Monday, May 13, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 3

from Part 2
We had acquired a centuries-long habit of war, an easy norm of war, a ready resort to war; and that was shaped principally and directly by Crusading.
If crusading is the grandfather of capitalism, then the Reformation is the father.  I use male pronouns, because the principle actors in this drama of war and political economy were overwhelmingly men.

This is a critique of capitalism and its philosophy, liberalism.  But let it be said, wrong as liberalism can be shown to be (and I will attempt to show just that further along in the series), it may yet be the traumatic event that brings the church to full repentance for its participation in and co-optation by power. 

 Soon enough, and for plenty of people already, the shine is off of the idol of progress, the invisible hand of the market has shown that it is not benign, and liberalism’s moral incoherence can be demonstrated.  But when the church and its members decry liberalism, we have to make our confessions. 

Nostra culpa.  It was our embrace of war that made liberalism attractive, even though actual liberals have not proven to be war-averse.


When disputes about Christian doctrine translated into social revolutions, and more than one confession came to state power in the West, war was the result - a natural progression, given the church's embrace of violence in the centuries preceding the Reformation.

Capitalism emerged, unrecognized at the time, not as an alternative to Christianity, but as an alternative to war.  (Its subversion of the Gospels was more subtle.)

That a system fundamentally predicated on acquisitiveness - even eventually calling acquisitiveness a virtue - would finally form in the belly of the church would have been seen by earlier Christians, of the several Reformation confessions, as perverse.  But that is what happened.

An excerpt from The Unintended Reformation (Belknap Press, 2012), by Brad Gregory, speaking of 17th Century Europe:

Led by Dutch precedent and before it was theorized, European Christians began more deliberately to create what would become a capitalist society out of late medieval capitalist practices midwifed by Reformation-era religio-political disruptions born of disagreements about God's truth.  Indeed, throughout the Reformation era itself, numerous Christians in Europe's religiously divided countries had been in various ways contributing to this same process, in what Benjamin Kaplan has analyzed as the social history of toleration.  Then as now, except for arms manufacturers and munitions suppliers (some of whom made enormous fortunes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), war was disastrous for business and in general among those whose lives it destroyed.  Even more at the end of the Thirty Years War and English civil wars, frustrated with failed goals and fed up with the catastrophic financial, military, and human costs of waging war for God, in religiously divided  areas Christians across confessional boundaries increasingly drew the unsurprising conclusion that they would rather learn somehow to live alongside, if not in harmony with, those with whom they disagreed.  In this way, early modern Christian rulers and their subjects paradoxically became the agents of their colonization by capitalism and consumption.  By their actions, they essentially turned their backs on biblical teachings about material things, teachings that had largely been shared across confessional lines. (p. 278)

Gregory's reference to the Dutch marks the peculiar formative history of he modern nation-state.  One of the characteristics of previous politico-military adventures was that it was ruler-centric.  Rulers obviously had geographical domains, but the various contests for control of those domains were aimed at either extending those domains into new geographic territory, or protecting one's own existing territory from such incursions (while sometimes simultaneously seeking expansion on a different front).  Boundaries were malleable.  Fighting for control and resources was driven by perceived economic necessity or for military strategic advantage, and motivated by personal ambition (or even malice or revenge).  The point is, it was personal.

The nation-state was more formal, fixed as much as possible within a geographic boundary which defined domain as primary and the ruler as a replaceable part.  This afforded a military advantage, because technical and tactical attention could be focused on the security of a fixed boundary over time.  Within that boundary, rulers could secure a measure of stability sufficient to engage in forms of social engineering.

In an area more or less corresponding to Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands now, the Holy Roman Empire held sway until the16th Century, and the regions was divided simultaneously between various Dukes for political control and various Bishops for religious control.  Emperor Charles V unified seventeen provinces in 1549 for administrative control, and his son Philip II continued this administrative centralization.  A fight broke out between Phillip and William of Orange, and a war developed that would rage for eighty long years.

