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Capitalism as Monstrous Religion
Capitalism produces guilt, despair, and an iron cage, according to an unusual group of thinkers reading Weber during the Weimar period in Germany. Bloch, Benjamin, Lukacs, and Fromm are discussed.
By Michael Löwy
Editor's Note: Any effort to formulate a Protestant Public Theology for current times must incorporate within itself the stinging critique of both capitalism and Protestantism as represented in the writing of the sociologist Max Weber and his interpreters. To the degree that Protestantism has historically undergirded and supported capitalism it must examine itself and its fundamental assumptions in order to relate itself helpfully to political and economic realities five hundred years since the Reformation period, and more than two hundred years since the invention of the nation called the United States of America. Today most of the major Protestant denominations have come to be critical of the way capitalism and its primary institutions, business corporations, have come to nearly totally dominate the social and political life of the nation. To a large degree, these institutions now dominate the culture of the country, that is, through the media the corporation controls the belief systems of the people, their values, their identities, and their conscious emotional life. Capitalism has taken over the function of a "religion" in previous epochs. The article below points to intellectuals in the early 20th century who began to see the connections between capitalism and religion. These individuals should be viewed as resources for the formulation of a Protestant Public Theology for today. This article appeared in the Logos Journal.
This paper will try to analyze a curious intellectual phenomena: a group of Jewish-German authors that developed, during the Weimar Republic, a radical anti-capitalist and anti-protestant argument, directly inspired by Weber’s Protestant Ethic. They did not hesitate to denounce capitalism as a sort of diabolic religion (Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin), or as the product of the evil ethical tendencies of Calvinism (Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm).
Max Weber admired the protestant ethic as one of the great moments in the disenchantment of religion, and its transformation from magic rituals into an ethical life-conduct. His attitude towards capitalism is more ambivalent and contradictory. One could say that he is divided between his identity as a bourgeois which fully supports German capitalism and its imperial power, and his stature as an intellectual, sensitive to the arguments of the Romantic anti-capitalist Zivilisationskritik so influential among the German academic mandarins at the beginning of the 20th century. From this viewpoint, he could be compared to another split — if not schizophrenic — German bourgeois/intellectual: Walther Rathenau, Prussian and Jew, capitalist entrepreneur and sharp critic of the mechanical civilization.
Rejecting any socialist idea, Weber does not hesitate, on some occasions, to use apologetic arguments in defense of capitalism, in its relation to protestant ethics. This is particularly obvious in his description, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, of the origins of capitalism as the result of Protestant work ethic, i.e. the combination of hard work, methodic economic activity, frugal life and the reinvestment of savings: a description which is very close to the idealized self-image of the bourgeois!
Usually he seems to lean towards a resigned acceptance of bourgeois civilization, not as desirable, but as inevitable. However, in some key texts, which had a very significant impact on 20th century thought, he gives free rein to a insightful, pessimistic and radical critique of the paradoxes of capitalist rationality. Obviously, the issues raised by Weber are quite different from those of Marx. Weber ignores exploitation, is not interested in economic crisis, has little sympathy for the struggles of the proletariat, and does not question colonial expansion. However, influenced by the Romantic or Nietzschean Kulturpessimismus, he perceives a deep contradiction between the requirements of the formal modern rationality — of which bureaucracy and private enterprise are concrete manifestations — and those of the acting subject’s autonomy. Distancing himself from Enlightenment’s rationalist tradition, he is sensitive to the contradictions and limits of modern rationality, as it expresses itself in capitalist economy and state administration: its formal and instrumental character and its tendency to produce effects that lead to the reversal of the emancipatory aspirations of modernity. The search for calculation and efficiency at any price leads to the bureaucratization and reification of human activities. This diagnosis of modernity’s crisis will be, to a large extent, taken over by the Frankfurt School in its first period (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse).
What is striking in Weber’s pessimistic/resigned assessment of modernity is its refusal of the illusions of progress which were so powerful in the European consciousness at the beginning of the 20th century. This pessimism is inseparable from a critical view of the nature itself of capitalism and its dynamics of rationalisation/modernisation.
