Morality and Capitalism in Sociological Perspective

whimsterWhether neoliberals can claim that their form of free-market capitalism is a moral force is debatable (which from a deontological viewpoint is very debatable), but they certainly claim it is superior to all other forms capitalism as well as socialism.

This stands in contrast to social democratic and Christian democratic conceptions of capitalism which regard capitalism at best a pragmatic solution for the fulfilment of economic needs and at worst a source of immoral exploitation that has to be opposed and controlled. The economic historians, sociologists and commentators who traced the emergence of modern capitalism were in no doubt that a monstrous force was being unleashed upon the world. It was a beast that had to be tamed by passionate and organised commitment to social justice, the redistribution of wealth, and the moral advocacy of politicians, religious leaders and social commentators. This led to the insistence that educational, religious and cultural institutions were at a minimum neutral in regard to the workings of market capitalism, and at maximum indispensable counterweights to the power of the market and human avarice.

Over the last two decades the argument which has dominated both economic and political discourse is that capitalism is at its best when left unconstrained. The stridency of ‘greed is good’ might have attenuated somewhat since the late 1980s, but the dogma of neoliberalism has become entrenched in North America, the European Union and its international satellite organisations like the World Bank and the IMF. If the market knew best, as the dogmatists of Chicago and the London School of Economics insisted, then the big beasts of capitalism had to be given their freedom, untrammelled as far as possible by regulations, taxes and political oversight.

Neoliberalism justifies itself by its outcomes. It has produced sustained growth in the western world for almost two decades, and claims for itself a globalisation model that allowed capitalism and growth to flourish in southern hemisphere societies. While this might have been detrimental to older social solidarities, created new divisions between rich and poor, and operated working practices that were solely driven by profit maximisation, the end product – economic growth – justified the means by which this was achieved.

The neoliberal world view, welcoming of capitalism as beneficial socio-economic process, has forced out a previous, social democratic agenda that saw capitalism as inherently conflictual and as something that needed to be harnessed for other moral and political ends. Consider the fate of the ‘old’ Labour Party in Great Britain. One of its leading intellectuals from 1910 to 1970 was R.H. Tawney. As an economic historian his research into the origins of modern English capitalism itemised the dismantling of late medieval society and community, allowing commercial interests amounts of freedom that previously would never have been tolerated.

Tawney showed that medieval economic life was based on notions of a moral economy. One manifestation of this was the canon laws that prohibited usury. It was morally abhorrent for one Christian to lend aid to another Christian and to benefit from that transaction by charging a sum of money in excess of the original loan. The force of this moral injunction lay in agricultural community where it was considered unjust for one farmer or peasant to profit from the misfortune of another.

The dynamics of modern capitalism uprooted a moral economy based on traditionalism and stability. The Puritan revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries eventually established religious toleration and with this political rights. The Anglican Church lost its old authority in holding the needs of community as sacrosanct over the desires of individuals. Despite its ascetic origins, the new Protestant religious liberty came to befriend commercial interests and the institutional restraints on the pursuit of wealth were loosened.

Henceforward the moral economy was a contradiction in terms, especially after the upheavals of the industrial revolution and the licence given to the entrepreneur. But if economy was no longer moral, politics and the labour movement became a moral crusade for Tawney. The Christian ethic became a political Gesinnungsethik. What had been rooted in community instead became a profession of conscience articulated in politics, education and social reform. Tawney wrote: ‘Poverty is an Industrial problem, the Industrial problem is a moral problem’; ‘the social problem is a problem not of quantities, but of proportions, not of the amount of wealth, but of the moral justice of your social system’; ‘we need to choose (after the bosses are off the back of the workers) between less and more wealth and less and more civilisation’.

This is a politics inspired by Christian moral imperatives that had to be vigorously deployed against a soulless industrialism. There is an explicit Christian morality here that Tawney realised in the educational community of the Toynbee Hall where he worked with William Beveridge and Clement Atlee. The religiously sectarian roots of the Labour Party are quite diverse – to recall, for example Welsh non-conformism and widespread Methodism. But Tawney exemplified the assertion of a public good and of public duty as the antidotes to the selfishness of interests and mere pecuniary wealth.

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