The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce
Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
University of Chicago Press, 2007
634 pp., 22.5
Break on Through to the Other Side
I hate the middle class. I am a snob and an ingrate, an erudite ignoramus unappreciative of the market that puts food on my table and books on my shelves. I and my left-wing ilk are responsible for at least one global war, the persistence of poverty and despair among the wretched of the earth, and a culture that maligns the genuine virtue of hard-working entrepreneurs. I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself, and I should run to the nearest small business and beg for forgiveness and instruction. I should get a real job.
In short, Deirdre McCloskey has exposed me for the fraud that I am—or so she tells me in The Bourgeois Virtues. We lefties have endured quite a lot of disappointment over the last three gilded decades: the pyrrhic victory of global capitalism; the near-erasure of serious critical voices from the broadcast media; the erosion of unions and the welfare state; the enormous expansion of corporate power, and the attendant shrinking of the political imagination; the elevation of the Marketplace into the ontological sublime, the anointment of trucking and bartering as the telos of humankind. All of that is quite enough History, thank you very much. But to be told that we represent "the high orthodoxy of the West" and that now it's "time to listen to the other side"? Where has McCloskey been for the last twenty-odd years? We've been hearing "the other side" for two centuries, and in the last generation it's been 24-7 about Business, Business, Business. The Other Side is advertising, public relations, the plague of twaddle from pompous moneybags like Welch, Buffett, and Trump. It's the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Economist, and Business Week; it's management-speak, the financial news, and the stream of stock prices that frame every image on MSNBC. It's the students who tell me that accounting class is more valuable than poetry. The other side. Give us a break.
Declaring one's bold rejection of Conventional Wisdom is a standard move in branding these days. And the market in capitalist apologetics has been getting more crowded of late, creating a brisk and voluminous trade in the wares of ideology. Two major firms are the service providers for bourgeois cultural authority. One is Bobo Triumphal, and it features a growing product line of bite-sized intellectual confections: "freakonomics," "tipping points," "blink," "substance of style," "flat world," "creative class." A herd of independent intellectual contractors, it includes Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, Virginia Postrel, and Richard Florida. Disdainful of those ancien bourgeois drones with gray flannel suits and briefcases, they're the leading public relations flacks for the professional-managerial elite, the winsome "creators" of goods and services that help "grow" Your Small Business. (Judging from contemporary advertising, everyone has a Small Business these days.) Appealing to the tasteful suburban consumer of news and digitalized gadgetry, they celebrate the spread of globalized capitalism as the coolest imperium in history. (If you're one of the uncool in sweatshops or slums, you still never had it so good.) What apocalypse has ever been so awesome? The market is the site where Vanity Fair and the School of Athens meet, a forum for the harmonic convergence of glamour and science, desire and calculation, hipness and instrumental reason.
Less tony than Bobo Triumphal, the other provider is Theodicy, Inc., where God and Mammon settle their differences and negotiate a lucrative partnership. Fearless defenders of the rich and powerful, this company specializes in a blend of theology, moralism, ruling-class self-pity, and populist fellow-traveling. Safely ensconced in think tanks, university institutes, and media conglomerates, these voices for those who already have a voice portray themselves as beleaguered mavericks, daring to say Unfashionable or Politically Incorrect Things to the Cultural Elite, the Liberal Media, or the Academic Establishment. Often funded by the trinitarian economy of Scaife, Coors, and Olin—groaning, in other words, in what has to be the plushest marginality in history—this outfit sports an embarrassment of riches from the unharried service of two masters. Attentive to the denominations of currency, it's cheerfully ecumenical—Richard John Neuhaus, Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson—but its model employee is Michael Novak, whose "theology of the corporation" is a minor masterpiece of theo-sophistry. The corporation is "a metaphor for the ecclesial community"—in fact, it's the "best secular analogue to the church"—and "its creativity mirrors God's." As knock-offs of the body of Christ, Microsoft and Wal-Mart become "Suffering Servants"—and judging from their quarterly reports, these poor, oppressed creatures are carrying their crosses all the way to the bank. (At Robert Sirico's Acton Institute, neo-classical economics weds scholastic philosophy to produce the love child of Ayn Rand and Thomas Aquinas. Now there's an ugly baby.) If you have a hard time thinking of stocking Wal-Mart shelves as an imitatio Christi, you're just an arrogant pedant too lazy and proud to go out and name it and claim it—sorry, I meant serve and suffer.
