Soul Talk in a Neoliberal Age, Part II

Mental Health Counseling Conference
 PC: Sam Simpkins

On Fridays, we are posing questions to Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (right), an ordained Baptist minister, pastoral psychotherapist and Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (Palgrave, 2019). Bruce presses for a “post-capitalist pastoral theology” that empowers people to resist the system (instead of adapt to it), to embrace communion and wholeness in relation to others and the earth (instead of functioning in accord with the values of production and consumption) and to pursue interdependent reliance within the web of human relationships (instead of accepting shame-based personal responsibility narratives).

*This is our second Friday with Bruce. See this for Part 1.

Tommy Airey: You described how neoliberalism is a system that “turns control of the economy over to a handful of wealthy rentiers.” What is a rentier?

BRV: All the buzz today is about “entrepreneurs.” That’s what the power brokers today want you and I, practically powerless individuals, to think of ourselves as—entrepreneurs. (This is a matter of culture, which we’ll get to shortly.) But the power brokers themselves? They are actually rentiers. A rentier is someone who charges rent to allow you access to stuff they own. They do not live off their labor, as most of us do, but off what economists call “unearned income.” We’re not talking here just about houses and apartments. We’re talking about everything you desire, or need to survive. Access to housing, yes, but also to information, the internet, entertainment, health care, and so on. But, above all, we’re talking about access to money. The most powerful rentiers are those who own the banks (which are themselves owned by a few banking monopolies). And they don’t just own the money, they actually create the money.

Most of us are under the illusion that the government creates money. It doesn’t. Instead, it authorizes private banks to create money. Through the alchemy of “double entry bookkeeping,” that money gets created when they give you and me loans. The money didn’t exist until it was loaned. That’s right. The bank gives you money it does not have, until you borrow it, then they charge you rent on it—which we euphemistically call “interest.” This is bad faith. In pre-capitalist times it would have been called fraud. And if you don’t pay the loan back on schedule? Well, they come and take away your stuff—your house, your car, your paycheck, and anything else they consider “collateral.” Again, no assassin is required. They use the laws they lobbied the government to create for them, and law enforcement officers who work for the government to enforce them. That’s what you get for accepting the money the bank didn’t even have to begin with. It’s like George Carlin warned us: “They don’t care about you … they own you.”

As far as the economic sphere is concerned, that leaves the obscure bureaucracy of contract law. This entire financial system is held together, and empowered, by laws. This has been painstakingly and compellingly laid out by Katharina Pistor, in her new book The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality. We encounter this almost every day, in ways we hardly give a passing thought. For example, my phone regularly notifies me that its operating system requires an update. I click, and almost instantly get a contract (“terms and conditions”) that I must “agree to” before the downloading begins. If printed, it would go on for pages and pages, in a language I would hardly recognize. Studies show that less than 1% of us bother to read these documents, which are actually legally-binding contracts. Even if we did, we would remain almost clueless. And yet, legally speaking, we are entering this agreement as an “equal partner,” and under our own “free will.” Hogwash. In truth, I must sign it, whether I understand it or not, or my phone will soon become a paperweight.

Once again, the “freedom” offered by today’s capitalism isn’t freedom at all. Now, if this is true of such a minor issue as a software update, just imagine the degree of obfuscation we are up against whenever we “freely” sign that stack of money-creating magical incantations we call a bank loan. Oh, and by the way, all loans today are bank loans. In the neoliberal age, for instance, car dealerships are just banks that push cars out the front door. The vast majority of their profits come from financing. And that credit card in your hand? You guessed it. Just another bank loan you have “freely” entered into. And when all our borrowing is done? Banks bundle all our loans together and sell them on the financial markets, making them even more profits. Who buys them? People otherwise known as “investors”—people (and corporations) wealthy enough to buy up other people’s debts. Essentially, they are placing bets with one another on whether or not we will be able to repay those debts (or, as they say in the business, “service our loans”). It’s like a big horse race. The investors are in the stands, placing their bets, as we who are debtors run the tracks. Again, I channel the spirit of George Carlin: “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it!”

7 thoughts on “Soul Talk in a Neoliberal Age, Part II

  1. Nina

    yall are avoiding communism, the will and hope of the people, to talk to a white man who probably has a fridge full of snacks for every mood? probably has a closet of chips, dunkaroos, oreos, hi-c, etc.

  2. Thank you, Nina. We take your comment seriously. Because this is an ongoing conversation with Bruce, we will ask him. What does he mean by “post-capitalist” and might that mean “communism?” Or something else?

    1. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn

      Sounds like Nina is coming from a place where she knows very well how neoliberalism is pushing us down, so far that we can hardly breathe. And she brings up an excellent question: What are the alternatives?

