What can the Christian faith say to the crisis of capitalism?

Capitalism appears to be in some kind of crisis. On the one hand, it has provided a mechanism for lifting people out of poverty and creating unprecedented wealth, including reducing global poverty to historically low levels. On the other, it has led to untrammelled destruction of the environment, and unrestrained inequality and individualism which has been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic as deeply problematic.

Economic theories about this abound—but given that economics is concerned with human actions and behaviour in relation to work, saving, spending and leisure, then surely those with insight into the human condition should be able to say something valuable in this debate? What might a Christian perspective, grounded in an understanding of the human condition as set out in the Scriptures, be able to offer?

Dr Eve Poole is both a theologian and economist, having studied theology at Durham and an MBA from Edinburgh before going on to complete a PhD at Cambridge on the Church of England and capitalism. She teaches leadership at Ashridge Business School and is Third Church Estates Commissioner for the Church of England. Her recent book, Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions: Redefining Next Generation Economics, tackles the problems with capitalism head on. Though technically well-informed, it is surprisingly readable—and I had the chance to ask her about it.

IP: You are clearly passionately concerned about the way that capitalism, as practiced in most Western economies, is doing immense damage. What has led you to this conviction from your own experience?

EP: I was brought up in Fife during the miners’ strikes, and studied theology in the early 1990s in a Durham that had had its heart ripped out. My career then took me on a grand tour of the sectors through my MBA, my work at Deloitte, and my teaching at Ashridge Business School. I saw a lot to admire in capitalism, but had a nagging sense that we were running out of time: there seemed to me to be too many losers, and too many internal contradictions for the system to hold. My initial investigations centred on the theology of management and on workplace spirituality, but there is little point moving the deckchairs if you’re on course with an iceberg.

So I decided to try to articulate the fault lines by going back in time to the mindset and worldview that incubated the blueprint for modern-day capitalism: Judaeo-Christian theology. I studied part-time at Cambridge University for a PhD in this area, which used the Church of England as a case study for a theology of capitalism. And I used this groundwork to write Toxic Assumptions, a more readable version of my general thesis, with more specificity about the problems as I saw them.

IP: You highlight seven major assumptions underlying the practice of Western capitalism for critique—and of course I think seven is a good number! Some of these (such as utilitarianism, competition) didn’t surprise me, but some (such as agency theory) were issues I hadn’t considered previously. Why did you pick these seven?

EP: Agency Theory was in fact the first of my deadly sins, and was squarely the result of my background in theology. Unless you have a very Medieval view of original sin, it is fundamentally un-Christian to assume recalcitrance as an anthropology—that is, that the primary characteristic of humanity is its unmanageablility and obstinacy—which seems to rely on a Freudian psychology that even the psychologists don’t tend to subscribe to any more. It seemed to me an outrage that we have built a whole system of employment based on the idea that humans have to be forced into line. It was this insight that first raised my suspicions about the design of the whole system: if we could be so wrong about this, where else had we made a toxic assumption?

Christian ethicists know about the limits of utilitarianism; and I had read enough on game theory to make me suspicious of an unalloyed enthusiasm for competition, but when I also discovered the role of gender in the way that competition is practiced, I knew I was on to something big. Most of the others emerged similarly, from the piecing together of various strands in my teaching and writing and from my work with companies: questions about the environmental costs of industry (externalities) and corporate responsibility (limited liability) were coming to the fore, and my fights with the MBA students to whom I taught ethics about St Milton Friedman meant I knew shareholder value was pernicious.

Any theologian worth their salt knows that usury raises questions about the price of money through the notion of opportunity cost and reasonable rates of interest; and the Scholastics’ work on this and on Just Price inspired my thinking on both externalities and on market pricing. And if you are trained in metaphysics you develop a nose for phantasms, the Invisible Hand being a particularly good example of a metaphor that has somehow been confused with God and become a scientific law to boot. I’m often asked if I missed any toxic assumptions. Perhaps I might have said more about growth, if I were writing the book again today, although it is covered to some extent in my discussion on externalities.

