COLUMN: What lasts?
What Lasts? A holy Book– and an unholy $ystem
“… This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” — child’s hymn, Jesus loves me
“I am an anti-Christ / I am an anarchist
I don’t know what I want / but I know how to get it
I want to destroy passersby . . .
. . . Your future dream is a shopping scheme.” — Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the UK
I have chosen a topic worthy of deep delving, so I have divided it into three parts.
When any phenomenon in human history demonstrates long-lasting power and influence over masses of very diverse human beings, historians look for coherent explanations. And so today, entertaining my curiosity about longevity in historic trends, I am asking about two enduring facts in our cultural history – a religious book and a socio-political-economic system – in this column.
Why is the Bible such a perennial artefact, so amazing in its cultural power as measured by several criteria?
Why is the system of capitalism in all its facets so constant, so very potent, in its ability to persist — despite a daunting array of opinion and action marshalled against it?
My answers are of course not definitive, but I have to make the attempt. The question of how to leave a cultural tradition and entrenched way of life behind, to shed them and put on another, I will not attempt to answer. Not today.
Culture, the necessary condition of being human
Both these things, the Bible and capitalism, are ingredients in human culture — but of very different types. Culture is what the “sapiens” in homo sapiens defines. We humans invent and construct, we possess consciousness, we exercise forethought and imagination, we cogitate, we theorize, we plan: we communicate all this to one another. This is culture.
Neither of the two – book or system — is a part of what we understand as nature. They are the making of human beings, in the social mass and by individuals, created and constructed from the living person (mind, body, emotion, spirit) and from the physical world we must live in.
The former is a book, holy scripture for two world religions. The latter is an all-encompassing method of organizing human civilization, summed up in a single word. Capitalism is economy, politics, government, psychology, society, ideology, perhaps substitute religion, all deriving their character from capital.
The Bible’s power requires less said about it than capitalism; the book is in fact a significant forerunner of the System – but in ways not straightforward to declare.
There is a substantial literature arguing a relationship between the Protestant form of Christian Bible use and the rise of capitalism, that the two are symbiotic. Democracy and capital became foundations of the modern West, of our economics and of our politics, due to Protestant Christian reform. It might be that capitalists were first shaped into entrepreneurs and democrats by their religious ideologies. But this is nothing that can be proved beyond doubt, it is merely a fascinating historical possibility.
The two are embedded within human culture. With capitalism being a complicated abstract, while the Bible is a simple concrete noun, one must expect the capitalist phenomenon to demand a different kind of understanding, a distinctive analysis, from the way we think about the literary object one can hold in one’s hand.
And so, first the Bible, and then Capitalism…
Christendom establishes a New World Order
What grew from the soil of Western Christian civilization and its evolved forms of government and economics has become the foundation of the modern global order in the past two centuries. Capitalism is an invention of Christendom’s people.
Today, such global institutions as the United Nations, World Court, and the development of international law are recognizably the consequence of the era of Western imperial world hegemony. The West invented modernity: the Bible is a basic fact of the West and all it has brought into its sphere. This book endures.
Global society begins in the 20th century, born of world wars and the world market.
China’s leadership, its one-party communist state, its officially-propagated state culture, today resent the fact that the West dominated recent history. And yet China is a political and economic entity shaped by the West, by modernity, Marxism and capitalism. India and Brazil, two vast developing nations, have experienced the rule of European empires, and bear the traces of that history. Russia, sprawling and powerful, is an odd case, a partially-Western nation deeply influenced by Greek Christianity and German Marxism and by quasi-Asiatic Tsarism in historical development; like China, Russia is adapting capitalism to its peculiar situation.
[see here an excellent essay on how the West once led but is in decline:
“It promotesmarket fundamentalism, mass migration, and military intervention in the name of supposedly universal principles — but in reality Western liberal values are a mix of oligarchic democracy, individualistic human rights, and cultural relativism.” ]
The Bible: lasting power and historical wrongs
One must be able to praise the Bible without being suspected of a cultural bias or ethnocentrism because one is, as I am, of the European Christian civilization and tradition rooted in the West. This book is the foundational literature of my tradition, and though I am not a Christian, I am in awe of the book’s pervasive influence.
It is an object of the West’s history and culture, and so the Bible is naturally integrated with any of Western civilization’s development over time. In very recent history, several Western nation-states went out on the oceans to contact alien lands and eventually became very powerful empires spreading their culture by colonialism.
Colonialism in the twenty-first century, viewed from this end of history, is morally condemned, its practitioners expected to demonstrate shame and guilt for the deadly effects of empire on indigenous peoples outside Europe. The injustice and immorality of colonialism is held to be self-evident by progressivist opinion in the West and the wider global community. China, Africa, South Asia, Latin America and North America contain huge numbers of people who hold a consensus that Western empires were evil.
The Bible and European Power
The Christian Bible and religion are implicated in this historical wrong. The declared justification of early European empire-builders was to bring true religion, the West’s monopoly of revealed truth about God, to all the non-Christian people of the globe. This fact implicated Christianity in colonialism; the religion seems unlikely to be forgiven by native peoples who suffered cultural near-genocide at the hands of men and women who were clergy of the Churches in the European imperial nations.
