Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Avatars and Immortality

Anyone who has read or heard even a little history knows that the dream of immortality has existed among humans for a very long time. Most of these dreams (though not all, as the Christian fundamentalist notions of the “rapture,” and Islamic fundamentalist notions of a heaven full of virgins awaiting the martyrs who blow themselves and others up, prove) have been debunked in recent years, when even the Roman Catholic Church has pretty much abandoned its notion of an afterlife in fire for those who’ve been ‘bad’ (whether Catholics still believe in a blissful Heaven for those who’ve been ‘good’ remains unclear to me).
What’s astonishing is that this dream of living forever now exists in the most unlikely of places—among computer geeks and nerds who mostly profess atheism. It exists, that is, in two places: virtual reality, and the transformation of humans into cyborgs (though cyborgs don’t specifically promise immortality, they do promise to transform humans into machines, which is a kind of immortality—see Pagan Kennedy, “The Cyborg in Us All,” NY Times, 9.14.11). If you can create an avatar—a virtual computerized model—of yourself (as has been done for Orville Redenbacher, so that, though dead, he still appears in his popcorn commercials), you can in some sense exist forever. The title of the avatar game on the internet, “Second Life,” reveals this implicitly. So does the reaction of volunteers whom Jeremy Bailenson studied for a Stanford experiment purporting to create avatars that could be preserved forever. When the subjects found out that the science to create immortal avatars of themselves didn’t yet exist, many screamed their outrage. They had invested infinite hope in being among the first avatar-based immortals.

Before dismissing this as foolish dreamery, consider how far this movement has already gone. Right now, the video games that most kids engage in (my grandson has a Wii version of Star Wars in which he ‘becomes’ Lego-warrior avatars who destroy everything in sight) “consume more hours per day than movies and print media combined” (Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blascovich, Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, Morrow: 2011, p. 2) The key point about this, moreover, is that countless neuroscience experiments have proved that “the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual.” Read that again. The brain doesn’t care whether an experience is “only virtual.” It reacts in much the same way as it does to “reality.”

Frankly, until I read Infinite Reality, all of this had pretty much passed me by. I had read about virtual-reality helmets such as the kind used to train pilots, but I had no idea that things had gone so far. I had no idea that millions of people sign up for the online site called “Second Life” (I tried; it seemed impossibly complex and stupid to me), and invest incredible amounts of time and emotional energy setting up an alternate personality (avatar) that can enter the website’s virtual world and interact in any way imaginable with other people’s avatars. Needless to say, most people equip their avatars with qualities they would like to have, or have wondered about having. Then they go looking for people (avatars) with whom to experiment in a wished-for interaction. The most common interaction, not surprisingly, seems to be sex with another avatar, or several others; but there’s also a lot of wheeling and dealing to gain wealth and prestige. Talk about “be all that you can be!”

Still, the really interesting stuff happens when you get into a virtual laboratory. Whereas “Second Life” takes place on a flat computer screen, virtual reality really comes into its own when you don a headset that can simulate real scenes in 3D fidelity so real that when people approach a simulated pit in front them, they invariably recoil (even though they’re “really” walking on a level floor). While virtual reality of this kind is expensive today, there can be little question that it soon will have become commonplace. Rather than spending tons of money traveling to China, say, one will be able to go there “virtually,” without having to endure the travails of travel, including bothersome other people. What makes this eerie is that video games are already working with this kind of VR, and creating avatars. In games like Pong, Wii, Move, and Kinect the game computer can already “track” a user’s physical movements and then “render” a world incorporating those movements into a virtual tennis scene that is authentic in all necessary details. So,

In a repetitive cycle, the user moves, the tracker detects that movement, and the rendering engine produces a digital representation of the world to reflect that movement…when a Wii tennis player swings her hand, the track wand detects the movement and the rendering engine draws a tennis swing. (p. 44)
As Bailenson notes, “in a state of the art system, this process (of tracking and rendering the appropriate scene from the point of view of the subject) repeats itself approximately 100 times a second.” Everything in the virtual scene appears smooth and natural, including, in the game “Grand Theft Auto,” an episode where players can “employ a prostitute and then kill her to get their money back.” And remember, the brain reacts to all this in the same way it does when it is “really” happening.

