Theoeconomics

I have seen several people question my use of  “Theoeconomics” to describe the dual contending forces of Communism and Capitalism.  As I use the term, it is a portmanteau combining “Theology” and “Economics” — two areas of study which many think are mutually exclusive.  Theology is the study of the Divine and of religious belief: economics concerns itself with the production and transfer of material wealth.  Even putting aside the Christian ideas of money as the root of all evil, it would seem that the two areas of study have little in common.

But let us put aside our Western conception of “Gods” for a moment. Let us define Theology as the study of invisible and non-corporeal Powers which rule every aspect of our life.  They need not be sentient or anthropomorphized: the Buddhist and Hindu conception of karma is certainly a theological one, as are the classical ideas of miasma and pietas.  Once we have done that, let us take a look into the modern-day face of Mammon.

Capitalism:  Capitalism postulates a free Market as the ideal state of existence.  In that arena, the best and brightest will inevitably rise to the top with the aid of the the Market’s guardian angel invisible hand.  As the Market grows, adherents consumers gain access to more and higher quality goods:  the most wretchedly poor gain sweatshop jobs, access to Coca-Cola and the chance to “better their lives” so that they may one day be buying imported clothes instead of producing them for export. Capitalism focuses not on stability but on progress, not on passing down the farm but on making sure your children go further than you did.

The Market can only work if everyone involved is playing by the same rules.  To that end everything is reduced to its economic value — how much something can be bought or sold for — and classified accordingly. Differences are useful insofar as they can be monetized. Status symbols and fashion statements help consumers mark their place in their community and in their greater society. Demography maps out our preferences in everything from politics to potato chips and helps advertisers target their solicitations more effectively.

Communism:  Communism recognizes the many flaws attendant on this system, and lays the blame squarely on those who own the means of production. It reduces ethnic, cultural and religious differences to the battle between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.  In place of the Market, Communism posits a Manichean class struggle which must ultimately end with the workers’ triumph and a classless state where the forces of oppression wither away.  But that can only happen when the workers seize control of the instruments of production and shake off their chains.

The Communist hostility toward the Bourgeoisie comes into full play when Communists seize political control. Some Communist governments have sought to welcome their Bourgeois brothers and sisters into the workers’ paradise by “re-educating” them. (Frequently this involved forced labor, as in the Soviet gulags).  Others have re-educated their Bourgeois by mass executions: the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia are one of the more notorious examples).  And since in practice “bourgeois” is a snarl word which can be used for any occasion, it’s generally easy to hang it on your opponent — or hang your opponent with it.

Both these religious traditions rest on first principles which are at best questionable.  Even the most ardent Capitalists are finding it increasingly difficult to defend Neoliberalism, while Communism has yet to give us anything resembling a workers’ paradise.  Yet their followers continue to parrot their tenets and warn  against the dangers posed by the other side.  (If anything their screams grow more hysterical and shrill with each setback: one might ask who it is they are trying to convince with their slogans…).  Both are evangelical in that they seek to spread their doctrine; both are monotheistic insofar as they consider themselves the only workable economic theory and condemn any deviations therefrom. The specifics vary from denomination to denomination but the poison remains at their cores.

One of the most succinct descriptions of this poison can be found in Martin Heidegger’s 1977 essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Heidegger spoke of Technology as an “Enframing” (Gestellen) that reduces objects to their use-value: he compared and contrasted Hölderlin’s Der Rhein with a hydroelectric engineer who looks at its flowing waters and sees potential megawatts.

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not?Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry

Heidegger feared that this “Enframing” would in time become our only way of experiencing Being.  We would come in time to see ourselves as no different than any other commodity, just another “human resource” whose value lies solely in its utility. And whether it be to producers & consumers or to proletarians & bourgeoisie, Communism and Capitalism both reduce the human experience to economics.

What is the alternative? I do not know: even Heidegger, one of the 20th century’s greatest minds, could not see the way by which we could move beyond a technological mindset and opined that it might take centuries before such a way became clear.  But as we wait for their replacements, it seems clear that both Capitalism and Communism are fighting desperately to remain relevant.  And that makes them, and their true believers, unpredictable and dangerous as cornered rats.  We should keep that in mind as we work toward bringing into being their alternatives.

2 thoughts on “Theoeconomics

  1. I was a Labor Economics major in my undergraduate years, and one of the main things I took away from that is that Economics is much closer to Philosophy than any kind of science. So many of Economics’ core concepts – perfect competition, units of utility – have about as real and tangible an existence as Kant’s theories of morality or Hegel’s dialectic, and to the best of my knowledge, none of its great thinkers have ever been able to consistently predict anything, or agree on any consistent explanation for any major economic historical event. I remember reading a survey of economists asked whether or not the New Deal – as well-researched an economic program as one could hope to find – actually improved people’s circumstances, and the yes/no split was almost exactly 50/50!

    The flaw of Communism is that the level of planning needed to manage every economic transaction would be so staggering as to be an absurdity. The flaw of Capitalism is that any set amount of money – say, two hundred dollars – has far less value to a rich man than a poor one, meaning that one can necessarily increase social welfare through prudent redistribution and investment. Both should be studied as powerful, history-shaping ideals, and in their strident forms at least, both should be rejected as intellectual fundamentalisms, as you suggest in your essay.

    You talk about alternatives to both. In the long run, democracies invariably lean towards mixed economies with sizable public and private sectors. I think, in practice, most voters understand the dangers of both infinite planning and unbounded inequality and prefer leaders who can balance the two, however imperfectly.

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