Weekly Edgework #36 - Mar. 7, 2005

Neither Communist nor Capitalist

“Ironically, according to the proponents of capitalism, people who are selfishly motivated to maximise profits will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Capitalists believe that their economic system creates social good out of the selfish motivations of the individual” (Partly right, Tony Campolo, p.180).

When I was in grade school in the late 1950s at the height of the Cold War I hated communists. I had never met one but I knew they were all evil. I heard my father recount tales he had heard of torture and brutality that Mennonites in Russia had suffered during and after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Communists didn’t believe in God, so they were controlled by the Devil. I heard adults talk about how they were trying to take over the world. My uncles and older cousins went up north to help construct the Distant Early Warning Line, commonly referred to as the DEW Line. It was designed to detect Russian aircraft coming over the North Pole to bomb North America into submission.

Meanwhile the United States and Russia were both building bigger and more powerful atomic bombs in an attempt to scare each other. One of my friends, a few years older than me, told me one day in hushed tones that he had heard that if North America didn’t give in to communism by 1960, Russia would blow up North America. I was scared. Relatives living in Winnipeg had figured out the easiest route to get out of the city to our farm should the sirens go off in the city warning of in-coming bombers. Communism hung over my childhood like an ominous cloud.

During those childhood years I had not heard of the word “capitalism”. I did know however, that North America considered itself free, but afraid that it might lose its freedom to communism. That freedom meant you could get any kind of job you wanted and live where you wanted. If you worked hard you could get rich. If you were lazy you would likely be poor. I heard many stories illustrating both choices, always with the view toward encouraging me to work hard. I also knew that this way of life was God’s way because we thanked God in church for blessing us with freedom and prayed for protection from those godless communists. God was on our side – no question!

During my university days in the 1960s I enrolled in the course, Introduction to Economics, 101. I did not yet know how naïve I was. When I opened the big green textbook and began to read I was dismayed by the first sentence in the introduction. I read the following words: “Capitalism is an economic system based on human greed.” Really, I thought – in that case how can it be Christian? I knew the Bible taught against greed, but all the Christians I knew accepted capitalism without question. The introduction continued to summarise how common greed sets up a healthy competition for limited resources, which in the end raises the standard of living for everyone. Economic benefits trickle down from the big winners to the small players in the game of greed called capitalism. How could I talk to my father about my discovery? I didn’t know. He was an ardent Christian capitalist.

In the 1970s I found myself living and working as a missionary in rural Bolivia. I became friends with some Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers who were helping poor farmers organise local co-operatives so they could get fair prices for their produce. As it was, local capitalist entrepreneurs were gouging these farmers when they tried to sell their produce individually. I saw how the co-op movement was helping the poor. One day a senior missionary warned me not to be seen in the company of MCCers because many government officials considered them to be communist sympathisers. I was aghast at the allegations. But continued my friendship with MCCers in spite of the warnings.

One day I met a Catholic priest who was also involved in helping the poor. He told me that he always hid any books he had related to co-operatives because if the police, who regularly raided his home, found such material he would be arrested as a subversive. I found myself in the thick of a ground war between competing economic systems. My senior missionary saw me being swallowed up by the communist lie. Yet, ironically, the communist manifesto – From everyone according to his abilities. To everyone according to his needs - sounded like something Jesus would say. It certainly sounded better than the capitalist manifesto of greed.

Now I live in the 21st century. After much study, observation and reflection I am ready to admit that I am neither a communist nor a capitalist. Both are humanistic philosophies – one overtly so and the other often sugar-coated with religious sentiments. The communist manifesto sounds better than the capitalist one. If I were forced to choose based on these manifestos alone, I would be a communist because I know I would be closer to the values of Jesus. But I have seen repeatedly how the communist vision enslaves people instead of liberating them. I believe that is the case because they have not factored in the depravity of human nature. Without spiritual moorings, communism invariably succumbs to corruption and greed, feeding on the backs of the masses it purports to liberate.

At the same time, there is much within capitalism that gives me reason to reject it as a viable system that will take us into a positive future. Ever since learning that greed underlies the system, I have noticed its deadly and devastating effects around the globe. Its promise that the wealth of the big winners will trickle down to raise the standard of living for the masses, just isn’t working out that way. At least not if you think globally. Capitalism has raped, pillaged and enslaved the poor of this world – often in the name of God - which the communists at least left out of the formula.

As global wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the trickle down has nearly stopped in many parts of the world, even in North America. In the 1950’s the average disparity between the lowest and highest paid employees of North American corporations was one to seventeen. Now it is one to four hundred. Unfettered capitalism is in essence every bit as godless as unfettered communism, and every bit as damning to the unsuspecting masses. During my lifetime I have witnessed the global collapse of communism as a viable economic system. I suspect that my children will witness a similar collapse of capitalism as we know it in their lifetime.

What will replace it? I don’t know. I am still searching for an economic system that will wed the biblical mandate adopted by communism with a motivation other than the greed underlying capitalism. That is why I pray every day, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).