The Inner Contradictions of Peter Leithart
That the Federal Vision movement had gotten itself into a theological dead end became obvious to me as early as 2005 when a friend of my handed me a few recent issues of Credenda/Agenda. While I was still in Eastern Europe in the late 1990s, I was getting some of the early issues, and they were a great source of serious theological articles for the isolated position on the edge of the planet I was in. (This was the time before the Internet became the main source of published theological material.) The 2005 issues had nothing to do with the early issues. Gone were the serious, heavy, deep theology and apologetics; the new issues were dominated by shallow literary attempts at originality, reviews of third-rate movies, and detailed discussions on irrelevant topics. I knew something had gone wrong with the movement.
In the years after 2005 that assessment was confirmed multiple times. I had the chance to listen to a good number of FV adepts. The covenantal theonomic focus was gone. The important spiritual issues were now whether we read the Bible or we chant it; or whether we sing fast or slow; or that a free man studied liberal arts but a slave studied mathematics and engineering; or that continuity meant illiterate Italian peasants singing hymns in Latin for 1,000 years without understanding what they sang. Christian men didn’t know how to pray, they needed professionals – that is, theologians – to write prayers for them to recite them at home. In fact, laymen shouldn’t have been given the confessions of faith in the first place, for they won’t be of any good to them. Christianity wasn’t creeds anymore but myths. Symbolism replaced ethics. Liturgy replaced obedience. Etc., etc.
I am not among those who say that the FV is a heresy; as far as I am concerned, their beliefs about God are orthodox. But even a person or a movement with orthodox beliefs can fall prey to a childish obsession with secondary and irrelevant issues, and thus get themselves in a theological dead end. That’s where I saw the Federal Vision movement going. I knew it would grow culturally irrelevant and would produce in its adherents and churches lack of interest toward transforming the culture, and general ignorance concerning the application of the Gospel in the culture. I called it “liturgical pietism.” And the last several years confirmed my assessment: Pietism it is.
But nothing could prepare me for the radical shift I have witnessed in the last year or two. Not only the covenantal theonomic focus is gone but a strong anti-covenantal and anti-creedal sentiment has become clearly discernible in the writings of the FV’s most prominent authors. I commented earlier this year on James Jordan’s use of dualistic, Two-Kingdoms arguments in defense of voting for a Satanist. Jordan, who used to believe in the importance of creeds, and in their significance for the foundations of social order, was now explaining that faith is of secondary importance when it comes to politics, and that different ethical principles were operating in the state and in the church. If there has been any leftover in Jordan’s thought from his covenantal, theonomic past, it is now completely gone. It was a move in a completely opposite direction of Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and of R.J. Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order. Jordan has abandoned completely his earlier convictions.
Not just Jordan. Last night, I was sent a link to an article by Peter Leithart, “Capitalism and Its Contradictions.” He replies to readers’ concerns about what he said in a previous article, where he talks about the “abuses of capitalism.” In his reply, Leithart agrees with Daniel Bell that capitalism is dangerous for the “settled public moral standards.” He claims that the inner contradictions of capitalism have to do with the “structural tensions between the aims of the economic life and the aims of politics and culture.” Then he declares that what capitalism produces destroys families and traditional societies, and that promoting capitalism “might inhibit other goals of the religious right.” In conclusion, Leithart advises that the sign of a just society is that the material needs of the poor are taken care of.
If that sounds to you like an excerpt from a Marxist handbook, there is a reason for it: Yes, it is such an excerpt. It has nothing to do with Biblical covenantalism. Leithart’s reasoning is superficial, and he hasn’t consulted his professed theology when he wrote that; or, if he has consulted his professed theology, he went straight against it, in favor of a fundamentally humanist view of society, law, and historical sanctions.
Let’s see why I can claim this about Leithart’s writing.
