the spirit of capitalism and fordist daydreaming

Benjamin Franklin’s advice to a young tradesman has famously been used by Max Weber to exemplify what he called the ‘spirit of capitalism’ which he (Weber) summarises thus

‘Sondern vor allem ist das “summum bonum” dieser “Ethik”: der Erwerb von Geld und immer mehr Geld, unter strengster Vermeidung alles unbefangenen Genießens, so gänzlich aller eudämonistischen oder gar hedonistischen Gesichtspunkte entkleidet, so rein als Selbstzweck dedacht, daß es als etwas gegenüber dem „Glück“ oder dem „Nutzen“ des einzelnen Individuums jedenfalls gänzlich Transzendentes und schlechthin Irrationales erscheint. Der Mensch ist auf das  Erwerben als Zweck seines Lebens, nicht mehr das Erwerben auf den Menschden als Mittel zum Zweck der Befriedigung seiner materiellen Lebensbedürfnisse bezogen.‘ (Weber 1920: 36) ‘In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudæmonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of  the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.’ (Weber 1930:53)

Typically, Weber qualifies that this does not ‘claim that everything which could be understood as pertaining to that spirit is contained in’ his Franklin extract thus summarised – but he is quite clear that this here is not only the essence of Franklin’s doctrine, but the capitalist spirit as such: it is the only example of an expression of that spirit he gives. The proposition that this ethos was born out of the Reformation, the suggestion of a causal relation between religion and economic development have been subject to relentless criticism and counter-criticism (in the Anglophone social sciences the debate was kicked off by Robertson’s 1933 Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism which was met with a refutation by Weber’s translator and future world leading sociologist Talcott Parsons). But his statement what constitutes the “spirit of capitalism” went relatively unchallenged. For example the Marxist historian and sinologist Karl August Wittfogel (1924), in what then was more or less the official Communist counter attack against Weber, does state that surely, different stages and different segments of capitalism require different mentalities, but he asserts that the one thing that runs through all of it is perfectly expressed by precisely the passages that Weber quotes. The semi-official historian of the Communist Party has to agree with the “bourgeois Marx” on this one. Weber does reference Franklin’s autobiography as a document of exemplary and laudable honesty. Surprisingly this does not lead him to consider a number of other traits that could easily be interpreted as “capitalistic”. Franklin was not only an accumulator of money who worked hard and steady in order to maximise his income (rationalising, for example, his food and drink intake to reduce expenditure and increase his ability to work) – with this attitude alone he would remained a good workman in the printing shop of some Philadelphia newspaper editor. To take the next step, to invest profitably to make even more money, there needs to be more than just the will to profit or the will to productivity: there needs to be imagination. Not only that: Far from being the prototype of a money-grabbing, profitably reinvesting Ebenezer Scrooge – Benjamin Franklin was a highly productive author, politician and, above all, inventor. He was Scrooge McDuck and Gyro Gearloose in one. This gives us a splendid example for why (and some indication as to how) the relation between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism could be reconsidered. On the one hand we find that Benjamin Franklin’s imagination was nourished by avid novel reading. That this can be linked to a Protestant context has been shown by Colin Campbell’s genealogy of consumerism which traces the ancestry of contemporary consumer mentalities back via Romanticism to the same Protestantism that is credited (or discredited) for giving birth to ascetic producer capitalism. It can also be, more profanely, linked to the fact that literacy in Protestantism is given a higher priority as reading scripture here was no longer something that  could safely be delegated to priests and monks. Franklin narrates that buying books for pleasure reading was about his only frivolous expenditure. But one needs also occasion and incentive to imagine. Franklin used to work excessive hours (and in a ridiculously conscientious manner) and spent most of his free time immersed in books – for example at his first stay in London between 1724 and 1726:

‘… I spent about 18 Months in London. Most Part of the Time, I work’d hard at my Business & spent but little upon my self except in seeing Plays, & in Books.’ (Franklin 1998: 52)

And to be sure – he does all the things Weber says a Protestant would do – which is both virtuous and profitable… but always driven by ethics which just happen to be good for business.

‘It was often 11 at Night and sometimes later, before I had finish’d my Distribution for the next days Work: for the little Jobbs sent in by our Friends now & then put us back. But so determin’d I was to continue doing a Sheet a Day of the Folio, that one Night when having impos’d my Forms, I thought my Days Work over, one of them by accident was broken and two Pages reduc’d to Pie, I immediately distributed & compos’d it over again before I went to bed. And this Industry visible to our Neighbours began to give us Character and Credit’ (Franklin 1998: 62f.)

When did he develop his ideas? One could think: while reading – the little time he spent not doing the dull work of a typesetter. But actually I think it must have been during work. And not because the fact that in that line of business he worked with text. Quite to the contrary. As Antonio Gramsci observes:

‘The slow speed of the art of writing in the Middle Ages explains many of these weaknesses: there was too much time in which to reflect, and consequently “mechanization” was more difficult. The compositor has to be much quicker; he has to keep his hands and eyes constantly in movement, and this makes his mechanization easier. But if one really thinks about it, the effort that these workers have to make in order to isolate from the often fascinating intellectual content of a text (and the more fascinating it is the less work is done and the less well) its written symbolization, this perhaps is the greatest effort that can be required in any trade.’ (Gramsci 1988: 295) La lentezza dell’arte scrittoria medioevale spiega molte di queste deficienze: c’era troppo tempo per riflettere e quindi la «meccanizzazione» era più difficile. Il tipografo deve essere molto rapido, deve tenere in continuo movimento le mani e gli occhi e ciò rende più facile la sua meccanizzazione. Ma a pensarci bene, lo sforzo che questi lavoratori devono fare per isolare dal contenuto intellettuale del testo, talvolta molto appassionante (e allora infatti si lavora meno e peggio), la sua simbolizzazione grafica e applicarsi solo a questa, è lo sforzo forse più grande che sia richiesto da un mestiere.