One can distinguish two aspects — intimately linked between them — in Weber’s critique of the substance itself of the capitalist system:
The inversion between means and ends. For the spirit of capitalism – intimately linked to the protestant ethic - of which Benjamin Franklin is an ideal-typical figure — almost chemically pure! — to win money, to gather more and more money (to accumulate capital would say Marx) is the supreme good and the ultimate aim in life:
“The pursuit of riches is fully stripped of all pleasurable, and surely all hedonistic aspects. Accordingly, this striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself — to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational, at least when viewed from the perspective of the ‘happiness’ or ‘utility’ of the single individual. Here, people are oriented to acquisition as the purpose of life: acquisition is no longer viewed as a means to the end of satisfying the substantive needs of life. Those people in possession of spontaneous (unbefangene) dispositions experience this situation as an absolutely meaningless reversal of ‘natural’ conditions (as we would say today). Yet, this reversal constitutes just as surely a guiding principle of [modern] capitalism as incomprehension of this new situation characterizes all who remain untouched by [modern] capitalism’s tentacles.”
Supreme expression of modern aim-oriented rationality — Weber’s Zweckrationalität or, according to the Frankfurt School, instrumental rationality — capitalist economy reveals itself, from the viewpoint of the “substantive needs of life.” or of human happiness, as ″simply irrational″ or ″absolutely meaningless.″ Weber returns several times to this issue in The Protestant Ethic, always insisting on the irrationality — his emphasis — of the logic of capitalist accumulation: a comparison between the spirit of capitalism and economic traditionalism — for whom work is simply ″indispensable to life″ — ″renders obvious the irrationality, from the viewpoint of one’s personal happiness, of this way of organising life : people live for their business rather than the reverse.″
Of course Weber believes that this ″absurd″ and "irrational″ system has its own formidable rationality: his remarks show nevertheless a deep critical distance towards the spirit of capitalism. Obviously two forms of rationality are in conflict here: one, the Zweckrationalität, purely formal and instrumental, whose only aim is, in capitalism, production for production, accumulation for accumulation, money for money; the other, more substantial, which corresponds to the — pre-capitalist — ″natural conditions,″ and refers to values (Wertrationalität) such as : people’s happiness, the satisfaction of their needs.
This definition of capitalism as irrational is not without certain affinities with Marx’ ideas. The subordination of the aim — the human being — to the means — the enterprise, money, commodity — is an argument that comes very near to the Marxist concept of alienation. Weber was conscious of this similarity, and refers to it in his 1918 conference on Socialism: ″All this [the impersonnal functioning of capital] is what socialism defines as the ‘domination of things over the human beings.’ which means: the means over the aim (the satisfaction of the needs).″ This explains, by the way, why Lukacs’ theory of reification in History and Class Consciousness (1923) is based on both Marx and Weber.
2) The submission to an all powerful mechanism, the emprisonment in a system which oneself has created. This issue is intimately related to the former one, but it emphasizes the loss of freedom, the decline of individual autonomy. The locus classicus of this criticism is to be found in the last paragraphs of The Protestant Ethic, doubtless the most famous and influential passage of Weber’s work — and one of the rare moments where he permitted himself what he calls ″value and faith judgements.″ Again, the role of the protestant ethic in the origin of this process is taken into account.
