Lesson 05- Capitalism And Calvin
This is the fifth program in a new series of talks dedicated to addressing the current world economic crisis. In my first program I told my listeners that I was interrupting the regular sequence of the reruns that I intended to return to following my Christmas and New Years tapes. At this moment, I am not sure how many programs I will need to cover what I have to say about our current economic crisis since it is a very involved topic that cuts across many topical areas. However, I believe that we are at a critical point in human history and if we are going to respond properly we have to know “where we were”, “how we got to where we are”, and “where we should go from here.”
As a Catholic/Christian, it is my firm belief that history is the stage that God is using to lead the human race to the Promised Land or Kingdom of God and, whether we advance towards it or regress away from it, depends on how we have responded to this crisis and previous ones throughout history. In previous talks I have referred to the Judeo/Christian/Linear/Utopian/Concept of History, which simply means that both Jews and Christian have a linear way of looking at reality and history that causes them to see it as a halting progression towards a more perfect society that God intended us to reach from the very beginning.
This view is held by others, like Eric Fromm, a Jewish, secular humanistic psychologist, who, although he has given up his belief in the Jewish God, still holds on to his belief in the progressive movement of history towards a better world. However, as a Secular Humanist who claims “There is no God to save Mankind; Mankind must save itself., he believes that the progressive movement of history will eventually lead to a Socialistic or Communistic society in which a super-welfare state will assume responsibility for the happiness and well-being of all its citizens.
The Church, on the other hand, although recognizing that there are some legitimate areas that ought to be the concern of the state, is committed to the Principle of Subsidiarity that requires that the smallest unit in society that has the ability to handle a problem should accept responsibility for it. So, as we can see, both the secular forces and the Church are seeking the same end: a better and more perfect world. The major difference is whether it will be one controlled by a super-government or by the people themselves. Or put another way, whether the peoples will remain dependent children who need wise leaders to lead and care for them, or whether they will become independent adults who are wise themselves.
Since, Wisdom, according to the Bible and the Church, is Jesus, Himself, then the real question is whether we will eventually follow Him into the Kingdom of God or whether we will follow secularistic world leaders into the Kingdom of Man. It all depends on whether we love Jesus or the world; whether we intend to live “by bread alone” or by Divine Wisdom who is the Bread of Life and Word that comes from the mouth of God.”
I suspect that most Christians, when asked if they loved Jesus, immediately conjure up a Holy Card picture representing the God/man who lived over 2000 years ago on whom we project everything that is good and nice. However, it isn’t an adequate answer to the question. Jesus, according to the teachings of the Church is the Incarnate Wisdom of God who created the universe and everything in it. He is the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, the Logos or Logic of God, and the Bread of Life that feeds the spiritual dimension of the human soul. So what the questions is really asking is whether we love Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding because only it can lead us out of the Kingdom of Mental Darkness and Ignorance into the Kingdom of Mental Light and Knowledge. And, in the final analysis, that is the only things that can set us free from the consequences of our sins, which is what happens when we miss the target of rational behavior.
We are in our present mess because we have failed to follow Wisdom and the only way that we will ever get out of it is to follow it by admitting our sins and repenting and reforming. If we don’t, then we have seen only the tip of the iceberg of what is yet to come. In essence, we have shown by our foolishness that we are incapable of being free and if we don’t change our ways that we can expect what Aldous Huxley predicted of the 21st century. Huxley said the 21st century would be a technological and scientific dictatorship that would never end because, unlike the dictatorships of the past, it would never run out of “bread, which is welfare, and circuses, which is amusement and entertainment to distract us. The word amusement, by the way, means “without thought.” And the Old Testament word for hell is Gehenna, which mean “empty thought”. Hell is the Kingdom of Mental Darkness that is ruled by the devil who is the Father of All Lies and Jesus is the Truth who can set us free by leading us to the Kingdom of Mental Light. What else would we think Wisdom would do?The first Kingdom, which is the Kingdom of the Antichrist leads to slavery while the second one leads to freedom. So what will the Kingdom of the Antichrist be like?