McCloskey's leviathan tome borrows capital from both overvalued firms. (Call it Bobo Theodicy.) Coming in at just over 500 pages of padded and lazily written text, The Bourgeois Virtues is a tower of babble, a bloated and inglorious mess of a book, the first of a threatened four-volume series that will cover the history and ethics of capitalism. (If you want an outline of this unfolding disaster, read the postscript.) Don't be fooled by the gorgeous trappings of erudition, the hundreds of quotations from economists, philosophers, poets, novelists, theologians, and historians. For all its attempts at philosophical, historical, and theological depth, it's a Sargasso Sea of intellectual froth. The only possible reward in reading this awful book is the instruction it provides in the overpriced art of ideology. From its inadvertently portentous cover—a 16th-century merchant vends a large and smelly fish—to the shameful blurbs on the back, The Bourgeois Virtues is a sign of how shallow and overrated The Other Side can be.
McCloskey is a distinguished professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (Talk about multi-tasking.) Educated at Harvard and tenured at Chicago as Donald, McCloskey is the author of two previous books on economics—The Rhetoric of Economics (1985) and If You're So Smart (1992)—in which he tried to demonstrate that economists don't have to be dismal scientists. "Economists are poets," he wrote in If You're So Smart. (I can't wait for that Norton anthology.) In the mid-'90s, Donald became Deirdre, an existential metamorphosis she chronicled in Crossing (1996). Later, McCloskey became a Christian, or as she describes herself in the present book, "a progressive Episcopalian, the quasi-Quaker branch of the Frozen Chosen."
Welcome to the literary and polemical style of The Bourgeois Virtues. In the acknowledgements, McCloskey tells us that her editor "disciplined" her prose. This is demonstrably untrue, and McCloskey herself hints at its falsity early on when she praises "loose and baggy" arguments. Her book is certainly that, if you want to call what McCloskey does "argument." ("You ask me to preach. I'll preach to thee." Well, I didn't ask, so get back in your pew.) Many chapters (and there are forty-eight of them) read like first drafts. She's "anxious to chat," and natter on she does, filling pages and pages with personal anecdote, Regular People She Knows, in-house references to her fellow economists, and banalities not quite worthy of Polonius. ("All human communities work with prudence and solidarity. Both." Stroke chin, furrow brow.)
But I suspect there's more than mere lack of style at work here. Eager to tear off the rhetorical regalia of middle-class academe, McCloskey litters her prose with the prattle of the Streetwise Professor: "Point, schmoit"; "Oh, I dunno"; "Shame on you"; "Damned right"; "How'd you know?"; "Don't laugh." Like the unprovoked assurance that she's "a tough urban girl who can take it as well as dish it out," this seems calculated to earn street cred for McCloskey as a Woman of the People. It's the tried-and-untrue strategy of egghead-bashing, in which the author displays a wall of diplomas from the University of Hard Knocks. This discomfort with her own intellectual identity also explains the frequent and annoying frivolousness, as though McCloskey is unable to take her own argument seriously. "Capitalism has triumphed in our time, which I claim is a good thing, though boring." So why spend 500 frigging pages on it?
This gal-in-the-street act should have tipped off the luminaries who blurbed this book, all scholars who really ought to know better. "Like a classic bard from ancient days," swells Benjamin Friedman. (Point, schmoit.) "Like no other book on this topic," gushes Martha Nussbaum. (Damned right.) "Stunningly fresh," avows Ellen Charry. (Don't laugh.) "A graceful writer," assures Jean Bethke Elshtain. (Oh, I dunno.) The air must be pretty thin at the Parnassian heights of Blurbdom.
