Tag Archives: Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – A Critical Review

“Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” 2016 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, by Kathryn Tanner.

A Critical Review by Vincent Williams

In these much anticipated Gifford Lectures, Kathryn Tanner continues her already impactful work on economic markets, begun in 2005 with her publication of Economy of Grace.[1] This time around, however, Tanner is equipped with further research into the neoliberal condition as well as post-mortem insight gained from the financial crisis of 2008. Cleverly alluding in her title to Max Weber’s seminal work from the first decade of the 20th century, Tanner aims to reverse Weber’s analysis such that Christianity is a counter, rather than a companion, to the current configuration of capitalism. She states that her aim is “to show how Christian beliefs might undermine, rather than support, the new spirit of capitalism,” playing off Weber’s work, “what Christianity gives, it can also take away” (1).[2] The argument is arranged around the three-fold notion of time as past, present, and future; how capitalism and Christianity form vastly different subjects under this structure. In her analysis of subject formation, Tanner routinely engages Michel Foucault as a dialog partner, especially his lectures titled The Birth of Biopolitics given at the Collège de France in 1978–9, citing both her affinity for his work and its limitations.[3]

The lectures are half economic analysis and half constructive theology, the former at times quite technical, especially for the uninitiated. Where the argument is occasionally limited by economic complexity, considering a theological audience, it makes up for in a clear correlation between problem and proposed solution. Tanner never merely demonstrates her economic erudition apart from offering a Christian counter claim to said economic situation. She begins by developing the claim that capitalism is presently “finance-dominated,” meaning that the financial sector of the economy is increasingly important for potential profit and therefore dictates how other sectors, including individual actors, are to function. She insightfully points out that the current obsession with maximal profit is quite odd, and that the implications of this and other features of finance-dominated capitalism forms subjects who desire for themselves what capitalism requires. As many have experienced thus far in attempts to change how the economy is organized, capitalism for that reason seems like the only game in town – this is its “imagination constructing” nature according to Tanner. In order to undermine capitalism as it stands today, one “needs to meet it with a counter spirit of similar power” (1). And just here, Tanner’s creative theological proposals begin to have their merit.

In the second lecture, “Chained to the Past,” Tanner stresses how past decisions take on a particularly inexorable quality (e.g. accepting job responsibilities, accruing debt). This forms subjects to be largely self-managing in order to meet the demands of the past – demands set by finance which are fixed, yet leave the means in the individual’s hands. “Every present is past preoccupied and nothing more is to be expected in the future than what the past has already laid down” (2). In describing how debt chains borrowers (both individual debtors and governments), she counters its negative effects by offering up the Christian idea of repudiating one’s past. One is, in her proposal, to become a new person whereby the past never completely constrains the present or future as it does in capitalism today. Because God has entered the picture, possibilities are always open for radical transformation. The meaning of conversion is just this according to Tanner: a radical break with the past (along with its economic implications) rather than a mere continuation bound by its limits.

Tanner’s third lecture, “Total Commitment,” is largely devoted to an analysis of contemporary workplace culture. Companies use fear, require self-evacuation, and give attention to one’s whole person (i.e. Tanner argues, “As much as the doing, to be demonstrated in job performance, one’s being, the character of one’s person and dispensations is a primary matter for employer concern” (3)) in order to produce the subjects that will acquiesce to its demands. Individuals are to see themselves as literal capital, or run their lives like businesses to manage and make use of – in short, to maximize their value as human assets. This is the same maximizing principle that forms finance as a whole, returning to that earlier theme. To do what capitalism requires, workers must be totally committed to the present task, nearly impossible goals await completion and no slack exists in the workflow to make up for the smallest of mistakes. While at times limited to very specific cases inapplicable to other types of workers, Tanner’s analysis of corporate work culture is nonetheless illuminating.

Commitment to God, as Tanner argues, is critical of the total commitment to work that capitalism requires; nothing can overrule one’s commitment to God. She says, “Commitment to God and the conversion it brings about interferes with the total commitment to anything else, thereby limiting the degree by which one could ever be completely personally invested in a company’s aims” (3). This solution is still a kind of absolute attention to the present however, because the Christian is to live completely for God and continuously work on their piety. Tanner even utilizes the same semi-Puritan language of the Christian life as a “project,” which is quite analogous to her description of capitalism’s demands thus far. The difference is significant though, for in the Christian life, grace is always available and one need not live in continual anxiety in the present for God can always make up for our failures and is, more centrally, the agent of one’s transformation to begin with. While a more explicit conversation about the notion of divine and human agency Tanner utilizes in these lectures would be quite useful (namely its compatible or non-competitive character), listeners are to be cognizant of how this series falls into place within her overall theological vision wherein she has addressed this issue in its requisite depth. To summarize the point on commitment, Tanner argues that Christian focus on the present is for the sake of conformity to God, not to the dictates of the market.

In “Nothing but the Present,” Tanner again turns her eye toward how subjects are formed in the present. Akin to their total commitment, workers are to be completely engaged in the present in order to meet company demands and to take the brunt of the fallout when investors’ “short-termism,” as she calls it, unavoidably results in workers’ detriment. Because of the oversized profits to be made in finance in addition to real-time trading of financial instruments, corporations are focused on short-term profit. There is relatively little consideration for workers’, or the company’s for that matter, long-term benefit (e.g. high wages and benefits) because those long-term considerations would cut into the much desired short-term profits to be made in finance. Similar to Tanner’s response in the third lecture, she thinks that Christianity is incredibly focused on the present because one is to always be oriented toward God. The character of this orientation allows the Christian to make it relevant to the whole of their life, in all of its aspects. For instance, Tanner cites the urgent quality of conversion. Unlike in capitalism, one’s decision to convert in the present is not based upon fear of loss, but is rather grounded upon the grandiose offer of salvation and its own attractiveness. While it is not too hard to sort out, Tanner does seem to jump around between speaking of conversion as that initial salvific event, as traditional Christianity would have it, and the ongoing decision to everyday live one’s life for God. This lack of consistency is not an overt problem, but one that requires care from the listener.

