The Protestant ethic was the spirit of industrial capitalism in its Fordist varieties, where investments sunk in expensive equipment dedicated to the production of one thing meant mass production and mass consumption. That Protestant ethic was composed of a set of values in which hard work was a moral virtue, rewarded with good pay, where the expectation was for a kind of linear, gradual advancement along a single career track often at a single company—all of which suggested the reasonableness of delayed gratification and long-term commitment. The slow and steady pursuit of profit by firms—firms heavily invested in equipment capable of making only one thing and which therefore required huge sales of that one thing over the life of that equipment to be profitable—was matched by the slow and steady character of pursuit of success by employees dedicated to one life task.
This is in many respects no longer the spirit of contemporary, finance-dominated capitalism, which rewards flexibility and adaptability to constantly changing demands, where one might be expected to change jobs and tasks frequently and need to retool, where companies have no long-term commitment to you nor you to them. But in many other respects the new spirit of capitalism amounts to the continuation of a work ethic, in a heightened, intensified form. First of all, the link between effort and reward is not broken and assumes a highly moralized character. If one is not doing well, it is one’s own fault—nobody else’s. You just were not smart enough, for example, to read and understand the fine print on your mortgage documents. Second, one bears a completely individualized responsibility for both the costs and the rewards of one’s behavior. No one is going to help you if you made a mistake in the sort of employment you chose to pursue or failed to accurately judge the risks of the actions you took in a futile effort to get ahead. Third, this individualized responsibility sets off a highly competitive relationship between oneself and others: your standing is determined over against others in a constantly expanding war of position. Pay, for instance, is geared to individual performance (and not to job description or seniority, which can be shared with others), and what counts as good performance continues to ratchet up, to escalate as your once superior performance is matched by that of others. Fourth, this ethic is intensified by being totalized. There is no “you” apart from it; it covers the entirety of life, at work and outside of it, and the whole of one’s aspirations, in the way, for instance, that being indebted colonizes one’s past, present, and future. Fifth and finally, the continuity of past, present, and future along a single linear employment trajectory in a traditional Protestant ethic also finds an insidious analogue in the new spirit of capitalism. A kind of unbreakable continuity exists between past, present, and future—they in fact collapse into one another, fuse with one another—in ways that make any radical break with the present order seem impossible. This is a constantly changing economic order or regime, requiring constant change from the participants in it, but one offering no escape from it; the future simply promises more of the same.
This time fusion, with its imagination-constricting effect, occurs in a variety of ways. First, the discipline of debt makes present and future simple artifacts of a past promise; present and future collapse into a past that continues to make its demands and cannot be forgiven. Second, the constant demand for rapid, near immediate response to new developments makes past and future disappear. There is nothing but the present; the present monopolizes attention in ways that chain one to it, making one the prisoner of it. There is nothing but the present emergency for finance-disciplined employees; they are disciplined in much the same way poor people are. Without sufficient funds to get by, lacking any financial cushion, every challenge—even, say, a flat tire—threatens to become a crisis requiring all of one’s immediate attention. Like the short-term preoccupations of corporations adapting to the time pressures posed by stock markets, one cannot plan for the future. The likely demands of the future recede from consciousness and in that sense collapse into the now, under the weight of the present emergency that requires immediate response and grabs one’s full attention.
At the same time as there is nothing but the present, there is nothing to the present, to form the basis for decision-making with any temporal horizon. The present shrinks with the rapid turnover of changing circumstances to be addressed; things change at a moment’s notice. Indeed, the economically significant present shrinks to something too short to be experienced. A billion dollars can be made in a nanosecond via computerized trading that arbitrages the difference in the values of similar financial instruments across different markets for them. As the scholar David Harvey observes, “Speed and the rapid reductions in the friction of distance and of turnover times . . . preclude time to imagine or construct alternatives other than those forced unthinkingly upon us as we rush to perform.”
Past, present, and future also tend to collapse into one another in secondary financial markets oriented to future value. On the one hand, present value is completely determined by expectations of future value; present value just is the discounted future. On the other hand, what future value will be is determined by and collapses into present expectation. As mentioned before, present expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on secondary markets: if everyone expects a stock’s value to rise and buys it, its price on the stock market will rise.
The bottom line of all these temporal effects? No future can be imagined that would be radically different from the present. The result is a kind of totalization of capitalism itself; no future exists outside present capitalist arrangements.
From Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Kathryn Tanner is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. She is the author of Christ the Key and Economy of Grace, among other books.