Do Hobby Lobby’s day-to-day practices contravene many conservative values? That was Patrick Deneen’s thesis in “Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We All Lose”, wherein Deneen managed to articulate a fairly important thesis (even though it was denigrated for sputtering quite meaninglessly at the physical structures that modern capitalism has wrought.) This critique shares in common many of the objections that most careful readings of Wendell Berry usually yield from skeptical readers: paleoconservatism or agrarianism dreams up fanciful monsters created by modern industrialism that can only be fought by an equally fanciful retreat to the countryside. I think that we can apply some of what we have learned from Berry, Deneen, and other wild-eyed idealists while not falling off the proverbial cart (or blowing up the proverbial tractor.)
The benefits of industrial capitalism are enormous, even if they may be frequently overstated. Much of the economic stability, improved health outcomes, and general well-being that we experience now as compared to 200 years ago can be traced to the technological developments and their widespread industrial applications that humans have been applying with ferocious aptitude to the various agricultural, medical, and economic problems that we have faced for millennia. Unsurprisingly, these applications and their developments also disrupted many of the sociological structures that had been carefully formed over the millennia as well. Whether it was moving the locus of economic production out from the home and into the factory or office, increasing the dependence of any producer of goods upon ever-distant producers, or simply scaling up the amount of ecological and personal destruction that any one action could produce, it was usually local knowledge, smaller institutions, and more marginalized groups that ceded power to centralized forces. One of the common examples repeated over the years in Christian worldview classes is that of hormonal contraception; here a technology clearly meant for a good purpose helped fuel the sexual revolution as the natural intent of procreation was artificially divorced from sexual relations. Similarly, technological applications in warfare fueled greater and greater destructive powers with consequences not only for the people who were killed or maimed directly by weapons but their offspring who drank the water poisoned by the same weapons. One could even argue that given how much power has shifted away from the God-given institutions of church and family with an incommensurate rise in the powers of state and capital, the industrial revolution has taken a far greater toll on Christendom than the sexual revolution has.
This is not to say that an idyllic era of thrift and family values preceded the industrial revolution. Children were still overworked and even enslaved prior to the existence of factories, but factories allowed children to be mistreated in greater numbers by people without relationships or structures of accountability. Farmers mistreated animals long before the age of the factory farm, but the advent of modern chemistry, machinery, and even genomics have allowed far more animals to be mistreated– and thus be consumed by people whose bodies were never prepared to eat that much meat. Technology, in flattening various natural barriers, not only allows us to live without fear of many random destructive happenstances, but also removes the natural limits to human power that kept us from doing harm to one another and to the earth for centuries. The damage that has been done to physical ecology is analogous the the damage done to our moral ecologies; just as technology allows to eat without any regard for where our food comes from or at what (often federally subsidized) cost it was extracted, so technology also gives us the power to live more autonomously in the pursuit of our stubborn sinfulness.
Many of the serious battles that fought against these newly realized powers of destruction were fought in the Progressive Era, when it was clear that industrial capitalism was allowing a few to prosper at the expense of many others. However, since the entities of oppression had already grown more powerful than any previously existing small institution had the power to reckon with, new intermediaries and social compacts formed to deal with these oppressors. Many of them, of course, appealed to the government: whether it was labor laws or temperance movements, it became clear that the most expedient and effective way to enact justice or prevent exploitation was through the law. While there were many different contributions to the rise of governmental power during this era, it is foolhardy to ignore the role that the rising power of industrialism played.
This unyielding cycle of increasing human power and further appeals to governmental authority has continued to spin out over the last several decades. The capacity for humans to oppress is all the more disturbing when people who profit from exploitation ally with lawmakers to get their way: whether it is outright corruption (as in the case of oil companies in Nigeria) or more subtle hegemony (such as the rapidly increasing prison population that has accompanied privatization), our families, churches, and communities continue to be trampled by forces that profit when these smaller institutions have no power or agency. Modern conservatives have appropriately decried the increase in governmental power; I would suggest that they have been less astute in realizing that the government has barely kept pace with the various industries that are driven by technology more soullessness by the day, from agriculture to entertainment to education to medicine.and even religion.
