Lesson 79- Calvinism and Economic Man
In my last program I talked about Karl Marx’s theory of “economic determinism” which says that the economy of any society will determine the nature of all other social institutions. Then I showed how the political structure of Europe changed as the business class rose in wealth and influence while the nobility class declined in both. Thus, the Divine Right of Kings theory, which was the Thesis upon which political power rested during the Middle Ages, was replaced by the Social Contract Theory, which is the basis for all democratic republican forms of government, including our own. Notice that this theory is based on a contract, a business term, between the people and their leaders which can be cancelled whenever the government fails to live up to its obligations. This is the theory that Thomas Jefferson inserted into the Declaration of Independence where he says that government exist through the consent of the governed and whenever the government fails to protect the rights of the people they can change it and replace it with one that will.
From Marx’s point of view, this is just an illustration of how when economic power changes so does political power. According to him, this new theory, which replaced kings with democratic republican governments, was invented merely to allow the business class to assume political power to match their economic power.
However, political theory was not the only thing that changed. Religion and other social institutions also changed to match the new economic theory. The Church, which was the major cultural influence during the Middle Ages, insisted that Christians apply moral principles to every area of their lives, including their economic activities. According to the Church, the merchant had a moral obligation to charge a fair price, which was defined as a price as close as possible to his own “cost of production.” The employer had a moral obligation to pay a “fair wage” which was the amount of money that his employee needed to feed himself and his family. The worker had a moral obligation to give his employer a full-days work for a full days pay. And everybody was suppose to act charitably towards those in need. Never would it be permissible for anyone to gain an economic advantage due to the hardship of another person. And the charging of interest on money lent to another person was considered to be the sin of usury. And, finally, the making of money and the accumulation of wealth for its own sake was, at the very least, a “near occasion of sin” because it involved the person too much in the needs and desires of this world and threatened his eternal salvation. Saints were known for their rejection of worldly interests and pleasures and members of religious orders, who were seeking greater sanctity, took vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience. The Catholic idea of a religious person was Mother Theresa of Calcutta not John D. Rockefeller. And yet it was people like Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan who would become the role models for this new economic system.
Obviously, the Catholic Church, which considered that everyone had a moral obligation to treat others fairly, was incompatible with the new economic theory of Capitalism that was amoral and based on self-interest and competition. Under its theory, no one had any moral obligation in his economic transaction except to seek the best deal possible. A fair price according to the theory of Capitalism is the price that I was willing to charge and that you are willing to pay. If I am charging $20 for something that cost me only $5 to produce and you are willing to pay it, then, according to Capitalism, that’s a fair price. By the same token, a fair wage is what I am willing to pay and what you are willing to take. As your employer, it is not my concern whether your salary is enough to feed your family. And, if I can get someone to work for less money than you, then I will fire you and hire him. As the employee, you have no moral obligation to me the employer to seek only a fair wage based on what is needed to support your family. Rather, you should seek to get as much as you can for as little work as possible. And, if someone else offers you a higher wage that I am, then you should leave me to work for him. And, if the businessman or merchant is under no moral obligation to charge me a price as close as possible to his cost of production, then, I, as a consumer, am under no moral obligation to pay him a fair price. If, because of hard time, he is forced to sell his product for less than it cost him, then I should take advantage of this opportunity by trying to get it at the lowest price possible. In this economic system, self-interest and profit trumps moral obligation, compassion, loyalty or any other consideration for our fellow human beings.
A new type of man, which economic theorists referred to as “economic man” had to replace the “non-economic man” of the Middle Ages. John D. Rockefeller had to replace St. Francis of Assisi. As one author put it when referring to the change in human outlook required by this new economic theory, the barnyard, domesticated creatures of the Middle Ages who had been brought up under the Christian moral system, had to be replaced by the wild creatures of the jungle.
And yet Christianity was deeply ingrained in the history and traditions of Europe and would have required major surgery to remove. The easier path was to transform Christian morality and mentality to match the needs of the new economic system. A new religious outlook was needed that morally justified the accumulation of wealth through the reinvestment of it as capital into business enterprises. What was needed was a new type of man: a man who act against his basic nature.
