The Zombie of Calvinism

Over a hundred years ago, Max Weber suggested that the reason industrial capitalism developed in Northern Europe and its splinter societies was essentially that they were Calvinist. By this he meant several things.

He meant, if you read his work, that whereas work might have been valued in Catholic and quasi-Catholic traditions, there was an emphasis on good works, spreading the money, and the passing superficiality of materialism. This went along with a very rich church, of course, but the wealth of the church was in a sense a rebuke to materialist attempts to make money mean things. It could only really be used in some vague way to make life a little easier or to worship God if it wasn't going to enhance the sin in people.

For Calvinists, however, work was the sign of a moral life. A moral life suggested that the individuals who were seen to live it might have been saved by grace. This was important because God knew who was damned and who wasn't, and people didn't. So they needed clues. The mix of nervousness and Protestant work that emerged from this worldview drove people on.

A second aspect of Calvinism was, according to Weber, that ordinary secular work became vocational. It became not a way to pass the day but a way to demonstrate application, to avoid self-indulgence, and to show diligence. One doesn't have to have read Samuel Smiles to get the point. People who worked hard without taking sinful pleasure in it, and who accumulated wealth, were validated by this system. However, they were not meant to indulge themselves.

Weber thought that the interaction of these factors would lead to several developments. One was an emphasis on day-to-day sobriety and rationality, but a fear or aversion of 'big moral philosophical' Reason, since the latter would be self-indulgent when all of God's meanings were in the bible or in an Amazing Grace which could not be understood. It would also, he thought, lead to bureacracy and practical solutions to the world's problems, which would be predicated on making money to demonstrate success with efficiency. This would eventually liquidate the original religious impulse behind the behaviours.

Looking around at modern Britain, who wouldn't see the zombie of Calvinism? By that, I mean that 'work' is upheld as a good in itself without any real reason being provided for that. In addition, every job now seems to be associated with a 'vocational qualification'. Vocations are callings. Priests are called by God. Everyone else has a talent or skills set, or falls into things as far as I can see.

I should stress that I respect real Calvinists. There are plenty of people around however, who spend their time loudly denouncing religion at the same time as coming out with views that would suit a John Knox hologram character.

The exigencies of global capitalism are that it is necessary to organise human beings and maximise their productivity without actually recreating slavery. the process of doing so has been helped by the indebtedness of most workers, and the very real recognition that one needs some sort of achievement to make life bearable and that doing nothing all day is bad for the soul.

Thirdly, it has become possible, though because of the oil running away this moment might be passing, to fulfill all needs, even if invented, by technology. Such a process plays to the global fashions of the media, credit, and the pervasisve relativism that emerges from a world in which 'work' in the Calvinist sense is pushed down the throats of workers by managers and educators without any real substance being attached to it.

This process was tragically accelerated in the nineteen sixties by the exhilarating destruction of the cultural memory bank of scholarship, intellect, and self-discipline because of its association with racism, sexism, imperialism and the stuffiest of hierarchies.

The odd thing is that the defenders of this destruction and its ongoing effects now find their minds and teaching enslaved in universities that are in essence examination factories operated on business lines that make a good deal of money. Still, I suppose they comfort themselves in radicalism by celebrating people who blow up Jews or using long words to decry the rich they envy whilst lecturing at their children, so they can find some quantum of sensibility on which to hang their humanity.

But still the zombie wanders around, casting its dead eyes over young people working in McDonalds and bringing forth 'educational' qualifications courtesy of Hamburger University. It has polluted schools and universities with the idea that education should be to prepare people for employers, rather than to prepare their souls and minds and brains to put up with the tedium of the material world. It has also led to people so exhausted they can be pushed, provoked and frightened by a mendacious media and a set of industries built around killing people or things.

This new dispensation is as far away from the hardworking decency of traditional Presbyterians and other Calvinists as secular caricatures of Catholicism are from the reality of Catholic Logic and the Social Gospel that animates my faith. Lots of people have lost any capacity to see this, though, or why it matters.

So we end up with a world where people hang moral identities on sex and sexual practices amongst adults; where no one has any respect for anything; where borrowing and chiselling and abusing are rational decisions; and where dignity is a form of cognitive dissonance best crushed.

This world has emerged at a time when other cultures can see through the misplaced loud cover of the Enlightenment the rich and their spokespeople use, along with mad scientists, to see the paganism and cultural decay that is going on. It emerges at a time when no one can distinguish what is being paid for with funny money and what the real successes of economies are. It emerges at a time when the oil is running out and the planet is tilting under the weight of the peoples who demand their historic place in the east without the historic supplies of energy and resources to feed their numbers.

We are in for trouble. Big, capital letters TRUBBEL, as Lyndon Johnson used to spell it out to audiences. That's not a mad, doom laden prediction, it's a fact. And one of the features of it is the zombie of Calvinism, whose concerns have become a way for the political classes to keep the hard working people who give a heck working for badges and test points at work that their managers have very little respect for because they are not allowed to have any.

There must be some way out of this, and into a life in which human beings do natural things for reasonable ends whilst living good lives. However, I am--no pun, and forgive my language--damned if I can find it.


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