Dr. Robert Schmidt
We live in troubled times. It is a constant refrain and introduction to what comes next. Few disagree. We grieve for those lost in the pandemic. We flinch as we learn more about climate change, conflict in the Middle East, wars in Africa, and Ukraine. Poverty condemns millions to live on barren land or in violent slums. Refugees are everywhere seeking safety and a home. Domestic politics are bedeviled by polarization. When confronted by the assertion of alternative facts, we wonder, “what is truth?” Troubled times in the past motivated many to seek solace in faith and religious institutions. Now attendance is declining, and churches are closing.
Why do these times seem worse now than those previously? In the past most people believed that things would get better. Many who grew up from 1945-1970 experienced exceptional growth in the economy and relative stability in politics. Even liberation movements in Asia and Africa believed that there was the certainty of progress in their struggles. Now we are not so sure. Neither rich nor poor nations are confident of their future. That trust that things will get better once provided stability but now that almost universal belief in progress is now in doubt.
For the last 500 years people believed that the good things of life would come about through the state, a sovereign body that could make and enforce laws, provide safety, and, in some cases, ensure a reasonable income. Yet, states today have lost their luster partly because they have been unable to solve or even address some of the world’s most pressing problems. As refugees drown at sea or huddle under bridges countries neither the countries of origin nor of destination know what to do. Nations also have not been able to cope with the massive problems produced by climate change. While developed nations struggle with floods and wildfires, poorer countries are devastated with drought causing more emigration.
Nearly everywhere, people are unhappy with their governments. While their citizens want the state to deliver jobs, education, and medical services, few governments have either the money or the willingness to tax the wealthy enough to provide them. The politics of richer nations revolve around these issues. Poorer nations cannot even begin to deal with the poverty that engulfs them.
Looking beyond the state the whole world does not look any better. The capitalist system linking the entire world is facing enormous challenges. Once again there is a threat of another world war in which nuclear weapons could play a role. Deep divisions rooted in religion and culture fuel divisions within countries and in nearly every region of the world. Thus, problems within countries and in the world contribute to the feeling of unease and anxiety. Worst is the sense that we really do not even know how to address these large problems let alone solve them. In the past we might organize to get something done politically in our nations. But, if our nation, itself, is severely limited, is it worth the effort? And, if the crises are global in nature, solutions seem hopeless.
Feet of Iron and Clay
Nebuchadnezzar had a nightmare. He dreamt of a marvelous statue of gold, bronze, iron but with feet of iron and clay. The prophet Daniel said it represented empires, one following another, until at the end it rested upon the feet, an unstable mixed combination of iron and clay. Then a stone hit the feet, the statue collapsed ushering in the Kingdom of God which would fill all the earth (Dan. 2: 1-39). Interpreters say the feet of clay and iron referred to the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. But those feet of iron and clay might also be a stunning illustration of a collapse of the contemporary merger of capitalism and the nation-state system going on for the past 500 years.
The purpose of capitalism is to make money while hopefully providing the goods and services which people need to survive. Money is invested in enterprises to accumulate capital which can then be invested again. Capitalism in the modern world system, notably in Europe, got its start in the fifteenth century. The black death plague decimated Europe and the rule of the three dominating institutions collapsed. With fewer people to till the land the nobility turned on each other to maintain their lifestyles. With limited revenue from the landowners, the feudal states were undermined. Then came the Protestant Reformation which undercut the authority of the church.
There had always been an entrepreneurial group throughout history engaged in petty capitalism, but it was severely limited by the Church which maintained a fight against usury. With weakened institutions the rules against capitalism changed. Not only was it legitimate to make money through investing, but there was also nothing wrong with accumulating capital endlessly.[i] Indeed, some Protestants viewed making money through capitalism as meritorious.[ii]
Concurrent with capitalism was the beginning of stronger countries and the nation-state system. While monarchies existed in Europe earlier, few could have matched those of Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The parallel growth of nations and capitalism was not accidental. To become more powerful, monarchs needed money. To keep their money safe within the rule of law, businessmen needed a stronger state.
To accumulate more money, capitalism needed an ongoing supply of cheap labor. In Europe this was supplied by serfs coming from the feudal estates. In newly colonized lands, it was provided by natives. They were mostly obtained through forced labor or slavery. Workers had no rights and indeed existed through some of the most terrible times in human history. All the while, capitalism grew to become the predominant force in the history of the past 500 years.