Moving on to the relation to the future, Tanner notes that, in capitalism, the future is regarded only for its character to either make or break financially. Capitalism disciplined by finance desires to control and collapse the future so that it is nothing more than an outcome of the present, but market volatility seems to make that entirely impossible (even if stock brokers take all the credit for their success in hindsight). Finance introduce all sorts of tricks to counter this volatility through stock options, futures contracts, or derivatives to cite a few from Tanner’s lecture. In this discussion, it was perhaps most difficult to discern just what Tanner thinks the problem is. Of course it’s a problem for finance – they are the ones who are trying to make the money here – but it remained slightly unclear why Christians should oppose this way of others’ relating to the future; rather than a solution to a real problem, this section seemed more like a description of how Christians think of the future differently. The principle that Tanner counters with, however, is that Christians do not try to master the future or relegate it to mere strict conformity with the present. In Christianity there is a massive transformation between the present and the future, the difference between the two is much larger than that even in the most volatile market conditions. But this difference is actually the attractiveness of the Christian future because one counts upon God’s ultimate benevolence. Christian hope is not limited, Tanner argues, by the present, or even the amount of progress to-date. Grace allows for real transformation regardless of the past.

In these last notes, it is hard to discern where Tanner is speaking of this eschatological dimension of Christianity as only a temporally future possibility, or, as she later argues, its ability to exist in the here and now, the eternal life already begun in Christ that cuts across the world today. Moreover, there remains a certain uneasiness about how Christianity does, it seems, try to control the future; this very feature is what assures us that it will be good. Perhaps though this is a positive feature, rather than negative, because it has the potential to quell the anxiety produce by capitalism’s reflections upon the future.

In her final lecture, “Which World?” Tanner cites in more explicit terms what this Christian alternative entails. Beginning with an analysis of the competitive social world that capitalism creates, and the individual moral responsibility it emphasizes, Tanner moves on to the non-competitive nature of the Christian community, a regularly appearing feature of her earlier work. Unlike the relative worth assigned to individuals under capitalism, one’s worth in Christianity is never tied to personal accomplishment. She concludes, “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” (6). The Christian life is not primarily about individual achievement, or more precisely one’s overly moralizing responsibility for personal progress, because all success is ultimately attributed to God.

What, finally, is Tanner’s vision for capitalism’s transformation? It appears most prominently to be a type of internal disruption whereby the Christian way of life infiltrates and subverts this finance dominance. While Tanner never goes into any practical solutions at length, she seems relatively confident in the availability of alternatives, whether laws, structures, or perhaps attitudes. She even noted that she believes grace is currently at work to empower “revolutionary change,” admittedly strong words deployed when the picture painted in her economic analysis seemed so bleak. While much of her lectures still require economists’ own critical reflections upon their contents, the creative use of Christian theology to counter today’s capitalism makes these lectures worth listening to and carefully reflecting upon their ideas; if Tanner’s economic insight is any indication, there is much work still to be done.

One can really only hope, as Tanner notes in the beginning of her series, that Weber (and her own analysis) was right in one regard: the capacity for Christian beliefs to radically change the economy. In the coming months, as these lectures are prepared for expansion in print, one can only share this hope that the lectures’ further elucidation will provide Christians and theologians interested in economics with a much-needed resource and dialog partner for countering the detrimental effects of capitalism.


[1] This earlier work lays much of the groundwork for the possibility of a relation between economics and theology. Tanner traces out the structure of modern economic thinking and compares it with the Christian story of creation and redemption where the notion of divine gift giving is central. This benevolent, beneficial gift – perhaps most importantly: unconditional gift – is the measuring stick used to critique the organization of capitalism (its dependence upon scarcity, for instance). See Economy of Grace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

[2] The parenthetical citations in this review refer the reader to the specific lecture in the series the quote came from (e.g. 3 would be her lecture titled “Total Commitment”).

[3] See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).


For my summaries and analysis of each individual lecture, see here.

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 6 “Which World?”

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.”


Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 5 “Another World”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Wrapping up her considerations of Capitalism’s temporal dimensions, Kathryn Tanner uses this fifth lecture to discuss the way one relates to the future in both Capitalism and Christianity. The future is a concern for capitalism for its ability to either make or break. But finance wants to collapse the future into the present such that the future is merely the outcome of the present. Traders and brokers have confidence that all of their complex financial instruments can allow them to anticipate the future. The future in this understanding is that which is given by the present. Future possibilities are constrained by the present whereby the future is just an extension of the present.

But market volatility seems to hinder these efforts. The value of stocks, for example, rises and falls constantly. The greater difference between the present and the future is what actually allows for the possibility of profit. Swings on markets are often extreme – they can wipe out a lifetime of gains in one moment or make one rich overnight – these large swings are rare, but extremely impactful (e.g. financial crisis of 2008). One’s actions in the present, in finance, are for the sake of the future. The present value of stock, for example, is a reflection of anticipated future value. Without anticipated future value, the demand for financial instruments is quite low.

In this way, the future must be calculable for present prices to reflect it. Reliably calculating the future, therefore, is the highest goal. But market volatility makes this difficult. So, often “ranges” of future value are given to describe the future’s range of possibilities. Traders, in fact, think they can predict future value all the time. But often this is actually the result of gauging stockholder opinion rather than actual market conditions in the future. If many people like the stock now, the price of that stock can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as demand perpetuates price. In other sectors of the economy, higher price means lower demand (e.g. high gas prices), but in finance the opposite is true. High prices increase demand and therefore increase the price further. This facet of financial markets can, however, Tanner argues, produce “bubbles” full of artificially pumped up prices that can result in quite catastrophic negative feedback loops.

Other more complex trading tactics like stock options or derivatives aim to get around these large differences in price present and future. One can take out a futures contract and buy (or decline to exercise their option) stocks in the future for a set price regardless of true market value. Derivatives similarly are meant to offset the risks and unpredictability of the future. But bets on these instruments just unload risk on insurers. These futures contracts and derivatives are meant to control the future so that it is dealt with in the present already. It is a pre-emptive warding off of the future, but this often fails because the future is unpredictable.

