Work and Wealth

It is fascinating to consider that for centuries work was regarded as demeaning and beneath all other human activity. This is the reason that even the seemingly enlightened Greeks regarded slavery as a good thing: the slaves’ role in life was to work and to save the citizens from such demeaning and distasteful activity. Even the great Aristotle defended slavery on the same grounds: human beings were never meant to do work. Slavery is required in order that those who are able to use their minds and engage in creative activity are free to do so.

The slaves, in the case of the Greeks, were the unfortunate victims of countless wars, of course, and the thinking may have been something like this: if these people were not able to win this war or this battle then they are not deserving of genuine human status. I don’t know, but I suspect I am not far off — given some of the things Aristotle said and the attitude of the Greeks generally toward slaves.

Slavery continued for centuries, or course, as did the attitude toward work. It was John Calvin in the sixteenth century who first argued that work was in fact a good thing — while slavery, with no attempt whatever to justify it, continued to make men wealthy in both England and America. According to Calvin work actually was directed by God and enabled human beings to demonstrate how much they relished the life they had been given. In a word, work was a good thing. Indeed, as Calvin insisted: work promotes the glory of God.

For Calvin human beings have no free will. Some are saved and others are damned. Only God knows which of us will be saved or damned. But we must act as if we have freedom and we must glory in our work which is not in the least demeaning; it is glorifying. Not for ourselves, of course, since pride is a sin, but for God. The fact that  a man profits from his work demonstrates that he is among “the elect.” It is a sign that God has touched him, as it were, and made it possible for him to do well. Work requires self-control and the acknowledgment of duty, that one is doing what God wants him to do. It must be approached with singleness of purpose and the determination to glorify God. This is true of the wealth that accrues from hard work as well.

As increasingly money became the means of accumulating wealth, the ethical problem changed from determining the nature or work to the question of whether or not the accumulation of wealth was a good thing.  John Locke, for example, argued that in a primitive society a man has a right to only that which he can make use of himself.  He is speaking of pears and apples. In the case of money, the notion of rights became irrelevant — for Locke. Not, however, for John Calvin who worried about both work and wealth.

In no way did Calvin, or what came to be called “the Protestant work ethic,” condone the gaining of untold wealth for the purpose of the greater glorification of those who are wealthy. For the Calvinist, wealth is a sign that God is pleased, but one must always keep in mind how this wealth came about, Who made it possible. Max Weber, in his study of the Protestant Ethic, notes that:

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only insofar as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.”

Note, please. the strings attached to the accumulation of great wealth:

“[A person] must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.”

That is to say, those who are touched by God and able to achieve great wealth have a responsibility to increase it by “restless effort.” The greater the wealth the greater the obligation to do good with it. Calvin repeatedly warns against the “irrational use of wealth” and the hazards of losing sight of where it came from.

One does wonder, then, how the founder of the Work Ethic that has taken over the Western World — and increasingly the Eastern World as well — would regard the fact that in this country, at any rate, a tiny fraction of the population has gained the bulk of the wealth and for the most part show no signs of a willingness to share it with others or recognize any responsibilities whatever to guard against “the irrational use of wealth.”

Calvin, and those who follow him, thus rescued the notion of work from derision. But they warned against the gaining of wealth for its own sake. There were always strings attached, duties to be acknowledged and others to regard. Those strings have been cut, have they not?  As Weber notes in his study,

“the religious roots [of the Protestant Work Ethic] died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness.”

Thus, along with so many of the virtues that modern humans have tossed into the bins of irrelevant, ancient history, we can add the Protestant Work Ethic and any sense that wealth carries with it a burden of responsibility to others. This is sad, indeed.


The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!

Irreconcilable Differences

When I was in college back in the dark ages I wrote a senior thesis titled “Dollars and Sense.” It wasn’t that good, but it started me on the path to investigating what seemed to me even then the inherent contradiction between Christianity and capitalism. I had read R.H.Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and later studied Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And while in college I read Karl Marx’s Capital. Later I taught courses in Marx’s theories, especially as found in the first volume of Capital. It makes for tough but fascinating reading and, no, it doesn’t make me a “commie” — it is well to know what tunes the devil is playing. I learned some important things.

To begin with, Marx was a lousy economist. Most agree about this. He based his economic theories on the labor theory of value, which insists that the value of a commodity is determined by how much “homogeneous” labor goes into the making of it. This theory has since been dismissed out of hand. But while he wasn’t a very good economist, Marx was an excellent moralist. In fact, if you look closely, his moral theory comes right out of the New Testament as does much of ethical theory in the West. I doubt that Marx would have admitted that, however, as he thought religion the “opiate of the people.” But it remains the case.

He was deeply disturbed by the fact that private ownership of the means of production under capitalism requires that human beings have to sell their labor, thereby becoming commodities themselves. This reduces persons to things. The capitalist, while admittedly taking risks, exerts little labor of his own while exploiting the labor of others. That is, he uses other people while growing rich himself. The further problem, as Marx saw it, was that the man (or woman) who labors is separated from the product he or she makes . He called this “alienation.” And it was these factors, all of them moral considerations, that Marx believed would bring capitalism to an end.

In Marx’s view, the moral contradictions within capitalism would eventually bring about a revolution that would result in socialism in which the state would end up owning the means of production thereby allowing the workers to begin to realize the actual worth of their labor. But this was to be a transitional stage to communism, an egalitarian society in which all owned the means of production, no one exploited anyone, there was no alienation of labor, and everyone would enjoy the fruits of their labors. This, of course, is an ideal and it is surprisingly like the ideals of Christianity. Indeed, it might describe life in a monastery.

We must be careful not to confuse the communism of Marx with what we called “communist” states, such as Russia under Stalin, or China or Cuba. These were or are, strictly, not communistic states at all. They are socialist/totalitarian states run by a small group of powerful men who denied all rights to their citizens and ran things with an iron hand. Under communism, as Marx saw it, there would be no political state — it would “wither away.”

In the end, the most interesting part of this intellectual journey, for me, was coming to the realization that the basic principles of capitalism — whether they be viewed through the eyes of critics like Marx or the sympathetic eyes of Christian thinkers like Tawney and Weber — are in direct opposition to the ideals put forth in the New Testament. There is simply no way a doctrine that talks about giving away one’s wealth and not serving “Mammon” could be reconciled with a doctrine that is all about accumulating as much wealth as possible, though attempts have been made.

Thus, those who in this society embrace what they call “democratic freedom” (while meaning free-enterprise capitalism) and who at the same time call themselves Christians, are living a lie. As I mentioned in an earlier blog: you can’t have it both ways. And any attempts at compromise will be awkward at best, though there are a great many decent, charitable people in this country who do good while at the same time doing well. That is possible.