Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism // Kathryn Tanner.

What has Wall Street to do with Jerusalem? What has the stock exchange to do with the Great Exchange? What has economics, specifically finance-dominated capitalism (FDC), to do with Christianity? Well, when the stakes are this high, a whole lot. Lives and the very fabrics of societies are being undone at the seams by the ravages of FDC. This new spirit of capitalism drains lives and communities, enslaving them under its dark clutches of hopelessness and debt. A response, a most powerful one, must be made.

Kathryn Tanner, one of America’s foremost theologians of our time, tackles the behemoth, the Charging Bull of Wall Street, and substantiates a profound, disruptive Christian response. Instead of Max Weber’s old Protestant work ethic—namely, good Christians work hard as a sign of their salvation—Tanner proposes a new Protestant anti-work ethic: Christians who have received salvation knows that hard work is superfluous and always an idolatrous temptation. But capitalism has changed since Max Weber’s visionary and monumental Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; there’s a new and more menacing spirit: finance-dominated capitalism. And the kind of ethics or way of life that FDC enforces is relentless, brutal, and seemingly inescapable. Nevertheless, Tanner stands with bravado: “I am critical of the present spirit of capitalism because I believe my own, quite specific Christian commitments require it” (7). Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism is the fruit of her labors and commitments.

Confronting the Charging Bull requires perceptive diagnosis and compelling remedy. Tanner with prophetic prowess lists FDC’s demands. This is probably the most difficult part about the book: it’s complex because FDC is convoluted. Many times, I lost myself (and am still lost) about some things. I’ll try my best to sum her breakdown, focusing more on how FDC affects lives and communities.

Unlike the production and trades of goods or industrial capitalism where the consumer determines the production market (think supply and demand), FDC works with debt, loans, and stock exchange where investors determine the finance market (think buy low, sell high). The finance market (hereafter, just “market”) is inherently volatile: a stock can swell and inflate beyond its capacity and can free-fall in an instant. Though investors determine the market—the more they buy stocks, the more the stock-price increases and so the more lucrative the sell—investor do not coordinate with each other when to sell, due to vicious competition. The longer the stock is held, the bigger the payout, so investors stay until the stock reaches its breaking point and free-falls. When a stock free-falls, the first one out or the one who initiated the free-fall wins the most. Such volatility and such big money makes investors, finance corporations, companies and their stocks, and all employees involved slaves of the market—it demands total commitment (ch. 3).

Big money (think millions and even billions) can be made and lost within microseconds, so all parties involved sway this way or that way according to the market’s whims. The most ideal scenario is the full convergence of desires: what the employee wants is what employers want (maximally efficient use of capacities: think no vacation, overtime-work with no overtime-pay, constant stream of deliverables); what employers want is what investors want (maximal profit, even if it means huge layoffs to meet profit margins at the end of the fiscal year); and what investors want is what the market wants, which is total commitment (26-7). All that matters are the present whims of the market. One is not allowed to slow-down and reflect on the past or plan for a different future. Only the present matters, and in such totalizing way, nothing really matters since it is only the chaotic market that matters.

Anyone who disrupts or strays away from such totalizing desire for maximal profit can easily be let go or replaced. This makes for the most isolating yet most competitive environment. People compete for the credit, argue their flexibility and commitment, adhere to company’s budget cuts for quarter reports to stock-holders, and otherwise dehumanize themselves to be nothing but a dispensable part of the company.

Those outside the finance corporation are also affected. FDC thrives on loans and debt: it needs people to service their debt for investors to profit. Because of the incongruity between living wages and living costs, people often pull out loans (think any college or graduate student in America). High-interest loans are repackaged and sold to investors. These investors need people to stay in debt in order to make money off of interest; the worst would be a loan paid in full. Thus, people and investors are “chained to the past,” where servicing debt is of the highest priority (ch. 2).

FDC nurtures a kind of ethics and anthropology, or how a human should be, that is utterly constrictive and vacuous of anything truly human. The human is chained to the past of debt and loans, is overworked unto maximal efficiency due to total commitment, is lost in the chaotic and competitive present, and is stuck in FDC-morphed world. She is reduced to insignificance: an individual lost in the collective consciousness for maximum profit. She is no longer a particular human; she is a dispensable tool.

The moral narrative of FDC claims that one is completely responsible for her successes and failures. Failure to work hard has the unsurprising outcome of failure. Success is the fruit of her labors, no matter how she achieves it. But this makes little sense when all hangs on the volatile market: how is one responsible for its chaotic nature? In the end, there are no winners in FDC, except those who can afford loss—e.g., big investors with big cash-reserves. And those who literally cannot afford loss are the losers.

Christianity tells a different tale, presents another world. Instead of servicing and being enslaved to debt, God breaks the chains to the past: we are forgiven sinners. Instead of total commitment to a chaotic market, total commitment to a loving and active God is asked. Instead of being lost in the present, God reconstructs our being-in-time: we were sinners, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Instead of being responsible for one’s own salvation, God in Christ is “the motor”: nothing we do (fail to do) does not add or subtract from our salvation. “Grace remains untouched for all that, and holds out to one, as ever, sufficient power to turn” away from the past and towards the future (133). Indeed, it is the future that is pulled into the present: “The grace that is necessary to change things radically exists and is at work in the world now… the future to come in this way funds the struggle for realistic proximate futures in the present” (164). The future of God’s kingdom is already here, breaking chains and giving meaning to our lives, not just to our work.

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism is a monumental work of breath-taking breadth and depth. Tanner digs deep into FDC—how its octopus legs drive extreme competition unsuitable for sustainable life. She also offers a powerful counter—another world as “an imaginative counter to the whole world of capitalism” and its Protestant anti-work ethic (219). I’ve tried my best to canvas her more important arguments, but I just couldn’t cover it all. In fact, I might need to revisit this work again and again; it is a rich reserve.

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