In his book, Brave New World, Huxley described a world in which Ten World Controllers, following a Great War and Economic collapse, seized control of the world and proceeded to create an anti-Christ society based on “soft slavery.” In this world all the physical needs of the people were taken care of by a Super-Welfare state while their mental and spiritual needs were starved. Huxley was only reaffirming what the historian, Will Durant, had noted after spending his lifetime study the history of the world. Durant said the one thing that history proves is that “when freedom destroys order, the need for order will destroy freedom.” In other words, when people are frighten and feel inadequate to the problems, they willingly turn their freedom over to a leader who promises to save them.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The economy of the world is collapsing, we are involved in two very expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Middle East is a tinder box that could ignite into a world war of horrendous proportions. These are dangerous times and require that we don’t buy into easy solutions that require nothing of ourselves. As Thomas Paine said of the period before the American Revolution of 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls…” Unless we look to ourselves instead of the government, we will fail the call of history to correct our past mistakes and to move closer to the goal that God has set for Humanity. Those who understand this know that what others consider a disaster is really an opportunity to reorganize society since it is only when things are falling apart that people are willing to consider new alternatives. This is a period where the old wine is about to be replaced by the new wine and, as the scriptures say, you can’t put new wine into old wine skins because it will cause them to burst. So the real issue is whose new wine skin will hold our future response. Will it be that of the Church or the Secular Humanists?
But, as I mentioned before, if we are going to respond properly we have to know “where we were”, “how we got to where we are”, and “where we should go from here.” So let me begin by reviewing some of the major points of my last program.
I have already talked about how the pre-Capitalistic economic system of Mercantilism, which was highly regulated by government, tradition, and moral principles, was based on the premise that the wealth of a nation was its “gold and silver”. In 1776 it was challenged by Adam Smith, a Scottish professor, who said that the real wealth of a nation was the “goods and services” that it produced. He called for a free economy controlled only by the “law of the market” that was based on “self-interest” and “competition.” Let men be free to work where they will, produce what they want, charge whatever price they decided, and follow their self-interest wherever it led. And, by all means, keep the interfering hands of the government out of economic affairs. In other words, let the government keep it “hands off” the economy and allow it to be ruled by the natural, self-adjusting forces of the market.
It was a radical proposal and it seemed to fly in the face of the teachings of the Catholic Church who considered it sinful to seek profit at the expense of one’s neighbor. How could amoral individuals devoted to their own “self interest” benefit others better than one based on brotherly love? How could the amoral be better than the moral? How could a free economy function better than a controlled one? If this system was to be adopted then society had to go through a major paradigm shift especially in its religious principles.
Europe had already begun to go through a paradigm shift following the Crusades that began in 1095 A.D. Their contact with the Muslim Arabs had reintroduced into Europe the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans and stimulated a Renaissance, or rebirth, in the Arts and Sciences which began to emphasize the individual over the group. By 1517, this emphasize received an additional thrust when Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, protested what he alleged was the “selling of indulgences” by agents of the Pope who was seeking funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His original complaint eventually spread to the Protestant Reformation when he posted 95 Thesis in which he challenged additional teachings and practices of the Church.
What began as a reform movement turned into a rebellion in which Luther and other protestors challenged the authority of the Catholic Church by calling for the right of individual interpretation of the Bible. According to the protestors, the Bible alone (solo scriptura) was necessary for salvation and each individual would be personally inspired by the Holy Spirit in its proper interpretation. The results were predictable. With no central authority to resolve disputes over interpretations, the unity, experienced under the Catholic Church, began to splinter into numerous other churches, each of which disagreed on a belief or practice with other Christian churches. Luther disagreed with the Catholic Church and John Calvin disagreed with Luther and other disagreed with all of them on one or more doctrinal points.
The Catholic Church taught that we were saved by “faith and works.” Luther taught that we were saved by “faith alone.” And John Calvin taught that we weren’t saved by either. Calvin taught that we were all predestined from the moment of our conception to go to either heaven or hell and no amount of faith or works could change the decision.
Calvin, who was a lawyer, established a theocracy in Geneva, Switzerland based on a very legalistic interpretation of the Bible. His followers were severely restricted by numerous moral laws that were often enforced by a morality police that were on the lookout for infractions. The punishments for violating these laws were often severe ranging from public display in the stockade to burning at the stake. In short, it wasn’t a fun religion. And yet, people were drawn to it.
