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!”