Sermon: The Underside of Capitalism

By Sheri Hostetler

This is the second sermon in a Lenten series called “Capitalism: A Bible Study.”

Mark 10:17-31

I will start right off by saying that this sermon is going to be about the “underside of capitalism.” It’s going to be about violence and exploitation and suffering. It’s going to be about what we generally don’t talk about in this country, where it’s often assumed that capitalism is the best economic system ever and that anyone who thinks otherwise is nuts or godless or naive. I will also say that this is a complicated topic, and I enter it with some trepidation. There are libraries that could be filled just with books written about capitalism by people who make wildly divergent claims about it.

I also want to say that I think capitalism has brought about some good things. I am not in the “capitalism is all evil all the time” camp. Karl Marx himself believed that capitalism — despite its many problems — had the great virtue of immensely increasing the productivity of labor to the degree that society could finally overcome the scourges of scarcity and necessity. Capitalism has greatly increased economic growth and standards of living. It has lifted many people out of poverty to the point that more people today die of diseases related to overeating  — like diabetes and heart disease — than to starvation. Others celebrate the dynamism, freedom and creativity that capitalism unleashes.

But we know this. We hear this all the time because this is the standard story in our country. Today, I want to tell another story, one that we don’t hear at all or nearly as often and that, I believe, also has to be reckoned with as we reckon with capitalism and our faith.

Imagine that you are a European serf. (And some of your ancestors were.) You work as a farmer for a landlord, who owns most of the land and who gets the food you grow. However, you are given a small piece of land to grow food for your family. In addition, there are the “commons” — meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures — that help sustain you. You gather wood with which to heat and cook and build; you fish for trout and hunt for rabbits; you graze animals in the wild pastures. You can at least get by, not starve. But this is not a great life. The landlord owns your labor and your possessions and much of your life is dictated by him You’re constantly resisting the power of this landlord, constantly trying to grab some more autonomy and sustenance for yourself. This is the feudal system, and it has existed for almost 1000 years in Europe. (Much of this history is indebted to Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.)

The Black Death irrevocably changes this power dynamic between landowners and peasants. Over 30-40% of the population of Europe dies during this plague that sweeps the land in the mid-1300s. Suddenly, there is a drastic shortage of labor and an abundance of land. This gives the peasants who survive much more power than they ever had over the last ten centuries, and it begins to level the inequalities between landowners and peasants. The wages of peasants increase, prices and rents go down, the working day decreases, and there is a continuing trend toward local self-sufficiency, toward groups of peasants being able to support themselves with land and labor they own. Landowners  and merchants and states fight back against this shift in power through a variety of measures designed to reverse these trends, including violence. The peasants revolt and resist. Some of the peasants propose a whole new society based on equal sharing of goods. Many of these communalistic social movements are fueled by religious fervor — by common people reading the Bible and taking to heart the words of Jesus and the description of the early church community in Acts where all goods were shared in common and no one knew want or hunger. If all this sounds like Anabaptism, you get an A+! Our ancestors, the Anabaptists, were in the thick of this new visioning of what a society free of haves and have-nots could look like.

This was a turning point in European, and world, history. A 1000-year-long economic system was being overturned and what replaced it was up for grabs. Was it going to be communalism, where resources were shared in common? Or would something else emerge? Of course, we know now that something else did emerge: capitalism. It took a long time for Europe to transition between feudalism and capitalism as we know it — hundreds of years. And the history of that violent and bloody transition is largely unknown to us.

How did some people acquire the capital — the large amount of money needed — to start a profitable industry? How did they get the funds to do the research and development necessary to bring about the great inventions of the industrial age, all of which required loads of capital? And how did some people become workers in those factories or mines? Last summer, we visited a slate mine in Wales. We learned of workers as young as 8 who would go down into the belly of a mountain for 12 hours a day, six days a week and dynamite slate out of it. It was, needless to say, incredibly dangerous work. And they worked in complete darkness because the mine owners didn’t supply lighting for them. They had to buy their own candles and matches, and they didn’t have a lot of money for this. So, every once in a while, they would light a candle to see what they were doing. I left there wondering, “Why in the world would anyone leave their farm where you get to milk cows in daylight to do something like this?”

So how do you get capitalists — people who have accumulated capital — and how do you get workers? How did that history go down? Well, you have to get the peasants off their land because so long as they have access to land by which they can support themselves, they are not going to go willingly into a suffocating factory or a lightless mine for 12 hours a day and become “wage slaves.”  In addition to expropriating peasant land, you have to “privatize” the commons — the rivers, the woods, the pastures — so that the peasants can’t get the other necessities they need to live.  And then you train them to be workers. As my sociologist husband, Jerome, said to me: “Workers don’t just become workers overnight. They have to be taught how to be workers, how to live by the clock and how to do one repetitive thing over and over and over. They had to lock people into the first factories because no one wanted to be there.” People had to be formed into folks willing to work in an unlighted mine for 12 hours a day. And more than anything else, they needed to have no other choice.

You also make an all-out assault on women and their freedom and their value and their reproductive rights. A capitalist economy needs workers, more than it even needs land. And so you criminalize contraception and abortion, all of which happened in the transition to capitalism. In addition, you devalue the work of women because it doesn’t produce a wage. The men may go to the mines and work for pay, but the women need to stay at home and cook and clean and raise babies, work which sustains and creates all of those workers and all of which is, blessedly, done for free, because it’s not paid labor in a capitalist economy and is, therefore, worth literally nothing, even though it very much benefits the capitalists.