What might Christianity say to this? Tanner argues that Christians do not try to master the future in these ways because, for one, they know it will be great (e.g. new creation!). But Tanner doesn’t want to just focus on that aspect. The transformation between present and future is infinitely greater in Christianity because sin will be completely ripped away and all of our sinful attachments removed. In this life, we will always be repenting even if progress is made due to grace. In all of life’s ups and downs, we are dependent upon Christ’s grace. Enjoyment of God’s own life is impossible to be gained through human effort no matter how perfect one may be in holiness. No matter one’s present condition, Christians can bank on the future being radically different – indeed, Tanner argues that this is what makes it attractive: its difference from the present. The future is never to be collapsed into the present.

In Christianity, therefore, the future is much more important than in capitalism. We will live off the life of God. It is impossible to anticipate what this future life will be like because it is so radically different from the present. Tanner circumvents here a type of speculation regarding what resurrected life will be like. We can’t use current data to predict the future because it will be surprising from the point of view of the past and present. Though we don’t know specifics, we can be certain, Tanner argues, of resurrection itself because that is predicated on confidence in Christ.

Further, what Christians hope for isn’t based upon one’s current amount of progress. A grace-filled future does not depend upon how well one has done so far. A moral life is not a means to life with God, but the moral life is only possible because we are now alive in God. Life with God, enjoyed to a degree in the present, is also our final goal. One does not get to this goal through human success but through grace.

This is not escapism, Tanner cautions. The grace that exists now is the same that will exist in the future due to our current experience of life in Christ. This grace provides the possibility for change now because life in God begins now. Present hopes are fed by future eschatological hopes – ultimate hope drives present hope. The new world is only possible with God, not merely by the possibilities of the present. There is a gap between the two worlds but the other world need not be seen as absolutely separated from the current world; It can disrupt the present. One can hope on the ultimate success of their efforts because hope is really directed toward God whose success is guaranteed.


Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 4 “Nothing but the Present”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner continues her analysis of the temporal dimensions of finance dominated capitalism in this fourth lecture with attention to how the present is magnified in importance. The end goal of maximal profit generation requires perfect attention to the present task; one needs to be totally absorbed. This happens for many reasons, including the time scarcity created by impending deadlines for work to be completed, no possibility of deferment, no slack or forgiveness, all of which mean the first time is the only chance a worker has to succeed. The only way to finish many tasks is through 100% effort. This scarcity mindset extends the impact of finance dominated capitalism to many of life’s spheres. For instance, those without large cash reserves must pay extreme attention to the present so they can stretch their cash as far as possible. There is no room for slack in the money flow here, and errors or emergencies have disastrous consequences for many.

The present loses its temporal dimension because past and future are here collapsed “leaving nothing but the present.” One simply does not have any time to consider the future so the consequences of present action cannot be properly weighed (e.g. by considering long term effects). Tanner argues that here short term benefits far outweigh the importance of long term considerations. One often may in this way use up resources that are meant for the future. For example, she cites pay advances and payday loans which greatly hinder one’s longer term well-being. By having to pay higher interest rates than before when they had no money to begin with, “one is even less prepared to address future potentialities.” These practices mean scarcity only increases in the future – like a snowball effect.

More generally, events can often become merely a series of presents – no past memories or future anticipations – because one’s life is totally filled with small fires to put out. When the past or the future is rarely considered, it is only the immediate, not the distant past or future. In finance dominated capitalism, things too far into the future or past just don’t matter at all. Changing market conditions seem to make them irrelevant (“market dynamism”). Changing circumstances and market volatility make long-term predictions much more difficult so the result is that one should “take what one can get now because it’s unclear what the future might bring.”

In fact, Tanner argues that the short term is where all the profit is anyways in finance dominated capitalism. This is true with regard to stock investments or with management decisions that have an immediate impact on shareholder value in lieu of long-term planning. Short term profits can, hopefully, avoid risks associated with volatility – the longer one is in the market, the longer one is exposed to risk, for instance. This “short-termism,” as Tanner calls it, is a method for avoiding risk and capitalizing on rapid market changes where speed is the cardinal virtue (e.g. one has to beat others to profit from buying or selling stocks) – profit is a function of speed.

Secondary markets function this way to avoid waiting long for profits. There is widespread near simultaneous buying and selling assets, and both buying investments short and long at the same time to offset risk. This quick timing is difficult to narrate or put into a historical timeline because it just appears like plenty of presents. Present profit-making in finance has nearly no temporal duration, it is instant.

Shifting her focus to the plight of workers in short-termism, Tanner argues that they are the ones paying for the short-termism, but not the ones who stand to benefit from it. Workers, for example, lose their jobs if corporate short-termism strategies fail, but many times CEO’s can easily cash out their stocks before their management tactics end up in the long term decline of their company. In fact, layoffs make profits and stock values rise! The long-term benefit of workers consists in their consistently being paid high wages and given benefits, but this is often in contradiction to shareholder interests where payroll cuts result in immediate short term gains on the markets.

Short-termism, in this way, becomes a good thing for the rich who have plenty of cash reserves to gamble with, but a horrible thing for the relative poor whereby it is a financial emergency. Tanner is intent here to emphasize this difference in benefit depending on whether you are rich (short-termism is therefore a profit opportunity) or poor (it is a constant threat to well-being). Moreover, the poor are less likely to take the risks that those who have cash reserves can because their failures are of varying degrees of importance. But often healthy risks allow one to advance in life, etc., but fear of loss largely gets in the way of the poor taking these sorts of healthy career risks that the rich can easily take. In this way, there can exist a counter-intuitive repelling of threats to the status quo (of barely scraping by month to month).

Directing attention now to a Christian response, Tanner argues that Christianity is also occupied with an urgent notion of the present. She says, “A Christian approach to the present has the capacity to infiltrate the way finance dominated capitalism encourages one to relate to it, and therefore disrupts it, since the reasons and effects of such a focus on the present moment are diametrically opposed.”

Each moment is urgent for devoting to God – one shouldn’t delay their conversion for example – because one is to always conform their life to God. But, this focus on the present is not at all due to conditions of scarcity, unlike capitalism. God’s abundant grace gives us all we need for our present focus. Conversion should be seized, not because time is scarce per se, but because the offer is so incredibly generous. “Grace is permanently on offer,” she says, and what makes one seize the offer of God’s grace is not its fleeting character but the attractiveness of the offer itself.

