“…other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature.”
“…other enjoyments, of a purer, more lasting, and more exquisite nature.”
A defense of Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis from the 1940s by Ephraim Fischoff makes the plausible argument that critics — and many supporters — of Weber’s essay attached unwarranted causality to it, as if “Calvinism caused capitalism.” Instead, Fischoff explained:
Weber’s thesis must be construed not according to the usual interpretation, as an effort to trace the causative influence of the Protestant ethic upon the emergence of capitalism, but as an exposition of the rich congruency of such diverse aspects of a culture as religion and economics.
Fair enough. Then along comes Colin Campbell 43 some odd years later talking about the Other Protestant Ethic. It was Campbell’s intention in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism to update Weber and to fill in what he saw as a significant gap in Weber’s thesis — his failure to account for new consumer attitudes, which Campbell traced back to Sentimentalism and Romanticism, both adaptations of Protestantism.
If my brief summary doesn’t do justice to Campbell’s analysis, it is only because his evocative chapter title, “The Other Protestant Ethic” at once evokes and forecloses the possibility of two, three, many Protestant Ethics. Campbell is conspicuously silent on the labour movement, whose conservative motto, “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” expressed both a work ethic and a consumer ethic. Nor does Campbell mention the radical, socialist and anarchist cults, sects and movements who proudly wore their Protestantism on their sleeves.
Those two omissions are all the more glaring in that the Romanticism Campbell does feature was deeply implicated in both of them. Campbell spends several pages in an analysis of William Wordsworth’s preface to the 1802 second edition of his Lyrical Ballads, in which Wordsworth inserted an “Easter egg” of biblical proportions that serves as the title of this post. Wordsworth’s “enjoyments… of a more exquisite nature” is almost certainly an appropriation of or allusion to William Godwin’s argument about commodities, labour, and leisure from his essay, “Of Avarice and Profusion” in The Enquirer:
The commodities that substantially contribute to the subsistence of the human species form a very short catalogue: they demand from us but a slender portion of industry. If these only were produced, and sufficiently produced, the species of man would be continued. If the labour necessarily required to produce them were equitably divided among the poor, and, still more, if it were equitably divided among all, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure would be ample. There was a time when this leisure would have been of small comparative value: it is to be hoped that the time will come, when it will be applied to the most important purposes. Those hours which are not required for the production of the necessaries of life, may be devoted to the cultivation of the understanding, the enlarging our stock of knowledge, the refining our taste, and thus opening to us new and more exquisite sources of enjoyment. It is not necessary that all our hours of leisure should be dedicated to intellectual pursuits; it is probable that the well-being of man would be best promoted by the production of some superfluities and luxuries, though certainly not of such as an ill-imagined and exclusive vanity now teaches to admire; but there is no reason in the system of the universe or the nature of man, why any individual should be deprived of the means of intellectual cultivation.
Incidentally, Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley, quoted the first five sentences of that passage in her notes to Percy Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab. The passage is consistent with Godwin’s argument in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, in which, as William Stafford mentioned, “[t]he Calvinist doctrine of the calling can be discerned just below the surface…” But it wasn’t Calvin’s doctrine, it was Godwin’s updating and reformulation of the doctrine. In Godwin’s version, work and leisure were to have equal status, a point Godwin made explicit in his Thoughts on Man.
The river of human life is divided into two streams; occupation and leisure—or, to express the thing more accurately, that occupation, which is prescribed, and may be called the business of life, and that occupation, which arises contingently, and not so much of absolute and set purpose, not being prescribed: such being the more exact description of these two divisions of human life, inasmuch as the latter is often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits than the former.
If Godwin’s post-Calvinist ethic is implicated in Romanticism — which it obviously is, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, to name a few — it is even more so in the emerging labour movement of the 19th century and, most strikingly, in Marx’s analysis of surplus value and disposable time through the intermediary of Charles Wentworth Dilke’s The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties.
The passage from Marx’s Grundrisse that cited Dilke’s pamphlet explained how capital both potentially enables but actually impedes the creation of socially available free time for “the cultivation of the understanding, the enlarging our stock of knowledge, the refining our taste, and thus opening to us new and more exquisite sources of enjoyment”:
Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high. ‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth), ‘but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’ (The Source and Remedy etc. 1821, p. 6.)
