Friedrich Nietzsche’s Critique of Christianity and Capitalism: An Interview with Kishore Jayabalan

June 18, 2011
Posted by Joe Gorra

Does Nietzsche offer a worthwhile critique of the corrupting influence of free-market capitalism?  In this interview with Acton University faculty member, Kishore Jayabalan, we explore that question and a response. Any defense of capitalism should take under consideration any such Nietzsche-like critique and consider how it might shape an articulation of the conditions, basis, and outcomes of the free-market in a civil society. 
Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton in Rome. He organizes the institute’s educational and outreach efforts in Europe. He has worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was appointed to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, and worked for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Here is an excerpt from our interview: 

A common critique of capitalism attempts to show how it has a corrupting influence. Is that about right? If so, is it traceable to Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity? If so, how and why? 

Some of the earliest proponents of the division of labor, a concept at the root of the market economy, worried about its effects on the intellectual and moral lives of laborers and sought remedies for it in public education and the arts.  Adam Smith was one of these, for example.  And anyone who lived through the Industrial Revolution and the mass urbanization that took place could see the social problems that came along with this great transformation.

Many modern thinkers thought that Christianity, and especially the disputes that took place among Christians of different denominations, was a political problem that needed to be overcome.  The first great intellectual critique of modernity came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continued through the 19th century, culminating with Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were also very critical of Christianity.  So the situation is a complicated one.

Nietzsche, of course, is famous for his “God is dead” statement and the great crisis of nihilism or meaninglessness that signified for not only him but the entire Western world which has thought of itself as both enlightened and Christian at the time.  Nietzsche seemed to think that Christian morality and its emphasis on pity for the weak and suffering were at the root of God’s “death” and so he didn’t look to any kind of Christian recovery.  But he was very perceptive on the negative effects of a “secularized” Christian morality in a democratic society, what we may call “humanitarianism” today.

Perhaps the last 2,000 years have dulled our awareness of just how radical and transformative Christianity has actually been, especially with its humble and largely apolitical beginnings.  I’d be pleased if we could begin to seriously appreciate again this radicalness and the equally radical critiques, because the opposite tendency is to simply deny the tensions and wonder what all the fuss is about.

So, is there something right about this critique of the free market, in whole or in part? Or, is it completely unwarranted?

There is much that is right in the various critiques of the market economy and of liberalism in general, especially with regard to misuses of liberty and the leveling tendencies of equality.  Concepts such as alienation and the related desire for “community” reveal a real dissatisfaction with modern life, despite all its freedoms and technological marvels. But we also need to be able to recognize the good that comes along with these developments as well as to think about viable alternatives or ways of living within modernity.  We should be thankful that we have become so materially comfortable, for the most part, that we actually have the luxury to consider alternatives, at least in theory.  But this also requires us to fight liberalism a bit, to go against the grain.

Is there a way to respond to this critique while still accounting for the good of the free market?

Yes, if we realize that the free market is mainly a reflection of prevailing intellectual and cultural trends.  Of course some of these trends are shaped by “market forces” but not always.  One can support liberal democracy and free markets without thinking they are the sufficient conditions for our eternal salvation.  I would say that so long as we realize that there are alternative ways of accepting the goods of the market and take them for what they are worth, we are less likely to become thoughtless supporters of the status quo.

To read the full-text of this interview, please click here.