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Introducing the New Spirit of Capitalism: Lecture One

We had a lively opening Gifford lecture with Professor Tanner at the Business School tonight! If you missed it, you can review the ‘live’ rendition at the Twitter hashtag #GiffordsEdAlso, as of Wednesday, May 4th, the lecture video has been available at this linkFor this and subsequent discussion threads, consider responding to the following questions:

  • Is there a technical term, from either economics or theology, that you’d like to hear clarified? Professor Tanner has already covered a lot of ground and this is a good place to define our terms.
  • How does finance-dominated capitalism, as Tanner described it and you experience it, differ from the industrial capitalism that was the subject of Weber’s critique?
  • What element of Tanner’s proposed ‘Protestant anti-work ethic’ would you like to hear elaborated in the lectures to come?

Gifford #1 Still 4 copy

To get us started, Melanie McConnell, a postgraduate student from New College, has posted some thoughts in our reply section. I’ve also heard some interest about how capitalism shapes our current institutions of higher education, both in the final question of tonight’s Q&A and through comments on social media. To join the thread, see my post on how to offer a comment.

For my part, I’m interested in whether and how motivations for the accumulation of wealth have changed since the early twentieth-century. Weber begins The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by making clear that, contrary to the way many perceive capitalists then and now, ‘unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit,’ saying that the naïve association of the two should be debunked in the ‘kindergarten of cultural history.’ In other words, we have to work harder than so many jeremiads against ‘capitalist greed.’

It can be difficult to keep from assuming that greed lies behind the behaviour of corporate executives and traders, but it’s important to give an accurate diagnosis if we’re going to take up, much less ‘reverse,’ the project begun in Protestant Ethic. Listen to Weber’s characterisation of the ‘old’ spirit of capitalism, in which those who embody the Protestant ethic cannot articulate the reason they carry on:

‘If you ask [people filled with the spirit of capitalism to-day] what is the meaning of their restless activity, why they are never satisfied with what they have, thus appearing so senseless to any purely worldly view of life, they would perhaps give the answer, if they know any at all: “to provide for my children and my grandchildren.” But more often and, since that motive is not peculiar to them, but was just as effective for the traditionalist, more correctly, simply: that business with its continuous work has become a necessary part of their lives.’

It would seem less noble to want ‘to provide for my shareholders’ than ‘to provide for my family.’ But these are the minority cases anyhow; the motive that fascinates Weber is the compulsion to sheer ‘business with its continuous work.’ As Tanner traced, he elaborates this by exploring the deep psychological and spiritual needs of different branches in Protestantism. But the point remains that the work becomes an end in itself.

What do you think lies at the motivational base of today’s new capitalist spirit?  Is finance-dominated capitalism different enough from the industrial capitalism of Weber’s day that we can now answer ‘greed’? In other words, is there something to the detachment of money generation (‘finance financing finance’) from commodities and workers that makes it more susceptible to vice?

Or should we maintain that even today, well after anxieties about double predestination, the spirit of capitalism remains characterised by worldly asceticism–a drive to work for its own sake that cannot articulate any further ‘reason’? If so, where do we locate vice? Who is the culpable actor when Tanner describes a process of workers being disciplined to desire along the same lines as their corporation and state?

As Tanner argued, the spirit of capitalism tends to hamper recognition of its own faults. A proper diagnosis of where the fault lies is crucial, therefore, to understanding the rupture entailed by ‘conversion’–that powerful theological term Tanner introduced near the end of the lecture. Such a break won’t occur if people (or should I say ‘we’?) don’t recognise themselves in a blanket condemnation of greed. So what can be said about motivation and its culpability?

11 replies to “Introducing the New Spirit of Capitalism: Lecture One”

  1. A childhood spent watching Fast Money and Squawk Box (popular American finance shows) with my Dad, a financial advisor, didn’t quite win me over to studying the bulls and bears. But I would still say that capitalistic ideals are an integral part of my identity. I can’t tell you how many times it’s been explained to me that the economy is like an apple pie—you want to grow the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice, not punish the quick and the hungry by taking more of their slice away. A Baptist, my Dad also taught me to work hard and do my best in whatever I do, as though I’m working for the Lord. The competitive nature of capitalism sits well with me—everyone stands to benefit from our best work.

