Spiritual Formation in a Top-Down Economy: Racialized Capitalism as Religion

by Rev. Andrew Wilkes


This piece is re-posted from The Huffington Post with permission.

 Capitalism has a spiritual formation plan. The mythology of being a boss, the Instagram profiles of the wealthy, the deification of the private sector as job creators - all of these factors condition individuals to value brand-building and asset-building as the principal aim of a noteworthy life. The effect of these factors is largely aesthetic; that is, they tilt and lure our hearts to desire things as validators of our worth, as signs of how valuable our labor is within the marketplace.

The variously stated idea that capitalism exercises a sort of spiritual formation is as old as the insights of Max Weber, as current as the searing analysis of Dr. Keri Day. The Spirit which undergirds various capitalisms, it must be argued, stunts the development of full and free human spirits, and stifles the community-generating presence of the Holy Spirit.

The spiritual formation of capitalism - and here I have in mind a top-down economy that places women and folks of color at the bottom - reduces moral decisions to cost-benefit calculations and misnames human beings as human resources. The places where lower-income people of color live, for instance, are not really regarded as communities. They are, instead, seen as emerging markets of underutilized land, tracts of unrealized profit potential. The nakedness of such ambition is hidden by community benefit agreements, donations to community centers and worship centers, but the goal is the same - to design the neighborhood in question according to the investment priorities of large-scale commercial enterprises.

The politician-priests of our society, Democrats and Republicans alike, exhort us to accept the will of the business community as the functional equivalent of the will of God. Private investment, rendered holy as the allocative hand of the market, gives us results we must accept because there is no alternative or because they cannot be improved upon. In either scenario, we are encouraged to believe that the inequalities of capitalism are the lamentable but inevitable results of a fundamentally fair process. And if the system is fair, then the adjustments to make are not to our political economy, but interpersonal adjustments: more education, more positive thinking, more mentoring, more skills acquisition. There are plain and fancier versions of this storyline, but it is the dominant portrait of how our political economy works.

What we get under racialized capitalism is the idea that supply-side economics, dipped in black, will rain down economic mobility, financial empowerment, and greater self-determination for black working-class folks. The more stubborn reality, though, is that very low-income households cannot, en masse, experience better living conditions without strong legal protections for workers, deeper public investment in basic social goods, union organizing that brings collective bargaining back, and a system of more robust social insurance to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits.

Until we say no to racialized capitalism and its unavoidable gender hierarchies, the sounds of weekend worship will dull when the stock market bell tolls on Monday; the vision of a just, loving God who renews creation will be neglected when our attention turns to the great pretense that making more middle-class folk of color, alone, will result in the liberation of the disinherited throughout America. There is more to done beyond issuing a resolute no to an economy stratified by race and gender, where black women, despite being the most educated demographic among American workers, nevertheless need to work 66 years to earn what white men make in 40 years for comparable work. But in our present political economy, the no must come first - and be restated frequently - for genuine spiritual formation and constructive experiments to transform our top-down economy to reach a critical mass.

Rev. Andrew Wilkes is the associate pastor of young adults and social justice at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York. An alum of Hampton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Coro Foundation's Fellowship in Public Affairs, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, BET.com, and the Huffington Post.