The Iron Cage of Privilege


In the closing of The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber remarked that “The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling – we, on the other hand, must be.  For when asceticism moved out of the monastic cells and into working life, and began to dominate innerworldly morality, it helped to build that mighty cosmos of the modern economic order (which is bound to the technical and economic conditions of mechanical and machine production).  Today this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.” (121)

What a striking and powerful passage. It seems to capture so much, and would perhaps been seen as relevant in the early 1960s as in 1905.  But today, perhaps even when compared to a period as recent as the 1990s, it seems to ring largely off-key.  The cosmos has evolved and the post-industrial corporate state now allows a large section of the population to live in the shadows of the economic system Weber saw.  There is no iron cage, as understood by Weber, for people who for generations have been mostly out of the employment pool.  The compulsion to work and save and reinvest is hardly universal today.

After having expanded for some time, the working and middle classes are shrinking.  Rather than being mostly an effect of a decline of work ethic, which was never really universal, holding only in certain, though large parts of the middle class, I think the chance is due primarily to the waning of asceticism and the waxing of consumerism among the middle class.  When Weber wrote in 1905 he acknowledged that the religious aspect had largely and for some time already dropped out, with the correlative practices (work ethic, asceticism, and reinvestment of capital) remaining.  And so while it might be tempting for some to blame the loss of religion, doing so would require dismissing a couple of centuries of recent history.  The larger cause, following the path set by Weber (and there are other equally interesting interpretations) would be the decline of asceticism.  Asceticism is bad for capitalism as understood today, based on perpetually increasing economic growth.  Consumerism, on the other hand, is good: the summum bonum.  So capitalism, and the democracy that grew up with it, hold the seeds of their own demise.  The values that were helpful for their creation are now, in the present construal of capitalism, are seen to be limiting, as indicated by near-zero interest rates, the trend toward taxing savings, and unprecedented (and clearly unsustainable) debt. Perhaps we shouldn’t even call it capitalism anymore, and the bailouts of 2008 will be seen as the end of capitalism.

The point is that the American zeitgeist is bound up with the accumulation of things and with entertainment.  Notions of perfecting the individual and the primacy of the family are giving way to concerns with the social.  This is perhaps not unexpected in a land with a mobile workforce.  Academia is especially populated with cosmopolitans who have no deep sense of home and family.  And lacking religion, their higher calling is to the society as a whole.  Had they lived in the same area for six generations, for example, they would surely hold a different appreciation for local differences.  But I digress.  Without taking the time for a full-blown cultural analysis, it seems clear, I think, that doing-well means something rather different today than it did 100 years ago.  Of course, change is natural and neither inherently good nor bad.

To close, what does this have to do with privilege?

I have been supporting the idea that those burdened by privilege-guilt lack the spiritual drive of the Calvinists and that they have adopted a different, but equally religious view, that values social equality rather than personal and familial development/perfection.  My goal is to allow people (college students and recent grads in particular) to see that white guilt is not natural or good; that it is part of a complex system of ideas that are used to discipline, control, and manipulate people in order to variously enhance, protect, and diminish the power of certain groups of people.  And to that end, this blog seeks to encourage people to study the history of ideas, and particularly the history of the peddling of moral sentiments for ulterior motives.

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