It happened – here lies the serendipity – that on the same day I was reading articles on the history of capitalism (“La grande histoire du capitalisme”, in Sciences Humaines, Hors-Série Spécial 11, mai-juin 2010), I also watched for the second time Scott Ridley’s movie Robin Hood, with that challenging sentence: “Rise and rise again … until lambs become lions”. Ridley’s version of the story of Robin Hood is interesting because it emphasizes not primarily the outlaw stories of Sherwood Forrest, but the context of (the) Magna Carta (1215), one of the most important British and European documents to guarantee individual freedom. The first time I saw the movie, I was taken by the battle scenes and by this struggle to guarantee individual freedoms within a state, which can easily become oppressive or greedy, and the representatives of which can also be tempted to use their positions to promote their own interests.
The set of articles on the history of capitalism stresses the perspective of global history and is, therefore, willing to look at more than Europe and the Western World to try to understand the history of capitalism. Capitalism, as the respect for the concentration of financial means in the hands of private persons, who can then take initiatives and promote business within a system of markets, is older than I thought, earlier than Europe’s industrial revolution in civilisations and cultures as India or China. But there seems to be one important difference: capitalism in Europe has been connected to political systems that would strongly promote and foster the rights of the individual over against the state, as well as private property, or the behavior of enterprises, etc. In that sense, for example, “liberal capitalism” is a specific kind of capitalism that reflects a particular connection between capitalism and politics. And some of that connection originates in texts as Magna Carta.
So, although I applaud the upholding of individual rights and freedoms over against state and institutional power and authority – that would also be true for other institutions than the state -, these articles on capitalism have tempered somewhat my enthusiasm. When politics, with regard to capitalism, promote individualism at the cost of collective care and responsibility for one another, when politics become the mere regulator of individual rights and entitlements in a struggle where the most powerful and wealthy individual will gain, then there is a serious risk that capitalism becomes exploitative or at the best mildly paternalistic in deciding the fate of the poor and powerless. It is important to me that Magna Carta starts with the a clear reference to God, which means – at least in my books – with the reference to someone who cares for all and whose perspective is that of the Kingdom of God, of a just, sustainable and dignified society and life together. The emphasis on individual rights and freedoms is, therefore, seen in the perspective not of the mere individual and its interests, but in the perspective of dignified life together. It’s a difficult balance to strike … at least, that is what our history teaches us. I am not sure that I fully understand the relations between politics, economics, capitalism, private property and markets … but these relations seem to reveal a lot about how we understand our lives together and our mutual care and responsibility.
What I think I do understand is the following: capitalism is about markets, is about personal decision making and creativity, and is about the power to assign means and resources to what one thinks is important for all of us. The last of these three seems the most important to me and I think it is eminently political: the question who decides about the goals we pursue together and the means and resources we can allocate to these efforts, is a societal issue, a question of discernment together and, therefore, a political issue. If politics leaves decision-making to some wealthy and powerful individuals or corporations, and limits its role to put in practice the decisions these individuals or corporations impose, then it has abdicated its very core role and responsibilities. Capitalism, I think, is necessary as the concentration of means and resources to reach costly and important goals, and as a space in which the creativity of individuals surfaces in political decision-making, but it requires the common decision-making processes that allow for a common creativity.
I will be grateful to anyone willing to enlighten me on these issues. The serendipity of watching a movie and reading a set of articles on the same day, has opened up some difficult questions that we have to continue to answer day after day by deciding the way in which we want to live together sustainably on this planet. Magna Carta was right in assuming that this is also a theological issue.