Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

by William E. Connolly
Capitalism and Christianity, American Style

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Capitalism and Christianity, American Style by William E. Connolly

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style is William E. Connolly’s stirring call for the democratic left to counter the conservative stranglehold over American religious and economic culture in order to put egalitarianism and ecological integrity on the political agenda. An eminent political theorist known for his work on identity, secularism, and pluralism, Connolly charts the path of the “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine,” source of a bellicose ethos reverberating through contemporary institutional life. He argues that the vengeful vision of the Second Coming motivating a segment of the evangelical right resonates with the ethos of greed animating the cowboy sector of American capitalism. The resulting evangelical-capitalist ethos finds expression in church pulpits, Fox News reports, the best-selling Left Behind novels, consumption practices, investment priorities, and state policies. These practices resonate together to diminish diversity, forestall responsibility to future generations, ignore urban poverty, and support a system of extensive economic inequality.

Connolly describes how the evangelical-capitalist machine works, how its themes resound across class lines, and how it infiltrates numerous aspects of American life. Proposing changes in sensibility and strategy to challenge this machine, Connolly contends that the liberal distinction between secular public and religious private life must be reworked. Traditional notions of unity or solidarity must be translated into drives to forge provisional assemblages comprised of multiple constituencies and creeds. The left must also learn from the political right how power is infused into everyday institutions such as the media, schools, churches, consumption practices, corporations, and neighborhoods. Connolly explores the potential of a “tragic vision” to contest the current politics of existential resentment and political hubris, explores potential lines of connection between it and theistic faiths that break with the evangelical right, and charts the possibility of forging an “eco-egalitarian” economy. Capitalism and Christianity, American Style is William E. Connolly’s most urgent work to date.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822381235
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/09/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 347 KB

About the Author

William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent books include Pluralism, also published by Duke University Press; Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed; Why I am Not a Secularist; and The Ethos of Pluralization. His classic study The Terms of Political Discourse won the Benjamin Lippincott Award in 1999. Connolly was the editor of the journal Political Theory from 1980 to 1986.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4272-4

Chapter One


Capitalism and Christianity

Max Weber defines "a capitalist economic action as one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of ... (formally) peaceful opportunities of exchange." For these transactions to carry the reliable promise of profitability, you need the "rational ... organization of (formally) free labor." So, four conditions: expectations of profit, socially sanctioned spaces for exchange, free labor, and the rational organization of business and labor. "Free labor" is the labor of those who have been lifted (or torn) from a relation of service (or servitude) to a feudal lord. Rational organization involves a complex set of institutional arrangements: "the separation of business from the household," "rational bookkeeping," the "regular discipline" of labor, the penetration of market arrangements into new areas of life, the recruitment of the natural sciences for production, and the formation of a populace whose livelihood and survival depend upon the purchase of consumption goods. Weber thinks that a strategic shift enabling traditional economic life to be transfigured into capitalism was the Calvinist formation of disciplinary individuals. When this spirit is plugged into other conditions the pursuit of riches becomes capitalism.

Weber may overplay his hand some in focusing on the spirit of Calvinism. For as Hans Blumenberg argues convincingly in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pressures internal to Catholicism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries also helped to create conditions of possibility for the formations of the Enlightenment, secularism, the state, and capitalism. Nominalist theology (via moderna) emphasizes the omnipotence of God so stringently that it extracts faith in divine providence from nature and history. While its proponents sought to drain providence from nature and history to nurture Christian piety, that withdrawal in fact increased the sense of existential insecurity in many, a sense reinforced by plagues, the discovery of a New World full of "pagans," massive earthquakes, and other surprising events.

Blumenberg's amendment of Weber is notable, partly because it calls into question the claims of conservatives who say that modern Europe broke unwisely with a time that was intact in itself, partly because it also questions secular theories that represent modernity as marking a clean break with medieval authority, and partly because it points to disputes internal to Catholicism that set the stage for the Protestant Revolution. But Blumenberg and Weber contend together that religious doctrines, rituals, and struggles both penetrate secular practices in some ways and interact with them in others. While Weber sometimes talks as if it is the beliefs of the devotees which inspire a specific mode of conduct, a closer reading of his text reveals that a complex set of beliefs, habits, techniques of induction, and larger institutional processes complement each other, creating a complex reducible to no single element alone. This becomes most clear when old habits of conduct continue for a time after the beliefs to which they were attached are superseded. These habits will eventually wither unless they become attached to other disciplinary techniques. Thus Ben Franklin, the son of a Calvinist, was himself a "colorless deist." Nonetheless a set of Calvinist dispositions to thriftiness, efficiency, punctuality, and pecuniary shrewdness that "his father drummed into him again and again" were integral to Franklin's business activities, keeping them alive in a new context.