First of all Weber considers, with a resigned nostalgia, that the triumph of the modern capitalist spirit requires the ″renunciation of the Faustian multi-dimensionality of the human species.″ The acknowledgment of the rise of the bourgeois era has, for Goethe — as for Weber — the meaning of a "farewell to an era of full and beautiful humanity.″
On the other hand, capitalist rationality creates a more and more constraining and coercive context: ″The Puritan wanted to be a person with a vocational calling; today we are forced to be.″ The modern — capitalist — economic order, with its technical conditions of mechanical and machine production, ″determines the style of life of all individuals born into it, not only those directly engaged in earning a living.″ This constraint, Weber compares it with a sort of prison, or ″iron cage,″ where the system of rational production encloses the individuals: ″According to Baxter [a Puritan preacher — ML] the concern for material goods should lie upon the shoulders of his saints like ‘a lightweight coat that could be thrown off at any time.’ Yet fate allowed a steel-hard casing (stahlhartes Gehäuse) to be forged from this coat.″
The expression became famous. It strikes by its tragic resignation, but also by its critical dimension. There are different interpretations or translations for the words sthahlhartes Gehäuse: for some it is a ″casing″ for others a ″shell″ or a ″cell.″ But is is probable that Weber borrowed the image of an ″iron cage of despair″ from the English Puritan poet Bunyan. In any case, it seems to describe, in The Protestant Ethic, the reified structures of capitalist economy as a sort of steel-hard prison — rigid, cold and pitiless.
Weber’s pessimism leads him to fear the end of all values and ideals, and the advent, under the aegis of modern capitalism, of a ″mechanized ossification, embellished with a sort of rigidly compelled sense of self-importance.″ He foresees the process of reification as extending, from the economic sphere, to all areas of social life: politics, law, culture.
Soon after Weber’s death, there appears in the Weimar Republic an intellectual constellation - essentially composed of Jewish authors of German culture - which one could describe as the anti-capitalist - as well as, to a large extent, anti-protestant, or anti-calvinist - readings of Max Weber. This sort of interpretation must be considered, to a large extent, as a creative "misappropriation" : these dissident “disciples” will use the ambivalent arguments of the Protestant Ethic in order to develop a virulent anti-capitalist critique, of socialist/romantic inspiration.
The first star in this constellation is Ernst Bloch, who had taken part, in the years 1912-14, in Max Weber’s circle of friends which met every Sunday at his home in Heidelberg. It is Bloch that « invented », in his Thomas Münzer from 1921, the expression “capitalism as religion” (Kapitalismus als religion), a theological disaster whose moral responsibility he squarely places on the shoulders of Calvinism. The witness called for to sustain this accusation is none else than ...Max Weber: among Calvin’s followers, says Bloch, « thanks to the abstract duty to work, production unfolds in a harsh and systematic way, since the ideal of poverty, applied by Calvin only to consumption, contributes to the formation of capital. The obligation of saving is imposed on wealth, conceived as an abstract quantity which is an aim in itself requiring growth. (…) As Marx Weber has brilliantly shown, the capitalist economy in development is totally emancipated, detached, liberated from all qualms (Skrupel) of primitive Christianity, as well as well as of all relatively Christian aspects of the economic ideology of the Middle-Ages.” Weber’s « axiologically neutral » analysis of the rôle of Calvinism in the rise of the capitalist spirit becomes, in the words of Ernst Bloch - a sui-generis Marxist fascinated by Catholicism - a ferocious attack on capitalism and its protestant origins…
Among Walter Benjamin unpublished papers which came out in 1985, edited by Ralph Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser in volume VI of the Gesammelte Schriften (Suhrkamp Verlag), the fragment “Capitalism as religion” is one of his most intriguing, but also most interesting pieces. It is made of only three or four pages, including notes and bibliographical references; dense, paradoxical, sometimes hermetic, it was not intended for publication and is not easily deciphered.
The title of the fragment is directly borrowed from Ernst Bloch’s above mentioned Thomas Münzer, theologian of revolution (1921). We know that Benjamin read this book, because in a letter to Gershom Scholem from November 27, 1921 he told his friend : « Recently he [Bloch] gave me, during his first visit here, the complete proofs of his ‘Münzer’ and I’ve begun to read it.” This means that the date when the fragment was written is not exactly « at latest in the middle of 1921 », as the editors indicate in a note, but rather «at the soonest at the end of 1921 ». By the way, Benjamin did not at all share the views of his friend about a Calvinist/Protestant treason of the true spirit of Christianity…
Benjamin’s fragment is visibly inspired by Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; it is twice mentioned, once in the body of the text, and then in the bibliographical notes, which include the 1920 edition of the Gesammelte Aufsätze sur Religionssoziologie, as well as Ernst Troeltsch’s book, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (1912) - a work that develops, concerning the origins of capitalism, similar theses as Weber. However, as we shall see, Benjamin’s argument goes well beyond Weber, and, above all, it substitutes his “value free” (Wertfrei) analysis by a passionate anti-capitalist attack.
