Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

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Kathryn Tanner
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2019.
     256 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300219036.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

About a century ago, German sociologist Max Weber wrote the influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)He argued that Protestant Christianity and Calvinist theology catalyzed the rise of modern capitalism. From then on, a tight connection between one’s religiously-based ethic and Western “capitalism” was established in both theory and practice.

In the age of 21st century “finance-dominated capitalism,” Kathryn Tanner wants to address the current landscape. In the preface to Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, she says “I am critical of the present spirit of capitalism because I believe my own, quite specific Christian commitments require it. But I also suggest over the course of the chapters to come that the present-day organization of capitalism is deserving of such criticism whatever one’s religious commitments, because of its untoward effects on persons and populations, its deforming effects on the way people understand themselves and their relations with others” (7). 

Tanner even goes as far as to say that, “there is surprisingly little reason to think Christianity has a direct interest in developing a work ethic at all” (198). Capitalism today—which is debt-oriented, based on neoclassical economic theory, and highly individualist—has become totalizing. It “pretends to be all-encompassing with no limits, nothing outside of itself” (219) and “[w]ithout the need any longer of religious backing, capitalism may not have the power itself to shape people in its own image; its conduct-forming spirit may now be its own production, in other words” (8). Much of the book then digs into the inner mechanics of how and why this is the case—and how Christianity offers a more viable alternative. For example, Tanner compares concepts such as ultimate loyalties (your job and boss, or God?), the bond market and debt-servicing with sin and bondage, and how today’s investment world completely distorts time and our sense of place. 

However, these are mere subpoints compared to the bulk of the book, which varied greatly at times. In one place, Tanner covers a basic 101 of investing (180), while in another, pages and pages about the social-psychology of derivatives market are carefully unfolded (141-57). Though at times the arguments and connection between sections are not altogether clear, at other times, her conclusions are subtle and somewhat surprising. 

Regardless, a most insightful discussion in the book was the crippling effects of debt, the mechanisms that perpetuate the debt culture, and how it relates to the larger problem of “finance-dominated capitalism.” We live in a world almost entirely driven by credit, and the financial sector of the economy—which is the lion’s share of the global economy today—is invisible to most people. It’s the air we breathe and remains largely unquestioned. 

Some of the problems or concerns Tanner raises on this count include: 1) the disconnection between buyers and sellers with what they’re buying and selling (13-15); 2) the conflict of interest it creates for the state in the form of government bonds (24); 3) the relativizing of the future by focusing on the present (29-31); 4) the wasted capital in debt-servicing (46-47); and 5) the totalizing effect of being in debt: “[o]ne has promised … to organize the whole of one’s life as both a worker and consumer to meet demands of debt; every aspect of life is potentially relevant to one’s ability to service it. And will in fact becomes so relevant the more difficult it is to make the payments on that debt” (49). How can anyone ignore the power that mortgage payments and student loans have over one’s life?

As a former Associate Professor of theology and a current Professor of Economics/Business, I could appreciate not only this general intersection of topics, but also some of the details. Tanner’s consistent delineator of “finance-dominated capitalism” is particularly appreciated, as the broad term “capitalism” is often misused, inadequate, or simply misunderstood. The qualifier “finance-dominated” is perfectly appropriate by any account. Tanner’s point about the lack of current interest in long-term investments (112), the depersonalizing nature of contemporary investments in general, the irrational faith some have placed in the financial sector, and her “anti-work ethic” (200, 210) in today’s world of consumerism are all reflections that can be applauded, and deserve much due-attention. This is true even as many or most of these arguments and conclusions have already been elaborated in similar works of the theology-capitalism subgenre, such as Kenneth Barnes’s Redeeming Capitalism (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018) and Daniel Bell’s The Economy of Desire (Baker Academic, 2012).

There were other places meriting reservation. Statements such as “[f]inance-dominated capitalism across the board does nothing of itself to encourage the idea of people profiting together, since profit-taking is usually not dependent on other people making money too” (182) are problematic. As greedy and immoral as some entrepreneurs today can be, their profits are frequently contingent on someone else’s good—and on team work. As any good micro-economics course will teach, individual exchanges cannot occur unless both parties benefit in some way—at least according to both parties. 

Similarly, one reads that “[o]ne cannot depend on others to help one profit because finance-dominated capitalism forces one to compete with everyone else in all the avenues it offers for achieving profit” (183). Again, this is simply not the case. The business world is saturated with cooperation, mutual profit-making (whether initiated out of mutual concern, fear, love, or pure strategy), as well as countless cases of refused competition (e.g., McDonald’s has chosen not to compete in the oil industry or pharmaceuticals). In fact, the very existence of corporations and Chief Executive Officers is an ipso facto constellation of relationships of interdependence. I also had questions about Tanner’s political optimism (e.g., “states concerned to further the economic well-being of their citizens” 176), and her understanding of the employer-employee relationship at times. 

Regardless of these quibbles, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism challenges readers to enter a new world not determined by the reductionistic, neoliberal, and neoclassical thinking of contemporary markets, laborious production, and profit-making schemes. Readers are instead encouraged to turn many of these basic premises upside down and thereby set aside idolatries they didn’t know they had.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is a former Associate Professor of Theology and currently serves as as professor of Economics and Business at the University of the People and Western Dakota Technical Institute.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Tanner is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Christ the Key and Economy of Grace, among other books.

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