Quakers & Capitalism — The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic & the Capitalist Spirit (via Through the Flaming Sword)

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Here’s the next installment in the book I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism: The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic and the Capitalist Spirit The early, groundbreaking sociologist Max Weber, in his most famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), offers a useful framework for approaching the relationship between the religious culture of early Friends and the social culture necessary (or at least optimal) for the rise of c … Read More

via Through the Flaming Sword

For some reason, this paragraph from the article fascinates me:

When you cannot achieve grace through sacraments, good works or confession, the only proof of grace is a way of life that is unmistakably different from that of others. This requires a certain withdrawal from the world. It requires the individual to supervise her own state of grace in her conduct—that is, it permeates the life with asceticism, forcing the “rationalization of conduct within the world for the sake of the world beyond,” as Weber put it. The requisite “rational” planning of one’s life in accord with God’s will forces you to reengage the world with a plan—or, more accurately, with a discipline (discipleship); that is, a self-conscious deliberateness that includes robust structures and processes for drafting the plan (discerning God’s will) and correcting mistakes through negative feedback (gospel order).

This description of the believers need for discipline describes the usual “Baptist” form of conversion and post-conversion interaction with the world. When we are converted, we are supposedly called to be “not of this world” yet we are simultaneously asked to have an impact upon it. Baptists haven’t given much thought to how this is done as a spiritual discipline. Sure, reading the bible is high on that scale of disciplinary measures, but there is no real advice about how to “supervise” our own states of grace.  This dichotomy leads to Protestant Christianity being seen as a culture so intermingled with the world that we have Christian pop culture as a result, which mimics culture, so that we have an excuse to interact with it. What I find about Quakerism that’s appealing is their discipline of silence. It’s a withdrawal with a view toward “a plan.” I don’t believe Baptists are taught to have a “plan” of interaction with the world. If they are it’s merely to bring as many Baptists into the fold as possible. So insistent is that plan that there isn’t much of a desire to follow up on all those conversions (discipleship).

Isn’t this just like capitalism? It may be a simplistic comparison, but think for a moment. There is a need for a product. People buy the product. Others want it. More product is made until finally the market is saturated. Product still gets made but there is no outlet for surplus and no plan to deal with the surplus. There is no thought of any kind taken of the ramifications of mass production, be it spiritual or material. There is no follow through or discipline, only production.

Hmmm. I had not heard of this article before and I’m glad I found it at QuakerQuaker.org. Good food for thought.


12 thoughts on “Quakers & Capitalism — The Protestant (Quaker) Ethic & the Capitalist Spirit (via Through the Flaming Sword)

  1. Hi, MysteryofIniquity

    Steven Davison of Through the Flaming Sword here. Thanks so much for noticing my blog and for commenting on it on yours. The post you read is one of a series, so there’s more. I am gradually—all too slowly—posting segments of a book I’m writing on Quakers and Capitalism, with pdf files available in the nav column on the left.

    Your comparison of evangelism without followup to (consumer) capitalism really interested me. I kept trying to work out the ideas this engendered and kept going off in different directions. I guess I’ll have to think about it some more.

    In the meantime, thanks for visiting Through the Flaming Sword, and for the stimulating response.


  2. You’re most welcome Steven. Thanks for stopping by my blog! Finding your thoughts from your book and that quote in particular really struck me and I’ve never compared Protestantism to capitalism before. Having been a fundamentalist Baptist for several years, I can see analogies between the two systems. This is the kind of thing I thrived on in college; philosophical ideas applied to religions and vice versa. Your posting of your chapter was a great “jumping point” to further thought for me too!

  3. We’re naturally drawn to systems of thought and action which legitimise our individual impulses. This is where your analogy hits home. If we can believe that we accrue more grace from saving others by convincing them of our version of truth, then we can put more awkward things further down our list of priorities. Other things like Christ’s injunction to unconditionally “love one another”. If this were at the top of our agenda, we would have to wrestle with our equivalent of the Jews’ Gentile problem. Our “brothers” include homosexuals and moslems. Much easier to get back to saving souls than to wrestle with the co-existence of unconditional love and violent vengeance, apparently within the same God. So, in your analogy, more souls equals more stuff; we can replace unconditional love with unconditional growth as the sacred principle. The consequences can safely be left to the Free Market or God.

    Of course the kind of capitalism you use for your analogy is a particular brand. In versions of religion, as with other ideologies, many isms are quite broad churches. Quakers have made very creative use of capitalism, informed by their principles of social justice. We conform our isms to suit our purposes.