Conversion forgives past faults and sins and results in grace providing plenty of slack to make up for human failures. One, in this way, need not worry too much about the past because they know the future will be good. Grace is what enables us to turn toward God and that grace is available anew each and every day. Moreover, God is always present in the “now” of God’s eternity, if you will. We should view the present as God does (hence, teachings like the communion of saints). The whole of time is present to God because God is present now in grace. But this is not just a consideration of the present. There is still a Christian narrative to be told (see previous lecture). Tanner argues that the successive events of one’s life matter in their particularity, but one is always directing them toward the same end – orienting them to God. This orientation to God as the overarching goal of life is what unifies the past, present, and future circumstances of believers. The constancy here that matters is God’s, not our own. There is no need to zealously protect the present for the sake of personal security because it is God who makes us secure.


Further Reading – Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 3 “Total Commitment”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner’s third lecture examines the effect finance dominated capitalism has upon the total commitment required of employees, and suggests a counter-commitment: one’s relation to God that can “drive a wedge between” the current configuration of workplace culture. As detailed in previous lectures, Tanner has argued that capitalism requires incredibly intense effort from workers. Of course, this means there must be potential employees willing to engage in this sort of effort. In short, the maximum profit goal requires maximum commitment from workers, ideally realized when workers’ desires are identical to their corporate employer’s. Tanner finds this result troubling because the identity of desires between worker and employer removes the critical distance necessary to call into question the current relation. Indeed, “how can one criticize what has become the desire of one’s own heart?”

Often, corporations “use their production of worker insecurity to induce worker compliance through fear,” and achieve this through payroll cost-cutting, layoffs, and the use of independent contractors. All of those come on the side of the corporations; yet one must also fear due to the reduction of government benefits that may have once eased one’s anxiety over losing employment.

However, using fear isn’t quite the most effective method to produce total commitment in workers. Using fear means the construction of worker surveillance systems and a large management force capable of watching each worker. A more profitable strategy is manifest in what was described in the last lecture, that workers become self-managing, or self-auditing. But Tanner argues that many of the fear-inducing strategies have been abandoned due to large costs.

So, how is the tension between workers’ desires and the company’s desire to be circumvented? One possibility might be to eradicate alternative desires. For example, work might be so hard and demand so much focus that workers simply do not have effort to think about non-work things. Or, to use the call center example, workers are just given a script and respond in quite mechanical ways to external input – no decisions have to be made, and one automatically does exactly what the company prescribes on the answer cheat sheet. In similar situations, workers are “self-renunciating” for the sake of the company. “One doesn’t conform by struggling to bring one’s own will into line with a superior will or market demand, the latter is simply to replace one’s will.”

Workers are encouraged to want what the company wants so that workers cheerfully comply. If this is achieved, all the costs associated with ensuring compliance can be eliminated. In fact, “finding value oneself in the work one is asked to do is something that the old Protestant ethic supplied” – the simply obedient worker.

Desire for work is to shape one’s entire life, saving work from possible interruption by external demands. One is to direct all of their energies and talents for their self-betterment, to make use of oneself. This self-understanding of work on oneself is to permeate all of life, whereby once again the possibility of a critical attitude is lost. One is just always, in all of life, trying to maximize their value, viewing themselves as their company views them. Each person has assets to capitalize upon, one runs themselves like a business. Life is to be lived as if the subject were an entrepreneur.

The result of all of this is the identity of self-understanding and an employer’s perception of oneself. Both of them are working on me and profiting off of me. “My employer sees me as human capital to be put to maximal use at the least expense, and that is also how I see myself.”

In this scheme, employers are not only interested in one’s abilities to perform well at the job, but they become quite interested in a potential worker’s attitudes. “As much as the doing, to be demonstrated in job performance, one’s being, the character of one’s person and dispensations is a primary matter for employer concern.” One’s whole person must be directed to their work. It may be possible for one to fake one’s attitude, or to give the appearance of total commitment (something that happens quite often!), but ultimately, companies force this commitment and workers either have to buy into it or resist it inwardly and possibly be consigned to a life of dissatisfaction. Above all, Tanner stresses that companies do not just use one of the above strategies or the other, but they use most of them all the time so workers are less apt to be able to criticize or get themselves out of the situation.

So what can Christianity offer? Tanner thinks that Christianity “can help drive a wedge between my desires and the company’s, interrupting the mechanisms for gaining the sort of total commitment required for maximum corporate profitability. Commitment to God and the conversion it brings about interferes with the total commitment to anything else, thereby limiting the degree by which one could ever be completely personally invested in a company’s aims.” In short, Christians total commitment to God means they cannot be totally committed to anything else.

This is, admittedly, a mirroring of what capitalism requires. The Christian is to do everything for God, work on their piety intensely, and turn their religion into a sort of project with an end goal – conformity to God – and a difficult means to do so – conforming one’s will to God’s. Living the Christian life is its own total commitment. One is always to be looking to how their other pursuits can fall in line with their commitment to God.

The means to achieve this total commitment to God, however, are contradictory to the means capitalism uses. The Christian life is not self-evacuation. The Christian’s will remains, it is only reoriented. Moreover, we know God has our best interests at heart – God wants to save us. Moreover, dying to our old selves is not our literal death; it is a turning around or reversal, a turning toward God away from sin. Tanner states, “all that is to be put to death is the will’s sinful orientation.”

Akin to the previous lecture, Tanner stresses the ongoing nature of conversion. One is always to be critical of one’s self to some degree in order to repudiate sin that hinders their orientation to God. There is also a certain divestment in one’s mundane commitments for the sake of commitment to God, which takes priority. One’s orientation to God trumps all other commitments and projects. In fact, every other thing can potentially be turned toward orientation to God: both good and bad situations.

But one dissociates themselves to a degree to any particular social role or task – one’s commitment to God cannot be collapsed into a single social role, it goes across all one’s roles. One’s Christian commitment is not one among many, but can incorporate all other commitments into its overarching goals. All other identities one has prior to conversion should be reworked under the banner of their newfound Christian identity.

Other jobs become valuable, for Tanner, when they are related to God’s mission to the world. But the successful pursuit of mundane projects is not directly correlated to one’s successful God-orientation. When our other commitments or projects fail, God can make up the difference. Failures can thereby be turned God-ward. For example, the failure to alleviate poverty does not mean the absolute failure on the part of the Christian, for they know one-day God will make all things right.

