In my ongoing reading of The Master and His Emissary, I came across something very interesting on p. 321:

[Max] Weber held that the cognitive structure of Protestantism was closely associated with capitalism: both involve an exaggerated emphasis on individual agency, and a discounting of what might be called ‘communion’. An emphasis on individual agency inevitably manifests itself, as David Bakan has suggested, in self-protection, self-assertion, and self-expansion, whereas communion manifests itself in the sense of being at one with others. ‘Agency,’ he writes, ‘manifests itself in isolation, alienation, and aloneness; communion in contact, openness and union. Agency manifests itself in the urge to master: communion in non-contractual co-operation’. Success in material terms became, under Protestantism, a sign of spiritual prowess, the reward of God to his faithful.

David Bakan was writing in his 1966 book The Duality of Human Existence: Isolation and Communion in Western Man. The degree to which his paradigm developed out of agency and communion fits the thesis of Iain McGilchrist is canny, especially considering how Bakan’s book predates McGilchrist’s by a half century.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the issue, but the underlying concern here appears to be salvation, which has both earthly manifestations (e.g., happiness, mostly understood in terms of financial success and its concomitant material rewards) and heavenly (e.g., validation of individual righteousness and entry into heaven). But that point is buried under layers of obfuscation in the form of categorizing and describing. Indeed, this is how we respond to issues of ultimate human concern these days: we analyze. What we don’t do is sense and feel and intuit. Those basic human behaviors are overwhelmed by cognitive overactivity, whether thinking about agency and self or for that matter communion (which is self again, reconstituted as selflessness as one enters into flow, context, and intersubjectivity). This blog is no exception. Funny thing, though: social and cultural histories tell about human self-organization and mentalité, as opposed to a history of events, and how intuitive responses — expressions of the Zeitgeist, if you willforce their way through all the obfuscation with glaring clarity. Considerable hindsight is required to understand it, which is why people cannot tell their own histories well.

Maybe I’m preoccupied with these lines of inquiry, but it seems that more academics than ever, and perhaps more laypersons, too (at least those not too enthralled by the media circus of distraction entertainment and news ephemera), are turning their attention to social history as we all sense the train of modernity has derailed, where we’re poised to enter into a new and almost entirely uncharted phase of constant flux, adjustment, and probably horrific loss yet wish to make some provisional sense of it. I see new book titles all the time that suggest we’re on the eve of empire lost and so look to the history of ideas for the linchpins and crucibles that shaped and delivered our now inevitable and intertwined fates. Sometimes those ideas are tied to individual people, e.g., Nicolaus Copernicus and heliocentrism, Martin Luther and Protestantism, or Martin Luther King and civil rights. Other times those ideas are a disembodied mélange that coalesces across a variety of significant persons throughout an era, e.g., the French and American Revolutions, the myriad inventions of the Machine Age and then the Information / Communications / Electronics Age, the ecology movement of the 1970s (now in the 2000s called environmentalism), the transition movement, or more insidiously, the rise of the Religious Right and its takeover of U.S. government.

In light of that last one, I believe my observation about salvation is of particular importance in the U.S. as the party nominating conventions have just formalized their presidential candidates, who inevitably embody and communicate approaches to governance that spring from personal notions of salvation and the proper conduct of life not just individually but from the power seats of administrative posts and appointments. I suspect this may be more true of Romney than of Obama because the former’s wacko Mormon faith is of somewhat greater interest than Obama’s bland Christianity. (Some insist Obama is a crypto-Muslim, but I have no interest in going there.) But it matters to both because even without the connection between Protestantism and capitalism noted above, both candidates clearly adhere to the very American religion of money.

I searched briefly for a discussion of Mormonism and capitalism but was thwarted. For example, this article in The Economist (and the underlying article in GQ) treats the issue in terms of racehorse politics. A much better article in Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi examines the specific style of vulture capitalism used by Romney and Bain Capital to extract fortunes from ailing and vulnerable companies without the intention of bothering to return value of any kind. (If that happened in a couple instances where merged companies were strengthened, that was purely incidental to the larger purpose of enriching Bain Capital.) So let me repeat from the quote above: “Success in material terms became, under Protestantism, a sign of spiritual prowess, the reward of God to his faithful.” The manner in which material success is achieved is irrelevant, be it growing a business, exploiting labor (often foreign), preying on entities of all kinds, manipulating tax codes and loopholes, or as Taibbi shows, creating a novel form of usury using others’ credit. In a topsy-turvy rationalization, the bottom line justifies Romney’s irresponsibility, and he meanwhile claims to be a success at business and a potent candidate for the presidency. Indeed, in his formulation, his salvific entry into heaven as reward for a righteous life of material success will be predated and prepared by his election to the presidency and validation by a electorate conditioned to believe, like he does, that personal salvation equals bank.

Whether Obama is any different or better is difficult to assess, since his presidency has been marred by preoccupations with reinforcing the outrages of the financial industry that nearly wrecked everything just prior to his taking office. He has been carrying water for the financial elite for four years, and if he has any concern for the citizenry, the commonweal, and America (a nebulous concept that), I find it impossible to divine amidst all the rollbacks of civil liberties and consolidation of presidential power that makes his predecessors’ attempts to establish the imperial presidency look a little timid.

I often say to others that the hardest thing in life is building and maintaining good character. My full meaning never registers on anyone, as good character is not comprised of an agreed-upon set of characteristics beyond the usual (mistaken) fame, fortune, and influence. Considering the general difficulty of developing good character and myriad temptations away from it, one might expect a philosophical people to establish the issue as a central part of being, of leading a good life, righteous or not. But of course, we’re no longer a philosophical people, if ever we were. And if Americans do have a philosophy or secular religion, it is the unexamined, unchecked pursuit of the American Dream — which relates to American exceptionalism — in all its vulgarity. Foreigners can see it clearly; we inside the bubble typically cannot.

Another thing I often say to others, which also fails to register, is that perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a person, short of loss of life, limb, or health, is to achieve success. It tends to ruin ordinary people, who inevitably begin believing their own hype and end up with distorted character, some more badly distorted than others. Just about any politician is a case in point. They’re all rich, famous, influential people (a requirement of office) who have others cozying up for favors and preferential treatment or just to bask in glorified association with supposedly great men and women. The hype and adoration (even though they are also reviled and attacked, sometimes viciously) scarcely lets up — at least until they leave office and influence wanes. (I’m not sure who’s more pathetic, the two former Bush presidents, who have retreated into retirement obscurity, or Clinton, who continues to seek the spotlight and adulation of crowds.) Romney is hardly alone in not getting that those things that make him an ostensible success are the very things that have distorted his character beyond human recognition. Ancient wisdom observes such distortions at Matthew 19:24, among other places: “… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Regrettably, we ignore the obvious proscription against self-enrichment, or perhaps we’re just too stupid to interpret the text anymore.


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