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.