I found Matthew Summers’ critique of my essay “Capitalism and the Gospel of Love” illuminating in the sense that two serious thinkers can look at the same phenomenon from completely different viewpoints. He seeks to show that capitalism is the best economic system; given capitalism, I seek to understand how to live best; he focuses on the efficient production and distribution of material goods, and I on the interior life of the human person—
Mr. Summers assumes that he and I are engaged in the same enterprise, attempting to persuade others of the best economic system: “The innermost heart of Dr. Stanciu’s critique is the notion that we can substitute a better economic system for capitalism. But unfortunately, he does not specify what we should or ought to do.” The reason that I do not specify an alternative to capitalism is simple: I am not a reformer as Mr. Summers claims; I am a realist and wish to discover how best to live in the world we actually inhabit; to show that the capitalist system is the best possible world, I leave to the Professor Panglosses. Mr. Summers’ conclusion that
market mechanisms such as the profit motive and the price system are instrumental in moving resources efficiently to their most urgent end. There are no viable options for dispensing with or substituting them. Without them, we are essentially groping in the dark
is of central importance to him, and would be to me, if I were a policy-maker in Washington, D.C. For me, capitalism, industrialism, corporate capitalism, crony capitalism—whatever label we choose for the economic order we find ourselves currently thrust into—is a given; the problem, then, is how to navigate this reality without being interiorly crushed or morally compromised.
Let me take the example of the division of labor to illustrate how Mr. Summers and I differ in our respective intellectual enterprises. We both agree with Adam Smith that the division of labor greatly increases the productive power of the worker. By division of labor, Smith means that with the advent of industrialism, the manufacturing of products is broken into simple operations, with each workman skilled in performing one or two simple steps. Smith extols the division of labor as the greatest innovation in material production, ever, and rightly so. To quote my essay:
No one can doubt that two hundred years of capitalism in America created for the wealthy and the poor a superabundance of goods. The typical Walmart Supercenter carries 142,000 different items. A shopper at Kroger or Whole Foods can buy blueberries in December grown in Peru, fresh roses flown in from Columbia, and organic lamb imported from Australia.
Mr. Summers departs company from Smith and me, when we two realists acknowledge the dark side of capitalism: The division of labor contracts the interior life of the worker. When a person performs one or two simple operations, as required by the division of labor, he, according to Smith, “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.” The interior life of an industrial worker collapses to what serves the machine. I find Smith’s description of the interior state of the industrial worker extreme; however, we both agree that industrialism produces an abundance of goods and a decline in the interior life of the worker.
In premodern economies, Smith notes, no one fell into the “drowsy stupidity” induced by the division of labor and “every man ha[d] a considerable degree of knowledge, ingenuity, and invention,” because the labor of the artisan developed the whole person. Mr. Summers scoffed at my discussion of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, but Smith and I are bringing to light the important reality that when a person engages in an operation from beginning to end, he or she develops the interior life.
I fully acknowledged in my essay that the abundance of goods in modern life relies upon the division of labor and that this given of economic life cannot be eliminated. Nevertheless, Mr. Summers assumes that I desire the end of the division of labor; then, he rants why that is impossible, apparently addressing Karl Marx, not me; finally, he cheerfully brushes aside Smith’s devastating critique of the division of labor and concludes that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Instead of being a Professor Pangloss, I hold that nothing great in human life is without a curse, my paraphrase of the wisdom of Sophocles.
Mr. Summers dismisses my observation that capitalism does not pervade all American life. Each one of us must make a living and provide for our children and aging parents, but we have enormous freedom in how we conduct the business of life. We, for example, do not have to subject ourselves to the division of labor, even though our work is specialized. Despite that Mr. Summers ridiculed me for speaking of my boyhood visit to Pontiac Motors, allow me to speak about real people in the real world, about four neighbors of mine. Juan Abeyta, a plumber, is currently installing a baseboard heating system in an old adobe house, an operation he controls from inception to conclusion. Anthony Trujillo is an independent hydrologist and frequently testifies in court hearings about water rights and usage. Michael Adkins is an artist and makes a comforting living selling his art in Santa Fe, the third largest art market in the country. John Walters is a retired pastor, who had congregations first in Georgia and then later in Chicago. Not one of my neighbors labored at performing one or two simple operations.
For some reason, Mr. Summers ignored the main point of my essay: When we strip away all the fancy arguments and strong opinions about capitalism, or industrialism if you like, we see a person in the workplace is a commodity, a thing to be used up and discarded. As a result, capitalism creates a thing-oriented society, where machines, profits, and properties are more important than people.
The test whether a laborer is a thing or not is simple. If an operation a worker carries out can be replaced by a machine, then he or she is acting as a thing. For example, my wife recently had an MRI at X-Ray Associates in Santa Fe. The three female receptionists have already been partially replaced by an automatic telephone answering machine; still, those poor women say over and over again for eight hours, “Hello. X-Ray Associates. How may I help you?” The reading of an MRI by a radiologist will soon be done by a computer trained by artificial intelligence software. What cannot be replaced by a machine is the oncologist holding my wife’s hand and telling her she knows from first-hand experience the pain and suffering of surgery followed by brutal chemotherapy; she, too, is a cancer survivor.
Mr. Summers may be correct in his declaration that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and Adam Smith and I may be wrong in our contention that when laborers become commodities, what begins to disappear is their capacity to wonder, to behold, and to offer thanks for the plants and animals that form the web of life.
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The featured image is “Meeting of thirty-five heads of expression,” by Louis Léopold Boilly.