Power, Individualism, and Community in a Neo-Liberal Economic System

As I look at the political events and reactions from the last few days, it appears to me that fear and reactivity are, as always, narrowing people’s perspectives. I have certainly felt the pressure to narrow my own to fear and disgust. I can’t let myself stay there, though. Broadened perspective is necessary for us to move forward purposefully and ethically.

Healthy perspective comes not from our answers, but from the quality of the questions we ask. So a part of gaining perspective is working hard to get to the most useful questions. If we ask superficial questions, we will be left with a superficial understanding. For example, many Democrats are asking “What went wrong?” implying that some strategic mistake brought about this outcome, and if we only had not made the mistake, all would be well. This is a superficial question. Before going on, I confess to being horrified and terrified by a Trump presidency. I could easily be carried by those emotions to scream abuse at the other side. It would not be wise, however to allow those perfectly understandable emotions to get in the way of a deeper look into the situation affecting us all.

I am trying to unearth some broader questions that can be useful, perhaps even necessary, as we look for a way forward. Here is an example of how I try to identify a deeper question. I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago that equated Donald Trump’s political positions with the temptations that Satan offered to Jesus.

“American Christians should not take a deal Jesus rejected.”
reverbpress.com|By Samantha
It would be easy to jump on that, for there is some truth in it, without considering how it fails to address a deeper question: How do our accepted cultural beliefs square with the needs of a healthy community?

When I excavate that deeper question, I notice that Satan’s temptations are actually embedded in values that are generally accepted in our culture. I would suggest that it is not only Trump, but our entire political system, that tempts people with similar satanic promises. So what are these temptations, and what do they have to do with us? Simply described, the temptations include power, safety, comfort, and status. Wait a minute! Aren’t those exactly the values that we have been taught are the basis for healthy social functioning? Aren’t those the promises that come from most politicians?

It would be easy at this point to throw out this whole line of thinking because it seems to lead to ridiculous (anti-American?) conclusions.  Any line of thinking can appear ridiculous if the question behind it is inadequate. My concern as not whether these are useful values. Clearly they can be. For me, a more useful question is about why and how power, safety, comfort, and status might function as temptations?

In the context of Christian theology, how do these four perfectly reasonable values serve to distract from the mission Jesus found himself called to? One way to frame an answer is for us to ask what it costs, in the broadest sense of that word, to achieve power, safety, comfort and status. For the sake of brevity, I am only going to deal with one of these: power. I make the assumption that the definition of power that our culture accepts is central to our difficulties. We believe that having power is the means by which we exercise freedom. We believe that the only way to feel safe is by having power over others. We believe that without power we can’t be comfortable, and we believe that the only real way we have to measure our status (or national greatness) is by how much power (money) we have to direct or influence others.

There are two features of the way our culture understands power that must be challenged:

  1. Power is a “zero-sum” commodity.
  2. And power is primarily understood as individuals or groups influencing or being influenced.

If there is a limit to the amount of power available, then any power gained by one individual or group must be taken from others. “Zero-sum” means that there is no change in the total amount. It follows, then, that any change in the distribution of power generates the two-sided coin of entitlement/fear. If your “side wins” you increase your sense entitlement and the other side becomes more afraid. If the other side wins, they get more entitlement and you get to be more afraid. From this perspective, absolutely nothing fundamental has changed. There has simply been a redistribution of entitlement and fear. It further follows that fear focusses on the danger emanating from the other side rather than the validity of one’s own beliefs.

Let me clarify that I am not addressing the relative validity of one set of political ideas over another (as in Democratic vs. Republican ideas). Hopefully, thoughtful people examine their belief systems and try to adopt healthy ones. Still, if our basic understanding of power remains unchanged, real transformative change is unlikely, if not impossible. Something about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

I think transformation is only possible if we adopt a different understanding of power that is not individualistic and is not primarily adversarial. We must also identify neo-liberalism as the primary economic model that infects our entire system, regardless of political ideology. Neo-liberalism claims that competition is one of its central features. We have been taught to believe that competition is fundamentally good. However, competition is necessarily adversarial, meaning that we must have, or even create, enemies, and that defeating our enemies is somehow noble. Much of our social prejudice and inequality is based in this largely unexamined belief about competition. For a useful articulation of neo-liberalism and its effects, reference this April 2016 article from The Guardian, “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” I encourage you to read it.

In short, neo-liberalism normalizes and even morally sanitizes the tyranny at the hand of those who win the economic game over the relatively powerless. In reality, almost everyone loses, including the planet that supports us all. A tiny handful of people experience temporary success, but they too will be destroyed by the devastation this economic belief system inevitably visits on the planet. I believe the world situation is just as dire as I have described.

We do have access to some transformational models that can help us evaluate and develop a healthier way forward:

  1. I mentioned the temptations above. What Satan tempted Jesus with was not primarily power, safety, comfort, and status. The nature of the temptations was really about individual rights and ownership, which could serve to legitimized a grossly unjust system. Because Jesus was talented and was likely to be seen as special, Satan offered him entitlement to special treatment. Satan tempted him to exploit his individualistic rights and opportunities apart from the needs of the community (that Jesus later calls the Realm of God). We can argue that throughout his ministry Jesus challenged the existing understanding of the law so that people could not use it as an excuse for exercising individual rights in a way that exploited others and destroyed relationship. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Care for the needs of the least entitled among us. These teachings from Jesus challenge our notion of power, and we cannot act on any of them if power is primarily individualistic and adversarial. We have been taught to fear powerlessness, but scripture says that only love conquers fear.
  2. Bernard Loomer has redefined power as being more about the growth and development of relationship than either giving or receiving influence. Real power is about empowerment. Under empowerment, the amount of real power grows – not a zero-sum game. And empowerment is not fundamentally adversarial, except that it mitigates against people using their entitlement to exploit one another. Loomer’s essay, “Two Concepts of Power,” can be found here.
  3. Similar to #2, true feminism is not about “uppity women” taking the power that rightly belongs to men (zero-sum). True feminism is about the growth of empowerment, and it is designed to reduce the amount of fear-generating adversarial competition.

We can learn from and make use of all of these.

I have been disturbed by how much American Christianity has been infected by neo-liberal values. One explanation for this is that one’s definition of power largely determines ones image of God. One of the historically fundamental qualities of God is omnipotence – that God is all powerful. If, however, we see power as primarily relational as opposed to individualistic and adversarial, then how we understand the divine is radically transformed. If God’s power is the “power-over” variety, then obedience – for the two-fold purpose of staying out of divine trouble and being granted temporal power – is the only way to feel safe. Anyone else’s empowerment is then seen as immoral, treasonous, and subject to punishment. But if God’s power is understood as the “empowerment, power-with” variety, then healthy community is valued for generating true safety (read salvation) for all.

In our individual rights and entitlement-based culture, only the illusion of safety is possible because it is always built on a foundation of fear. As with many addictions, it promises what it cannot ultimately deliver and keeps the addict hooked on superficial wishful thinking in the process.

By challenging our neo-liberal economic foundations, we are more able to articulate a system that sees all people and all life as inextricably connected, truly in this together. The resulting compassion, empowerment, and mutuality can stimulate healthy community and create increased safety for us all.

This is how I see it. I welcome your comments.

Wayne Gustafson

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