An avowed free-marketeer, McCloskey trains her sights on the usual suspects in libertarian demonology: selfish and shiftless unions, tax-happy politicians, dull and incompetent bureaucrats, and—last and certainly least—"the clerisy," those ungrateful leftish intellectuals who are "proud to be living off a business civilization and yet remain ignorant of how it actually works." If, like your humble servant, you're one of these bespectacled louts who batten on the spoil produced through real labor, don't take offense: McCloskey thinks that "your opinion deserves sympathetic scrutiny." Just don't expect it from her. 450 pages later, people like us get scolded again. "You exhibit a nasty snobbishness, you misled member of the Western clerisy. Shame on you." Well I'm certainly turning red, but not with shame. Disdain for intellectuals is the ecstasy of the lowbrow, and it's regrettable that someone as intelligent as McCloskey works overtime at this anxious trade. The ruse gets tiresome, and more than a little pathetic, when you remember that it comes from a Distinguished Professor.
Tilting at the anti-bourgeois "high orthodoxy of the West"—the bohemian and often leftish wisdom of intellectuals—McCloskey contends that bourgeois life exhibits more than the standard traits of diligence, punctuality, and self-restraint. Contrary to the caricature of a money-grubbing middle class, the personal and commercial lives of the bourgeoisie display both the pagan virtues—courage, justice, prudence, and temperance—and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. What's more, capitalism, she proclaims, is "compatible with" the virtues, and it's even the grand occasion for the formation of "ethically complete" individuals.
To prove her point, McCloskey traces the demise of the virtue tradition in Western ethics. It's a repetitive and meandering declension narrative from Aristotle to Kant—from Character to the Categorical Imperative—but it contains some incisive aphorisms: "To last like bronze, the virtues must be alloyed with each other"; "Kant helps bourgeois men without a god feel nonetheless proud of who they are"; liberals and conservatives and radicals are "entangled in a bourgeois conception of justice." (That last point is especially sharp, even though McCloskey seems unaware that Marx dismissed equality as a bourgeois concept.) Impatient with the terminal inability of Kantian (or utilitarian) ethics to "articulate the meaning of life"—why should I submit to the categorical imperative if I have no discernible end or telos? —McCloskey calls for a return to classical and medieval concerns with character, habit, and virtue. Dutifully—and in the end, for her case, unfortunately—she cites Alasdair MacIntyre's definition of virtue: "an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices [such as statecraft]."
Still, for all her allusive range and baroque exposition (as well as a fondness for charts), McCloskey winds up with a thoroughly unexceptionable point: that a bourgeois can be a good person. Despite the volume's intimidating heft and its hinting at a Big Idea, we get a hedge fund of equivocation and back-pedaling. A "bourgeois virtue is a virtue the capitalist system could honor, at least in its preachments"; "Sins, failures, cowardices are not peculiar to capitalism"; "bourgeois life does not participate in the transcendent any more than non-capitalist life"; numerous insistences that capitalism is "compatible with" virtue (all italics mine). This is a bold, brash defiance of Conventional Wisdom? It is conventional wisdom, disguised in a fog of learning, bluster, and charm. McCloskey reveals her pedestrian orthodoxy—and her maladroit grasp of the virtue tradition—when she declares that "charity is not socialism. Generosity is not a system at all. It is of a person, then two, then a few." Virtue is utterly personal, McCloskey implies, and any attempt to "systematize" Christian love will rob it of its authenticity. Whatever you make of that claim, it's certainly not unconventional. In fact, it's arguably been the ideological basis of Anglo-American resistance to social reform of almost any kind.
Virtue ethicists have always acknowledged that a chasm between personal goodness and social vice is common in any historical period. One of the ghastlier paradoxes of chattel slavery, for instance, was that individual masters could be kind and even generous while occupying the command posts of a monstrous institution. (Augustine St. Clare, and even Little Eva, depended on a Simon Legree.) What has often provoked the ire of artists, writers, or socialists is not so much bourgeois virtue as bourgeois hypocrisy—the Christian Gentleman who blathers about family while frequenting brothels, the Christian Capitalist who prays for his brethren while cutting their wages and busting their unions.
But in emphasizing the discrepancy between public "preachment" and personal conduct, bohemians and leftists have also preserved an insight that's central to the virtue tradition: virtue can't be merely personal. From Aristotle to MacIntyre, champions of the virtues have insisted that they can only be exercised properly in a community, be it a polis, a commune, or some other arrangement of human affairs that encourages the performance of those practices indispensable to flourishing. Indeed, those practices are those arrangements, and if virtues only exist in those practices, then they are always already social, comprising a "system," to use McCloskey's pejorative.
