Religionen als Weichensteller der Geschichte? Die Verschaltung von Religion und Kapitalismus

Vortrag gehalten am 12. April an der Volkshochschule Tübingen

Was hat Kapitalismus mit Religion zu tun?  Ist es tatsächlich denkbar, daß die Religion des stallgeborenen Tischlers aus Betlehem ursächlich für die Entstehung des modernen Kapitalismus mitverantwortlich zu machen ist? Oder daß die Religion der  Nächstenliebe sich zu einer ideologische Stütze des Systems gnadenloser Konkurrenz gemananias und saphiraausert hat?

Zunächst spricht einiges dagegen – nicht zuletzt die heiligen Schriften. Hier ein Beispiel aus dem Neuen Testament [Apostel 5, 1-11] .  Das Ehepaar Ananias und Saphira hat seine Felder verkauft – und die Regeln der urchristlichen Gemeinschaft verlangen, daß sie den Erlös an die Gemeinde abgeben. Aber sie halten etwas von dem Geld zurück. Apostel Petrus durchschaut Ananias, konfrontiert ihn mit seiner Unehrlichkeit, bezichtigt ihn, Gott selbst betrogen zu haben. Und Ananias fällt auf der Stelle tot um. Seine Frau Saphira kommt später hinzu, wiederholt die Lüge – und sie erleidet das gleiche Schicksal: Tod als Strafe für den Versuch der Kapitalbildung.

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Marx – Darwin – Weber

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew,

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew

It is often noted that Marx was a great admirer of Darwin, but it has been rarely explored what he actually took from him into his own theory, let alone put to productive use by his followers. There are exceptions, though. Mark Warren (1987: 258) shows that Marx thought of technological progress as well as cultural change in terms of a Darwinian mechanism in which an environment (natural or human-made) poses survival conditions to innovations. The difference, of course, is that the way that the variations that then are either selected or de-selected quasi-naturally come about in different ways:

‘The source of innovation and change comes from human beings who more or less intentionally create new ways of doing things, for any variety of reasons. Marx refers to this process as ‘invention’ (Erfindung). He places the term in quotation marks when referring to natural processes to indicate that creativity is intentional in humans, but not in nature. […] For human inventions, the environment consists in existing technologies and skills (forces of production), together with various social relations of production. This social and technological environment selects for certain inventions while condemning others to obsolescence. According to this interpretation, for example, in a capitalist society an invention or skill can survive and be transmitted to future generations only if it meets with the selective criteria of Marx’s base-superstructure model – assuming, of course, that the model correctly describes the constraints and possibilities of the social and natural environment.’

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From Elective Affinities and Selection to Base/Superstructure and Back – an Attempt at Salvaging Concepts

„Es ist mit den Geschäften wie mit dem Tanze; Personen, die gleichen Schritt halten, müssen sich unentbehrlich werden; ein wechselseitiges Wohlwollen muß notwendig daraus entstehen…“ [It is with business as it is with dance; persons who are in step with each other, will inevitably become indispensible for each other. A mutual benevolence will arise with necessity …]  J.W. von Goethe, Wahlverwandtschaften

 [Presentation at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association, April 2014 - and I'm still working on the full paper...]

In this talk I will venture a suggestion how to link what has come to be called the “Weber theses” and the Marxian base/superstructure theorem. I will follow Max Weber’s own proposition that where capitalist mentalities can no longer be explained by direct reference to a Protestant theological background, Darwinian selection by market forces in a now fully established capitalist economic system would perpetuate that once religiously inspired mentality.

