Bless the sign of Abel

Oikonomia/ 6 - If consumption is a mechanism of salvation, the poor are doomed

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  16/02/2020

The birth of capitalist economy is a great paradox. How was it possible for the pursuit of wealth to start out as a vice and eventually become a blessing? And what are the consequences?

“What we know is only this: that one part of humanity will be saved and another will remain damned”.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The fact that anti-capitalist Europe once helped to generate the "spirit" of capitalism is one of the most mysterious and complex phenomena in history. The "double track" European economy (secular and religious) had developed a critical vision of the search for material wealth in monasteries and cities. Although for different reasons, the search for profit and earnings inside and outside monasteries and convents was neither praised nor encouraged.

Religious men and women took a vow of poverty, in commercial cities avarice was considered one of the main capital vices. Dante's Inferno abounds with misers, subject to the terrible custody of Pluto, pagan deity with the appearance of a wolf (verse VII). In the Middle Ages avarice, that is, transforming wealth from a means to an end, was in fact both a private and public vice, because it led to the moral perdition of both the individual person and entire communities. Like all capital vices, nothing good could come from their practice - we had to wait for modern times to start thinking that "public virtues" could derive from "private vices". How did the ethics of greedy-wolves eventually come to give birth to capitalist ethics? This is where the metaphor of “cuckoo capitalism”, with which we started this series five Sundays ago, comes back into play.

Historian Amintore Fanfani also had his doubts regarding the spirit of capitalism containing much actual Christian spirit. He criticized Weber while identifying the spirit of early capitalism already among the Italian merchants of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: «If Catholicism has fought capitalist spirit, then and always, how did it come to manifest itself in the age of Catholicism?» (Fanfani, 1934). For Fanfani the emergence of capitalism was in fact an anomaly, an exceptional phenomenon due to equally exceptional circumstances (for example, the development of a class of international merchants), which allowed for the pursuit and accumulation of money, condemned by medieval ethics, to one day become lawful and socially praised. In Fanfani’s opinion those Italian merchants developed a "spirit" no different from that of the Dutch and American Calvinist entrepreneurs and bankers of the eighteenth century described by Weber.

Fanfani, actually misses the fact that the main point of Weber's story was precisely to demonstrate why Calvinist businesses were very different from Italian merchants, a diversity entirely contained in that one word, spirit of capitalism: «The thirst for profit, the aspiration to earn as much money as possible, has nothing in common with capitalism in itself. The same aspiration can be found found among waiters, doctors, artists, soldiers, bandits, in all eras, of all countries on earth» (Weber, 1905). The spirit of capitalism according to Weber is therefore something unprecedented in the history of humanity, being an offspring of Protestant ethics, in particular Calvinist (and of the various traditions influenced by Calvinism: Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, Methodists, even Quakers).

Hence, Weber is also of the opinion that the spirit of capitalism is not in fact a parasite of Christianity (as Walter Benjamin would express it a few years later), but does indeed have a Christian nature, although as a legitimate "child" it will end up growing up with unexpected characteristics not necessarily desired by its "parents" (Luther and Calvin and the other reformers). So where does the nature of the spirit of capitalism lie according to Weber?

There are three main elements in Weber's classic narrative. The first revolves around the word vocation or calling - beruf in German. In the Protestant world the word vocation, very early, also took on an explicit connotation related to work, so much so that beruf has two meanings, vocation and profession. In the Catholic world, however, vocation or calling continued to be an essentially spiritual word, used in particular for monks, nuns and friars. This is the first fundamental step. Luther harshly criticized vocations being consecrated in the Catholic Church ("dictated by the devil", as he said), a criticism that soon led to the (almost) disappearance of monks and friars from the Protestant world. The cancellation of this second "track" of Christian life naturally produced a shift of the concept of vocation from religious to civil life. Expelled from the monasteries, vocation now became the civilian habit of all reformed Christians. That radical "way of life" which in Catholicism was and remained the prerogative of consecrated life only, became a universal civil and secular way of life in the Protestant world. The ora et labora from the monasteries emigrated to the cities, becoming the ordinary rule of Protestant Christianity. Life as a whole became liturgy, and therefore embraced at all times, every day. Work ethics became something sacred, an expression of an officium. We can't really understand Protestant humanism without this worldly asceticism. A different kind of monks living in the midst of towns and cities: «The fulfilment of one's duty in a worldly profession became the highest content that ethics could have» (Weber, 1905).

The second element is the doctrine of predestination. The idea of ​​predestination has a long and complicated history in Christianity, starting, at least, with Augustine. Those who will be saved have been chosen since forever by God, using criteria unknown to us, and therefore no moral sanctity and no act or work can change our predetermined destiny. An uncertain idea from a biblical point of view, anchored in Scripture by the tenuous support of the Letter to the Ephesians: «For he chose us in him before the creation of the world… In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will» (Ephesians 1,4-5). A thesis that led to extreme statements: «God died only for the elect » (Calvin).