    Tell me if you disagree, but I think many Protestant Christians, especially Americans, share this economic outlook. It is the one developed by Max Weber and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in the very beginning of the 1900s, and because of his work many recognize capitalism as, at the very least, compatible with Protestant Christianity.

    From her introduction lecture, it doesn’t seem that Tanner is taking too much of an issue on that point. Instead, she’s leveraging her theological might against a new spirit of capitalism, one that is highly individualized and, as Tanner argues, harmful in critical ways. “What Christianity can give,” Tanner says, “it can also take away.” Keeping to this axiom, in these lectures Tanner will focus not on practical measures of regulating economic systems, but rather on the more fundamental effect of the spirit of capitalism on persons, an important clarification that came up in the time for questions. Essentially, she’s trying to make Christians more aware of the implications of their beliefs and how they may impact our societies. It’s an important aim and stands to challenge many of our comfortable assumptions for the good of the marginalized. From the formidable technical foundation of her lecture today, and previewing her at once familiar yet contentious ideas in her book Christ the Key, I can almost guarantee quality controversy in future blog posts.

    The controversy is likely to remain, however, because I’m not sure how authoritatively Tanner will be able to make her claims. As I see it, it’s admirable to propose from Christianity a vision of capitalism that allows freedom, a break of the individual from the past, a hope that is not merited simply by one’s own efforts, and a non-conformity to the way things are. But if it’s true that “what Christianity can give it can also take away,” and she admits that there is a vast variety of Christianities that she will analyze in her Weberian methodology, I’m not sure how Tanner can do more than suggest a shift in perspective on our existing economic systems. If she is not proposing practical measures of economic change and regulation, then is Tanner simply arguing for a renewed and better informed spirit of altruism within the church? Religion is a powerful agent of social change, but it will require far more than controversial theological perspectives to argue for radical change in an economic system based on competition.

    1. GiffordsEd says:

      Thank you for this insightful post, Melanie. I appreciate that you began your response with the Baptist tradition in which you were raised, because it’s clearly important for Weber that Protestantism is differentiated rather than taken merely as a whole. One temptation we can run into is to speak too generally of ‘religion’ in order to summon a spirit of comparable global extent to ‘capitalism.’ The problem here is that we would misrepresent the variety of traditions that form people through unique doctrinal commitments, with their localised psychological effects.

      You are right to ask whether a theological shift in perspective, bringing about a renewed spirit of altruism within the church, will be enough. What about questions of policy and regulation? I hope that others will pick this up, particularly if they have some experience in such important economic and political work. For now it’s worth saying that because church bodies have become disciplined by the dictates of the market (and Bruce Pass commented during Q&A that church-planting was a prime instance of this), they have often forgotten their power as distinct ‘polities.’ This loss of memory helps to explain the eager reception for Stanley Hauerwas’ often-cited claim that ‘the church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.’

      In short, I agree with you that there’s a broader set of legislative questions to come. But perhaps they can’t be addressed in a satisfactory way until the church is able to show, through its counter-practices, that there’s a problem in the first place.

      1. Andrew Philip says:

        “This loss of memory helps to explain the eager reception for Stanley Hauerwas’ often-cited claim that ‘the church does not have a social ethic; it is a social ethic.’”

        Could you unpack that for me a bit, please, David?

        1. GiffordsEd says:

          Thanks for asking me to elaborate, Andy. Hauerwas is so quotable, and that line so frequently repeated, that it’s important to explain. As I understand him, the problem with the church ‘having’ a social ethic is that it doesn’t take its own integrity as a political body seriously enough. The church then merely offers its ethic to the state in the form of a general principle (liberty, say, or justice), because the state is seen to be the only true ‘politics’ (religion being assumed as private). Once offered, though, the church shouldn’t be surprised that the ethic becomes unrecognisable, having been detached from the its own irreducible liturgical and narrative polity.

          One claim Hauerwas makes in this respect is that the church should not merely offer the nation-state its ‘just war’ tradition. In Christian history, naming a war just still involved soldiers coming home as penitents, who were in need of the church’s absolution and re-incorporation to the community, rather than as unquestionable ‘heroes.’ There is a thicker, theological notion of the moral complexity of ‘justice’ at work here that the church does not merely ‘have;’ it cannot be outsourced to any other polity.

          At one point Hauerwas poses the question by choosing two volumes that bookend American Christian Ethics in the twentieth-century. How can a movement that began with ‘Christianizing the Social Order,’ he asks, end with ‘Can Ethics Be Christian?’ Much of his writing has been focused on the American context, given his position at Duke Divinity School, but a couple years ago he was appointed part-time at the University of Aberdeen. So hopefully you’ll be able to hear his provocations applied to our context.

      2. Andrew Philip says:

        That’s a very helpful reply, David. Thanks.

    2. Clement Wen says:

      Just a follow-up question for Melanie now that we’re almost finished with the series (perhaps by the time she reads this, we’ll already be done). All the way back after the first lecture, you wondered aloud: ‘I’m not sure how Tanner can do more than suggest a shift in perspective on our existing economic systems.’ Was this expectation matched, not matched, surpassed, or something else altogether? Since you kicked us all off with responses, just figured it would be neat to hear how you feel the series played out.

      1. I recognized this question in your comment on Lecture 5 and responded there before I saw this comment here. I’ve been thinking about this, too, and really I think many of us have through this lecture. At the risk of redundancy, I’ll just paste what I said here for convenience…

        I think I still stand where I started after the first lecture. I’m not convinced that Tanner will yet be able to convince people of her vision. To be sure, we shouldn’t be complacent or apathetic about our economic systems. And Tanner has convinced me that our contemporary capitalism is not an outcome of Christian principles, but a call to action to change the system requires authority and definite plans for a better alternative before that call will be significantly effective or convincing.

        This is the example that comes to my mind. In my hometown in Florida, there was a Christian company that decided to build a headquarters. They only had a portion of the required funds raised but they trusted God to provide the rest– in faithfulness, they began work. However, 15 years later, the building still isn’t completed; no one wanted to donate when there wasn’t a sure plan of how to raise all the funds! Instead, the building is the eyesore and laughing-stock of my whole city, and no one wants to have anything to do with it either now or in the future.

        This anecdote doesn’t describe exactly the same situation as what Tanner is talking about, but the point I’m trying to make is that while you can have good, established reasons to seek an unknown potential, without sure planning, you will really struggle to convince people to get on board with a project that may be viewed from a number of different perspectives and subjectivities. After all, why don’t we just behave with greater responsibility and awareness of the consequences of our actions in our existing system? Is it really so corrupt that we need to scrap it? That is not to say that Tanner’s project is not worthwhile, just that it won’t be complete without concrete suggestions of what exactly must be changed and how to change them.

      2. Clement Wen says:

        Thanks Melanie, for indulging my curiosity with your thoughts on this. I’ll reply over to you under your original response under lecture 5, since others there have also chimed in about Tanner’s lack of concreteness and how such affects the strength and viability of her proposal. Many thanks again!

  2. Thoughts on the motivation or base of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’: I can only write from the perspective of my own generation, a millennial. I think the City, the rat-race, wearing the suit, buying the shoes and ultimately succeeding within one’s company provides a powerful sense of belonging and personal worth within modern society. We use phrases like “we’ve made it” and when you really succeed you hope someone will say, “you belong in this world”.

    Without other social groups – in that many friendship groups from childhood and university spread themselves across the face of the globe – colleagues and companies provide the only relational field with physical proximity, the sole physically present community of belonging for many. Here, I think the church is situated perfectly to counteract this loneliness which I see as at least one of the motivating bases behind the new spirit of capitalism.

    I will be interested to see if this more human side comes out in these lectures. But perhaps someone, unlike myself, who works in the financial sector or business world will want to disagree with me?

    1. GiffordsEd says:

      Thank you for noting the deeply personal motivation that is often at play in the midst of ‘market dynamics,’ Joanna. I thought that Weber’s study was admirably humane in its identification of the anxiety and isolation that often lie behind an active, successful life. Weber speaks about the solitariness I can feel under an inscrutable divine will, asking whether I have been chosen for eternal life or not. It shows, perhaps, how far capitalism has come from its early context that this sense of anxiety does not seem nearly so psychologically compelling today

      For ‘millennials,’ the psychological drive seems as you depict it: centred around the human ‘relational field,’ especially physical proximity. Tanner points out how in the ‘old’ spirit of capitalism, one’s hard work and loyalty often meant a long, linear career trajectory, which would bring a sense of social rootedness. Now, in contrast, adaptability is prized and employees are in a regular state of fear that they could be made ‘redundant.’ As one result of this, they are more willing to accept the discipline of their company and state in order to not only belong but also survive (especially given debt loads they may carry).