And you launch a global offensive, plundering the wealth and resources of other lands and stealing the lives of those peoples.  All that land you steal from Indigenous people, all that gold and silver mined by Indigenous slaves, all that cotton and sugar produced by African slaves, that wealth flows into the coffers of the European elite and provides the basis for a fantastic accumulation of capital. In turn, according to historian Robert Allen, these accumulations foster industrial and cultural development.  The development of the steam engine, heavy industry, ship-building and many modern financial institutions… are all funded directly or indirectly by the slave trade and other forms of colonial exploitation. Indeed, Allen says, “It is no exaggeration to suggest that the Industrial Revolution, which enabled Europe and North America to leap far ahead of the rest of the world in material welfare, would have been delayed, possibly by many generations, were it not for the capital yielded by colonialism.” (From his book Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States.)

Now, it would be one thing if this history of blood and violence and suffering were a thing of the past. In fact, I started working on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition because it isn’t a thing of the past. In Suriname and Nicaragua and Congo, the land and resources of Indigenous people are still being taken through a complex collusion between corporations, governments and international banks. Like the European peasants of the 19th century, people are being forced off their land, forced to move to urban areas and become low-wage workers in the global economy.  As in the 19th century, it is still very much in the interest of capitalism to have a large pool of poor, easily exploitable workers — the underclass — because then you can pay them less and also use them to drive down the wages of other workers because they fear their jobs will go to them. And, as the documentary Thirteenth makes so chillingly clear, we are still virtually enslaving people of African descent — forcing them to work for free — in this country, except now it’s called mass incarceration instead of chattel slavery. And the commons is still being privatized. As entrepreneur Peter Barnes (who is no anti-capitalist crusader) says, “For three hundreds years the market has been privatizing everything (in the commons) it can get its hands on.”  (From his lecture “Capitalism, the Commons and Divine Right”.) So, today our public schools and prisons are being privatized; seeds have been privatized; the commons called the Internet is in danger of being privatized. And our air, oceans, rivers, and soil have become the private dumping grounds for corporations.

And here’s the thing that really gets me. We are still telling the same untruths about all of this that we did 250 years ago. Adam Smith, the philosopher of modern capitalism, contended that capitalists acquired their capital via a peaceful process in which they simply worked harder than everybody else and saved and eventually built up enough capital to become the owners. They were diligent and thrifty and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and if everyone just did what they did they, too, could be a part of the 1%. And we’re still saying this today. Karl Marx rejected this explanation as “childishness,” as ahistorical, as a refusal to see the violence and exploitation by which capital is accumulated.

Deep breath.

Just as last week we needed a lot of socioeconomic context for ancient Israel  to understand the Bible passage, so today I think we need this socioeconomic context for our present time to understand our Bible passage for today. Now there was no capitalism in Jesus’ time. But there was  tremendous disparity between owners and workers. The rich man who approaches Jesus, asking about how he might inherit eternal life is from the tiny class of people who owned land in Jewish Palestine. (Much of this exegesis is from the fourth chapter of Biblical scholar Ched Myers’ book The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.) These landowners acquired their large holdings in several ways, but mainly through foreclosures. Small landowners had to pay taxes, tithes, rent, and operating expenses. They often had to get loans to pay for all of this, with their land as collateral, and those loans came from the large landowners. When they defaulted, the landowners took the land in payment. This is not unlike how many people lose their land today. It’s how many people lost their homes during the credit crisis of 2008. This is how socioeconomic inequality had become so widespread in the time of Jesus.

Jesus would have been well aware of all this, and it forms the background to his answer to the rich man. Jesus tells him to keep the ten commandments, but he replaces the commandment “do not covet what belongs to you neighbor” with “do not defraud,” which is a commandment elsewhere in Leviticus but not in the Ten Commandments. By reinterpreting the Ten Commandments this way, Jesus is intentionally highlighting the “fraudulent” way by which the rich man has gained his wealth. Jesus is calling out those foreclosures as an “illegitimate expropriation of his neighbor’s land.” The rich owner doesn’t see what he’s done as fraud — it’s just the way things are, right? and it’s perfectly legal within that economic system. He declares to Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments since he was young. And Jesus says, just to make it really clear, “You need to do one more thing then. You need to go and sell your land and give it to the poor. Then you can follow me.”

In other words, you need to make reparations before you can be one of my disciples. You need to redistribute your ill-gotten surplus to those from whom you got it. Then, Jesus says, this man will have treasure in heaven. The man knows he isn’t ready to do this. He’s shocked that Jesus even suggests it! And he goes away, grieving.

Jesus turns to his disciples and says that it is really hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Because he knows how hard it will be for people to make reparations. He knows this will be seen as craziness in his time, and, in fact, it’s still seen as crazy. As Myers says, “In capitalism, redistributive justice is high heresy — but Mark’s Jesus has clearly equated it with the Kingdom of God.” The rich who have acquired their money fraudulently can’t enter this Kingdom because there are no exploiting rich and exploited poor in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a whole other socioeconomic system that seems to look much more like that communalistic vision that our Anabaptist ancestors had in the 1500s.

I know reparations seems improbable to many of us. I know that communalistic vision seems impossible. If this is what it takes to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then we might very well ask — as did Jesus’ disciples — “Then who can be saved?” And still, we hear the same reply: “For us mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” May it be so. Amen.