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The Tower of Babel

A few years ago, when I first read about the absurd prodigies being undertaken in Dubai--huge man-made islands, towers reaching into the clouds, an indoor ski resort, a seven-star hotel shaped like a sail, etc., etc., my thoughts went instantly to the story of the Tower of Babel, and I blogged to that effect at the time. I do not claim any remarkable prescience, now that the whole thing is turning out to be the most astoundingly lofty house of cards conceived by man; anyone with sense could've seen that it would end this way. No doubt the $60 billion in bad debt that has rocked the financial world for the last week is just the start of it all.

So everyone knew that such absurd development could not continue. What many may still not know is how the whole thing was a sham all along--a glittering upper crust of crude and unrestrained hedonism built on top of teeming masses of desperately poor near-slave labor. More than six months ago, an article in the Independent painted a ghastly picture of the appalling exploitation undergirding all the glitzy shopping malls and European revelers, a picture in which Dubai appears as a shocking and extreme symbol of the entire Western capitalist consumerist order, an edifice of hedonism built on the backs of Third World drudgery. A chilling portrait to say the least.

Even more chilling is the blindness that the captains of capitalism continue to show toward the true nature of Dubai's "free market," a market that this article from BusinessWeek wants to hold up as a model for the rest of the world.


This is not the Western Capitalist order taken to extreme, which is built on a Christian understanding of free labor, property rights, rule of law, etc. This comes from another God another mountaintop. The degree to which the Western Capitalist order falls short is equal to the degree that the Bible is a forbidden text in public discourse. It is reminescent of Pinocchio and Pleasure Island.

December 3, 2009 at 5:51 PM  

That doesn't follow, because perhaps the worst offender in the Western capitalist order is also the place in which the Bible is most thumped (US), and because the oppressive and exploitative dimensions of capitalism were present in its earliest forms, even when it was nurtured within a thoroughly Christian social order. Arguably they were present even more so then--19th-century Britain was more Christian than 20th-century Britain, but the former had a much more atrocious human rights record.

Which isn't to say that Christianity rightly understood encourages any of this, but only that there never existed some ideal, Christian, benevolent capitalist social order.

December 3, 2009 at 9:31 PM  

Obviously, we as Christians should never look to the past as the example of some ideal, Christian, benevolent capitalist social order. The kingdom of God is still filling the earth and the best is yet to come.
Also, wherever the state is invloved as in empire building, this is not capitalism, but at the best state capitalism and really a form of statism. The nice thing about Victory of Reason is that it shows the amount of human progress that was possible in a period of time in which the state barely existed. Free markets do best in an atmosphere of limited anarchy.

December 3, 2009 at 11:20 PM  

1) I keep coming back to this...why are we redefining "capitalism"--capitalism as it has existed at least since the 1700s has been state capitalism, and before that, no one used the term capitalism. So how does it make any sense to talk of a "true capitalism" that existed before anything anyone called capitalism existed.

2) Moreover, as Polanyi explains, this is inevitable, since a self-regulating market is impossible, and enthroning the market will always necessitate that the state comes in to stabilize things. I would agree that markets are freest in the absence of a large state, but certainly not in the Austrian ideal of a self-regulated market, which is not only impossible but flatly unbiblical.

December 3, 2009 at 11:27 PM  

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