However, there was one gnawing problem that any thinking member of his church had to have. If God had predestined everyone at the moment of conception to go to either heaven or hell and there was nothing that anyone could do to change it, how was one to know how he had been predestined? If neither faith nor works could save you, then why were you living such an ascetic life. If you were predestined to go to heaven, then why be concerned with how you acted here as it was already a “done deal”. If you were predestined to go to hell, then you ought to enjoy yourself while you were here because you were already doomed to eternal damnation . What sign could John Calvin give his followers to assure them that they were among those predestined to go to heaven?
And this, according to Max Weber, a 19th century political economist and sociologist, is where there was a religious paradigm shift that laid the foundation for the new Capitalistic system. According to Professor Weber, in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism”, Calvin solved the problem of his followers by identifying economic success as their sign of salvation. If you worked hard, saved your money, and were economically successful, it was a sure sign that God had predestined you to be among the elect.
How radical was this shift? Well consider that during the Middle Age, the Jews became the bankers and the merchants of Europe because the Church considered it to be somewhat sinful for any Christian to be involved in the making of money. Now Calvin was saying that the making of money was the sure sign of one’s salvation. But even this was not enough. In order for Capitalism to succeed, you needed a person who would take his excess money and reinvest it in making even more money. In fact, money that is invested in money-making projects is known as capital.
The result of this religious paradigm shift was the creation of a new kind of man: an “economic man” man who would work from morning till nights, save his money by living a frugal life, and reinvest it in making more money. One might ask why anyone who was living a frugal life would want to work himself to death to make even more money that he never spent on himself. The answer, of course, was that the money had taken on a different function. It was now a symbol of his assured salvation. Unlike primitive man, or for even most humans throughout history, who would relax once they had any surplus, “economic man” would continue to work even after his basic needs were satisfied.
What did this new “economic man” look like? Well, he was Protestant, very religious, read the Bible literally, serious, legalistic, time conscious, dressed in black, not given to much laughing, dancing, or frivolous behavior and he liked to say things like, “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “idleness is the devil’s workshop”, and “time is money.” In fact, one might even say he was a “Puritan” who had to flee Europe because he was too strict for the taste of most people and he left a legacy that has affected or infected most of us through what is known as the “Protestant Work Ethic.”
From a psychological point of view we might say that he was a “left lober” who, unlike the rest of Humankind who favored their right lobe, that was existential, cyclical, and spatial, “economic man” favored his left lobe that was progressive, linear, and temporal and his impact on American culture has shaped our history. Where else can you find millionaires, and even billionaires, who could never exhaust their acquired wealth on their reasonable needs and wants, working hard to acquire even more unnecessary wealth. Why they’re working as if their salvation depends upon it. But, of course, that is no longer their motivation since most of them are not followers of Calvin or believer in his doctrine. Then why are they doing it? Because, although the Puritans in their original form have faded into history, their attitudes, being ingrained in our culture, linger on.
It reminds me of an account by an anthropologist involving a tribe on the East Coast of Africa in which the women have stretched lips the size of a dinner plate. According to the anthropologist, the practice was begun centuries ago when Muslim Arab slave traders invaded villages to seize their young woman to be sold as concubines or prostitutes in Arabia.
In order to thwart the slave traders, the village decided to disfigure the young girls so as to make them unattractive. According to the anthropologist, as time passed and the slave trade diminished, the custom of lip-stretching became so entrenched in the culture, that it became associated with beauty and attractiveness. Men sought wives whose stretched lips came closest to the culture standard. Despite the pain and inconvenience of the practice, many of the women themselves defended it whenever it was suggested that it should be stopped. I suspect that this happens all the time with other practices that become institutionalized into cultures.
Social institutions often begin as logical solutions to social problems that, because of their success, get institutionalized and passed down from generation to generation. When this happens, they move from conscious awareness to subconscious cultural patterns and take on a life of their own. As a result whenever they are challenged, their attackers and defenders often either don’t remember or misinterpret their original purpose.
