On work, fun, and capitalism

Last week I had the urge to clear out my desk space at work, and came across a little brown envelope. Inside, I discovered a memo I’d been required to write to myself at our first EdD seminar, three and a half years ago:

I was so happy to read this, because I don’t feel conflicted anymore – at least not about that. I am having a whole tonne of fun.

But, it ties in with a few things I’ve been thinking and reading about recently, and links to my previous writing on employability and economics. I guess we all have our internal conflicts, and one of mine is that, while rationally I think we should all be working less for the sake of our health and the planet (see the NEF report on the 21 hour working week, and Tim Jackson’s CUSP report on sustainable prosperity), I have a competitive personality and something of a work ethic. This cognitive dissonance came to the fore in the last few months when I started to get cold feet about the plan we’d made to move up North and downsize. I realised I didn’t want to; I enjoy the fast pace of life in London, and its intellectual challenges. I had been ambivalent about going part-time and raising a family; now I was decidedly apathetic.

There are several mechanisms at play in the rise and resolution of this internal conflict. I was raised – explicitly and by example – to compete, to keep busy, to keep learning, to be independent and to plan for the future. In slight contrast my partner’s upbringing was explicitly socialist and (half) Catholic. This instilled values in him such as collectivism and a disinclination to accumulate wealth (which seems to include putting money aside to pay his tax return, annoyingly). He’s been a significant influence on my political education over the last few years – and has introduced me to new ways of having fun – to the point where I started to question the value of all this hard work and individual achievement.

I think it was probably a number of factors that converged to pull me back to what I recognise as my natural way of being. The first was getting called out at work for not doing a very good job on something I was supposed to have been working on over the summer, and not even having a completed registration document and UREC form to justify my slackitude. I suspect my subsequent forays into microdosing, and menopausal epiphany – ‘this is who I am and this is what I want’ – were also implicated, and it was also around that time that I started attending the PESGB seminars, which inspired and motivated me, while introducing a fun, social element to my academic vocation. My research shifted my thinking, as I began in earnest to explore viewpoints other than my own, seeking in particular to understand the neoliberal ideology. The nail in the coffin might have been Brendan’s tax return.

I’ve had several people recommend I read Weber, and I finally got down to him last week (this was ultimately Richard’s doing; he was getting all excited about the Protestant work ethic and I immediately saw the connection with my thesis). Weber gave me exactly what I wanted; a theory about the evolution of the capitalist spirit, and a substantial history lesson besides.

I learned about the Protestant Reformation; a split from Catholicism initiated by Martin Luther, who interpreted that human salvation can be obtained only through faith (‘sole fide’) – i.e. not through good deeds. This laid some of the foundation of the capitalist spirit as it meant that one can potentially attain salvation through any form of life. Luther also introduced the idea of one’s daily work as a divine vocation – a ‘calling’. However, Lutherans still frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth beyond one’s personal needs, particularly if it was obtained at the expense of others.

This concept of divine providence was – and continues to be – influential; the idea of God allocating you a station and a vocation in life. Yes, ‘social mobility’ is all the rage these days, but it wasn’t very long ago that having ‘ideas above your station’ was frowned upon – even considered immoral.

A point of note is that the emphasis on the ascetic importance of a FIXED calling provides an ethical justification for the modern, specialised division of labour; an ideal that began to dominate worldly morality and played a huge part in building the modern economic order. Machine production determines our lives; where the Puritans chose to work in a calling, many of us are now forced to. It is interesting to compare this with the utopian society Huxley imagines in Island, where only light subsistence industry is permitted, and citizens have a specialism they undertake part-time in combination with a rotation of different kinds of work.

Calvinism (also known as Reformed Christianity) was a subsequent major branch of Protestantism, and this is where things get a bit complicated with various sub-branches – Methodism, Quakerism and so on. The important thing to note is the Puritanical aspects of Calvinism and the related traditions, in particular the principles of ascetism (which arose from various dogmatic foundations) and predestination – the idea that we are either chosen, or damned, and we can’t earn our salvation (through, for example, good works). That having been said, the later Calvinist traditions – Quakerism in particular – held a view of one’s life’s work as an exercise in ascetic virtue; one’s conscientiousness as proof of one’s state of grace. So, there is a funny backwards logic at work here; the Lutheran view that we are allocated our lot in life stands, but if we believe that a conscientious attitude is proof of being among God’s chosen few, all it takes is a little faith, and then we can be conscientious and count ourselves among the chosen.

It’s important to emphasise that these religious reformers (Luther, Calvin, Wesley etc.) were only concerned with the salvation of the soul; they were not interested in social/ethical reform. Ascetism and predestination could be said to be religiously superficial, even incidental, but Weber argues that they played a part in a complex interaction of historical factors that had major cultural (and economic) consequences. These consequences were not foreseen by the reformers themselves, and in some cases were in direct contradiction to their intentions.

So – back to the vocation. Does it matter what it is? While in modern times we might assess the moral worth of a particular calling through its value to the community, the Puritan view provides an intriguing twist, as Puritans see the hand of God in all occurrences. Therefore, if God shows one of his elect a chance of profit, then they should take that path, with the caveat that one accepts the gifts and uses them for only in God’s service. In other words, one labours to be rich for God, and the temptation to use that wealth to fund one’s own leisure and pleasure must be resisted. The parable of the servant and the talent even indicates that it is not sufficient to hold ones riches undiminished for the glory of God; we should strive to increase them.  Hence the imperative not only to save, but to invest and accumulate.

It seems that being wealthy would be particularly burdensome given these conditions (and at this point I guiltily recall giggling at the woman complaining about the ‘great responsibility’ of being rich in the BBC documentary The Price of Inequality).

While indulgence was definitely not approved of, the Puritans acknowledged that financial wealth lent a certain ease to life. They accepted as unproblematic the notion that God blesses the chosen in this life as well as the afterlife, and that unequal distribution of the goods of the world is a dispensation of divine providence with secret ends unknown to men (that convenient get-out clause of God working in mysterious ways). Wesley’s advice was that those who gain and save should also give; a good conscience becoming one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life.

Weber points out that the full economic effect of these developments came only after the peak of religious enthusiasm passed. Puritan ideals often gave way under pressure from the temptations of wealth, the unsustainable nature of the ideals effectively killing off the religion. As John Wesley wrote: ‘religion will produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger…desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.’  The pursuit of wealth has become stripped of its religious and ethical meaning.

So, even at the time of writing (1905), ‘the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs’ (p109). I love that sentence – there’s something very poetic about it.

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