May 27 2022

Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism with Kathryn Tanner

Interview with Kathryn Tanner

Kathryn Tanner joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her award-winning 2020 book, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2019). Through the book, Tanner suggests Christianity can challenge the culture of finance capitalism that permeates our lives by guiding us to reflect on social inequalities and identity-building—concepts which she argues are at the core of Christian faith and practice. In the interview, she discusses how "Christianity and specific forms of it could gum up the works of capitalism."

Tanner's book won AAR's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the constructive-reflective studies category. She is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.

 

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Petersen. And today I'm here with Kathryn Tanner, Professor of Divinity and Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and winner of the AAR Book Award in constructive-reflective studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, published with Yale University Press. Congratulations and thanks for joining me, Kathryn. How are you?

Kathryn Tanner:

Thank you, it's wonderful to be here.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, this is a really interesting book, definitely a critical topic, I think, even more so after its publication, but obviously, increasingly over the years. Also the title may sound familiar to many in religious studies, although certainly in the nostalgic period perhaps. Can you start a little bit with where this project emerged for you? What were some of the broader interventions you were hoping to make with the book?

Kathryn Tanner:

Sure. Well, I've been working on theology and economics for a long time. And the reason for that, basically, is that it just seems to me that the economy is the dominant force in people's lives, that economic terminology has infiltrated, if you want, the self-understanding of most contemporary people, especially in United States and in Europe. And that it's in interesting to look at the way in which religion can comment on those developments, particularly to give a critical perspective on what's happening economically, and our own self-understanding that's influenced by economic language. The title, as you are alluding to, is a reference to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I'm trying to use a quasi-sociological method to talk about the potential influence of religion, but especially Christianity, which is my field on economic behavior, where the basic sense there is that religion has the capacity to shape the entirety of life, and that that would also then include economic exchange, production, distribution of goods, and an economic sense of that.

So I'm trying to work as a Christian theologian with my own take, if you will, on Christian commitments, to see how they might intersect in a critical way on what I'm calling finance capitalism, which is not something that Weber himself was concerned about.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, yeah, it is a big topic.

Yeah, so this idea of finance dominated capital, which I gather is the new spirit of capitalism, how do you characterize this process? How does it shape folks to be amenable to the present organization of capitalism?

Kathryn Tanner:

Yeah, well, I'm influenced by a number of economists here, who are looking at some broad shifts since the 1970s in the way profit is generated. And the basic idea there is just that financial transactions become the major center for profit generating purposes. You might be talking about stock market transactions, financial markets, various forms of derivatives, I mean, basically just money being pushed around in ways that generate more money, and that can potentially bypass the production of other goods and services. So that's one side of it, that finance is just more front and center in the economy. But by calling what's happening a finance discipline, or finance-dominated economy, again, I'm influenced by economists who are saying that finance is really calling the shots for other forms of economic transaction, and other areas of life, period.

So that, for example, shareholder value, the idea of the corporations are being run primarily to elevate their stock price, that's the kind of finance disciplining of corporate management, but also you can see the basic terms of finance being employed within government services, educational institutions, et cetera. So both those points, one that finance is more front and center, but also that it's affecting other forms of economic transactions, so that those forms of economic transaction mirror the profit generating mechanisms of finance.

Kristian Petersen:

Now in Weber's take, he's saying that Christianity, or certain forms of Christianity, are structuring people's lives in ways that make capitalism function in its most effective way. And here, if I'm reading correctly, you're saying this new spirit of capitalism is shaping folks to be disciplined in a certain way to make capitalism work better. So can you talk a little bit about what are those discipling methods? How does it shape everyday people's lives?

Kathryn Tanner:

Yeah, no, that's a lot of what the issue is there. I'm trying to turn Weber on his head. So as you said, Weber was much more concerned about how capitalism got up and running, and required people who were amenable to its dictates. And he thought that Protestant forms of Christianity were crucial to forming people in ways that would make them amenable to capitalist dictates, like saving money rather than spending it, et cetera. So I'm interested in the way in which Christianity and specific forms of it could gum up the works of capitalism, at least this form of it. And there, I'm looking especially at, Weber calls this the spirit of capitalism, but you could also call it just the culture of capitalism.

So I'm assuming with him that capitalism has a culture to it, that it brings with it a particular way of understanding one's self and one's relationships with others. And it's at that point, you could say the person-forming character of capitalism, it's there that religion can most easily, I think, come into the picture and object to the way in which persons are being shaped. And I think that's one of the central features of finance capitalism, that it tends to target the whole person for profit-generating purposes, not just what you do at work, but the whole of your life isn't being understood in basically this capitalist way. And that religion also has the one thing that it does, is that it shapes one's whole person so that religion could intervene on that level.

