Just Capitalism

A Christian Ethic of Economic Globalization

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Brent Waters
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2016.
     352 pages.
     $40.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664234300.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Just Capitalism, theologian Brent Waters argues for the virtues of economic globalization and free market capitalism, particularly when these forces are ordered and employed to “promote Christian moral convictions” (ix). When so ordered, global markets are the most practical means we have for pursuing ends such as preferential option for the poor, and for enabling human communities to flourish through the generation of affluence. Waters aims to advance this thesis by demonstrating why “economic exchange is a necessary but not a sufficient condition” of human flourishing (15-16).

First, Waters examines why practices of exchange in global markets are necessary for the worldwide sustenance and improvement of material wellbeing. “Economic globalization is the only realistic strategy for ameliorating poverty,” he writes, advocating “globalization” à la Thomas Friedman’s notion of “Globalization 3.0” (1-4). Globalization 3.0 facilitates economic activities wherein the most people can competitively participate and reap reward. Yet globalization’s benefits depend upon balanced relationships with state powers. We need nation-states to provide the laws and regulations that aid economic activity, and global markets to promote a myriad of informal networks of exchange, which discourage government overreach, protectionism, and totalitarianism. Ideally, markets thereby strike a power balance with states, encouraging global peace and the development of affluent societies.

Promoting economic globalization and affluence, however, requires a reassessment of the Christian tradition’s generally negative stance on wealth and possessions. From Tertullian to Catholic social teaching, Waters argues, theologians have often regarded things like private property, money, lending, and interest at least with caution or suspicion, if not outright condemnation. Their suspicions often stem, for instance, from Jesus’s own apparent repudiation of wealth; from a preference for the poor; and from a concern for whether practices like charging interest truly promote love of neighbor. Waters takes these concerns seriously and yet wants to mitigate them, highlighting the “zero-sum” economic contexts in which they arose.

In late modernity, by contrast, we no longer play a “zero-sum game”: the accumulation of wealth for some no longer necessarily entails the impoverishment and dispossession of others (34-5). In this light, Christian moral theology must reassess the merits of globalization. Since God created human beings to cooperate with one another in meeting our needs, we should embrace the modes of exchange that best facilitate this cooperation. Tangible benefits of competitive cooperation in global markets include lowered costs of goods and services, the creation of new jobs, increased purchasing power, and the strengthening of civil society by generating trust, a hallmark of profitable exchange. Yet markets also inevitably wreak havoc through processes of “creative destruction,” which result in anxiety over ever-evolving modes of exchange, and in short-term impoverishment for many (61-4). Even so, the Holy Spirit can work within such creatively destructive forces, influencing the formation of more just economic and political orders from their rubble. Waters concludes this part of the book with an affirmation of the good of affluence. Defined as “surplus economic resources at one’s disposal,” affluence most effectively enables leisurely enjoyment of God’s creation, and the amelioration of poverty (81).

Yet Waters qualifies these arguments, adding that economic exchange is not, nor can it be, an end in itself. Rather, it should be ordered to serve the ends of koinonia. That is, the proper end of all exchange, or of the accumulation and use of affluence, is to communicate the flourishing inherent within God’s creation. In this part of the book, Waters focuses more on how economic globalization can hinder flourishing. Flourishing, he argues, occurs primarily in and through the communicative relationships between individuals and associations in civil society. Markets and states, through coercive powers, tend to weaken civil society—for example, by undermining the pursuit of common goods and emphasizing individual gain. Alternatively, the church, as a global body unified in its diversity by Christ, offers witness for how other diverse associations like it can resist coercive, homogenizing forces by identifying worthy common objects of love. Hence, associations based primarily on koinonia, instead of exchange and coercion, best promote human flourishing.

A desire to promote the flourishing of civil society, finally, should motivate us to negotiate a productive tension between markets and states. Civil society benefits when states regulate markets through law, but not to the extent that states cripple economic growth. Drawing here on the work of Oliver O’Donovan, Waters articulates the kinds of moral judgments that just regulatory laws should entail. Waters also calls for a reevaluation of our concepts of justice and freedom, asking whether or not they promote goods such as free association, competition, and communication throughout networks of private, governmental, and civic entities. To promote these goods is to promote flourishing and the responsible stewardship of creation. Participation in economic globalization promotes good stewardship, since globalization offers the most effective means for “developing creation’s potential affluence in ways that promote both material affluence and communicating the goods of created life” (217).

Waters’ book provides a needed bulwark against naïve anticapitalism, particularly by helping suspicious Christians acknowledge that mechanisms of capitalism and globalization can indeed generate concrete, material improvement and wellbeing for many, especially the poor. Yet the book often treats too generally the deep issues that unsettle capitalism’s Christian critics. For instance, Waters recognizes that antagonistic processes of “creative destruction” are intrinsic to capitalism. Yet he does not acknowledge that the very fact of this antagonism being intrinsic to it runs counter to basic Christian claims about creation: that the heart of things is peace, not antagonism or destruction. Christianity and capitalism, that is, are competing, not reconcilable ontologies. It would benefit readers, therefore, to have a more concrete account of how Christians can work to conserve the fragile peace of koinonia within globalized capitalism, since such peace inevitably and constantly faces destruction in the name of economic progress. We might ask, then: Is it ever appropriate for Christians to attempt subversions of capitalism in order to preserve this peace? What would that look like? Even so, Waters’ book is fair, insightful, and well researched—a must-read for Christians concerned with how to better order our economic lives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David D. Berka is an independent scholar of theology and the philosophy of religion. Berka holds a M.Div. from Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brent Waters is the Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor of Christian Social Ethics and director of the Jerre L. and Mary Joy Stead Center for Ethics and Values at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman Back to HumanThe Family in Christian Social and Political Thought; and From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World. He has also written numerous articles and lectured extensively on the relationship among theology, ethics, and technology.

Keywords: 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments