How Materialism Came to Dominate the Western World
And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more: The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men. (Revelation 18:11-13)
These words were written in John’s prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, here called “Babylon” because the earthly city had become more like the ancient city of man than the city of God it typified, just as it was also called “Sodom” for its perversity in Isaiah 1:10 and Revelation 11:8. Jerusalem was one of the great commercial cities of the ancient world, and by the first century it was wholly given over to covetousness. As John tells us, everything was for sale there, including the souls of human beings. He is not speaking of the slave trade, though no doubt it flourished there, for “slaves” constitutes a separate item in the list. Rather he means that men were selling their souls for money. How like our own times!
The Force Behind the Industrial Revolution
As Ralph Borsodi showed in his valuable work, This Ugly Civilization, the industrial revolution did not introduce machines to the world. Sophisticated, cost-effective, productive machines of many kinds had been in use for centuries in homesteads, shops and mills all over Europe and America. Rather what occurred was the development of machines designed for centralized mass production. These large and powerful machines, driven by massive power plants rather than muscle represented large investments of capital, and a very large return on investment was expected.
Christians know that the Adamic curse has limited the productive capacity of the earth. Scarcity is a well-known fact in economics. Man is normally to “eat bread by the sweat of his brow”– that is, if he chooses to live honestly. The dishonest and the greedy have always been able to find shortcuts to wealth. The ordinary way to do this on a large scale since ancient times was conquest.
The British Empire in the Nineteenth century became very rich by plundering the resources of the world. The slave trade was its most profitable enterprise of all. Shortly after the civil war, R. L. Dabney wrote, “The slave trade was the corner-stone of the present splendid prosperity of that empire.” (A Defense of Virginia and the South, p.30). The financial center of the world was London, with its sophisticated system of paper instruments that allowed the rapid movement of capital from less profitable enterprises to those that were more profitable. It was a money system, as opposed to a system built on the value of real assets (land and houses and the like), and was designed by speculators and usurers to facilitate the rapid acquisition of huge fortunes — legally.
Jacques Ellul, in his classic work, The Technological Society, says”
“…it was the bourgeoisie who discovered how much profit could be extracted from a consciously developed technology… At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they saw the possibility of huge profits from this system… It is solely because the bourgeoisie made money, thanks to technology, that technology became one of their objectives.” (p.53)
The factory is the product of crass materialism. Gary North, who is certainly no leftist (and no enemy to technology) commenting on an article by R.V. Young, writes”…it was not Christianity, but the materialists who were the designers and engineers of the modern industrial system.” He speaks of ” … the industrial society, which is now ruthlessly polluting and destroying nature.” (Genesis: the Dominion Covenant, p.34)
Some Christians have been erroneously taught that the modern world was built on Christian principles. This is nonsense. Christianity has not been ascendant in the west for the last three centuries — rather it has been in decline. The wealthy and powerful — the ruthless — have made bows toward the Christian minority as required, but it is their principles — not ours — that have shaped the world. (This is not to say that Christianity has not furnished the wicked with much useful knowledge.)
To say that America’s “wealth” and “greatness” is because of God’s blessing may be true. To say that it is because God approves of our way of life is utter arrogance. No doubt the Romans believed that their vast empire was proof of their rightness and the favor of the gods!
As a Postmillennialist, I believe that Christians will ultimately be victorious, and that the just society will be established in time and history. But who will seriously contend that the West is advancing toward that goal today? It is rather advancing towards judgment.
Technological society is a system that is based on greed, also called covetousness. Covetousness is a sin of excess, the desire of more than is proper — excessive and unrestrained desire — a desire that is allowed to reign in the heart where God alone should be King. It is therefore idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
The factory was born of the greed of the first industrialists, as Ralph Borsodi argues. They made their profits by taking over one industry after another, and abandoning each one as the level of return (inevitably) dropped when competition brought prices down. It was not enough to make a profit on goods. There will never be enough money made by just producing and selling goods. One must move into an industry and undercut all the competitors first, then raise prices until the profit on each piece is large. Then others will be attracted to the industry by the enormous profitability. Finally, you get out when competition brings the prices down, and go plunder another industry. All of this economic conquest is enormously disruptive to society.