Fueled by the money made from gold, silver, spices, rum, and from taxes on newly manufactured items nations increased their militaries, expanded their reach, and further limited the power of the landed nobility. During the first years of colonialism the state was the leader of the coalition of the state and capitalism. Its mercantilist policies subsidized most colonies and reaped most of the rewards. Mercantilism was challenged in the eighteenth century by Adam Smith who argued that true wealth was not the possession of bullion and coins but was sum of production and labor. To achieve greater production, he advocated free markets and believed that an “invisible hand” would provide plenty for all. Presaging future debates in many nations, he put forward the concept of limited government in economic matters so that the market might work efficiently. [iii]
In modern states there is a constant struggle between corporations and the state in matters of taxes, regulations, and labor. Yet, they are mutually dependent on each other for survival. Capitalist enterprises wish to make as much money as possible. To do so they need the state to protect them from a “free market.” They are dependent on modern governments to enforce patents, which of course limit the freedom of other enterprises to make products. To guard profits, they need governments to put tariffs on competing products. They also need the state and its citizens to pick up costs of their polluting of the environment so that they can make more money. [iv]
States, in turn, need capitalism to provide the goods and services for their citizens. They also depend on corporations and business to furnish funds for defense, and for the rising demands for education, adequate medical care and good jobs. The mutual dependence of capitalism and nation-states, notwithstanding their frequent arguments, puts both in a precarious situation. If capitalism is not functioning well, nations find themselves in conflicts and crises. Then if the state cannot provide stable governance, its capitalist economy can collapse.
Capitalism’s Last Days?
The chief reason why people around the world are worried about the future is that the present world system will not be able to cope with the failures of capitalism to meet the rising expectations of the world’s people. This in turn will bring about political instability, open conflicts, and civil and interstate wars. Having dominated work and commerce for the past 500 years it is difficult to see how capitalism can be challenged. While it has produced amazing prosperity for some, it has failed to lift millions from a life of misery. Capitalistic enterprises are also chiefly responsible for trashing the planet and causing climate change. Yet, despite the problems it causes, it is difficult to see how the world system can do without it. It undergirds our food supply, transportation, manufacturing, employment, and government itself.
The most significant crisis facing us is the end of capitalism as the world’s economic system. Neither communism nor socialism were effective against it as the world’s dominant economic system. Yet as we move into the next fifty years, its end is in sight. Its collapse will come about for several reasons on a world-wide basis. The first is that most of the world ’s people will be unable to purchase food, goods, services, land, and housing because there will not enough good jobs to provide them with an adequate income. The unemployment of millions of young people around the world will only get worse. Then without an increasing global market for goods and services, capital accumulation will be less.
The second reason is that global clean up and steps to prevent global warming will inevitably mean less capital accumulation by companies. They will either be regulated to pay for their discharges or taxed so that governments can do so. Even though there is a world-wide consensus to limit the earth’s carbon footprint, few have had the courage to count the costs for doing so and who will pay for them. Though companies will seek to pass off these costs to governments, it will be strongly resisted by citizens. In the ensuring conflicts, capital accumulation will go down.
Rising expectations on the part of the world’s people will be a third challenge to capitalism. Most of the world’s people believe that as human beings they are entitled to a good job, a good education, and adequate medical care. Pressures on governments across the world to provide these will call for them to raise taxes, further cutting into capital accumulation. As corporations fight the efforts to raise their taxes and citizens demand more, there will be an increase in political instability.
The fourth bite into profits and capital accumulation will be the dearth of cheap labor. For the past 500 years, most people lived on the land doing subsistence agriculture. As jobs became available, they did not have to receive much more to leave the farm and go to the factory. As less people around the world are engaged in agriculture, and some, as in China, are enticed to leave the land to work in industry, there will be less cheap labor available. As the price of labor increases, coupled with the loss of markets and the weakening of states to protect monopolies, capitalism may be finished as the world’s dominant economic system.[v]
Decline of the Nation-State?
As capitalism fails to meet its challenges, nations are feeling its effects. Poor countries cannot meet the demands of their people and face growing protests, conflicts, and civil wars. Coupled with the effects of climate change, refugees and migrants in growing numbers are seeking entrance into nations where they can live in some safety and well-being. At the same time richer nations find themselves increasingly unable to deal with refugees, climate change, and violent crime caused by rising inequality.
Religion is back. Unable to meet the threat of the problems of capitalism, nations have turned to religion and “cultural faith” to support state power. Countries in the Middle East look to Islam for identity and stability. India has reverted to Hinduism. Authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary justify anti-democratic policies in the name of religious hot button issues. Russia invades Ukraine for the sake of Russian Orthodox unity. China glories in its Sinic culture and moves against its Muslim Uyghur citizens.
In the United States the defenders of capitalism engage in culture wars for political support. Through generous donations to conservative megachurches, evangelistic groups, and publications they not only fund evangelism but also free enterprise. They champion family values based upon traditional marriage and male supremacy. Backed by corporate funding, evangelical Christians oppose abortion rights and gay marriage in the name of the Christian faith.[vi] By doing so they effectively steer people’s attention away from the capitalist crises. This not only affects the poor in the United States but also the difficulty of the country in addressing world problems. Through these efforts the United States has become more polarized than any time since the civil war. In elections many citizens do not like the choices they face and fear for the future of the nation.
Despite efforts to promote democracy, free elections, and multi-culturalism, the failure of capitalism to meet human needs can lead to more authoritarian governments. Current inflation leading to higher corporate profits and sacrifices for the vulnerable has been attributed to progressive policies rather than to the underlying breakdown of the system. However, nations’ retreat into a religiously fueled authoritarian nationalism may well lead to the next global war.
