Monday, October 12, 2009

What Science Fiction can Teach Anti-Capitalists

So Michael Moore has come out rather strongly, to state the obvious, against capitalism. I've read a number of reviews and summaries of the movie and I am less than impressed, not that I'm all that big a fan of Moore's work. But as I reflect on the issue, I think that there is the dark side of science fiction can teach us a thing or two about the ideal that many anti-capitalists hold out as the noblest hopes for humanity. In short, there is a side to science fiction that peers into the depth of human nature and confronts us with the evils that are within, often displaying for us what they might look like taken to the ultimate conclusion.

My premise is simple: Capitalism involves risk but risk is inherent in all of life. Systems that eliminate risk while promise absolute security and the reduction of risk to levels near nil sow in themselves the seeds that inherently blossom into their own destruction. The collapse stems from a failure to account for and address the real problem within human nature. You can only provide "security" for so much: take risk out and because of human's fallen nature you take away incentive. Consider three lessons for science fiction:

(1) The Matrix: consider that in the Matrix Reloaded when Neo meets the Architect, he finds out that the architect had originally created an ideal society for humanity to live in. We find out that the society destroyed itself from the inside because humanity could not live this way. Thus, there was no ideal world where humanity somehow transcended its own failure within human nature. Indeed, this is the world that many, including some episodes of Star Trek often hold for us. It is an eschatology driven by materialism--and yet we have always failed to reach this idea. This was the ideal heralded as the great coming future to be achieved of the 20th century and yet it failed miserably--starting with the Great War (WW1). In fact, the 20th century was the bloodiest in history, now thanks in part to totalitarianist regimes of various stripes.

(2) Consider the movie Serenty. Part of the plot involves a government cover up to hide a horrible scientific experience that destroyed a whole planet. In the plot, a planet was exposed to a government created virus that would take away all aggression. The people would become a peaceful utopia. The problem is that the side affect was that almost everyone fell asleep and died--those who didn't went crazy and horribly violent, like space Zombies. The point is that the promised utopia removed all drive and desire to fight and so the people became, in a sense, slothful unto death. There own bodies didn't even fight to stay alive. Of course, taking this to the extreme can become a polemic for Nietszchean and/or Darwinian ethics, survival of the fittest at all cost. I think one could argue that the violent Zombies sufficient prove that we have to have both will to live and motives beyond pure selfish pursuits, but let's not read too much philosophy into this. The point being: the is an illustration showing us that the utopias of science fiction and human dreams are not all they are cracked up to be. Indeed, in the world of Serenty, it is the government that exerts control and seeks to hide their monstrous failure in imposing the virus upon an entire population. At the end of the day, you cannot remove risk and drive from human life.

(3) Last, consider the more famous 1984. While not an attack on socialism, it was an attack on Communism and totalitarian regimes. Orwell was a socialist but one who despised Russian communism. 1984 was a reminder that humanity must always resist totalitarian agenda. 1984 is a sober reminder against the future utopias that many believe governments can establish. Most helpful, Orwell's work is against both monopoly capitalism and centralized government (Orwell and the Politics of Despair, page 118).

Switching gears a bit, F.A. Hayek warns of the fatal conceit: it is the idea that policymakers can establish a system that takes over control of market forces. On a popular level you see this when you try to design a system that accounts for and controls everything. So for example, the best tactical operation in a battlefield actually decentralizes command so that commanders on the ground and platoon or squad leaders have operational flexibility. 1984 shows what a world looks like where everything is controlled. It is ironic that Michael Moore would most likely agree with Orwell's critique of monopoly capitalism but is most likely not as critical of his own views. In fact, Orwell's science fiction and vision of the future reminds us that revolutions are betrayed and don't lead to the utopia that the revolutionaries envision.

Moving away from science fiction, Moore wants a world of guarantees and security. A major end to provide "security" is to guarantee "Americans the right to a job, to a home, to an education, and to medical care. " Yet isn't the the risk free utopia that utopia we have spoke of? It is one thing to guarentee that all should have equal opportunities to procure such things--this should be a right. It is quite another to guarantee automatically all such rewards to be procured risk-free for the the person. Particularly when government promises to secure and procure such items we (1) endorse a movement towards curtailing personal liberty and increasing totalitarianism and (2) we use the promise of security to entice and capitalize on the natural human tendancy towards sloth. Yes, we should guarantee all have equal opportunities to such things however, we cannot remove risk and human incentives. However, our first priority in seeking to perserve rights should be 'do no harm'. We cannot remove all principles of sowing and reaping--to use the Biblical concept. With the promise of security Moore's solution would bring assault to the very nature of personal liberty this country was founded upon.

