“No to a financial system that rules rather than serves,” writes Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium. Astutely and prophetically, the pope decries the idolatry of money, in which “we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies.” The ideology of financial capitalism is all-encompassing, invading every aspect of our lives. Yet more than a decade after the latest financial crisis, it remains poorly understood.
In Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, Kathryn Tanner, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School, analyzes “finance-dominated capitalism” and offers a constructive theological response rooted in a Christian theology of grace and salvation. Recognizing the danger of a world in which “no future exists outside present capitalist arrangements,” Tanner seeks to provide a “Protestant anti-work ethic” using a theology of grace to interrupt financial capitalism’s monopoly on time and identity.
Public debates about economic policy rarely delve into the historical development of capitalism itself. The dichotomy between capitalism and socialism dominates media coverage, eclipsing the equally important contrast between the industrial capitalism of the past and finance-dominated capitalism of the present. Today, finance is considered more profitable than manufacturing, and finance-generated profits occupy a higher percentage of overall profits. It is therefore dominant because, as Tanner writes, “finance is no longer directly in service of production elsewhere but takes on a life of its own.” Hence the emergence of secondary markets for virtually everything. One infamous example: the credit-default swaps we all learned about during the 2008 financial crisis.
When finance serves finance, profits are increasingly generated by debt. Tanner describes how debt now pervades the American way of life: “One’s paycheck routinely runs out before the end of the month, requiring one to amass credit card debt or take out payday loans, at exorbitant rates, to make ends meet. The government no longer provides money for an education but facilitates taking out the necessary loans to pay for it.” One effect of a system in which debt becomes necessary for daily survival is that workers become willing to accept any job. Tanner argues persuasively that much of this is to be understood as forced debt, and her account of how the poor find themselves trapped in the credit system is nuanced and sophisticated.
When it comes to discussing how all this affects governments, however, Tanner fails to distinguish adequately among local, state, and federal governments and their different relationship to debt. Nor does she address important differences among nations and regions. For example, the Jubilee 2000 campaign to lessen the debt burden from development loans for the Global South has no parallel within developed countries, where instead of debt forgiveness, we have personal bankruptcy laws, some more forgiving than others.
Through her exposition on debt, Tanner argues that we are chained to the past and that “the extreme pressures of past demands on future performance in this way come to colonize every waking moment.” We are expected to have total commitment to work, for “one should make every effort, in a self-directed way, to maximize the profitable employment of the assets one has in one’s person.” Step by step, Tanner shows us how financial capitalism moved from Wall Street into civil society, the home, and even religious life. We are all entrepreneurs now: “One’s own self-understanding is no different from that of one’s employer: I am a business; the firm I work for is a business just like me, managing its assets in the same way I do in the attempt to assure maximum profitability.” Where industrial capitalism fostered the identity of the “company man” through a sense of belonging, loyalty, and stability, financial capitalism needs to turn employees into entrepreneurs who view themselves as free agents, independent contractors in a constant state of flux.
This system is maintained through a combination of anxiety, self-direction, and management culture. It is not just about getting people to produce, “but getting them to desire what their employer desires. It is not enough for employees to cooperate in the pursuit of ends not their own; their own interests have to converge with those of their employer.”