To be able to understand the nature of Leithart’s thesis in its context, we need to know who that Daniel Bell is that Leithart is agreeing with. Daniel Bell was a sociologist best known for popularizing the term “post-industrial society” and for his study of it. The term relates to a society in which the economic focus shifts from industry to services and information, and the production of non-material goods will replace the production of material goods as the dominant economic factor. The distinction between material and non-material is completely irrelevant and Bell hasn’t been able to explain where exactly the demarcation line between the two is; after all, when people buy electric bulbs and electricity, do they buy them for the material in them or for the immaterial service of being able to read or communicate after sunset? But there is a greater reason why he made up such distinction, and then prophesied the coming of the “new” society: Because he wanted to prove his thesis that in the new society there will be new “social stratification” and that the new society will be ideology-free and technocratic. Besides the fact that the idea of “social stratification” is essentially Marxist (remember Marx’s “classes”?), the “end of ideology” has been a cherished lullaby among Marxists and other socialists after the failure of the Marxist ideology, and the “technocratic, ideology-free” society is the new mantra of leftist politicians who want to avoid moral scrutiny of their policies under the pretext of “technocratic pragmatism.”
Such Marxist and socialist ideas can be expected to come from Bell, who described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” Translated, this means he is against private property rights in economics, in politics he wants the efficient power mechanism of the state to prevent individuals from exercising or defending property rights, and to make them work for the goals of the state, but in culture he wants the individuals to keep their work ethic and commitment and enthusiasm to work for the state as they would have worked for themselves. In short, the dream of every dictator: hard-working, efficient slaves who need no taskmasters. This is the motivation behind the other thesis Bell is known for: that of the “inner contradictions of capitalism,” that by producing wealth, capitalism destroys the very values that helped is succeed in the first place. The conclusion is obvious: In order to preserve the ethic that produced capitalism we have to surrender capitalism to the state. In short: We need socialism to save what capitalism has produced.
This is the man Leithart is agreeing with. As a friend of mine said today, when we were discussing this article, “High churchism always eventually turns into an ally of statism.” It was true with the Eastern Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe; and it is true with the Anglican Church in England. And it is certainly true with the Roman Catholic churches in the US. And Leithart, as a high-churchist, is not an exception. But let’s continue our analysis.
As is usual for those who don’t know what they are talking about, or are reluctant to make clear what they are talking about, Leithart’s definition of his main term in his thesis – capitalism – is rather fuzzy. He tells us what he does not believe capitalism is: It is not a system of free markets. What is left unsaid is that if it is not a system of free markets, therefore it is not a system based on private property and property rights, for property rights require free markets. The best he can come up with is this:
As a starting point, let me clarify that the term “capitalism” here refers to the actual economic form that has evolved over the past several centuries.
In the next paragraph he calls this a “definition.” I can only say that Leithart needs to work on his definition of “definition.” And on clarifying the meaning of the verb “to clarify.”
Whatever that “actual economic form that evolved over the past several centuries” is, Leithart is convinced that as far as its development in the United States goes, it was “promoted if not created by the state.” Of course, such a statement can’t be proven or dis-proven because we still don’t know what exactly we are talking about. If we just take what is, and pin on it the name “capitalism,” and pass this for a “definition,” then we can claim anything about its nature and origin, and no one could be able to object. The only possible alternative to such reasoning would be to go to the dictionaries of the English language, discover that “capitalism” is defined there on the basis of private property and free markets, and return to Leithart with this information.
But it won’t fly. Leithart has already insured his position against such attempts. He calls such definitions someone’s “semantic prerogative.” He doesn’t buy such subjective whims of the dictionaries’ publishers. He has his own definition, much better than the theoretical pure model: the real historical form, whatever that means.
(One can also read John Chamberlain’s The Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States to see whether the state had anything to do with the development of industrial capitalism in the US.)
There is nothing wrong with rejecting the definitions given by the popular dictionaries . . . provided one tries to really clarify and give a better definition. But Leithart doesn’t do such a thing. He could have taken the very name of “capitalism” and come to the obvious conclusion that if comes from “capitalization,” and therefore has something to do with increasing the capital base of the society, as Rushdoony does in Chapter 8 of his Institutes, and Gary North does in all his economic commentaries of the Bible. Had Leithart done such a simple and obvious thing, he would have noticed that we do not need the vague “historical form” of the last several centuries: We have capitalism described in the Bible! The faithful stewardship under God to increase the value of the earth’s resources is a commandment from the Lord, and it is summed up under the Eighth Commandment, as is explained by the Westminster Larger Catechism:
. . . and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.
