Sunday, February 23, 2014

Capitalism, Predestination and Redemptive Suffering

Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) famously attempted to ascribe the success of capitalism in Protestant societies to the Protestant and especially Calvinist values those societies held. These Protestant values include a belief in progress, honesty and self control, a love of hard work, the denial of earthly pleasures like sex and accumulated profit as signs of heavenly favor.

Weber’s reasoning goes as follows: For a Protestant, wasting money or spending it on extravagances was sinful. Giving your money to your local church was unnecessary after a time because the church should also be austere, lest it become engaged in useless pursuits like the gilding of crosses or the purchase of idols like common Catholics. Those who were poor were considered to be lazy, so giving money to charity encouraged negative behaviors.

Having ruled out giving money to charity or spending money on anything other than a frugal subsistence lifestyle, Protestants had no choice but to invest their money with the same zeal and attention with which they had worked to produce it. Aggressive development of Capitalism allowed Protestant countries to become rich, leaving Catholic countries to play catch up.

Protestants, through the unique and diabolical Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, came to believe that their material success was evidence of their spiritual greatness. Meanwhile, if Catholics were not keeping up with their Protestant religious competitors, that was kind of okay, because Catholics believe in redemptive suffering.

Redemptive suffering is the belief that suffering here on Earth takes time off our eventual punishment in Purgatory for sins committed. Some Catholics took to the mortification of the flesh, whipping wounds into their backs so as to suffer for the grace of God. Mother Teresa certainly celebrated suffering, famously telling a woman dying of cancer that her “terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus, a sign that [she has] come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.”

(So great was Teresa’s love of suffering that she merely stored away the millions of dollars her charity accumulated over the years, spending little to nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor who came to her missions to die, and there was plenty of suffering endured under the tender ministrations of the ironically named Sisters of Mercy.)

Now Weber did not think, even in 1905, that the religious origins of Capitalism were still an influence on Capitalists. In fact, he saw the religious ideas melting away even as the edifice of Capitalism, now a machine with a life of its own, ran full steam ahead. “The Puritan wanted to work in calling,” said Weber, “we are forced to do so.” Capitalism, says Weber, has become an “Iron Cage” in which we are all trapped.

Though the higher religious and moral callings of those who profit from Capitalism are gone, the religious ideas are still useful. They are still used to convince the population of the system’s inherent goodness.

Hence the commonly expressed view that the poor are lazy, and too quick to spend their money on luxuries like cellphones, refrigerators and cable television. Working for low wages, and the suffering grinding poverty inflicts is said to be both purifying to the soul and a spur towards working harder. Those at the top of the economic system are the elect, we know that because they are at the top of the economic system. The one-percenters are, by evidence of their success on Earth, destined to join God in Heaven after this world has faded away, or conversely, they are the souls who have not suffered the purifying pain that would have ensured them their place in heaven.
If you are poor and unworthy, there is no way to change your fate and if you are poor and most worthy, why would you want to change your plight? Either way, the poor and the have-nots lose.

Popular economic policy is presented as religious edict. Property is theft or taxation is theft, but either way, theft is a sin. Inefficiency is wasteful, and waste is a sin, so bosses constantly look for ways to squeeze more work out of less people for ever shrinking wages. Weber’s Iron Cage has become a medieval Iron Maiden, squeezing the life out of us.

Those in power do not believe in God and they do not believe that the poor have any value other than whatever value can be crushed out of their spirits. They have exactly as much concern for the poor as you or I have for an empty candy wrapper. When the candy is gone, the wrapper is valueless.

Jesus once said, “The poor you shall always have with you” and his followers have responded by constructing an iron cage to ensure that their savior’s words remain forever true. But this cage was not made by God and our current economic system is not an inevitable, natural system. The economy is a way of organizing and distributing resources created by humans and humans have the power to alter the system in ways to make it more fair.

We have made our own cage, and we have forgotten that we have the key.


  1. With all due respect, you really need to study some history. Consider the Methodist creed of "Work all you can to save all you can to give all you can" (directly to the poor). All religious institutions (like all others) tend to corruption of original values. There is a huge gap between the trajectories of Calvinism, and Wesleyan and other traditions. From these many revolutionary impulses emerged, including abolition, women's rights, and much more. It is fair and right to condemn reactionary religion - but part of that condemnation goes exactly to its reversals of original intent and practice.

    1. I am apply to be corrected and schooled on this, and will amend my piece to reflect this. In my defense, I was attempting to explain Max Weber's ideas, and I probably gave his take on history too much deference.