More to the point, if virtue is, as McCloskey maintains, "compatible with" capitalism, she's implicitly conceding that capitalism as a system is not virtuous. The bourgeois who cuts wages and benefits, speeds up the pace of factory or office work, introduces technology that deskills or unemploys, or makes useless or tawdry products in an ecologically destructive way, may be a very nice person, good to spouse, children, neighbors, and pets. He or she may donate money to the poor, time to the local soup kitchen, or informed attention to the arts. But none of that changes anything about the injustice, waste, and fraud of the capitalist system. (It's worth recalling—and McCloskey does, curtly—that MacIntyre was once a Marxist, and that, as a Catholic, he continues to express a virulent aversion to capitalism. She might want to ponder why.)
I'm perfectly willing to concede that, on this side of the Kingdom, no economy will ever erase our fallen condition. When socialists maintain that socialism is a political economy of virtue, we're aspiring to no more—and no less—than what Dorothy Day wanted: "a system that makes it easier for people to be good." Socialists (and other opponents of capitalism) maintain that the property relations and productive practices of capitalism make it difficult for people to live out their natures as creative, social beings. (If they're Christians, they hold that capitalism thwarts, and even commodifies, the imago Dei.) Obviously, we and McCloskey disagree about that; but let's at least be clear about the subject of debate. As a system of property and production—not simply "of a person, then two, then a few"—capitalism confuses and even erases what John Ruskin considered the most elementary distinction in genuine economics, that between "wealth" and "illth." That's why, when McCloskey barks that "having a lot is not immoral," or that "Americans have a great deal … because they produce a great deal," she's missing the point. A virtuous evaluation of that "lot" or "deal" might conclude that it's a mountain of shabby, meretricious crap, and that the human and material despoliation involved in its making is an iniquity.
This indifference to social practice as the matrix of virtue explains, I think, why McCloskey can be so insouciant about the effects of capitalist production. Aiming implicitly at renewed interest in localism and handicraft, she envisions the super-charged industrialization of everything. Manufacturing, she hopes, will follow the same fate as "the preparing of food in kitchens and the growing of crops on farms." Oh, that's reassuring. You don't need to have read Wendell Berry, or Michael Pollan, or Eric Schlosser to rue that bountiful day. She even looks forward to the day when academics will join serfs in the dustbin of history. "If the Internet replaces professorial lectures, I will retire gracefully," she assures us. Ponder that, students of McCloskey, for what that swan song suggests is that she doesn't really care about the virtues or practices of teaching. She'd rather you stare at a computer.
If McCloskey were to retire, students would no longer receive the historical miseducation she inflicts on her readers—especially about that system of property and production derided in "the high orthodoxy of the West." Indeed, many if not most undergraduates display a keener historical consciousness than McCloskey, who writes, in all apparent seriousness, that "Abraham shows the bourgeois virtues." McCloskey is serious, of course, because she clearly sees history, as the historian T. S. Ashton once put it, as "the perennial rise of the middle classes." In this view, the bourgeoisie—like capitalism—is always there, slouching toward Wall Street to be born, needing to be released from the repressive or protective restraints of governments, religious institutions, or other impediments to progress. From Babylonian merchants to Flemish tradesmen to English manufacturers to Japanese brokers, history is the Biography of the Bourgeoisie.
McCloskey adopts the same question-begging manner when she defines capitalism as "private property and free labor without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus." That second clause is smoke and mirrors—what economic system isn't regulated by law and ethics?—and the first one contains two conflicted concepts. "Private property" is one of the most ambiguous terms in moral and political thought, while the "freedom" of "free labor" is precisely one of the points at issue in any discussion of capitalism.