In the New Testament, the parable of the talents in Matt. 25:14-30 is a testimony that we are judged by what we do with the resources that were given to us in this life. The increase in the value of our capital leads to the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Capitalism, that is, a system based on increasing capitalization, or, as Rushdoony said, “the accumulation of wealth, the conversion of work, savings, and forethought into tangible working assets,” is the Biblical economic system. Now, we may argue about the name “capitalism,” and whether there may be a better name for it. The reality is, though, that it captures the essence of the system: The capitalization of raw resources into useful, valuable goods and services. And it is Biblical, and in fact, it is the very purpose of our existence on this planet to be “capitalists.” (The parable of the talents may not fly either; it doesn’t say that people are judged based on their participation in a liturgy.)
This clear definition is so obvious, and the reasoning that leads to it is so natural, that one wonders how Leithart managed to miss it. Especially given the fact that he is aware of the works of Rushdoony and North, and he is aware of the Westminster Standards, and he is aware of the parable of the talents. But this mystery will be resolved later when we get to the conclusion of his article.
Philosophical and theological definitions are not Leithart’s greatest problem. There is a greater problem, and it is his view of the covenant, and of the ethical operation of the covenant in the life of man and of his society. The problem is best discernible in the following sentences:
But [Daniel Bell] identified some real tensions in capitalist democracies – structural tensions between the aims of economic life and the aims of politics and culture, and tensions between the virtues needed for capitalism to succeed and the desires that its success tends to arouse. He worried that capitalism is so good at responding to and meeting consumer desires that its slick efficiency inhibits the development of settled public moral standards.
Notice the moral problem of capitalism: Its success “tends to arouse desires” which are contradictory to the virtues needed for its success. The desires wouldn’t have been there if the success wasn’t there, is the hidden meaning. It’s so good at meeting consumer desires that its “slick efficiency” inhibits the development of settled public moral standards. Again, the hidden meaning is, without that slick efficiency the development of settled public moral standards would be uninhibited.
Economic prosperity in itself, is the message of Leithart’s article, produces sin. The more prosperity, the more sin. This is the “inner contradiction of capitalism.” That’s why he can say that,
. . . my goal was to point out that promoting capitalism might inhibit other goals of the religious right.
Such message is in essence anti-covenantal and dualist. It presupposes that the material environment of man determines his ethical choices. Every single pagan and heretical ideology has been “environmentalist”; they all blame the environment for man’s ethical fall. Starting from Adam who blamed his fall on Eve, all the way to modern Marxism and racism who make economic or genetic setting determining ethical factors, God’s enemies have blamed the environment. In this respect, Leithart is very close to the Marxist brand of environmentalism: Economic prosperity is sin, or at least produces sin.
Not to mention the obvious conclusion from Leithart’s thesis: That a poor society has less of a “structural tension” and less of an “inner contradiction” to deal with, and therefore a poor society is by default better able to build “settled public moral standards.” Leithart has never seen a poor society, obviously.
Leithart doesn’t provide any Biblical confirmation for his claims. It may be because capitalism, in his definition, was uniquely developed over the last several centuries, and the Bible may not have much to say about it. The closest thing one can find in the Bible is Deuteronomy 8:11-20. But there, the problem is stated as moral, and certainly not as a “structural tension between the aims of economic life and the aims of politics and culture.” Far from postulating some “inner contradiction” of a prosperous society, God is warning the Israelites to obey His Law and not to let their heart become proud. In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews explains it in ethical rather in “structural” terms: in Hebrews 4:1-2 the reason for Israel’s failure was that the word was “not united by faith.”
Indeed, the Biblical idea of the covenant rejects Leithart’s thesis completely. All evil comes from the heart of man. Man’s environment, or wealth, or genetic structure, or any other non-ethical factor in his life have nothing to do with his ethical commitment to God. Rich people and poor people can be equally obedient to God, and rich people and poor people can be equally disobedient to God. When a man or a society indulge in an orgy of ethical self-destruction, they can do it with much wealth, and with little wealth. A poor society can be just as much evil in its heart as a rich society. There is no “inner contradiction” in capitalism, and there are no “structural tensions” between the aims of economic life and the aims of politics and culture. Such “contradictions” and “tensions” are fictitious, and they are postulated only by socialist thinkers who are trying to construct a moral defense of socialism in the supposed moral deficiencies of capitalism. Capitalism is moral, it is the Biblical economic system, and men are judged on the basis of their faithful stewardship – that is, increase – over their God-given capital resources.