Sustained by Avarice
Not only was the factory created by greed — because it depends for its survival upon mass consumption, it must foster in every way possible the sin of covetousness in the masses. A society that only makes and consumes what it needs is anathema to the factory system. Both a taste for luxury and a willingness to live in debt must be nurtured. The masses must be convinced that there is something really wrong with the simple agrarian way of life. It’s not exciting or fun! Fun is spending money on things just because you want to — not because you need them. Fun is spending without regard to the future. And for those who have money and care more about security than fun, security is having a lot of money.
What happens when aggregate demand falls below aggregate production? The last time it happened was called the “Great Depression”. When Borsodi wrote his book (1920s), America was on the doorstep of that event. Borsodi spoke out clearly on the dangers of “over-industrialization”. He also predicted that it would lead to socialism — as it clearly did. We have managed to avoid a depression for a long time now (thanks to a world war, a cold war and the opening of global markets), but who knows how long before it happens again? Global demand is down, and overcapacity is a huge problem worldwide. Factories are being idled, and the demand for labor in the U.S. is at a nine-year low today. The rates of personal and corporate bankruptcies are very high. Yet people seem to keep spending — at least in the U.S. For how long? [This was written before the financial crisis of 2008, HDK]
An Inherently Evil System
This evil of materialism is inherent in the technological society. It is the dominant principle. Hence “efficiency”, defined as the cheapest way to do anything, the most profitable — rather than the best way for all concerned — is exalted as the “Dao”, the “Way”, the “summum bonum“. Without the highest efficiency, nothing can be done at an adequate profit.
This is especially true because the factory has an “Achilles’ heel” — what Borsodi calls “the institutional burden”. Because of the centralization of production, certain advantages (economies of scale, mostly) accrue to the factory — advantages which allowed it to destroy their original competitors, cottage industry and village crafts. But there are offsetting weaknesses to the factory, which Borsodi charts for us. Factories can only sustain this burden if they are ruthlessly efficient. Otherwise, given a comparable level of technological development, decentralized, home-based production becomes more economical for the things people most need.
The egregious evils of the Factory are not to be seen as incidental to the system, but rather symptomatic of its fundamental unsoundness. The widespread adoption of the principle of efficiency is evil in itself. We should be trying to make exchanges that are mutually profitable (I Cor. 10:24) — not seeking to make the most profit possible for ourselves at the expense of the other party. Business must be regulated by the golden rule. Otherwise the quality of products will continuously degrade.
A disregard for the real well being of the masses is expressed in the haste to get gain. It not only causes the collapse of traditional and vital institutions; but also the pollution of the vital and irreplaceable common resources of air, water and land. Technological society is a dying society, always in turmoil and rushing toward chaos.
All of this is a result of the prevailing notion that man is autonomous — not accountable to God or dependent on him, and that this life is “all there is” on which technological society is finally based. Men holding these views think nothing of trampling on God’s law.
A prime example is the legalization of usury in Cromwellian England, contrary to God’s law (and the teaching of the church ever since it was founded) which effected a revolution in macro-economics. Now, the aggregation of “capital” which concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, was made easy, and vastly accelerated. The wealthy became rich, and the rich became super-rich — almost overnight. Now, they had power to make the rules, so that they could not only protect their riches; but increase them even more! Where did all this money come from? You know the answer: from the exploitation of working people like you and me, who were just trying to make a living.
Howard Douglas King, Revised April 13, 2019
Originally published as “Rooted in Greed”, part 6 of “A Christian Agrarian Critique of Technological Society” in Foundations 1:6, June 25, 2002