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.



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.’


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…)

Rousseau as puritan?

Not really – but his Calvinist background clearly shows – as for example in his seemingly square and unromantic condemnation of unproductivity he deploys in his prize-winning rant against the arts and sciences that  kick-started his career as a writer

« Si nos sciences sont vaines dans l’objet qu’elles se proposent, elles sont encore plus dangereuses par les effets qu’elles produisent. Nées dans l’oisiveté, elles la nourrissent à leur tour ; et la perte irréparable du temps est le premier préjudice qu’elles causent nécessairement à la société. En politique comme en morale, c’est un grand mal que de ne point faire de bien ; et tout citoyen inutile peut être regardé comme un homme pernicieux. »

How does this tally with the fact that Rousseau went on to become the patron saint of the Romantic movement? Certainly not in that the Discourse was taken off the Romantic reading list – to the contrary: it’s uncompromising turn to Nature set the tone.

What is more likely that this is an anachronistic occurrence in which Romanticism’s Puritan legacy surfaces. In his genealogy of modern consumerism Colin Campbell argues that the fact that the most avid consumers came from the the same Protestant middle classes which, some generations before, had produced the pioneers of industrial capitalism is linked to the transformations Protestant spirituality underwent – transformations that started with cold Calvinism and ended with emotional Romanticism.

So can we see Rousseau’s Franklinesque condemnation of idleness and inefficient time use as a lapse – a use of a familiar argument out of the Calvinist repertoire which Rousseau had picked up growing up in Calvin’s old city which is slightly misplaced in a Romantic context? I don’t think so.

What the Romantics share with the Puritans is an intuitive belief in election and grace. While there are various ways of getting there – the status of being among the elect, of having grace is not one that can be achieved by following set rules, by performing well-defined good deeds. It must be a state of being – an inner state. For the Puritan this would be true belief – for the Romantic it is inspiration or even genius. Both can be longed for and found – but they can’t be acquired by taking lessons, reading up recipe knowledge etc. And both need external confirmation, need to prove themselves. The Puritan, who could never be sure of their state of grace, was on the lookout for external signs of grace – and, as Max Weber’s famous argument goes, capitalism provided a handy mechanism in that the odd admixture of meritocratic and random distribution it afforded could be interpreted as one of God’s ways to favour those he elected for eternal life in the beyond already in this world. While the Puritan was aware that the reprobate could reap great returns from immoral business practices and this was one of God’s ways to lull him in false security on his way to damnation – and that as in the story of Job God may test the believer by not granting him success, the (ideal-typical) answer was to commit to an ascetic, frugal and economically productive life and hope for the best. Being lazy was not an option since, while economic success could not be a sure sign of election, a propensity to idleness was a sure sign of reprobation.

The Romantic, too, had to validate his version of grace: inspiration. God has been replaced by Nature and the reward of eternal life has been replaced by a cult of infinity, but how do you know whether you’re inspired and creative if you don’t create? Charles Taylor(1989: 374) speaks of an ‘expressive turn’ – he claims that

‘the idea of nature as an intrinsic source goes along with an expressive view of human life. Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice of impulse. And this makes what was hidden manifest for both myself and others.’

The Romantic must produce just like the Puritan must produce. The modes of production are as different as the inner natures to be proved are – but both need to be at work relentlessly. And there are overlaps and cross-fertilisations Campbell (1989: 185) points out that Wesley had read Rousseau… and I have previously highlighted that imagination is a key ingredient in post-Puritan entrepreneurship. Both come together in Blake’s famous line that ‘my business is to create’ which, as Eric Wilson (2011) argues, very much sums up the frantic productivity of this Romantic par excellence.

So even when Jean-Jacques is hanging out meditating in the park – as in this painting by Alexandre-Hyacinthe Dunouy – he’s working, really…

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

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discours qui a remporté le prix a l’académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette Question propoſée par la même Académie : Si le rétabliſſement des Sciences & des Arts a contribué a épurer les mœurs. Par un Citoyen de Genève, in: Oeuvres complètes de J J Rousseau, Tome quatrième, Paris: Chez Lefèvre, 1839, p.14

Taylor, Charles (1989): Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wilson, Eric G. (2011): My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

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…)