Death Rattles

Michael Metzger

A majority of millennials now rejects capitalism. In truth, capitalism has been in decline for a long time. And that might not be a bad thing.

Capitalism was once seen as a good thing. It’s based in Genesis, where we work six days and rest (Sabbath) on the seventh. Sabbath is for enjoying the fruits of our work. That requires amassing surplus capital from our previous six days work. Capitalism.

The Western church formalized capitalism in the 11th century. Two centuries later, Albertus Magnus defined “just price” by what is moral and what the market will bear. That’s why Catholic monasteries emerged as capitalist enterprises, serving not only as manufacturing and trading centers, but also as investment houses.[1]

Capitalism spread throughout medieval Europe with the advent of responsive government providing political stability. But historians note the “dynamism of the medieval economy was primarily that of the Church.”[2] By the 14th century, the term “capital” had come into use. Two centuries later, Adam Smith wrote that capitalism requires “the best head joined to the best heart (conscience).” Conscientious capitalism.

As the Western church declined in the 19th century, so did capitalism. Crony capitalism became the norm in The Gilded Age as Karl Marx noted that capitalism’s rewards were spread unequally. In his 1867 book, Das Kapital, Marx claims capitalism is nothing more than a steppingstone to a superior society, one without rich or poor classes. But as a philosopher, he recognized “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” Marx felt change required a revolution—like World War I.

More than any previous war, World War I depended on huge quantities of industrial products and the raw materials needed to make them. This included precision optical equipment, used in aerial reconnaissance camera lenses, periscopes, telescopic sights for sniper rifles, and binoculars. A year into the war, the British military was running disastrously low on binoculars. An appeal was made to the public, bringing in 2,000 pairs, but not the tens of thousands needed. British authorities turned the world’s leading manufacturer of precision optics: Germany.

It’s best to not advertise collusion with the enemy, so the British Ministry of Munitions was quietly dispatched to neutral Switzerland to propose a deal to Germany. The reply was swift and positive. The German War Office would immediately supply 8,000 to 10,000 each of two types of binoculars. To ensure quality, it was suggested that the British forces inspect the equipment of captured German officers.

This became a two-way deal. Due to the Royal Navy’s blockade on German ports, Germany lacked a treasured commodity: rubber. Rubber was vital for telephone wires to factory machinery to tires and fan belts of motor vehicles. As it happened, rubber was abundant in the Allies’ African and Asian colonies. A deal was struck. Britain agreed to deliver rubber to Germany at the Swiss border.

Secrets are hard to keep. Rumors of the deal leaked. Two years later Hettie Wheldon, an anti-war activist, sat in a British prison listening to the firing of guns at the nearby artillery officers’ academy. She called it one of the “death rattles of Capitalism.”[3]

The death rattles increased. After the war, Europeans learned of the deal. They were shocked to learn that British and German business executives had profited from a deal increasing the ability of the British and German armies to slaughter one another. Since then, collusive and crony capitalism has been on the rise (ex: Amazon’s new headquarters in NYC). Two years ago, a Harvard University survey reported that a majority of millennials now rejects capitalism. Just 42 percent support it.

But this might a good death. John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard, interviewed in greater depth a small group of people in the survey. He found that millennials are not rejecting the idea of capitalism but “the way in which capitalism is practiced today.” I’m all for the death of collusive and crony capitalism.

The challenge is new competitors for capitalism. Yesterday’s front page New York Times reported on Communist capitalism. This week’s Economist headlines “The Next Capitalist Revolution.” I’m hoping for a return to conscientious capitalism. My hunch is many millennials would find it attractive. The trick is reframing this biblical view of capitalism in images and language accessible to millennials, most of whom are post-Christian. That’s one of the projects I’m working on.


[1] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005). 55-65

[2] Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 58.

[3] Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 258.


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  1. Have you heard Anand Giridharadas and his book “Winner Take All”? We can tell the wealthy to give more, but we can’t tell them to take less. There is a great war between the idea of working alone and working together. Philanthropy of the wealthy: do some good and then you can take as much as you want.

  2. Mike,

    The claim that capitalism is based in Sabbath rest strikes me as tenuous.

    When the Israelites were journeying through the wilderness they kept Sabbath due to an over-abundance of God’s provision, not the shrewdness of their production. Indeed any attempt to stockpile a surplice of production is met with disappointment, and their greed makes their manna rot in the jars (Exodus 16:13-26).

    Surely the clearer lesson from the relationship between work and rest is that God provides such that his people are enabled to obey his commands.

  3. Hi Ian:

    I’m drawing my description of Sabbath from “Creation & Blessing” by Dr. Allen Ross. He writes that the seventh day, Sabbath (which later became the sign of the covenant given at Sinai) is the good culmination of creation. The key word here is the well-known “rest” (sabat, “to rest”; sabbat, the Sabbath). According to Ross, the word actually means “cease,” more than “rest” as understood today. It is not a word that refers to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work. Rather, it describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.

  4. Wendel:

    Thank you for bringing Anand Giridharadas’ book. “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” to our attention. It’s going to be part of my column next week.

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