Capitalism and the Human Spirit

Doubt that neoconservatives have (or ever had) a creed, but I am willing to commit myself to the truth of the following propositions: Economics is fundamental, and yet prior to economics is politics; prior to politics is culture; and at the root of culture lies formal public worship, embodying beliefs about God and man in dramatic form (cult, in its primary sense).

In our current cultural fog, David Bosworth's The Spirit of Capitalism, 2000 is a danger sign tit the edge of a cliff, and not a few people are likely to be alerted by it. Still, I note that every time Bosworth mentions capitalism, he veers off to stress "its scientific methods" and "strict rationalism.- His real target is less economics than culture-less the economic functions of a capitalist order, which are compatible with several kinds of culture, than the scientific rationalism of our age.

Bosworth draws upon a venerable tradition in seeking out "a fatal flaw" in capitalism. He leans heavily upon Daniel Bell's magisterial The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Max Weber's angry "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart--the pin-striped bourgeois businessman who pales in comparison with the chivalrous Teutonic Knight. He might also have cited (as Gertrude Himmelfarb does in One Nation, Two Cultures) Josef Schumpeter's view that the "creative destruction" practiced by capitalism is eventually turned by its intellectual class against its own walls, flying buttresses, and very foundations, bringing "the whole scheme of bourgeois values" crashing down,

Each of these three analysts of capitalism diagnoses a different flaw. Bell argues that the success of one generation's asceticism tempts a later generation into hedonism. Weber imagines that the central form of reason in capitalism is that of the assembly line and the locomotive track: standardized, abstract, logical, calculated, confining man to an "iron cage." Schumpeter argues that the essential note of capitalism is the corrosive acid of criticism and novelty, eating away at everything fixed and solid.

Bosworth's analysis draws upon these authorities. He argues that our post-industrial habits of producing and consuming are no longer checked by the old Protestant ethic and civic spirit of the Founders. Today, these habits jump the banks of economic activities and flood into all aspects of life-the home, child-rearing, family life, and leisure. To achieve seemingly noble goals-self-fulfillment, sufficient economic well-being for the good things of life, even those spiritual pursuits such as education and appreciation of the arts-modern men and women race like rats on a treadmill. We don't have time or space for the true, the good, the beautiful. Our lives have become instrumentalized, banal, petty, and even selfish. In my view, Bosworth's essay is itself proof that our culture is about to turn in a new direction. The unease Bosworth records is evidence of the creative possibility in capitalist life that its critics consistently overlook. If I am correct, what we will increasingly reject in the near future is the spiritually empty secular culture that Bosworth justly lampoons, precisely because it is as humanly inadequate as he describes. What will thrive, inspired by a different and more humane culture, will be the modest functioning of capitalism rightly understood.

Capitalism, we must continually remind ourselves, is the name of an economic system. This economic system has historically been mated to several different kinds of political systems and to an even wider array of cultural systems. Bosworth's complaints are directed (or should be) against cultural phenomena, not economic procedures in themselves. Capitalism is compatible with a far more humane culture than the dehumanizing childishness of the present age. As he himself notes, the destructive cultural traits he now opposes were once upon a time largely avoided in America because our own version of rational materialism, "scientific capitalism," was preceded by, and (kit first) politically allied with, strong traditions of both local governance and religious freedom-i.e., the original, still spiritually grounded Protestant ethic. Given those origins, our society managed to maintain a humane balance of power. Bosworth is rightly sorry that the old culture has been replaced by one as inferior as our own.

Perhaps I need to spell out exactly what I mean by capitalism. The distinctive virtue of the economic system of the United States is the large scope it gives to enterprise, invention, and discovery-in short, to the creative insight of entrepreneurs. This is the source of its unparalleled dynamism and the torrent of new technologies it has generated since the inclusion of the Patent and Copyright Clause in the Constitution of 1787. Of course, this dynamic institutional core is supported by a panoply of other institutions: the rule of law; individual rights; open and easy incorporation of new businesses; sound business laws and law-abiding corporate practice; access to venture capital; relatively low taxes; universal education; and a culture that delights in creating the new.

Such an economic system is based on the creative intelligence of individuals far more than material or structural factors. Contrary to Bell, this system depends more on creativity than on asceticism. Contrary to Weber, this system depends more on surprise, serendipity, and creative chance than on calculative logic. Contrary to Schumpeter, this system depends more on creative solutions than on corrosive destruction. (The replacement of an obsolete technology is not pure destruction but the yielding of an inferior to a superior solution to human needs.)

Still, even if the reader does not share this fundamentally different analysis of capitalism and its virtues, I believe agreement will be swiftly forthcoming on this point: Bosworth succeeds better in diagnosing the maladies of our current culture-scientific, rationalist, instrumentalist-than of our current economy. Indeed, our economy would work even better, and face a happier and longer future, if it were married to a more spiritually robust culture,

In a sense, Bosworth's essay is far more useful as a cultural artifact-an autobiography-than an analysis of the economic functioning of capitalism in our time. When he was seated on a raised platform at his friend's bar mitzvah in the 1,950s, adored by the adults seated below, lie and his fortunate friends were, to an older generation scarred by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and the Second World War, symbols of life, prosperity, and hope. No preceding generation faced such a bright future of freedom, travel, and educational possibility as these fresh-faced, embarrassed, wriggling thirteen-year-olds of the 1950s. One can sympathize fully with the bedazzlement of the long-suffering older generation seated at their feet, and understand why it seemed so important to them to raise up these young ones for all the world to see and admire. These young were their triumph over all the forces of evil and darkness of our century.

It is true, of course-and it is Bosworth's merit that he sees this so clearly-that a future of near scientific rationalism is now smothering this triumph. Scientific rationalism kills the spirit-kills, even, sensuality-and corrupts the vitalities of the human body, As the inner form of a human culture, scientific rationalism stirs in memory some painful chords of Stalinism and Nazism, and awakens a quiet desperation in the human heart. These chords will forever be associated with the twentieth century; their eternal imprint gives Bosworth's essay its poignancy. Neither capitalism nor democracy alone will prevent Americans or any other people from slipping into "a culture of death," as lethal to the human spirit as tin invisible gas. Culture is deeper than politics or economics. Culture kills-or gives life.

Bosworth takes a wrong turn when he blames the economics of producing and consuming for what has gone wrong in the life of the spirit today. That was Marx's turn. To take that turn is already to diminish the power of the human spirit. It is to confer on mere economic habits the power to predetermine everything else. Give me the means of production, I'll mold a new human being. Give me the allures of consumption, I'll enfeeble the human spirit. This theory defines religion and morality in purely materialist terms. It blames capitalism for modern man's cultural decline and ignores capitalism's real, but limited, virtues.

Bosworth's essay recounts how lie recognized that his desires and his way of looking at things were turning him into a creature he did not like-but that in his soul lived remnants of a culture, literary and perhaps religious, that did not allow him to approve of where he was heading. And so lie stopped and took stock. "Trapped inside this ethical blind, customized to its selective unawareness," he awakened, looked round, repented, and set out to "recover those practices and refashion those places" where "the judgments of value and of faith" have a home.

This "home," of course, is our families, the chief carriers of our judgments of value and faith. Yet more profound sources of these judgments lie in deeper wells than those of any one family-in culture and tradition, and especially the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which nourishes all families. We know (we are told by this worship) that this God is the Creator of all things, and that He has made each of us in his image. We know that He calls each of us in our liberty to accept his invitation to be his friend, or not. Our liberty, one by one, is crucial to Him. Every story in the Bible has that liberty as its axis. He is Father of all human beings, and calls all to be one community in peace and justice, and to accept building up such a civilization as our historic task, the measure of progress and decline. He has special care for widows, orphans, the poor, the neglected. He transcends the world He made. Creation is separate from Him, although he understands, wills, and loves every detail of it, and gave us minds so that we might come to understand and appreciate all that He has wrought.

The worship service that expresses these beliefs gave rise to the great North Atlantic civilization that we know as "the West." But it has also, by the year 2000, given rise to a worldwide culture-a culture in embryo, really-for it is still divided by rival civilizations, however drawn together centripetally by many common energies and desires. The beliefs flowing from this worship service also altered the world's conception of politics and economics, not by a direct path but dialectically, through bloody, ironic, and often paradoxical turns. The dignity of every human being-rooted by this cult in God's proposed friendship with every living man and womancame eventually to be best represented politically in democratic regimes that recognize the rule of law, limited government, separated powers, and fundamental individual rights.

From a very early period, furthermore, biblical peoples recognized that a regime of private property ("Thou shalt not steal") is a superior guarantor of the common good; that markets encourage opportunity and the growth of knowledge (Jerusalem in the biblical period was chiefly a marketplace on the crossroads of three continents); and that double-entry accounts are a practical guide to economic success. Yet it took centuries for the key institutions of the free economy to be worked out by trial and error: the institutions of discovery, invention, and enterprise; institutions that protect the power of property in ideas kind inventions; institutions that make the incorporation of new businesses and sources of credit accessible even to the poor. Only then, after millennia, did the system we today know as "capital is in " arise, and begin to spread universally around the planet. Economic historians recognize the role of Judaism and Christianity in spreading these institutions and in giving birth to their internal dynamic: the delight in the new, the joy of discovery, and the imperative to create.

