Theologian Leonardo Boff on How the Culture of Capital is Perpetuated

How the culture of capital is perpetuated

Leonardo Boff


      Earthcharter Commission


In the previous article –The capitalist culture is contrary to life and happiness– we attempted to show theoretically that the strength of its perpetuation and reproduction lies in emphasizing one aspect of our nature, namely, the urge for self affirmation, for strengthening the ego, so that it neither disappears nor is assimilated by others. But this diminishes and even denies another aspect, equally natural, namely, the integration of the self and the individual into a whole, into the species, of which it is an example.

Is not enough however to end with this type of reflection. Along with this original point there exists another force that guarantees the perpetuation of the capitalist culture. It is the fact that we, the majority of society, internalize the “values” and the basic purpose of capitalism, namely, the constant growth of profit that allows for unlimited consumption of material goods. Those who do not have, want to have, those who have want to have more, and those who have more say: there is never  enough. And for the great majority, competition, rather not solidarity, and the supremacy of the strongest prevail above any other value in social relations, especially in business.

The key to sustaining the culture of capital is the culture of consumption, of constantly acquiring new products: a new cell phone with more apps, a more sophisticated computer, a different style of shoes or clothing, more bank credit to facilitate buying and consuming, the uncritical acceptance of product advertisements, etc.

A mentality has been created whereby all of these things are taken as natural. In parties among friends or family and in the restaurants one eats to satiation, while at the same time the news speaks of millions of people who are going hungry.  Not many notice this contradiction, because the culture of capital teaches us to care for one’s own self first, and not to worry about others, or about the common good. This, as we have already said many times, has existed for a long time.

But it is not enough to attack the culture of consumption. If the problem is systemic, we have to put forward a different system, one that is anti-capitalist, anti-production, and anti-unlimited lineal growth. To the capitalist credo: «there is no alternative», we must posit a humanist credo: «there is a new alternative».

Alternatives can be seen everywhere, of which I will only mention three as examples: the concept of “living well” of the Andean nations, which has endured for centuries, notwithstanding  many attempts to eliminate, subordinate, or assimilate them; but which some sectors of society have recently come to acknowledge and appreciate for their gifts to humanity, including the harmony and equilibrium within all the sectors of the family, within society (community democracy), with nature (the waters, soil, landscapes), and with Pachamama, Mother Earth. The economy of the Andean nations is not guided by accumulation, but by producing only what is enough and decent for everyone and everything.

A second example: eco-socialism is growing daily.  It is unrelated to socialism as it previously existed (that in fact was state capitalism), but stems from the ideals of classical socialism, of equality, solidarity, subordination of exchange value to the value of use, together with the ideals of modern ecology.  It has been brilliantly presented by Michael Löwy in, What is Eco-Socialism, (Qué es el ecosocialismo, Cortez, 2015) and by others in several countries, including the significant contributions of James O’Connor and Jovel Kovel. They postulate the economy as a function of social needs and the need to protect the life-system and the planet as a whole. The objectives of democratic socialism, according to O’Connor, would be democratic control, social equality and the prevalence of the value of use. Löwy adds that «such a society presupposes collective ownership of the means of production, democratic planning that allows society to define the objectives of production and investments, and a new technological structure of the forces of production» (op.cit. p.45-46). Socialism and ecology share qualitative values, such as cooperation, reducing work time so as to live in a state of freedom to coexist, to create, to pursue culture and spirituality, and to restore an impoverished nature, values which cannot be reduced to market value. This ideal is in the realm of historical possibilities and embraces practices that anticipated it, (such as those of the Andean nations, mentioned above).

A third model of culture I would call, “The Franciscan Way”.  Francis of Assisi, updated by Francis of Rome, is more than a name or a religious ideal; it is a project of life, a spirit and a mode of being. The Franciscan Way understands poverty not as the condition of having nothing, but as the capacity for always being able to detach from oneself, so as to give and give.  It embraces the simplicity of life, of consumption as shared sobriety; of caring for the destitute, of universal fraternizing with all of nature’s creatures, respected as brothers and sisters, of the joy of living, of being able to dance and sing, even  Provencal cantilenae amatoriae, songs of love.  In political terms, it would be a socialism of sufficiency and decency rather than of abundance; consequently, a project radically anti-capitalist and anti-accumulation.

Utopias? Yes, but necessary, so as not to drawn into crass materialism.  They are utopias that may turn out to be inspiring reference points, after the great systemic socio-ecological crisis that will inevitably come as a reaction of the Earth herself, that can no longer endure such devastation.  These cultural values will sustain a new experiment of civilization, finally a more just, spiritual and human one.



Leonardo Boff

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