Throughout most of history, human beings in general, and primitive people in particular, worked because they had to in order to satisfy their basic needs and wants. And, whenever these were satisfied they would relax and “take it easy.” In this way they were like animals who hunt when they are hungry and relax when they are not. For example, when the United States built the Panama Canal, they hired primitive Indians to help dig the canal. However, they soon discovered that although they worked well during the week, as soon as they were paid, they disappeared for weeks. Eventually, after their paychecks had been spent, they came back to work. They could not understand why anyone would work so long as they had enough money to buy what they needed.
Economists refer to them as “non-economic man” because their attitude is subsistent and existential. The idea of making more than you could use or working more than you had to was foreign to them and thus a new type of human being was necessary if Capitalism was to succeed. What was needed was a “working fool” who would work from sunrise to sunset, live a frugal life in order to save the money that he made, and then invested it, as capital, in other money making ventures even though he already had more money than he needed. Of course, that’s what capitalism is all about, the making of money for “money’s sake.” Economists refer to this new type of person as an “economic man” who, by definition, would continue to work even after his basic needs and wants were satisfied. But how could Europe create such a person when it contradicted everything that the Catholic Church taught? Obviously, a new religious outlook was necessary, if Capitalism was going to succeed.
As I ended my last program, I had just begun to describe how John Calvin and the Presbyterian religion provided that moral justification for an “economic man.” Calvin, you might remember, taught that God had predestined everyone from the moment of conception for either heaven or hell and that neither “faith” nor “works” could save you from your predetermined fate. His followers, who lived a very strict and severe life under a theocracy in Geneva Switzerland, eventually ask for a sign so that they would know for certain that they were among those who had been predestined to go to heaven. The sign that John Calvin gave them was “economic success.” If they worked hard, saved their money by living simple and austere lives, and accumulated great wealth, it was a sign from God of their salvation.
Later, this would become known as “The Gospel of Wealth” and even today we can hear preachers, who may never have heard of predestination or John Calvin, telling their congregations that their own personal wealth and the wealth of those who followed their preaching were signs of God’s favor upon them. Of course, according to this formula, St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa wouldn’t have “made the team.”
What Calvin’s answer would produce is a deeply religious man who would work from sunrise to sunset accumulating wealth as a sign and assurance of his salvation. Yet, despite his wealth, he would live a very plain and frugal life. Wealth to him was important for its religious significance. Therefore, he saved his money and reinvested it in enterprises that would make him more money. Of course, this is the definition of Capitalism since money that is invested is called “capital.” In a sense, he would never have enough money since every dollar earned indicated his “Blessed Assurance” that he was among God’s elect. Therefore, he devoted all of his energies to amassing a larger and larger fortune that he reinvested to make even more. Before you knew it, he dominated all of his competitors in whatever area of the economy he entered. To his competitors he appeared hard, unscrupulous, uncaring and even vicious. Yet, in his personal behavior, he held himself to strict moral laws and he often applied the same hard rules to others. He had little compassion for “free loaders” and believed that each person should earn his own bread by the “sweat of his brow.” He was a hard worker and he expected everyone to be one too. Both John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are examples of this new man. They amassed large fortunes through tough business practices and then gave much of it away through charitable foundations.
This “economic man” was very time conscious because, in his view, “time was money.” Thus, he lived his life according to a strict schedule. There was a time to get up, a time to go to work, a time to eat, and a time to sleep. Therefore, he was addicted to clocks and always carried one so that he would know where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing. He was very punctual and he expected others to be “on time” too. In short, he exhibited most of the qualities of the left lobe of the human brain. In fact both “non-economic man” and “economic man” are examples of the characteristics of the right and left lobes of the brain. Let me explain.
Everything that we know exists “somewhere” at “some time” and that is because the two lobes of the human brain represent the two major categories of our reality: space and time. The artistic, creative right lobe is very good at things that are spatial and, therefore, excels in things like puzzles, sports, dancing, fashion designing, interior decorating, etc.. It likes the “Big Pictures” and dislikes details and time schedules. It’s a “free spirit” that acts spontaneously and impulsively. It is the champion of freedom and creativity and it dislikes any limitations or censorship. It creates just for the joy of creating. If it were to build a car, it would custom design it and treat it like a work of art that expressed its own inner vision. It is responsible for everything that is “form” or appearance. Its criteria is how a thing looks, smell, feels, or taste.