The connections between a cult (a liturgy of worship) and the cultures it inspires are complicated enough. The connections between a cult and the political and economic systems it helps to generate are even more complex, often indirect, and always the fruit of trial- and-error, contingency, and remarkable individuals and events.

Irony has seldom been absent. For instance, the same secular governments that boasted of their edicts of toleration actually meant state control and regulation of religion. A movement calling itself "Enlightenment" and describing its foes as forces of "Darkness" would not, on the face of it, seem to be a movement of reason, tolerance, and evenhandedness; yet such it claimed to be, and in some ways succeeded in being, while in other ways becoming an instrument of repression. The same Catholic Church that in John Paul II's encyclicals welcomes democracy, suitably defined, as the best protection for human rights, and capitalism, under certain conditions, as the system the Church judges most likely to lift up the poor, once (and not so long ago) denounced democratic movements in Italy, and spoke almost as harshly of capitalism as of communism.

Even Bell went too far, I think, when he spoke of capitalism's "contradictions." Contradictions is perhaps too Hegelian a term for the dance of tendencies within cultures. The strict and universal fulfillment of cultural ideals virtually never occurs in history, and even those historical moments that fall far short of that, but do show considerable virtue and heroism-those "golden ages" to which poets and preachers love to appeal-do not long endure. For human nature is weak. There is, as Lincoln put it in his address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois (January 27, 1838), a kind of moral entropy in human societies. The virtues that grandfathers exemplified in the face of great perils their sons could scarcely imitate, and their grandsons find antiquated and boring. in the generation of those who fought for Independence, almost every adult male had participated in some of the scenes of war:

The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a father, a son or a brother, a living history twas to be found in every family-a history bearing in the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, ii@ the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related-a history, too, that could he read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the levelling of its walls.

Further, the complaint of the elders about the young is as ancient as the ruins of Rome, and even then was hoary enough to be mocked: 0, tempora! 0, mores! This turn of events is not a "contradiction- due to capitalism, it is inherent in human affairs. High virtue is difficult to maintain, and heroism is not quotidian. The natural level of human behavior is, as the English say, "muddling through."

But the other side of this prosaic truth is that-at least on this side of the Atlantic-Great Awakenings do sometimes happen. The very dissipation of the grandchildren and greatgrandchildren leads to the sort of disillusionment-or wake-up call-described by Bosworth. What is distinctive about the human spirit is its capacity for seeing through its decadenceand, where the grace of God is present, its capacity for repentance and conversion. The human being ca?i invent a new horizon for his or her future, individual by individual, and in sufficient numbers to generate cultural renewal. Worship is restored, cultures are reinspired, civilizations are reborn.

In this country, the home par excellence of capitalism and democracy, we have had three Great Awakenings, and some hold that we are in the early stages of a Fourth. The First is usually dated from about 1730, and played no small role in the renewed conviction of Americans that God endowed each of them with certain inalienable rights, and that Providence would smile kindly on their growing sense of independence, even in the face of the greatest army and navy in the world. The Second Awakening arose a century later and corrected the dissipation (i.e., the vast consumption of alcohol) that followed on Independence; it also fed the growing abolition movement, which argued against "free choice" (the slogan of the proslavery forces). The Third Awakening arose at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and inspired the efforts of the Social Gospel movement to deal with urban slums, crime, poverty, and family breakup. All of these Awakenings began in a religious quickening, in worship services. There they inspired centrifugal actions, movements, and organized efforts, often in a secular direction. They had great effects upon the nation's political and social life, including its economic life.

In my view, the prosperity brought by today's new economy is already playing a powerful role in summoning a Fourth Awakening into being, just as, admittedly, it leads many into temptation. Many persons I meet and read about are saying to themselves in these days of plenty: "There must be more than this" or "This isn't right, this isn't the way I want to live." The high prosperity of our time is even now teaching many affluent and successful professionals-may I cite Bosworth as an exemplary case?-that "Man does not live by bread alone." No time is as apt for learning that lesson as one in which bread is plentiful beyond compare. No wonder ours is a time of many spiritual conversions and new beginnings and changes of direction.

At first, such changes are no more than local movements of individual molecules of yeast in dough. When the whole bread begins at last to rise, however, one sees an Awakening. As always, individuals are the first bearers of life. The source of our hope is the elemental veracity of Jewish and Christian worship. Although entangled in irony and ambiguity, its empirical record is plainly discernible in history. It is, on balance, creative.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

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