Indeed, this definition obscures the inextricable histories of property and labor. It's worth noting here that neither Weber nor Marx believed that greed was the most salient feature of capitalism. This was particularly true of Marx, who quite unambiguously explained, in the first volume of Capital, that capitalism is not distinguishable from other economies by accumulation, or a drive for profit, or reinvestment of surplus. In addition to the ongoing commodification of all social and material life, the primary feature of capitalism involves a metamorphosis in the nature of property relations, specifically between producers and appropriators. Under capitalism, producers are barred from direct access to the means of production. (In England, this process was bound up with the history of parliamentary enclosures, which evicted farmers from land and ended numerous customary rights.) These propertyless producers gain access to productive technology through the sale of their labor to the owner—the capitalist or bourgeois. Unlike slavery or serfdom, capitalist property relations do not entail the use of the state or of other extra-economic forces to compel labor. Capitalism rests on a form of coercion which is purely economic. (You get to choose your master.) The occlusion from visibility of these conditions, prior to the market encounter of worker and owner, enables the ideology of "free labor."
The creation of capitalism was thus a long process of dispossession, compulsion, and re-education into a moral economy of industrial discipline. There are thousands of books on this history, but McCloskey clearly hasn't consulted them. Paying almost all of her historical attention to the burghers, she can assert that England and Holland were "always bourgeois" only because she practices a willful blindness to the stories of labor. When she gets around to those next three volumes, she might want to crack open a few—no, a lot of—books on peasants, artisans, and industrial workers. In the present volume, she only updates the obfuscations of Adam Smith, whose scholarly rehabilitation over the last generation has been a case study in cultural politics. Like many recent students of Smith, McCloskey proudly reminds us that he was a moral philosopher, not a modern, professionalized "economist." Casting Smith as a "radical egalitarian," ardently devoted to the poor and assiduous, McCloskey holds up "sympathy" and "benevolence" as the strongest digits of that "invisible hand" at work crafting a "trusting society."
This is nonsense. Smith's "sympathy" never extended very far beyond ambitious tradesmen and artisans. For the poor and the laborers, Smith recommended hunger as a form of moral education. When corn merchants raise prices, he sagely opined in The Wealth of Nations, they "put the inferior rank of people upon thrift and good management." This early example of compassionate conservatism partakes of a larger indifference to empirical reality. If you know anything about slavery or parliamentary enclosure, you'll know that Smith's magnum opus exhibits his gargantuan historical amnesia. In 1,000 pages, Smith barely mentions the dependence of English manufacturing on American slavery, or the dreary tale of dispossession in the English countryside. With his smoke and mirrors about "natural liberty," Smith inaugurated what E. P. Thompson would later memorably call "the enormous condescension of posterity." (For greater honesty about the ravages of enclosure and "natural liberty," read Smith's near-contemporary James Steuart, whom McCloskey doesn't even mention.)
Aside from his talents in the art of historical camouflage, Smith was a prophet of what Peter Sloterdijk has dubbed "cynical reason": "I know what I'm doing is wrong, but I'll do it anyway." In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which admirers fondly hold up as evidence of their hero's thoughtful probity, Smith praised the civilizing effects of avarice. Fully aware of the folly of pursuing riches—"people ruin themselves," he appeared to scold, "laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility"—Smith mused nonetheless that "it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner." "This deception," he continued, "rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind." That's a pretty clear wink at the duplicity of desire, and despite what they'll say at the Liberty Fund, it really isn't all that far from Bernard Mandeville's more scandalous (and more engaging) celebration of hedonism in The Fable of the Bees. Long before the economist of fashion Paul Nystrom coined the phrase, Smith was pointing to a "philosophy of futility" as the moral economy of capitalism.
McCloskey's remarks on Marx and the Marxist tradition are equally disingenuous. You'd gather from reading her that Marx was just another lazy and spiteful malcontent loitering in the British Museum. We get the standard roster of iniquities laid at Marx's rickety doorstep: envy, economic ineptitude, the horrors of the Gulag. She even grouses that Marx "never picked up a shovel for pay, never so much as set foot in a factory or farm." Well, to borrow from McCloskey's rhetorical repertoire: So What? Neither did Aristotle, nor Aquinas, nor any number of McCloskey's other fondly cited interlocutors. (Neither, by the way, has McCloskey, who writes, two pages later, "I have not worked in a factory." As Mark Twain said, good liars must have good memories.) We're also treated to slander, straight from the latrines of the Ann Coulter Institute of Historical Revisionism. "One can think of the calamities of the twentieth century as caused by the sins of capitalism," McCloskey asserts. "The left does." (Remember: bardic, refreshing, graceful.)
