Thursday, August 11, 2016

A Reformational Eco-Socialism?

by Dean Dettloff

Liberalism is a notoriously sticky term. It attempts to encompass a diverse tradition, full of modifications, nuances, and variety, but to get a handle on it as a useful concept we might note that its roots are in the work of John Locke, who championed the freedom of the individual and famously delineated a triumvirate of natural human rights: life, liberty, and property. To ensure the security of these rights and the individual liberties of human beings, liberalism espouses a differentiation between the state and the economy, which, when both are properly limited, should allow particular freedoms to flourish (like free speech) and wealth to grow. Yet the division between the state and the economy creates a political bind for liberals, setting the terms of political decision-making for most Western societies.

On the one hand, liberals leaning to the right suggest the individual freedoms identified by Locke are best expressed and exercised in the competitive environment of the free-market, leading to a disparaging of the role of the state, seeing it as, at best, a necessary evil. On the other hand, liberals leaning to the left suggest the state protects individual freedoms from the abuses and fallout of competition, perhaps best summarized in the creation of the welfare state, but not without preserving a fair field of play for the competition of the market. Though one might lean to the right or left within a liberal paradigm, the paradigm itself is at the very heart of Western societies and values, even sparking the French and American revolutions. As a result, it comes to us as a default political position; whether one is a republican or democrat in the United States, for instance, both positions are committed forms of liberalism.

Owing to Abraham Kuyper's notion of “sphere sovereignty,” arguably the catalyst for reformational philosophy itself, liberalism is also built into reformational politics and economics. Sphere sovereignty identifies a variety of distinct social domains that all have equal weight and importance as well as accompanying institutions (the state, the family, the church, etc.), but nevertheless function best in integral harmony, neither encroaching on other spheres nor giving up their own claims to legitimacy.

Owing to Abraham Kuyper's notion of “sphere sovereignty,” arguably the catalyst for reformational philosophy itself, liberalism is also built into reformational politics and economics.

Forming the basis of Kuyper's own political activities and even the ontological work of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, sphere sovereignty is constitutive of reformational thought. Even the most ardent critics of an uninhibited market, for example, like Lambert Zuidervaart and Bob Goudzwaard, have to spend a lot of time both hedging their claims and wrestling through the legacies of statespersons like Kuyper and legal theorists like Dooyeweerd to articulate a political vision outside of this double-bind while remaining in the reformational tradition.

The liberalism of sphere sovereignty, too, can lean right or left, but it remains a liberalism, albeit tinted with its own particular reformational hue. Doug Blomberg aptly demonstrates this in his presidential inaugural address at ICS. Following a critique of capitalist victory laps in a post-Cold War era, he says:
This is not to challenge the value of free enterprise, entrepreneurship or the legitimacy of private ownership. We are to use the abilities God has gifted. There are, however, massive problems with unbridled capitalism, just as there are with an unconstrained state, an imperialistic church, even an all consuming family. Hence, Calvin argued for the separation of church and state, Kuyper for educational institutions free of control by state or church – “each sovereign in its own sphere”, he said, for authority is mutually limited, God alone the sovereign of all.
To lay my cards on the table, a left-leaning liberalism is certainly preferable to what seems to be on the rise in at least American society, what some have even called “neo-liberalism” (cf. David Harvey), which advocates precisely the kind of unbridled capitalism Blomberg and many others in the reformational tradition rightly criticize.

By baptizing capitalism as a permissible and even defensible response to the “economic sphere” of human experience, however, even if it is restrained by other institutions as a suspicious but necessary sphere, reformational philosophy fails to consider the possibility that capitalism cannot, in fact, be bridled at all—that capitalism is the kind of thing that disables human relationships structurally, not simply accidentally or as a result of a failure of proper statecraft. Yet it is not just human relationships that are threatened; the very possibility of life and flourishing for all of earth's inhabitants is uniquely nullified by the power of the capitalist mode of production. A contradiction in reformational thinking is revealed here: the commitment to and heritage of liberalism sabotages an eschatological and material vision of flourishing for all of earth's inhabitants.

A contradiction in reformational thinking is revealed here: the commitment to and heritage of liberalism sabotages an eschatological and material vision of flourishing for all of earth's inhabitants.

What we might call a "reformational eco-theology" has been slowly emerging in reformational circles not simply as a coincidence with evangelical turns to environmental “stewardship,” but indigenously to the reformational tradition itself, for example in James Olthuis's critiques of anthropocentrism or Zuidervaart's inaugural address at ICS, “Earth's Lament.” Without taking on board a necessary critique of capital, however, reformational eco-theology is blind to the economic machinations that cause earth to lament in the first place.[1]

To see this contradiction in full, a short summary of what exactly the “capitalist mode of production” is should clarify the problem. In his introduction to Karl Marx's classic study Capital, Ernest Mandel identifies three fundamental and related component parts to capitalist production and circulation:
  1.  Most producers don't own the means of production that they use (e.g. the assembly lines or infrastructures where they work) and must sell their labor to those who do privately own those means.
  2.  Those private owners are organized in separate firms that compete with one another for a variety of advantages (commodity shares, access to resources, etc.).
  3. As a result of this competitive relationship, in order to remain viable and victorious, firms have to extort the maximum surplus-value from the producers they employ, which leads to problematic patterns that especially, though not exclusively, affect workers (e.g. “constantly growing mechanization of labour, concentration and centralization of capital, growing organic composition of capital, the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and periodically recurrent crises of overproduction.”).[2]
It is this third component that particularly concerns us here. Competition necessitates a willingness to create and maintain particular advantages, which often cuts across other values we might privately or socially take to be meaningful in themselves. We don't need to imagine the stereotypical “suit,” sitting in some business meeting as a board decides to bloodlessly eliminate a multitude of jobs to increase an already bloated bottom-line. Rather, the basic structure of capitalism simply demands decisions, whether made with regret or not, that allow one firm survivability over another. “It's not personal, it's just business,” as the saying goes.