Conversion can be started anew each day, regardless of the outcome of the previous day. The Christian life is a mixture of success and failure, but one can cast their failures upon God. One is saved as a sinner by grace and that same grace provides the ability for one’s further sanctification.

In Christianity, one knows their growth will not be absolutely seamless. One isn’t thereby, unlike in many workplace cultures, concerned with the smallest slip-up. There is no anxiety over intense self-monitoring or managing because one depends upon God. Sins aren’t tailed upon oneself, but forgiven by God – one is detached to sins previously committed. Not, as in the previous lecture’s discussion of debt, chained to them.

In light of one’s Christian commitments, one should ask themselves if their work is compatible with their Christian identity. The point, further, is not to be satisfied in the work itself (as in Capitalism when one’s work is one’s life and determines the success of one’s life), but to glorify God and praise God, which transcends a particular job or role. Moreover, the self is not the primary subject that accomplishes the goals of the Christian life – God brings us to God. God’s agency is continually highlighted by Tanner.

“Conformity to God interrupts attempts at conformity to markets.” Tanner summarizes: “What I’ve shown then, is the way Christianity can re-envision and thereby contest the sort of subject that financially dominated capitalism encourages for its own purposes of profit maximization.” Capitalism tries to conduct our conduct, but we can resist this demand for an alternative sort of self-formation.


Further Reading:

Michel Foucault’s account of subject formation in The Birth of Biopolitics

Daniel Bell – The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 2 “Chained to the Past”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner’s second lecture “Chained to the Past” analyzes how Capitalism construes subjects’ relation to the past by constraining present and future action to the givens of the past. She explores the configuration of debt as well as workplace management in which the past takes on extraordinary significance, and, to use her words “chains people to the past.”

One paragraph summary: Capitalism collapses the present and future into the past by way of debt and promises of future action that accompany workplace obligations. Finance sets the goal or objective, but leaves individuals to manage the means. One must attempt to control future contingencies so they don’t get in the way of past promises. Governments are affected too, but finance and corporations’ relation to the past is easily breakable by cashing out. The subject capitalism creates is one chained to the past; one who must act in accordance with past promises regardless of the volatility of the present. To counter this effect, Tanner looks to Christian views of the past. Conversion is a radical interjection and one becomes a new creation, no longer the result of the past. Conversion, does not, however merely replace the past with a new promise for future righteousness or perfection. In Tanner’s account, we have Christ’s righteousness through our attachment to him, and God’s agency bridges the gap between who we are and who we will one day be.

In finance-dominated capitalism, a good share of profit is made through debt. Individuals take on debt to make up for what the government or corporations no longer give to them. For instance, in the United States, federal and state governments have cut aid to higher education, but the government has taken many steps to make it easier for individuals to contract debt to pay for their education themselves. In other forms of debt, such as debt taken out to meet basic necessities, no new value is often created unlike traditional business lending for capital investment.

In capitalism, one makes a promise to act in the future, whether this is through agreeing to pay back debt or in accepting the terms of less-than ideal employment. Summarizing the general situation, Tanner says, “Every present is past preoccupied and nothing more is to be expected in the future than what the past has already laid down.” Tanner stresses the inexorable quality of past decisions. They are often unnegotiable regardless of the change in one’s circumstances (e.g. one has set monthly interest payments required regardless of income fluctuations). The result of these past decisions often means that one must manage all future contingencies oneself so that they do not get in the way of past promises.

Finance sets the objective, or the target, but it leaves the means one’s own responsibility. One must manage oneself in a way that meets the end objective set by finance. Whatever impediments that arise in the meantime are viewed as the responsibility of the worker or borrower, and thereby this self-management acquires a moralizing character. Further, the objectives set by the past are often nearly impossible to meet, and the extremely volatile environment of everyday life makes meeting these expectations even more difficult (manifested in job anxiety, for instance).

However, the situation is different for creditors and corporations themselves who, through working the stock market, can easily cash out whenever they want. They, in contrast to the average citizen, are not chained to the past. This also manifests in the rising popularity of Post-Fordist methods of production, Tanner argues. New management and production techniques ensure that no slack exists in the work environment and that all products are sold immediately after they are produced. Before, workers may have been able to rest, or compensate for slowness, when stockpiles meant that production could be slowed or stopped altogether for a short time. In today’s climate, Tanner argues, this is not true – there is always something to be done because the demands are constant. Work requires constant exertion because the contemporary workflow has near zero slack. Moreover, other past links in the production chain determine what one must do today.

In finance dominated capitalism, “the setting of nearly impossible demands is an intentional strategy for extracting the greatest possible effort from workers.” This may be due to shareholder desires, for instance. It results in using less, but harder worked employees. Tasks become more difficult by design so that increased productivity and performance is forced.

Tanner details the phenomena of the increasingly sub-contracted workplace, or the “core-periphery model.” Only the most profitable divisions are kept in-house (e.g. sales and design) while all other corporate needs are contracted to other companies (e.g. cleaning, production). This is generally just a feature of attempting to minimize costs as those less profitable divisions profit margins’ are quite low. We see the result of this structure especially in the third world where companies contract out production. Workers are worked incredibly hard so as to minimize their costs to make contacting them more desirable. A race to lowest cost arises in which contractors compete over who can pay their workers less (merely a feature of market competition at this point). As a result, the lead company who merely designs and sells the product, for example, makes outsized profits relative to what could be possible if all corporate divisions were in-house.

Shifting gears back to debt, Tanner notes that ideally profits made from lending would primarily be in repayment of those loans. If this were the case, one wouldn’t want to stretch the borrower thin “so as to jeopardize their repayment.” Additionally, one would lend so that the borrower could benefit and profit themselves, which would in turn help them repay their loans and thereby profit the creditor. However, in capitalism today, Tanner notes that the goal seems to be to make loans as hard as possible to repay, because profits are now generated by repackaging loans and selling them to other investors looking to make maximum profit. In this system, higher loan interest rates are more attractive to investors who buy the repackaged loans. Yet it is only the relative poor who can be charged the most interest due to lower credit scores. Lenders target borrowers with low-credit scores because those loans can be the most profitable to them. Indeed, when they are close to defaulting, they can just lend them more money.

This is the sad reality in payday lending schemes. One takes them out because they are struggling to make ends meet, “but if one struggled to make ends meet without a loan, that effort becomes even more difficult with loan payments on top of regular expenses.” Debt, in this way, is contractive rather than beneficial to the borrower. It makes it harder, not easier, to live well. “Payday loans don’t lend a hand to get out of poverty, they keep people in it.” Among the poor, this forces extreme self-management in which every single cent must be accounted for and every decision financial.

Turning to governments, Tanner argues that they too are chained to past debt. Taxes should produce goods and services, but with debt, it has the opposite effect because taxes are used to service debts (e.g. US spends 6% of its budget on repaying its debt). Theoretically, this is supposed to improve government efficiency by forcing unnecessary programs to be cut, but it usually has drastically more detrimental effects – austerity targets basic services and social safety nets.

In all of these scenarios in which the past controls the present, the whole of one’s life is transformed. It is not just at work when people feel the crushing effects of debt, or when they must work at home to meet near impossible company demands. All of one’s decisions are effected. All aspects of life are potentially relevant in portion to the difficulty of the demands the past makes.

An admittedly bleak picture, Tanner turns toward possibility for its disruption. She touches upon the method of Michel Foucault who looked to the past to find alternative regimes so as to challenge the inevitability of the present order. In that way, alternative forms of temporal subjectivity could be brought in to challenge finance dominated capitalism.

“I’ll propose that certain Christian ways of structuring the temporal dimensions of human subjectivity stand out by not merely differing, but by being the greatest possible contrast to” capitalism’s subjectivity creation. In Christianity, the past is something to be repudiated, one is to be a new person. Discontinuities break the hold of the past on the present and future. The past is sometimes of value in Christian accounts, such as those that stress a salvific return to a prior more perfect state of existence (e.g. return to the garden). In that model, who one was, is who one should become again. Tanner thinks this is especially dominant in theological traditions influenced by Platonism. Even in this model of returning to the past, there is a discontinuity of time. She also highlights the features of temporal relation in Gnosticism and Manicheanism.

In her view, the passage between states of existence is not smooth, but in Christianity it is understood similar to a birth and death by, for example participating in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism. Our entrance into God’s own life is brought about by God’s initiative. Sin, in the past, cannot contribute to resurrection here.

In other models, there is a release or cancellation of debt. It is impossible to pay through one’s own efforts. Sin, has often been viewed as debt, and it is like a debt-slavery or bondage from which one cannot get free from. The transition out of this state, in Christian terms, is abrupt. There is no gradual repayment, Christ once and for all pays or cancels one’s debt.

In addition, Christian interpretations of personal narrative can work against capitalism. The past is not the basis of the future. God’s agency interjects and one can make sense of the past only after the fact of conversion (e.g. Augustine’s Confessions). The past does not have to strictly anticipate the future. She thinks this is similar to Christian typological understandings of the Old Testament. One can only see Christ in them from the point of view of Christ, not on their own terms. She does, however, want to avoid radically supercessionist readings that give no meaning to the OT in itself. The New Testament also only makes sense in light of knowing the Old. She cites the example of understanding Christ as bread from heaven. The later meaning is partly derived from the significance of past events. God, bridges the gap though, and there is a radical interjection between past and present.

Looking to Christian reflection upon conversion is also helpful. Conversion, as the word implies, is an interjection where the future is not merely based on the past. One doesn’t merely identify with their past but actively struggles against it. However, Tanner wants to stress that much of our past remains. We still largely have our sin and we are who we were, until the eschaton. Now, we have Christ’s righteousness. Tanner is also careful to avoid understandings of conversion which make it the basis for impossible demands upon the future. One isn’t required to keep absolutely pure post-conversion and one is not obligated to lead an entirely blameless life. If so, the possibility of lapsing would be a massive threat to the Christian life. Post-conversion sin, would be an added debt. If conversion were a demand for the future in this way, Christ would be more like a loaned salvation until one could earn it on their own eventually.

This is not true in Tanner’s account of salvation, however. “What one is asked to achieve is already one’s own in Christ.” Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness, whatever the state of our own. One is still a sinner, but it no longer threatens their salvation because they are secure in Christ. Perfect conformity to God is impossible on our own, God must interject with grace to raise this as a possibility in human life.


For a few additional resources that factored into Tanner’s lecture, see:

On the core-periphery model of sub-contracting and its detrimental effects, The Fissured Workplace by David Weil.

On debt’s creation of the subject, The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato.

On how the poor are especially affected by debt, Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir.

As always, check out the official commentary and discussion of the lectures at GiffordsEdinburgh.com.

Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 1 “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism: An Introduction”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner opened her 2016 Gifford Lecture Series, “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism,” with an introduction to many of the broader concerns and historical developments that have shaped her approach as a theologian to capitalism. The lecture title, a play on words with Max Weber’s famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism summarized the general approach Weber utilized in his analysis, outlined the features of contemporary capitalism relevant to Tanner’s concerns, and teased out what is to come in the following lectures. This post will try to summarize Tanner’s main points and offer an analysis.

One paragraph summary: Tanner utilizes Max Weber’s approach that religious beliefs impact economic life, but for the opposite ends. Whereas Weber thought Protestantism helped capitalism, Tanner argues that it has resources to criticize many of its features. She highlights various elements of what she calls “finance-dominated” capitalism and the effects it has disciplining corporations, governments, and individuals for its own ends. Persons, under the current configuration of capitalism, are formed in the entirety of their lives for the economic ends it establishes. She thinks that a religious “counter spirit” is comparably person-forming, and that Christian notions of salvation, and the doctrine of God can begin to alternatively form persons against the corrosive effects of global capitalism.

