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.
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.” 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.”
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.
 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005). 55-65
 Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 58.
 Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 258.