flows, and flows of labor and technology - has "flattened" the world, Friedman says. In a flat world you either compete successfully or are run over.2

In Friedman's telling, global capitalism reduces national politics to minor tweaks. There is no third way in political economy anymore; there isn't even a second way. Any nation that wants a growing economy has to wear a one-size-fits-all "golden straightjacket" that unleashes the private sector, keeps inflation low, minimizes government, eliminates tariffs, sustains a balanced budget, deregulates capital markets, and allows direct foreign ownership and investment. Once a nation takes this path, Friedman says, "its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke" - to slight nuances of taste or policy, tiny alterations to account for local traditions, a bit of loosening here or there, but never any real deviation from the core golden rules. …

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