Fischoff’s defense of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that I mentioned earlier characterized Weber’s essay as a “conscious reaction to the Marxian hypothesis” and thus considered it understandable that Weber would “overstress the consistency and efficacy of ideal factors.” What Weber could not have have known, though, was how precisely those “ideal factors” were every bit as much involved in the “Marxian hypothesis” as they were in the capitalist spirit — if not more so.
In the conclusion of The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Consumerism, Colin Campbell highlighted a phenomenon he referred to as “the irony of social action.” “Neither the first Romantics nor their successors in subsequent decades, ever intended to grant legitimacy to modern consumerism or to that spirit of self-interested hedonism upon which it is based.” When I hear the word “irony,” I reach for my invisible hand (with my other invisible hand). Irony is a trope, a form of expression, not something that “nature” or “the gods” do to humiliate people for their pretensions.
When actions have unintended consequences, it is not because of some celestial law of irony. It is because human motives and actions are intrinsically ambivalent. The ambivalence of social action is a proper subject for analysis. The irony of social action is a smug, reactionary sneer masquerading as wisdom of the ages.
The proverbial “work ethic” of the late 1960s and early 1970s (which is still with us) can best be understood as an ambivalent response by both hippies and hippie-punchers to the simultaneous eclipse of post-war full employment and the “Borrow. Spend. Buy. Waste. Want.” consumer society Affluenza. The confusion between irony and ambivalence is almost certainly because satire and irony are the literary forms used to call attention to ambivalence, especially in its more unsavory manifestation as hypocrisy.
This topic risks being archaic. Donald Trump replaced all of the dog whistles with trumpets.
Also, where I live it is the majority that are minorities that still have a work ethic. They do real work rather than corporate make work for far too much money while doing too little work. Sure, plenty of lazy white bread lines the aisles in western Henrico County, but in this eastern Henrico district minorities take pride in their work, but then so do the rednecks here. Wage workers and tradesmen still work for their money. Only the well educated get to be lazy and overpaid.
thank you for interesting and “exquisite” essay.
thank you for pointing out what is often forgot.
The first I heard of something like “the worth ethic” it was from Jamestown”
“Virginians know that Captain John Smith was vital to the survival of Jamestown in its early years. They can quote his order: “He that will not work shall not eat.””
It should be noted that this order was not directed at the working poor or the superstitious protestants, but at the members of the “nobility” who accompanied the expedition but thought that work was beneath them.
then it should be remembered that the “protestants” from England were refugees from the established order in Merry England where the rich were idle and the old religion was in cahoots with the rich. suspect the “protestant ethic” was not (at first) directed at keeping the working class hard at work supporting their betters, but at keeping “the betters” from moving in and taking over the place.
Can’t help adding this, though some will call it off topic:
“Smith left home at age 16 after his father died. He joined volunteers in France who were fighting for Dutch independence from Spain. Two years later, he set off for the Mediterranean Sea as a sailor on a merchant ship. In 1600 he joined Austrian forces to fight the Turks in the “Long War.” A valiant soldier, he was promoted to captain while fighting in Hungary. He was fighting in Transylvania in 1602 when he was wounded in battle, captured, and sold as a slave to a Turk.”
So much for those who think slavery was invented in America by evil Scotch-Irish (formerly known as evil Anglo-Saxons).
And though I have as much hatred for the evil Right as anyone, it might also be noted that a case can be made that the Jamestown colony would not have survived without the strong leadership of Smith.
I suspect the “protestant work ethic” emerged in America because “it’s time had come” due to historical forces beyond anyone’s control. though it was seized upon by the rich, and the sort of people who would become rich, as a moral justification for exploiting the labor of others, and the non-benign neglect of those who could not find work. thing is that America was a place (at first) where the vast majority of the population could see that “the rich and well born” were not even a necessary evil, much less Somebodies who deserved to be admired.