In playing up the encoding of spiritual forces neither Weber nor Blumenberg is an "idealist"-contending that ideas and beliefs alone are the motor of history. The emergence of the Calvinist individual as a type involved the mixing of doctrinal themes-the priority of salvation, divine omnipotence, predestination-into materialized disciplines such as prayer, ministerial drumming, bodily revulsion against the "magical" practices of Catholicism, local regulation through recognition, gossip and informal punishments, and sufficient religious capture of the state to incorporate several of those strictures into criminal codes and police enforcement.

These town and church disciplines are eventually carried over into the regularities of economic life, and the latter, reworked, also flow back. The distinction between "materialist" and "idealistic" theory rests upon a dubious dichotomy-fueled by some Protestants and secular academics-between economic roles determined by autonomous structures and floating ideas and spiritual beliefs disconnected from disciplinary practices. But this is a difficult division to sustain after the work of Michel Foucault, and before that of Augustine, John Calvin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. It is true that Weber, by comparison to, say, Marx, Werner Sombart, and Edward Said, underplays how the pursuit of empire generated unexpected conditions of possibility for capitalism. But to factor in that element still does not vindicate a division between materialism and idealism.

We will return to the shifting role of Christianity in econo-political life, but let's note first another Weberian theme. After claiming that a series of contingently assembled elements helped to engender capitalism-crowned by a Calvinist calling toward diligent labor, delayed consumption, and the conversion of surplus into profit-Weber closes his classic text by subtracting the element of contingency from mature capitalism: "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For asceticism ... did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism ... with irresistible force. Perhaps it will do so until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt ... material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history ...; victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support [i.e., Protestant asceticism] no longer."

The contingent assemblage out of which the capitalism of northern Europe was composed eventually contracts into a mechanism in mature capitalism. Weber's aristocratic lament about the "mechanized petrification" of capitalism has also become that of part of the critical left today. The irony is that the most active presentations today of the contingent, creative, and unpredictable dimensions of capital come from liberal corporate élites and right-wing Christian prophets who endow only God and capital with those characteristics. Critics who bond a closed mechanism to political despair meet those who celebrate Christianity, economic uncertainty, and creativity together. I wonder who wins that debate.

The leftish reduction of capitalism to a mechanism is understandable during hard times. But it may also hinder the democratic left from exploring proximate strategies to infuse egalitarianism, ecological protection, and cultural diversity into economic life, from exploring contacts with Christians eager to challenge the corporate-evangelical right, and from identifying sore points and tensions in the current capital-evangelical configuration that belie the promises of its most confident defenders. It may be timely to attend to the contingency of contemporary capitalism.

By the volatility of capitalism I mean several things: that the contingency and elasticity of its constituent elements render its range of variation significant over time; that the force of these elements eludes enclosed models of explanation in much of economic theory; that "externalities" of climate change, religious upheaval, natural disaster, resource emergency, state failure, war, civil strife, and political overreaching periodically become internalized because of the deep ties between the operation of capitalism and the stabilization of these forces; and that it periodically foments dangers and potential binds that could recoil back upon the world in a devastating way. Volatility as the element of unruliness, temporal uncertainty, explanatory indeterminacy, creative possibility, and mortal danger that inhabits capitalism essentially. Weber in his classic text at least attends to the last, the contingency that capitalism may face "when the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt." But he tends to downplay the others.

In a brilliant piece (written before he composed a labor theory of value) Marx explains why eighteenth- and nineteenth-century capitalism produces pauperism. Replying with acerbic irony to a comrade on the left who thinks that the king of Prussia could curtail pauperism by edict, he ties the essence of capitalism to the type of politics found in the English state, the "most advanced" state of the day:

The state is the organization of society. So far as the state admits the existence of social evils, it attributes them either to natural laws, which no human power can change, or to private life, which is independent of the state, or to the inadequacy of administration, which is dependent on it. Thus England finds poverty rooted in the natural law according to which the population continuously exceeds the means of subsistence. From another side, England explains pauperism as a consequence of the ill will of the poor, just as the King of Prussia explains it by the unchristian spirit of the rich ...

The state cannot transcend the contradiction between the aim and good intentions of the administration on the one hand and its means and resources on the other without transcending itself, for it is based on this contradiction ... If the modern state would want to transcend the impotence of its administration, it would have to transcend the present mode of private life ... [But] suicide is unnatural. Thus the state cannot believe in the innate impotence of its administration, that is, of its own self.

