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Against the Tradinistas: Faith, Capitalism, and Culture

I. Cultural Impoverishment

A few weeks ago, I visited Montpelier, Vermont for the first time. As state capitals go, the city is positively tiny, with a resident population around 8,000—and it’s one of the most picturesque small towns I’ve ever seen. The state capitol building sits adjacent to the local courthouse, and the Montpelier city hall is just one block away. Walking down the drizzly main street, I passed an Episcopal church, a Lovecraft-themed bookstore, a local jeweler, an art-house movie theater, and an independent guitar shop. I had dinner that night at a local wood-fired pizza parlor, and breakfasted the next morning at a nearby granola-and-quinoa restaurant committed to area sourcing. The only chain restaurant in sight was an almost-empty Subway.

One week later, I found myself at Washington D.C.’s Union Station, eating bad pizza at a Sbarro while I waited for my train. Union Station has a large mall section containing a wide range of middlebrow shops and familiar restaurants—everything from H&M and Victoria’s Secret to Verizon Wireless and Au Bon Pain.

The contrast with Montpelier couldn’t have been starker. In many ways, Union Station is a study in consumerist ennui—for all I could tell, I might as well have been sitting in Moscow, or in Tel Aviv, or in Toronto. The same restaurants are present at every airport, the same pop songs filter through nearly identical nightclubs, and the same authors are touted at every bookstore. Montpelier shocked me because it was such a departure from that expected norm.

This is what the modern order—neoliberalism, to be more precise—has wrought: prosperity and wealth alongside brand ubiquity and rising inequality. And I know I’m certainly not the only one to feel a distinct sense of cultural impoverishment—the nagging sense that behind the neon signs and tasty Chipotle burritos, something important is missing.

II. Enter the Tradinistas

You’ve probably never heard of the Tradinistas—a neologism combining “tradition” with “Sandinistas”—but you’ve almost certainly encountered their ideas. Maybe you’ve seen them on Facebook praising Bernie Sanders, or using quotes from Pope Francis to call for renewed attention to global warming. Perhaps you’ve come across them on the campuses of Great Books colleges or fair-trade coffee shops. In essence, these thinkers (both those formally identifying as “Tradinistas” and those who don’t) promote a theologically literate critique of modern neoliberalism (usually, but not always, from a Catholic perspective) that blends a Christian normative ethic of social justice with a Marxist vision of social ordering.

Alongside the classic philosophical critiques of modernity leveled by Alasdair MacIntyre, the Tradinista position usually carries with it a critique of something broadly called “capitalism.” I put “capitalism” in quotation marks because the “capitalism” detested by the Tradinistas has little to do with little kids selling lemonade on suburban street corners, or with the mom-and-pop restaurant halfway down the next block. It’s never quite clear exactly what capitalist power structures the Tradinistas are revolting against, but some common bugbears include Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, Starbucks, Apple, high-frequency traders on Wall Street, and the various businesses threatening to pull out of states unless Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are amended.

In a polemical essay this past June, Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (whose work on metaphysics I greatly admire) eloquently outlined the foundations of the Tradinista position. A subsequent September manifesto by Tradinista proponents laid out a series of sweeping demands. Among the planks of their platform are the eventual abolition of the nation-state, criminalization of abortion, the destruction of “racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and similar forms of oppression,” efforts to fight climate change, and rejection of liberalism as “the great evil of modern times, the disease spreading its corruption through every part of human social life.”

The Tradinistas were met with an apoplectic reaction from Stream editor John Zmirak, chilliness from First Things contributor Marc Mason, and bemused interest from Ethika Politika writer Caleb Bernacchio. These and other commentaries have probed in detail the (typically Catholic) dimensions of economic theology. Generally, however, much of this writing has revealed very little understanding of the actual economic and legal forces in play. I aim to address that void here.

This essay is uninterested in relitigating Reagan-era disputes about the respective mathematical advantages of capitalism and socialism; that domain is properly reserved to the empiricists. This essay is instead about the structural dynamics at play in the contemporary global marketplace, and the ways in which a Christian moral imagination can be restored within the contours of the modern economic order.

There are two major conceptual problems with the denunciation by the Tradinistas (and I include Hart in this loose category) of global neoliberalism: 1) a systematic failure to disaggregate the real factors beyond problems in the status quo, and 2) a pervasive reliance on archaic assumptions about economic reality. I consider each in turn before exploring what I take to be a firmer ground for movement forward.

III. Crony Capitalism and Corrupt Bargaining

Hart’s criticisms are centrally leveled at “immense concentrations of private capital and private dispositive use of that capital, as unencumbered by fiscal regulation as possible.” The clear implication is that more regulation would be better—that someone, somewhere, should put the screws to Big Business and make sure that capital is well under control.

