Capitalists and Democrats in a world of materialists

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
December 30th, 2013

“One can marry for love, or one can marry for money. The very fortunate marry for both.” — Wm. Cobbett

“There are two things in the world, power and love. No one has both.”  — inscribed on a Roman monument

To begin, one might want to read this essay by Richard Wolff.

How to govern, and how to “make a living”

Government and economy are not the same, so it is no deep truth to say democracy and capitalism are not necessarily found together. Historical examples of democracy without capitalism are abundant. Classical Athens practised very radical democracy for citizens; one had to be male but property ownership or wealth was not a criterion for citizenship – and each citizen had to be in the assembly to vote, not send some person to “represent” his choices.

Imperial Rome was not a democracy but an absolute monarchy slightly veiled by a Senate and assemblies but truly based on the emperor’s armies; like Athens’, Rome’s economy depended on human slavery. But the curious thing about Roman Law, based on an economy not at all like capitalist markets, is this: it became the foundation of property and contract law in the legal systems of modern nations like France and Germany in the age of capitalism.

Democracy flourished in Italy’s medieval urban communes, and in the rural agrarian society of medieval Germany and England, and examples of democratic rule without capitalism can be multiplied in other continents and ages.

The point is, the invention of the capitalist method of economics came late, much later than democracy.

When capital and the bourgeois capitalist founded representative democracy

Capitalism is not an easy system to sum up in a few words. But it manifestly is not a system tending toward equality of result in the pursuit of wealth. Some few amass riches, a large number are merely middle class, and a larger number still are workers with small property or none. Capitalists are the super wealthy, they form a ruling class, and they maintain their wealth by ensuring that government institutions and legal systems cannot challenge the basic fact of inequality of wealth.

The origins of modern capitalism and representative democratic government occur together in history. This chronology has led some to argue that free market capitalism is the reason we have democracy.

The Dutch and the English pioneered capitalism in early modern Europe, with foreshadowing in Italy. Dutch and English merchants, burghers and bourgeoisie in urban habitats, grew wealthy in commerce overseas to Asia and to colonial America. The English House of Commons was the organ of government that empowered the merchant middle class in politics, whereas the House of Lords was the organ of aristocratic, landed wealth. Over centuries, the commoners in the bourgeoisie had to pry power out of the hands of the nobility and the kings. The Dutch overthrew their Spanish kings and instituted a capitalist Republic; the English, after a failed experiment in Cromwell’s republic and protectorate, kept their kings but eventually stripped power from the monarchy and aristocracy.

Therefore, one might conclude, capitalism is the origin of democracy as practised today: Were it not for the capitalists of the merchant middle class there would have been no end to the power of noble lords. It’s a suspect conclusion, though. Democracy is for all the people, not just for the capitalists, and it is rather clear that when the majority want government to share out the wealth of capitalism more equally, the minority who own the great wealth are able to defeat the drive toward equality and sustain the inequality of wealth. Some inequality is no doubt reasonable, but the abyss between the top one or two percent in society and the rest of us has grown stupendously since about 1970.

Where materialism and the immaterial meet

The Christian tradition has a well-worn proverb about the human condition and human greed: “Man does not live by bread alone.” Greed is held in low regard throughout the scriptures of both testaments of the Bible. Yet evidence is there also that rich men are not forced to give away their wealth by the governments of their time; for every Old Testament prophet who railed against the kings and lords of ancient Israel for the social injustice and inequality that oppressed the poor, there were priests and texts who upheld the right of the noble classes to own more and enjoy their wealth.

It is impossible to know today just how much the moral teaching of  prophets and holy scripture was able to mitigate the ill effect on Israel’s society of its over-wealthy class of landowners and warlords. But it is quite certain that Jesus of Nazareth lived in a time when the Roman Empire and the wealthy and priestly classes of Judea with their massive Temple in Jerusalem, enforced a social order of misery for the poor. The teachings of Jesus about social justice were one part of his message, but not the whole. (The very best scholar on this subject is John D. Crossan; his books on Jesus are readable and revealing.)

