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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 9, February 19, 2011

New Capitalism and the Emerging Global Crisis—A Biblical Perspective

Monday 21 February 2011, by V Mathew Kurian


I. Introduction

Capitalism has become the dominant ‘world system’. This system is now in a severe crisis. This crisis is multidimensional, including social, political, economic, ecological and ethical. Unless an alternative world view to capitalism is promoted, human life in this planet earth is going to be too miserable and in the long run, the very life may be extinct. In this scenario, religions have a critical role to play. This article, broadly takes the perspective as revealed both in the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible.

More specifically, first we explore some of the relevant Biblical contexts. Then a brief profile of the evolution of global capitalism is given. It will be followed by an analysis of the emerging global crisis. Finally, the imminent role to be played by religions, particularly Christianity, would be mentioned in the resolution of the crisis.

II. Social Concerns of the Bible

SOME of the pertinent social concerns of the Bible seem to be economic justice, ecological conservation and ethical life in the family, polity and society at large. Now we may draw a few cases from the Bible to illustrate these concerns. First we cite the old Testament and then the New Testament.

II.1. Old Testament Contexts

THE Old Testament texts, in general, uphold the view that material economic practices have to be streamlined by spiritual and moral values. The perceptions on ‘Sabbath’ and ‘Jubilee’ may be taken as cases to establish it. On the Sabbath day, no labour has to be performed and the whole day should be set apart for spiritual purposes. In the sabbatical year, land resource has to be kept fallow and whatever crops naturally grown must be shared by the members of the society freely, according to the ‘need’ of each one. In the same year, slave labourners have to be freed from their bondage by the masters. ‘Usury’ was banned. In the jubilee year, in addition to these stipulations, the occupants of land were required to give back the ownership rights of land to the original occupants or their descendants. As God is the creator of land, absolute private ownership of land is untenable.

Another illustration we cite from Nehemiah Chapter 5. It specifically underlines the need to help the poor and the vulnerable. The immoral socio-economic practices of the rich and powerful in society and its condemnation and correction by the (divine) intervention of Nehemiah are graphically illustrated in this chapter. Similar instances are in plenty in the Old Testament. Now we may turn to the New Testament.

II.2. Some New Testament Cases

THE very birth of Jesus in a manger among the powerless in society, reveals as God’s option to the poor and deprived. One of the main material concerns of Jesus was ‘food security’. He never allowed people to starve. Further, through ‘Lord’s Prayer’ he taught us to solicit our daily bread from God. His healing of the deformed and diseased expresses God’s concern for the health of the people. Jesus opposed monetary transactions inside the church for profit. He also preferred to be in the ‘nature’ with the fellowship of people.

A significant tenet of Christianity is to earn one’s bread by the exertion of labour. Christianity also advocates fair distribution of income. Inter-personal exploitation is vehemently opposed in the Bible. Chapter 5 of St. James’ epistle may be taken as a case to establish it. To quote, “And now, you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you and will eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days. You have not paid any wages to the men who work in your fields. Listen to their complaints! The cries of those who gather in your crops have reached the ears of God, the Lord Almighty. Your life here on earth has been full of luxury and pleasure. You have made yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent people, and they do not resist you.” The early church also displayed a communitarian economic model for just and peaceful living. When Ananyas and Safeera hoarded wealth, they were given capital punishment.

In the background of this biblical perspective, now let us briefly survey the evolution of global capitalism and peruse its recent phase in particular.

III. The Evolution of Capitalism

CAPITALISM as a socio–politico–economic system, first arose in Europe, and later it became a ‘global system’ with a dominant ‘centre’ and subordinated ‘periphery’. Though capitalism underwent tremendous transformation during its tenure, the basics have been kept intact. Capitalism from its very inception till today survived by creating ‘surplus value’ and the ‘appropriation’ and ‘accumulation’ of it by the capitalist class. The nature of capital and its form of exploitation and accumulation have been changing over time. It all started with merchant capitalism which through industrial revolution metamorphosed into ‘competitive industrial capitalism’. In-order to sustain and enhance profits, competitive industrial capitalism paved the way for ‘monopoly capitalism’ or ‘imperialism’. In all these phases of capitalism, one could discern the perpetuation of ‘colonial’ practices.

In the post-Second World War era, political colonialism was almost liquidated by the nationalist struggles in the colonies. However, global capitalism succeeded in maintaining ‘economic colonialism’ in the post-independent period. In the so-called ‘neo-colonial’ age, capitalism shifted from an ‘industrial’ to a ‘post-industrial’ society. ‘New capitalism’ conforms to the post-industrial era which would be examined in the following section.

IV. New Capitalism and the Emerging Global Crisis

IN the latter part of the twentieth century, there emerged ‘e technology’ which facilitated radical restructuring of capitalism. The new transfor-mation is called ‘globalisation’. Though globalisation is basically an economic phenomenon, from a social point of view its impact is multi-dimensional.

Globalisation may be viewed from three perspectives: 1) as a programme or project, (2) as a process, and (3) as an ideology. As a programme, globalisation is predominantly the creation of transnational corporations. They required unfett-ered market throughout the world. So the TNCs proposed the entire world as a ‘global village’ with a ‘single market’. In order to realise this, particular national and regional economies were directed to get integrated with the global market for achieving maximum economic efficiency. In this perspective, globalisation may be viewed as ‘global marketisation’.

