In his contribution to The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, Eugene McCarraher looks to blow the dust off of R.H. Tawney’s legacy: “Often admired but now rarely consulted, Tawney’s work deserves a spiritual revival.” In Sublunary Sublime’s modest opinion, this has got to be one the great theological understatements of the decade.
McCarraher writes that Tawney’s work suggests “theological acuity and depth,” as can be seen from his Commonplace Book and other critical works. As McCarraher explains,
Tawney lauded the medieval economic imagination, in which work and goods were judged in the light of the beatific vision. Surveying the wisdom of scholastic philosophers and canon lawyers, Tawney reclaimed their conviction that “the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism,” since sharing in communion was the order of heaven. Seen in this light, corporate capitalist property and production were grotesque distortions of the divine economy. Against the corporate order which protected stockholders and other parasitic classes who merely owned and lived off the labor of others, modern Christian socialism would, Tawney hoped, revive and older conception of property as “an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it.” Artfully made and justly distributed, material goods could be tokens of beatitude, “aids to blessedness,” as Tawny put it (105).
We can see how Tawney’s theological acuity is demonstrated in his understanding of St. Thomas’s claim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”; his depth comes from grasping the material implications of this seemingly esoteric doctrine. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, Tawney writes,
The contrast between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion, is not absolute, but relative. It is a contrast of matter and spirit informing it, of stages in a process, of preparation and fruition. Grace works on the unregenerate nature of man, not to destroy it, but to transform it. And what is true of the individual is true of society. An attempt is made to give it a new significance by relating it to the purpose of human life as known by revelation. In the words of a famous (or notorious) Bull: “The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.” Thus social institutions assume a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they are the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme reality. Ideally conceived, society is an organism of different grades, and human activities form a hierarchy of functions, which differ in kind and in significance, but each of which is of value on its own plane, provided that it is governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all (26).
As Tawney goes on to argue, in the absence of a common end the ideology of efficiency reigns supreme. The rejection of teleology birthed the market state and the market state in turn birthed the individual. “The concept of religion as a thing private and individual does not emerge until after a century in which religious freedom normally means the freedom of the State to prescribe religion, not the freedom of the individual to worship God as he pleases,” writes Tawney (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, 149).
All in all, Tawney presents a sobering vision, one that appears to leave little wiggle room for the more liberally minded. It is, however, a sentiment shared by no less than Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre:
On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor-car launched at full speed and driverless across broken country (Weil, Oppression and Liberty, 114).
From an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens from nowhere who have banded together for their common protection (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 156).
When business advice literature warmly embraces chaos, celebrates the collapsing of high and low, and heralds the demolition of intellectual order as a profit-maximizing opportunity, it’s time to dust off those much vilified meta-narratives. And when the partisans of corporate-sponsored transgression responded by labeling us both reactionary elitists and a bunch of Reds, we knew we had hit the interpretative jackpot. Yes, postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism.
Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, Commodify Your Dissent, 14-15.
Speaking about the contradictions of capitalism, G.K. Chesterton observes the following in The Outline of Sanity:
When most men are wage earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend. As soon as his business is in any difficulties, as at present in the coal business, he tries to reduce what he has to spend on wages, and in doing so reduces what others have to spend on coal. He is wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time (43).
But is this still the case? Is there still a contradiction today, that of “keeping the same man rich and poor at the same time,” within the present iteration of financier capitalism? Some on the left answer yes: given that 70% of the US economy is driven by consumer spending, it is therefore in the business class’s interest to seek a “middle out” rather than trickle-down solution. This point is made rather convincingly in Robert Reich’s excellent Inequality For All (watch the trailer!).
Though there might be a significant problem with such an outlook. Economists Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz offer a more robust analysis, pointing out that the nature of capitalism has drastically shifted, to say nothing of the class political winds. Although consumer spending still accounts for a large portion of growth, dependency on the US consumer is quickly dwindling. Hence the reason why we’ve seen a surplus in production but consistent, year over year stagnation in wages and massive unemployment. Economists now refer to the US economy as a “mature economy,” which, according to Wolff, is economist’s jargon for: no more growth here; move along.
As Alperovitz highlights, the solution offered by Reich and others relies too heavily upon political conditions that no longer exists, such as a strong labor movement and the prospect of war to stimulate growth. Lacking the confluence of these (and other factors), there simply is not enough brute political force to mount a traditional liberal or Keynesian solution. In short, the role of middle class’s spending power is undermined by deeper systematic problems. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can, or no longer needs, to afford, as John Gray writes.
Still, the solutions offered by Alperovitz and Wolff bear many similarities to Chesterton’s distributist ideals. Both figures advocate worker owned enterprises, ESOPs, municipal utilities, and traditional cooperative businesses. Alperovitz and Wolff are also fond of citing Mondragon, a large scale Spanish cooperative started by a Catholic priest – a point too easily glided over. What they offer is a bottom up solution rather than a middle out or trickle down. It’s no longer a question of left vs. right, but of something akin to communitarianism – small, decentralized communities – vs. libertarianism and it’s sickly mirror image, statism (watch the trailer!). One fundamental difference, however, is that Alperovitz and Wolff refuse to downplay class interest.
