Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.
In the final lecture of the series, Kathryn Tanner aimed to tie up some of the loose threads from previous lectures and focus on what she thinks is the “individualizing, moralizing” aspect of capitalism and to dissociate Christianity from its practice. Capitalism today, she argues, focuses on individual responsibility and work on the self, such that praise and blame is directed toward individuals. But relation to self in those ways also presupposes relations to others, and is reinforced in the “social world” that capitalism creates. Her overall goal is to show that “the ways in which Christians bring together relations to oneself and relations with others have the potential to form an entirely different, other world – a world, by way of which, this one might be called fundamentally into question.”
The social mechanisms that form the subject in capitalism are done for the purpose of cost-cutting and profit maximization. For instance, workers receive performance based pay and have their tasks consistently evaluated. Governments too, Tanner insightfully points out, also leave people to fend for themselves. Welfare individualizes persons in moralizing ways when it is not given out as a right, but something only specific types of persons can claim through a contract with the state. Welfare is not given to a class of people, Tanner insists, but to certain individuals who agree to terms in return for benefits (e.g. search for work, or accept any job offer no matter what).
Returning to corporations, they make people compete with others. One is, potentially, in competition with all of the workers across the globe. Corporations give out rewards based upon relative benchmarks – surpassing co-workers’ performances gives you a pay raise. The standard of excellence is judged against the work done by one’s co-workers. Management might use bell-curves to assign reward, for instance, whereby over time the average shifts higher and higher because everyone is competing to be above it. Workers performing under the average are then laid off.
Individuals, in reality however, are dependent upon others to a great degree. Profit in finance depends upon the actions of others (i.e. others fueling demand), and profit comes from slightly beating the herd. In this way, traders may often act against their best judgment because others are acting in a particular way. What is best might not be the same as what is profitable due to following the actions of others in finance. In work life, workers often are encouraged to take credit for themselves what is actually a group effort. This is what allows people to receive raises and promotions, for instance, when they take credit for the team’s most important contributions.
In all of these ways, reward is not dependent on time and effort invested. There might be an incidental connection, Tanner concedes, but those who work the hardest are not necessarily the most well rewarded. Day laborers, for example, work quite hard but receive relatively nothing compared to others. In finance, profit is often the result of timing or the chance that comes along with luck even though traders take credit for their predictions. Rewards are just not distributed to one to the same degree as their effort differentiates them from other workers.
Directing her attention to Christianity for the rest of the lecture, Tanner thinks that Christianity doesn’t have much of a direct interest in a work ethic in capitalism. For most of Christian history, the church pushed people toward religious vocations and viewed all others as quite suspect. Other pursuits just distracted people from God, so that spiritual work was the end of all types of work. In the Reformation, pursuits were still ranked, but religious pursuits could now be done in any vocation (contra just religious vocations). The monastic life was less valued because devotion to God could be pursued while at any job. Still though, work is not valued in and of itself. Economic activity is not valued in its own right – this is what Weber argued too, that Reformed Christians could only advance capitalism to the extent they didn’t have purely economic interests. One still did work in the economic realm of life for the sake of other things (e.g. knowing whether one is elect, to use Weber’s example).
Others started to think that one’s job was assigned to them by God’s providence which meant value was given to specifically economic activity. One is to work hard at their job because it is God’s will they are assigned to it in the first place, for example. But this, Tanner cautions, has the potential to give religious justification to all sorts of work, regardless of how demeaning or unjust it happens to be.
Instead, Tanner thinks that it makes the most sense to think of salvation including the here and now, implying that the material world should be transformed in keeping with God’s efforts for universal benevolence. Grace, as she has noted in previous lectures, empowers one to make material changes. Religious commitments are still primary, but they can include all of the economic because the religious project is to transform all of life as a whole.
She thinks that an ethic of religious justice can be an anti-work ethic because success is God’s not ours. We can’t take credit for our religious success and therefore it is not merely a matter of individual responsibility, unlike in capitalism. Effort may be needed, but it is ultimately in God’s hands. Success, likewise, does not increase or decrease the worth of individuals. Moreover, our achievements in this life are relatively nothing compared to Christ’s perfection. Success is measured instead by conformity to God, but all are capable of the same success by virtue of sharing in Christ. In this way, the Christian life is non-competitive.
Tanner argues, “gone thereby is any point in trying to gain some sort of competitive advantage over others by besting them in the pursuits of religious ends. One’s individual worth as graced by Christ is not fundamentally dependent on how one stands in relation to others,” contra how capitalism wants social relations to work. Assigning relative worth is never appropriate in Christianity because we are valued independent of relative standing to others. In religious terms, distinguishing oneself from others does not make one a better person. The competitive context of capitalism is not part of the kingdom of God.
Individual moralizing responsibility is neglected here because we are all creatures together, finite just as others are. Differences do not have this import in the Christian community because we share the same origin and the same fate. It is wrong to individualize, then, merit and reward, Tanner argues. This does not neglect individuality, however, because in Christianity God perceives us in our particularity, but our value in God’s eyes is not dependent upon relative achievements. She insists, “God does not love you more when you succeed than when you fail.”
We aren’t saved so that we can remain responsible for some objective. God doesn’t need anything from us. God wants us to live for God but that isn’t why we are saved. We are saved, in strict Tannerian fashion, just because God wants to share God’s own life with us. Our productive aim might be to live for God, but this belief need not mean we are to be fundamentally productive for any other means.
In fact, throughout much of Christianity, toil is associated with sin and the fall. This undermines any anthropology of production. Work, in Christianity, does not have to be a means to self-fulfillment, expression, or realization. There is instead a certain temperance with regard to work. We should be able to do things in freedom other than work, Tanner insists.
However, Tanner doesn’t think that usually given options for defying capitalism will succeed – like refusing to work and being intentionally unproductive or calling for a general work and debt strike. She doesn’t think either has the potential to ultimately undermine the negative aspects of capitalism.
Instead, Tanner thinks that Christianity forms an alternative world that can disrupt capitalism from within. In Christianity we depend upon one another in community but this dependence is mediated through Christ and the Church which propagates Christ’s own life today (a nod to Schleiermacher). We continue to struggle in sin, which is why we need Christ’s own influence and not merely the equally sinful influence of other human beings. Our influence often hinders the spread of life to others, and it is easy to sinfully substitute your own efforts for the influence of Christ. A mutually supporting community is ideal, but progress in the Christian life is possible even in sin-filled churches because we are primarily empowered to live for God by God, not others.
The church is non-competitive. Social relations are mediated through God, and members do not compete for goods. Salvation, for Tanner, should be enjoyed in community – “a community of enjoyment” – where grace is shared and collectively enjoyed by all. One enjoys God in whole, not in part. The Christian community is not based upon anything other than God and is thereby not hindered by human differences. We are drawn by sharing in the experience of God.
Tanner closes the series by summarizing what she attempted to do. She thinks Christianity is an imaginative counter to the world of capitalism. “The new world operates not at a remove from this one, but by cutting across it, traversing it to disruptive effects.” This is not just a deferred utopia or an alternative, but separate community (as other theologians have argued). “This other world has been present in the past and it is still here… already at work in the present with a voice whose force is yet to be extinguished.”