    For example, I think many capitalists of good will espouse the free market as a solution for settling problems of distribution, supply and demand, because replacing decision making with an impersonal mechanism neatly avoids all kinds of personal ethical minefields. Such problems include that associated with “more stuff” as our guiding economic principle. It is very easy for me to sit here and rage against the absurdity of growth which can be sustained only by convincing people they need things which they probably don’t. When much of the world is starving, surely stuff production needs to be targeted at actual need. But those who espouse themarket might say with a good deal of justification, so who decides what is needed, how much and by whom? Trying to solve that well-intentioned riddle might well result in a massive multi-national top heavy bureaucracy, with all its potential for inefficiency and corruption.

    Whatever ism appeals to us, pragmatically,emotionally, or spiritually, it is how we humans implement it which counts. Problems of massive social injustice and affluence sustained by the poverty of others, are much too complicated for me to be anything other than dumbfounded by them. In the end, it’s going to come down to people of good conscience, acting collectively or individually. As a newly joined Quaker, all I can do is to try my best to become one of them, and to make isms the tool of conscientious loving action, not its driving force.

  4. Reg,
    the top level bureaucracy you speak of is already in evidence with a link I posted on Facebook yesterday about humanitarian aid given and backed by celebrities being misappropriated and stolen. Very little gets to the people who need it. And this is just plain greed on the part of those who handled it (not celebrities, but administrators, et al). But that’s a different issue.

    Some would argue that our greedy capitalism puts those in third world countries to work. True, but at what other cost. My point in highlighting the blog post was the equation of capitalism with spirituality. In a way the hierarchical notions of spirituality should give way to a more democratic division of the Spirit rather than funneling it all through a chosen few. But this is only a claim of those in power. Is the Spirit like money that it can be channelled? I think not. Interesting points.

  5. I agree with your analysis of the “impersonal mechanisms” of the market enabling the avoidance of ethical responsibility. This seems to have taken different forms as capitalism evolved. It wasn’t until 1776 when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations that ‘economists’ (there were no such things yet, of course; most political economists of the day, including Smith, held chairs in moral philosophy, actually) began to theorize about how markets worked. Until then, I suspect (but this is something worth researching) that businesspeople took for granted that their business was, in fact, a matter of personal ethical concern. Certainly Friends did. They invented the price tag out of ethical concern for what they thought of as the corrupt speech involved in haggling.

    When market theories did finally get developed, they ran on two parallel tracks. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and his father James Mill represented what has come to be called the classical school, which saw itself as a social science and was secular in its tone and approach. These thinkers saw market forces as driven by human action, and thus affected by ethical choices, but also by business choices aside from ethics.

    Almost simultaneously, however, some prominent evangelical ministers began writing economic theory, beginning most with Thomas Malthus, of Malthusian theory fame. They saw moral behavior as paramount in determining market behavior. Depressions and recessions, crashes and poverty, were all the result of sin. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” controlling markets was actually the hand of God guiding, rewarding and chastising uprightness and sin. Greed figured prominently, along with wantonness, gambling, and pride.

    The evangelical school dominated thinking and policy in Great Britain until deep into the nineteenth century, and it has never gone away. So the ethical approach to markets actually lasted quite a while. Its doom came with the full legalization of the limited liability corporation, which proceeded in stages but reached full maturity in the 1890s in England. I think it was earlier in America. This technology was deliberately created to divest shareholders and, to a limit managers, of responsibility for the corporation’s behavior. This applied specifically to its debts, originally, but has been expanding ever since. The device used was to give the corporation the standing of personhood before the law.

    So the twentieth century has seen the apotheosis of the market, in which ‘market forces’ have become a god, the market itself, and especially its exchanges, have become places of worship. Analysts are prophet-priests of augury; brokers are priests of the sacraments, dispensers of grace; market theories are theology; commentators are preachers; MBA programs are seminaries; greed and self interest are the necessary virtues driving the whole thing toward progress and wealth, which are ‘heavenly’ reward. Judgment and eternal life have been replaced by closing prices and the quarterly statement.

    In this idolatrous regime, the system has not only banished ethical behavior, it has defined its opposite—self-interest—as the driver of the entire system and as the key assumption behind the theology of its mathematical models. Only recently have behavioral economists begun to make any headway in pointing out that the classical models of “efficient markets” hardly account for actual market behavior or even for asset values. The models add a fudge factor that represents, in effect, the psychology of markets, and this factor is only now being quantified in models of its own. John Maynard Keynes called this factor “animal spirits”—the psychology of herd behavior, bubbles, panics, etc.

