[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Fukuyama): The Calvinist Manifesto

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Essay: The Calvinist Manifesto


    THIS year is the 100th anniversary of the most famous sociological
    tract ever written, ''The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
    Capitalism,'' by Max Weber. It was a book that stood Karl Marx on his
    head. Religion, according to Weber, was not an ideology produced by
    economic interests (the ''opiate of the masses,'' as Marx had put it);
    rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist world possible. In
    the present decade, when cultures seem to be clashing and religion is
    frequently blamed for the failures of modernization and democracy in
    the Muslim world, Weber's book and ideas deserve a fresh look.

    Weber's argument centered on ascetic Protestantism. He said that the
    Calvinist doctrine of predestination led believers to seek to
    demonstrate their elect status, which they did by engaging in commerce
    and worldly accumulation. In this way, Protestantism created a work
    ethic -- that is, the valuing of work for its own sake rather than for
    its results -- and demolished the older Aristotelian-Roman Catholic
    doctrine that one should acquire only as much wealth as one needed to
    live well. In addition, Protestantism admonished its believers to
    behave morally outside the boundaries of the family, which was crucial
    in creating a system of social trust.

    The Weber thesis was controversial from the moment it was published.
    Various scholars stated that it was empirically wrong about the
    superior economic performance of Protestants over Catholics; that
    Catholic societies had started to develop modern capitalism long
    before the Reformation; and that it was the Counter-Reformation rather
    than Catholicism itself that had led to economic backwardness. The
    German economist Werner Sombart claimed to have found the functional
    equivalent of the Protestant ethic in Judaism; Robert Bellah
    discovered it in Japan's Tokugawa Buddhism.

    It is safe to say that most contemporary economists do not take
    Weber's hypothesis, or any other culturalist theory of economic
    growth, seriously. Many maintain that culture is a residual category
    in which lazy social scientists take refuge when they can't develop a
    more rigorous theory. There is indeed reason to be cautious about
    using culture to explain economic and political outcomes. Weber's own
    writings on the other great world religions and their impact on
    modernization serve as warnings. His book ''The Religion of China:
    Confucianism and Taoism'' (1916) takes a very dim view of the
    prospects for economic development in Confucian China, whose culture,
    he remarks at one point, provides only slightly less of an obstacle to
    the emergence of modern capitalism than Japan's.

    What held traditional China and Japan back, we now understand, was not
    culture, but stifling institutions, bad politics and misguided
    policies. Once these were fixed, both societies took off. Culture is
    only one of many factors that determine the success of a society. This
    is something to bear in mind when one hears assertions that the
    religion of Islam explains terrorism, the lack of democracy or other
    phenomena in the Middle East.

    At the same time, no one can deny the importance of religion and
    culture in determining why institutions work better in some countries
    than in others. The Catholic parts of Europe were slower to modernize
    economically than the Protestant ones, and they took longer to
    reconcile themselves to democracy. Thus, much of what Samuel
    Huntington called the ''third wave'' of democratization took place
    between the 1970's and 90's in places like Spain, Portugal and many
    countries of Latin America. Even today, among the highly secular
    societies that make up the European Union, there is a clear gradient
    in attitudes toward political corruption from the Protestant north to
    the Mediterranean south. It was the entry of the squeaky-clean
    Scandinavians into the union that ultimately forced the resignation of
    its entire executive leadership in 1999 over a minor corruption
    scandal involving a former French prime minister.

    ''The Protestant Ethic'' raises much more profound questions about the
    role of religion in modern life than most discussions suggest. Weber
    argues that in the modern world, the work ethic has become detached
    from the religious passions that gave birth to it, and that it now is
    part of rational, science-based capitalism. Values for Weber do not
    arise rationally, but out of the kind of human creativity that
    originally inspired the great world religions. Their ultimate source,
    he believed, lay in what he labeled ''charismatic authority'' -- in
    the original Greek meaning of ''touched by God.'' The modern world, he
    said, has seen this type of authority give way to a
    bureaucratic-rational form that deadens the human spirit (producing
    what he called an ''iron cage'') even as it has made the world
    peaceful and prosperous. Modernity is still haunted by ''the ghost of
    dead religious beliefs,'' but has largely been emptied of authentic
    spirituality. This was especially true, Weber believed, in the United
    States, where ''the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and
    ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane

    It is worth looking more closely at how Weber's vision of the modern
    world has panned out in the century since the publication of ''The
    Protestant Ethic.'' In many ways, of course, it has proved fatally
    accurate: rational, science-based capitalism has spread across the
    globe, bringing material advancement to large parts of the world and
    welding it together into the iron cage we now call globalization.

    But it goes without saying that religion and religious passion are not
    dead, and not only because of Islamic militancy but also because of
    the global Protestant-evangelical upsurge that, in terms of sheer
    numbers, rivals fundamentalist Islam as a source of authentic
    religiosity. The revival of Hinduism among middle-class Indians, or
    the emergence of the Falun Gong movement in China, or the resurgence
    of Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia and other former Communist lands, or
    the continuing vibrancy of religion in America, suggests that
    secularization and rationalism are hardly the inevitable handmaidens
    of modernization.

    One might even take a broader view of what constitutes religion and
    charismatic authority. The past century was marked by what the German
    theorist Carl Schmitt labeled ''political-theological'' movements,
    like Nazism and Marxism-Leninism, that were based on passionate
    commitments to ultimately irrational beliefs. Marxism claimed to be
    scientific, but its real-world adherents followed leaders like Lenin,
    Stalin or Mao with the kind of blind commitment to authority that is
    psychologically indistinguishable from religious passion. (During the
    Cultural Revolution in China, a person had to be careful about what he
    did with old newspapers; if a paper contained a picture of Mao and one
    sat on the holy image or used the newspaper to wrap a fish, one was in
    danger of being named a counterrevolutionary.)

    SURPRISINGLY, the Weberian vision of a modernity characterized by
    ''specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart'' applies much
    more to modern Europe than to present-day America. Europe today is a
    continent that is peaceful, prosperous, rationally administered by the
    European Union and thoroughly secular. Europeans may continue to use
    terms like ''human rights'' and ''human dignity,'' which are rooted in
    the Christian values of their civilization, but few of them could give
    a coherent account of why they continue to believe in such things. The
    ghost of dead religious beliefs haunts Europe much more than it does

    Weber's ''Protestant Ethic'' was thus terrifically successful as a
    stimulus to serious thought about the relationship of cultural values
    to modernity. But as a historical account of the rise of modern
    capitalism, or as an exercise in social prediction, it has turned out
    to be less correct. The violent century that followed publication of
    his book did not lack for charismatic authority, and the century to
    come threatens yet more of the same. One must wonder whether it was
    not Weber's nostalgia for spiritual authenticity -- what one might
    term his Nietzscheanism -- that was misplaced, and whether living in
    the iron cage of modern rationalism is such a terrible thing after

    Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political economy at
    the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the
    author, most recently, of ''State-Building.''

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