IP: In relation to competition, you highlight the damaging effect of masculine competitiveness in distorting markets and business competition, and suggest that involving more women in business leadership could help to address this. Is this primarily a gender issue, or more about participation and collaboration? Do you see Western capitalism as in some sense inherently anti-democratic?

EP: The issue is a mathematical one, but it remains unaddressed because of male dominance. Game Theory shows us that in general you get better outcomes if you share information, through cooperation and collaboration. Formal competition theory, however, discourages this, because it is based on a theory of the zero sum win/lose game, where to prevent ‘monopoly’ companies must be pitted against each other in perpetual combat. But most businesses cannot afford to tarnish their brands by behaving badly just to win one skirmish, and annihilation is unwise because each party depends on a strong industry to create scale and sustain the supply chain.

This need to pay attention to the future suggests a more sophisticated strategy, that is often called co-opetition: the judicious mix of collaboration and competition that characterises much professional sport. But in economic policy the zero-sum game assumption persists, reinforced by academic thinking about strategy and leadership that draws on classic texts about war and principalities, because industry, government and academia have been dominated by men for so many generations. And this feels entirely natural and normal to men, because under pressure this is how they feel: they are programmed to perceive zero sum games in any threat situation. This is why they have survived.

But when you examine the data on women and stress, you see that this is sexist: women do not typically react in this way, being hard-wired to draw people into their circle when under pressure, not to batten down the hatches and keep their cards close to their chests. So if you are looking objectively at de-risking organisational decision-making under pressure, your best bet is to put women in charge, unless it is truly a win/lose scenario where survival is genuinely at stake.

I don’t see Western Capitalism as inherently anti-democratic but it can easily become so if we allow these toxic assumptions to go unchallenged: unfettered free markets are a cloak for the rich and powerful otherwise.

IP: In relation to utility, you criticise the narrow rationalist assumptions of ethics in relation to economic theories of the past. In this, you echo the assessment made by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind. Do you agree with him that we need to have a much broader, more human, understanding of ethics and the way we make decisions in this sphere?

EP: Business ethics is unapologetically utilitarian and I found it very hard to teach ethics in a moral sense as part of an MBA that is steeped in this very partial mindset. The Harvard case study method trains students to game their responses to ethical dilemmas to optimise outcomes, so that what in fact they learn is how to choose the appropriate mask of the day in order to make capitalism win. As a theologian I was worried about their immortal souls, which suggests a very different set of deeply uncomfortable questions. I’m therefore very drawn to virtue ethics, particularly because of my work on neuroscience and leadership.

For me this is also about risk again. As in a compass, a relativist morality is susceptible to being thrown off course by the magnetic forces of expediency: but in a set of compasses, the fix’d foot of character generates a durable morality that is both more predictable and more reliable. If as Haidt argues we should entertain the values lying behind our opponents’ moral convictions before we judge them, we are more likely to be able to do so if we have worked on our own characters, rather than seeing ethics as simply a reactive and cerebral calculation of the optimal solution to a particular scenario.

IP: In each of the chapters, you offer small, practical ways in which we can shift both practice and debate. Are you hopeful that these shifts and ‘nudges’ will be effective in changing the agenda? How do you answer those who point to the way that Western capitalism had brought unparalleled prosperity, including lifting many out of poverty in the developing world?

EP: When it feels as though Something Must Be Done, we are drawn back to heroic archetypes and bold top-down actions that Look Brave. The trouble is that there is scant evidence that this approach has the intended consequences, particularly if the aim is to change what is known in the trade as a complex adaptive system. It is a huge leap of faith to imagine that a nudge here or there might have a better effect, because it doesn’t feel weighty or serious enough, particularly when everyone is looking to you for leadership.

But grand gestures seem to be more about ego than effectiveness, given the data we have, although I understand why we are drawn to them. So I hang on to my theory of change, that everything big that ever happened started small and gained momentum. This is not to say that there aren’t policy levers that can be pulled, but market changes like fairtrade and the demise of plastic straws are more sustainably driven by customer action that they could ever be by slow and clunky regulation.