Again, it is not a bad thing to have the capacity to farm more acreage or distribute sermons via satellite. Factories in and of themselves provide their owners with the capacity to create more at a lower price for everyone while giving meaningful work for the laborers inside them. Yet we must temper our optimistic predictions of rising tides lifting all boats by realizing that every place that has seen the benefits of industrialization has usually seen the nastier bits of human oppression associated with industrialization move to another country with less strict labor laws. Thus, while there will never be another Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, there are bound to be many more Rana Plazas if we do not commit to protecting the rights of workers. This, too, reminds us that the closer we are to something we consume, the more power that we have to shape how it is produced–and one of the great benefits of technology (if we take advantage of it) is that we have more power to be connected to the things that are distantly produced.
So, then, is Hobby Lobby just another faceless and terrible corporation that has surely put mom-and-pop craft stores out of business as it has sold cheap trinkets made by oppressed Chinese laborers in its temples surrounded by soulless asphalt? Not really. As many have pointed out, Hobby Lobby defies two very important shibboleths of industrial capitalism by paying its employees a living wage and closing on Sundays. Hobby Lobby’s participation in the realities of the global industrial economy is on par with that of most readers and it is silly to expect that we can somehow regulate to the point where economies of scale are sufficiently crippled.
Furthermore, throwing stones at Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, or Monsanto does very little to address the fact that they can only do what they do because we pay them to do it. They have begun by shepherding the transformation of families and communities from interdependent, locally accountable institutions to consumers. They have continued by profiting off the environment crafted by advertisers, who are paid by companies creating products that dull one’s conscience or shorten one’s lifespan when indulged in with any frequency. While much of the blame for creating and sustaining this undisciplined cultural environment lies with those who continue to reap many dividends from it, ultimately only a wise group of consumers can undo– through the power of their money– what has been done.
The only way to give power back to the local institutions that are dwarfed by both the government and large corporations is to devote our resources to these institutions. Whether it is our immediate families, family farms, neighborhood associations, small churches, or municipal elections, proximity magnifies our ability to learn, share, or hold accountable. Choosing to invest in these things whenever possible has the potential to reverse the harms wrought by economies of scale. The real value in localism is not in transporting us back to a nostalgic time where faith and family were valued more highly; it is in giving more power to that which we know more intimately and can trust to shape us and our neighbors more meaningfully.
Large international corporations are not just good at providing more jobs for the poor, but they also deliver services to the poor at a more accessible cost. While this is true, it is still morally troublesome that this cost savings is usually at the expense of a poorer and more vulnerable group of people somewhere else. Furthermore, concentrating energy and capital on local economies that are more self-sufficient in producing the goods consumed within that community will help to protect the vulnerable from the changing winds of international production.
If our current moral ecology is predicated on ignorance of who or what has to suffer in order that we might enjoy various luxuries, the first step in reshaping this moral ecology is with awareness. While the word “awareness” has nearly lost all connotations of vigilance or responsibility, it is still important that people have the knowledge of the hidden costs of industrial capitalism and thus can make more informed decisions about where and how to buy things. Social media can be a good place to talk about these things, but our dinner tables are probably a better place. This, of course, involves the conscious decision to have more fellowship with our neighbors, which would be the second step. I will save further steps about policies that might help level the playing field for further posts, but I think that discussing the perils of industrialism and choosing to think and act locally whenever possible are a good place to start.
Industrial capitalism is here to stay and technological developments will continue to fuel developments that both enable us to extend the reach of God’s Kingdom and distract us from doing so. However, our efforts will continued to be stymied by the latter without critical engagement with all of these principalities and powers. Thus, if Hobby Lobby wins its case it is still incumbent upon Christians and conservatives to spend our money and use our power as wisely as possible, focusing as much as we can on the businesses and institutions that we can hold accountable and love more intimately.
Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.