«One must see capitalism as a religion»: it is with this categorical statement that the fragment opens. It is followed by a reference, but at the same time a critical comment, to Max Weber’s thesis : « To demonstrate the religions structure of capitalism - i.e. to demonstrate that it is not only a formation conditioned by religion, as Weber thinks, but an essentially religious phenomena – would take us today into the meanders of a boundless universal polemic.» Further on, the same idea appears again, in a somewhat attenuated form, in fact nearer to the Weberian argument: “Christianity, at the time of the Reformation, did not favor the establishment of capitalism, it transformed itself into capitalism”. This is not so far from the conclusions of The Protestant Ethic… What is new is the idea of the properly religious nature of the capitalist system itself : this goes well beyond Weber, even if it is based on many aspects of his analysis.
Both dimensions are visible in his discussion on the main characteristics of the “religious structure of capitalism”. Benjamin does not quote Weber in this context, but his presentation is nourished by the ideas and arguments of the German sociologist, giving them however a new meaning, infinitely more critical, more radical – socially, politically and philosophically (theologically?) – and in contradiction with the Weberian thesis of secularization.
The first decisive trait of the capitalist religion is that is “a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extremely cultic that ever existed. Nothing has meaning in it that is not immediately related to the cult, it has no specific dogma nor theology. Utilitarianism wins in it, from this viewpoint, its religious coloration ».
In other words : the utilitarian practices of capitalism - capital investment, speculations, financial operations, stock-exchange manipulations, selling and buying commodities - have the meaning of a religious cult. Capitalism does not require the acceptance of a creed, a doctrine or a theology, what counts are the actions, which take the form, by their social dynamics, of cult practices.
But what is that permits one to assimilate this economic capitalist practices to a religious “cult”? Benjamin does not explain it, but he uses, a few lines bellow, the word “adorator”; one can therefore suppose that, for him, the capitalist cult includes some divinities which are the object of adoration. For instance: “Comparison between the images of saints in different religions and the bank notes of different states”. Money, in the form of paper-notes, would therefore be the object of a cult similar to the one of saints in “ordinary” religions. It is interesting to notice that, in a passage of One-Way Stree (t928), Benjamin compares the bank notes with the “façade-architecture of Hell” (Fassaden-architektur der Hölle) which manifests “the holy spirit of seriousness” of capitalism. Let us remember also that on the door - or the façade – of Dante’s hell there is the famous inscription: « voi ch’entrate, lasciate cui ogni speranza » ; according to Marx, these were the words inscribed by the capitalist at the entrance of the factory, for the instruction of his workers. As we shall see below, despair is for Benjamin the religious state of the world under capitalism.
The second decisive trait of capitalism, which is intimately linked to its concrete cult nature is that « the duration of the cult is permanent”. Capitalism is “the celebration of a cult sans trêve et sans merci. There are no ‘ordinary days’, no days which are not holidays, in the terrible meaning of the deployment of sacred pomp, of the extreme tension which inhabits the adorer”. Benjamin has probably once more taken his cue from Weber’s Protestant Ethic, which emphasizes the methodic rules of behavior imposed by Calvinism/Capitalism, the permanent control of life conduct, and the “religious value set on restless, continuous, and systematic work in a vocational calling”.
Restless, continuous, sans trêve et sans merci: Weber’s idea is absorbed by Benjamin, almost with the same words; not without irony however, when speaking of the permanent « holidays » : in fact, the Puritan capitalists suppressed most of the Catholic holidays, considered as a form of idleness. Therefore, in the capitalist religion, every days sees the deployment of the “sacred pomp”, i.e. the rituals of Stock-Exchange or Finance, while the adorers follow, with anguish and an « extreme tension », the rise and fall of the share values. Capitalist practices do not know any pause, they rule over the life of the individuals from morning to evening, from Spring to Winter, from the cradle to the tomb. As Burkhardt Lindner comments, Benjamin’s fragment borrows from Weber the conception of capitalism as a dynamic system in global expansion, an iron destiny to which no one seems able to escape.
