Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig earned a Master of Philosophy degree in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge in 2014. She also did some graduate work in religion at Brown University, and in 2015 she was a member of the organizing committee for the Democratic Socialists of America's “Religion and Socialism” blog. Today Bruenig is an opinion writer for the Washington Post, where she serves as assistant editor for the paper's “Outlook/PostEverything” section and writes about ethics, politics, theology, and economics. In addition, she is a staff writer at the New Republic and a contributor to such magazines as The Atlantic, The Nation, and Salon.
Bruenig detests capitalism, describing it as “ a historical condition in which economic and political power are arrayed according to the interests of capital owners, who in turn dominate their social landscapes.” “Capitalism itself,” she adds, “sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.”
Because “the objective of capitalism is the generation of profit,” says Bruenig, it necessarily breeds a mindset that is “thoroughly, coldly calculating about things”; a “spirit of morally neutral, self-interested utilitarianism”; and “an obsessive focus on one’s interests, meaning one’s material well-being” -- on the theory that “the pursuit of such is an unqualified moral good.” Thus, she explains, capitalists seeking to sell their products and services not only “bank on your impulsiveness,” but are also entirely willing to “spend millions [of dollars] paying scientists to explain to them exactly how to make their products maximally addictive” – all in an effort to set up a “permanent-income scheme” for their companies.
By Bruenig's telling, capitalism “encourages and requires fierce individualism, self-interested disregard for the other, and resentment of arrangements into which one deposits more than he or she withdraws.” This mentality, she argues, causes all human activities and desires to become nothing more than “commodities to be priced and sold.” Consequently: “Alienation reigns. There is no room for sustained contemplation and little interest in public morality; everything collapses down to the level of the atomized individual.... [C]apitalism seems to be at odds with the harmonious, peaceful, stable liberalism of midcentury dreams.”
“The basic fact of capitalism,” Bruenig expands, “is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them.... Workers sell their labor … and in return receive a wage, essentially protection money to pay off other rentiers and commodity dealers for the use of the world.” To buttress this claim, Bruenig quotes the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel's observation that such an arrangement results in “alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced,” thereby “making into another’s property the substance of my being,… my personality'.”
As an alternative to capitalism, Bruenig favors a socialist system that could effectively: (a) “de-commodify labor” as well as “other domains of life”; (b) “reduce or eliminate workers’ alienation from their labor, society, and themselves”; (c) “reduce or [eliminate] the vast social and political inequality brought about by capitalism”; and (d) “diminish or destroy capital’s control over politics, society and the economy.” Bruenig claims that in contrast to capitalism – which “sells us the worst possible story about ourselves, imagining human nature as inherently greedy, jealous, destructive and anti-social” – socialism “opens up the possibility not of living strictly for ourselves, but for living for human excellence, for our own common good.”
Bruenig has denounced what she terms “incipient Republican efforts to harshen work requirements attached to welfare programs” as measures rooted in a false belief that many “people who receive federal aid” are likely to be “lazy loafers living off the dole.” Regarding the “small number of people who could work but, for whatever reason, don’t,” Bruenig writes: “[B]efore deciding whether it’s morally right for them to receive income without working, consider a far larger group that takes in far more money without toil: the idle rich. They soak up plenty of unearned money from the economy, in the form of rent, dividends and capital income.” She derides “the laziness of the well-off” who “rake in money they haven’t earned.”
In 2014, Bruenig, who was baptized as a child in the Presbyterian Church and was subsequently raised as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism after reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Christianity “is at all times concerned with the poorest, the most vulnerable, [and] the most oppressed,” says Bruenig, and is “permanently interested in reversing” the inequalities of the existing social “order.” Thus “there is no Christianity … that is not revolutionary,” she reasons. In a similar vein, Bruenig contends that Christmas is nothing less than “a call to revolution” rooted in the precept that “from this moment on, nothing of the old order can be left intact.”