With an exquisite flourish the German sociologist Max Weber brought his 1905 masterpiece, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to a close: “The mighty cosmos of the modern economic order,” he warned, “determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.” We’re still burning that fuel, well more than a century on, and we’re still as trapped as ever.
This, at least, is theologian Kathryn Tanner’s contention in her sophisticated and carefully aimed treatise, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, which began as her 2017 Gifford Lectures. If Weber famously imagined moderns imprisoned within, as his first English translator had it, an “iron cage,” Tanner sees our present confinement as, if anything, yet more totalizing. A more recent translation of Weber’s metaphor renders it “a shell as hard as steel,” and this image, with its acute sense of enclosure, seems closer to the way Tanner imagines our lives, as capitalism’s revolutionary course surges on. She believes, in fact, that we are experiencing the restructuring of “human subjectivity” itself. Beneath all of the obvious material changes of our age—symbolized and effected by the digital revolution—what is going on?
The Manager of the World
Tanner takes as her point of departure the global economy’s turn toward “finance-dominated capitalism.” When, in the 1970s, profits from goods and services began to flatten, investment in the sphere of finance became the best bet for big gains. Corporations devoted to the production of goods—whether cars, grains, or steel—came to depend for survival on the investment of their profits in high-scale financial markets. If, as Tanner writes, “finance is the only place where big money can still be made,” a significant finance component has become critical to any viable growth strategy.
The result has been a manic restructuring of the global market itself—made painfully visible in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash—and with it an altered way of life. Finance-dominated capitalism has fostered “its own distinctive spirit,” Tanner observes—“beliefs, values, norms” that have had their way with the human psyche in this “whole social world” global capitalism is spawning. As massive financial institutions and investors have gained leverage over not just corporations but states, autonomy from the global marketplace for institutions of all kinds has been sucked away. Corporations and states have had to continually reinvent themselves accordingly, requiring of all dependents—whether citizens or employees—a fundamental submission to the shifting dictates of the global marketplace in which all are competing and at whose mercy all live.
It’s as if, Tanner suggests, the market has become the manager of the world itself—and an extraordinarily impersonal manager at that. Each business and every state are led by experts whose finely honed skills center on their ability to read the market and adjust institutional movement accordingly, with employees left bowing meekly to their dictates. “The only arena of freedom left to workers would seem to lie in the attitude they choose to assume toward being managed by the market,” suggests Tanner. “Their working lives will conform to market dictates whether they like it or not.”
For evidence of this degree of domination, consider the confession of a freshman in the honors program I direct—and a graduate of a Christian school, to boot. “I came to college for job training,” he admitted in an essay. “I came primarily to learn things that would make me marketable. All of my friends that go to college, no exceptions, see themselves as and want to become products.”
Any who accuse Tanner of hyperbole might consider what it’s like to try to convince such students of another way. The soul of humanity under finance-capitalism is most decidedly under: subjugated, through and through. “For all my self-initiated self-management,” Tanner evocatively writes, “I am self-evacuated, as much as any call center operator, of anything beyond what the market dictates, so that the market seems to be extending its own life in and through me.”
Clearly it is “Total Commitment”—the title of one of her chapters—that the market requires of us all. Each chapter of Tanner’s book probes one such psychic dimension of this all-consuming ethos. We are “Chained to the Past” (in a modern version of debtor’s prison), yet we at the same time live in “Nothing but the Present” (since the future is so unpredictable and our everyday demands are so encompassing). Could there possibly be, as chapter five wonders, “Another World?” Not only do we doubt such a world is possible, but we’re losing the capacity to imagine any alternative way of life. All of the practices, pressures, and mechanisms of our economy work relentlessly to “close off the future as a possible source of life disruption,” Tanner writes—this is the despairing hope that preys upon our minds. Disciplined by a supposed financial “realism,” we are making ourselves at home in a world that simply does not have us in mind—or that, rather, teaches us with alarming success to see ourselves as “resources” for yet more “creative destruction,” in the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s classic description of capitalism’s grand growth strategy.
Escaping the Cage
It is our acquiescence, our succumbing—perhaps above all, our disfiguring—that has compelled Tanner to write. She does so primarily out of pastoral concern and with pastoral intent, in an effort to reorient Christians toward a truer spirit and a higher vision. Christian faith exists, she insists, to effect “revolutionary alteration” even in this unprecedented circumstance. If in every chapter she details the contours of the new spirit of capitalism, she also, chapter-by-chapter, illumines a Christian response, one that she hopes will add up to a counter-surge in real time and space.
Rather than being chained to the past, for instance, Christians have unlimited treasure in Christ and the promise of enlarging freedom as his kingdom comes. If Christ requires total commitment, it’s not commitment to the market—it’s devotion to a God who relativizes and subjugates all other would-be lords. Christianity may be present-driven, but the present it proffers is filled with grace that is, blessedly, in no short supply. “Instead of being here today and gone tomorrow,” writes Tanner, “what allows one to turn one’s life around in the present—the grace of Christ—is permanently on offer.”
With the God of grace in view we come, finally, to see that, rather than living in a world dominated by capital, we live in a world dominated by a God who is surely pulling the world in his direction, directing it to purposes that we—with joy—are only beginning to glimpse. When turned into practice, Tanner argues, this theological vision adds up to a revolutionary way of life. She imagines the people of God living “not at a remove from finance-dominated capitalism but by cutting across it, traversing it to disruptive effects.”
For any who would take up this hope, there’s much work ahead of an acutely ecclesiastical variety. The domination Tanner carefully details can be measured not only in freshmen by the thousands but in, I dare say, hundreds and hundreds of churches. The cage is real.
But here we might turn to Max Weber himself for, of all things, hope. Weber’s most famous and controversial contention was that it was through the unintended but highly effective efforts of Protestants that capitalism first established its world-historical rule. If Weber is right and Christian devotion helped get us into this situation, Tanner supposes, it just may get us out. Even the strongest cage yields to its key.
Eric Miller is professor of history and the humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. He is the co-editor of Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (Palgrave Macmillan), which releases in July.