And I should say that I have come to praise Capitalism, not to bury it: it isn’t terminally ill, it’s just got a virus. It’s the best hope we’ve got for addressing both global inequality and the future of our planet, if we can fix the bugs in the software in time.

IP: At a couple of points, you intriguingly hint at parts of the biblical narrative which give key insights into these issues. What role do you see for Christian theology—and the Christian churches—in rethinking the way Western economies work?

EP: To the Christian reader, most of the book is fairly obviously built on Christian insights. I needed it to have the widest possible audience, so made these implicit for Bloomsbury. My SPCK book Buying God makes these arguments more explicit: we are perfectly designed for God’s ends and we have all the tools we need to build signs of the kingdom of God into all spheres of life. Markets are just the meeting places of messages about supply and demand, and Christians are extremely well-placed to influence both of these, to create a capitalism that serves the whole world, and not just those who have more ‘votes’ in the marketplace because of their wealth.

IP: What role has your own faith played in your work and thinking in this area?

EP: I could not have written this book without the insights that theology has given me, and without the optimism that my faith provides. My rather odd career peregrinations between God and Mammon have furnished me with a very idiosyncratic viewpoint which has allowed me to spot connections that others might miss, and my hope for humanity gives me confidence that we can use these insights to build a better system.

The book was written as an encouragement that we all have role to play. All I have done is to explain the theory of change behind the salt and light of Matthew 5:13–16 so that we no longer have any excuse for inaction. We can’t just leave this stuff to the grown-ups: we are the grown-ups, and we get the system we deserve. It’s time we redeemed it.

IP: Thanks so much for your time—and for your stimulating insights into are current economic situation. I hope and pray that they are taken to heart in both the church and the city. 


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34 thoughts on “What can the Christian faith say to the crisis of capitalism?”

  1. ‘which has been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic as deeply problematic.’

    Has it? Or have the usual suspects simply changed ‘because late-stage capitalism’ to ‘because Covid’?

    As an aside, it misleads to say ‘capitalism leads to environmental destruction’; increased mass wealth leads to environmental destruction. The industralisation of communist countries are of similar destruction – although of course the industralisation of those countries is only possible by following the trail set by the capitalist nations. There are three things in our society that leads to environmental destruction: the EU (encouraging international trade and the enrichment of the rich), immigration (encouraging huge increase for a rootless minority while taking energy from the previous country, as well as erasing the environmental gains that ought to have come from the reducing population) and capitalism. It is interesting that ‘the environment’ only becomes worth mentioning when it comes to the thing that created Polio vaccines and created comfort, safety and rest for the poor.

    Surely on of the first lessons to be learnt about Christianity is to treat others as we would wish to be treated? Would you want to be discussed as ‘toxic’ or ‘problematic’? No, clearly we ought to use words which mean what we specifically intend to say (and we should know what we specifically mean). In addition, would we want people making decisions for us base them on what they’ve been told is yucky (or toxic or problematic) or based on the behaviours and attitudes that the bible commands.

    I think being drawn to virtue ethics is a similar thing of not allowing God to be our master. Virtue ethics isn’t all wrong. It might even be the second best. However, following the commands of our Lord is the actual best. The lenses of philosophy should allow us to discuss and praise God better, not force us to pigeon-hold the Lord (as the Germans in the 1800s did so destructively). We should be obeying God and cultivating the qualities called for as we store up unrusting treasures.

    I respect Dr. Eve’s complementarism, and she is right to have it. However, she is using it in away not justified by the scriptures. We were told that female leaders in politics would keep brutal man from war. This was falsified almost as soon as we got female political leaders in politics. Now we are told that female leaders in business will keep us from toxicity. A vaguer subject and correspondingly harder to debunk, but looking at those high-profile female CEOs like Elizabeth Holmes or Marissa Myers, I am unconvinced that there are a reserve of female super-CEOs.