Christianity underwent a great transformation – indeed, historians call it the Reformation – just at the time Dutch and English capitalists were assuming power from the feudal nobility and kings. It is an inherently democratic idea that a man needs no Church clergy, no pope or liturgy or doctrine or sacrament, to earn Salvation. The Roman Catholic church was a mighty hierarchy in the medieval, feudal era of European history, but during the rise of capitalist economics, Protestantism emerged with an emphasis on personal salvation through grace. This idea was clearly important for men who asserted their political right to be represented in a parliament and to select those members of the House of Commons in free elections.

Material possessions, wealth measured in money, land, ships, factories – in one word, wealth measured in Capital – at some point in human experience must make peace with human conscience. How we make the inequality of capitalism acceptable, how we understand the yawning gap between the rich and  the poor as a morally-tolerable fact, is the question that troubles any person of sensitivity and insight.

Canada, democracy and inequality

There was a “rant” on Jian Ghomeshi’s CBC program this week, passionately questioning the ending of door-to-door post office mail delivery, along this line: “Isn’t Canada better than this? Do we not put people before profit in this country?”

Canadians are faced with the same issue as all the developed nations just now, when capitalism is in crisis ever since the 2008 Wall St. Meltdown. Our economic system is not giving us security; far from it. Our industrial capitalist way of life has contributed to, if not caused, climate change – and we seem unable to do anything to alter our way. What’s a wise course for government to promote human wellbeing?

Harperite conservatism is one response. It does not advocate any change in course for capitalism. Our democracy must enable capitalism to do its work, developing our natural resources in exchange for providing you and I with employment and pay-cheques to purchase our high standard of living.

Socialism is apparently quite dead. Government will not, and cannot, plan the economy for human good; where that was tried (USSR) the result was catastrophe for the people and the environment. Chinese socialism has invited capitalism to grow the economy under non-democratic rule, and capitalism is only too happy to oblige. The Chinese Communist Party invited its people to “enrich yourselves!” India, Brazil,  Arab princes and many other nations want capitalism to enrich them.

It seems not impossible to me for us to backtrack to a time, pre-1980 or so, when government in a democracy did regulate capitalism sufficiently to deliver a decent standard of living to all citizens. A time when mentally-ill people could be housed rather than live on the streets. A time when the old were guaranteed a decent life after working all their lives. A time when our infrastructures – healthcare, education, roads, rails, bridges, and urban transit, for example – was financed by governments who taxed corporate wealth adequately to sustain these necessary public goods.

What is the common good?

Last week, a public-hearing process into the Enbridge pipeline project across northern BC delivered its report. The conclusion was that the pipeline would be “in the public interest of Canadians.”

We still use the phrase, “the public interest.” We retain a notion of some common ground among us. The common good of Canadians is, however, not a universally-agreed concept. Prime Minister Harper and I probably have quite distinct ideas about it. This disagreement is like puzzling over “the meaning of Christmas.” Has anyone not wondered how we let Christmas become such a travesty of materialist consumption? Charles Dickens was worrying about Christmas 200 years ago; I am reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Its moral is obvious. Scrooge, the arch-exemplar of a capitalist, is transformed by the compassion of ghosts at Christmas into a paragon of kindness and generosity. This season’s way of celebration has not stopped being a worry over my lifetime, and I am sure the commercialism that my grandmother regretted in 1963 cannot come close to the manifestation of commercialism of 2013. Call it the Christmas conundrum: is commerce or kindness more important to our celebration?

My abiding interest in writing Arc columns has been to explore the connections between politics and politicians, the worldview we call “scientific materialism,” and immaterial, spiritual, qualities of the human being and human consciousness. Nothing that happens in politics (e.g. democracy) or in economics (e.g. capitalism) is irrelevant to what is occurring deep within the mysterious realm of mind and spirit. Capitalism is a human phenomenon. It is not a machine. We choose to let it endure.

If we seem, at this point in human experience, in history, to face a choice —  either capitalism or democracy — that has come about because of what we are. We are the beings who desire material wealth. We are the beings who desire to be free, not ruled against our will. We can have both.

Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.

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