America is not by any means alone in these failures, although its size, inordinate affluence, and international clout have made it the focus of much commentary, criticism, and detailed policy analysis. At the same time, as a recent article in Axios underscores, the pandemic is likely to have a devastating long-term impact on not only the developing nations but also more well-heeled Western countries, particularly the United States.
Governments will find, as one expert quoted in the Axios article says, that “the social safety net has been ripped.” In addition, the inevitable trend toward autarky within nation-states themselves and the beggar-thy-neighbor reflex toward the international economic order as a whole, as happened during the Great Depression, will exacerbate the inability of even some of the wealthiest countries to maintain the safety net, let alone enhance and tighten it.
Stepped up efforts by political authorities everywhere to reverse the decades-long descent toward extreme income inequality, due in large part to the internationalization of commerce and finance, through taxing wealth and redistributing it to those at the bottom of the social ladder are absolutely imperative now, as the editorial board of the prestigious international business publication Financial Times recently opined.
Yet, as failed states like Venezuela as well as “democratic socialist” systems like Denmark equally demonstrate, no political apparatus can equitably reallocate wealth and earnings, regardless of whether they have open or authoritarian forms of governance, if the productive and trading capacities of the nations themselves are negatively impacted.
Therefore, as we slowly stumble into a strange, post-pandemic time frame when standard assumptions about the viability of the neoliberal global economy have gone flying off like wooden signposts into a violent hurricane, we are confronted with the kind of dilemma monarchs and satrapies routinely had to deal with in pre-modern times.
If we can no longer, at least for an indeterminate interval, rely predominantly on the “biopolitical” power of modern bureaucracies that, as the great intellectual historian Michel Foucault has analyzed, have gradually evolved since the French Revolution, do we fall back then, as in medieval times as well as in the early agrarian phase of American history, on religious and community-based providers of charity? Does that option presume an insurmountable ethical as well as political challenge, not to mention an unavoidable death sentence to so much of the world’s population who have barely survived even in the most prosperous stretches of human history?
One of the great challenges of political economy in modern industrial society, or at least since World War I, has been the perplexing tradeoff between equity and productivity. The ethical emphasis on equity, which constitutes the moral baseline of the monotheistic religions –Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – has historically militated against the known productive potential of capitalism, prioritizing social justice over the maximization of wealth in both its private and aggregate forms of accumulation.
The fact that these religious traditions all arose under the conditions of acute scarcity and precarity that characterized agricultural, feudal, and imperial economies is no simple coincidence. Max Weber aside, even Protestant social ethics, which developed during the mercantile and early industrial phases of capitalism, has never sanctioned pure “greed” along with unlimited accumulation in the hands of a privileged few.
The lavish philanthropy of so many nineteenth-century “robber barons” cannot be explained only by political pushback, but by a nagging bad conscience that went along with their unprecedent riches, which in past centuries had arisen from the spoils of conquest, colonial exploitation, and despotism.
Capitalism from its inception in the sixteenth century did not discard this ancient religious and ethical preoccupation with equity. It largely recalibrated the moral principle of “equity” with the core value of “opportunity” that has undergirded the political theory of both liberalism and “neoliberalism” that runs all the way back from George W. Bush’s shibboleth of “compassionate conservatism” to John Locke’s defense of private property, which is only legitimate so long as it is productive private property.
It is thus the aporia of equity versus productivity that stalks the religious moral imagination as we move forward into the third millennium. Religious ethics, logically as well as historically, leans toward the promotion of equity over productivity, with a few glaring exceptions. Religious ethicists in all traditions, when forced to choose between the “ideal types,” as Weber called them, of capitalism versus socialism will invariably pick the latter.
Yet, as even Karl Marx understood, harnessing the productive engines of an expanding capitalist was crucial in ensuring that post-revolutionary policies for systematizing and sustaining equity would not revert to the concentration of power and privilege in a new nomenklatura class, which is exactly what has happened in all real, as opposed to utopian, “socialist” societies in the past two hundred years.
As I have argued persistently in my latest book Neoliberalism and Political Theology, the planetary “neoliberal” economy of the present century is not “liberal” at all in the sense the term was originally meant. On the contrary, it constitutes a disguised form of “socialized” crony capitalism—China today is the most egregious example, but the United States is not far behind—organized for the benefit of the highly skilled, professional new nomenklatura, or cosmopolitan class.
This new cosmopolitan class has come to control the “immaterial” means of production, as the French philosopher Joseph Stiegler terms it, telescoped into the interlocking structures of finance, higher education, and government administrative and digital services, which in tandem with the explosion of income inequality have been hijacked by global oligopolies.
It is this global neoliberal regime that has counterfeited and bastardized the wide variety of ancient religious communitarian ethics, which has always emphasized care and regard for one’s neighbor, by transferring moral obligation from local bodies to the distant state, whose “apparatchiks” have increased their own ungodly as well as ill-gotten gains by waving the hypnotic flag of centralized fiscal largesse.
It is before this neoliberal regime that so much of religious “progressivism,” irrespective of its faith-based good intentions, has in the past half century unwittingly begged and scraped. In the post-pandemic future religious ethicists should push for maximum social equity through the kind of optimized economic productivity that benefits primarily, as Jesus called them, the “least of these.”
Whether it is debatably an apocalyptic moment of “divine judgment,” the coronavirus pandemic is ironically offering us the instantaneous “fall” of a true planetary “Babylon” that is the only three-decade-old neoliberal order, as we find in the Book of Revelation.
The ramifications for the world’s religions are monumental. The only question if they themselves will seize the opportunity.