It is strange that Leithart doesn’t know this simple truth, after being exposed to the teachings of the Covenant Theology for such a long time. Either he never understood the Biblical covenant, or – yes, we need to take that in consideration, churchian political correctness notwithstanding – he has self-consciously decided to reject that idea and adopt another, non-Biblical idea of the covenant. How do we find out which is true?
Every idea caries with itself a call to action. Leithart’s call to action in the remaining part of article shows very clearly that he has adopted a self-conscious anti-Biblical, anti-Covenantal social theory.
In his original essay, Leithart talks about the “abuses of capitalism.” Since this article is a “clarification” of his original statement, we should expect him here to clarify what he means, and what call to action he issues. In reality, far from clarification, Leithart leaves a trail of confused, illogical babble that is self-contradictory at best. But at the end, the call to action is firmly Marxist.
Immediately after affirming the leftist perception of the “inner contradictions of capitalism,” Leithart continues with telling us what the “abuses of capitalism” are. It turns out that these abuses are in the fact that the legal system often seems to be biased against the poor in favor of the rich. The rich, he says, always find ways to get a fair (and better than fair) treatment. Leithart doesn’t explain why this is a peculiar problem of capitalism. In fact, here the confusion in his thought rages so violently that hardly any logical connections can be made. One wonders, if capitalism is so good at supplying our material needs and pandering to our desires – to everyone’s needs and desires – how do we end up having poor under capitalism in the first place? He tacitly admits that the problem of justice is not a problem of capitalism since the prophets in ancient Israel inveighed against such injustice; and remember, in Leithart’s definition “capitalism” is whatever system has developed in the last several centuries. Yes, a Bible-believing Christian would agree that the Law of God and the prophets warned the judges not to take bribes and not to twist justice in favor of the rich. But why is this a problem specifically of capitalism, and especially with its “slick efficiency” in reducing poverty? After all, more capitalism, more “slick efficiency,” less poverty, fewer poor, less danger of legal injustice against the poor. What is Leithart’s problem?
Leithart’s problem, it appears, has very little to do with legal injustice; it has to do with taking care of the material needs of the poor. In Leithart’s words:
The point is broader than the legal system, though. The test of whether our economy is healthy is not primarily a growing GDP or growing profits for the Forbes 100. The prophets devote far more attention to whether the least have their material needs taken care of.
So now we have the call to action: redistribution of wealth. This has been the call to action of all Marxists and socialists and statists. This was the call to action of Daniel Bell. Apparently, this is Leithart’s call to action too.
The truth is, the prophets do not devote any attention whatsoever to whether the least have their material needs taken care of; and neither does the Law of God. Both the Law and the Prophets are concerned with justice, not with redistribution. The Law of God contains provisions for helping the poor but they are limited in scope, and none of those provisions are actually based on any concern of “taking care of the material needs” of the poor. The tithe for the poor was a community event, something like a potluck, not a welfare system. Gleaning, contrary to Leithart’s interpretation, was a job opportunity, not a welfare system; and it was not focused on the material needs of the poor but on what was left after the harvesters, irrespective of whether it was enough for taking care of the poor. (A poor who did not come to glean could have been left to starve.) When Naomi returned to Israel, there was no obligation on the society to take care of her; and Boaz’s favor to Ruth was purely voluntary and subjective, not the result of some fixed obligation to take care of her needs. A just society, contrary to Leithart, was not characterized by taking care of any material needs – for who can define what “materials needs” are – but by the equal treatment of all under the Law. (And no, Mr. Leithart, no “preferential option” for the poor.) Deuteronomy 15:11, which seems to advocate unconditional welfare to the poor, is actually given in the context of slavery for poverty, when a poor man has sold himself into slavery for debts, and is about to be released and sent away with enough resources to start his life of freedom anew. A man who just sits idly and is not looking for ways to be economically productive – of which selling himself in servitude is the worst one but still a viable one – is not part of this arrangement. The New Testament doesn’t change that picture: In Mark 14:7 Jesus says that poor will always be among us and we can do good to them whenever we wish, emphasizing the voluntary nature of all poor relief. (He did not say that if we did not wish that meant the society was unjust.) And Paul indicated that it was fine if a man starved because he didn’t work (2 Thess. 3:10); there is no injustice in leaving a man to starve if he refuses to work. There is no injustice in not helping all poor; and there is no automatic justice in helping them. Welfare and wealth distribution from rich to poor has no intrinsic ethical value in itself.