On the other hand, the left lobe is logical, linear and temporal. It is very good at logical planning, detailed analysis, linear step-by-step construction, making rules and laws, and anything involving time… It likes details and its skills are in engineering, science, mathematics, bookkeeping, law, “time management”, and “efficiency.” Where the right lobe would prefer to create a beautiful picture simply for the sake of beauty, the left lobe, which is goal directed, would prefer to create a machine that, through a “step-by-step” process is able to perform a function from start to finish. If it were going to build a car, it would create an assembly line in which each part of the car would be “mass produced” and assembled piece by piece by separate workers on the assembly line. It is the champion of “law, order, and structure” and is the source of “function.” It’s criteria is “how does a thing work?”
Thus, the two qualities found in every created things- form and function- are reflections of the right and left hemisphere of the brain. Theologically we might conclude they are also two aspects of the Holy Trinity. The Father, who is the Artistic Genius who envisioned the universe in His Mind, is the source of beauty or form. The Son, who is the Logos of Logical Craftsman, is the source of logical construction or function. The Holy Spirit is the Synthesis between the two who blends “form” with “function” so that the beauty of the flower plays a part in attracting insects to it who assist in transmitting pollen to other flowers for “cross pollination.”
We could also relate this to primary and secondary purposes by observing that the logical function of anything, which is its goal, is its primary purpose and those things related to form are secondary purposes. Thus, the primary purpose of food, or its real function, is to provide nutrition to the body. Its taste and appearance, which are related to form, are secondary purposes. And, as St. Thomas said, “secondary purposes are alright so long as they help or at least don’t interfere with primary purposes. In other words, form is alright so long as it helps or doesn’t interfere with function. Thus, the most beautiful and efficient things are those that create the proper balance between “form” and “function.” To the degree that the proper balance is disturbed, it decreases in true beauty.
Anyway, to return to my major point concerning the relationship between John Calvin, the Presbyterian church and the rise of Capitalism, we can still see remnants of the older view and the effect of this new theology in our world today.
Wherever this new theology took root, business and industrialization boomed. And wherever it didn’t they either didn’t develop or they developed at a much slower pace. Another way of putting this is wherever this form of Protestantism developed the spirit of Capitalism flourished and wherever it didn’t, the older spirit dominated. Thus, the United States, which was settled in the Northeast by the Pilgrims and Puritans, who belonged to the Calvinistic tradition, became a center for business, trade, manufacturing, and industrialization. The Yankee Trader became a symbol for this area and eventually it permeated our entire culture until today we are a prime example of the new “economic man” who never rests or never seems to have enough money. Once the attitude is incorporated into the culture, it doesn’t matter whether we believe in Calvinism or predestination because the attitude takes on a life of its own. I doubt that Donald Trump views his economic success as a symbol of his salvation.
However, even in this country it is the Northeastern states rather than the Southern or Midwestern states who are most identified with this frenzied type of economic activity and, when we compare the United States as a whole with the Catholic areas of Latin America we see the stark difference between “non-economic man” and “economic man.”
In fact, we may be the most advanced form of “economic man” in the world because most Americans when they visit Europe or other areas of the world are struck by the slower pace of life and most foreigners who visit the United States comment on the hectic pace of life.
However, this is all a matter of degrees because even in Europe one can see the difference between Protestant and Catholic areas. Protestant areas, in general, tend to be more business-minded and Catholic areas tend to be less. For example, the Germans, Scandanavians, and the Swiss are more identified with industry and technology than are the Italians and the Spanish, who emphasize “La Doce Vita” or the “Good Life”.
I once met a teacher who had emigrated from the Soviet Union. However, on his way here, he lived in Europe for a few years. He told me that one of the major differences that he noticed between Europeans and American was that if you gave a European more time, he would use it to vacation or spend more time with his family. If you gave an American more time, he would probably get himself a second job. In other words, the Europeans placed more emphasis on personal relationship than on money or work.
Another teacher made the same point in a different way. Although he was born an raised in the United States, early in his adulthood he had been attracted to Europe and he eventually settled down in Spain where be bought a house and opened a restaurant. Every summer, when school ended, he left for Spain.
