Alasdair MacIntyre on capitalism

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has long been a favorite of many conservatives, especially religious conservatives. And the things they admire about him are indeed admirable: his contribution to the revival of virtue ethics, his concern for the relationship between tradition and rationality, and his critique of a certain kind ofvacuous and ahistoricalliberalism. But parts of MacIntyre's work that conservatives often overlook are hard to overlook accidentally.For many yearsa Marxist,MacIntyre eventually decided that Marxism, having successfully described the internal contradictions of capitalism,had succumbed to its own internal contradictions. But unlike many former Marxists,he did not conclude that capitalism was the only game in town. On the contrary, he remained -- and remains -- one of its most intelligent critics. His 1995 introduction to the revised edition of Marxism and Christianity (originally published in 1953)insists forcefully on the incompatibility of Christian ethics with capitalist ideology. Among the more memorable passages is this one:

The rising standard of material prosperity in capitalist economies is itself closely related to ... [an] aspect of their failure in respect of justice. It is not only that individuals and groups do not receive what they deserve, it is also that they are educated or rather miseducated to believe that what they should aim at and hope for is not what they deserve, but whatever they may happen to want. The attempt is to get them to regard themselves primarily as consumers whose practical and productive activities are no more than a means to consumption. What constitutes success in life becomes a matter of the successful acquisition of consumer goods, and thereby that acquisitiveness which is so often a character trait necessary for success in capital accumulation is further sanctioned. Unsurprisingly pleonexia, the drive to have more and more, becomes treated as a central virtue. But Christian theologians in the Middle Ages had learned from Aristotle as well as from Scripture that pleonexia is the vice that is the counterpart to the virtue of justice. And they had understood, as later theologians have failed to do, the close connection between developing capitalism and the sin of usury. So it is not after all just general human sinfulness that generates particular individual acts of injustice over and above the institutional injustice of capitalism itself. Capitalism also provides systematic incentives to develop a type of character that has a propensity to injustice.Finally we do well to note that, although Christian indictments of capitalism have rightly focused attention upon the wrongs done to the poor and the exploited, Christianity has to view any social and economic order that treats being or becoming rich as highly desirable as doing wrong even to those who having accepted that goal succeed in achieving it. Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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