In assessing capitalism from a Christian theological perspective, Daniel Bell isn’t claiming that capitalism doesn’t work. He admits that it does and that it often improves the condition of the poor.
For Bell, however, the question isn’t whether or not capitalism “works.” The question is, What work does it do (p. 88)?
He begins with a prior question: What are people for? What’s the end or purpose of humanity? Across Christian theological traditions, the end of humanity is to enjoy communion with God and enjoy God’s goodness along with one another.
In assessing capitalism (or any economic order), then, the question is, “Does it enable and enhance humanity’s chief end of glorifying and enjoying God forever? Does it aid or obstruct desire in its ascent to God?” Put another way, “With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly? Are we able to desire God and the gifts of God as we ought? (pp. 88-89)?”
As I mentioned previously, Bell claims that “capitalism is an economy of desire that works against the created end of humanity, which is to share in the communion of the divine life of the blessed Trinity” (p. 93).
One way capitalism does this is in its implicit anthropology, envisioning the human as ultimately self-interested:
[I]n a capitalist culture we are constantly reminded to look out for number one, businesses are increasingly run with an eye not toward public service but toward increasing the value of stockholdings, our youth respond to queries about why they want to do what they want to do with the mantra “to make money,” and worship is planned and marketed in terms of how it can met my needs and what I get out of it. Here we might recall the well-known line from Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” For Smith, the dominant force in human life was “the uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his own condition,” a sentiment echoed by a contemporary economist as he writes, “I do not know the fruit salesman personally; and I have no particular interest in his well-being. He reciprocates this attitude. I do not know, and I have no need to know whether he is in direst poverty, extremely wealthy, or somewhere in between . . . Yet the two of us are able to . . . transact exchanges efficiently . . . ”
The emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity. Already we have seen how the capitalist individual and capitalist freedom are set over against communal ends and collective purposes. Some Christian economists defend this rejection of a shared purpose on the grounds that such is simply not possible in large societies. Other economists suggest that “as commendable as the goals of friendship, charity, and fairness are, it is naïve to expect people to behave in a way that they will be realized.” This is echoed by one of the leading lights of the neoliberal economic vision when he notes that love is simply not possible as an economic motive, and it is further reinforced by other economists who strive to show how self-interest can explain decisions in all realms of life, from theft to governance to marriage. Perhaps the most famous expression of this rejection of any notion of a common good comes from Milton Friedman, when he dismissed the idea that businesses have a “social responsibility,” saying, “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”
At best, capitalism is compatible with only the thinnest notion of a general interest, understood as securing the conditions whereby individuals are free to pursue their disparate private goods (pp. 100-102).
It is worth considering how capitalism as an economic order shapes imaginations and social practices in such ways that break down communal bonds. If humanity’s end is enjoying God and enjoying God’s blessing along with others, is capitalism an inherent threat to God’s aims for humanity?