And specifically, the things that I'm talking about are, again, they're very broad and general, but I'm especially worried about, well, a number of different things, but one is the way in which finance capitalism is shaping an individual person's understanding of their relations to time. So I'm talking about the way in which debt chains people, I say to their past, the way in which the demands of finance capitalism, either at work or in terms of an impoverished life, makes the present of absolute urgent concern. Another part of it is the way in which the future is collapsed into the past and present. And I'm trying to suggest that that set of relations with time stops one's ability, or interferes with one's ability to take a critical perspective on capitalism and think that there might be an alternative future that's significantly different to the capitalist present we currently live in.

So those questions of temporality figure, but I'm also suggesting that finance capitalism often brings with it an exaggerated work ethic, and I'm trying to undercut the Christian support for especially an exaggerated work ethic like that. But I'm also finally worried about what's been called the competitive individualism, that's encouraged by finance capitalism, which basically means that everybody is on their own bottom, so to speak, to either sink or swim you have to take responsibility for your own life, and success or failure on almost any front is dependent on hard work. So in all those different arenas, I'm trying to bring Christianity into the picture as an alternative perspective, that would distance you from what you're expected to be under the current capitalist regime.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, that's a great summary of the key moments or experiences that you cover in the book. I probably couldn't have even asked you a question to get you to answer that better. So the other part of this, which perhaps we, well, haven't gotten to as much is this tension between how you argue Christian beliefs can undermine this new spirit of capitalism. And you offer certain interpretations of Christianity as a counter spirit to contemporary capitalism. So can you talk a little bit about this? How do Christian commitments relate to the economic behavioral demands under this system?

Kathryn Tanner:

Yeah, well, to give you one example, I mean, debt is a major way of generating money within finance capitalism that, sure, it's great to sell people things, it's great if people buy things, but it's much more interesting if they go into debt in order to purchase those things at as high an interest rate as possible, especially if those forms of debt are then going to be repackaged and resold to investors in the form of some kind of bond. So yeah, debt, often unpayable debt. I'm trying to bring Christian understandings of, sorry about the noise in the background, Christian understandings of conversion, and some distinctive ways of narrating one's past, and putting one life into some story form.

I'm trying to suggest ways in which they involve a very sharp repudiation of the past. So an understanding of conversion, where you're really turning your life around in ways that meaning that you're still the person you were before, but in a form of a repudiation of it, that there's a really significant sense of opposition, if you want, the past and its influence on you in the present. But also forms of narration in which there's a kind of discontinuity, if you want, between the past and the present so that you couldn't have predicted where you ended up in the present on the basis of how you were in the past, partly because your life isn't under your control in the ways that would be necessary to form a continuous narrative like that. So that's one set of examples.

Kristian Petersen:

I'm wondering if, with COVID, there's been these epic transformations in the economy, in the labor force, just attitudes about work in general, have our moment in the post-life of the book, has this transformation or shift made you rethink about any of your conclusions? Or has it underscored the Christian attention to an urgent present that you call for in the book?

Kathryn Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, there are lots of things going on there that are relevant. I mean, one obviously is that what I haven't talked about very much yet in our conversation is just the incredible forms of income and wealth inequality that are associated with finance capitalism. And certainly those, the effects of those forms of inequality on healthcare outcomes, the COVID rates, et cetera, especially in Black and Brown communities has been overwhelmingly salient. So that's obviously of continued concern. But the recent discussion of people's unwillingness to go back to low-paying jobs, in poor working conditions, and without good benefits, I think that's of a very interesting development, and there have been a lot of articles in mainstream press about workism, and people refusing work that is of the urgent, all-encompassing character that I'm talking about here, under the language of a hyperwork ethic.

Yeah, COVID has made a lot of features of finance capitalism, both in terms of real inequalities and the cultural concomitants of it have really made those features overwhelmingly salient. I mean, you can't overlook them there smacking you right in the face. So yeah, I don't know whether that's just proving the point of the book, but it's, let's say, not unexpected given the way I'm treating finance capitalism in the book. I mean, that is one of the things that the book does, it brings together, I mean, I'm not an economist, but it's synthesizing an awful lot of reading that I was doing into a fairly simple picture of how things work.

Kristian Petersen:

There's a lot more in the book, of course. And we could go off in several directions. I want to give you the opportunity, if you have any other thoughts that you want to share, or perhaps a general what you want readers to take away from the book?

Kathryn Tanner:

Well, especially for people in the American Academy of Religion, I'm speaking in the book as a Christian theologian, I have specific Christian commitments, I know the history of Christian thought, blah, blah, blah, but the method that's being used in the book is much more widely applicable. And I would hope that people familiar with other religious traditions, or any nonreligious worldview would be able to do the same kind of thing, which is basically to help people distance themselves from what's taken for granted on the current economic scene, and show the relevance of religious categories to the ability to make sense of what's happening in everyday life. So again, I'm using a quasi-sociological method, which it's not particularly Christian, it's not particularly theological, it's influenced by Weber and Foucault, as much as it's influenced by anything specific to Christian theology.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, Kathryn, congratulations on the award. It's a great book and I hope people will take a look.

Kathryn Tanner:

Okay, thanks an awful lot.