Thursday, May 30, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 13


This installment is cribbed substantially from a lecture I gave at Penn State in 2012.  If it looks familiar to a few, that is why.  While it doesn't make much mention of Christianity, by now readers should be habituated to trying to see this series on the history, mechanics, and psychology of capitalism with one eye on the Gospels.  -SG

In the early 80s, macro-economic forces were shaping a new form of international economy and corresponding changes in US foreign policy.  The story could begin as far back as World War I, but for the sake of brevity, we will begin the story during just a few years prior, in 1973.

In 1973, as a protest against the US rescue of Israel from an impending defeat by the Egyptians in the Yom Kippur War, Arab nations implemented an oil embargo against the US, creating day-long gas lines that broke up only when filling stations pumped out their last drop of gasoline.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 12


In Part 11, we was how sugar was one commodity that took off on the wings of respectability.  Sometimes, studying one particular commodity is a way of gaining a fuller perspective on capitalism in all its complexity.  In this installment, we will look at sugar.

The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.

   -Sydney Mintz, “Sweetness and Power”

In Grecia, Costa Rica, where once I resided, the mountains are checkered with vast coffee and sugarcane fields. The cane has long leaves like corn. It rattles in the wind, and the fields go dark then light again as clouds pass over.

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 11


One should not assume that economic effects always derive from economic causes.

-Woodruff Smith
Without any forethought, imagine very quickly the following:

You are near someone who is not wearing a deodorant.  Someone comes to your house, and you have nothing to offer them to drink or snack on.  You encounter a woman who you notice does not shave her legs.  You encounter a man who natters on about new age mysticism.  You find yourself in public before noon on a weekday, drunk.  You walk into someone else's house, and it has not been cleaned recently.  An old woman is sitting on a public bench in ratty clothes; she is smoking.  A woman who is checking you out at a store is wearing heavy makeup, an extravagent coif, and a bout five pounds of bangly jewelry.  A child on the bus with you farts loudly and laughs.  An urban neighbor is keeping chickens in his yard, and he doesn't cut grass very often.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 10


We have looked at the genealogy of capitalism.  We have looked at its material bases, its mechanics-in-development, at money as sign and species of power, at thermodynamics as a way of studying social systems in a potentially empirical way, and at the peculiar role of the machine in all this.  Now we need to understand some of the philosophical questions, assertions, and debates surrounding this whole historical period.

Earlier in the series, we identified two people, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, as key 20th Century philosophers of liberalism, the philosophical tradition that is identified with capitalism.  We can begin by showing what they disagreed upon, then show where they are in agreement, as a way of identifying some fundamental liberal premises within which we find liberal liberalism and conservative liberalism as polar tensions.

Baboon Culture

In 2004, PLOS Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, published “Emergence of  Peaceful Culture in Baboons,” documenting the field work of neurologist Robert Sapolsky and neuropsychologist Lisa Share.

Sapolsky remarked, as a young researcher in Kenya, that while he studied baboons – in his case, using baboons to study the effects of stress – he found the animals to be highly disagreeable.

Church & Witches

Witch Hunt History

Rome & Women (yet again)

(written Feb 8, 2013 in response to the cited article)

On January 31, 2013, the Catholic News Service published an article entitled “Why not women priests?  The papal theologian explains.”  In that article Francis X. Rocca wrote:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that only men can receive holy orders because Jesus chose men as his apostles and the "apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry."  Blessed John Paul II wrote in 1994 that this teaching is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.
So that settles it!  I believe the same thing was said about crusading and the practice of burning heretics.