Though all the major religions of the world teach the golden rule, that we should do to others as we would have them do to us, political leaders use religious and cultural heritage to define national identity and, when necessary, provide justification for terrorism, genocide, and war. Indeed, the next global war may well be depicted as a “clash of civilizations” resting on differing religious foundations.[vii]
Global War – The Statue Falls
During the past 500 years in the mutual relationship between capitalism and nation-states, global wars have occurred about every hundred years. Portugal emerged as the world leader after the Italian and Indian Ocean wars ending in 1516. Following the Spanish-Dutch war, involving the Spanish Armada, Holland took over world leadership. That ended with the Wars of Louis XIV and Britain’s emergence as the preeminent world power in 1713. Approximately 100 years later in 1792 the Napoleonic wars began which engulfed much of the world from Egypt to Moscow. Winning at Waterloo, Great Britain remained the world’s leader until 1918 and the beginning of World Wars I and II. After 1945 the United States exerted global supremacy, was able to set the rules for global trade and finance and enjoyed exceptional prosperity.[viii]
Each of these cycles had within them four stages. The first was the global war or series of wars. The second was a period of world power The third was a period of de-legitimation when its power was challenged, and the nation began to lose its moral authority. The fourth stage was one of de-concentration when other nations challenged the hegemony of the world power leading to the next global war.
Applied to the leadership of the United States in the last century the stages are not hard to notice. The first was the global wars from 1918-1945. Then came the stage of world power which lasted until the early 1970s, the oil crisis and the loss of Viet Nam. This was followed by America’s inability to prevent wars in the Falklands, the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, and elsewhere. The final stage has been the rise of competing powers challenging U.S. superiority. Competing for world leadership is China and Russia and Europe. Even smaller powers such as N. Korea and Iran have effectively challenged the interests of the United States. Whether the current war in Ukraine is a precursor to the next global war is hard to predict. Nonetheless it has alerted the world to the possibility of a devastating world conflict and the economic disaster following.
The Little Stone
What was the little stone that brought down the empires in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream? What is the little stone that may break the feet of clay and Iron, capitalism, and the nation-state system? As silly as it sounds, the stone is the simple humanity of the vulnerable people around us. These are the masses of unemployed youth around the world who have no future. They are the gang members who shoot people because they have no hope. They are the refugees by the millions. They are the innocent victims of rape as militants stalk Africa for its gold and diamonds. They are citizens of Ukraine shot down in the streets, and the Russian soldiers burned alive in their tanks.
The nation-state system fueled by capitalism has no real answer to the problems posed by climate change, by hunger, by mass underemployment, by endemic poverty, by imprisonment, lack of medical care, inadequate housing, and war involving millions of fatalities. For five hundred years we have sought remedies. Some have been successful, but the problems have increased and are becoming worse. If the feet of clay and iron cannot survive the impact of the stone and this world’s system breaks apart, what’s next?
The Kingdom of God is Near
At the collapse of a world system what is involved in human survival and a hope for the future? In describing the current crises in the capitalist, nation-state system Immanuel Wallerstein says that we are basically faced with two choices. The first is that we will look to new vertical, hierarchical structures permitting privileges according to some type of rank, enforcing order on what might become chaos. The second would be a relatively democratic, egalitarian system providing for basic human needs.[ix] According to the patterns of the past, the first would include dictatorships of the left or the right or even authoritarian governments done in the name of democracy. The latter might be exemplified by citizens organized to do what governments cannot. Here one thinks of aid to refugees in transit, climate change activists, prison reform advocates, feeding programs, health care volunteers, and worker owned businesses.
When Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God was near,” (Mark 1:15) his words were good news because the people knew the promises of the prophets that there would be forgiveness and death would be swallowed up. Healing, food, water, liberation, jobs and homes, and peace between nations would all be at hand. No, the kingdom was not from this world like all the vertical, hierarchical, authority by rank kind of governments. No, his Kingdom was from above where the physical and spiritual welfare of people was of prime importance. How does it work in a time of great stress and danger?
Jesus talks about the ethics of the Kingdom and underscores their primacy over all other ethics by saying that the final judgement on our faithfulness will be whether we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, clothed the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned, and befriended refugees (Matt. 25: 31-46). In various world systems, Christians have not only helped others as individuals but have gathered in communities such as monasteries, parishes, colleges, cooperatives, non-governmental organizations, and lobbies to live out Christ’s narrative of the end. Christians have also worked in government and its agencies to promote policies helping the less fortunate.
But, what about other civilizations? Does Christ’s kingdom also come through others whose “natural knowledge of God” moves them to protest violence and aid the needy? In the next world system will people reach across national boundaries and cultural conflicts to help? The process will not be easy. Its beginning will be small as a mustard seed. There will always be a mixture of wheat and weeds. Even to see it you need the faith of a child or simply be born again. But it is coming. Daniel concluded that the Kingdom would be an eternal kingdom, a kingdom without end (Dan. 2:44). We will only see its first fruits but that is good news for a world in crisis.
[i] Immanuel Wallerstein, The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 127-129.
[ii] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Routledge, 2013).