    On the subject of human’s obstinacy and unmanageability, might I suggest that few texts are more brutal about fools and the obstinacy of man than the book of Proverbs?

    As what I believe is a point of fact (unless the theory has radically changed in the last half a decade). Monopoly theory does not hold monopolies as Zero-Sum but as negative-sum. Nor is this simply an assumption – to be smashed by a pioneering feminist theologian – but is the result of decades of research including look at what appears to be challenges to the theory such as Bell Labs (It reminds one of – but not quite as bad – as those soft-study feminists who declared that Fluid Dynamics wasn’t really difficult, it was just that masculine mathematics were frit of feminine fluids). I am certainly not saying one should not be free to disagree with the economic position, I just think one should do so respectfully by dealing with the actual points or difficulties presented rather than leaping to bulverism, or similar.

    Another lesson taught be the bible is that most of our fellows are in bondage to Satan. This should affect how we think of efforts of co-opetition even before looking at the empiric results (the Nordic Social Democracies have traditionally been high-tax, high-welfare, highly-capitalistic in case any think that they are a counter-example; they are not) even before looking at the results in the USSR of Mussolini-era Italy. Since – talking just for myself -, I would quite like the tools of my enemy to be divided, ta very much.

    ‘This is why they have survived.’

    This seems like nonsense to me. If I’m reading correctly and ‘they’ is men. They the survival of men and women have been exactly the same. We are on species. Unless technology changes the game, men are women can only fail to survive at around the same times.

    Dr. Eve Poole is quite right about being salt and light. However, this ought to be in service of the gospel and the narrow path. Not leftism dressed in a holy garb.

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      • This is very seriously mistaken – and a mistake only a man is likely to make

        No it’s not. Survival of a species is very different from survival rates, and the article you link to is about the latter whereas Kyle Johansen’s point was about the former.

        I don’t know what Dr Eve Poole’s point was about as it seems totally incoherent. ‘This is why they have survived’ — what, on an individual level each man has survived by perceiving a zero-sum game in any threat situation? As well as being obvious nonsense (what does it even mean to ‘perceive zero sum games in any threat situation’), how many men in the modern Western world do you know who regularly find themselves in situations where their lives are threatened and they need to treat them as zero-sum games to survive?

        Maybe it’s one of those evolutionary just-so stories about men being ‘genetically programmed’ to perceive zero-sum games in any threat situation because the ones who did survived to pass on their genes. But that’s obvious nonsense too (I mean even more than all evolutionary just-so stories are nonsense): we know (because we’re descended from them) that the most successful of our ancestors were not the ones who went around treating all threat situations as zero-sum games, but the ones who banded together to first make farms, and then later on to establish cities.

        Unless someone can clarify I think Dr Eve Poole’s claim here is not even wrong, but simply meaningless.

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      • But women have still survived to this day. If three and a half billion women go missing then men will go missing shortly after.

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          • The clear evidence is that a great many women simply don’t survive. Do you really not see any issues here?

            I think what he doesn’t see (and nor do I) is the relevance of that to the claim that ‘[men] are programmed to perceive zero sum games in any threat situation. This is why they have survived.’

  2. Capitalism appears to be in some kind of crisis.

    People keep saying this, but I see no evidence of it beyond the fact that people keep saying it. If you look at what is actually happening — rather than what people are saying —

    As an example, note that during this entire year, despite the challenges of panic-buying and supply disruptions, the supermarket shelves have been kept stocked throughout. The range of goods might not have been quite what we have been used to; you might not have been able to find out exactly what you were after every time you wanted it, like pasta or flour; but nowhere has anyone gone hungry because of a lack of supply of food.

    Contrast that with, well, literally any economic system other than capitalism, under which empty shelves and starvation were not just an inevitability in a crisis but a normal fact of everyday life.

    The story which always sums up to me the superiority of capitalism is the one of the soviet official who came to the UK and, on seeing how full the shops were and how there were, unlike in the USSR, no shortages, asked to meet the man in charge of the bread supply for London, so that he could learn the secret.