The underlying notion, both to Tanner and Weber’s work, is that religious beliefs are formative to one’s actions and perceptions within the economic sphere of life. Weber theorized that specifically Calvinist beliefs were quite formative to the early beginnings of capitalism, even that they were necessary to its formation. Capitalism asks more than what is necessary from individuals. It calls for profit above one’s needs. One does not merely stop working once they have acquired enough to live a comfortable life; they go on generating profit long after that threshold has been reached. One was required in this way, to defer enjoyment of life to a later period so that one could make money in the present. This, Tanner argues, is a very irrational and unnatural way to organize one’s life. For Weber, “humans were dominated by making money,” mere acquisition is the goal, and this end was not subordinate to meeting one’s current needs.

In light of the features of Capitalism, Weber looked around for a type of person who would be willing to engage in the sort of behavior it required. The answer would be one whose religious interests could be met by capitalism. For instance, one that valued hard work and massive profit for the purpose of an otherworldly goal: salvation. Weber thought Calvinistic notions of double predestination were ripe for this because those people needed a way to show outward works to demonstrate their salvation, but in a way that would not be extravagant (hence, the deferment of pleasure for sake of current profit). Thus, Capitalism found its first adherents in Calvinists, or so Weber argues.

Tanner’s project is formed by a similar notion, a “hope” as she calls it, that religious beliefs might impact economic life. The truth here of religions’ potential efficacy in the world is what matters most, not the truth or falsehood of Weber’s specific thesis. However, Tanner doesn’t think that specifically ethical teachings of Christianity are all that impactful when compared to the underlying religious interests (e.g. salvation), and how one might satisfy them or what psychological sanctions could be provided thereby. She says, “religious beliefs, regardless of any obvious practical import, are not just to be believed, but lived.” They motivate action by valuing states of affairs (i.e. salvation), and they tell one how to get there. “What one believes about the world establishes in great part what it makes sense to do.” Christian beliefs might, and should, permeate all of life to establish patterns of action and recognition. In short, the main issue of the lectures is how religious beliefs impact actual life.

Tanner states that her aim is “to show how Christian beliefs might undermine, rather than support, the new spirit of capitalism.” Hinting to Weber’s work, “what Christianity gives, it can also take away.” She is critical of contemporary capitalism because of her specifically religious commitments. However, she argues that religious people are not, and should not be, the only groups concerned about contemporary capitalism.

The problem methodologically is that the current system hampers recognition of its own faults. No alternative is possible, so it says. In order to undermine capitalism as it stands today, one “needs to meet it with a counter spirit of similar power,” hence, religion as the critical force here.

In the next section of the lecture, Tanner goes into an, at times, technical discussion of the features of contemporary capitalism, which she notes is “finance-dominated.” The discussion is important, however, because it introduces some of the concepts that will be countered in later lectures, and it demonstrates why Christians should care about the current organization of our economic life. This current adaption of capitalism has its own unique person-forming capacity different from, say, industrial capitalism. It has a unique way of affecting people regarding how to view themselves and others, and it directs conduct by making them believe its ends are best. A portion of this section of the lecture appeared in the winter 2016 edition of the Anglican Theological Review, under the title “Inequality and Finance Dominated Capitalism.”

The first feature Tanner explains in the current configuration is that finance generated profit is increasingly more important. This is true even regarding non-financial firms. Tanner cites the example of traditionally non-financial firms like car companies that routinely make more money servicing and selling car loans than they do actually selling the cars themselves. There is also an increase in financial activity, the selling of stocks, derivatives, currencies, etc. The total amount of money that transfers hands on the financial markets in one day is much more than the total sum of global trade in a year. This increase in activity is partly due to the potential for oversized profits in the financial sector. One can triple their money in a single day if one makes the correct bets, but this is impossible in industrial production and exchange. This is possible partly because of the volatility of markets in which price fluctuations are constant, as well as the use of leverage (using borrowed money to purchase financial instruments). This volatility and use of leverage results in an increased potential for massive profit, and hence, why the financial sector is growing.

The second feature of finance-dominate capitalism that Tanner notes is that it is increasingly decoupled from other sectors of the economy. To avoid losing profits there, it must bypass the possible decline in profits elsewhere in the economy. Low profits elsewhere are not as relevant to the success of the financial sector. For example, in a stagnating economy, the need for loans actually increases due to hardship in, for instance, the labor sector. Further, finance has created secondary markets (e.g. the stock market) where financial instruments themselves are sold (e.g. stocks, bonds, etc.). Even mortgages are routinely sold in this way on secondary markets so that banks can unload themselves of associated risks and transfer them to others.

Tanner points out that the prices for goods in secondary markets are not limited by non-financial sectors of the economy. For example, stock prices are not directly tied to the company’s bottom line (though it may help to make a profit for other reasons). Instead, the behavior of other investors is the driving force behind demand in secondary markets. She recalls John Maynard Keynes’ analogy of the beauty contest here, in which judges are trying to pick the contestant that all other judges will pick; instead of basing their judgments on the contestant’s beauty, their actions are based upon bets concerning the behavior of other judges. In this case, secondary markets can often create self-fulfilling prophecies based upon thinking that others will buy the goods, which results in more people buying them, and the price of them therefore going up. In this way, the value of goods in secondary markets need not go up or down along with a company’s bottom line.

Even more technically (see your intro to economics prof. for more info!), Tanner cites derivatives as a financial instrument that are even further decoupled from the rest of the economy. Derivatives are instruments whose value is tied to other financial instruments. The purpose of these is to hedge against risks. For example, one can take out a derivative on one’s company to hedge against the risks associated with international commerce and the variability of currency exchange rates. Globalization has caused many companies to engage in international trade, but this creates added risk due to fluctuations in currency value where, for example, a company may lose money because of a weaker dollar compared to another form of currency in a country they do business in. Though complex, derivatives in this way can function as a sort of insurance for oneself. She also brings up the example of Credit Default Swaps which again were a form of insurance, primarily tied to the possible decline in a mortgage’s value, where one financial institution could trade these with others to hedge off risk. These are traded to generate profit in themselves apart from any benefit to non-financial institutions. Similarly, one can even bet on the economy’s decline, by say, shorting stocks to bet on a decrease in their value, and to therefore make money from economic decline.

The point of these examples and the technical discussion Tanner engages in, is to show that financial markets are increasingly set free from sagging profits in other sectors of the economy. The circulation of financial instruments is the goal, rather than production of goods and services normally construed. For example, one can make money on selling mortgages regardless of whether new houses are being produced. One only needs current mortgages to recirculate.