As anyone who's read the Communist Manifesto can avow, Marx praised the bourgeoisie with greater prescience and lyricism than McCloskey could ever muster or acknowledge. Though enraged by the callousness and injustice of capital, Marx wrote with compelling albeit dialectical grandeur about the productive marvels of the bourgeoisie. Its wonders of enterprise, he wrote, surpassed the pyramids, aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals, and its commercial expeditions "put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades." Linking together the most far-flung peoples, dissolving local prejudice in the expansiveness of cosmopolitanism, upsetting the most ancient tyrannies of gender, superstition, and birth, "the bourgeoisie," Marx affirms, "has played a most revolutionary role."
There's more cavalier "history." Workers got the eight-hour day, we learn, "because we got rich." It's hard to know where to begin parsing the fraudulence here. Aside from violating the "we" fallacy—who's we, tough girl?—it takes only a trip to the library to discover that when and where workers got an eight-hour day, they did so as the result of worker agitation and political struggle, both opposed, often viciously, by the virtuous bourgeois McCloskey celebrates. Moreover, as Juliet Schor, Jill Fraser, and Richard Sennett would remind us, the getting of those riches has lengthened and intensified the contemporary working day. (McCloskey, by the way, denies this. Having clearly read too much management theory, she states that "modern capitalist life is love-saturated." It's a great big Group Hug at Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs. So that's why they're called pink slips!) And if you're waiting like I am for Volume 3, you'll discover why World War I can be blamed, not on powerlust among nation-states, but on the "demoralization" of capitalism by artists and intellectuals. Sorry, Kaiser Wilhelm; thanks, Balzac and Dickens.
But the epitome of inanity comes near the beginning, in a preemptive strike intended to deflect any charges of special pleading. Let me cite it with only a few elisions:
… a middle class is capable of evil, even in a God-blessed America. The American bourgeoisie organized official and unofficial apartheids. It conspired against unions … it delighted in red baiting and queer bashing … . During the Second World War, Krupp, Bosch, Hoechst, Bayer, Deutsche Bank, Daimler Benz, Dresdner Bank, and Volkswagen, all of them, used slave labor, with impunity. The bourgeois bankers of Switzerland stored gold for the Nazis … . Even the virtues of the bourgeoisie, Lord knows, do not lead straight to heaven.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the theater?
Both the tendentious history and the befuddled account of virtue are inseparable from McCloskey's theological confusion. She doesn't hide her ambition to be a theologian of economics. The problem is that, like so much else in this book, her attempts at theologizing are clumsy and haphazard. Her scriptural exegesis, for instance, is dreadful. To her credit, McCloskey doesn't deny that the Gospel is a scandal to the acquisitive. She calls the Sermon on the Mount "the most socialist of Christian texts," and concedes that Jesus would not "have thrilled to the modern bourgeoisie." But ah, she recovers, the Sermon mentions rewards, so Christianity can't be entirely selfless and imprudent; and Jesus, far from being a saintly hobo, was a carpenter who "lived in a thoroughly market-oriented economy." Now, as a Christian and a socialist, I was never aware that either commitment entailed indifference to material life. If the meek inherit the earth, or the laborer receives his due, that's a moment or a foretaste of the Kingdom to come. The land of milk and honey and the City of many jewels are the voluptuous images of redemption. And as a distinguished professor of economics and history should know, a "market-oriented economy"—whatever that is, given that there are all sorts of markets—isn't necessarily capitalist, so the comparison is inapt.
When McCloskey turns from Scripture to theology, things get even worse. In a characteristically brief and scattershot chapter on "economic theology," she praises the work of Robert Nelson, a curmudgeonly libertarian who is also an "environmentalist." (Of the "wise use" variety. I once saw Nelson in action at Baylor. He informed his mostly fawning audience that resistance to the "religion of the market" was futile. They ate it up, and begged for seconds.) Seconding Nelson's belief that economics is "the theology of a new religion of economics," McCloskey also shares his conviction that "the American civil religion needs renewal." What we need, she agrees, is a "postmodern economic theology," a new benediction on the free market.