While stories of workers finding themselves on the wrong side of capitalism are in no short supply, the tension that interests us here is the one between economy and ecology.[3] Because owners of the means of production are in competition with each other, their decisions are driven by effectiveness in the market, an effectiveness won through a plethora of strategies and tactics. In measuring success by the value generated through exchange, these competitive dynamics render other values ineffective or inert. Moreover, because contemporary finance capitalism, premised on a logic of debt and credit, leads to a situation in which money begets money, no attention needs to be paid directly to the material resources that enable exchanges to take place in order for value to increase. We are faced with an impasse between an economic situation that allows for limitless growth in a kind of financial perpetual motion and an ecologic situation that only has so much to give—infinity exhausts finitude.

We are faced with an impasse between an economic situation that allows for limitless growth in a kind of financial perpetual motion and an ecologic situation that only has so much to give...

Despite the fact that our oil will in fact run out (it's a “non-renewable” resource, after all), and despite the fact that our atmosphere will only tolerate so much before it becomes even more obviously hostile to human life, liberalism, by enabling capitalist exchange, finds itself complicit in ecological catastrophe. The ensuing political tension is put on display in a variety of failed global summits to address the encroaching threat of climate change, a threat generated and perpetuated by economies dependent on oil. In order to remain competitively viable, or at least competitively “on top,” countries can't afford to make decisions based on ecological ideals if their competing countries don't simultaneously agree. We might get symbolic gestures, like investment in electric automobiles, but these are only a drop in the bucket compared to the global weight of our collective emissions—and it's a big bucket.

A committed liberal might here say this is simply a botched and ineffective political apparatus. The problem isn't the market as such, but a failure on the part of a coalition of governing bodies to fully address the problem. Such a view ignores both the necessary demands that a society premised on competition makes on its participants and the capacity for monetary growth that outstrips the capacity of ecological habitation. In short, the state is unable to effectively reign in capitalist exchange precisely because it is capitalist exchange.

Capitalism's hegemony leads to a tragic eschatology. As liberation theologian Leonardo Boff puts it, “the earth will defeat capitalism”: “What we historically have been unable to accomplish by alternative processes (that was the goal of socialism), nature and the Earth would accomplish. The Earth, in fact, would free herself from the cancer that threatens to metastasize throughout the whole organism of Gaia.” The cancer Boff refers to is the system of capitalism, but of course such a system is only made possible by human beings. In Boff's eschatology, the consoling moment is that at least capitalism will be finally demolished by the super-organism that is the planet itself, a kind of Judgment Day scenario where all become chaff and all are guilty. Boff concludes his reflection saying “we must pray and be prepared for the worst.”

Boff should not be condemned for his ecological pessimism. A lifetime of thinking and acting through unheard revolutions earns such a view, unfortunately. But reformational eschatology, as recently explored by, among others, Olthuis, Zuidervaart, and most systematically Nicholas Ansell, might yet try to offer a word of hope. Such a word is necessary indeed, but it would require a clear analysis of the problems of capitalist exchange to be more than merely a word, more than merely another gesture toward an electric automobile or an imaginary future infinitely deferred, the kind of thing reformational thought has always tried to resist by affirming creation and this-worldly life.

For reformational thinkers to be truly concerned about ecology, they need to grapple with the legacy of liberalism and the necessarily, not incidentally, destructive powers of capital. It may be that sphere sovereignty can find a way out of the bind of liberalism and its anti-ecological tendencies, as reformational thinkers have found ways out of Dooyeweerd's Eurocentrism or a generalized Reformed homophobia. Perhaps we might say the economic sphere entails the simple practice of exchange between human beings, and we might go on to explore models of exchange outside of the circulation of capital, thereby preserving the salient point of sphere sovereignty (that reality and human experience are multi-dimensional and analytically separable) and encouraging exchange habits that are ecologically affirmative. Even though Kuyperian politics have largely taken capitalism and its guardian of liberalism for granted, it seems to me there is nothing holding reformational thinkers back from affirming the economic dimension of human social experience and for that very reason considering more equitable and just responses to the call to embody economic life.

For reformational thinkers to be truly concerned about ecology, they need to grapple with the legacy of liberalism and the necessarily, not incidentally, destructive powers of capital.

Without identifying the problem as centering on capital, reformational liberalism will be theoretically and practically complicit in the hegemony of global capital and the continued destruction of the earth. Reformational philosophy would be the cause of earth's lament, not its hearer or sympathizer. A reformational eco-theology or eco-philosophy needs to be a reformational eco-socialism, to borrow a term from Michael Löwy.[4] The odds, as Boff points out, are already stacked against such a vision. It may be, though, that this provides a future for reformational philosophy, both allowing a variety of creative theoretical horizons that remain mostly under-explored and new energies for political change and action, energies that nourished the reformational tradition in the first place. Most importantly, it may be that this contributes to a future for human life and the flourishing of earth itself.

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[1] Zuidervaart himself is alive to this problem, though a specific critique of capital does not feature in "Earth's Lament" (probably owing to its context as an inaugural address). As early as 1998, Zuidervaart was writing explicitly on the problem of money in particular, e.g. "Short Circuits and Market Failure: Theories of the Civic Sector."

[2] Ernest Mandel, "Introduction" in Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990-1991), 80-81.

[3] Cf. Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money, New Slant: Religion, Politics, Ontology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

[4] See Michael Löwy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015).