    Well, this is getting over-long. Better shut up.

    Steven Davison

  6. Thank you Steven for the short history of economic theory, and the parallel with theology as a means of putting an intermediary between ourselves and the consequences of our actions. Thank you also for Keynes and his “animal” element, which gives the whole thing a raw Darwinian edge which is much closer to the truth than the notion of a pure scientific principle which will maximise wealth if left to operate without hindrance. This is so clearly a principle developed by those who already have. However they got it, those who have start out at an enormous advantage. In a David Hare play, one of the characters, talking about market economics, observes that:
    “The house is a bent casino”
    and Billy Holiday says:
    “Them that’s got shall get,
    Them that’s not shall lose.”

    My problem is that I can’t think of anything that works significantly better than some version of free market economics. We change the system, and the distortions and inequities simply change rather than being reduced. We are the problem. A certain amount can be achieved by regulation but, however unlikely it seems, consensus and co-operation, whether brought on by conscience or catastrophe, have to be our hope. And I should be seeking my own role in that before I can be taken seriously when pontificating about what I would do if I were a billionaire. Lecturing myself as usual. God help me to take notice.

  7. I think you’re right MOI about the pluralistic nature of Spirit. It works in all of us as individuals. It is we who create the systems and institutions, from churches to banks. I guess it’s the problem faced by the original Friends. They were confronted by those accustomed to having power and owning things. It’s natural for such people to act as if they own the Spirit, or they are at least earthly intermediaries between it and we lesser beings. It’s difficult to distinguish between an intermediary and a salesman. My conviction is that if we properly learn to listen separately, we will find that we can agree together about what the message is.

  8. Steven,
    no need to “shut up.” I like this dialogue. All things are driven by market forces, including religion. There are goods or products or spiritual things to be “sold,” so how shall we market it to make it appealing to those who might not want it or even need it? To make even the Spirit of God marketable was quite a trick, but it has been done. Rather than make it a private affair, it’s been hauled out in front of the masses as visible evidence of successful religion. Converts equal “proof” that it works, just as sales indicate a successful marketing campaign. Interesting.

  9. You wrote:
    “..if we properly learn to listen separately, we will find that we can agree together about what the message is.” Can we ever listen “separately?” We are creatures of our culture, which has influenced us even without our conscious knowledge. How to rid ourselves of it, if indeed we can?

  10. The difficulty of achieving any kind of reconciliation between people with disparate cultures and viewpoints is very great. That isn’t the point I was trying to make, although it is a good one. I admit to avoiding it because we simply have to find some kind of common cause if any progress is to be made. If ever there was a time for the Divine to be more interventionist than I find myself able to believe, this is it.

    When talking about “listening separately”, I was thinking about what drew me to the Quakers, particularly the style of my local Meeting. If, much too rarely, the silence brings me the sense of a source of spiritual energy, or even guidance towards the loving purpose of things, this is essentially a personal, internal experience. I said “separately” to distinguish it from authoritarian religion, in which a human authority figure seeks to tell me what is true for me.

    To put that theory to The test, if I’m right, and the message has a universal dimension, then faithful separate listening should lead to a measure of consensus among the hearers about the nature of that message.

    All the Abrahamic religions seem to have much more love and mercy at their heart than many of their adherents are prepared to live by. And such rare flashes as I have tell me that this is the real and right message.

  11. I wonder, Reg, whether if any message with a universal dimension is a test of religion at all? If it were universal, why have religions? Just a thought.

  12. If I’m properly understanding your question, I’m thinking of a message with a universal dimension as being like a destination which can be arrived at from several different points.

    For a start, I must beware of a tendency to elevate my opinion to the status of universal truth, but clearly consensus is required if the problems of our local communities, or of the world, are going to be seriously addressed, let alone solved. Whereas I might feel that the Divine prompts me to be less acquisitive and more loving towards my fellow humans, someone else might think that, in order to preserve anything at all from the ravages of the dispossessed, something radical needs to change, merely out of enlightened self-interest. Different impulse, same destination. Religion isn’t a prerequisite for right action, once we’ve agreed what that might be. So I think your question “why have religion at all” can be answered only on the personal level. My life has a religious dimension because I feel it is true for me. Others seem to get on perfectly well without it. Many humanists live more altruistically than many people who would define themselves as religious. In terms of the world’s preservation, and any values we have, like social justice, it’s where we end up that counts, not how we get there.

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