There were multiple Christian confessions in the seventeen provinces, and more than one gained access to the administrative apparatus of the region, whereupon the people and the local administrators found a common complaint about being under Hapsburg rule at all.  The Holy Roman Empire was taxing them heavily to make its wars, and during the course of this Eighty Years War the idea of independence gained considerable ground.  The path of this struggle was extremely complex, moreso than warrants detailing it here, but long-story-short, a new entity emerged on the political map of Europe, called the Dutch Republic.  A republic was governed by representatives from the various components of a political federation.  It was federalist.

Initially united militarily to defend its territory from the Spanish Army, the Dutch Republic had created a nascent modern nation-state.  Territory became primary; and defense of fixed territory gave them unexpected and fortuitous tactical advantages that allowed the new state to endure.

Moreover, it required a cross-confessional tolerance to sustain.  The unexpected and likewise fortuitous advantage of that tolerance was that traders and merchants from around Europe found a place where they could seek financial advantage with a wider array of other merchants and financiers than they could in religiously homogeneous zones; and the Dutch Republic found itself getting rich.  Very rich.  The first stock market was opened there through the Dutch East India Company in 1602, which brings up another advantage, especially for any maritime power.  Rather than fight interminable wars near home, they discovered the advantages of the financial military expedition to gain targeted access to profitable resources that fueled the local economy, as opposed to the mere plunder for rulers that marked early European expeditions to the Americas.

The Dutch Republic took a step beyond the confessional states that had subordinated church to state, as in Catholic Spain or Lutheran Sweden.  Putatively governed by Protestants, the Dutch Republic effectively relegated religion to a "private" sector that could be ignored altogether in the "public" sphere.  While this was a move of political expedience, it prefigured the eventual theological transformation of Jesus himself from social exemplar to a kind of personal, spiritual elixir - this transformation also prefigured by the magical quality implied by the instrumental quality the sacraments had taken on by the 13th Century, and even Pope Urban II's notion of penitential war, wherein the wave of a hand could produce a preemptive pardon.

Returning, however, to the Dutch Republic as harbinger of the capitalist political form, once the successes of the Dutch Republic were taken into account, they began to produce new ideas in philosophy that likewise deviated from past Christian doctrine, even though some of them - Descartes most notably - were developed by observant Christians.  Most notable among political philosophers was Thomas Hobbes (1558-1679).

Men's violence was not called into question, of course, but how men's violence was to be directed.

The "wars of religion" prompted dramatic innovations in political thought that, beginning most clearly with Hobbes, rejected the idea that had been at the heart of politics for well over a millennium - that a ruler's principle obligation was to protect and promote God's truth as the foundation that made possible shared Christian life in fidelity to Jesus' commands.  (Gregory, p. 162)
That is not to say that rulers met these expectations.  This was in many cases and ideological veneer for all sorts of more cynical political machinations, which precisely gave rise to a loss of confidence in those claims.  Paradoxically, this still serves as the ideological underpinning of the notion that "religion" is the greatest source of violence in the world, because those who make these claims ignore the more secular motivations of the war-leaders just as effectively as those leaders themselves did.  In effect, this simplistic critique of "religion" is based on the lies that religion motivated many armed conflicts that were motivated by other considerations.

That does not get the Roman church or the post-Reformation confessions off the hook historically.  As it is today, religious claims are inextricably mixed with secular preoccupations in ways that implicate both.  So my earlier point that the church hierarchy brought it on itself - the anti-Christian practices of capitalism - still stand.

Whereas Machiavelli had been cynical and pragmatic in The Prince, Hobbes was principled and systematic in The Leviathan [Hobbes' political opus].  (Gregory, p. 162)

 Thomas Hobbes

Hobbes was describing the nation-state.  Machiavelli was describing the actions of leaders.  Again, that distinction between a leader-centric politics and one based within a prescribed and administered geographic boundary.