The mobilizing power of these formulations rests on Marx's outrage at the suffering of the poor and his demand to pursue a post-capitalist alternative around which the "proletariat"-as he later calls it-can unite. His defining insight is that the capitalist state oscillates between treating poverty as an effect of the ill will of the poor and of defects in state programs to curtail poverty. This oscillation in state policy between welfare and punishment-and indeed the tendency of the state to integrate each into the other-is familiar to anyone who participates in a capitalist state today. But what are the sources of that oscillation? It comes, Marx writes, from the contradiction between general interests that exceed the state's power of recognition and action and accumulated private interests that cut against them, a contradiction which the state cannot resolve because it itself forms the pinnacle of private life. Part of this division is lodged in "sanctimonious Christian antitheses" associated with the English capitalism of Marx's day. Part resides in a putative logic of capital not yet formulated closely by Marx.

I wish to linger for a moment on Marx's insight into assemblages between private life, embedded spirituality, and the state. What if it is true that the state cannot stretch far beyond the ethos of private life also infused into it, but at the same time that spiritualities help to shape the internal workings and intersections between labor processes, profit mechanisms, market competition, investment priorities, and electoral priorities? The plausibility of these imbrications is already suggested by the impossibility of neatly dividing the people who participate in a cultural ensemble into distinct roles consisting of spiritual dispositions, work habits, consumption proclivities, wage needs, investment priorities, and state preferences, even though each role does exhibit a degree of viscosity. The idea that capital treats labor as a disposable commodity while the living, breathing, loving and needy worker exceeds the commodity form trades on this irreducibility.

This is a point at which Weber and Marx meet. For the mature Marx never did isolate a set of tight contradictions of capitalism; and, as Tawney has shown, the ethos of Protestant Christianity incorporated into early state-capitalism was strongly disposed to blame poverty upon the character of the poor. Marx intimates in "The King of Prussia" how capitalism, the state, and Christianity are intercoded to a significant degree, with a change in any finding some expression in the interior of the others. We have here a state-capital-Christian complex, with each coiling to some degree into the interior of the others and also pressing against them from the outside. There is an element of volatility in these patterns of resonance and dissonance. We don't know in advance precisely when a tipping point will alter the complex, just as urban cops don't know how far they can go on a given day before triggering a riot, or as medieval dissidents, parish priests, mercantile élites, Jewish traders in the diaspora, monarchs in need of credit, and devout Calvinists did not know when their conjunctions would tip into capitalism. That latter assemblage, for instance, did not even take the form of a clear concept before it became a historical reality.

The history of state-capital-Christian imbrications calls into question attempts by political scientists, economists, and theologians to define each autonomously. Each element forms a sometimes volatile force, variously surging into the others and containing energetic uncertainties within itself that might agitate its companion. The stability of each thus depends significantly upon the balance that each element maintains with several others; the emergence of disequilibrium in one is apt to bump or jump into the others too.

To the extent that Marx's mature understanding of capitalism underplays this volatility-absorbing the idea of periodic, uncertain volatilities into the more contained idea of contradictions-it is because after his flirtation with the Epicurean idea of the swerve in nature, he depreciated the element of volatility in nature and underestimated the potential for religious upheavals that affect everything else. We need analyses that attend to the sometimes volatile relations between the state, nature, capital, science, and Christianity, to currents of uncertainty opened up by the historically specific shape of these assemblages as they encounter new forces, and to the periodic dangers and possibilities that these dissonant conjunctions create. I hope someone can range so broadly. I will only scratch part of that project here by bringing the idea of a state-capital axiomatic advanced by Deleuze and Guattari to bear on the imbrications between Christianity, the state, and capitalism already suggested by Marx and Weber.

The Capitalist Axiomatic

In a dramatic formulation in "The Apparatus of Capture," plateau 13 of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write that the state came into being "in a single stroke" and that the state-capital "axiomatic" did too. Many historians conclude that capitalism " 'could have' developed beginning at a certain moment, in China, in Rome, in Byzantium, in the Middle Ages, that the conditions for it existed" but were "not effectuated or even capable of being effectuated." It took a series of "decoded flows" from feudal society to create the conjunction of naked labor and wealth necessary to capitalism. "But it is their abstract conjunction in a single stroke that constitutes capitalism, providing a universal subject and an object in general for one another ... However the different sectors are not alone in serving as models of realization-the States do too. Each of them combines several sectors, according to its resources, population, wealth, industrial capacity, etc. Thus, the states in capitalism are not canceled out but change form and take on new meaning: models of realization for a world wide axiomatic that exceeds them."


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction: The Spirit of Capitalism 1

1. The Volatility of Capitalism 17

2. The Evangelical-Capitalist Resonance Machine 39

3. Between Science and Faith 69

4. Is Eco-egalitarian Capitalism Possible? 93

5. Christianity, Capitalism, and the Tragic 119

Notes 147

Index 169

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