Dean Dettloff is a PhD level Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, where his research focuses on the intersections of media, politics, and religion.

30 comments:

  1. I think you'd probably have to make an argument for the claim that sphere sovereignty as envisioned by Kuyper is "liberal." From what I can tell Kuyper saw himself as anti-liberal, sometimes in embarrassing ways (see links below). That's not to say that you're automatically wrong (I don't know enough to say so)--just that it's a controversial claim. These terms are difficult to define (like "capitalism"), as you say.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/1404828?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
    http://ironink.org/?p=4554

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    1. That's a good point, Josh, and I wouldn't pretend to be much of an expert on Kuyper. Thanks a lot for this resource.

      I still wonder if what Jellema describes yields just a more complicated liberalism, i.e. a liberalism with reformational overtones. In that article, for example, Jellema writes that early on Kuyper "demanded universal family suffrage, state support for religious schools, [and] government regulation of laissez-faire capitalism," all of which fit the definition of liberalism I'm working with here. It's interesting, though, that Jellema goes on to stress the affinity between Kuyper and Marxism, especially as Kuyper aged beyond his earlier positions, and Jellema also suggests Kuyper might be more closely aligned with guild socialism or syndicalism. Perhaps I'll have to go looking for Kuyper's thoughts on private property.

      Regardless, this certainly adds credence to what seems to me to be a horizon of genuine leftist politics emerging more naturally out of reformational philosophy than I might have thought--which is awesome.

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    2. Indeed. In any event, I think your point about left-right liberalism is spot on.

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    3. One more point, just because it came to mind. While Kuyper says he is against liberalism, for me the question is whether or not that's a rhetorically and contextually loaded decision or a real political difference. To be sure, sphere sovereignty is idiosyncratic enough (for better and worse) to be something other than, say, what's on offer among republicans and democrats in the US. The question for me is whether or not sphere sovereignty is willing and able to subvert the capitalist mode of production as a fundamental feature of economic life and exchange. Like I suggest toward the end, I see no reason why it can't absorb that idea, but whether or not it's intrinsic to reformational philosophy to hold onto an alliance between a regulative state and a market driven by private ownership of the means of production is unclear to me (by virtue of my own ignorance).

      Perhaps some lurking Senior Members might shed some light on this dilemma.

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  2. But if you're antecedently committed to the position that the only differences that matter are recognizable only by the light of a very particular set of assumptions about how political economy works, then the world starts looking like it divides cleanly and fundamentally into Marxists and non-Marxists (i.e. "liberals"). Hard to have a discussion with anyone who doesn't already agree.

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    1. I'm not entirely sure what you mean, but I'll venture a reply and see if I hit the mark. I don't mean to suggest that the only difference that matters is whether or not one is a Marxist or not, though I obviously find Marx's analysis of capital substantial and convincing (something I tried, albeit very briefly, to suggest here). I would say, though, that the only difference that matters when it comes to political economy is whether or not one takes capital itself as a fundamental problem, a position which I take to be defensible in its own right, not just as a dogmatic position. There are critiques of capital outside of Marx's own articulation (one reason for the fragmentation of the left), and presumably sphere sovereignty is capable of crafting its own critique of capital. But, to reiterate, to fail to see capital itself as the heart of the problem is to operate with the paradigm of capital in the first place--and that's the whole point, for me. That the paradigm, and not variations within the paradigm, is the problem.

      I guess what I'm saying is I don't think having a definite position on something precludes someone from disagreeing with someone else about that position. Isn't that where the disagreement lies?

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    2. Right, I hear you re: having a definite position. No problems there.

      There's a difference between saying "nothing makes a difference for PE *without* consideration of capital" and "consideration of capital is the only thing that makes a difference for PE." The first seems obviously right; the second seems wrong.

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    3. Maybe the issue settles on what we mean by "making a difference." Of course I wouldn't deny that there are differences within liberalism despite them all agreeing about the legitimacy of capital. Hence at least the basic distinction between right and left liberalism, and there's a myriad of sub-species therein. And of course one can look at political economy from a variety of other angles that don't start or end at an analysis of capital.

      But I do want to say that capital is the only thing that makes a difference in the sense that it's the only thing that really matters as it pertains to thinking a position outside of liberalism. Not all positions outside liberalism are necessarily good (e.g. fascism), and in that case I would still hold that Marx at least articulates what I think is a defensible and preferable alternative. So sure, there's more to it than *just* capital, but it seems to me the conversation still spins around capital as a focal point.

      Sorry if I'm still missing your point, though. I feel like I probably am.

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    4. Well, it might just be your position that in the end there are Marxists and liberals, and I suppose that's fine. To take a confessional tone, I'm just coming to this as someone who thinks that there is a great deal of good in Marx's analysis of capitalism but also some deep problems--problems that make the project of thinking beyond liberalism and Marx a worthwhile venture. Of course, in terms of what we should be doing now to curb the tide of neoliberalism, I assume we would have a ton in common.

      One thing I should have conceded from the outset is Lambert's point about Kuyperians (esp in the US) being quite content to cozy up to right liberalism--probably ultimately because liberals have established institutions with impressive funding--but still. So I hope it still comes out that I think your post is very much worthwhile and valuable.