Institutional Disembodiment

institution [ˌɪnstɪˈtjuːʃən]
1. the act of instituting
2. an organization or establishment founded for a specific purpose, such as a hospital, church, company, or college
3. the building where such an organization is situated
4. an established custom, law, or relationship in a society or community
5. (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Stock Exchange) Also called institutional investor a large organization, such as an insurance company, bank, or pension fund, that has substantial sums to invest on a stock exchange
6. Informal a constant feature or practice Jones' drink at the bar was an institution
7. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) the appointment or admission of an incumbent to an ecclesiastical office or pastoral charge

8. (Christianity / Ecclesiastical Terms) Christian theolthe creation of a sacrament by Christ, esp the Eucharist
institutionary  adj

an organization or establishment founded for a specific purpose

Why do we need institutions?

Special Means Secret - JSOC

[I originally wrote this article for Counterpunch in 2010.  It bears reprinting today because - as the old song went - the beat goes on.  Obama is prosecuting his secret wars with no let-up, and since this article he has added the executive authority to kill anyone he wants to kill, extra-judicially.  These are some of the guys to do it.  It's Transfiguration Sunday, and I gotta be a witness. -SG]

Renunciation, Sex, & Power

(written during Lent, 2013)

One of the glaring contradictions within peace advocacy and activism – and one that makes my own sweeping thesis that war is formative of masculinity constructed as domination problematic – is that so many men who are emblematic of peacemaking, or opposition to war, have displayed in word and deed their own inattention to and apparent denial of the power that men hold over women in the arena of sexual relations.

It seems that Gandhi, even and especially after taking his vows of chastity, slept naked with and bathed with a number of young women, as a kind of “testing” of his will – one that would occasionally result in “involuntary discharges.” Some were even the wives of his male disciples, who he had directed not to have sex with their wives as part of their pursuit of higher knowledge.

Bordo on Descartes, Doubt, Objectivity, and the Fortified Self

In 1987, Susan Bordo wrote a little book entitled The Flight to Objectivity - Essays on Cartesianism and Culture.  I've been a fan of Bordo ever since I read her book on "eating disorders," Unbearable Weight - Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (2004).

Steubenville, etc. & Consent

So much is in the news the last few days about the rape convictions at Steubenville. It took the suicide of another young person who was apparently anticipating mass murder to knock it off the front page. There is more to be said about this culture than we can ever say, especially as it affects young people, and much of it will go unsaid.

Crime Fiction

During a recent exchange on Facebook, I discovered that another Christian pacifist who is an FB friend, shares my enthusiasm for stories of corruption, lust, greed, envy, addiction, naked ambition, desperation, and murder.

I don't find that terribly surprising, even less surprising that Christians - pacifist or not - would be attracted to crime fiction, and I don't mean the "cozies," a la Murder, She Wrote (nothing wrong with cozies, mind you), that play down the grittiest and darkest human motivations and behaviors.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 9

The Power of the Machine - Hornborg's Thesis on "Machine Fetishism"

Earlier we read:
Industrialism is understood only vaguely now as the necessary production system to ensure we have the confusing mass of things we own and use.  It was once widely understood by William Blake, among others, as a "Satanic Mill."  Charles Dickens wrote melodramatically about this period, when London was literally wrapped in an industrial pall.

We also read, from Polanyi:

But how shall this Revolution itself be defined? What was its basic characteristic? Was it the rise of the factory towns, the emergence of slums, the long working hours of children, the low wages of certain categories of workers, the rise in the rate of population increase, or the concentration of industries? We submit that all these were merely incidental to one basic change, the establishment of market economy, and that the nature of this institution cannot be fully grasped unless the impact of the machine on a commercial society is realized. We do not intend to assert that the machine caused that which happened, but we insist that once elaborate machines and plant were used for production in a commercial society, the idea of a self-regulating market was bound to take shape.  [emphasis added]

It is time now to look at the machine as a species of power.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 8


from Part 7 - Kenneth Boulding said belief in indefinite "growth" is the mark of madness or economics.  He also said that "dissipative structures allow complex systems to achieve and maintain a high level of order by dissipating their entropic tendencies, i.e. their tendencies to disorder, disorganization, and energy loss, to neighboring systems."
This is essential for understanding how entropy in capitalism translates into the division of the social world.