This second feature of finance-dominated capitalism is therefore its decoupling from the normal production of goods and services. Tanner argues that industrial capitalism was quite demand dependent; it needed high employment, etc. But finance can make money no matter what is going on in the rest of the economy. However, moving to her third point, Tanner stresses that this decoupling does NOT mean that the two spheres of the economy are irrelevant to one another.

On the contrary, finance becomes increasingly formative of other areas of economic life. In her words, “finance comes to discipline every other form of economic activity.” Tanner then outlines how this functions on three levels, corporate, national, and individual.

Corporately, this is through the mechanism of always needing to create shareholder value, i.e. to please one’s shareholders by causing stock prices to rise. Corporations’ ends are in this way generally restricted, if they are publicly traded companies, to generating benefit to its stock holders, not primarily its employees (unless they too own stocks). This, Tanner argues, entails attempting to generate maximum profit. This isn’t just a concern for covering overhead costs with enough profit for the owner to live comfortable, but is a concern to make the most money that is possible. This end usually results in downsizing and outsourcing regardless of the benefit or harm those practices entail to communities or their impact in the long-term. These types of corporate management strategies to maximize profit are not always good in the long term (e.g. one needs happy employees to function over time even if hard worked employees can generate short term profit). However, Tanner notes that the CEO’s who initiate such corporate management techniques do not care about the long term because they routinely cash out their stocks (for enormous profits) and then leave for another company. She also gives the example of the fear of hostile takeover, but I’ll spare my readers another technical discussion here. Needless to say, this fear and the actual takeover of companies results in evermore increases in cost-cutting for the bought company.

Tanner argues that governments are also disciplined similarly by their bond-holders. Because governments routinely run deficits (i.e. they don’t limit their goods and services to those paid for by tax revenue), they need borrowers to purchase bonds to make up the difference. Subsequently, governments must service these debts which requires certain levels of austerity measures. The impact of this can be particularly detrimental if the government is obligated to pay its debts instead of devoting its surplus resources to funding education, infrastructure, or welfare – they often get cut so debts can be paid.

Likewise, individuals are disciplined as well. The individual dimension is the central focus in her lecture series. They are disciplined by finance and its results as they are forced to work harder, are in fear of losing their jobs, and can no longer look to government benefits to provide a safety net. These features often lead people in these situations to take out more loans, thereby coming under the disciplining effect of debt. Directing individuals’ behavior in all of these ways is increasingly important for finance – performance is evaluated, workers worked harder, and workers are told to be self-managing, all to save costs. Importantly, Tanner notes that these disciplinary features do not just occur while one is at work, but they impact the whole of one’s life, it’s a 24/7 thing.

It is this feature to which Tanner now turns. She argues that this disciplining brings with it a distinctive spirit, to get back to the title of the lecture. Capitalism no longer needs Calvinism to justify its existence, it is self-perpetuating. This leads to Weber’s analogy of Capitalism as an “iron cage.” Once it is established, everyone is forced to adapt to it.

For Tanner, the main question here is one of subject formation. How does the current configuration of capitalism form individuals? In short, it makes us want what finance wants – profit, and to align our desires with the desires of our companies, to give just a few examples. Most significantly, capitalism wants our acting in its best interests to be perceived as the fulfillment of our own self-realization – a very important argument for Tanner’s series.

The Protestant ethic was the spirit of industrial capitalism, and it glorified hard work as a moral and spiritual virtue, was vocational, and prioritized delayed gratification. The new spirit of capitalism rewards flexibility (e.g. changing job duties, adapting to quick changes on secondary markets, etc.), but also a quite intensified work-ethic that is also moralized. It says that one’s economic woes are one’s own fault and that we are individually responsible for our fate. Tanner thinks that this contributes to an intense competition between persons due to one’s standing being in relation to others.

Further, this new spirit is absolute totalizing. Foreshadowing lectures to come, Tanner describes how within it, past, present, and future are collapsed. It makes “any radical break with the present order seem impossible.” In this regard, it is “imagination-constricting,” so that it seems impossible to imagine a different organization of our lives from the one we currently take part in.

In explaining how time is collapsed, she argues that debt collapses present and future into one’s past (one’s decision to take on debt in past dominates one’s present and future life), that the demand for short term profit collapses time into the present, and that secondary markets collapse time into the future (the profit to be gained therein). The result of all of this is that there is the perception that a non-capitalist future cannot exist.

Turning toward her own approach in attempting to counter these alarming features of contemporary capitalism, she says, “What I as a Christian theologian will attempt to do is provide a Protestant anti-work ethic. I’ll provide what I think are good religious reasons for 1. breaking the link between the right to well-being and work, 2. breaking one’s identification with one’s productive self, and 3. for breaking the time collapse that constrains imaginative possibility to the current configuration of capitalism.”

She argues that Christianity is a religion of radical time discontinuity because it promotes radical expectations of transformation. In contrast to debt and the seemingly unbreakable past that accompanies it, Christianity holds out hope for conversion to new life, baptism as death to the old man of sin, and the radical Christian hope of salvation – to be elevated to communion with God. For Christianity, salvation is not merely to be saved from present harm, but is to lead a radically disrupted life in hope that the future will be completely new. There is a large disjunction between who we were and who we will one day be.

Significantly for Tanner, these Christian notions require divine agency. God is the one who must bring about this salvation and radical transformation. In this way, the future is not merely a matter of merit due to one’s past performance. It is actually a reversal of what would have been the case with respect to sin and what one could achieve on one’s own. One’s future good fortune, unlike in capitalism, is not “merited” and we are not responsible for it; God is.

Tanner argues that Christian doctrines of God are also critical of contemporary capitalism. The Christian notion of transcendence removes the possibility of identifying the divine with any worldly order, or feature of the world. God is nothing like the world and is not an instance of things that are found within the world. “Conformity to God does not therefore lead to conformity to the way things are.” In this way, Christians are to conform to the exact opposite, in many cases, with how they are formed by finance-dominated capitalism.


Edinburgh, the Scottish University hosting Tanner’s Gifford Lectures, has their own site devoted to analyzing and discussing the lectures. giffordsedinburgh.com