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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Just Capitalism" (Brent Waters)

TITLE: Just Capitalism
AUTHOR: Brent Waters
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (352 pages).

Words like globalization, capitalization, or internationalization have all been demonized in recent years. People point to the increasing rich-poor divide and the unfair distribution of food and power throughout society. Can there really be justice in a capitalist world? As far as author and professor Brent Waters is concerned, capitalization is more needed than before. In fact, he contends that "globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale." Arguing against "naive anticapitalism," he asserts that capitalism has become the unfortunate "bogeyman" for all the problems in the world economy. Whether it is poverty or unemployment, income equality or environmental concerns, people are quick to point a finger at greedy executives, big-box companies, and the money politics that have corrupted many corners of the world. Thus, Waters tries to distance himself from such presumptions, choosing instead to see the solutions capitalism can offer, and to look at how it can create wealth for all. This is a bold move that would ruffle many conventional feathers. Fully aware of this, the author lists three levees to stem the likely tsunami of protests.
  1. Complexity Problem: Capitalism is not the main culprit for world poverty nor greed. Instead, it is a complex set of factors that are preventing individuals from productive contribution and equitable distribution of resources.
  2. Contextualization Problem: It is too simplistic to blame the problem in the rich-poor divide. Instead, there is insufficient contextualization and understanding of the circumstances surrounding the challenges in each region's market situation. 
  3. Ideological Problem: Where conventional thinking often puts blame on globalization and capitalization as the bogeymen for economic problems of the world.

The reasons for Waters's assertions is a belief that God created this world good and we are free to use them appropriately. At the same time, capitalization is the best and most realistic strategy to help the poor. More critically, he aims to show that globalization and Christian moral thought and practice are not related. Neither is it incompatible. He goes on to describe his thesis by first giving us a history of Globalization with 1.0 as the period from 1492 to 1800, largely driven by transportation advances and nationalism. Globalization 2.0 happens between 1800 to 2000 with the rise of communications and information technologies. Globalization 3.0 is about collaboration and cooperation with increasing scope; relative ease of participation; speed of exchange; and fluidity of capital resources. Moreover, globalization helps prevent the rise of totalitarian regimes. He highlights Philip Bobbitt's point about the 19th Century being the century of the nation-state, while the 20th Century boasts the individualistic freedom paradigm. Globalization 3.0 represents the rise of the market state. He makes a surprise remark by saying that wealth created through globalization were not gained at the expense of the poor. He uses the analogy of high tides that raise all vessels, dinghies and boats, but only the best ships remained afloat. However, the analogy fails when we look at the fact that only the rich or big corporations can afford the better vessels. The roots of his Christian ethic is 1) love for neighbour; 2) responsible stewardship; 3) Vocation; 4) Renewal of Church Mission. He spends the first half of the book showing that globalization and capitalism is a necessity for human flourishing. The next half of the book talks about it being insufficient in itself. Waters avoids overly simplistic diagnosis by looking at the contexts of markets, competition, and cooperation. Comparing capitalism and socialism, he notes the nature of "creative destructive" of being its own "gravedigger." In other words, there is an "expiry date" for capitalism, at least until new alternative comes along. His most comforting argument here is the work of the Holy Spirit through it all. God could expand, restrain, pause, or renew any of these forces. The Holy Spirit helps believers adapt to shifting times in a way that is faithful to the gospel. This includes the use of affluence for the betterment of society. This in turn leads us to the biggest reason for Waters's thesis: addressing world poverty.

If Part One of the book is about the positives of capitalism, Part Two highlights the flaws and the need for something more. Making capitalism successful requires a shift of human attitudes through enabling and motivation. Humans can only flourish when they communicate well and behave civil. There needs to be both freedom, justice, and responsible stewardship. All of these would make capitalism just and successful. It is a tall order and looks quite impossible in our broken and sinful world. I think Waters is being too idealistic and may have over-stated his case for capitalism. His intention is noble, but the expectations are flawed. In arguing for the need for capitalism, he admits that Christians in general are not comfortable with accumulating riches. The Bible points more toward contentment and beware the dangers of riches. He goes into the study of contexts to find support for capitalistic economy theory. He cautions against blanket criticism of it by arguing that modern Christian moral theology is a reaction against the excesses of Roman Empire often seen as rich and powerful. There is the assumption that the poor is poor because the rich are rich. The key thing he is arguing is basically the shift of historical contexts. We cannot simply superimpose our disdain for Roman Empire style bullying of the poor and marginalized in the past into our present. Here, I think Waters has a good argument but it does not let globalization off the hook when looking at the problem of unemployment, uneven economic distribution, and the ills of modern society. In pleading for us to understand the complex environment, he tries to bring in other contexts such as markets, competition, and the need for cooperation as other relevant factors to justify capitalism.  All of these are necessary for just capitalism. Put it another way, when countries or states fail to expand markets; increase competition; and widen opportunities for cooperation, capitalism will fail to maximize benefits for all. If it sounds ideal, it is. Power differences are huge when it comes to negotiations and initiating globalization activities.

Waters in his proposal argues that the best of "just capitalism" can only win 2 and a half cheers. The other half a cheer is reserved for the place of fellowship and community belonging. I would argue otherwise, that we cannot compartmentalize community away into half a cheer. For community and fellowship cannot be considered just one half out of six. Gospel wise, it is essentially the whole people of God who would be doing all the cheering when there is justice, progress, and equality for all. Thus, community concerns must be in all parts of every cheer and all parts of every capitalistic endeavour. This too will remain a dream for now as the state of sin in this world is difficult to dislodge. I am impressed with Waters's courage to take a stand to give a positive but unpopular spin on capitalism. Do not be too quick to dismiss this advocate for globalization and capitalism. Study how Waters nuance the many perspectives of capitalism, the historical trends, the changing times, and try to see from his reasoned standpoint. While the book may not transform capitalism from its current state, this book offers a way forward to tweak it for the better.

Brent Waters is Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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