Thursday, May 5, 2016

Calvinism and Capitalism, article in The Nation 1910

Calvinism and Capitalism, article in The Nation 1910

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The intimate relations between Protestantism and the spirit of modern business enterprise have been clearly recognized. The lead taken in the development of industry, commerce, and finance during the last three centuries by Holland and Great Britain, and by the Protestant sections of the population of Germany, Switzerland, and France, the peculiar aptitude for business emanating from the Independents, Baptists, Unitarians, Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, establish the strongest reason for supposing that Protestantism brought a new driving force into the world. The very title Protestant implies a certain grit and independence of character, favoring other than merely religious enterprise, and bringing into each schismatic church a large proportion of thoughtful, thriving families. For self-protection and the furtherance of their strongly-realized spiritual mission, these heretical minorities will naturally be drawn into unusually close co-operation for social and political purposes. When economic evolution has reached the stage in which "credit" is the soul of business, their personal confidence in one another will acquire a first-rate importance as a commercial asset. These are obvious factors making for the economic success of earnest, energetic minorities, quite independently of the particular spiritual creed which animates them. But there are certain forces of Protestantism which, emerging by peculiarly apt coincidence just when the appropriate economic system was ready for the operation, have been of paramount importance in the modern business world.

In two articles of profound and delicate analysis in the "Contemporary Review." Dr. Forsyth sets forth the distinctive part which the tenets and the regimen of Calvinism have played in energizing business life. At once ascetic in its ethical code, and rationalistic in its stress upon private judgment and personal responsibility in matters both of faith and of external activity, Calvinism moulded a personality closely adapted to the needs and opportunities of a business world which required tough, reliable, industrious, honest, self-assertive, enterprising men for its new methods. Calvinism certainly educated and supplied such men, the thrifty, self-contained entrepreneurs of the modern economic order. The Lutheran faith was too mild and too reposeful in its piety, too respectful to traditions. Calvinism was "the most anti-traditional and revolutionary of all the forces of Protestantism." In matters not only of faith and of church organization, but of political and civic government, it furnished organs and leaders of revolt and reformation everywhere, in Geneva, Scotland. England, America. The doctrine of election engendered a spirit of high personal confidence and of a dignity whose absolute submission to a Higher Power made its votaries restive to the claims of earthly potentates. The eternal value that it stamped on inner personality evoked all the moral individualism needed for the breakdown of feudal traditions in the arts of government and business, and for the most liberal experiments in both fields of enterprise.

But this spirit of democratic individualism, complete self-reliance, could not itself supply the conquering power. Calvinism was a democratic aristocracy. It was the co-operative confidence of a Company of Saints, with a spiritual destiny, aye, and even temporal rights, superior to those of the rest of mankind, that made Calvinism a ruling power. But the main propelling force lay in a stress upon works, the duty of realizing the will of God in personal and social conduct upon this earth. There seems no logical necessity why the doctrines of Predestination and Election should have generated practical energy. The Oriental kismet exhibits itself more in sterile passivity than in active fanaticism. One may suspect that what is called the temperament, the natural proclivity, was responsible for the practical development of Calvinistic fatalism. "If you are sure, in predestination, of your destiny and your eternity, you can exploit the world with immense freedom and confidence. It is the ethical part of your religious duty, of your response to elect grace. And you can do it in the natural way of personal gain, without succumbing to an inordinate affection for your gain. Fixed in your eternal seat, your limbs are loose and free for the occupations and possibilities around you." Such a Christian will rise early, work hard, keep sober, and stint himself so as to save and get a nest-egg; he will be keen to seize, and industrious to improve, a business opportunity; he will bargain ably and hardly, asserting all his "rights"; he will be known to keep his word; he will put most of his rising income into his business; a formidable, a fearless competitor, he will secure the survival of the fittest; where combination displaces competition, his fidelity and efficiency as a colleague will be equally serviceable and profitable. As a religious man. he will regard all his activities as "auxiliary to that lifework in which a man was called to glorify God." He will half-consciously realize the economic importance of maintaining the reality of this conviction of an unselfish and a higher purpose in his business life. So he will never recognize quite clearly the largeness of the alloy of materialism and mere profit-seeking which will often have displaced the spiritual aim.

There can be no doubt whatever that this hard, forceful creed, impelling its votaries to conquer this world for the sake of the other, and all the while deceiving themselves as to the relative strength and genuineness of the two appeals, has given spiritual nutriment to Capitalism. It has not merely formed the good business manager; it has inspired those great religious and political missionary movements which have, quite incidentally, as naive historians suppose, opened up new markets and developed great hidden natural resources in distant quarters of the earth. Calvinism still gives the stiffening to the modern doctrine of efficiency, by virtue of which the Anglo-Saxons claim authority over heathen and backward peoples to work their railways and mines and supply them with good government. Liberal Imperialism, resolved into its ethical and intellectual premises, is little else than pure Calvinism, with Kipling and Roosevelt for its priests and prophets.

The economic services have been great and incontestable. Capitalism could hardly have run its course without this inner light and leading. We may, perhaps, be disposed to dispute the question how far the initiative belongs to Calvinism. There are those who will contend that the causative energy proceeded from Capitalism, and that the demand for the thrifty and energetic entrepreneur determined and moulded the creed and doctrines of Calvinism, rather than the converse. Probably the two processes were interactive, Calvinism and Capitalism evoking one another by a spiritual affinity, and so forming the natural partnership which has occurred.

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Not the least interesting portion of Dr. Forsyth's essay consists in his recognition that the partnership has done its work. It has, indeed, outlasted its proper time, yielding to certain corruptions of worldliness. "Capitalism announces its own end in becoming de-ethicized in a plutocracy." It were strange indeed had this not been so. For the fundamental notion of a business exploitation of the world, not merely for the production, but for the accumulation of wealth in the possession of an exploiting class, which at the same time should preserve ascetic habits, is self-contradictory. An ethic which made against luxury, while it accumulated wealth, proved self-destructive. A life of charity or philanthropy seemed to offer an escape from the dilemma, but this escape is shown ever more clearly to be illusory.

All this Dr. Forsyth appears to recognize. He sees in the new claims of labor to displace capital as the central factor in the economic system, and the searching after a more equitable system of distribution, the opening of a new economic era. If Christianity is to do for this what Calvinism did for the capitalistic era, the creed and policy must be accommodated to the new situation. The old exclusiveness must disappear from "election," which must expand so as to include all men. Moral personality must remain its absorbing practical concern, but the conception of an inner society of "the elect," or even of "a favored people," must give way to the wider conception of "a world of moral personality."

So Dr. Forsyth leads us to the verge of a great issue, perhaps of a rich land of promise. He is clear that some large expansion of religious doctrine is required to enable the Church to furnish a soul to the new social organization. He is convinced that "the Church will stand or fall by its success or failure with the social question." Liberal thinkers in all the churches stand shivering on this brink. Perhaps they half recognize that the very economic structure of the churches themselves with their professional clergy and their finance, largely the peculiar product of the passing age of capitalism, may have to undergo a transformation before a really effective, impassioned creed of labor can arise to offer light and inspiration to a new social order.

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