However, it soon becomes clear that what Hart and the Tradinistas resent is not the mere fact of free exchange, but a vicious synthesis of private profit-seeking and governmental power. Indeed, “[u]ntold tens of thousands of Africans have died as a result of large Western pharmaceutical firms, concerned for their market share and their proprietary rights, exerting fiscal and government pressure to deny access to affordable antiretroviral drugs manufactured in Thailand and elsewhere,” Hart thunders. Whether he realizes it or not, he identifies a core problem: the co-optation of state power by moneyed interests.

Governmental actors are not disinterested parties. “Regulation” is often not some magical restraint on profit-seeking behavior, but rather operates as an instrument by which profits are pursued more vigorously and competitors are neutered. The examples are legion. Laws are passed specifically so groups of plaintiffs’ lawyers can file suits and reap the returns. Subsidies pay farmers to destroy crops in order to keep food prices artificially high. Cable companies push for laws specifically restricting competition from municipalities. The regulatory machine churns on and on, perpetually enriching those with the wealth to lobby for favorable policies. Contrary to the popular narrative that “regulation is always good,” governmental overregulation produces a cycle of profiteering and inequality. The membrane between Big Business and Big Government is quite permeable indeed.

In short, the Tradinistas’ case for state intervention rests on an assumption that governmental power is somehow more benign and public-serving than corporate power. That assumption is both wrong and dangerous. There is a distinct terribleness to the use of coercive force that Tradinistas fail to appreciate: ExxonMobil cannot break into your home and throw a flash grenade into your child’s crib, but the government can.

IV. The Evolution of Economic Reality

The problems with Tradinista thought are not merely theoretical (a muddled account of the role of government) but also practical. Quite simply, the world has changed significantly since the heyday of liberation theology.

Hart describes “capitalism” as a system in which “the source of income does not belong at all to those who make it operative by their labor . . . a purely financial market where wealth is generated and enjoyed by those who produce nothing except an incessant circulation of investment and divestment.” Similarly, the Tradinista manifesto proclaims that “[t]he foundational relation of capitalist society is between those who are compelled to sell their labor-power on pain of destitution and those who, by their ownership of capital, are enabled to exploit the former.” These claims rest on old Marxist tropes about the nature of capital—but, to put it bluntly, “capital” is no longer a thing that can be seized and redistributed.

Donald Trump’s proclamations aside, factories and farms are no longer the central instruments of capitalism: human beings providing services will (and do) propel the economy of the future. There is no way to strip a Harvard Business School education from an investment banker’s brain, no way to seize and democratize a Columbia-educated attorney’s familiarity with corporate law, and no way to compel a Silicon Valley entrepreneur to disseminate his wisdom to the masses.

In short, if a sudden Marxist revolution were to occur tomorrow, resulting in across-the-board wealth equalization, it would probably be only a matter of time before the playing field returned to pre-redistribution levels of disparity: there will always, without exception, be a demand for the services humans offer. Mass taxation at high rates would likely fail for a similar reason: human capital is infinitely mobile, and there will always be some national jurisdiction willing to host the skilled CEOs, bankers, and executives who reap the gains of modernity.

And in an insidious twist, the wealth acquired by the global-capitalist class does not come without a grim price tag: more and more hours devoted to work, at the expense of other dimensions of life. The vision of a coddled elite dedicated, Elysium-style, to perpetual leisure has no correspondence with reality. Yale professor Daniel Markovits, in a brilliant 2015 address, set out the contours of the modern dilemma. “[T]he elite should not—they have no right to—expect sympathy on this account from those who remain excluded from the privileges and benefits of high caste,” Markovits writes. “And yet, the human burdens of life as rentier of one’s own human capital remain real, and weighty. . . . The new aristocracy promotes human flourishing for no one: certainly not for the excluded rest; nor even for the ensnared rich.”

The Tradinistas’ dorm-room socialism fails to account for this issue: forces beyond any one person’s control have radically reconfigured the economic landscape, producing a series of incentives that ensure that capitalism is here to stay.

V. Faith and Capitalism

The intellectual intersection of Christianity and economic freedom has been explored at great length elsewhere, and the discussion need not be repeated here at great length. Two dimensions, however, warrant a brief mention.

First, the normative aspects of Marxist thought entail the demonization of one amorphous class vis-à-vis another. Both the Tradinista manifesto (which denounces “the capitalist class—which serves its own ends, detrimental to the common good of society”) and Hart’s essay (which describes the wealthy as “oppressors and revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them”) trade in this demonization, to their common detriment. Depicting the “capitalist class” as a faceless elite is an exercise in cheap stereotyping—but is it really fair to lump S. Truitt Cathy and Martin Shkreli into the same category, just because they both happen to have a lot of money? Given the clarity and beauty of Hart’s theological writings, I would expect better from him.