The implications to a psychologist like Bailenson are profound. Short people, for example, who adopt a tall avatar for themselves, show definite improvements in their self-image, even after they’ve left the avatar behind. They also show improvements in competition: in real games held afterwards, the person whose avatar was taller became a more successful negotiator. Those who fashion a trim, beautiful avatar, show the same rise in self-esteem. Bailenson also notes the importance of people’s attributions of “mind” or reality to inanimate objects like computers, and this includes avatars. In one experiment, subjects were shown a real person named Sally, and then her avatar disfigured with a birthmark (neurophysiological studies show that interacting with a “stigmatized other,” even someone with a birthmark, causes a threat response). After four or five minutes interacting with Sally’s disfigured avatar, subjects displayed the heart-rate response indicating threat—even though they knew the real Sally had no birthmark. And the games sold to consumers keep getting more sophisticated in this regard. In the Sony PlayStation game, THUG 2 (over 1 million sold in U.S.) players can upload their photos onto the face of a character, and then have their “clones” perform amazing feats of skateboarding, etc. They can also watch them performing actions not under their control. This brings up the question of the effect of watching one’s “doppelganger” (a character with one’s appearance) do something in virtual reality. It appears to be profound: the more similar a virtual character is to the person observing, the more likely the observer is to mimic that character. This can be positive: watching a healthy person who seems similar can lead a person to adopt healthy behavior. But other possibilities are legion. Baileson mentions the commercial ones:

…if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand. In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. (119)
In short, we prefer what appears like us. Experiments showed that even subjects who knew their faces had been placed in a commercial, still expressed preference for the brand after the study ended. Can anyone imagine most corporations aren’t already planning for what could be a bonanza in this type of narcissistic advertising?

More bizarre possibilities for avatars, according to Bailenson and Blascovich, seem endless. In the brave new world to come, “wearing an avatar will be like wearing contact lenses.” And these avatars will be capable of not only ‘seeing’ virtual objects and ‘feeling’ them (using ‘haptic’ devices), but of appearing to walk among us. More ominously, imposters can “perfectly re-create and control other people’s avatars” as has already happened with poor old Orville Redenbacher. Tracking devices—which can see and record every physical movement you make—make this not only possible, but inevitable. Everyone, with all physical essentials, will be archived.

All of this makes the idea of “the real world” rather problematic. Of course, neuroscience has already told us that the ‘world’ we see and believe in is really a model constructed by our brains, but still, this takes things several steps beyond that. For if, in virtual reality, “anybody can interact with anybody else in the world, positively or negatively,” then what does it mean to talk about “real” experience? If “everything everybody does will be archived,” what does privacy mean?

At the least, one can say this: a brave new world is already upon us (think of all those kids with video games; think of how much time you already spend staring at your computer screen), and you can bet that those with an eye to profiting from it are already busy, busy, busy. One can also say, take a walk in the real outdoors with real dirt, grass, trees, worms, bugs, and the sweet smell of horseshit; it may soon be only a distant memory.

Lawrence DiStasi


Just a little historical perspective on jobs. Like many things in recent history jobs, as we know them, didn’t always exist. Tribal societies didn’t have jobs where people went to work for a certain length of time and received an agreed upon compensation. Often they were tribal societies that didn’t have money or clocks. Still essential work was done and usually no one starved or everyone starved. The Inca empire before 1533 was an example of an advanced civilization without unemployment, poverty and almost no crime. Each person had their roll in a thoughtfully structured society. All that changed with the Spanish conquest.
Much of the work done in feudalistic, societies was performed by slaves, or virtual slaves such as serfs, indentured servants and children. It is only in the last hundred years or so that the present concept of workers rights has been viewed as something people are entitled to; although that concept is under attack by the far right.

As important as jobs are in a capitalist society, not everyone needs to work and not all work is meaningful or necessary. Children and students don’t need to work, stay at home parents don’t have to work if they have enough income. Those who are mentally or physically ill might not work. Those who are rich might not choose to work and the same is true of retired people. If we are really worried about jobs raising the retirement age would make the jobless rate much worse.

Most social problems have solutions and it is just a matter of determining the best course of action. The jobs problem is certainly solvable but the political debate rages on while little real headway is made on this issue that will likely determine who we elect as President and which party we think can bring down the unemployment rate.