Later, I learned that he had sold the restaurant and I asked him if it had been a financial failure. He said “No! Business was great!” “Then why did you give it up?” I asked. He said, “ I couldn’t deal with the mentality of the Spanish repairmen. My freezer broke down and I had over a thousand dollars of food in it. I called a refrigeration repairmen and told him that if it wasn’t repaired immediately, everything would spoil. He told me “Manana!” or “Tomorrow!” The next day came, and he didn’t show. I called again and was told once again “Manana!” The same thing happened the next day. By this time, everything was spoiled and I was out over a thousand dollars.” Well, I said, maybe this was an isolated case.” “No!” he said, “it’s a typical Spanish attitude. They have no respect for time. If a Spanish businessman makes an appointment with you for one o’clock don’t bother to arrive until one forty-five.” “Why?” I asked. “Because if the guy who has the appointment before you gets talking to him about his family, the bull-fights, or soccer, they’ll continue talking for as long as it takes to finish the topic.” I said, “ In other words, the personal takes precedence the impersonal. Relationships are more important than business?” “Yes,” he said. “In fact the same thing is true in Italy. No Italian would think of working past noon on Friday. Nor would he think of coming to work before noon on Monday. And, if he can find a good reason to take Wednesday off, he will.”
Obviously, both of these countries are known for their Catholic traditions and, even France, whose Catholicism is of a weaker strain, closes down for a full month while the whole country goes on vacation.
England, on the other hand, was Protestant and the home of the Puritans who were among the original settlers of this country. It was also a major force in the Industrial Revolution that hit the Western world in the 1800’s and Adam Smith, the philosopher of Capitalism, was from Scotland. Therefore, it was a showcase of the best and worst of Capitalism. It’s industrial production made it one of the most powerful nations in the world despite the fact that England itself was a mere island that shrank in comparison to nations like India and China. And yet, this little island came to dominate both of them.
However, if one wants to see the downside of Capitalism all he has to do is to read some of Charles Dickens novels, like Oliver Swift, to get a pretty gruesome picture of the urban dirt and grim that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the social decay in cities like London. In the 1840’s the England Parliament held hearing concerning the condition of workers, especially children, at that time. The record reads like a Dicken’s novel. Testimony taken from witnesses and the children themselves told of children working 16 hour days in the mines, mills, and factories from the age of four on and under condition that would and should have offended the conscience of any feeling human being. In one case a young boy testified to how he had been sold by his destitute mother to a nearby mill where he lived 24 hours a day. The workday began at four o’clock in the morning and ended at eleven o’clock at night. He tried to run away but was caught and beaten with a whip when he was returned to the mill. Young girls told of working in the mines with grown men who were totally naked and testified to the sexual abuse to which they were subjected. Often they remained uneducated and had no knowledge of Jesus or Christianity. Women told of performing heavy duties in the same mines almost up to the day that they delivered their babies.
When one reads these accounts, he begins to wonder where the Christians were especially the organized churches. In truth, some of them were involved in efforts to reform the system. Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical condemning the abuses of the working class by the business class and called upon all Christians to apply Christian morality to their economic dealings. But there was also a “silent majority” that seemed to be indifferent to what was happening. And there were others who profited from it.
As we will see later, it was these types of conditions which led Karl Marx , who lived in England during this time, and Fredrick Engel to write the Communist Manifesto as an antithesis to Capitalism. From Marx’s point of view, this was another example of the historical process of the “haves” oppressing and taking advantage of the “have nots” and the only solution to it was for the “workers of the world to unite” because “they had nothing to lose but their chains” and to join him and other Communists in the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie business class, the seizure of the factories and other means of production, the elimination of “private property” and all social classes, and the creation of a worker’s paradise in which everyone will “work according to his ability and receive according to his need.”
To the secular humanist who sympathized with the goals of the French Revolution, this was the continuation of its aims and objectives: a secular state in which religion would be eliminated or greatly curtailed where the state assumed the responsibility for the well being of all its citizens.
In previous programs, I mentioned that John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is an artistic blueprint of this dream, and today we see the reality of it played out in Cuba, Vietnam, China, and the former Soviet Union and its former satellites.
Those who bought into his theory organized Communist cells with the intent of infiltrating the existing systems by placing themselves in influential position where they could shape the policies of the government and the attitudes of the people and by joining every revolutionary movement, not\ matter what its cause or aims, with the intent of eventually seizing control of it and steering it towards the aims of a Communist Revolution.