The big problem with the work ethic is that if black people could get good jobs then they might become Republicans :<)
Welfare as Nixon and Reagan knew it to be was replaced by workfare during the Clinton administration. It was a case of replacing a bad program with an even worse program. One thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree upon is that it costs too much to actually support all working families with public daycare and universal pre-K. A change like that would fix the economy and our broken social system. Politicians need things to stay broken to divide the country into partisan demographics. Fixing stuff is antigovernment.
I think I agree with that, but speaking as the devil, what would happen if mothers just stayed home with the kids. theoretically better for the kids and for the moms. create a labor shortage and get dad higher wages?
some women will not like that, but i womder if most women really like their jobs.
or let the ladies form a union and demand high enough pay so they can afford day care.
I agree, certainly in the case of two parent families, which are less common than they were when we were kids. My mom stayed home eventually, more because of her failing legs than our affluence. My wife’s only brother has a stay at home wife that expects to be judged for it, but I let her know that she had the most important job of all. They raised four successful kids, two ladies and two men.
In single parent families then a mom on the dole may not make the best role model for her kids, that cycle thing – you know.
I believe that for one to have a high paying union job, then they must have a job. Why not work in a public daycare center? Pay off college debt by either teaching pre-K or managing public daycare center.
Then I would retrain war vets as local LEOs if it were up to me.
Materialism and runaway consumerism per se are not the basis of our social problems. The basis of our social problems is our willingness to trash poor people and the global environment so that a few people can have everything that they want at far less than the full cost to both produce and clean up the waste. Consumerism is limited for the majority of people by their income and rentier creditors.
It might be worth mentioning that Robocop was just fiction. What is not fiction is air quality, water quality, and all that plastic trash in the oceans.
The cycle of poverty in the US, the richest country in the world, is not inevitable, but rather the direct effect of public policy as old as our nation and then some. Unfortunately, the cycle of poverty in the US has always been politically convenient for both parties.
Once I believed that I had cornered the market on arcane wisdom, but I have been humbled by Sandy.
Although parent(s) as positive role models is a good thing, that has more to do with basic personality than interacting with society. Once mom and dad have ensured empathy rather than sociopathy, patience rather than violence, and sufficient respect for authority to overcome tendencies for anarchy, then their job is mostly done. A bigger issue for development is the peer environment, especially ghettos and gangs in the name of public housing assistance. Assimilation of disadvantaged minorities is not facilitated by either racial or class segregation.
In the criminal intent of abusing work ethic as a political meme, then the conservatives brought motive with forethought of malice, while liberals provided the means and opportunity.
How conservatives were able get away with their crime was a attribute of effective political memes which could be called social resonance. If a political meme is in discord with widely accepted priors of social consciousness, then it will be rejected, but if that meme is in harmony or resonance with widely accepted priors of social consciousness, then it will be accepted. Social consciousness changes at its own pace, but we can either grease the skids of progress or fall under them according to our choices.
Yes, this gets at my intent in posting these. Too much analysis assumes that people’s opinions, attitudes, and understanding fall into discrete silos. It seems to me that the contrary is true. There is much common ground that is left untrodden. Watching footage of George Wallace campaign speeches and interviews surprised me with how relatable he was compared to the current crop of demag[a]ogues.
reply to you i wrote earlier does not appear. Hang in there.
I may (probably am) just getting stupid, but I can’t guess what or who you are saying yes too. But yes, Wallace was at least arguably sane, though I didn’t hear that much from him or about him. Not the case with head Dixiecrat … who argued once that anti-lynching law would “allow blacks into our homes and swimming pools.”
Untrodden, but not not downtrodden.
coberly, the clue is in the indent. The AB dashboard permits me to make indented replies to posts when I am logged on.
Yes indeed on the indentation
head Dixiecrat = Strom Thurmond
I actually held your comment up alongside each of the other comments. Still couldn’t tell.
I have been looking at a lot of my old writings lately, and I can see how someone who did not know what i was talking about could not know what I was talking about. My tenth grade English teacher told me this would happen.
You do not know I am responding to you???
going by the indentation I assume you are responding to me, but i am not sure about what.
generally i try to include a salutation and a first sentence that makes a specific reference to something a person said. but i also often fail to do that myself.
nice thing, is that people can figure it out with a little help from their friends.
You do similar to what I do. By the way, Disqus system of commenting indents also for for everyone for the first couple of comments.