benjamin franklin as the ghost of capitalism past, present and future

Obverse of the series 2009 $100 Federal Reserve Note

No one’s face could be more appropriate on a banknote than that of Benjamin Franklin – nobody embodies the spirits that drive capitalism, the ghosts that haunt it and the imagination that transcends it as he does.

To begin with, his advice on how to relentlessly convert time into money, and to reinvest that money in order to make more money – to make money for making money’s sake –features prominently in Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as expression of the essence of the capitalist spirit. As a worker he anticipates the disciplined and rationalised approach that was to pervade the factories of centuries to come, while his entrepreneurial spirit and inventing mind set the model for the revolutionising process of creative destruction that Schumpeter saw at the heart of capitalist development. Nurturing his imagination through the avid consumption of novels, this money man can also be seen as an exemplar of the romantic ethic of modern consumerism (Campbell 1987), which is sustained by the structural romanticism of money itself.

While very much a self-made man reliant on the fruit of his own labour which he then sets to work for him (i.e. fully in tune with Locke’s conception of legitimate property owning), he is nonetheless involved in the exploitative and violent expropriation without which capitalism could not have taken off the ground so rapidly – the process which Marx called “original accumulation” and which Rosa Luxemburg has insisted is not just something that happens at the beginning of the capitalist era, but is always operative at the edges of capitalist expansion. Franklin was a slaveholder. Yet chattel slavery, profitable as it may be at least in the early stages of capitalist development, collides fundamentally with the moral grammar implied in capitalist exchange (Haskell 1985) – a grammar that relies on the formal freedom, or at least the appearance thereof, of the producers. Franklin went on to become an abolitionist – thus embodying the bad conscience of the bourgeois who likes to think of himself as owing his privileged position to his own hard work and exchange with free people, while not being able to forget completely the fact of violent exploitation that sustains that position. In this he incorporates in immediacy the anxiety of contemporary ethical consumers who are still haunted by the ghosts of the colonial past in which the base of their current wealth was laid.

And finally, Franklin also stands for the way that a capitalist ethos contains a utopian element. Benjamin Franklin, as one of the signatories of the American Constitution, stood for democracy and liberty. Both these principles may not be necessary results of capitalism, but Marx was probably right in suggesting that the formally egalitarian and libertarian nature of money-mediated commodity exchange undermines aristocratic principles of government and is suggestive of liberal-democratic systems. But the inequality and ensuing domination which are the inevitable outcomes of the capitalist process also limit and negate the formal equality and threaten the freedom which is inscribed in its moral grammar. The man whose guidance on money making was to be used over a century later to show up the essence of the capitalist spirit –like later Marx and Engels – takes inspiration from Urkommunismus in search of a cure for the ills of capitalism. In 1783 he relates the account of one native American thus:

‘You know our Practice. If a white Man in travelling thro’ our Country, enters one of our Cabins, we all treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, and give him Meat & Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger, & we spread soft Furs for him to rest & sleep on: We demand nothing in return. But if I go into a white Man’s House at Albany and ask for Victuals & Drink, they say, where is your Money? And if I have none, they say, get out, you Indian Dog.’ (Franklin 1998: 318)

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Franklin, Benjamin (1998): Autobiography and Other Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Haskell, Thomas (1985): ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility’, in:American Historical Review, Vol.90, No.2, pp.339-61 and No.3, pp.547-66


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. (more…)