The concept of predestination foresees an important and decisive psychological aspect: subjectively, the elect cannot know that they are in fact elect, because are in fact not possible to distinguish from the non-elect. Hence, the profound loneliness of man in the face of his destiny. A Calvinist for instance spends his life in a radical uncertainty which in Weber’s opinion takes the form of anguish, arising from not being able to be certain of his own salvation.

And this is where the third element come in. Calvinist theology accomplished an arduous operation while resuming the traditions and stories of the Old Testament. In conditions of uncertainty and anguish, wealth becomes a sign of having been elected, the most important sign. Because wealth tells you (or at least increases the probability) that you are part of an elected few. Even in the Bible, wealth was seen as a sign of something different, greater and invisible, and therefore sought after and desired. In Calvinist capitalism the invisible becomes paradise. Vocation or calling, predestination and the sign of wealth: here are the three ingredients of the "spirit" of capitalism, wildly different from the medieval commercial spirit.

A whole new class of entrepreneurs thus began to interpret economic success as a blessing, to live their profession as a calling and ascesis, and – an additional and decisive factor - the social approval of that wealth-blessing, no longer seen as a sign of sin but of election, began to grow around the entrepreneurs. The pursuit of profit became ethically accepted and even praised, going from vice to virtue.

Life, lived as a vocation and asceticism, is not a life of comfort or luxury. It is all about commitment, punctuality, severity, without leaving any time or space for fun and celebration. Only medieval monks and capitalists hate and see sloth as the greatest of evils. A Calvinist entrepreneur does not enjoy his profit and earnings, money is not sought after to be consumed but to be re-invested and become even more money. It is the intrinsic value of wealth that makes up that first spirit of capitalism, marking an important difference between the Protestant and Catholic spirit of capitalism, where wealth instead is worth nothing if it is not ostentatious and seen by others. The capitalist described by Weber is indeed a monk, a "consecrated" man who practices a kind of secular vow of poverty even in the midst of a large amount of money. And as the Catholic monk was individually poor but lived in a wealthy monastery, so the Calvinist capitalist is individually poor while his wealth is accumulated in a factory – here too, is an unlikely analogy between the monasteries and modern industry.

It is not difficult to discern some great aporias and paradoxes of capitalism in the fascinating Weberian theory, a system that was born from a secular imitation of the logic in the vocation of monks, which however instead of producing an incentive to "possess nothing", lead to the praising of profit.

A first aporia, Protestantism, was born in the wake of Augustine, from the fierce criticism of Pelagian theology and the idea that salvation was linked to acts and not to mere gratia. Paradoxically, a form of Pelagianism returned as part of Calvinist spirit. Salvation is indeed associated with acts and works, they are however not seen as the means of salvation but only the means of «freeing oneself from the anxiety of salvation» (Weber, 1905). It is in fact a second-order form of Pelagianism, but on a pragmatic level it is very close to the ethics of Pelagius. And so, from this criticism of Pelagius, a form of capitalism was born based on the idea that salvation was linked to works producing the less "heavenly" good present in the Gospels: mammon (material wealth).

But there is more. The image of wealth as a sign of election and blessing inevitably brings with it the twin idea of ​​poverty interpreted as a sign of condemnation and doom. Every theory regarding good wealth is also a theory of bad poverty. And if the "goodness" of the rich is legitimized and consecrated by a religious chrism, the curse of the poor becomes a double curse. More than just a need for money and goods, poverty has always been a lack of blessing, a religious stigma, and therefore a source of guilt and shame as well.

We must never forget that the Bible always viewed the equivalence between wealth and blessing with suspicion, because it knew that this equivalence immediately brought another terrible and dangerous one along with it: poverty = condemnation. This is why, alongside biblical pages speaking of goods as a sign of justice and predilection (Abraham), the Bible has placed many others that say otherwise. These are the pages of the prophets, the wonderful ones of Job, all oriented to dismantle the thesis of the accursed and guilty poor man. Herein lies the true sense of "blessed be the poor", of the eye of the needle and the camel, of Francis and of the many who chose poverty to free those who had not chosen poverty from their curse.

The economy that places wealth at the centre of its strange religion will always be an economy that before calling the rich blessed calls the poor cursed. By identifying wealth with a blessing and a promise, capitalism inevitably produces an infinite group of discarded, cursed and guilty people because they do not wear the seal of election on their foreheads. What if the sign of the elect was the "sign of Cain" instead, who goes on to kill the fragile and poor Abel?! 21st century capitalism, we will soon see, has shifted the sign of blessing from the entrepreneur to the consumer, but continues to be a great (imaginary) mechanism of salvation, and a great ideology for calling the poor cursed, only to forget about them in our slums, kept away well-hidden to convince us that we have finally defeated poverty. Today's capitalism no longer knows anything about Calvin, the Bible and the doctrine of predestination. But continues, in anguish, to seek paradise and blessing in wealth. And poverty continues to be a curse, and the poor to be called cursed. When will we learn to see the sign of Abel?



Language: ENGLISH

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