In our culture we can see this with the social institution of marriage, which could be defined as “a social institution created by the left hemisphere of the brain for the purpose of providing for the reproduction, care, training and rearing of children who are necessary for the future survival of the society.” Its logical purpose was to bring human sexual reproduction under rational control.
How many of us ever pondered why we, unlike dogs, cats, and other animals, are restricted in our sexual behavior by the institution of marriage? Zoologist, who view it simply from a logical perspective, say that it has to do with a condition known as “infantilism” that results in our children remaining infants for a longer period of time than other animals. Our children, they say, unlike other mammals, are born with soft wired brains in which many of the neural connections are unconnected at birth. The advantage is that the culture can complete the child’s wiring to fit the society into which he or she is born. The disadvantage is that the child takes longer to develop into maturity and thus remains dependent on others for a longer period of time. Other animals are born with hard wired brain in which most, if not all, the neural connections are completed at birth. The advantage is that almost from the start they are instinctually prepared to survive in their environment and do not need the long-term nurturing and training of our children. In most cases, the mother can take care of them by herself and, in some cases, even she is not needed. The disadvantage is that they have a much shorter developmental period and are locked into instinctual patterns for life.
Thus, as society became more complex, a social or legal commitment was needed to assure that the child was properly nurtured, taught, and socialized. Initially, marriage’s purpose was mainly functional and may have had little or nothing to do with the emotional bond between the parents. In many areas of the world,, even today, marriages are arranged by parents between couples who have never met each other. However, as time passed and the concept of the individual grew, the idea of personal choice and love became part of the mix. However, society, in line with the original intent of marriage, through its laws said that even if the love should fade, the social responsibility remained and passed laws involving child support and alimony.
Today, however, we see the institution of marriage being weakened and attacked on every side. The divorce rate has gone from “one in six” to “one in two” and one suspects that people no longer remember or understand the social function it was intended to serve. In other words, they get married for the wrong reason and with the wrong expectations. More and more we hear that the love or feelings that attracted the couple to each other has diminished or disappeared and they no longer are being fulfilled. The result is many children growing up in single-parent families and, if the rest of us didn’t pick up the responsibility for their care through social programs, the effects would be even more devastating.
Now that love, feelings, and personal fulfillment have replaced the original intent of marriage in the minds of many people, we are starting to talk as though anyone who loves or feels for another person has a claim to be married. Of course, this is an entirely new premise and if followed to its logical conclusion it would open up a social institution intended originally for the reproduction, care, training and rearing of children, for marital unions between all sorts of combination that formerly were either prohibited or excluded.
If the only condition is that you love the other person, there are many relationships that could meet this criteria, for example, brother with brother; sister with sister, parents with grown children, adults with minor children, etc…
This is what happens when a social institution or practice moves from a conscious logical solution to a social problem to a subconscious cultural pattern that no longer remembers it original purpose. Of course, one might ask what would be the motivating force for people in these relationships, such as brother to brother, to marry? In the past, society has granted certain perks, such as tax benefits, medical coverage etc…, to encourage and support marriage because of the society’s vested interest in the reproduction, care, and rearing of children who were necessary for its survival. If, on the other had, we assume that love or feelings for the other person is all that is required, and not sexual relations, then why couldn’t a brother marry a brother or a son marry a father to benefit from these perks? However, if sexual relations were required by the government or employers, the obvious question would be why? If love, and not the reproduction of children is the rationale for marriage, why should the government or businesses require sexual relations as a precondition for receiving the benefits? Why should a government or business discriminate against two brothers who loved each other but were not involved in sexual relations, while granting marriage and its benefits to two other males who were? Finally, what makes marriage the only way for receiving these benefits and perks? Tax and medical benefits, and inheritance laws can be passed and applied without requiring marriage. Thus we see today how a social institution, such as marriage, is unable to defend itself when people forget the real purpose.
Anyway, this is just an example of how social institutions evolve from the conscious to the subconscious level and how their original intent are often forgotten. We saw this in the Mercantilistic belief that “gold and silver” was the “wealth of a nation” instead of goods and services; in the lip-stretching practice of the East African tribe; in our own concept of marriage; and in American businessmen who, as “economic men” continue to operate like the followers of Calvin even though they don’t know him or believe in his teachings. Later, we will see this again in our current concept of the value and use of money, which as I mention in my first program was another invention of the left brain to solve a social problem.
