Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber famously argued for an “elective affinity” between a Calvinist work ethic and the economic requirements of industrial capitalism. In its insistence on secularized vocation and deferment of worldly pleasure, according to Weber, the Protestant work ethic gave religious sanction to certain kinds of economic activity, namely, the reinvestment of wealth as capital to build society’s productive forces.

Kathryn Tanner, a prominent academic theologian, reverses Weber’s claim in her new book Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, an expansion of her Gifford Lectures: Protestant (mostly Reformed) Christianity, instead of evincing an “elective affinity” with the spirit of capitalism, instead presents a supposedly withering challenge to it. This is the theme of a thoughtful if freqeuntly exasperating book in which Tanner locates the “new spirit” of capitalism in its neoliberal, finance-dominated iteration.

Perhaps the most enlightening parts this book are those in which Tanner elucidates in great detail the life-and-subjectivity-shaping mechanisms of this spirit. Such a spirit demands “total commitment”—for example, in the identification of individual and corporate desire in ways reminiscent of a “personal brand” that must always be engaged in some kind of side-hustle or economic opportunity, an attitude of constant self-improvement that is exploited by corporations seeking flexible, productive, and atomized labor. This spirit obliterates the past and future in an everlasting, precarious present, even as it marks economic sinners by never-forgiven past “mistakes” (reflected in low credit scores and debt) and disciplines future action with ever-tightening austerity.

The most persuasive aspect of this book, and one highly indebted to Weber’s notion of personal domination under capitalism, is that the economic realities compelled by capitalist profit-seeking in a neoliberal age are profoundly distorting of individual and collective life. Yet this is hardly a novel observation; one could read a Verso book a week on the same topic.

But this initial strong footing is quickly compromised as the reader gets tangled in Tanner’s primarily theological analysis. Despite her inversion of Weber, Tanner remains bound by many of the same limitations that characterize him—namely, a bourgeois, upper-middle class, explicitly non-socialist standpoint (“all economic forms are flawed,” she writes) that is focused exclusively on moralizing and narrow reform measures.

These limitations remove most of the force the critique of the capitalist spirit would seem to suggest. (Weber, it should be mentioned, was ambivalent about capitalism, an ambivalence Tanner seems to share. At times it even sounds as if she would prefer a return to the “old” spirit of capitalism—i.e., industrial, Fordist, or even Keynesian—in order to escape the new! And this is to say nothing about the whole framing of “Protestantism leads to capitalism.” A Marxist would say almost the exact opposite: the tendencies of proto-capitalism lead to Protestantism’s cult of the individual.)

There is little here by way of a serious engagement with the underlying questions of political economy, class structure, or the historical development of capitalism, and it is evident that this book cannot be called “anti-capitalist” in any meaningful sense. Capitalism is presented not so much as a system, structure, or specific configuration of the relations of production, as it is in the Marxist analysis. Rather, here it is mostly an intention or character which might be swayed to go one way or another through moral persuasion—truly a spirit and a spirit alone.

Tanner often seems confused as to why capital compels its acolytes to such extremes and wonders, for instance, why employers just can’t extend a little leeway and dignity to the workers they ruthlessly exploit—as if a system characterized by the infinite accumulation of profit could lead to anything else. Of course, a writer can’t be held accountable for failing to incoporate elements of a framework they don’t subscribe to, but one wonders if many of Tanner’s questions wouldn’t have been better captured from a Marxist angle. (Or better yet, from a Marxist-Weberian synthesis which utilizes the strengths of both.) For these reasons and more, readers who approach this book from a leftist, and especially Marxist perspective, will find much to be critical of and perhaps little to be gained from this kind of analysis.

That leaves the Christianity component. Given the force of Tanner’s argument about the economic realities of finance-dominated capitalism having an all-pervasive shaping effect on life and action, it seems somewhat odd, and not a little naive, to present Christianity as an unbending counteragent to the new spirit of capitalism. This is problematic because it is the main argument on which the entire book turns. Here Tanner (again, as a theologian would) attempts to position Christianity as an alternative or competing spirit to the economic, one that owes its existence and force to allegiances that lie wholly outside the scope and control of capitalism.

In this sense, she owes much to humanistic critiques developed in the continental tradition—Pierre Hadot’s conception of “philosophy as a way of life,” and above all, Michel Foucault’s revival of Stoicism as a legitimate alternative to modern hegemonic structures. And of course, she is right—Christianity is not coterminous with capitalism, and can indeed be used against it, even if it more often goes the other way.

But Tanner’s tactic here—similar to Weber’s tactic of outlining “elective affinities,” albeit here in a negative sense—is simply to state, in the driest and most academic of terms, the contours of any given Christian doctrine that happens to prioritize values that differ from the corresponding capitalist values. For example, where finance-dominated capitalism demands a “total commitment” to work and self-betterment, Christianity demands a “total commitment” to God and a detachment from worldly identification; where capitalism stokes competition and prizes individualism, Christianity offers a vision of cooperation and mutuality and a life of total, unearned grace.

What in this book might have originally turned to a battle on the economic/ideological front has now been transported to an idealist and frankly pointless front. At worst, this kind of comparison often comes off obstinately trite; at best, its moral force does not offer much by way of a substantive material and economic critique of capitalism—which, as Tanner recognizes in her sections on finance-dominated capitalism, seem to do a much more efficient job at shaping lives and subjectivities than religion. After all, no matter what Christianity says in its doctrine, we all have to go on living and working and sustaining ourselves, often desperately, under capitalism.

Ultimately there is little to be gleaned here other than a knowledge that Christianity says some things about life and reality, and capitalism says others. Does this truly constitute an “alternative spirit” to capitalism? Does Christianity really offer, in this framing, an alternative “way of life” able to confront capitalism? The Christianity presented in this book instead appears more akin to a self-help scheme, a mental exercise that might help us get by a little better under overarching conditions that can’t be changed—at least not now, not by us. Little of the liberative aspects of the anti-fetishistic, anti-money faith that caused Jesus to drive money changers from the temple make it into this vision.

Had Tanner engaged with any kind of anti-capitalist liberation theology, instead of a bland, apolitical Calvinism, there might have been some way out of the doctrinal / theoretical bind to a practical, socialist alternative, but this is simply not in the scope or interest of the book. (Indeed, no mention of Marx, socialism, or liberation theology is to be found anywhere. Again, hard to find fault with an author for not engaging certain frameworks…and yet.) Instead, we get the fuzzy platitudes about Christianity inspiring a “new, cooperative way of life together.” What exactly that entails is unclear.

At its extreme, Tanner’s ideal sounds like a literal monastic community, characterized by an “anti-work” ethic and focused on God alone. But this raises the specter of Rosa Luxemburg’s old differentiation between a “communism of consumption” and a “communism of production.” Even if the problem of equal distribution and consumption of goods is solved, as it was for the early community of Christians, there is still the unsolved problem of the equality of the means and mode of production, and of work in general. We are right back to the problem of political economy.

Who is this book for? I suspect that Christians of a leftist bent will be too frustrated with its lack of socialist analysis, while others may agree that capitalism’s “unbridled excesses” need to be curbed, but will either be unconvinced of Christianity’s role in this endeavor or will fall on the side of Tanner’s apolitical reformism. My opinion is that this book is an attempted sermon for stock traders and economists—“understand the system your sins have wrought, and hear the good news of a reality that doesn’t have to be this way. But maybe temper your stock trading with some Jesus!”