Typesetting does not allow the worker to engage with the text. Like all industrial work the more alienated it is the easier it goes off the hand, the less mistakes happen, the more efficient it gets. Yet – Franklin (a nigh ideal-typically Gramscian “organic intellectual” for the anti-aristocratic colonial bourgeoisie) is an innovator and his first innovations are made… for the print shop:

‘Our Printing-House often wanted Sorts, and there was no Letter Founder in America. I had seen Types cast at James’s in London, but without much Attention to the Manner: However I now cotriv’d a Mould, made use of the Letter we had, as Puncheons, struck the Matrices in Lead, and thus supply’d in a pretty tolerable way all Deficiencies.’ (Franklin 1998: 55)

Gramsci tells us how this is possible – as a working class hero he knows well enough that the idea that industrial work inevitably depletes your brain is a bit of a myth. He continues his observations thus:

‘However it is done, and it is not the spiritual death of man. Once the process of adaptation has been completed, what really happens is that the brain of the worker, far from being mummified, reaches a state of complete freedom. The only thing that is completely mechanized is the physical gesture; the memory of the trade, reduced to simple gestures repeated at an intense rhythm, “nestles” in the muscular and nervous centres and leaves the brain free and unencumbered for other occupations. One can walk without having to think about all the movements needed in order to move, in perfect synchronization, all the parts of the body, in the specific way that is necessary for walking. The same thing happens and will go on happening in industry with the basic gestures of the trade. One walks automatically, and at the same time thinks about whatever one chooses. American industrialists have understood all too well this dialectic inherent in the new industrial methods. they have understood that “trained gorilla” is just a phrase, that “unfortunately” the worker remains a man and even that during his work he thinks more, or at least has greater opportunities for thinking, once he has overcome the crisis of adaptation without being eliminated: and not only does the worker think, but the fact that he gets no immediate satisfaction from his work and realises that they are trying to reduce him to a trained gorilla, can lead him into a train of thought that is far from conformist.’ (Gramsci 1988: 295) Tuttavia esso viene fatto e non ammazza spiritualmente l’uomo. Quando il processo di adattamento è avvenuto, si verifica in realtà che il cervello dell’operaio, invece di mummificarsi, ha raggiunto uno stato di completa libertà. Si è completamente meccanizzato solo il gesto fisico; la memoria del mestiere, ridotto a gesti semplici ripetuti con ritmo intenso, si è «annidata» nei fasci muscolari e nervosi che ha lasciato il cervello libero e sgombro per altre occupazioni. Come si cammina senza bisogno di riflettere a tutti i movimenti necessari per muovere sincronicamente tutte le parti del corpo, in quel determinato modo che è necessario per camminare, così è avvenuto e continuerà ad avvenire nell’industria per i gesti fondamentali del mestiere; si cammina automaticamente e nello stesso tempo si pensa a tutto ciò che si vuole. Gli industriali americani hanno capito benissimo questa dialettica insita nei nuovi metodi industriali. Essi hanno capito che «gorilla ammaestrato» è una frase, che l’operaio rimane «purtroppo» uomo e persino che egli, durante il lavoro, pensa di più o per lo meno ha molto maggiori possibilità di pensare, almeno quando ha superato la crisi di adattamento e non è stato eliminato: e non solo pensa, ma il fatto che non ha soddisfazioni immediate dal lavoro, e che comprende che lo si vuol ridurre a un gorilla ammaestrato, lo può portare a un corso di pensieri poco conformisti.

Franklin at work

When trying to understand how migrant workers psychologically survived the total alienation of being far from home, often without family, in a Fordist factory (ironically – quite a few ended up working in Cologne for… Ford) – here is one lead. The Fordist factory affords the dissociation of the mind/spirit/soul from the machine/body to which the factory regime is geared to reduce the worker. All sorts of dreams. Going home a rich man certainly was one of them. Others dreamt – like Gramsciin his cell – of universal brotherhood and freedom, of communism. Yet others, like Franklin’s Calvinist forefathers, approached work with a religious zeal. For they (who were one of the sources of the phenomenon of the “Anatolian Tigers”, the “Islamic Calvinists” of Central Anatolia) were able to turn the dullness and repetition of the tact of the conveyor belt into an occasion where they could practice helvat der encümen – retreat/seclusion while among people, a meditative/reflective exercise. There is much talk of the “Cartesian” mind/body dualism in whose rejection Western intellectual confirm their own greatness in the assertion that no tradition was capable of greater sins than their own. In fact, mind/body dualism is quite a universal thing – and the Sufi tradition with its aspiration to free the soul from bodily desires and  allow it to fly and reunite with the Truth makes therapeutic use of it.   Gramsci, Antonio (1988): A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, London: Lawrence and Wishart (ed. By David Forgacs) Parsons, Talcott (1935): ‘H. M. Robertson on Max Weber and His School’, in: Journal of Political Economy, Vol.43, No.5, pp.688-96 Robertson, H. M. (1959): Aspects of the Rise of Economic Individualism: A Criticism of Max Weber and his School, New York: Macmillan Weber, Max (1920): Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr Weber Max (1930): The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Unwin [translated by Talcott Parsons] Wittfogel, Karl August (1924): Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft von ihren Anfängen bis zur Schwelle der großen Revolution, Vienna: Malik


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  1. ghosts of capitalism past, present and yet to come: the plan | metax‎‎ý

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