    Capitalism in crisis? Quite the reverse. It’s capitalism that’s saved us, this year.

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    • How then do you account for the fact that Western, individualist capitalist economies like UK and US have fared worse, where more collaboratives cultures have done better? Tired old parodies from Soviet Russia don’t really offer any insight.

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      • How then do you account for the fact that Western, individualist capitalist economies like UK and US have fared worse, where more collaboratives cultures have done better?

        You’re going to have to be more specific about what you mean by ‘fared worse’ there. Do you mean during the initial stage of the pandemic? If so exactly how have thy fared worse?

        (It’s certainly true that more authoritarian countries, where it’s acceptable to do things like weld your population into their homes or spy on everyone 24/7 using electronics, have been able to quarantine themselves more effectively. Tie will tell however whether that is ‘better’. But you may mean something else.)

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  3. It seemed to me an outrage that we have built a whole system of employment based on the idea that humans have to be forced into line

    What? No we haven’t. We’ve built system of employment based on the free exchange of labour in return for goods (or money).

    Moe to the point I don’t see what this has to do with agency theory. It sounds like someone has fundamentally misunderstood the entire basis of capitalism, but I’m obviously not going to waste money buying a totally wrong-headed book just to find out exactly where it went wrong.

    Given this level of misunderstanding I wouldn’t be surprised to find the author also bought into the labour theory of value, frankly.

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    • The medieval view is surely the one that suggests that sin is a congenital disease – we inherited it through our ancestors back to Adam. But of course the theory of evolution, amongst other things, changed our view about that. We don’t accept such a mechanistic view.

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      • The medieval view is surely the one that suggests that sin is a congenital disease – we inherited it through our ancestors back to Adam

        But that doesn’t seem to be relevant to:

        ‘Unless you have a very Medieval view of original sin, it is fundamentally un-Christian to assume recalcitrance as an anthropology—that is, that the primary characteristic of humanity is its unmanageablility and obstinacy—which seems to rely on a Freudian psychology that even the psychologists don’t tend to subscribe to any more.’

        so presumably that’s not what to author had in mind?

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        • sin is a congenital disease – we inherited it

          Oh sorry — you were right to tell me off for not reading carefully enough, because I didn’t notice at first that you seemed to be using ‘congenital’ and ‘inherited’ as synonyms. But they aren’t at all: there are congenital diseases that aren’t inherited (for instance, congenital limb deformities, foetal alcohol syndrome, Zika virus microcephaly) and there are inherited diseases that aren’t congenital (for example colour blindness, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Huntington’s disease).

          So do you mean that the medieval view is that sin is a congenital disease or that it is an inherited disease?

          (of course in neither case does it relate to what the original author wrote)

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          • Hereditary would me more accurate. Thank you

            Right, just good to check because there do seem to be some people who have this insane idea that sin is not congenital: that children are ‘born pure’ and only later acquire the ability to sin (one can only assume that these people have never met an actual child).

          • I presume the non medieval view is that evil and violence etc, were around before the human race. Animals behave selfishly, much as children do.

            I think Romans speaks of Adam as a ‘type’, rather than suggesting that Adam was the originator of sin.

          • I presume the non medieval view is that evil and violence etc, were around before the human race. Animals behave selfishly, much as children do.

            Which is totally wrong, of course. Animals, not being rational creatures, cannot behave ‘selfishly’ or ‘unselfishly’. They simply behave according to their innate instincts, unlike humans (of whatever age), who — unlike animals — can choose whether or not to follow their instincts.

            But that still doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the original author’s point.

          • Oh it is thought that all kinds and sorts of animals seem to be capable of acts of kindness. Primates groom their peers, birds warn each other when they see a predator, and African wild dogs will look after pups belonging to their fellow pack members.

          • Oh it is thought that all kinds and sorts of animals seem to be capable of acts of kindness. Primates groom their peers, birds warn each other when they see a predator, and African wild dogs will look after pups belonging to their fellow pack members.

