Tom Gilliam: a response to ‘Was Karl Marx Right?’

Do you agree that the older you get the more you realise how little you know?

Life is big and complex. We might know quite a bit about a very specific area(s) but let’s be honest, we don’t know a whole lot about a whole lot (at least I don’t).

And that’s why we need each other – to listen and learn from those who know more than we do about certain areas of life. The NT has a lot to say on this  through Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ. Each part needs the other for the body to work well. Each part can’t function without the others.

So this is all to say in a long-winded way how wonderfully helpful I found this response by Tom Gilliam to last week’s post (reproduced here with permission, thanks Tom) on Was Karl Marx Right? and John Grey’s bleak analysis of capitalism’s self-destructive legacy. Tom is not only a dear friend, fellow member of MCC, imminently graduating MA student from IBI (!)- he also has experience in the corporate world and has thought deeply about the relationship of faith and business.

Have a read and comments, as ever, welcome – it would be good to have some discussion on this. (Any bold text represents my emphasis)


I suppose the first thing I’m wondering is what exactly is meant by the term “capitalism” (Grey also uses “free market” as a synonym)?  Is it possible that the term is used as uncritically today–to summarize the reasons for all that is economically and socially undesirable–as it might have been used a decade ago (three decades ago?) to summarize the reasons for all that was good, i.e. “God bless free market capitalism” (and maybe democracy, too!)?  It seems probable that most contemporary commentators picture something in the term which in some ways must surely differ from what Marx had in mind when he talked about capitalism.  I confess I don’t know enough about Marx to have a sense of exactly what he was seeing when he wrote, other than perhaps industrialization and its effects on people/society.

So what is capitalism for us today in Ireland?  Is it an immigrant who doesn’t speak any English giving away pens for a “donation” on the street corner of Maynooth?  Is it the system that a neighbour’s daughter (who owns a local shop) is enslaved to or rather is in bed with?  Is it the business practices of the multinational publicly traded Tescos, Essos and Intels of the world?  Is it the game changer Ryanair?  Is it Talk Talk, with its lack of “corporate courtesy” (as per the Taoiseach)?  Is it the hard-driving and competitive (and state-owned) petroleum company Statoil of Norway?  Is it ARUP, Extreme Ireland or The Irish Times? (to name a few current capitalistic employers linked to people at MCC).

I suppose Grey’s thesis is this:  isn’t it ironic that Marx got his revolution (ie. bourgeois destruction) through the very system he sought to undermine?  That’s interesting, but is the insight helpful?  Perhaps the more meaningful question for Christians is what economic (and political) system does the best job of pushing back the effects of the fall–i.e. how does our society justly create the greatest “good” for the greatest number of people (is that the right measuring stick?)

I confess that a system of willing buyers and sellers (for goods, services, capital) and un-coerced risk taking by those who can afford it has a great deal of attraction for me in this regard, yet I would never condone capitalism without constraints.  Grey is absolutely right that the insane borrowing he notes is likely to never be repaid but only inflated away.  However, he mistakenly conflates governmental (and perhaps household) borrowing (both of which have been used to perpetuate the anathema of unsustainable consumption by voters like us) with capitalism. 

One could argue that part of the financial crisis we face today is:

(1) the criminal failure of boards of directors to discharge their fiduciary responsibilities toward all shareholders;

(2) the ineptness of multiple nations’ governments to be the financial regulators they claimed to be (think “regulator” in mechanical terms, like that found on early steam engines); and

(3) governments’  resulting utter stupidity in bailing out both providers of capital (e.g. European lenders to Irish banks) as well as whole enterprises (e.g. General Motors) whose employees and assets should have been redeployed under more competent leadership (this is what happens in bankruptcy with assets that have inherent value). 

As an aside, I believe capital markets are much stricter schoolmasters of companies which act unwisely (e.g. Lehman Brothers which received no U.S. government bailout) than they ever can be with either governments or the households who vote for them.

Grey says that the problem is that a middle class existence is no longer even an aspiration for many people–they now face “a lifetime of insecurity”.  I agree that this may hold true for many in the West.  He outlines the bourgeois life as one of fulfilling careers, freedom from the struggle of living on an insecure wage and the protections of savings, home ownership and pension (e.g. lives without fear); however, the picture he paints sounds more like the promises of a post-war social democracy than of capitalism per se (for example, fear and greed are said to be the classical drivers of stock market extremes–perhaps they represent the extremes of all capitalism?). 

Grey also notes capitalism’s “endemic instability”.  In regard to this I wonder if capitalism ever promised stability and if instability is inherently evil/negative/bad (financial theory would say that such any increase in risk or variability of an enterprise is indeed costly)? 

I do think there is something to his observation of the “destructive” nature of capitalism (however defined) but, it must be asked, compared to what–stasis?  Complete stagnation?  What is the base case?  Perhaps even capitalism’s destructive tendencies might have more to do with capitalists (which–truth be told–are us, if we have any euros set aside in savings or in any non-governmental pension funds) than any intrinsic good or evil in capitalism’s systems. 

Maybe capitalism just (most) elegantly, faithfully and rapidly manifests the desires of the human heart to society:  magnifying and accelerating either the God-glorifying goodness of capitalists who see themselves as God’s stewards or the creation-destroying evil of the capitalists whose gods and masters are themselves alone.  Yet I suppose this reality should be considered when thinking about the desirability of capitalism as an economic system.

I wonder if the lost middle class which Grey laments is instead beginning to be found in places like India or China and is actually growing there (due to capitalism?).  Perhaps in the Western world we have become so accustom to entitlement and wealth that we actually resent capitalism’s shifting prosperity and “bourgeois lifestyles” to other places in the world?  History makes us believe we ought to have a monopoly (couldn’t resist that term 🙂 ) on the bourgeoisie. 

Also, I’m not sure what to make about his assertion that capitalism is “destroying its own social base”.  Is it capitalism’s “endemic instability” and inevitable self-cannibalism that is responsible?  Or alternatively is it a lack of wisdom, debt fueled excess consumption, a lack of governmental checks and balances and an entitlement mindset–where risk and reward are decoupled–which are the more salient factors in such destruction?  Again, however, if it is capitalism which fosters the mindset which leads to such poor stewardship then it is indeed suspect as a desirable economic system.

The last word:  if not markets–with willing buyers and sellers–then what?



One thought on “Tom Gilliam: a response to ‘Was Karl Marx Right?’

  1. Karl Marx argued that revolution was impossible in a society that lived on the family farm. He believed that urbanization and industrialization were both requirements for a Communist revolution. In the 1920s, half of all Americans lived on a farm. Family farms that remained free of debt, enjoyed full-employment during the 1930s. Those that used debt to expand, were destroyed.

    The Federal Reserve Bank is a Marxist and Fascist institution. It creates the debt necessary to enslave a Republic, and the politics that are required to increase our indebtedness. Whether this country spends money on social programs (Socialism), or military expansion (Fascism), we end up borrowing money from the Federal Reserve. As an added bonus, the privately owned corporation also charges us interest to use its Federal Reserve Notes as our currency!

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