The modern state of Israel is founded on biblical justification for Jews to live in the ancient “promised holy land” (Zionism); that the west-Asian indigenous people of old Canaan might consider Israel to be another invasive European colonial state, conquered unjustly and occupied since 1948, is one more instance of how the (Jewish) Bible might provoke resentment from victims of Israeli imperial/colonial policy. But regardless of all this distressful history, the Bible is not to blame.
To sum up, the 2000-year-old book is not respected by all people, but not because of the book’s contents. It is because of historic political and military actions by those people who think it is holy scripture, that the Bible provokes of anger and not admiration. Christians from Europe have been, historically recently, oppressors and conquerors over non-European peoples.
The Bible: pervasive influence
Notwithstanding the foregoing observations, the cultural enrichment of the world by the contents of the Bible is undeniable. And the religion of the book made lasting converts among millions of people in the colonized continents.
“The Bible is centrally important to both Judaism and Christianity … To have as its holy text a mixture of works of many genres – predominantly narratives, aphorisms, poems and letters – introduces great complexity into Christianity… Judaism has a more subtle approach to the Bible: … it does not claim that everything in the religion as actually practiced is biblically derived, and recognizes development in new directions.”
— John Barton, A History of the Bible: the story of the world’s most influential book.
No one of the West who has claim to a good education is ignorant of some of the biblical literature, so often quoted and alluded to. Western literature, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, history, architecture and philosophies are inextricably infused with biblical themes. Even non-Western peoples who have elite cosmopolitan education in global culture will possess such knowledge. To know nothing of the contents of this book is to be somewhat culturally under-educated, or at least that is likely how other people of elite status will see one.
“The Bible has two kinds of presence in the modern world. First, in western societies, it survives as a trace or ghost at the edges of both popular and literate culture, known in fragments as the source of quotations and allusions… The Bible has not died out of popular culture, as secularists might have predicted… [It] still has major cultural importance in the USA, far more than in Europe… [It] remains a best-seller in most European countries, even though detailed study of it has become a minority interest as the appeal of Christianity wanes.” — John Barton
Finally, the Bible is “holy scripture” for over two billion professing Christians worldwide, and some twenty million Jews. The Quran is holy to Islam in much the same way, and exercises much the same cachet in that community. But Islam’s era of political-military leadership was longer ago in history than the age of Christian primacy in the world’s political order, and Islam has had less influence in modernity. Islam resents this in certain quarters and this resentment has immense significance. The West and Islam must work out the relationship, still.
The Bible is the most-published and most-translated book in all human history, without a rival. Capitalism also has no viable rival on the planet, economically.
To capitalism I now turn. Criticism of capitalism and of the biblical religions are wide in scope, and yet… their pervasive, persistent, enduring power is undeniable.
Capital: impossible to replace?
Capitalism superseded previous human social and economic systems of organizing ourselves. Cultural evolution does not cease. Can capitalism become something else over time? Will it transform into a different order? I hazard to say, not easily, and perhaps I might even hazard to say, not likely. It is as least as probable that, rather than human beings fundamentally altering capitalism, the latter will alter us.
[Yuval Harari is convinced that we will not be homo sapiens in the near future. Check out his thesis here: https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/2017/3/27/14780114/yuval-harari-ai-vr-consciousness-sapiens-homo-deus-podcast
But Harari is also an optimist, as shown here: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/yuval-noah-harari-it-takes-just-one-fool-to-start-a-war-1.3610304]
Capitalism superseded all the forms of human economics based on production that originates from the soil, from arable land and the social orders rooted in classes of people who appropriate land as private property and create hierarchy on that basis.
Until humans learned agriculture, egalitarian societies were the norm, and social stratification had little upon which to construct itself. But with surplus production of food, private property in land, and the invention of the long-lasting practice of hierarchy and “nobility” in society and politics, inequality and patriarchy became the new normal. The strong exploited the weak, took the best and the most from the economy, and monopolized political power at the top, for millennia.
Capitalism is the new order after agrarianism, and is rooted in capital, not landed property and lordship over people bonded to the land. It superseded the power of agrarian noble lords with the power of urban commercial “middle-class” capitalists.
A cautionary note: to say capitalists are in a middle class is misleading. The word meant middle in terms of political and social power in the 19th century when nobility was still quite elevated in these spheres, but as the amassed wealth of capitalists grew so vast, their power over all others including lords of the old aristocracies was clear. The capitalists are the ruling class now, wherever capitalism holds sway.
Capitalism will not be superseded unless something other than capital is at the basis of our economic existence. There have been idealized models of what that might be – socialism in the Marxian mode springs to mind – yet none of the models proposes a substitute for capital, only a redistributing of the production of wealth and the power to govern, which are in the hands of capitalists now.
Capital is a simple word to describe a complex manner of human use of material and technology. Technology has only become so complex and very capital-intensive since we made capital the major basis of our economy, and indeed capitalism drove technology forward fast. The book to read on this is Yuval Harari, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, the last few chapters.
End of Part One