“Never bet your money on another man’s game.” That piece of advice is like a mini paraphrase of Marx’s theory of Capitalism and who owns the means of production.
The old shell and pea game has lasted this long because people still play it. The game is rigged yet some dufus will still come along and throw his money down on the chance he will win. When he can’t follow that shiny pea, he tries to figure out what went wrong. What’s wrong is that the world is not just, and you are not the guy running the shell and pea game. He owns the means of production.
Well, nothing gives you a taste for justice, like injustice. Ask anybody who’s ever been ripped off. The Bible’s most constant appeal might be that it shills for the underdog, AKA the unlucky majority who have to seek employment from the few who enjoy power and ample means. The Bible talks about dirty financial dealings and power imbalances a LOT. You might call it a workers’ manifesto.
There is an interesting story told by Will Willimon, about a mission trip he made to a Latin American country. Sitting around a fire, they started trading up their favourite Bible verses. He was expecting the usual stock answers, John 3:16 and all. One woman volunteered that her favourite verse was when Jesus looked around at his world and promised those in his hearing that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 24:2) She was most looking forward to the day when an angry God would deal with injustice by dismantling corruption, stone on stone.
I am not a Communist, but Capitalism has sometimes caused me to take a breath. The whole Adam Smith thing (Wealth of Nations) praised the central trait that made capitalism work. Greed. It motivates people. The good thing about Capitalism is that greed makes it go. The bad thing about Capitalism, is also that greed makes it go. It’s complicated.
There is an interesting story in the Bible that Marx would have liked. It’s where handsome stranger Jacob rolls up to Laban’s house somewhere in Mesopotamia and sees his beautiful youngest daughter Rachel. Jacob strikes a bargain with Laban, he will work for him for free for seven years, if Laban will give him his daughter in marriage. Laban agrees and Jacob puts in his time. This is a story about labour, bargaining, and how deals are made. Like capitalism, it’s also a tale of injustice.
Seven years down the road on his wedding night, Jacob realizes he has been duped. Laban has switched brides, begging the excuse that he can’t marry off the youngest without first seeing to her older sister Leah. Jacob has unwittingly married Leah instead of Rachel. It’s the old shell and pea game, and Jacob apparently was not paying attention.
Laban, (who owns the sheep and goats, aka the means of production) offers Jacob another deal. Work for free for seven more years and he can finally have Rachel for his bride. Tricky Laban has moved the goalpost. Jacob agrees and toils another seven years. He does not seem to be skilled when looking at the fine print.
This dysfunctional story ticks along for a long time before even Laban’s daughters realize their father is a charlatan and if they don’t do something, he will still be living off the fat of the land, while they grow old in tatters. Jacob takes his two wives and runs away along with his calculated severance in sheep and goats.
Laban is wroth, and follows in hot pursuit but is visited by God who warns him in a dream that he must not harm Jacob. There is no clue as to whether Laban is more concerned about losing his daughters, or Jacob - his cheap labour. When they finally square off, Jacob gives his father in Law a piece of his mind. His grievance is worth reading. Jacob is tired of being ripped off. It’s a speech that’s relevant to much of the history of capitalism. It’s a complaint about people like Laban who want to control the means of production and play fast and loose with the rules.
“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten the rams of your flock. I did not bring you anything torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for what was stolen by day or night. As it was, the heat consumed me by day and the frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes. Thus for twenty years I have served in your household—fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks—and you have changed my wages ten times! If God… had not been with me, surely by now you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands…”
It’s interesting that Jacob appeals to the idea that God backs a square deal in the end. It’s news to me that God takes time from his busy schedule to get involved in labour disputes. Workers of the world, be encouraged.
The news on the radio today talked about the state of the workforce after two years of COVID. Those working from home are more stressed out than ever. It’s the constantly shifting sands of the old shell and pea game. Things have dramatically shifted to favour those handing out work, and forced many concessions from those wanting to work. The news story mentioned that many last year voluntarily gave up holidays they were entitled to because they were afraid to lose their jobs. I have also noticed the shift. Those running the shell and pea game have been rubbing their hands together in glee. They have discovered the power of insecurity. It means the game tilts in their favour.
The last time this happened was 2008, when companies laid off staff to reflect the downturn in the markets. The companies did not want to lose money, so they lost people instead. Those left behind were afraid to be turfed out as well, and they worked long and hard hours for free to keep things going. When things got better, the companies realized something wonderful. They didn’t have to hire anybody back. Leaning on their existing staff meant that they could pocket a few more bucks and still enjoy that fat bottom line. Capitalism endured another turn of the wheel, and that old greed principle reared its head once again. Adam Smith would be proud.
But perhaps not God, who sees all these injustices just like he did in the story of Jacob. The most shocking thing of all might be to inform those who control the means of production that the old shell and pea game is indeed rigged. That’s right. It has a statute of limitations after which God himself will step in, and not one stone will be left standing on another.
“...though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come.”