The Republican positions on lowering the unemployment rate are certainly narrower in scope than the Democratic solutions. Lower taxes on the rich and corporations and less regulation on business is simply, easy to remember and doesn’t work. When I say it doesn’t work I’m speaking from a utilitarian perspective in that it doesn’t even come close to providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We have clear evidence that it doesn’t work because we have tried those solutions before and they failed. What they are advocating is nothing more than the Laissez Faire capitalism of the 1800’s, or the neo-feudalism of the Victorian Age that produced vast economic inequality. It may provide extra wealth for those who are already rich and it may allow corporations to do want they want to do instead of what they should do, but there is no consistent data I know of that by following that simple plan a lot of jobs would be created. No matter how many times they say Ronald Reagan and the magic of the free market that isn’t going to change. For the voter who doesn’t want to think too hard about complex solutions, such as good jobs for more people, it gives them a belief system that is absolutist in nature to the point where deviation and compromise are not an option. Full employment isn’t even a Republican objective; at least I’ve never heard them say it was.
On the other hand Democrats have some core values about jobs. They believe in the right to belong to a union, to have a retirement program, to have a minimum wage, to have sick leave and paid vacations, safe working conditions and to have affordable health care. Beyond that most Democrats believe that government can do things to create jobs and to prevent jobs from being outsourced. Other countries like China have had an active role in developing industries that manufacture goods and expand clean energy. The criticism of this is that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the business world. What if we had sat back and allowed General Motors to fail? Sometimes American businesses need government help to succeed and need to partner with government on research and development. We need to give incentives to businesses that hire Americans and penalize those companies that outsource American jobs. President Obama has a lot of practical measures in the American Jobs Act that should work if he can get it passed.

Roughly one out of thirteen Americans has a government job but at this point in time about 16% of the work force would like a full time job. Hiring people to repair infrastructure as outlined in the jobs bill is a good start. One of the really big problems with jobs is too many people are salaried employees. They are working seventy hours a week and being paid for only forty hours. If a law were passed that required that all employers must pay employees for all hours worked pay time and a half would be for hours over forty that would reduce unemployment significantly. In fact, Republicans often advocate cutting employees to save money and that results in paying unemployment benefits to laid off workers while the remaining workers have to be paid overtime to get the work done. Another big part of the jobs problem is that corporations play one state off against another by trying to lure companies away from other states by lower taxes, subsidies and right to work laws. States would be far better off financially if they would simply adopt uniform rules that would not allow corporations to pick and choose. We should pass buy- American incentives so that American manufactured goods can be competitive with foreign made goods. That may not be free trade but other countries protect their economies and so should we.

Finally, the Republican argument that government cannot be the solution to the jobs problem appears to be false when you go on the internet and look at the unemployment rate of countries around the world on Wikipedia. it shows that the United States has a 9.3% unemployment rate. Turkmenistan 70%, Yemen 35% and Honduras 27.8% shows that countries with really bad government and no social safety net to speak of have few jobs for their people. On the other hand Monaco 0.0%, Belarus 0.7%, Singapore 1.9%, Malasia 3.2% and China 4.1% shows that governments that actively work to provide opportunity for all can come close to full employment. Even countries that don’t have a high standard of living such as Cuba 1.6% and Vietnam 2.9% can at least prevent severe poverty and homelessness.

Dave Silva

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reliving History

As I look at the papers and postings
It’s hard to see where I’m at
Because I read all the boastings
About solutions to fix this and that
And candidates who surely know better
Claim their elixirs will cure
Our ills right down to the letter
If we only agree to endure
The poisons about to be poured
And that will just thrill us
Unless it will kill us
As we wade through the welter of lies
Only history enlightens our lives

I have been reading extensively about the 20s and 30s to examine the cycle of history at home and abroad (Italy) to see what lessons might be learned. The sources were partly biographical, but are mostly records of the times wrapped around personalities such as FDR and folks like Hoover and even (Saint) Padre Pio. The American biographies provided a view of our economics, politics and sociology and the Padre Pio book gave insight to Italy during the period. The developments at home and abroad were remarkably similar, although the outcomes were less so and details varied from point to point.