When one looks at the conditions in the early stages of Capitalism, it is hard not to sympathize with them because what was happening was just as offensive to Christian morality as it was to the human sentiments of the secular humanists. However, because these things were happening in so-called Christian nations by so-called Christians, and because too often Christians were silent or ineffective in opposing the abuses, the secular humanists believed and were effective in convincing others that “religion” in the words of Marx, “ was the opiate of the people.” In other words, it drugged them or put them to sleep so that they failed to respond to the injustices in this world. Or to put it another way, “it made them so heavenly minded, they were of no earthly good because it promised them pie in the sky rather than bread on earth”. Unfortunately, there was an element of truth to the charges and that is why Pope John XXIII apologized to non-believers and believers alike about the sins of omission and commission of our ancestors.
Too often the official teachings of the Church were ignored by the clergy and the laity alike and this gave the impression that they supported the existing system either by their lack of action or by the fact that they sometimes became associated with those who were guilty of the offenses. This is what was happening in Latin America, where the gap between the rich and poor is often tremendous. Unfortunately, the hierarchy of the Church often became socially identified with the rich and powerful and was less than vocal in it demand that a more equal distribution of the wealth should take place. As a result, many of the poor fell under the influence of Communist guerilla movements because they seemed to be the only ones speaking about social justice. Eventually, a movement known as “liberation theology” developed among some nuns and priests in response to the criticism. The movement found favor with the Vatican until some of them crossed the line by aiding Communists revolutionaries who were trying to violently overthrow the government. When this happened the Pope spoke out against it not because of the “ends” that it was seeking but rather for the “means” that it was using.
The Church, as in most cases, finds itself sitting midway between two opposing positions. There are things about Communism that it can accept and there are other things that it must reject. For example, it can accept many of the social justice issues that the Communists support but it can never accept its atheistic and anti-religious attitudes. Nor can it accept the elimination of “private property” and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the leaders of a super-welfare state where the rights of the individual are subjugated to the agenda of the state.
However, its attitude towards Capitalism is the same. Because Capitalism is based on competition and the laws of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest, it is part of Natural Law. In other words, the competition in nature that results in natural balances is part of the Divine Plan and a reflection of Divine Wisdom. Thus, winners have a natural right to what they win and losers must accept the consequences of their losing ways. Thus, as a defender of Natural Law, the Church is philosophically committed to the individuals right to private property. Yet, at the same time, the Church recognizes that this system was designed for arational beings who lacked the ability of rational thought and it is too harsh for rational beings who can accomplish the same results through less harsh means. Thus, without eliminating the individuals right to keep what he has earned, it encourages him to freely share what he has earned with those who are less fortunate through charitable efforts. At the same time, it reminds its members that part of the Gospel message includes a demand for “social justice” by reminding both employers and employees that they both have moral obligations towards each other.
Another feature that the Church finds attractive about Capitalism is that it is a free system that keeps power and wealth decentralized by distributing them among many competing groups, which, like nature, leads to a “balance of power.” Thus Capitalism is based on the Principle of Subsidiarity which says that the smallest group in society that is capable of handling a problem should take responsibility for it. The shoemaker should take the responsibility for making shoes, not the government.
However, the most powerful group in a Capitalistic system, although they often don’t realize it, is the consumers who through their purchasing power are able to shift the entire direction of the culture. Since Capitalism itself is amoral, whatever morality it reflects at all must be either the morality of the producer or the consumer.
In the early days of Capitalism, we have example of owners of business, known as “enlightened Capitalist, who felt a moral obligation towards the welfare of their workers. A prime example is Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey chocolate, who created the town of Hershey Pennsylvania. He plowed his profits back into housing, schools, orphanages, hospitals, and even an amusement park, for his workers. However, he was an exception rather than the rule. Thus, when we are looking for a moral component in Capitalism, it is to the consumer that we must look. Nothing reflects the moral quality, or lack of it, of the consumer than a Capitalistic economy. And, in the final analysis, it is what makes Capitalism the “economy of choice”.
Later on I will have more to say about this. However, before that I would like to turn to Karl Marx’s critique on Capitalism as found in the Communist Manifesto. If you want to know what’s wrong with anything always ask its opponent.
Well, I see that my time is up. Here’s Dom.