Ironically, the only person we see in the New Testament worried about the material needs of the poor was Judas (John 12:4). But if it sounds a little too harsh to compare Leithart to Judas, we can at least say that he has joined Ronald Sider in his “Christian” socialism: a theological justification of re-distribution of wealth; and an attack on the Biblical Dominion Mandate with its requirement for efficient stewardship of God’s resources.
Of course, the very idea of caring for the material needs of the poor in the context of Leithart’s thesis of the “inner contradictions” of capitalism contributes to the general chaos in his article. Capitalism, by catering to our material needs with its “slick efficiency,” creates in us sinful desires. And its abuses are in that the material needs of the poor are not taken care of – which, by implication, means that it saves the poor of having sinful desires. Leithart wants to correct the abuses, he wants the poor to be taken care of – which will mean he wants to do to the poor what capitalism did to the rest of the society. No mention of “inner contradictions” here. When the wealth produced by capitalism stays in the hands of the producers, it is “inner contradiction”; when it is re-distributed, it isn’t. If Leithart is serious about his own thesis, the conclusion is that he is concerned that the poor can’t participate in the total dissolution of the settled public moral standards.
Far from proving some “inner contradictions” characteristic to capitalism, Peter Leithart has only demonstrated the true inner contradictions of his own thinking. He says that capitalism is so good at responding to consumers and creating wealth, and yet talks about the poor under capitalism who were “abused” by it. (Anyone wants to compare the “poor” in the US with the middle class in Eastern Europe?) He says that the wealth produced by capitalism has enabled people to pursue morally questionable fantasies, and then wants a part of that wealth to go to the poor – so that they are not left behind, I imagine. His definition of “capitalism” is something vague that was developed in the last several centuries, and then he uses the Biblical prophets to speak against it. Nothing in his article can be used to support the claim that it was written by a man who understands logic and knows how to apply it.
Not content with demonstrating his own logical contradictions, Leithart is also demonstrating his and the Federal Vision’s abandonment of the Covenant Theology of the Reformation. Sinful desires do not come from the heart, they come from the economic environment of man; and capitalism must be blamed for the dissolution of the “settled public moral standards.” It’s the wealth it created that is the moral problem. Without that wealth, and without the “slick efficiency” of capitalism, our society would have been much more ethical and just. (One can add that the slick efficiency of capitalism brings an additional moral curse: It allows theological error like Leithart’s article to be published at no cost to the author, and to the detriment of his readers. Never before has error been so cheap to consume.)
Leithart’s call at the end is entirely without justification in the Bible but is in harmony with the common socialist and statist leanings of the modern church. The new model for “justice” is re-distribution of wealth, not obedience to the Law of God. Subsidizing poverty is what defines a “just society” for Leithart; encouraging obedience and therefore economic productivity by reading the diaries from famous people who have been successful and freedom are only a second thought. Theonomy has been replaced by a new Social Gospel preaching.
The truth, contrary to Leithart, is this:
Capitalism is a system focused on capitalization, that is, the increase of value of the resources given to man. It is the essence of the Dominion Mandate given to man by God, to be fruitful and multiply, and to take dominion over the earth. The first and foremost economic task of man is not to take care of the poor but to multiply his resources, and find better ways to put them to the use of mankind in obedience to God. There is nothing dangerous in promoting capitalism for it is impossible to promote capitalism without eventually coming to the root of capitalism: God’s mandate to man. Capitalism was the Biblical system from the very beginning but it has become dominant in the last several centuries not because – as Leithart ignorantly claims – it was created by the state but because of the rise of the Protestant Reformation which took the idea of the Dominion Mandate very seriously, and applied it to society. Modern capitalism, and our modern wealth is simply the blessings of God to the posterity of our Protestant forefathers who obeyed His Law in everything, including their economic endeavors. God’s blessings – contrary to Leithart – do not in themselves create sinful desires, and do not in themselves make men pursue sinful fantasies. All evil comes from the heart of man, not from his economic environment, and certainly not from the blessings of God. The poor are best served when the society obeys the Law of God to be fruitful and multiply, not when it is focused on re-distributing wealth. The Federal Vision movement – if Leithart’s position is characteristic of it – has abandoned the doctrine of the Covenant of God and has adopted a pagan, socialist ideology for action.
I hope and pray they don’t go any farther in that direction, and that they come back to their senses.