But can this really work outside a shared commitment to the common good and shared material values? R.H. Tawney reminds us in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism that it was the rejection of ends and values in the first place that created the conditions for what has become today’s rapacious capitalism. Trading one form of functionless economic efficiency for another leaves us right where we started.
We therefore need something more than appeals to self-interest in order for “New-Economy Movement” to get off the ground. So the next question is: what is the social glue or reciprocal bond that binds people together to form a worker-owned enterprise, as just one example? Further, in the absence of political moral commitments, rather than freely-contracting individuals, or as Rowan Williams describes it, a “picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark,” what do we have left if not more capitalism?
More to come, but it seems clear that Tawney’s social vision offers one of the more fruitful ways forward – and one that critically engages today’s financierism.
From Peppe Savà’s 2012 interview with Giorgio Agamben:
In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. Furthermore, the claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.
The undiminished irrationality of rational society encourages people to elevate religion into an end in itself, without regard to its content: to view religion as a mere attitude, as a quality of subjectivity. All this at the cost of religion itself. One needs only to be a believer – no matter what he believes in. Such irrationality has the same function of putty… the jargon guides the petit bourgeois to a positive attitude toward life. It fastidiously prolongs the innumerable events which are to make attractive to men a life by which they otherwise would be disgusted – and which they would soon come to consider unbearable. That religion has shifted into the subject, has become religiosity, follows the trend of history. Dead cells of religiosity in the midst of the secular, however, become poisonous.
Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, 21-22.
How’s this for an ending?
The language in which theologians and preachers expressed their horror of the sin of covetousness may appear to the modern reader too murkily sulphurous; their precepts on the contracts of business and the disposition of property may seem an impracticable pedantry. But rashness is a more agreeable failing than cowardice, and, when to speak is unpopular, it less pardonable to be silent than to say too much. Posterity has, perhaps, as much to learn from the eloquence with which Latimer scourged injustice and oppression as from the sober respectability of the judicious Paley – who himself, since there are depths below depths, was regarded as a dangerous revolutionary by George III.
From the closing paragraph to R.H. Tawney’s, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
From “A Prayer for Landlords,” in A Book of Private Prayer set forth by the Order of King Edward VI, issued in 1553:
We heartily pray thee to send they holy spirit into the hearts of them that posses the grounds, pastures, and dwelling-places of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes, after the manner of covetous worldlings… but so behave themselves in letting out their tenements, lands and pastures, that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places.
Quoted in R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, “The Land Question.”
A few gems from one of the great 20th century Anglican social and economic scholars, R.H. Tawney.
On the medieval era:
The significance of its contribution consists, not in its particular theories as to prices and interest, which recur in all ages, whenever the circumstances of the economic environment expose consumer and borrower to extortion, but in its insistence that society is a spiritual organism, not an economic machine, and that economic activity, which is one subordinate element within a vast and complex unity, requires to be controlled and repressed by reference to moral ends for which it supplies the material means. So merciless is the tyranny of economic appetites, so prone to self-aggrandizement the empire of economic interests, that a doctrine which confines them to their proper sphere, as the servant, not the master, of civilization, may reasonable be regarded as among the pregnant truisms which are a permanent element in any sane philosophy (“The Ideal and The Reality”).
A religious theory of society necessarily regards with suspicion all doctrines which claim a large space for the unfettered play of economic self-interest (“The Land Question”).
On the economic reformation in England:
In their view of religion as embracing all sides of life, and in their theory of the particular social obligations which religion involved, the most representative thinkers of the Church of England had no intention of breaking with traditional doctrines. In the rooted suspicion of economic motives which caused them to damn each fresh manifestation of the spirit of economic enterprise as a new form of the sin of covetousness, as in their insistence that the criteria of economic relations and of the social order were to be sought, not in practical expediency, but in truths of which the Church was the guardian and the exponent, the utterances of men of religion, in the reign of Elizabeth, in spite of the revolution which had intervened, had more affinity with the doctrines of the Schoolmen than with those which were to be fashionable after the Restoration (“Religious Theory and Social Policy”).
Quotes taken from Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
Catholicity and Covenant has written a patient, yet forceful, critique of GAFCON’s response to the Pilling report. It’s well worth a read.
As it stands, the GAFCON statement seems to have formed an unholy alliance with the logic of moral intuitionism. With the help of Oliver O’Donovan, C&C notes that such paradigms are dominated by the modern “immediacy of insight” and therefore run the risk of making “the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous.” Truth is here regarded as self-evident, immediately present to the subject irrespective of ethical formation, authority and history. Kant again triumphs over Aristotle.
In Church in Crisis, O’Donovan doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing such forms of biblical-moral-intuitionism:
We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a “biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic of “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief – a refusal to open ourselves to the questions, What is God saying to us through his world? [...]
The interpretation of Scripture is a matter in which we wait upon God – not, of course, as though we had understood nothing, but simply because we have not understood everything. The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second. I can always read further, study harder, think deeper. To precipitate myself from the pinnacle of the text, and demand that angel wings shall bear my interpretation up, is to cut short the task of waiting and attending; it is to tempt the Lord my God (79-80).