Donald Andrew Henson II

Exploit the Protestants

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 13, 2017 at 8:04 pm

In my last post I talked about the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), and asked what would happen to this concept if technology rendered 95% of us unemployable. The reason I use such a drastic number is 1) I’m not alone in believing this is a real possibility in the coming decades, and 2) I’m pretty sure I know the answer to the question if that number were more like 35% – the unemployed third of humanity would be demonized by the two-thirds able to somehow hang on to a job. Low moral character, unwillingness to work, looking for handouts – these would all be named as ’causes’ for unemployment, even with clear economic evidence to the contrary.

Why do we feel that work somehow equals virtue? I’m only just re-acquainting myself with Max Weber’s collection of essays, but I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic idea of the PWE. It is an idea as old as the Reformation itself, and it permeates American thinking about work to this day.

“Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace….the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.” (Wikipedia)

Weber says this is why Europe and America have the dominant economic position in the world today – the superior belief system caused them to work harder. Therefore, they worked for it and they deserve it. That’s an oversimplification for sure, but one probably a majority of Americans and everyone who voted for Donald Trump would ascribe to.  A recent example here.

It’s no surprise that these ideas spring from the 1500s, at a time when great economic changes were occurring, stressing the medieval hierarchies of lords, priests, and peasants. A Catholic peasant farmer had only to give his earthly lord and heavenly one what was due – fruits of his labor in exchange for subsistence and tenancy to the former, performance of sacraments in exchange for eternal life to the latter. The Protestant believer had to be ever-working and vigilant to prove himself part of the elect.

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Notice how neatly this idea fits the demands of the workforce required by the Industrial Revolution. While farm work was done in seasons, with downtime in the heat of the day and during the long winters, cottage labor could be done year-round and by candlelight, and factories need never close. Is it accidental that a new religion would promote frugality and hard work as it’s own reward, at the exact same time factory owners needed laborers to work round-the-clock? Could it be – and I’m just postulating here – that the PWE was a way of maintaining the advantageous relationship (exploitation?) the aristocracy and clergy had enjoyed for centuries?

Now I know some of you are saying these beliefs are not constructs invented to keep the lower classes where they are, but instead are Biblical truths. My question to you would be – why wasn’t this the predominant Christian view for the first 1500 years? Isn’t it strange to you that a doctrine promoting the workaholic as ideal Christian comes around at precisely the time that the owners of the economy needed workaholics?

In America, the prevailing view is that hard work is its own reward. We tend to view our work as a contribution to the company we work for, and to society as a whole. Since we spend so much of our time focused on work, either doing it, preparing for it, or thinking about it – and because by nature we resist the idea that our lives are spent in exercises of futility – we see ourselves as key to our employer’s success. How could they ever make it without me? Look how much income I generate compared to what I’m paid! As Thoreau says in Walden, “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do….”

We unquestionably believe that working for a living is virtuous. We don’t like to think luck has played any role in what success we have – we are ‘blessed’ to have what we have – a word that has, much to my annoyance, replaced ‘lucky’ only in my lifetime.

But corporations and capitalists seldom look at labor the same way. Employees are expenses. They require ever increasing pay to keep up with inflation. They want paid vacations and perks. They get sick and old, and over time become less efficient. They require expensive insurance and need sick leave. Employers are ALWAYS looking for a way to employ fewer people – often through using technology to get more work out of fewer people, finding a way to employ those who are willing to work for less money and fewer benefits, or investing in computers and machines that can do the work without using human labor at all.

Perhaps Americans are the most productive workers in the world because of the PWE – but is that a good thing? Our productivity increases almost every year, but our compensation has remained stagnant for three decades. Why should we work harder for ever-diminishing returns? Are our leaders using our religious beliefs against us to enrich themselves at our expense?

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  1. Hi Don. Great to see you jumping back into your blogging.
    Excellent, thought-provoking piece. The timing of the change in “doctrine” is interesting in terms of the geographical breakdown of Protestant vs Catholic Europe and the differences in economic development. What were to become Protestant dominated areas were the first to begin the transition to less feudalistic economies (England, Holland, the Germanic states a bit later) while those that were, and perhaps still are, Catholic dominated remained heavily feudal based. Maybe a bit of a “chicken or the egg” situation – was the PWE a bottom-up social-religious response in order to adapt individual and group world views to changes in local economic structures and practices or a top-down response by the new elites to their new labour requirements?

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