Let me now return to John Calvin and the creation of “economic man.” Calvin, according to Professor Max Weber, created the religious paradigm for Capitalism. Later, it was referred to as “The Protestant Work Ethic” and “The Gospel of Wealth” and today we can hear radio and television preachers telling their congregations that God’s favor upon them will be exhibited by the wealth that he sends them. And that according to Professor Weber is how a change in the Christian paradigm resulted in Christians becoming supporters of Capitalism whose basic principles were initially totally at odds with their religious beliefs. Whether the religious change led to capitalism or the economic change cause the religious change is debatable.
Karl Marx, the philosopher of Communism, believed in a theory called “economic determinism” that held that the economic activity of any society determined all its other social institutions. Before describing his theory let me begin by defining economics so that we understand what it is. “Economics is a social institution created by the left lobe of the brain for the purpose of determining how the “means of production”, which are the raw materials, workers, tools, and managerial skills, will be used to produce the goods and services that a society needs and wants. Let me repeat that again more slowly… Economics is a social institution created by the left lobe of the brain for the purpose of determining how the “means of production”, which are the raw materials, workers, tools, and managerial skills will be used to produce the goods and services that a society needs and wants.” According to Marx’s theory how a society decides to do this will determine every other social institution in the society. Let me give you an example.
Suppose we are a band of nomadic people who are looking for a place to settle down. We are walking along a beach by the sea when we come upon an area of trees and lush vegetation. We stop and decide that this would be a good place to settle down. Now we have to make some economic decisions. How shall we use the raw materials that are available, such as, the trees, vegetation, and the sea itself.
If we decide to fish, we will cut down the trees to make boats, and use the vines to make nets. Our workers will be fishermen. Our tools will pertain to fishing and our leaders will help to organize us to fish. As a result the highest ranking males will be the best fishermen, whom our women will desire to marry , our children will be educated in fishing, and our religion will be built around Neptune, the Shark God, or some other being connected to the sea.,
If on the other hand we decide to be farmers all these things will be devoted to farming. Our highest ranking males will be he best farmers whom our women will desire to marry ; our children will be trained in farming, and our religion will be built around Mother Earth, the God of Fertility, or some other being connected to the crop.
But what if we decide to become warriors who will raid nearby communities and take what we want from them. In that case, all these things will be devoted to making weapons and war machines. Our leading males will be the greatest warriors whom our women will desire to marry; our children will be trained in warfare; and our religion will be built around Mars, the God of War or some other being connected to warfare.
The point that I am making is that all cultures are systems composed of inter-related parts and when one changes any part the change will rebound throughout the system. Whether religion determines the economy or the economy determines religion could be argued either way. It seems that the teachings of the Catholic Church had a great impact on the economic activity in pre-Capitalistic Europe. Yet, it also seems as though the adoption of a Capitalistic economic system laid the groundwork for Calvinistic religious principles. And one could also argue that both were just an extension of the individualistic spirit that began with the Renaissance, impacted religion in the Protestant Reformation, transformed government in the American and French Revolutions and continues to the present day in our emphasis on individual rights over corporate responsibility.
Whatever the case, Capitalism took root in the Protestant areas of Europe more than in the Catholic areas and proved both its supporter and opponents to be right. It really did create fantastic amounts of wealth through the goods and services it produced and, at the same time, often led to the harsh exploitation of our fellow human beings. Also, as any great societal changes will do, it created great dislocation for the people involved as the implications of the change rebounded throughout society.
A new type of human being was in the making who was operating according to new principles and premises. According to Professor Heilbroner, the serf of the medieval manor who was tied to the land, had to become a roving modern worker looking for a job and the lords of the manor, with their traditional responsibility to the serfs and the land, had to become businessmen who viewed the land as a money-making enterprise.
In my next program, I will explore some of the changes that came about and how, as time passed, it raised new responses to deal with the issues raised by the changes. But, I see that my time is up.