I recently started a course entitled “Global Capitalism and Ethics” at my seminary at Iliff School of Theology. We are posting blog posts to reflect upon the lectures. I will be posting my reflections here, allowing comments. It will force me to try and make my thoughts more general, less dependent on the readings, which I hope will be a good thing.
I decided to take the class because I am intensely interested in the idea of a society that is not entirely self-serving, not even based solely on self-fulfillment, because I think there are times when for the good of all, we need to set community and relationships ahead of ourselves. But when I look around me, I rarely see that, and I wonder if any large-scale society can survive without that degree of sacrifice.
Reading about the character of different perspectives on capitalism has made me think that the paradigm of capitalism goes back into ancient history. Think about Rome and some of the opulence found there, the rise of a mercantile caste throughout the ancient world, even biblical references to merchants suggest a caste system. I think the foundation for capitalist thinking dates back to the origins of civilization.
I watched a history channel special some time ago about the origins of cities; the special was “Out of Egypt” hosted by Dr. Kara Cooney (http://dsc.discovery.com/tv/out-of-egypt/, accessed 1-19-2012, its available on Netflix) where part of her discussion was the theory that agriculture led to sedentary living, which ultimately led to food storage. Food storage led to a ruling class; people with the ability to store food were able to control survival, which gave them the ability to rule over others.
It seems to me that a capitalist mindset probably started there; with the idea that having more food, being able to control food-sources, meant power; there is an origin of a concept of stuff = power.
According to the documentary, opulent living areas, royalty, aristocracy, all started on that foundation.
Communism, as it played out, wasn’t as it was idealized, clearly. The idea that a society should share in the benefits of collective work is a wonderful idea, but it requires that people choose to sacrifice freedoms, and fundamentally, if my supposition about how long we’ve been oppressing one-another over stuff and resources are accurate, I think we’re culturally and systemically wired to take advantage of each other, which prevents the share and share alike basis required for communism.
I have often thought about whether or not there are functional foundations for a society that is not based on personal gain. I think ultimately the basis for a capitalist society is the simple concept that my own survival is more important than another person’s survival. Its not a far reach to assume that if my survival is more important, than ensuring that survival is more important, which ultimately leads to my comfort is probably more important as well. Such rugged individualistic identity seems to me to be at the foundation of our capitalistic struggles against one-another.
I wonder if there is a way to shift that paradigm to one where we care so deeply for one-another, and trust one-another so well, that I no longer put my own needs ahead of the groups. Seems a major shift in perspective.