If you spend any time in online forums like Reddit or enjoy reading The Atlantic articles, you’ve likely come across the phrase “late capitalism.” It’s a nebulous term with a century-long history, but the general takeaway can be summarized thusly: “a catchall for incidents that capture the tragicomic inanity and inequity of contemporary capitalism.”
I will not claim – between the ambiguity of the phrase’s meaning and my own dearth of knowledge about macroeconomics – to know whether we are in an early, middle, late or otherwise era of capitalism (or if economic systems can even use time references with any meaning). But I am a Protestant Christian and, as such, my heritage steeps me in a call for economic justice.
Contrary to the boiled-down, thumbnail sketch of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” did not contain the “Five Solas” or a blueprint for Reformed theology using “TULIP”; these were all much later additions. It was, instead, a rather Catholic document aimed at a Catholic audience – most notably the pope. It was a call for economic justice in the face of unjust practices (predominantly in the church, but also spoke somewhat more broadly since the state/church divide was not nearly as great then as it is now).
It is only, then, as a Protestant Christian that I am interested in a cultural term like “late capitalism.” I’m interested because if this term is to be anything more than fodder for think pieces, then it could be the opening notes in a symphonic cultural change. It is this that should intrigue all Christians.
My deficiency in macroeconomics notwithstanding, I can espy dozens, scores, even hundreds of examples that might fall into the category “late capitalism,” but certainly do fall into the category of economic injustice. For example:
- In 1978, the federal minimum wage was $2.65/hour. If adjusted for inflation that would be $9.91 in 2016. Yet the minimum wage was only $7.25 in that year. This means that today’s minimum wage employee lives on the equivalent off a $2.66/hour less than she would have in 1978. That’s nearly a 37 percent pay cut from 1978 standards.
- Speaking of minimum wage, of the 11 increases beginning in 1978 and ending in 2009, only three of those instances have yielded a net gain for minimum wage employees by today’s standards (1990, 1991 and 2007). Interestingly, these net gain years only occur in the years after a decade or so worth of stagnation in minimum wage increases. (Prior to the 1990/1991 increases, the minimum wage had remained stagnant since 1981 and prior to the 2007 increase, there hadn’t been an increase since 1997).
- Beyond the (substandard) pay incurred by our society’s most vulnerable members, other cultural changes are currently at work that were heretofore unheard of. For example, “retail therapy” (whose first reference occurred in 1986) is now a thing. While previously shopping might have been considered a nagging domestic chore necessary for the good of home and hearth, today it presumes therapeutic purposes in the lives of individuals.
- According to NerdWallet.com, consumer debt in 2016 was $16,883/household that had this sort of debt. The caveat of “that had this sort of debt” may paint a slightly skewed picture, but it remains true that if you have debt, you have (on average) a lot of it. This amount of debt results in $1,292 annually in interest fees paid. That’s more than $100 a month. Imagine if that money was put towards savings instead!
- Speaking of savings, we don’t live in a culture with much of that either. According to a CNN Money article, nearly six out of ten Americans could cover a surprise bill of $500-$1,000 with what they have in their savings account. (This means that the average American is not prepared to replace the brakes or tires on their car). As we live in a post-pension era, the likelihood that these Americans will have anywhere close to the savings necessary for retirement only foretells future economic woes.
These examples could go on almost ad nauseam (and if you’re feeling a little “nauseam,” you probably should be). Yet the challenge is what the church ought to do in the face of such economic injustices. The answer lies in our creating a new 95 Theses for the era of late capitalism.
More than ever before, the church needs to unite and take a stand against not only these terrible effects, but the underlying presuppositions that create them. (Indeed, the above facts are not problems; they are the by-products of true problems). And up first might just be capitalism itself.
Even a cursory understanding of the economic policies that control most of the world recognizes that central to capitalism is the myth of scarcity. “Supply and demand” is the catchphrase used and is the doctrine that assumes something is worth more in relation to its scarcity. If 6 million people want a banana and there are only 4 million bananas, a banana is going to be worth quite a bit more (think Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe’s pricing here).
If this capitalist presupposition was ever true, it was only true in a pre-marketing world. Today, we have the ability to sell torn, faded and dirty blue jeans at exorbitant prices if the marketing around those blue jeans creates a sense of scarcity. “Distressed” clothing is, after all, all the rage.
What should irk Christians the most about this presupposition is its implicit condemnation of our Creator and Sustainer God. It begins with an assumption that the God who makes all things doesn’t make enough for all God’s people. That is, at once, both irritating and blasphemous.
In response, we need churches that teach an abundant God. We need reminders that a few fish and a couple of loaves fed everyone and still had more leftover than was needed. This example, of course, comes from a story about a miracle, but God’s abundant nature is not a miracle. It’s who God is.
In addition to this lesson is the necessary complement of what “enough” truly is. “Enough” cannot be defined by beleaguered souls in search of (retail) therapy. “Enough” must be defined by an ethic and practice of hospitality. One has “enough” when one can serve and supply one’s neighbor in times of need. Learning this sort of “enough” cannot happen accidentally, but must be taken on as a spiritual discipline.
The first step in such a discipline could be a Sunday school class that – once a month – watches commercials and picks apart all of the logical fallacies and blatant appeals to emotion. Such a practice is necessary if we are to “take every thought captive” for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Wherever this search for economic justice as a necessary aspect of the church’s continued reformation may lead, the first steps must be taken soon. The church needs another Martin Luther prepared to nail the call for economic justice to our church’s well-kept doors so that all who cross this threshold are reminded that they have been made a different people, called to live differently and to embody a hope that God has indeed “forgive[n] us our debts.”
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio. He’s recently started budgeting as a spiritual discipline and – as with all good spiritual disciplines – is finding his need to rely ever-the-more on grace. If you have a story of overcoming consumer debt or finding joy in generosity, write him at [email protected] It is, after all, stewardship time in the church and he could really use those stories!