Saturday, 2 February 2013

The need for a "post-protestant ethic"

One of the thinkers I admire, Max Weber, forwards a compelling argument in his famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that without protestantism free capitalism would have not taken hold (in contrast to other cultures, the Asian cultures in particular, he argues elsewhere) the way it has in Europe and its off-shoots (North America, say). I'm not so sure, and I'll try and explain why.

During the flowering of culture called the Renaissance (roughly the period from the 14th to the 17th centuries), there was not only the re-discovery of ancient Greek and Classical Roman cultures, but these discoveries were largely financed by a growing capitalism and middle-class of the period with the invention of international banking. And this flowering occurred not with the rise of protestantism (15th century on) but was financed almost entirely by Catholic Church luminaries such as the (in)famous House of Medici.

Regardless, Weber's insights still pertain and apply because that Renaissance period is what he'd call, the charismatic domination stage where familial and religious ties largely determined the political and economic structures - ie, that which gave birth to protestantism.

Another thinker that I admire, Edward T Hall, also talks about America's struggle to "throw off the yoke of Protestant Ethic" (Hall, Beyond Culture, p. 220). He writes:

Our enshrinement of time and the way in which we allow our lives to be fragmented is frightening. The whole process of extension transference is highly irrational. Ethnocentricism is inevitably characterized by irrational elements and, as long it is widely shared, it is impossible to combat. Individuals sometimes do lose their prejudices, but whole groups are slow to change and in many instances give up one prejudice only to take up another...cultural irrationality is widely shared and therefore often thought to be normal. Our attitudes toward consumption and material goods and our apparent lack of interest in curbing waste at a time when our resources are running out is clearly insane. But because we share the insanity with others and get little help from our institutions or leaders, this insanity goes virtually unchecked in spite of valiant efforts of the environmentalists. After all, you can't stop progress! Or can you? (ibid)

What Hall is describing is exactly the thing Weber warned us about: that "polar night of icy darkness". It is exactly so because the present irrational culture of consumerism as described by Hall in the passage above is largely determined by a corporatization of North American culture. This irrationality has reared its ugly head in a big way on the Idle No More movement which is, in so many words not clearly articulated, seen as a threat to the consumeristic society. Whether clothed in reactionary nationalism as Harper's regime would like, this thinly-veiled racism is not only disconcerting to aboriginals like me but utterly wrong-headed in its interpretation that we want and desire a pre-Luddite agenda.

Taking something from the notion of "estates of the realm" as intrepreted in the pre-Revolutionary France: the First Estate (or clergy); the Second Estate (nobility) and the Third Estate (commoners) - and I'd add the so-called 'Fifth Estate' (journalism) -, I'd propose that Weber's three levels of social stratification:

social class;
status class; and,
party class

are not just schemes of analysis but descriptions of what a viable, functional society needs to balance out and guard against any one of these three stratums over-powering the others.

I had a very interesting meeting with one of the Inuit Language advocates that I respect, Stephane Cloutier, where the subject evolved into a discussion on the need of a literary tradition (ie, reading material outside of documents issued by the government) for language preservation and advancement. The social class, I'm beginning to appreciate, is not enough to merely exist to be able to counter political plays and pressure from the other two more powerful aspects of Weberian social strata. We also need Eco's notion of philosophus additus artifici (philosopher as well as an artist) as part of the social class's arsenal to ably counter the other two.

My wife, D, is of similar experience as M. Cloutier, and our discussions on politics and culture have always centered around the notion of poets, philosophers and literary crtitics as signs of cultural and linguistic health and vitality.

The intrinsic anti-intellectualism of the reactionary right is not the fault of the social class itself, but forms a part of the tactics of the other two classes because knowledge and information can exist without historical and political awareness/insight, and both of the other two (knowledge and information) are completely useless without that all-important critical awareness - just as the status and party classes want things to be.

A Post-Protestant Ethic should seek that balance (rather than outright revolution) between the triumvirate - however we label them: first, second and third estates; social, status and party classes. Hall's irrational, insane cultural unconscious is not an inevitability (Hall and Weber are actually more optimistic than that). The similarities in their sociological studies go beyond what would be considered by some as blind optimism; they both provide in their own ways an adumbration of the way out of the Protestant Ethic. I pray that we grow and develop enough awareness to transcend this chinese finger trap we call the protestant ethic.


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