Category Archives: Economics

Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

“Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus”

We’ll be posting Frye on Christianity and laissez faire capitalism shortly, but we’re holding back a little because relevant material seems to be coming at us from all directions. Our friend Matthew, for example, has sent us a link to an article at, “Why Evanglicals Hate Jesus.”

A sample:

Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness. These are supposed to be cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world. Jesus was very clear that the pursuit of wealth was inimical to the Kingdom of God, that the rich are to be condemned, and that to be a follower of Him means to give one’s money to the poor. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation’s poor — especially poor children. They hate anything that smacks of “socialism,” even though that is essentially what their Savior preached. They despise food stamp programs, subsidies for schools, hospitals, job training — anything that might dare to help out those in need. Even though helping out those in need was exactly what Jesus urged humans to do. In short, Evangelicals are that segment of America which is the most pro-militaristic, pro-gun, and pro-corporate, while simultaneously claiming to be most ardent lovers of the Prince of Peace.

Quote of the Day: “They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits”

It looks like the government will be defeated this week on a budget vote and an election called.

We are running a $40 billion deficit this year. This will be cited at some unspecified time to necessitate cuts in social spending. That’s playbook stuff. But the problem is that the Harper government is pushing for a further $6 billion in corporate tax cuts, even though Canada already has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the OECD.

Moreover, the Harper government also intends to purchase $30 billion worth of F-35 jet interceptors, even though they are not suited to either our foreign or domestic military needs. It isn’t, of course, an increasingly besieged public that will benefit by these policies. The Harper government has decided it somehow can’t afford substantial longterm increases in spending for education and health care, but that it can afford tens of billions of dollars worth of corporate welfare for Lockheed-Martin, while also further reducing already low corporate tax rates.

Here are a couple of representative observations from the patron saint of laissez-faire capitalists, Adam Smith, that might surprise some who consider themselves Smith-schooled laissez-faire capitalists:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

For the record, Smith was for high wages, supported the right of labor to organize, and, as the quotes above suggest, understood very well the plutocratic disposition of unrestrained commercial interests. Corporate tax cuts are not among the laws of nature. They do not even necessarily make for sound economic policy.

As promised in an earlier post, we will be citing Frye extensively on Canadian history, culture and political traditions as the election unfolds.

(Chart from The Ottawa Citizen)

Frye on Democracy, Laissez-Faire and Oligarchy

“Democracy should work as a force for the underprivileged.” Northrop Frye, interview in The Telegram, 25 March 1950

On a couple of occasions I’ve received comments about the political direction the blog takes on current events, typically in the form of “What does this have to do with Frye?” (I get the same thing when it comes to popular culture.) My response has been that Frye was always critically engaged with the world around him, most conspicuously during his decades-long stint at The Canadian Forum. His politics were unambiguously to the left (he was in fact a lifelong social democrat), and his observations on political matters are frank and detailed. Although some people might not like it, he lived long enough to make pungent remarks about two prominent North American conservatives of the 1980s: Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney. It’s not difficult to imagine what he might have said about George Bush and Stephen Harper.

I am comfortable, therefore, to post critiques of the political right in the liberal spirit Frye embodied, and I am always on the lookout for passages from the collected works consistent with the opinions expressed here. This is particularly true regarding the behavior of an increasingly aggressive economic elite that for the past thirty years has begrudged the poor the assistance they require while stripping the middle class of a fair share of the wealth they generate. In the 1940s, Frye readily characterized such trends as the emergence of a North American brand of fascism. There isn’t any good reason we should hesitate to do so now. It is a direct threat to democracy, which Frye seemed to think of as a secular form of salvation. It is also a nullification of the primary concerns he regarded as the full expression of both corporeal and spiritual life. If there’s any lingering doubt about this, below is another quote to add to the collection already compiled here over the last few months, this time from “Trends in Modern Culture.” As always, Frye sets the standard for feet-on-the-ground idealism: the recognition of and the working toward the better world we could create if only we had the courage to push this one aside.

As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism.  Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war. . . . (CW 11, 251)

Quote of the Day: “A co-operative state is necessary to preserve us from chaos”

Frye in correspondence with Helen Kemp:

“I think with the C.C.F [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation] that a co-operative state is necessary to preserve us from chaos.  I think with the Liberals that it is impossible to administer that state at present.  I think with the C.C.F. that man is unable, in a laissez faire system, to avoid running after false gods and destroying himself.  I think with Liberals that it is only by individual freedom and democratic development that any progress can be made.” (CW 1, 155-6)

Quote of the Day: “Nobody to blame, except everybody”

Thinking about the recent horrors of runaway laissez-faire capitalism and what its alternative might be has brought me around to this entry in one of Frye’s “Third Book” notebooks:

Elie Wiesel, Legends for our Time.  The last chapter, “A Plea for the Dead,” describes how nobody made any real fuss when six million Jews were murdered in Germany.  Nobody to blame, except everybody.  This is the kind of thing that makes it impossible for me to be a Buddhist, to accept ignorance and enlightenment as ultimate categories.  The terrible burden of guilt simply has to be accepted: we can’t cast it off even on Christ.

What we can do about it involves organization — moral organization.  Communism cannot produce this: it’s only the other side of capitalism, and accepts all its economic-man stereotypes.  Teaching people one by one to be more sympathetic is futile.  Western organization is the key, though no Western society has it.  Our fumblings for “participatory democracy” really have as their goal a society in which one almighty yell can go up, almost automatically, when East Pakistan or black Rhodesia or whatever gets out of line with our moral sense.  We don’t really lack moral feelings; what we lack is a social structure in which to embody them.  (CW 9, 321)

In the absence of such a moral social structure we get the Tea Party, which is itself a creation and a tool of a deeply entrenched and self-serving oligarchy.  (That is, the top 1% of the population that owns 38% of the wealth and takes in 25% of the income — and still demands tax cuts.)