As he says in the conclusion to his long essay “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.” Why we are forced to do so, Weber leaves to historical materialism to explain; using Darwin as a hinge. But that elegant solution has become a cul-de-sac since the base/superstructure theorem has suffered the fate of either complete dismissal (Steven Lukes called it a “dead, static, architectural metaphor” ready for the scrap heap), or at least significant watering down in academic post-Marxism as in Laclau and Mouffe’s Sorelian turn. (more…)

base/superstructure 1 – gramsci and the demise of the casanova

Starting to evaluate what, if anything, is to be gained from an application of the Weber theses on the Protestant ethic and ‘the spirit of capitalism’ – it turns out that it is impossible to engage with them without a also undertaking a reevaluation of the theorem they have formulated against: the Marxian/Marxist base-superstructure (Basis – Überbau) concept. Of course, that has been long declared dead as either indefensible economic determinism or irrelevant platitude – paid for by introducing an unnecessary dualism into the totality of praxis.I will argue, in a subsequent post, that it is precisely this dualism that renders an attempt to salvage this ‘dead, static, architectural metaphor’ (Lukes 1982: 222) by redefining not only what is meant by “determines” in “the basis determines the superstructure”, inversing the traditionally imposed direction of causality, but also, most importantly, by the notion of “basis”, redefining it in such a way that it no longer is congruent with “the economy”.

To begin with the notion of determination, Raymond Williams points out the ambiguity of the concept at least in the foundational texts

‘There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity. But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures. Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the internal laws of a particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a pre-existing external force. Yet it is fair to say, looking at many applications of Marxist cultural analysis, that it is the second sense, the notion of prefiguration, prediction or control, which has often explicitly or implicitly been used.’ (Williams 1973: 414)

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Sufi urbanism – Rumi and Marx against the idiocy of rural life…

One of the starting points of my interest in the possible linkages between Sufism and commercial culture was Sultan Veled’s couplet on how the soul becomes ‘a city, a market, a shop‘. Sufism is a thoroughly urban, cosmopolitan phenomenon – The notion that Sufism is a mere expression of rural “folk” Islam is a myth, as Martin van Bruinessen (2008) points out. The role of urbanity in the development of Anatolian Sufism (and possibly the role of Sufism in the development of Turkish urbanity) has been emphasised by Hülya Küçük in her paper on Sufi influences in Konya. Celaleddin Rumi seems to have anticipated Marx’s aversion against what he called, in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘idiocy of rural life’ – though evidently without the Orientalist twist that Marx puts on it:

‘“We are like a pair of compasses: One foot on the Religion of Islam, / the other is wandering around the seventy-two nations.” – This couplet shows that, Rūmī was not afraid of contact with other cultures. In fact the later couplet made him, in the words of a monk mourning his death, a “sun” everyone needs or “bread” that no one can live without. This couplet also demonstrates empathy, a necessary element for urban living and for globalization. In fact, all Sufi orders teach their adherents to have empathy, for empathy enhances solidarity among members. Here it should be reminded that Rūmī always favored urban life and likened rural life to “living in a grave” When he says: “Do not go to the country: the country makes a fool man, it makes the intellect void of light and splendour. O chosen one! Hear the Prophet saying: “To dwell in the country is the grave of the intellect.” If any one stay in the country a single day and evening, his intellect will not be fully restored in a month.”’ (Küçük 2007: 249)

What links Sufism to commercial culture, urban civilisation and globalisation is the creative imagination that sees the world as full of opportunities. Like the empathy seen as a core element of the commercial culture by Adam Smith (Sznaider 2000: 15)  this is not just a skill that helps the city dweller to find their way with people, to trade with them so as to secure their own existence, but also engenders an ethos of tolerant solidarity that can be the starting point of a critique of at least aspects of that same commercial culture.

Bruinessen, Martin van (2008): ‘Sufism, “Popular” Islam and the Encounter with Modernity’, in: Khalid Masud/Armando Salvatore/Martin van Bruinessen (eds): Islam and Modernity: Key Issues and Debates, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.125-57

Küçük, Hülya (2007): ‘Dervishes Make a City: The Sufi Culture in Konya’, in: Critque: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.16, No.3, pp.241-53

Sznaider, Natan (2000): The Compassionate Temperament, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield