We Have to Destroy the Calvinist Ideology

Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/26-we-have-to-destroy-the-calvinist-ideology

For Karl Marx, the growth of capitalism is about the increasing commodity fetishism among consumers, workers and capitalists, and the fetish for monetary profit of the capitalist class. The Marxian account is quite materialist, because it focuses on how people develop institutions to take things from nature and transform them into things that people find useful, like food or clothing. Institutions of credit, firms, and the state are superimposed on more simple social structures like the family or tribe. But the way how people feed, clothe and shelter themselves does not by itself explain how societies became capitalist.

Another more cultural account for the rise of capitalism comes from Max Weber. He argued that there was a Protestant work ethic. He referred to the Swiss Calvinists. Calvinists seek for God’s direct approval, but are never sure of it (given man’s Original Sin). So they create specific yardsticks for objective success, which include working hard, saving, investing, making profits and reinvesting these profits for more profits in the next cycle. This automatically creates social stratification, because some people get rich, while others do not. But the Calvinist would frame the acquisition of wealth as a marker of God’s approval. If you are rich, God must love you. If you are poor, God must dislike you. In contrast, Catholics care about community and hierarchy, and they tend to be quite critical of acquiring money for its own sake. Pope Francis’ annual statements read like socialist theology, condemning the worshipping of money for its own sake and endless acquisitiveness, which might seem strange in the modern era, because he is much more forthright on political economy issues than his immediate predecessors. But Pope Francis falls well into line with classic Catholic ideology.

Tracing the origin of capitalism to Calvinism is not uncontroversial. Modern sociologists attack Weber for being too reductionist. Calvinists are not one-dimensional money-makers, and the spiritual elements of the religion cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, Weber based his account of Calvinism on very specific reports of professed Calvinists like the American Benjamin Franklin (and the founder of my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania), who claimed that men have to be diligent and earn money for the good of society. It is not clear whether Calvin, the Swiss theologian, and Franklin would see eye to eye. Cliffnotes claims that Weber had grossly misrepresented Franklin’s capitalist spirit. The capitalist cares about money accumulation for its own sake. If you ask him when is enough enough? A million? A billion? 100 billion? The answer is never. For Franklin, wealth is about being independent, and then pursuing one’s personal or scientific interests, such as founding a university.

Therefore, there is a risk in taking a piece out of what we regard as part of Calvinism and then blow it up to proportions that no longer reflect Calvinism. But for the sake of argument, let us accept Weber’s cultural argument about the origins of capitalism by equating it to Calvinism (which I will henceforth use exclusively for its economic connotation rather than religious-spiritual- so, please, dear Swiss Calvinists, do not send me hate mail for this post), and let us analyze the present spiritual and cultural foundations of capitalism. While in Franklin’s days you could be a small businessman or farmer (especially the latter, because there were not enough people farming the abundant land that had been stolen from the native Americans), and not care about profits and accumulation, this imperative can no longer be avoided in the contemporary political economy. The essence of neoliberal ideology is to let the market rip and introduce market elements into non-market relations like health care, education or the prison system. As more and more sections of social life become integrated into the market, capital accumulation becomes codified as only acceptable social and individual pursuit. The pervasiveness of market logic yields in the rather stupid advice to transform more people into coders and engineers rather than comparative literature scholars or historians, even though the latter is more enjoyable to more people.

The most evident expression of the power of Calvinism is the belief that one has to work or starve, because the market becomes the only acceptable way to make a living. In an economy that operates under the conditions of extreme scarcity this position is quite plausible. Something cannot be produced out of nothing. The hunters and gatherers, the “originally affluent society” according to Marshall Sahlins, may have worked only a few hours a day, but they still had to gather the berries and hunt the deer themselves. Indeed, before capitalism, the condition of humanity has been extreme scarcity. It is only by figuring out how to burn coal and oil, converting that into mechanic energy and creating tools to automate production along with the capitalist economy and its endless cycle of investment, production and consumption that we have escaped the extreme scarcity condition.

But automation has become more and more pervasive, and so far we have shifted workers from agriculture to manufacturing to the service sector. But two strange things are happening now. Firstly, we are creating economic losers trapped either in unemployment or low-wage jobs, because the well-paying manufacturing jobs were replaced by low-wage bartending, warehousing or food service. The second problem is that automation creates the increased economic surplus to fund unnecessary bullshit jobs in corporate middle management, corporate law, marketing, finance, pharma, insurance, accounting and similar sectors.

Useful low-wage jobs and useless high-wage jobs keep being created because despite the increased economic productivity in the production sectors of the economy (and the mountains of economic surplus associated with them) we hold on to the Calvinist ideology of validating one’s existence by reference to one’s contribution to wage labor. Wage labor isn’t going to be more lucrative in the rich developed world going forward, because in a low-growth economy, most of the money growth comes from wealth ownership (as Piketty pointed out), yet 80% of the financial stocks accrue to the richest 20% of society, so the vast majority can’t gain from wealth accumulation, so they have to toil away with low wage jobs. The Calvinist belief that one’s value as human being is derived from the marginal product delivered to the economic marketplace is driving humanity off a cliff edge.

The poisonous Calvinist ideology must be utterly destroyed if we want to restore sanity, health and well-being to society. Concretely, that means that we have to abandon the notion that wage labor is what makes human beings valuable members of society. This cannot happen by arbitrary government decree. I am all in favor of giving hugs to people for the purported positive psychological effects, but it won’t address the root cause of the problem. What we need is to take the bounty of the high wealth that already exists, hand out a universal basic income to all people, and then let people figure out whether they want to work a certain job or not. The number of bullshit jobs will likely decline drastically, which won’t come at net loss to society. The caring jobs, like nursing and teaching, of which we need more of (aging society and lifelong learning), could become revalued. Society needs these people, and if it were true that people become lazy shirkers (not really true!), they would have to be incentivized with higher wages to get them to do it. Finally, the hobby artists, painters, writers, athletes, musicians, dancers can pursue their activities without guilt for not being able to pay their bills. Ending on a note by Buckminster Fuller, who truly grasped the problems of Calvinism:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
― Buckminster Fuller

For the religious audience: if you are poor, God loves you too.

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