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    5. It sounds to me like we agree on some immediate essentials, and that's really what I'm after. For what it's worth, I should clarify that I don't mean to say there are only Marxists and liberals, but I do mean to say that Marxism provides a compelling alternative to liberalism that deserves careful attention, not least because Marxism is itself a varied and by no means homogenous movement or tradition (Lowy's ecosocialism is driven by a Trotskyist commitment that plenty of Marxists find endlessly frustrating). I myself think there are a variety of interesting alternatives on the left, and many of the writers I find so compelling come out of other leftist traditions, particularly anarchist and syndicalist ones. So I don't mean to say we're faced with an either/or choice between liberalism and Marxism, but I think I would agree with Rosa Luxemborg's emphasis that our choice is socialism or barbarism--and that this choice decidedly puts liberalism in the latter camp, while I would want to admit more elasticity for the former category (without admitting infinite elasticity). In other words, I'm all for coalition-building as it pertains to imagining and actualizing a political future outside the strictures of contemporary liberal politics--no need to be a card carrying party member--but I also don't think all perspectives are equally admissible to such a coalition. At least one of those criteria, I think, and perhaps this is our point of disagreement, is a willingness to admit that there won't be a sustainable ecological future without being rid of how capital circulates in a capitalist economy, no matter how regulated. At least, that's the strong point I'm suggesting in my post here.

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    6. Just saw this reply today. If there is disagreement, I don't think it's about coming to a judgment about whether or not there is a sustainable future in a "capitalist economy." The issue is a prior question, i.e. what is a "capitalist economy" in the first place? You don’t have Marx's analysis of capitalism without the concept of "surplus value," but surplus value only makes sense if we accept a labor theory of value (from what I can tell, at least). But labor theories of value are suspect. Does it make sense to say that land has no real economic value except insofar as it is developed, for instance? Or that you can arrive upon an "objective" value for commodity x under capitalism by accounting for the average socially necessary labor time taken to produce x? What about "one-of-a-kind" things, especially ones that seem extremely economically valuable? Concepts arising out of fluke technological discoveries? "Pre-political" ideas such as mutual trust and moral consensus? These sorts of things seem like they’re extremely valuable for any economy ("capitalist" or not), but it’s not obvious (to me, at least) how a labor theory would be able to account for that value.

      I’m happy to be corrected here, but these sorts of issues are fundamental and (apparently) problematic re: Marx's story about capitalism. I do think Marx is absolutely right to make a distinction between use value and exchange value, and therefore to distinguish real economic value from price and “the market.” The phenomenon of commodity fetishism--from what little I know of it--also seems like a powerful and original contribution. But the big picture? Not so sure.

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    7. I'm not an expert Marxist economist by any stretch, and answering all your questions here would take more than a comment, but if I were to venture a modest reply I would say most of your questions seem to confuse what Marx has to say about value with the idea of price (even though you note that distinction at the end of your comment). To take the land example, in Capital Marx writes things can have a price without having a value. "The expression of price is in this case imaginary, like certain quantities in mathematics. On the other hand, the imaginary price-form may also conceal a real value-relation or one derived from it, as for instance the price of uncultivated land, which is without value because no human labour is objectified in it" (197). In other words, value isn't the only thing that makes a difference in market exchange, and generally when Marx talks about particular commodity exchange values he acknowledges that they only have those values as an aggregate of acceptable practices on an already active market, so it's not like Marx thinks, like bourgeois economics, that there are these discrete and imaginary exchanges that happen between two people in a field somewhere, with no other social points of reference or norms. In that sense, one couldn't achieve an objective value for a commodity, because Marx doesn't believe in objective values, only in values as they appear in the actual circulation of exchange. That labor has to be "socially necessary" is also especially important here, because it isn't the case that something someone produces with labor is automatically valuable for exchange (hence the problem, for example, with art markets--and, for that matter, with "one-of-a-kind" items). That some labor is socially necessary and some isn't has a lot to do, too, with the pre-political issues you mention. Moreover, one can attach a price to things like honor or even one's eternal fate, as Marx says with reference to infamous indulgence practices, so there's a lot of complex stuff going on in Marx when it comes to both how labor and real, material processes occur underneath the appearances of commodities and how a capitalist society relates to labor and those processes (in the case of ecology, this largely results in a denial of those material processes and the role of the planet, which Marx says, quoting an English economist Petty, is the mother of wealth just as labor is its father).

      I realize that's all very brief, but while I don't think people should feel compelled to adopt every iota of Marx's labor theory of value, I do think we should give him the benefit of the doubt that he's at least thought about some of these basic problems (and, of course, that there's a whole tradition that has continued to do so--David Harvey mounts some especially good defenses of the labor theory of value taking contemporary challenges into account).

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    8. Alright, I won't bother you anymore with this. Suffice it to say that I just don't know how to make sense of the idea that something can have use value without having value. Again I'm happy to grant that Marx is an original and even brilliant dude--but certain fundamental things seem sketchy.

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  3. Lambert ZuidervaartFriday, August 12, 2016

    [1/2]
    Political liberalism is indeed problematic in its inability to mount a fundamental critique of capital and to address the ecological catastrophe unbridled capitalism entails. But it also is problematic as a philosophy of the state, due to its emphasis on individual rights. Liberalism fails to see that public justice requires the state to uphold communal and institutional rights as well. Because the Kuyperian tradition sees this wider scope of public justice, thanks in part to its emphasis on sphere sovereignty, it cannot simply be lumped together with political liberalism.

    Having said this, however, I agree with Dean that, for the most part, Kuyperian critiques of capital have been less than robust. As a result, a laudable emphasis on sphere sovereignty often results in gradualist approaches to social change that look a lot like either right or left liberalism, depending on how conservative or progressive the Kuyperian critic happens to be.

    I claim in the essay “Globalizing Dialectic of Enlightenment” that Karl Marx was exactly right about two characteristics of the capitalist system: it is inexorably expansive, and it is inherently exploitative. Consequently “it is a real question whether capitalism as such leaves room in the long term for ‘sustainable development’,” and it is quite unlikely that political measures to bridle capitalism—“progressive taxation, debt relief, foreign aid, and the like”—can “challenge the continuation of this inherently exploitative system.”*

    *Lambert Zuidervaart, Social Philosophy after Adorno (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 126.

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    1. Lambert ZuidervaartFriday, August 12, 2016

      [2/2]
      Once one grants the accuracy of these characterizations, however, one faces Lenin’s question: What is to be done? What is to be done theoretically, to diagnose the capitalist roots of ecocatastrophe and global injustice, and what is to be done politically to address earth’s lament? The Kuyperian tradition, with its emphasis on social normativity and sphere sovereignty, has the potential to provide fresh and life-giving responses. Theoretically, I think this requires an architectonic critique of society as a whole, one that both recognizes the hegemonic role of the capitalist system and refuses to reduce societal evil to merely economic distortions. Politically, I think it requires the vision and pursuit of what I have labeled “differential transformation”—a long-term structural and normative process in which, along with other changes, capitalism would give way to a genuinely resourceful, just, and solidaristic way of organizing economic life.** We cannot wait for the Earth to defeat capitalism. We also cannot pretend that we are not responsible for Earth’s lament.

      **See, for example, the chapters “Macrostructures and Societal Principles: An Architectonic Critique” in Lambert Zuidervaart, Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 252-76, and “Ethical Turns” in Social Philosophy after Adorno, 155-81.

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    2. Thanks a lot for this intervention, Lambert.

      I think that what you and Josh have helped me see is that my link between Kuyper's sphere sovereignty and liberalism is too strong. Mea culpa.

      Yet, for whatever reason(s), Kuyperians have often adapted sphere sovereignty to a left-liberal approach, and, as you demonstrate in your own work, there are alternative ways of reading sphere sovereignty that are perhaps even more in tune with the roots of the concept in the first place.

      Now, however, with your invocation of Lenin, I can't help but think about how reformational philosophy might interact with revolutionary discourses. In one of your symposium replies, "Toward a New Politics," you leave room for revolution but stress their insufficiency in themselves. I find this very intriguing, coupled with your work on normativity in the "Macrostructures" essay. Coupled with my own suggestions in this post, I wonder how reformational philosophy might align (or not) with the ecosocialism of someone like Lowy, who advocates democratic planning and emergent normative decision-making. How such a situation would be possible without some kind of wresting of power from current controlling interests is unclear to me without some form of revolutionary action, but perhaps that's a good step for ref phil: could there be a revolutionary reformational philosophy? It sounds like a contradiction in terms (revolutionary and reformationary discourses are at odds), but it would be intriguing to press you some more on what you take to be the legitimate possibility of revolutionary action, given the necessarily expanding capacities of capital as such and the impatience of the planet. I sometimes wonder if the "long-view" of differential transformation is too long, but I admit to being uneasy with decisions made out of intimidation by catastrophe, too. I'm waffling here, but perhaps you can see why.

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    3. Lambert ZuidervaartSaturday, August 13, 2016

      I waffle too. This is partly because the Kuyperian tradition has been staunchly anti-revolutionary—Kuyper’s party was, after all, called the Anti-Revolutionary Party, until it merged with other parties to become the Christian Democratic Appeal—a name I find much more appealing, if you’ll pardon the pun. Cardus’s Comment magazine, which has Kuyperian roots, is promising to revive that anti-revolutionary emphasis this fall.

      I also waffle because there is a long history of failed political revolutions, and those which have in some sense succeeded have come with a high price in human life, social disruption, and ecological destruction. This makes it hard to reconcile the prospect of political revolution with a vision of interconnected flourishing.

      I also am aware of a long history of theorizing about political revolution in the Marxist tradition that suggests most common understandings of political revolution are sociologically naïve—i.e., they don’t sufficiently recognize the need for economic and technological conditions to be ripe in order for political revolutions to succeed. Marx himself was adamant about this, and he was notably skeptical about the prospects for a successful revolution in Russia, where there was a very large peasant class and a very small industrial working class in the middle to late nineteenth century. The debates between social democrats like Karl Kautsky and more revolutionary Marxists like V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in the early part of the twentieth century are well worth revisiting. (True confession: One of my favorite historically-biographical films, directed by Margarethe Von Trotta, is Rosa Luxemburg, which I used to show in my “Marx and Marxism” course at Calvin College.)

      I prefer the language of transformation, rather than either reformation, which can suggest mere reformism, or revolution, which, when not naïve, can be unjustifiably violent. Whether a specifically political revolution is required, and whether it is justified, can only be properly sorted out, it seems to me, within a broader vision of social transformation. My own inclination right now is to think that national political revolutions in post-industrial countries like Canada and the USA are neither required nor justified, but they might be in other countries. But it would take a much longer post to sort out why I think this.

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    4. I think this will resonate with you, Lambert.
      http://www.ted.com/talks/julia_bacha_how_women_wage_conflict_without_violence?utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_content=button__2016-08-29#t-187486

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  4. Thanks for drawing my attention to this, Dean, and effectively inviting me to comment. I appreciate the the challenges therein. No doubt my use of “unbridled capitalism” in the passage you quote seems to harbour a tacit acceptance of capitalism itself (“it's OK, when it is reined in”), though this was not my intention – at least, not in the precise, Marxian sense of the term. “Free enterprise” might be taken as a synonym (euphemism?) for capitalism, but I intend it not thus but as primarily a rejection of state-controlled, command economies. I take entrepreneurship to be an expression of our calling to be culture-makers, innovators in unfolding creation in fruitful forms, not infrequently in modes of material production. And though I do not eschew private ownership of a house, a farm, or even a factory, I would by no means exalt “property” to the same status as “life” (or “liberty”), notwithstanding that in 17th and 18th century Europe the punishment for theft too often was death.

    Margaret Thatcher's oft-quoted, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”, is also most often taken out of context. Her point (whether right or wrong) is that the State had taken over the lives and responsibilities of individuals, a criticism which makes eminent sense only within a “liberal” ideology that frames social relations in a stark polarity, allowing the reality of only the State and monadic individuals, not allowing even for family as a societal structure. Within this frame, the church too is but a collocation of individuals, a “community” that exists only when one and one and one are gathered together for Sunday worship. I take it that communities of varying kinds are in fact perduring entities that constitute society. It would be more true to claim that there is no such thing as an individual.

    As we are often reminded – and rightfully so, as we are frequently forgetful – oikonomos, economy, is the management of a household. We are created as image-bearers with and for the task of stewarding our home. Thus, we are vicegerents (a term far more fitting than vice-regents, which has supplanted it). We are to serve the soil, from which we have been formed. Economic life should comprise rather than oppose a deep ecological responsibility; farmers, which since Cain and Abel we have mostly been, do not have to be commanded this verbally, for God speaks (wisdom) in the very ploughing and sowing (as we read in Isaiah). And in this, of course, we serve each other, as Margaret Thatcher in fact went on to say.

    The earth constitutes our capital, and stewardship our calling. In the reformational tradition, we were taught, as simplistic as it may be, that any -ism is not only an ideology, but idolatry. Stewardship is the careful (“thrifty”) tending of (scarce) resources to meet a multiplicity of (often competing) needs. Competing needs do not however demand competing institutions, but are most readily satisfied by institutions that are complementary. When economic life is opened up under the lead of jural, ethical and confessional norms, productive enterprises seek to address the real needs of real people, in their sometimes really dire circumstances.

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    1. Capitalism is but one mode of forming economic institutions, not all of which, it goes without saying, are faithful to the norms. The same goes for marriage and family, and every other institution. But if our human family is constituted by communities of various distinctive kinds, love of neighbour – which some would interpret as decidedly “socialist” – is not a command delivered from on high, but an imperative emerging from our roots in the soil, and our Creator who made us thus. Not a theoretical abstraction or set of principles, but grounded theory, if the pun may be forgiven. Capitalism must always be bridled, because it is anti-normative when unconstrained. What is required is a “well-balanced harmonisation” of institutions, which are not only sovereign in their own spheres, but have responsibilities in functioning across the breadth of society. They are not to be “silos”: “sphere universality” complements “sphere sovereignty”. Economic norms should not operate autonomously, but as one dimension among a plurality, so that norms of all kinds are realised simultaneously.

      In our Year 11 Christian Perspectives classes back in the 70s, at Mount Evelyn Christian School in Australia, there was a significant study of the Mondragon cooperatives, which survive in Spain to this day. Environmental Science, a government-accredited subject, was compulsory in our curriculum. The roots of this commitment to community and creation (human and non-human) were Kuyperian (and I credit my maths and science-teaching colleague Cor Koole with steeping me early in “reformational eco-theology”).

      The policy at MECS of teacher salaries and student fees that were to some extent needs-based brings to mind an aphorism that is often attributed to Marx, but predates him by several decades: from each according to abilities, to each according to needs. Much further back again, we cannot but recall Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” The roots of this go much further back, into the warp and woof of the Old Testament. In this regard, I recommend an essay by Marilynne Robinson: “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” (in When I Was a Child I Read Books), which highlights the liberality at the heart of the liberal ideal, in the Pentateuch, Calvin and the New England Puritans. Another essay in this collection, “The Fate of Ideas: Moses”, reminds us of the pervasive concern urged on Israel for the vulnerable among them – including aliens and slaves – a teaching that she evidences was lost to much of Christendom after the Middle Ages (the reference above to Europe being inspired by this essay). Whether it is legitimate to apply the term “eco-socialism” (in your sense, Dean) to this, I am not sure, but if it is taken to refer to the inextricable interrelation of all things holding together in Christ, perhaps it will work as a metaphor when understood expansively, in the tradition of St Francis' “Canticle of the Sun” (or “the Creatures”).

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    2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful engagement, Doug! I agree with much of the heart of what you're after, especially the rejection of atomic entities, whether humans or institutions, and I find your own work with cooperative practices exciting and inspiring. As a result I won't comment on much of that simply because I would be flagging agreements.

      Instead, I want to key in on one point you make, only to make my own point clearer. In the second comment, you write "Capitalism must always be bridled, because it is anti-normative when unconstrained. What is required is a 'well-balanced harmonisation' of institutions, which are not only sovereign in their own spheres, but have responsibilities in functioning across the breadth of society."

      The key, for me, is to suggest capitalism is the kind of thing that by definition can't be bridled. That is, there is no bridled capitalism, though there may be attempts to do that very thing. Capitalism isn't anti-normative when unrestrained, but anti-normative entirely. Perhaps I've swallowed too much of volume one of Marx's "Capital," but I take it for granted that there can be no effective harmonization of capitalism with the other spheres, if we take a sphere sovereignty perspective, because it will always necessarily refuse giving each according to their need and ability by undercutting those values through the momentum of private competition between private owners.

      To put it strongly, if we are to be stewards of the earth, in other words, we have no choice but to reject capitalism as an apostate organizational response to the economic sphere, not for the sake of simple polemics or honoring an authority like Marx, but because structurally capitalism is unable to cooperate with other institutions and, most importantly, with the planet itself.

