Whirring Machines: Capitalism, Christianity, and Subjectivity

“A sum of money is the leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.”

This is how Kurt Vonnegut’s fifth novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, begins. In much of his work, Vonnegut draws the reader’s attention to the painful observation that humans are not much different than machines in the way they interact with the world of the late 20th century. His characters seem to have little control over what happens to them, the victims of immovable forces, as he likes to say. These forces, however, are not simply “forces of nature” as they are for the American nihilists of the late 19th century (Stephen Crane, for example.) Elsewhere in his work, Vonnegut writes of humans as having little motors whirring inside of them as they mindlessly bend toanother force inside of them: the drive to wealth at any cost. Capitalism.

Capitalism is “natural” in the sense that it is the mode of production currently employed at this time in history. This understanding is, of course, what Marx means by historical materialism. Put simply, historical materialism is the claim that history is guided by the human need to produce in order to survive–which is the truly natural piece of capitalism (of any mode of production.) This is coupled with the fact that human beings have the ingenuity to adapt to their situation in order to accomplish this goal; thus the mode of production in use will always be adapted to changing circumstances until a point where it collapses in on itself, giving rise to a new mode. We can see at once that, unlike a hurricane or earthquake, capitalism at least feels like it’s in our control to some degree and probably more so than any other mode of production in the past. We make ourselves. Our success is dependent upon how hard one works, and if one has failed to procure a comfortable lifestyle, one has simply not worked hard enough. What we earn belongs only to us.

But think about what we give up in order to accomplish the goals capitalism sets forth. We become part of the labor force for a capitalist (a CEO or a small business owner–doesn’t matter) and have our subjectivity erased, or we try to control some of the means of production and thus participate in that erasure. Certainly there are more nuanced modes of subsistence (non-profit work, for example), but for the purposes of this illustration, let’s stick with the most common forms of participation in our economy.

When one is hired to work for a corporation at any level, one surrenders one’s subjectivity to that corporation. Let’s say you’re a barista at Starbucks. You probably make an average of 10 beverages an hour during a shift that sell for $3-$5. You see maybe $8 of what is made, a small amount goes back into the corporation to procure more means of production, and the vast majority goes to the people who own the corporation–who own the means of production. Some Starbucks baristas are incredible: they’re creative, friendly, they make your drink quickly and very well. Others are awful (as a recent SNL sketch illustrated.) Both will be paid the same. The amount each is paid is determined by how much wealth the owners of the means of production can amass while ensuring that the corporation will continue to produce as efficiently as possible. That baristas at Starbucks are given health benefits is not a sign of the company doing something “extra” for their employees. It’s a sign that the labor force requires more from the owners of the means of production in order to continue producing at the necessary rate. It’s a way for Starbucks to remain competitive by keeping employees happy (maybe happier than employees elsewhere) and improving its public image.

If you’re an employee and you have a bad day, make a mistake, do something that costs the company money, you’ll most likely be fired. An employee’s personal situation is of absolutely no consequence. The only thing that matters is the accumulation of as much wealth as possible. And if you’re a small business owner with all of your assets on the line, it’s even more important that employees mean nothing to you. How could you fire your own brother? We know that this is how capitalism works–those who accept it unreflectively will readily admit that one has a right to make as much money as he or she possibly can through whatever legal means necessary. This is justified because of the false belief that one of those baristas, if she just works hard enough, can eventually become the CEO. That is the fundamental lie upon which capitalism continues to operate. This is how we see that money cuts two ways in capitalism, which is why the bee metaphor is especially apt. On the one hand, the vast majority of people under the capitalist system are drones, making up a labor force to create wealth to be used by very few. On the other, they are drawn to the wealth they are creating, and those who are more successful than others will do anything to acquire more. In other words, the promise of money (and more money–an infinite potential) traps people in this system under the pretense of a false hope.

Employees are not people. They are whirring machines. They are worker bees. Their story and circumstances do not matter to the people who need what they contribute to the labor force as a whole. And in the process of grabbing more for themselves they perpetuate the erasure of subjectivity. Christianity also erases subjectivity, but in a radically different way. Christ’s call to lay down our lives, to give up all that we have, is a call to forsake our own personal identities and take up a new one as a follower of Christ. That isn’t a new insight–I think Pete Rollins has made the same point. But the Christian relationship to subjectivity doesn’t end there. As we forsake our own subjectivity, we do so in order to help others who have been robbed of theirs through injustices perpetrated against them reclaim it.

It is in this way that we can see a radical break from capitalism in Christian practice. (Matt has described a different way here.) Christianity requires knowing–not in a “God knows me, and I’m special” way–but in a way that calls on us to know people. This is what discipleship is. The Great Commission is a call to make disciples, to draw people close into your circle, which has no borders. This discipleship-making is not first and foremost a task of conversion (a terribly destructive misreading of that passage.) Rather it is a calling of people into our midst–people who have been marginalized, treated as objects, as machines, as filth or garbage, so that their subjectivity may be restored and their lives transformed. Again, this isn’t conversion. A conversion (as a confession of Christ and a commitment to taking seriously what it is to follow him) is a forsaking of subjectivity. In other words, we are making disciples when we help people reclaim their subjectivity so that they can come to realize they should forsake it in order to help others reclaim their subjectivity and thus rehearse the coming of God’s kingdom to earth. That is the gospel message.

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