As that bland and uncritical remark about "civil religion" suggests, McCloskey's understanding of religion and theology is fundamentally utilitarian. For all her concern about the spiritual poverty of economics, she never allows theology to seriously interrogate the conceptual architecture of the discipline. Too often, McCloskey's moral reflection becomes indistinguishable from algebra. Despite her assurance that she's eschewing "literally quantitative research" in morality, she actually translates human conduct into what can only be called an econometrics of virtue. Her challenges to the rhetoric of pecuniary reason are half-hearted at best, revealing her persistent allegiance to the metaphysics of capitalism.
Consider McCloskey's comments on the Anglican Confession of Sin. Noting the Confession's acknowledgement that we have offended God through sins of commission and omission, she glosses the avowal as a statement of "our ordinary inability to balance our virtues in a world of scarcity." This doesn't just let us off the hook too easily; it never puts us on the hook. The Confession of Sin makes no sense unless the world is a place of abundance. A world of scarcity—the ontological template of capitalist economics—mandates a "balancing" of virtues, a mealy allocation of limited resources in virtue, especially charity. ("Balance" is one of the more noble-sounding buzzwords in the lexicon of compassionate stinginess. Like bourgeois bleating about "wanted" children, it conceals a parsimonious and resentful reluctance to share the fruits of the earth.)
We can make no sense of Christ's injunction to heavenly perfection if we accept this ontology of penury and violence. The God who calls us to be like Him is a lavish and spendthrift Creator, a prodigal Father who will never cut production of material and spiritual provision. (So much for the corporation as "the mirror of God's creativity.") As Augustine realized, the imperfection of sin consists in privation, our lack of trust in God's plenitude, our mean and shameful holding back in a fearful desire for power. If the world were a place of scarcity, sin would become necessity—in other words, not sin. Capitalist economics is the theology of scarcity, or a narrative in which the expulsion from Eden is the opening chapter of Genesis. To see the world as unending bounty is not to deny the consequences of the Fall; it's to recognize the nature and magnitude of the tragedy, and the difficulty of living well.
It isn't clear that McCloskey really believes in original sin, anyway. Like so many other religious conservatives, she pulls it out when she needs an exculpatory witness for the inexorable unpleasantries of the free market. When removed from the realm of structure and causality, original sin becomes the perfect alibi when the powerful can't deny their prints on the weapon. But what are we to make, then, of McCloskey's throwaway espousal of "a capitalist version of Pelagianism"? It could be another instance of her magpie erudition, but I think that McCloskey is right. From Pelagius to Charles Grandison Finney, Pelagians have always insisted on salvation through works. What better economy than capitalism could there be for the moral and spiritual over-achiever? In its obsessions with industriousness, achievement, and "personal choice," capitalism is the paradise of the Pelagian heresy.
Paradise and beatitude are, in the end, the unacknowledged longings of economic life. Our imperium of money has been an elaborate attempt to divert our attention from those desires. For the last generation, we've been admonished to lock "utopia" in the attic of historical nightmares and dwell within the cheerfully commercial boundaries of the capitalist imagination. It's been busy and entertaining and, until recently, it's been safe. The poor were forgotten or chastised, the critics were stifled or bribed, and the billions in the slums of globalization's wake were silenced with promises and missiles. But as Mike Davis puts it in Planet of Slums with grim and austere eloquence, "the gods of chaos are on their side." The wretched are increasingly unwilling to abide our imperial theodicy and our condescension. And as even McCloskey concedes, the imperium has gotten boring—a possible symptom of ontological dread, a dim recognition of some failure or lack in the fulfillment of our real desires. Perhaps soon—sooner than we think, or has it already begun?—much of what passes for realism will appear as the romanticism of venality, the mythology of avarice and dominion. "All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil." Hopkins knew that avarice was a yearning for the dearest freshness deep down things. Like him, I'll wager that only theology can truly tell us the name of our desire; only theology can reveal love as the metaphysical foundation of the world. It can unfasten the padlock on "utopia," soar over the walls of mercenary realism, commence a breakthrough to the other side.
Eugene McCarraher is a professor of humanities and director of graduate liberal studies at Villanova University.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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