Benjamin continues his damnation of the capitalist religion with the following discourse:
"In this way, capitalism is thrown into a monstrous movement. A monstrously guilty consciousness which does not know how to expiate, takes possession of the cult, not in order to atone for [expiate] this guilt, but in order to universalize it, to introduce it forcefully in consciousness, and above all, in order to involve God in this guilt, so that he himself has finally an interest in expiation”. Benjamin mentions, in this context, what he calls “the daemonic ambiguity of the word Schuld” - which means at the same time “debt” and “guilt”.
One can find in Max Weber similar arguments, which also play with the connexions between economic debt, moral duty and religious guilt: for the Puritan bourgeois, "what he spends for his personal aims is stolen from the service of God’s glory"; one becomes therefore at the same time guilty and "in debt" towards God. “The idea of a person’s duty to maintain possessions entrusted to him, to which he subordinates himself as a dutiful steward or even as a ‘machine for producing wealth’, lies upon his life with chilling seriousness”. He must preserve these possessions and “for God’s glory… increase their value through restless work”.
Benjamin’s expression "forcefully introduce guilt into consciousness" is not so far from these Puritan/capitalist practices analyzed by Weber.
The result of this “monstrous” process of general capitalist culpability, is the generalization of despair: “What capitalism has of historically unheard of is that its religion is not reform but ruin of being. Despair extends itself until it becames the religious state of the world, of which one should expect salvation”. Benjamin adds, speaking of Nietzsche, that we assist to the "transition of the planet human being, following its absolutely solitary orbit, to the House of Despair (Haus der Verzweiflung)". Haus der Verzweiflung, Stallhartes Gehäuse, Iron cage of despair: from Weber to Benjamin we find ourselves in the same semantic field, which tries to describe the merciless logic of the capitalist system.
Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923) is another example of how Weber can be used support of a radical critique of capitalism. The lukacsian concept of reification (Verdinglichung) is a powerfull and original synthesis between Marx’s theory of commodity fetischism and Weber’s theory of rationalization. By combining the Weberian category of formal rationality - characterized by abstraction and quantification - with the Marxist concepts of abstract labour and exchange-value, Lukacs reformulated the arguments of the German sociologist in the Marxist language. On the other hand, by extending the Marxist analysis of the commodity form and of the “reification” to other areas of society and culture, he took direct inspiration from the Weberian diagnosis of modern life as penetrated by the capitalist spirit of rational calculation (Rechnenhaftigkeit).
With the rise of capitalism, reification came to include all dimensions of social life - begining with the State, the administration, justice and law. According to Lukacs, this structural homogeneity has been observed by “all the lucid historians of modern capitalism”. Who are these lucid authors? The only exemple mentioned by him - and this is not by accident - is Max Weber… Lukacs quotes several passages, including the following one from Economy and Society:
The modern capitalist enterprise is above all intimately based on calculation. She needs in order to exist a justice and an administration whose functioning can also be, at least in principle, rationally calculated according to solid general rules, as one calculates the predictable work done by a machine.His discussion of the bureaucratic system is also based on Weber, although the apparently “neutral” descriptions of the sociologist from Heidelberg are put at the service of a ferocious critique of the inhuman and reified character of this purely formal administrative rationality, with its “growing scorn for the qualitative material essence of ‘things’”.
This anti-capitalist radicalisation of Weber’s ambivalent analysis is particularly striking in the lukacsian interpretation of the Protestant Ethic. First of all, in contraposition to most Marxist critics of the book, Lukacs has no interest in the “materialist” quarrel on the origins of capitalism: “It is quite indifferent, in order to appreciate the facts, that one approves or not Weber’s causal interpretation”. What seems to him important, instead, is the significance of the Weberian thesis for a critical analysis of capitalist reification. According to Lukacs, “the Calvinist combination of an ethics of the self-assertion (Bewährungsethik) (innerwordly ascetism) with the complete transcendence of the objective powers that move the world and determine in its content the human destiny - Deus absconditus and predestination - represent, in a mythologizing way, but in its purest form, the bourgeois structure of the reified consciousness (thing in itself)”. In a footnote , Lukács explicitly mentions Weber’s works, as well as a text by Engels that also suggests the deep affinity (tieferen Verwandtschaft) between capitalism and Calvinism.
