(This is the second in a series of posts dedicated to the relationship between Mormonism and capitalism.)
Last post I proposed to frame the history of capitalism around the tensions between self-interested exchange and reciprocal charity – two very different and mutually incompatible ways of organizing social relations. This tension is best illustrated by a father who will not provide for his family unless somebody can answer the question: “What’s in it for me?” To be sure, some classical liberals have sought to actually answer this question, but I think most of us think the very act of asking the question (let alone trying to answer it) is, at best, morally problematic.
The question that capitalism forces upon us is the extent to which we want to model social relations on familial reciprocity or on contractual exchange? Which is the rule and which is the exception, and when is it the exception? Muller’s second lecture, “The Greek and Christian Traditions,” is aimed at describing how medieval society insisted that we organize economic relations around household relations as both the Civic Republican and Christian traditions dictated. It is against this moral background that the modern advocacy of capitalism and the radical trans-valuation of morals that it entailed should be understood. The questions which we Mormons ought to ask ourselves are: 1) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations presuppose the traditional condemnations of profit and usury? and 2) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations support the radical trans-valuation by which these condemnations were overthrown?
The Greek Tradition of Civic Republicanism
An understanding of the relationship between economics and politics as advocated by the Greeks and those influenced by them is extremely helpful to understanding the perceived moral threats of capitalism. For starters, the word economics comes from the Greek word oikos, which means household. The extent to which we moderns think of home economics as something entirely separate from “regular” economics is itself a sign of how much capitalism has restructured our way of thinking and speaking from that of the more subsistence-oriented modes of life. Within the Greek mind, the primary distinction lay not between “home” and “market” economics, but between the oikos (economics) and the polis (politics).
The virtues of Civic Republicanism were centered around two perceived threats: Invasion from without and dictatorships from within. These two threats were mitigated by two, corresponding virtues that every citizen must display: a willingness to take up arms in defense of the polis and active participation in political government. The very nature of these two virtues inevitably limited citizenship to a very small number of people who had both the leisure and the training to engage in either of these activities. In other words, a citizen must, as a matter of practical necessity, be the economically self-sufficient head of some household. It is in this way that polis was the representation, integration and unification of various oikoi within one city state.
The self-sufficiency of the citizen’s household is worth elaborating upon. This self-sufficiency is not merely limited to “staying out of debt”, “staying out of the red” or some such euphemism for maximizing net assets. Rather, this self-sufficiency included a practical independence from the market in general. To be sure, oikoi were allowed to trade their surplus on the market, but they were not allowed to be dependent for their own sustenance upon such market transactions. Each oikos was to produce its own subsistence, a practice which is very much at odds with any thorough going division of labor. The reason for this was that practical dependence on others is the primary source of corruption.
For the Greeks, the vice of corruption included far more than we moderns include under that term. For them, corruption and self-interest were almost one and the same thing. Citizenship requires the virtue of magnanimity or broad-mindedness: placing the interests of others ahead of one’s own. It was thus thought that peasants, artisans and traders who had to work for a living should all be denied citizenship because they were, by very definition, narrow-minded. Practical necessity simply did not allow such people the opportunity to places the needs of others ahead of their own.
Narrow-mindedness, self-interest, vulgarity and corruption were almost synonymous terms and all of which disqualified one for the status of citizen. It was impossible to be virtuous if one was not free from economic interests. It is in this conceptual context that Aristotle claimed that,
“In the city that is most finely governed, the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of [way of] life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”
Before continuing to the Christian tradition, we should note how these Civic virtues have strongly influenced most modern criticisms of capitalism: Aristocratic heads of household were protected from economic necessity so as to make them as other-oriented and virtuous as possible. Socialists, broadly speaking, want to free as many people from economic necessity as possible in order to make everybody virtuous, while classical liberals, by contrast, want to subject as many people as possible to the pressures of economic necessity and self-interest, thus corrupting as much virtue as possible.
The Christian Tradition
The New Testament condemnations of and warnings against both the love of money and rich people in general are quite well known and hardly worth elaborating on at length. The point that Muller wants to emphasize in his lecture is that the early Christians took such passages VERY literally. Consider the case in which Jesus drove the traders and money-changers out of the temple with a whip. The early Christians did not take Jesus to be opposing the location in which such activities were taking place, but as a condemnation of trading and money-changing as such. They took Jesus to be saying that such activities were sins, regardless of where they took place.