The sovereign's role, Hobbes argued, was not to safeguard and submit to God's independently revealed truth, but to determine, define, and dominate it as a tool for exercising power, punishing anyone who defied the state in the name of religion.  Small wonder:  in January 1649, just this sort of defiant and rebellious zealotry had led to the beheading of Charles I.  The entire tradition of modern liberal political thought remains Hobbesian in its insistence that "mixing" religion and politics, church and state, is an awful idea and an even worse practice to be avoided at all costs, the Reformation era's violence being the principle historical body of evidence, augmented in recent years by allegations of Islam's failure to see the light.  The inseparability of Christianity from the exercise of power by secular authorities in the Reformation era does not diminish the continuing ideological utility of singling out "religion" as a supposedly discrete domain of human life particularly prone to violence.  he modern Leviathan must have and exercise a public monopoly of legal and political power and the exclusive right to punish those who break its laws.  Its violence is legitimate; its violence is justified.  (Gregory pp. 162-163)
This, of course, says nothing about the non-state powers that underwrite state power, since no state exists in a social vacuum.  As the Dutch example spread, driven by increasing profits, so did the power of the money-men, and indeed of money itself to speed up access to the kinds of materials that were necessary for both investments and emerging military technical developments that were put at the service of the nation-state.

Gregory's thesis in his book challenges Weber's earlier one that Protestantism formed the foundation of capitalism, in a sense saying that Weber got it backwards.

When the Reformation happened, the overwhelming majority of European Christians still lived as subsistence agriculturists, for whom money was a useful addendum to home  and village production, but nothing like the universal necessity (and thereby dependency) that it is for us.  Moreover, regardless of the various doctrinal disputes between Protestant and Roman Catholic, and between several Protestant confessions, all Christians at the time would have found the ideas of later liberals, that selfishness or greed could be seen as a virtue, or that acquisitive individualism should be the organizing principle of a society, to be anathema.

What happened over time, in a nutshell, was that faith took a back seat to the state, the state needed money, the new money-men had money, the state became dependent on them, and the church had become dependent on and subservient to the state (as well as the money-men).

The temptations of acquisitive individualism became a cultural powerhouse; and as a newly dominant merchants and bankers came to the fore, philosophical apologies for their values emerged along with them, about which we will see in a later installment to this series.

Again, long-story-short, churches, dependent on the dominant class for money and subordinate to the new nation-state's power, would adjust their teachings accordingly.

Weber looked at later Calvinism's doctrinal justifications for acquisitive individualism and as capitalism more fully formed, saw a correspondence, and ascribed the opposite relation of cause and effect.  Gregory's book, a 574 page tome with 148 pages of footnotes and citations, makes a pretty solid case for this.

Gregory does not dispute all of Weber's theses.  He does concede that once the Protestant doctrine of "justification by faith alone" entrenched itself, it caused believers to imply success in business was material evidence that they were God's predestined elect.  But over time, the virtue of thrift that remained important as an expression of humility and responsibility within Calvinism was jettisoned.  Dependence upon faith was transmuted by capitalism into the active "virtue" of self-centered consumption.

The point here, an introductory one, is that capitalism - as we know it - was until the 17th Century considered largely incompatible with Christian belief in caritas - charity, or neighbor-love.

The story would change considerably by the time churches had successfully subordinated themselves to powerful states, which built up power through the money-men by war, conquest, and colonial extraction.  Catholics involved themselves in this plunder as vigorously as Protestants in the beginning, but by the 19th and 20th Centuries, power had concentrated itself globally in first the United Kingdom, then the United States.

Those Christian confessions that did not go along with the program - that is, which did not align themselves with a state - were marginalized and persecuted by the magisterial confessions; and they would find a natural home in those very states where religious tolerance - provided a religious body did not dissent from the state - was the norm.

The point I want to leave you with now is genealogical, that is, how the Reformation tied he Crusades to the emergence of capitalism.



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