In America, the sociology was framed by an almost Calvinistic belief that afflictions besetting individuals, families and communities were visited upon them through their sins and the sins of their forebears. Poverty was the natural outcome of this pre-condition and wealth was seen, not only as a blessing from God, but a sign of earthly holiness, or Grace on earth. Italian experience differed in that they had more recently lived through times where birth determined worth, but not in the Calvinist model. The lord of the manor had power over peons and as bad as education was in many rural American areas, it was better than the Italian model. Both sides of the Atlantic suffered from poor nutrition. In fact, it was a major cause of rejection for the military draft as things heated up for the US entry into WW II. A common element was the role of religion in everyday life, especially for the poor. In Italy there was an attachment to mysticism, especially through the lives of Roman Catholic saints. In the US, there was a virulent fundamentalism that rivaled any in history. The fundamentalist Ku Klux Klan was active in blaming minorities for the ills of our nation. Opportunistic preachers including Gerald L.K. Smith, Gerald Winrod and Fr. Coughlin whipped up sentiment against the left and supported the right and the “New America” of Colonel Lindbergh (hero and Nazi supporter). In Italy, socialists and even communists whipped up sentiments for fairness and even retribution against landowners. There, Benito Mussolini negotiated with the pope and collected religious support for his plans. Negotiations in 1929 resulted in the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat that returned 194 acres to the Church for the Vatican and split responsibilities for marriage and education between Church and State. Uneducated people tried to explain and interpret their lives in ways that made sense to them. It was a perfect storm that engulfed much of the planet. In Europe overall, WW I reparations sapped economic growth and colonialism was uttering its Last Hurrah so that survival by exploitation of colonies was diminishing and unable to keep economies viable. The dividing line between haves and have-nots sharpened. Symbolism held enormous power over largely illiterate populations; aided by religiosity and a history of compliance.

Wars then, just as now, had sapped the strength of nations and visited hunger and poverty on masses of people. Natural calamities such as the Dust Bowl in the US deepened misery and pain. Revolution in Europe brought fear and reaction from the far right in Italy. In the US, President Hoover, earlier an appointed hero of the great flood of 1927, expressed that government had no role in changing the dynamics of economics and he instituted a woefully inadequate program of helping starving Americans by encouraging his wealthy friends to give to the Community Chest in 1930-31. The program was a failure because his friends largely ignored his pleas and the reality of hunger brought shame to proud Americans. It succeeded in the sense that it placated the wealthy who felt vindicated that the poor deserved their lot in life and they deserved their wealth. Fundamentalist preachers, focused on alcohol, dancing and revivals, but supported harsh economic remedies. Today, they largely attack abortion and homosexuality, but the attachment by fundamentalists to the political right wing and drastic economics remains. In Italy, Padre Pio, despite being in the Capuchin monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo in an obscure corner of southern Italy, was known throughout the continent because of his miracles and his five stigmata that matched those of Jesus. Both socialists and fascists pursued the simple priest, but fascists won out and he was often seen with fascist operatives and members of parliament as he ministered to thousands of pilgrims. The nexus of the Church and fascism in Italy was coupled with a large dose of Anti-Semitism, especially in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Here in the US it was linked with both fundamentalists and Catholics like Fr. Coughlin who claimed that the abominable treatment of Jews by Germany was an internal matter for Germans; none of our concern and surely nothing to go to war for. In Italy, Il Duce still pursued “corporatism” as he defined fascism. This allowed him to denounce and limit unions and spur his expansionist plans. He denied Jews basic rights and invaded North Africa and sent military to Franco in Spain while the Church was focused on the atheistic Red Menace. Paradoxically, Il Duce asked the pope (Pius XI) to excommunicate Hitler who, though born Catholic, was pagan. Mussolini feared Hitler would annex the South Tyrol. Wars and infrastructure projects put Italians to work and gave reason to destroy labor unions as a matter of security just as unions organized to fight for workers. Conservatives equated unions to socialism and communism despite lacking evidence. This served corporatism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Churches in Italy and the United States simply stood by or supported owners and corporations. Low wages prevailed, but Italians worked.

At home the theme was isolationism fostered by the far right who praised both Hitler and Mussolini as they demanded that we shun pleas from England, Spain and France for support. Unions were attacked, often using state or federal police and military resources to break up demonstrations, shoot demonstrators; reduce demand for wages and stall unrest that might take root here. The downward pressure on wages escalated as unions were attacked. One corporate CEO was quoted as saying “A man should be able to feed his family for 50 cents per day.” Those asking for higher wages were seen as immoral by owners and executives. Corporate profits were high and wages were low (sound familiar?) with the exception of Henry Ford who stated that his workers had to be paid well to afford to buy his cars. The Supreme Court declared child labor laws unconstitutional to further erode wages, saying, in effect, that children who could not otherwise execute contracts had a right to independently contract their labor. Despite brutal suppression of labor, Americans had little love for communism and they bore their burdens with grim resolve. Grocers like my Dad gave food to those without and put charges on records that were kept but never paid. Years later, when I found the records and confronted my father about them, he simply said: “They had to eat.”
Here in 2011, technology has changed, but little else. We see the far right in the US demanding shrinkage of government size and spending and expansion of government to control abortion and our southern border. Instead of blaming blacks and Jews for our troubles, as we did in the 20s and 30s we now focus on Mexican and Central Americans causing job shortages, although every study demonstrates that to be false. Corporations are enjoying record profits and lowering wages yet again as they shed jobs and demand more from the workers they retain. Preachers are preaching hate in more subtle tones, as they join the chorus to get on your knees instead of your feet. The numbers of abortions has dropped in recent years, but those cries still out-shout the cries of the poor. The tactics of conservatives have become more strident and they protect the upper class by demanding pledges of tax cuts in the face of declining government revenues and services.