      I think we get too easily tripped up when we’re asked about alternatives to capitalism or neoliberalism. Why? We’ve lived in it so long we’ve lost our memories of what it’s like to live in genuine communities. Also, because we’ve been trained, in the United States, to think the only alternatives must be “communism” or “socialism,” and, in the spirit of Francis Fukuyama, believe those “have been tried and failed.” (It’s just as accurate, by the way, to say that Christianity has tried and failed. Just as with Christianity, there are many forms of Marxism, socialism, etc.)

      My mind actually does not turn to Marx, or abstract models of socialism/communism, etc. Instead, my mind goes back to the organic, caring communities I grew up in, back in Appalachia. God knows they weren’t ideal. Hell, I grew up during segregation, and “women’s place is in the home,” etc. But you know what? When your kid was born, they came and celebrated with you. When a member of your family died, they were there, casseroles and fried chicken in hand, grieving with you. When you fell upon hard times, they lent a hand. We may think, “Well, that’s old Bruce dreaming about years gone by—times that will never come back.” Maybe. But I think it’s more. The “building blocks” for alternatives are still right under our noses every day, we just don’t see them as that. Economists talk blandly of “externalities to the market,” a way of shrugging their shoulders and assigning things to the dustbin. Well, you know what, LOVE is one of those things! So is HOPE, and HUMILITY, and just plain old KINDNESS, for Christ’s sake! Sure, it’s tougher now, but not impossible. It is arduous, but doable.

      I say we start by looking for the “remnants.” (Kind of like the Israelites looked for remnants when they were captive in Babylon.) For example—if I care about you because you’re my friend—cut some slack for you, run an errand for you, lend you my ear or shoulder when you’re grieving or struggling—that’s “off the market.” I wrote in an essay before: “This love is inexplicable by the logic of neoliberalism. It simply cannot exist. Thus, it has immigrated to the interstices, into the dark web. This love, whenever it occurs, is an act of resistance, defiance, even rebellion. One way to oppose present-day colonization is to cultivate relationships that are, according to the logic of neoliberalism, absolutely useless.” By the way, you know what we did with “remnants” in Appalachia? We made quilts. Or soup.

      Now, I can hear the objections coming over the hills: “Sure, that works for your personal relationships, but we’re talking here about society.” Indeed. But, we’re also back, as Christians, into familiar (not alien) territory. We’re now standing as the one who inquired of Jesus: “So, who exactly is my neighbor?” And Jesus’ response, as we well know, was the story of the “Good Samaritan.” The answer, clearly, is “whoever is in need of your care.” It is also clear that the “one in need” in the story is not even close to being a friend. Hell, given that the “caregiver” here is a “Samaritan” (kind of like saying, in the political climate of today’s United States, a Muslim immigrant or an African-American mom on food stamps, etc.; or, in my case, a Trump supporter), then the “one in need” is most likely not only different from me, but even truly foreign to me, perhaps even my “enemy.” So, I hear Jesus expanding the “remnants” of community we find in friendship to the whole of society—to those distant from us, even “foreign.” When they are in need, then they are our neighbors.

      And how do we care for those who are distant? Well, today societies are very complex. We can’t run over to all their houses in person and bring a doctor, or a dinner, etc. So, we have to organize social structures to mediate our care. Many will say: “Sure, that’s what churches can do.” That’s true, but society is even way more complex today than all the churches, NGOs, and non-profits put together can handle. Plenty of empirical studies to show that “charitable giving” will never do it. Yep, you guessed it—only nation-states are big enough to step into this gap. The bad old “government” word! More objections running over the hills! Like— “You’re saying we need a BIG HUGE government, that will suck up more money than we can afford!” My answer? “Not as big a government as it takes to police all the poor and minority neighborhoods in the country, plus the borders, while also policing the world through a humongous military franchise, while also housing the largest prison population in the world, while also providing ‘social security’ to banks and incredibly wealthy individuals!” It’s really just the question: “Who is my neighbor?” It’s complex, but “pure in heart.”

      Or, putting this back into the language of love, as I wrote elsewhere: “Moreover, love is not simply an individual act. It may inhabit a whole community or society, or even manifest an ontological status. For example, the relational world indicated by the Pan-African term ubuntu points to a decolonizing reality that exits the neoliberal paradigm entirely. Often translated ‘I am because we are,’ ubuntu opens up a world where individuality is made possible by the social surround. In this world we could no more choose to be in community than we could choose whether to breathe air. The community precedes us, and creates the possibility for our existence, including our individual agency.”

      Now, if all this is similar to what Nina means when she says she needs “communism”—and it may well be—then maybe that’s something we all need. Maybe it’s embedded in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Or in the Beatitudes. Just my two cents.

  3. Pingback: Soul Talk in a Neoliberal Age, Part III – Radical Discipleship

  4. Pingback: Soul Talk in a Neoliberal Age, Part IV – Radical Discipleship

  5. Pingback: Soul Talk in a Neoliberal Age, Part V – Radical Discipleship

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