      I think you’re right that the church has an important role to play in offering a different sort of belonging. It provides both the physical proximity of other people as well as that central ritual in which God becomes ‘bodily’ available. All the same, the church is vulnerable to market dynamics, including the relocation of its members caused by layoffs from outsourcing, to take but one example.

      Alongside the church, then, it could be important to revisit the question of an individual’s belonging in relation to God. In light of the Puritanism of Weber’s study, as well as the Calvinist heritage in Scotland, it’s worth discussing the question of God’s ‘predestination.’ As Weber and Tanner show, there are clearly problems with the doctrine of ‘double predestination,’ which results in the anxious ‘subject’ caught between resigned fatalism and coolly-restrained activity. Nevertheless, Tanner made some very strong statements about the necessity of divine agency in order to break identification with one’s ‘productive,’ or performative, self. God’s action is also invoked in order to disrupt the ways in which the individual’s desires have been ‘disciplined’ in line with the corporation and state. Are such comments leading us towards recovering a sense for the sheer efficacy of God’s choice before our own? Given that the notion of divine election is typically said to cause anxiety, it’s worth saying that there’s also potential for a profound sense of belonging in the doctrine. Not to mention a new freedom from capitalist forms of control.

  3. Higher education, especially elite endowed higher education, is thoroughly implicated in finance capitalism. Even schools that are more reliant on tuition are often dependent on strong business programs, where students are trained in both finance and consumer capitalism.

    Consumer capitalism is another form of late capitalism that, simply put, generates wealth by producing consumers. A number of authors (Devine & Irwin, 2005; Marshall, 1996; Schwalbe, 1993; Thrift, 2005; Vandenberghe, 2008; Norris, 2011) have shown a strong coupling between obligatory education and consumer capitalism. Marshall, in particular, notices how education directed towards fostering autonomous individualism ends up turning students / subjects into automatic choosers who are “very well suited to ‘our kind of society’” as consumers who “automatically adapts to any new situation, morphing into it without thought or control over the process” (Schinkel, de Ruyter, & Steutel, 2010, p. 273).

    When students graduate to higher education they don’t necessarily leave this behind. Rather, they become more sophisticated consumers. Mass education teaches students how to get more for less and to resist false advertising; higher education trains students to respond automatically to claims like ‘organic’, ‘free-range’, ‘fair-trade.’ But all of this is predicated on the student as an automatic chooser, who

    has to choose, cannot choose not to choose, because the whole market edifice would collapse if the choices were not made, or were made in irrational ways, or rather if the choices were made in accordance with a rationality which was not that of the market. Hence the compulsion which Peters and Marshall (1997) detect in the role of the autonomous chooser: where liberty depends on the market, and the market depends on individual choices then refusal to choose is a refusal of liberty—and when the market is conceptually expanded to cover all forms of social institution including government then such a refusal amounts to treason (Devine & Irwin, 2005, p. 324).

    I would suggest that most of us experience finance capitalism as consumers presented with a vast array of financial products like life insurance, mutual funds, and etfs. Further, many of the matters-of concern around off-shoring etc. can be elaborated as much in terms of consumer capitalism as “share holder value.” Consumer capitalism and finance capitalism are then two sides of the same coin.

    This then is my question: How are Christian academics able to critique forms of C21 capitalism when educational institutions that trained them are so implicated in finance and consumer capitalism?

    I’m not thinking here of movements like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction of Israel. BDS seems to practice late capitalism rather than critique it. And yes, I have cited academics who are able to point to the problem, but most such critics are operating from a critical or neo-Marxist perspective that nurtures such critique and is well-rehearsed in navigating the compromises of enduring capitalism. But this is part of the problem, too many Christians have been taught that to critique capitalisms is to embrace Marxism.

    To thicken out the question then,

    Given that higher education is thoroughly implicated in C21 capitalisms like finance capitalism and consumer capitalism, are there tactics of critique / resistance available to the Christian academic that do not perpetuate the autonomous individual / automatic chooser and don’t require that the Church give itself over to a form of Marxism?

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