Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kathryn Tanner: Economy of Grace

A collegue, upon hearing that I was reading a lot of Milbank, focusing on the political and ecclesiological implications, groaned and told me I should read Kathryn Tanner instead. Why not, I thought, there is plenty of room for other perspectives in relation to Milbank that is for sure. And the text on the back of this one was very promising, speaking of "alternatives to global capitalism" and "specific principles of economics and economic justice".

However, this is in my opinion false advertising. Tanner is not proposing an alternative to capitalism, she is concerned with modifying it in a slightly more humane direction. This is a pragmatic move, she wants to avoid utopia. Fair enough, I can accept that, although I personally think that we need a utopia to imagine what really needs to change.

Tanner's criticism of capitalism is rather shallow however. She criticises the rather obvious consequences of global capitalism - rampaging unfairness rather well, although anybody even remotely familiar with "leftist" writings will find little new here. She also argues for some "theological principles" based mainly on creation, trinity and grace in general that she maintains offers an alternative to capitalist economics.

But from a theological point of view i find the main part of the book "Putting a theological Economy to Work" the most problematic. None of the suggestions she actually makes here seems to need ant theological underpinning whatsoever. The Marxist "to each according to his needs" will work just as well. Furthermore, in order to be "realistic" she compromises each of the principles she argued for in the preceding chapters. In the end she ends up arguing for a model that "everybody" is profiting from, including (especially) the capitalist. In other words, what we have here is little but the now traditional "third way" socialism, an improved capitalism in an essentially Keynesian tradition.

This means that Tanner has to pass over some extremely important points. One, isn't it from a theological point of view less important if capitalism works or not, compared to what it does to us, what kind of human beings this system produces? In essence, capitalism in all its knows forms (including the famed Scandinavian model) makes use of (and thus encourages) greed, a vice an almost unanomous Christian tradition claims corrodes the soul. To try to improve this system thus ammounts to giving it a "human face" while its heart remains decidedly rotten.

There is a good discussion on method here, but apart from that, this just isn't very good theology. However, in the end that is not the point of this book. It is not driven by a theological motive, but a political one.

This book tries to provide such grounds for Christians, especially in the United States, advantaged beyond all decent proportions by the present system. The more economic benefits we enjoy, the more power we are likely to have to change things. We should use that power - say, the power of our vote in the most economically dominant nation on earth - to put pressure on the U.S. government to change its policies for international trade and financing agreements that only further disadvantage the already disadvantaged around the globe. (p 142)
While I do think a lot of the things she writes makes political sense, I would really like to see a more radical alternative than "vote for change".Because it is the lack of alternatives that at the moment continues to further capitalism today more than a real belief in its superiority.


Halden said...

I had the same thoughts when I read the book. She's pretty much just a Keynesian. Nothing really radical there.

Just saying the word "gift" over and over doesn't mean you're actually saying something substantial or different.

Of course, that last criticism may apply to Milbank as well.

Patrik said...

Yes, but Milbanks at least engages with the post-modern discussion on gift. Tanner merely mentions Derrida, Mauss and Marion in the footnotes. Seems really lazy to me.

Halden said...


Anonymous said...

Please check out these two related references which are very much about an Economy of Grace---and how to incarnate it.

By contrast this reference describes how we are prevented from doing so---we are "taught" to be incapable of such individual and collective responsibility