"Neighboring systems," using Boulding's term, ought to remind us of what the Gospels say about neighbors.  What Boulding means, apart from what the Christian obligation is to the neighbor (love!), is that certain regions and-or states are literally built-up using materials and energy that are extracted from other regions and-or states.  The increase in order with the build up of new technomass in these "cores" results in increased disorder and scarcity in those exploited "peripheries."  These terms are borrowed from a school of thought called "world systems theory."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 7


In industrial capitalism, certain consequences of industrial capitalist activity must be indemnified by law as "externalities" or the motive for capitalism disappears - profit.  If environmental impacts were measured and the provision of equitable wages based on production were mandatory, for-profit industry could not exist.  It is exactly this problem that is only possible with an economy based on general purpose money.

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 6


A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  It's analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

-Karl Marx

For this section, you might remove the word commodities in Marx's description of commodity fetishism - perhaps his most important contribution to modern thought.  Replace the word "commodities" with the word "money," and you have stated the overarching theme of the following arguments about the nature of money.

Money appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood.  It's analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 5


from Part 4 - We are disembedded from human social relations and re-embedded in impersonal institutional relations.

Two things had to happen for this to be possible.  First, there had to be a disenchantment with nature; and second, we had to share a need for general purpose, universalized money.

 Max Weber

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 4


A new subject needs attention at this juncture, and that is best summed up in Karl Polanyi's 1945 theses about the origins of the so-called "free market," or more precisely, the "self-regulating market."  His book on this topic was called The GreatTransformation; and we'll get to it momentarily.

It is almost an article of faith in this society that capitalism is the unfettered movement of goods and services that are exchanged for money; and that this free exchange constitutes something called "the market."

Implicit in this myth - and it is a myth, as I will eventually show - is that this "free" exchange has an overall beneficial effect on society because these exchanges on the market are "self-regulating."  They require no outside interference, and indeed, any interference somehow subverts those benefits.  Interference in the market is tantamount to interference with fundamental freedoms, called "rights," and if we can stop people from trading freely, we are on the slippery slope to some kind of tyranny in which all other rights are likely to be abrogated.

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 3

from Part 2
We had acquired a centuries-long habit of war, an easy norm of war, a ready resort to war; and that was shaped principally and directly by Crusading.
If crusading is the grandfather of capitalism, then the Reformation is the father.  I use male pronouns, because the principle actors in this drama of war and political economy were overwhelmingly men.

This is a critique of capitalism and its philosophy, liberalism.  But let it be said, wrong as liberalism can be shown to be (and I will attempt to show just that further along in the series), it may yet be the traumatic event that brings the church to full repentance for its participation in and co-optation by power. 

 Soon enough, and for plenty of people already, the shine is off of the idol of progress, the invisible hand of the market has shown that it is not benign, and liberalism’s moral incoherence can be demonstrated.  But when the church and its members decry liberalism, we have to make our confessions. 

Nostra culpa.  It was our embrace of war that made liberalism attractive, even though actual liberals have not proven to be war-averse.


When disputes about Christian doctrine translated into social revolutions, and more than one confession came to state power in the West, war was the result - a natural progression, given the church's embrace of violence in the centuries preceding the Reformation.

War & Male Formation

War has been the most formative cultural practice underwriting masculinity constructed as domination. This is a simple claim, but it is buried in rationalization and silence. The rationalizations we will get to; but the silence is our refusal to acknowledge that men, not human beings as a whole, have exercised near-exclusive power since prehistory. The history of the Battle of Stalingrad is a history of men and women; but the history of leadership at Stalingrad is a boy-story.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 2


The first thing I'll say about capitalism is that it cannot be grasped within a single category like economics.  I don't know exactly when political economy was chiseled in half into political science (the world's greatest oxymoron) and economics, but that was a mistake.  These two are inseparable, especially in the case of capitalism; but I would add to the lists of disciplines that need to be merged across permeable boundaries here, history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, military science (another oxymoron), semiotics, and ecology.  If I thought about it longer, that list would probably lengthen.

