“Conscious” Capitalism and Imperialism

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“Conscious” Capitalism and Imperialism

I recently finished reading Dangerous Territory, a spiritual memoir about Amy Peterson’s experience as a short-lived missionary in a closed country in Southeast Asia. I read it hoping to glean some good information about cross-cultural communication and the dangers of Western missionary models and related forms of “development” (read this post for more on that).

As a former Evangelical, I am still trying to come to terms with the ways my religious and cultural upbringing impacted my views on poverty, salvation, and purpose, and it was both helpful and re-traumatizing to read a story that at times felt quite similar to my own.

There were several thoughts that hit me right in the gut, but particularly these two pieces:

The way we evaluate our success as missionaries in the corporation model can be highly consumeristic. The gospel is a product we sell, and we chart our sales effectiveness and use it to ask donors for more support. But if we believe growth in numbers is the sole measure of our health, we have lost our way: humans were not created to be efficient organisms, and God has always been more interested in our proximity than in our production (p. 188).

The Protestant missionary movement did little to improve the associations [of mission work with political colonization]. While Catholic missions had been inextricably bound to political expansion, American Protestant missions were born entwined with corporate-style capitalism. The first missionary boards were structured after secular trading societies, and their values were efficiency, production, and numbers-based assessments (p. 234).

Missions, Fair Trade, and Capitalism

Take out the words missions and missionary and replace them with “ethical advocates,”  “fair trade brands,” “foreign aid,” and other related terms and the words still ring true. Western missions and development models ARE inextricably linked to cultural and political colonization.

They are built upon a capitalist framework where exploitation is not an indicator of something gone awry, but rather of the system functioning as it’s intended to.

Think about it: the reason why countries like the United States and Great Britain appear to be thriving is that they’ve already completed the cycle of Industrial Revolution countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are just now undergoing.

If you consider the very long game – think 150-200 years – these countries’ production systems are likely to stabilize and workers will gain more rights and access to resources; this is happening in China right now. But all that means is that the invisible hand has found another, poorer country to strangle.

What This Means:

It’s therefore counterproductive to use capitalism as the platform of sustainable development, and yet hundreds of social enterprises insist that they’re going to use capitalism as a force for good.

I would argue that this is impossible, because capitalism distorts our understanding of what “good” actually is – and what it means to be generous – by emphasizing individualism.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Christianity Today’s cover story this month,Blessed Are The Handouts, discusses some of the sociological research around foreign aid. The article starts out by describing a behavioral study in which both Americans and people from an “impoverished” country in Africa (it’s only letting me see the preview now or I would give more detail!) were given money to use as they pleased.

Some had to do a minor job to “earn” the money and others were given it with no strings attached. American participants, particularly when they earned the money, were far less likely to give it away to others than international participants, who shared freely whether they earned or simply received the money. The author surmises that this may have something to do with the America’s individualistic culture and celebration of earning as a virtue.

The gist of the piece is that, while giving cash to low income people in the US isn’t always guaranteed to help people get a long term leg-up, giving cash to people in collectivist cultures is actually far more effective than offering other types of aid.

What This Means:

Instead of buying goats, building wells, and starting companies abroad (particularly when we’re creating new industries instead of supporting preexisting ones), we could actually just give cash to people who need it, and watch them use their own agency to improve their lives on their own terms.

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Evangelizing Capitalism is Imperialism

If we have built our charity and social development models on a a paternalistic, capitalist framework, we are inadvertently spreading the disease of capitalism and cultural individualism to every country we do business with.

And if this is true, it means that even fair trade models are at risk of destabilizing countries, putting infrastructure at risk, and even changing beneficial collectivist cultures to see profit-minded individualism as a virtue.

As a Christian, I am deeply concerned with cultures that raise up individualism as virtuous. 

As I write this, Shark Tank is humming away in the background (I can hardly stand to watch it anymore, but you’ve gotta admit it’s an entertaining show). We massively overvalue boot-strapping entrepreneurs, and Millennials in particular seem fixated with the disrupters and hustlers of our own generation. Forging our own path is as American as apple pie, but is that really what we want our lives to look like? We make everyone a competitor, we move away from family and community networks, and we sacrifice so much in the name of profit or fame or usefulness.

What This Means:

In the Capitalist model, we are only valued for our labor. Our worth is linked to our productivity. We must earn money, hoard it, get a nice write-up in Forbes if we’re lucky. It forces us to objectify ourselves and others, and it tricks us into believing the only way to change the world is through market manipulation. Every interaction becomes transactional. Purchasing becomes patriotic, heroic, even saintly.

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More Than Products and Producers

In Dangerous Territory, Peterson asks herself this: 

What if God didn’t want me to be useful?…Was I willing to be useless for God?

Who told us that we’re supposed to be productive? Who told us that we’re intended to proselytize capitalism to the masses and turn every person into a consumer?

One problem with contemporary American Evangelicalism is that its fixation on the self – on individual productivity – has led it down the dark, dangerous path of willful ignorance: of turning away neighbors and ridiculing the orphan and seeing every person as a victim of their unique choices and nothing else. “Systemic” doesn’t exist in this worldview.

When all faith practice is personal and Jesus has an inspired story just for you, it only takes one step to become a callous, stoic political actor. No one else matters – leave their stories to God.

What’s happening in our country right now is proof positive that individualism is a poison that both influences and is influenced by the capitalist framework we’re all swimming (and probably drowning) in.

I don’t want cultural models that honor community, sharing, and co-dependence to be snuffed out by our cultural and religious missions work (you don’t have to be religious to be an evangelist for something). Lord knows that American individualism has already done enough to create and exacerbate income inequality and gross human rights violations in our own country.

Global capitalism has ruined everything. And what I’m really saying is: we’ve ruined everything. 

Until we – you and I right here – admit that, we are at risk of further screwing over ourselves and others.

What To Do?

I don’t know what the answer is right now. Certainly people who work in sweatshops and mines and brothels need to justice to be served. I do believe in the virtue of equity. And if we can’t (on a pragmatic level) overhaul capitalism, it makes sense to tweak it to serve people just a little bit better.

With increasing frequency, though, I don’t know who to support or what to promote, and that freaks me out. My identity and livelihood as of late is dependent on believing that small consumer choices make a difference.

But the fuller truth is that things aren’t so clear.

I just know that I’m sick of the system, of that invisible hand placing its death grip over my mouth and the mouths of others who try to speak out, who try to ask for something that extends far beyond “conscious capitalism” and seek to understand what it looks like to build a culture of flourishing for all.

I don’t want to keep talking about the marketplace all the time.

But when the market’s the only thing that matters, critiquing it becomes a radical act.

Related Reading:

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Where else do you explore conscious capitalism?

    1. Do you mean me personally? I would suggest exploring the “Industry Talk” and “Social Justice” categories in my menu for more thoughts about related topics.

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