There are some real outcomes of smaller government that some are unwilling to agree cause serious problems. As a single example, Texas leads the nation in minimum wage workers and has cut the training, equipping and staffing of Volunteer fire departments by 75%. At least 1600 homes have been destroyed by wildfires there. Hmm. In Wisconsin, conservatives unilaterally stripped unions of their rights to bargain for wages or working conditions while providing a grant to selected corporations that totaled more than the dollars taken from teachers and first responders. The Koch brothers recently gathered up conservative corporation executives and led a million dollar meeting where conservative donors had to pledge a minimum of $ 1 Million for their GOP friends in the coming election. Buddy, can you spare a $ million? Plutocrats and polluters won’t disappear overnight. We have seen presidential candidate Perry conduct a revival like prayer service to burnish his fundamentalist bona fides. We have seen candidate Bachmann deftly resign from her fundamentalist church that openly calls the pope “the Antichrist” just days before declaring her candidacy. Bachmann also signed a pledge by social conservatives in Iowa stating “A Black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African American President.” The pledge shows not only blatant prejudice, but shows ignorance of American slavery that deliberately broke up and sold parts of families and where slave owners frequently bred slaves personally by having sex with them that could, in no way, be considered consensual. People in Italy drifted from organized religion and have developed a less trusting and more distant attitude toward the Church, unlike fundamentalists here. This joining of Church and State in the US may have nasty consequences for public education, public medicine and additional areas too numerous to list. More recently, she has stated that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. This lie will cause confusion among the uninformed and may cause pain, disease and suffering among those who refuse the vaccine based on her comments.

This is where we must begin to stop the revision of history that paints the pain, depravation and degradation of our people as a time of glory. The excesses of the rich in defining the world as theirs to control was dominant in the 20s and 30s. Limiting the benevolence of government and enhancing its power for sanction is moving us in exactly the wrong direction. A man or woman out of work or underpaid becomes a set of problems and a study in agony and bad behavior. It is not a trial where they are strengthened by fire, but one where they are burned and scarred. There is a role for government and the idea that we should limit the benevolent side of the government is a sick excuse to further tilt the nation to plutocracy instead of democracy. We may go back to solutions of violence in the streets and probably will, but that only encourages bastards with money to use the force they buy to restore PAX Dollarama. Mussolini used military entertainment and civil projects. Hitler used war. Hoover used the Community Chest. Conservatives use religion, so what will Boehner and Cantor use? Which way will we go? Jobs provide dignity but more than dignity. They provide a haven where families dwell and a nation thrives. Poverty provides misery and strife and the US poverty level has just risen to 15.1%.

The violence will be televised this time, unlike the 20s and 30s. Be careful out there.

George Giacoppe
11 September 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Spirit of Capitalism

I have been reading Max Weber’s seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism lately and it illuminates a great deal about the spirit of our times—a spirit that has been termed The Age of Greed by Jeff Madrick in his recent book of that name. And while what Madrick describes is really the transformation in the last 40 years of America from an industrialized society to a financialized one, it doesn’t address the origins that interest me here. Weber was interested in this too. His question really was not only ‘why do people work to begin with’ (primary cultures had no concept called “work” at all and only exerted themselves periodically in war or in short-term hunting and gathering), but more relevant to his time, ‘why do people in modern society identify themselves as laborers?’ How was it possible for western culture to transform itself from a traditional culture where labor hardly existed except as part of a manorial household, to post-1600s capitalist society where free laborers are yoked to paying jobs in capitalistic enterprises? More specifically, how could a state of mind that Weber finds best illustrated in Ben Franklin (a penny saved is a penny earned; time is money; credit is money—i.e. it is a duty to increase one’s capital) come to be adopted by whole societies when, in the Middle Ages and before, that state of mind would “have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice?” As sinful greed? To illustrate how remarkable this is, Weber compares traditional laborers with modern laborers. A farm owner, for example, who pays his workers at a piece-rate (like modern farm workers paid at so much per bushel), thinks to increase production by increasing rates. This works with modern workers, but when applied to traditional laborers, the increased rate backfires. The traditional worker, that is, not only does not increase his work rate, he decreases it—he works slower so as to still earn the same daily amount. As Weber summarizes it, “the opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less.” Thus the attitude of traditionalism:

A man does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. (60)
Weber then devotes his entire book to explaining how Protestantism, especially the Calvinist branch of the Reformation, changed this traditionalist attitude towards work. While a “surplus population which it can hire cheaply” is necessary for capitalism to develop and thrive, so, he says, is a “developed sense of responsibility.” That is, for capitalism to work, “labour must…be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling.” Far from being natural, or even the product of high or low wages, this attitude “can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education” (62). And the educating body was, originally at least, Protestantism. It is important to note that this education in work did not, at least at first, involve an education in greed, much less enjoyment. To the contrary, Weber makes clear that the essential ingredient, in the beginning, involved a kind of asceticism—not the asceticism of the monastery, but an asceticism in the world. To make labor a calling, that is, meant making labor an obligation in the service of God, of salvation. One was schooled in the idea that hard and constant work was an end in itself, the way of salvation for the average person, and that saving the money one earned was part of that obligation. In order to save, of course, one had to be frugal, buying only what was absolutely necessary. The asceticism that had been the mark of the otherworldly Catholic monastery, that is, was brought into the world. So one worked, one saved (“a penny saved is a penny earned”) and one eventually prospered. It is a commonplace that in the American colonies during the Puritan period (Boston, etc.), these essential elements were merged in such a way that prospering in business became synonymous with salvation—or rather, prospering became a sign of salvation. This is because though election (salvation) or damnation was pre-determined by God, the actual judgment was uncertain, and this uncertainty was almost intolerable. One’s prosperity thus became a sign, a way for the uncertainty to be resolved. The opposite was also true: poverty became a sign of damnation, making the poor doubly damned—both in this world and the next. The sad truth is that many Americans still maintain these essential attitudes.

Work as a calling then, work as a duty, and success in work as a sign of salvation are the essential elements of the Protestant ethic. They are also the essential elements of the spirit of capitalism. As Weber puts it,

the expansion of modern capitalism is not in the first instance a question of the origin of the capital sums which were available…but, above all, of the development of the spirit of capitalism (68).
This is not to say that Protestantism ignored the dangers of wealth. Weber cites the writings of Richard Baxter as illustrative. And there, the key to this danger involved idleness and the temptations of the flesh it exposed one to. As Weber interprets Baxter, “Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins….Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, more sleep than is necessary for worthy of absolute moral condemnation” (157). A person was thus led to work constantly, to save what he earned, never to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but rather invest those savings as an entrepreneur in new opportunities for more work (and wealth). So while the ethic frowned on wealth and the luxuries it fostered, it at the same time had the “psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods from the inhibitions of the traditionalist ethic. It broke the bonds of the impulse of acquisition in that it not only legalized it, but looked upon it as directly willed by God” (171).

Weber ends his work with the ironic contradiction involved in this religiously inspired ethic. He quotes John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, as follows:

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches….So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.” (175)
The protestant entrepreneur, in this way, not only won the “feeling of God’s grace” for doing his duty in getting rich, but also a supply of “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God.” This ethic comforted the capitalist entrepreneur as well that the “unequal distribution of the goods of this world was a special dispensation of Divine Providence.” For had not Calvin himself said that ‘only when people, i.e. the mass of laborers and craftsmen, were poor did they remain obedient to God?’ (177). He had. So low wages, themselves, had been rationalized and justified by the divine.

The Protestant ethic, in sum, according to Weber, not only sanctified labor as a calling enabling a worker to be certain of his election, it also legalized, for the capitalist, the “exploitation of this specific willingness to work.” A Daily Double if there ever was one.

It takes little to see how these attitudes and rationalizations are still in use today. America sanctifies capitalism as literally the manifestation of both God’s will and the natural order of things. American media also lionizes those entrepreneurs who, at least according to their own myth, raise themselves by their own bootstraps to become rich—to become “elect” in modern society’s terms. Finally, American capitalism rationalizes the unequal distribution of wealth and goods in this world as simply the workings of natural or divine laws with which mere humans cannot quarrel.

To Max Weber’s credit, he ends his study with a scathing reminder that though this ethic began in the cloak of saintliness, its apotheosis in industrial capitalism became “an iron cage.” Had he known about capitalism’s most recent metamorphosis into an ongoing financial heist creating ever more inequality, his critique would have been far more savage.

Lawrence DiStasi