an obession with first principles

Occupy and the Protestant Work Ethic

Posted: Tuesday Oct 25th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

One of the strangest, at least to me, is the institutionalized form of a protestant work ethic within a free market economic system. The phrase “protestant work ethic” was coined by Max Weber. To summarize the protestant work ethic as it is known today:

He who does not work shall not eat.

God helps those who help themselves

How it is known today is nothing like what Weber advanced. The latter is terribly wrong, for God send rain on the just and the unjust alike. The former is a caricature of 2 Thess 3:10. The verse says “will not work”, not “does not”. There is a big difference between the two, not only of language, but also the early Christian situation. In taking Christ as Lord many were thrown from their communities (some, e.g. those in Jerusalem, weren’t). Finding random jobs would be incredibly hard if people knew who they were.

Now to Weber and the Reformation. The Reformation actually had a lot to say about work because they had a specific historic event to deal with: the rise of a merchant class. For time immemorial there were those who owned and ran estates, fought in wars, and made political decisions. There was no illusion that this did not constitute work, yet it had its vast rewards. And everyone else worked with herds, land, or mills (unless you were a priest – but their activities were also seen as strenuous work). When the Reformation occurred there was the rise of a merchant class who seemed to do no work, and make profits. They traded goods or money, made loans, and connected people together. There was no category within which to place them as truly “working”. Any attempt in the late 19th or early 20th century by Weber to equate the writings of Luther, et. al. with what he witnessed culturally are entirely misguided, an attempt to read that history far far too literally. There are valuable things to say about the value of virtuous work, but what we’ve done with it is horrific.

We have codified that the market is God. The market decides who is righteous and who is a sinner. Those who succeed and make money are righteous. Those who are unable to make money are sinners. The market has thus judged. This is a shocking development once this idea takes its root. For then the ends justify the means. If you can make money through illegal actions the market will vindicate you. If you can cheat, lie, and steal, but your balance sheet is positive – you are righteous.

OccupyWallStreet recognizes this codification. It says the ends do not justify the means. The market is rigged. Occupy does not reject the virtue of work. It rejects the state of affairs that the market declares the righteous and the sinner. Occupy sees itself as the people who have followed the rules, all the recommendations everyone has made for them. Go to college. Save money. Buy a house so you have equity. And those with crushing student debt can’t get a job. Those with houses can’t refinance or have lost them to mortgage. They’ve worked virtuously and have been declared a sinner by the market. And the financial establishment has cheated and changed the rules constantly, their risk now being covered by the promise of the government. Greed is one of the seven mortal sins, and their greedy behavior is being rewarded by the market as the righteous.

The market is not God.

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