Hyperspecialization emerged in the Academy alongside the development of capitalism, and has contributed substantially to its mystification - what I call the Taylorization of knowledge, or the increasing intellectual division of labor that atomizes knowledge.

Some history.

Capitalism has an unexpected genealogy.  It was midwifed by Christianity, though not by the faith itself, but through faith in political power (Christendom) and its adoption of the practice of war.  Some people have called Christianity in power a heresy, others a temptation, i.e., the "constantinian" heresy or temptation.  What that means is not directly related to Constantine, the murderous Roman Emperor who famously converted, though his name serves as a  kind of historical and semiotic marker.  What it marks is the temptation of the church to impose Christianity, punish heresies, and criminalize sin, using the force of arms, i.e., the state.  This temptation is still around, as we all know.  Once we started killing, the next step into war was difficult to avoid.  We had already substituted killing for love as our modus operandi.

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 1


It is with the utmost trepidation that I even begin an essay about Christianity and capitalism.  I have only been studying Christianity for the last six years, but I have been studying capitalism in various ways every since I was sent to Guatemala and El Salvador in the early-mid eighties.  More on that in a moment.

My disinclination to take it on as a topic for any kind of public discussion is a result of that long period of study, which proved to me that the category is slippery, widely misunderstood, hotly contested, changeable, and wrapped in hundreds of years of ideological mystification.

Finance, Food, and Force in the Development of US Foreign Policy

The belief in a conspiratorial view of history seems to me to be a psychological reaction to the fear of chaos.  If the world is not as one would like it, at least a conspiratorial view of history suggests that history as a process is still subject to human control, and that once we wrest control from the unjust conspirators, the world can be made right again.

This unpredictability, this sense of instability that compels some of us to reach for order in chaos with a history of conspiracy, ironically, has been produced by the current political milieu,  one wherein neoliberalism has disembedded economies from local control and re-embedded them in national and transnational institutions, and those institutions are themselves now experiencing a loss of control in the face of unanticipated changes.

Structural adjustment programs have become political lightning rods that are igniting mass unrest around the world.   Green Revolution agriculture has spawned megacities that are entropic black holes, teeming with desperation and crime.  The US military, long considered the guarantor of last instance for the world order, has proven to be both the least cost effective institution on the planet and a perennial source of new resistance and unintended outcomes.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, the myth of US military invincibility was shattered; and the costs of the Southwest Asia wars have bled the US Treasury white.  Offshoring of US industry and the political empowerment of rentier capitalists – Wall Street – that was accomplished through foreign policy, has transformed much of the US domestic population not merely into wage workers, but debt slaves.

A quote from a presentation that I gave a Penn State on February 2, 2012.  Aside from its convenient alliteration - finance, food, force - this combination of emphases actually sheds an interesting light on a lot of policies and practices in United States politics today.  The lecture portion is about an hour, and there is a question-and-answer thingy afterward.  If you would rather read the lecture, you can go here.  There is a free-listed bibliography of links there for anyone interested in looking at some of my sources.

Here is the video lecture.

The Alienable Self

We all have the right to sell ourselves; and it's a buyer's market.  God bless America.

Been cogitating.

About "self."

I like paradoxes.

"All generalizations are false, including this one."

Zeno's arrow.

Achilles and the turtle.

A conscious "self."

Self.  Yourself, or your self?  Self... what?

Self taught.  Self reliant.  Self loathing.  Self Magazine.  Self esteem.  Self satisfaction.  Self deprecating.  Self appraisal.  Self incrimination.  Self actualization.  Self effacing.  Self assurance.  Self confidence.  Self immolation.  Self serving.  Self promotion.  Self denial.  Self referential.  Self obsession.

Surely we are not talking about the same thing in all those different phrases.