Second, Exodus 23:3 and Leviticus 19:15 are rarely read in conjunction with the conventional biblical exhortations against avarice, but both passages suggest that the fact of economic inequality does not automatically legitimize unequal “remedial” treatment by the state. There is no contradiction between these ideas and the Bible’s perorations against greed and the oppression of the poor. Paul, for instance, urges Christians to give to one another to address unmet needs—but his intended listeners are Roman Christians themselves, not the Roman Senate with the power to charge Paul’s exhortations with coercive force. The antidote to the illegitimacy of private greed is not governmental partiality—a partiality that, ironically, often leads to the further enrichment of the prosperous—but self-sacrifice.

VI. Charting a Way Forward

Beyond the purely theoretical observations of the preceding parts, several steps might be taken to help reconstruct a more humane economic order that captures the Tradinistas’ legitimate concerns.

First, individually rediscover the disciplines of self-restraint and self-denial. Capitalism makes more and more choices available to us, and facilitates our ability to act, but it does not make those choices on our behalf. Apple’s gadgets may allow us to send poisonous messages through the frigid channels of the Internet, download high-resolution pornography of every variety, and stream inferior television programs that exist to sell advertising space, but Apple does not force us to do so. McDonalds might blast its commercials across highway billboards, but it cannot force us to eat there. In essence, I suggest that arguments that capitalism itself is impoverishing culture are attempts to deflect moral responsibility from ourselves: capitalism is a system that reacts to the preferences we express. Restraining those preferences and desires is an operation of the will—and the will can be taught fortitude.

Second, understand the perverse incentives of regulatory capture. Very few state regulations are truly public-serving, in the sense that they do not redound to the interest of some profit-seeking entity. At times, perhaps, non-utilitarian considerations may compel the adoption of some regulatory scheme that happens to have the incidental effect of enriching a few at the expense of others—those responsible for weighing such a scheme, however, ought to carefully evaluate their own motives (the Catholic principle of formal and material cooperation in activity may be instructive here). If their motive in (implicitly) favoring a moneyed interest is to preserve the industry ties that fund their own campaigns, they ought to reconsider their options.

Third, restore an ethic of effective volunteerism. In other words, volunteering in ways that use one’s professional skills of resource generation—skills understood in the context of each person’s comparative advantage, what they can do better than anyone else—ought to be emphasized. Donating money is one thing; donating your skills is something altogether different. The donation of one’s professional skills (whether those skills involve writing, lawn mowing, coding, practicing medicine, or something else) is a small-scale redistribution of human capital, in a manner oriented toward human flourishing. Fifty dollars that the poor need not spend on professional services are fifty extra dollars they retain; redistribution occurs organically through the choices of free people to deploy their human capital in non-self-serving ways.

Fourth, make personal choices that build the world you want to see. If you’re dissatisfied with the culturally homogenizing effects of global capitalism, push back using free-market dynamics. When traveling, eat at locally owned restaurants rather than Chipotle or Panera. Browse used bookstores instead of trawling listings on Amazon. Build your own computer instead of snagging a MacBook. Read books from authors you’ve never heard of instead of James Patterson and Dan Brown. Living this way isn’t necessarily without an element of risk—the familiar is always the easiest and safest course—but it’s what keeps life interesting, fresh, and unique (and, after all, it’s not that much risk; Yelp and Goodreads exist for a reason). If we want more Montpeliers, we have to build them—and make the ongoing choice to invest in them instead of in the structures of cultural ubiquity.

Fifth, these individual steps might be supplemented by reasonable, carefully tailored governmental interventions that recognize the dynamics of modern reality. For example, libertarian social scientist Charles Murray has recently joined leftists in calling for a universal basic income—a program of straightforward cash grants to the poor, ostensibly augmented by charitable institutions of civil society, that would sidestep the toxic bureaucracies of the status quo. The nationwide problem of pollution—a “negative externality” through which third-parties suffer collateral damage—might also be best addressed through formal legal rules. And as Gene Veith discusses in his recent book Working for Our Neighbor, one early Lutheran form of social justice involved providing loans to the poor via a “community chest” system in each town—a similar scheme might be implemented to help address the unavailability of liquid capital.

The answer to problems of soaring inequality and the collapse of the moral-cultural imagination will not be found in reviving economic theories that correspond poorly to today’s reality. If we want to build more Montpeliers and fewer Sbarros, the way ahead is far harder. Confronting the challenges of modernity must start with us—“being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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