      Though I don't think we should or could return to an agrarian or Ancient Near Eastern economic model, I take it that this momentum of private ownership is precisely what's being opposed in the Hebrew Bible's demand for jubilee, in particular--a radical overturning of private property relationships designed to subvert the development of concentrated private wealth. Of course it would be anachronistic to say this is a Marxist approach, but the through-line you trace with Marx's intentional invocation of the practice of early Christians in Acts extends, I think, to a critique of private property, perhaps revealing one more component of Marx's prophetic Jewish side.

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    3. Dean, I havent read this very closely, including all the links, but I find this heartening. We need a prophetic critique of all forms of injustice, and a recasting of a more inclusive community that embraces the vulnerable and the exploited. ICS may be the only place that is able to combine rigorous philosophical thinking with a prophetic critique of the prevailing social order. I also wonder if we can recast the so-called creation mandate in the line stewardship and preservation of the "goods" given to us by the Creator, and presumably intended for all God's creatures.

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    4. One more comment, my reading of Kuyper is that the 'spheres" are not that limited in number, but might include community based organizations or social movements that originate in what some call the social sector. I also dont think Kuyper liked siloization, I think he thought that all "spheres" had a responsibility for the pursuit of (a) more just social structure(s).

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    5. [1/2]

      I don’t think, Dean, you intended “cooperative practices” to include cooperative (collaborative) learning, but this has certainly been one of my primary pedagogical commitments, not only with elementary and high school students, but also at the undergraduate and graduate level. As to the thrust of your post, I’m no doubt hoist by my own petard, given my comment about “-isms”, ideology and idolatry. “Unbridled capitalism” is a pleonasm – capitalism is capital unbridled. My earlier definition of “capital” (as that with which God entrusted us) is of course simplistic, but I do see our cultural task as the unfolding of the potentials God stored in creation, such as, e.g., the forming of musical instruments and the music-making they enable. These tools and what they facilitate diversify and multiply capital.

      Is it wrong to accumulate capital? Not in itself, I would say, so long as it is within defined limits, week by week, sabbatical by sabbatical, and double-sabbatical in the 49th and Jubilee years. There is confidence in the Old Testament that the Lord will provide a surplus, so the corners are to be left ungleaned and the grape vines harvested only once, leaving the rest for those in need. Neither the land nor its produce is ever absolutely ours, as it belongs to God, and is to be used to love God and neighbours – and yes, enemies.

      European feudal communities lived pretty much by what they produced within the boundaries of their estate. They would store enough to get them through lean periods, but only for their own sustenance. There was of course trading in the market towns, which as it (and manufacturing) increased led to the growth of urban centres. The opening of routes to Asia (with which the name of Marco Polo is indelibly associated by dint of his ode to “the Marvels of the World”), spurred a yearning for exotic spices and other commodities, which accelerated the desire (need?) to accumulate products in order to exchange these for quite expensive luxuries (a word linked etymologically with “lechery”, for what it’s worth). If the primordial form of culture was agriculture, many other cultural achievements depended on the riches afforded not only by hunting and gathering but by husbandry (an evocative term, suggesting not only cultivation, but conservation of resources), and the technologies developed to enhance productivity – first and foremost, we may aver, this should be for the provision of our daily bread. This is “the Lord’s prayer”, and his promise is that we should “not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

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    6. [2/2]


      “First and foremost.” “Capital” in the economic context originally denoted the “principal” in a loan; “capitalism” is a much more recent coining. Before I stray further beyond my limited expertise, this is all by way of underscoring that the “first things” were gifts God created us to steward, resources but on loan to us for a time, to the glory of God. And “the glory of God” is humankind doing just what God entrusted us to do (as N. T. Wright, for one, has pointed out): helping creation to flourish. Creation comprises “all creatures that on earth do dwell”, in their rich diversity, nothing and no one excluded.

      I won’t venture into the discussion of Ricardo’s and Marx’s surplus theory of value, but merely underscore that “labourers are worthy of their hire”, and capitalism alienates workers from “enjoyment” of the goods they produce, and thus also from themselves. Yet those who provide the capital are also labourers in the vineyard. The crucial matter is determining what constitutes a fair and just return for labour. Justice requires that all share equitably in the goods God grants and grace requires they not be paid strictly according to the hours they work.

      There is no doubt that capitalism in itself (but not only capitalism) issues in inequality. Nor should there be any doubt that governments, in the call to “do justice and love mercy”, must address this. Inequality, in relative rather than absolute terms, is one of the major factors impeding human wellbeing. It is not inequality of incomes but of outcomes that is most important, however. Sweden rates highly on wellbeing or happiness indices, despite the fact there is a major disparity in incomes; what there is not is an extreme divergence between the “one (or ten) percent” and the rest, because taxation and other regimes ensure outcomes are more equal. (At the other end of the global scale of GDP per capita, Indonesia and Bhutan, for example, rank low, but their wellbeing indices are high, because pretty much everyone feels they are in the same boat.) Israel’s “constitution” demanded periodic redistribution of resources and constant care for those most vulnerable. That it apparently did not live up to this covenant should be no surprise. But Jesus’ promise is that he has come to inaugurate the year of Jubilee, to fulfil the promise of the Kingdom of God on earth. “Thy Kingdom come!”

      I thought that to close with a link to a TED Talk, “A letter to all who have lost in this era”, would be apt:

      http://www.ted.com/talks/anand_giridharadas_a_letter_to_all_who_have_lost_in_this_era?utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_content=button__2016-08-18

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    7. Doug, I think you are right to distinguish between capital (or better capitals) and capitalism. In community development circles, we talk about human capital, social capital, natural capital, fixed capital, political capital and so forth. (See Gary Becker on human capital; Robert D Putnam on social capital; Pierre Bordieu on political capital, and the wonderful book by Paul Hawkin on Natural Capital. Oh also, there is a book on Urban Community Development that describes fixed capital, as does he book by Green, Assets Based Community Development. We need capital and power to make or do anything, so the issue is how to identify and mobilize our assets, including our capital. Capitalism - especially unfettered global capitalism by international business- is another matter, all about profits and exploitation. Joseph Stiglitz argues for a triple bottom line that protects land and resources, society, and allows for profits in a more sustainable way. ICS needs a good course on social economics/ globalization stuff :)

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    8. Yes, Clinton, "capitals" indeed -- and the call to a "simultaneous realization of norms"! If only ICS had the resources to address even a fraction of these pressing concerns.