An influential 12th Century theologian (Gratian) declared:
“… the man who buys in order that he may gain by selling it again unchanged as he bought it. That man is of the buyers and sellers who are cast forth from God’s Temple.”
Thomas Aquinas – the great theologian who was to synthesize Christian doctrine and Aristotelian philosophy agreed whole-heartedly with this general outlook. Aquinas thought all human society was one large chain of being where each person was born into a particular place within a family that was not structured according to self-interested exchange; each family was situated within some guild (carpenters, shoemakers, etc.) that was non organized according to self-interested exchange; and each guild was situated within a larger, political hierarchy that was not organized according to self-interested exchange. (When one notes that Aquinas absolutely endorsed private property, his vision starts to sound a lot like the united order!)
What is most important to understand about this social hierarchy is that it was a great chain of being, not a ladder. Social stratification was not only see as being unproblematic, but was actively prescribed. The great moral danger which economic relations in general present, within this view of society, was not economic or social inequality but social mobility. To seek to improve one’s place within this social chain of being just was the sin of pride.
The sin of pride thus included seeking to be unequal with those to which we are supposed to be equal as well as seeking to be equal with those above us to which we are supposed to be unequal. If we were thus to import Aquinas’ understanding of the relationship between wealth and pride into the Mormon understanding of the pride cycle we get a somewhat different picture than we moderns are accustomed to: The material prosperity of a community leads individuals to seek to improve their own station relative to others within the community, which just is the sin of pride, which then leads to collapse. Such a reading would constitute a strong condemnation of capitalist thinking. Of course, the extent to which Aquinas’ understanding is identical, or even compatible with that found in the BoM itself is a question that I will leave for another time.
Outsourcing Morally Despised Sources of Utility
The Medieval mindset held that only sweaty, manual labor produced value. As such, any attempt to profit without having to sweat was considered a sin. This would include selling something at a higher price than one had bought it or the closely related sin of making somebody pay back a loan at interest. The wealth in the world was thus not totally fixed, but the idea that we could create more or better wealth simply by loans and trading was totally rejected. As St. Augustine insisted, “If one does not lose, the other does not gain.” The only way that a trader could gain was by giving the people from which they bought and/or the people to which they sold less. This relationship is made quite explicit in the practice of usury where a lender will only help another if they get money without having to sweat.
The condemnation of usury was wide spread, of ancient origin and very deeply-seated. It was against the law in continental Europe all the way up until the French Revolution after which Napoleon restructured the laws of the rest of Europe at gun point. In order for capitalism to gain wide-spread acceptance, a drastic inversion of moral values had been necessary. Philosophers and rhetoricians had to convince the larger public that gaining massive profits without any sweat at all, but only by buying as cheaply as possible and selling as dearly as possible was either 1) not condemned by scripture, and/or 2) somehow in everybody’s interest. Both of these points were extremely difficult sells.
The topic of usury brings us to a point which Muller draws a great deal of attention to: the association between capitalism and the Jews. The Jews, when they were tolerated, were the only tolerated religious minority in Medieval Europe. This toleration did not, however, include allowing them to own property, farm land or participate in artisanal guilds – to say nothing of citizenship. These constraints inevitably led them into the professions of trade and money-lending.
Indeed, the Jews’ participation in (money) trade was actively encouraged by many Christians who had nothing but their own interests in mind. Consider the following passage in Deuteronomy:
“You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest” (Deut. 23:20)
The problem for Christian merchants and would-be bankers was that the New Testament makes it clear that, for a Christian living in a Christian society, there were no foreigners since every person was (supposed to be) his/her brother. Consequently, medieval Jews were actively encouraged by Christian merchants to lend them money at interest since 1) the Jewish religion did not forbid it, and 2) the Jews were going to hell anyways. It is in this sense that the history of European anti-Semitism has very much been one of forcing the Jews to engage in a historically disreputable profession, and them hating them for doing so… Especially when this relationship began to work to the Jews’ advantage.
It was for reasons like these that anti-capitalist thinking on both the political left and (especially) the political right became tightly inter-connected with anti-Semitism. The problem, however, is that this economic exploitation of a morally despised source of utility was part of an ongoing process exploitative dehumanization that was not at all native or limited to the Jewish minority. The transatlantic slave trade provides just as perfect an example of how European merchants would outsource a morally repugnant practice overseas, thus allowing themselves the luxury to morally condemn the practice while at the same time profiting from and economically supporting it. The question of how much this tendency for people to economically support that which they morally despise is native and/or limited to capitalism will be an ongoing theme in this series.