            Those aren’t ‘acts of kindness’. They’re simply the animals acting according to the instincts programmed into them by evolution. They are no more ‘kind’ or ‘unkind’ than a river flowing downhill because of gravity.

            You’re anthropomorphising. Stop it.

            (And the birds aren’t ‘warning each other’. There’s no actual communication going on. What’s happening is that when a bird sees a predator it makes a particular noise, and when a bird hears that noise it takes off, not because the bird thinks ‘I must warn my friends about that predator’ (because birds don’t have friends, and birds can’t think) but simply because the birds which reacted to those stimuli in those ways are the ones which in the past survived to pass on their DNA to their children, who then also reacted in those ways.

            You can tell this because if was actual communication — if there was actual communication going on, if the call was some form of saying, ‘look out!’ — then a bird would react to other sources of danger with the same call. That doesn’t happen. It’s not a ‘warning’, just an evolution-programmes instinctive response.)

  4. “But when you examine the data on women and stress, you see that this is sexist: women do not typically react in this way, being hard-wired to draw people into their circle when under pressure, not to batten down the hatches and keep their cards close to their chests. ”

    I am not sure if this generalisation is justified. I would not have thought this behaviour was typical of women leaders like say Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May or Angela Merkel and many female CEOs. In fact, women are just as scheming and competitive as men, perhaps more subtly so and even more manipulative. I do not think it follows that having more women would necessarily solve the issues that Eve Poole is addressing here and although she makes some very valid criticisms about what is wrong with capitalism, I do not get the impression she is anticapitalist. When it comes to wielding power, I do not think that men and women are really so different as she imagines them to be.

    It would be better if she could explain a little more of the metaphor she uses when she states that capitalism has a ‘virus’ and how did it catch it. I am sceptical that inoculating it with more women in the roles she outlines, would have much effect.

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  5. It would be helpful if every article on this excellent website would start with the author stating what they believe about the Fall and Original Sin, because that is fundamental to nearly all of our discussions. It is not clear to me what the author speaking in this interview believes about this fundamental doctrine.

    Phil Almond

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    • Andrew Godsall’s reply today (above) deepens my suspicion that Dr Poole by ‘Medieval view’ means the doctrine the Apostle Paul sets out in Romans 5:12-21. Can she, or Ian Paul, lay my suspicions to rest?

      Phil Almond

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        • By ‘Medieval view’ I assume she means the view of original sin promulgated by Augustine?

          Maybe — how would that relate to:

          ‘Unless you have a very Medieval view of original sin, it is fundamentally un-Christian to assume recalcitrance as an anthropology—that is, that the primary characteristic of humanity is its unmanageablility and obstinacy—which seems to rely on a Freudian psychology that even the psychologists don’t tend to subscribe to any more.’

          ?

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          • I am not sure S. If I understand Eve Poole correctly, in relation to the ‘Medieval view’ then I think her statement that the ‘primary characteristic of humanity is its unmanageablility and obstinacy’ is a backhanded reference to the doctrine of original sin as elucidated by Augustine.
            In relating to her central thesis, the ‘medieval view’ of sin would thus see the negative characteristics she describes, as having their origin and attributes stemming from original sin which she appears not to subscribe to and sees as being fundamentally un-Christian – or at least in this context.

            If she is following this Blog, perhaps Eve could clarify this for us?

          • If she is following this Blog, perhaps Eve could clarify this for us?

            That would be nice, though of course when someone is plugging a book it would be fair enough for them to hold back some vital information so that people still have to buy the book.

          • She does read the blog, but people are much more likely to reply when they know with whom they are having the conversation.

            Once more, I would be grateful if we had a real name rather than anonymous commenting.

  6. Ian may I add my voice to those asking Eve to clarify what she means by ‘Medieval view’ and what her view is of Article 9 of the 39 Articles. Thanks

    Phil Almond

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  7. Presummably Medieval in this context is Medieval Western …the Eastern Churches have never had an Augustinian understanding of Original Sin.

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