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  5. I have waffled about entering the fray here. I think that what capital gets at is that money can produce social good by facilitating the production and distribution of wealth. Acknowledging this was a traumatic event in the history of scholastic thought: the invention of "interest" (what lies between) that calibrates the social good produced by money invested (the principle or capital) and that form of monetary injustice called usury. Of course, to move from capital to capitalism is to organize the investment of capital in terms of private ownership of the means of production and distribution. What is lost in the process is the notion of the public or common (shared) good, precisely what the monetary category "interest" was designed to determine (as a part of the just price of wealth produced and distributed). It seems to me that this is what you Dean are seeing so clearly. It becomes difficult to see how private interest can serve public interest and its extention into Creation care itself. The contradiction seems so profound that you see it as a systematic issue, something that flows from the very principles of a capitalist organization of our economic lives. I can agree with that whole-heartedly and yet balk at the other side of the modern polarity--socialism. For here too there is a catch. There is an insistence on the common or shared good being front and centre in the organization of our economic lives, in our production and distribution of wealth, but the problem becomes whom to trust to make the calculation as to what the common or shared good in fact amounts to. Why should one look to the proletariate for that wisdom? The supporters of Donald Trump have a very significant proletarian component. It does not set one at one's ease. That the marginalized and exploited should be liberated, including our much put upon Creation itself is something we can all agree upon, but I do not see the parochial interests of the proletariate as the very engine of history moving us toward greater economic and ecological justice. So I dislike the polarity that you accept and use in this piece. I look to economic thinkers like Bob Goudzwaard for another paradigm altogether, one that is truly radical in the sense that it reroots how we are to think of the norms for our economic lives. Of course, if one is really thinking outside of a hegemonic polarity one can be read as if participant in the polarity. One can be read as if caught up in the logic of capitalism or of socialism. But that may be a misreading. There will be moments of likeness, but then to both sides of the polarity. You are minded to see someone like Goudzwaard working in a left-wing liberal mode, but he has been labelled a socialist at least as often. And that confusion of how to make sense of a paradigm outside the hegemonic paradigm should help with issues of reform and revolution. These are terms that only really mean within a context. A radical economic paradigm would then seem by turns revolutionary, progressive and conservative liberal and truly BE none of them but rather something else when push comes to shove. No pressure.

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  6. I have waffled about entering the fray here. I think that what capital gets at is that money can produce social good by facilitating the production and distribution of wealth. Acknowledging this was a traumatic event in the history of scholastic thought: the invention of "interest" (what lies between) that calibrates the social good produced by money invested (the principle or capital) and that form of monetary injustice called usury. Of course, to move from capital to capitalism is to organize the investment of capital in terms of private ownership of the means of production and distribution. What is lost in the process is the notion of the public or common (shared) good, precisely what the monetary category "interest" was designed to determine (as a part of the just price of wealth produced and distributed). It seems to me that this is what you Dean are seeing so clearly. It becomes difficult to see how private interest can serve public interest and its extention into Creation care itself. The contradiction seems so profound that you see it as a systematic issue, something that flows from the very principles of a capitalist organization of our economic lives. I can agree with that whole-heartedly and yet balk at the other side of the modern polarity--socialism. For here too there is a catch. There is an insistence on the common or shared good being front and centre in the organization of our economic lives, in our production and distribution of wealth, but the problem becomes whom to trust to make the calculation as to what the common or shared good in fact amounts to. Why should one look to the proletariate for that wisdom? The supporters of Donald Trump have a very significant proletarian component. It does not set one at one's ease. That the marginalized and exploited should be liberated, including our much put upon Creation itself is something we can all agree upon, but I do not see the parochial interests of the proletariate as the very engine of history moving us toward greater economic and ecological justice. So I dislike the polarity that you accept and use in this piece. I look to economic thinkers like Bob Goudzwaard for another paradigm altogether, one that is truly radical in the sense that it reroots how we are to think of the norms for our economic lives. Of course, if one is really thinking outside of a hegemonic polarity one can be read as if participant in the polarity. One can be read as if caught up in the logic of capitalism or of socialism. But that may be a misreading. There will be moments of likeness, but then to both sides of the polarity. You are minded to see someone like Goudzwaard working in a left-wing liberal mode, but he has been labelled a socialist at least as often. And that confusion of how to make sense of a paradigm outside the hegemonic paradigm should help with issues of reform and revolution. These are terms that only really mean within a context. A radical economic paradigm would then seem by turns revolutionary, progressive and conservative liberal and truly BE none of them but rather something else when push comes to shove. No pressure.

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  7. Richard Taub of the University of Chicago penned a book a few years back on the South Shore Bank, calling it "community capitalism," or as some say "community controlled capitalism." I think this notion is somewhere between "socialism" and unfettered international capitalism. At issue is how "capital" can be procured by those who need it most for survival as well as flourishing. A "social capital perspective" argues that communities need and have capital too, in their relationships of trust, as well as their "investment capital." My resistance to identifying capital= capitalism is that all communities have and need capital to function, to wield power, and to insure that basic economic needs are met. Lets call it oekonomia.

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