One would think it would be obvious that wealth and money is not the problem, greed is the problem. Not according to Moore's accessment. The film ends with the narration: "Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate an evil. You have to eliminate it." If my fundamental motivation for wealth is to horde, then my pursuit is the love of money. If however, I understand that I am steward of God's resources, my accumulation of wealth should be primarily to serve God and be a manager of his funds and to use my blessings to love others.

Moore's premise is that capitialism failed. However, the whole notion of capitalism is that if one does not handle one's money prudently one will face cold harsh reality. It is a concept of sowing and reaping of sorts. As in our situation of massive economic failures, the difficulty is that there are always innocent victims. However, it is not the failure of capitalism that caused massive government spending to reward mismanagers rather it is a denial of capitalist principles. Moore's critique will probably not impress the contemplative person who has reflected on the rationale for this crisis. Consider (1) the housing boom and increasing risky morgages violated capitalism and (2) the various bailouts (Wall Street and GM) violated capitalism.

Moore fails to address the even deeper flaw: it is not capitalism that is the problem, it is human nature that is the problem. Capitalism is value neutral. It is based upon notions of personal liberty and freedom. At the end of the day it is best undergirded when individuals collectively recognize man is made in the image of God and therefore has dignity and worth. It is not capitalism that is corrupt it is the individuals who uses the value neutral system to act out of greed, pride and selfishness. So for example, in the book of James it is not higher workers that is condemned but exploiting them and paying them unfairly. Of course, falsely diagnosing the problems leads to false treatments.

Thinking in a Christian fashion about economics and capitalism we need to reflect both law and grace. It is fundamental that we both do justice and practice mercy.
(1) Law involves cause and effect or sowing and reaping.
(2) Grace involves mercy and compassion.

While one should practice grace and mercy and that leads to altruism, one cannot remove all notion of sowing and reaping from an economic system. The system itself, being value neutral, involves sowing and reaping--tit-for-tat, I do not work then I do not eat. The people in the system must practice grace and curtail greed. Greed in the system is curtailed by government which punishes fraud (the role of government) but also by the simple fact that in true capitalism companies that exploit are ideally rewarded by people freely spending their goods in more trustworthy places. Removing these natural consequences by ex post facto intervention actually does more work destroy the system. So as we noted, Moore's complaint is not so much with true capitalism but its perversion.

With respect to our practice of law and grace in economics, it takes wisdom to exercise proper balance in these matters. So on the one hand, if someone does not work they should not eat. But on the other hand, we should have compassion for and offer a helping hand to those who are truly needy--such as the orphan, widow, single mother, or needy child. Even further, the two, law and grace, are not necessarily mutually exclusive in our practice of them in economics. For example, God himself shows tremendous grace and love to people not giving them what they deserve and yet those he loves he also disciplines. Just because we show grace to people does not always entail removing all the consequences of a person's actions. We should consider further how these principles apply to economics.

Unfortunately, we do not live and cannot create a Star Trek utiopia where there are no economic transactions and we all work merely 'to better ourselves' (whatever such nebulous sentiments mean). Human nature will always internally meltdown such utopias. The best we can hope for is a system where such nature is held in checks and balances of various sorts (government prosecution of fraud, fair trade, freedom to compete, consequences to actions, etc.). The dark side of science fiction, that wrestles with the reality of human nature shows us that risk is part of life. The attempt by humans to remove risk from all of life invariably leads to an elimination of human freedom--and we do not need science fiction to teach us this lesson we must merely look to human history for justification. But then again, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

One can hardly disagree that the dark side of capitalism is the leverage it can give to greed. But it is absurdity and foolishness of the largest kind to think that eliminating capitalism thereby eliminates greed--that is like eliminating the immune system to cure AIDS. Consider this analysis of capitalism and greed:

Finally, according to the article "Moore told the audience that if people don't rise up and take action after watching this film, that's it—he's done making movies. " One can only hope that Moore stays true to his promise. I doubt there will be the revolution that Moore desires.

One cannot help but ask: what has Michael Moore done with all the money his has made from his movies? Unless he has buried his money in his backyard so as to make no money whatsoever off the interest, the fact is that at heart he too is a capitalist.

Addendum: Russell Moore, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has this helpful article on capitalism and Michael Moore. He helpful writes:

"I believe the market system is often destructive and evil, and everything it could be replaced with is even more dehumanizing, until it’s replaced with the kingdom of Christ. I don’t mind a limited, bounded market system (one that is people-centered, treats workers right, respects the creation, maintains local traditions and the social order).

But I also know what I’ve received from the prophets and apostles of Jesus. The issue, ultimately, isn’t the economic system itself (although that’s important). It’s the rebellion of money-worship and greed.

I know as a follower of Christ Jesus that one of the most dangerous forces in this age is the passion for money or, more often, the passion for things. I know what Jesus has taught us that Mammon is a god, and a jealous one at that."

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...