Though the term ‘globalisation’ is new, the phenomenon is as old as capitalism itself. As we already mentioned, it all commenced with ‘merchant capitalism’, which turned into competitive industrial and monopoly capitalism. In the neo-colonial era, with electronic revolution, capitalism metamorphosed into what is called, ‘info-capitalism’ or ‘knowledge capitalism’. The centre of gravity of new capitalism has shifted from ‘production’ to ‘speculation’ and the global economy became a ‘casino’ with its inherent ethical deficits.

Globalisation also symbolises an ideology—‘the neo-liberal ideology’. ‘Liberalism’ arose in Europe when Adam Smith and many other free marketers challenged the mercantilist state inter-vention in the economies. Smith viewed ‘free market’ as the ‘invisible hand’ which is a sine qua non for economic efficiency and promotion of individual freedom. However, later Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes challenged the ‘liberal’ claim. Marx theorised for ‘socialism’ and Keynes for ‘fiscal intervention’ and ‘engineering’. In the twentieth century these visions were translated into reality.

Nevertheless, in the latter part of the twentieth century there emerged new problems like ‘stagflation’ in mature capitalist countries which enabled the neo-liberalists like Frederich von Hayek and Milton Friedman to assert their views. There was also disenchantment with the political economy policies and programmes of the socialist countries as well as of the Third world. All these legitimised globalisation as a neo-liberal ideology supported by multilateral institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation—the so-called ‘unholy trinity’.

Let us now explore the predicament of the present global capitalist system. The neo-liberal world is currently confronting very grave problems. The instability of the economic system is posing a real threat to human life all over the world. The Great Recession which started erupting in the USA in 2007-08 in the form of ‘sub-prime mortgage lending crisis’ has by now affected the entire world. Europe is presently in a bad economic shape. ‘The sovereign debt crisis’ is sinking economics like Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIIIGS). Austerity measures are prescribed and implemented to contain the crisis which have led to protests and demonstrations in different parts of Europe. The venue of the recent G-20 meeting in Canada to seek a solution to the prevailing economic malaise witnessed mass demonstrations of different sections of people.

Along with the economic imbalance, poverty, unemployment and inequality are mounting. Ordinary people throughout the world are feeling insecure. It is almost now confirmed that the UN proposed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are not going to be achieved.

Ecological disasters have become regular occurrences, taking the lives of lakhs of people. Greedy over-exploitation of global resources for the luxurious life of the super rich and powerful in the society is inviting such environmental hazards like ‘global warming’ and ‘climatic changes’. Nature has lost its rhythm. It has become almost like a cancerous organic body and its behaviour is very unpredictable.

Another ethical dimension of over-exploitation of resources under capitalism is the double pronged injustice which it imparts—one is ‘intra-generational’ and the other is inter-generational’. In spite of national and international anti-poverty programmes, poverty and immiserisation are accentuating day by day within the present generation. As the powerful minority in the present generation consumes much more than their due share, only less resources would be available for future generations in this ‘spaceship earth’. Besides, they would be forced to inherit the toxic wastes currently emitted from the consumption and production systems.

The ethical devastation of the society is the most conspicuous phenomenon of ‘new capitalism’. The ‘economy’ through its ‘globalised market’ is getting embedded into it the entire society, including religions as organisations. In this situation, an alternative world view to capitalism is highly required. This paradigm shift is an intellectual and moral task of righteous persons who are committed to the future of life in this planet, in spite of their disciplinary divergences and functional differences.

V. Crisis Resolution: The Role of Religions

RELIGIONS have a unique role to play in resolving the present global crisis. Human history and mythology affirm the responsibility of prophets and religions in crisis situations. An ‘ecumenical’ approach has to be taken by all religions in dealing the crisis, for which Christianity can assume a leadership role.

Religions have to oppose the ideology and practices of new capitalism because they are against its tenets. The constituent elements of new capitalism are over-materialism, individual greed, cut-throat competition, privatisation of the commons and infinite economic growth in this finite earth. In its place, a pro-religious approach may stand for humanity, maximum common good, cooperation and community and sustainable development. Justice, equity and conservation of resources might be the pertinent values of religion. Prophetic intervention of religion is required to transform the capitalist political economy and promoting such human values.

On the basis of the ‘biblical perspective’ we have outlined, such evil practices like ‘speculation’ and ‘corruption’ have to be opposed. The world economy has now become a ‘casino’ which is sinful. The immoral speculation, particularly in finance, is the main reason for the downfall of the world in recent times. Religions have to reverse these trends by encouraging the productive labour of humans, particularly in food producing agriculture by resorting to natural and organic methods. The Gandhian perspective on ‘resources’ can be taken as a guiding principle. We have enough resources to meet the needs of all; but not to cater to the greed of everyone.

Religious organisations like the World Council of Churches, country specific national Christian councils, regional councils like the Kerala Christian Council and also local parishes and related institutions can extend yeomen service in promoting an egalitarian, inclusive, just and sustainable human progress. But for religions to play such roles they have to stand with the people against the interests of ‘capital’ and ‘power’.

VI. Conclusion

IN this paper, first we traced a biblical perspective to evaluate the material practices of emerging global capitalism. It was followed by a survey of the evolution of capitalism and an analysis of its imminent crisis. Finally, the role of religions is highlighted to resolve the ‘crisis’. The effective solution to the crisis demands an alternative world view to capitalism wherein religions, particularly Christianity, can play a crucial role.

Dr V. Mathew Kurian is a Visiting Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam (Kerala).

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