Without formally belonging to the Institute of Social Research, Erich Fromm will be associated, during the 1930’s, to the Frankfurt School, publishing several essays and book-reviews in the Journal published by Max Horkheimer. One of the most interesting, dating from 1932, “The psychoanalythical caracterology and its significance for social psychology” discusses the classic weberian thesis of the relations between religious ethics and the spirit of capitalism, with quite astonishing conclusions. Analyzing the capitalist/bourgeois spirit, as Sombart and Weber defined it, since 15th century Florence until Benjamin Franklin, Fromm compares it to the “anal character” studied by Freud and his disciple Karl Abraham. He opposes two radically distinct psycho-social forms : the pre-capitalist spirit, characteristic of the Catholic Middle-Age, for which the economic activity is subordinated to the search of pleasure and satisfaction as an end in itself; and the capitalist spirit, which considers thrift and acquisition as the essential aims. In the medieval society, the individual drew multiple satisfactions – according to his social class - from sumptuous festivities, beautiful paintings, splendid monuments as well as many holiday festivities. “It was understood that man had an innate right to happiness, blessedness and pleasure; that was viewed as the proper goal of all human activity, whether it was economic or not. The bourgeois spirit introduced a decisive change in this respect. Happiness or blessedness ceased to be the unquestioned goal of life. Something else took first place on the scale of values : duty”.
To explain this transformation, Fromm quotes Weber, but also a contemporary book by a certain J.B. Kraus, Scholastics, puritanism and capitalism (1930); according to this author, what most clearly distinguished Calvin ethics of labour from the scholastic period, was the suppression of all finality and the emphasis on formal obedience to one’s calling in life. An iron discipline was required in order to act with a profound feeling of obedience and duty. According to Fromm, such a consideration of duty - instead of happiness - as the highest value, can be followed, starting with Calvinism, through all bourgeois thought, theological or profane. This applies not only to the imperative of labour, but also to the duty to save, celebrated by puritan ethics, Benjamin Franklin’s rules, and 19th century bourgeois life-conduct. After surveying various psycho-social characteristics belonging to the bourgeois protestant spirit - the puritan limitation of sexual pleasure, the rejection of charity, the taste for order - he connects them with the anal character, as studied by Freud, Jones et Abraham…
Obviously, this essay interprets Weber against the grain, gegen den Strich, by denouncing both the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism in Romantic terms, and by comparing them to pre-capitalist social and religious forms - such as the Medieval civilization - presented as morally and humanly superior. No doubt that his description of the Middle Age is largely idealized, but the hypothesis that Catholic ethics are hostile to the spirit of capitalism appears already in Weber. It may seem surprising that a non-believing, Freudo-Marxist Jew such as Fromm, refers himself to Medieval Catholicism in order to accuse the (protestant) spirit of capitalism, but one can find similar arguments among other Romantic Jewish thinkers of German culture.
These are four striking examples of this « inventive » readings - all by romantic/socialist Jewish/German thinkers – which use Weber’s sociological research, and in particular The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as ammunition in order to mount a thorough attack on the capitalist system, its protestant/Calvinist origin, its values, its practices and its “religion”. Some more research is needed to find out if there are other authors which belong to this surprising “constellation”.
Lukacs’ more sober assessment emphasizes the identity between Calvinist ethics and the bourgeois reified consciousness.
Michael Lowy is Research Director in Sociology at France's National Center for Scientific Research and the author of several books translated into twenty-eight languages, including The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx and Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History." He has been a member of the Surrealist Movement since the 1970s. Born in Brazil, he now lives in Paris.
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