Re-Examining The Protestant Work Ethic

Last updated: 7/5/2020

Note: This essay is a work in progress.

Thesis: The conflation of the demands pushed by secular labour with Calvin's concept of the calling has its roots in historical-material — not theological — foundations.

Further Reading:


When we're trapped in one frame of reference, one era of history, it is very easy to take for granted just how fragile our understanding of the world around us is. Without falling into the trap of relativism, assuring the integrity of our beliefs requires that we maintain a critical eye on the issues we hold dearest, especially in matters as important as religion.

I would like to touch upon the relationship held between work and Protestant Christianity (more specifically, wage-labour and the Reformed tradition), in an attempt to better highlight the various political and economic influences that have been coinflated with Christian doctrine.

Taking Moltmann's advice, I will be approaching this topic with a hybrid analysis:

Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else...

Consequently the ‘coincidence’ of the change in circumstances and of human activity as a change in man himself applies to Christian practice to an eminent degree. The alternative between arousing faith in the heart and the changing of the godless circumstances of dehumanized man is a false one, as is the other alternative, which hinders by paralysing. The true front on which the liberation of Christ takes place does not run between soul and body or between persons and structures, but between the powers of the world as it decays and collapses into ruin, and the powers of the Spirit and of the future. (The Crucified God, p. 34)

The first task will be to contextualize the issue both in economic and historic terms. This will allow us to better separate the doctrine of the Word from the doctrine of the world.

From there, we'll be able to

Defining Work

The worst arguments tend to be over semantics, and unfortunately for us, there is a lot of semantic disagreement on how the word “work” is to be interpreted. It's very easy to walk into a topic like this leaning on preconceptions, so our first task should be properly defining work.

The line drawn between work and labour is generally ambiguous, so before we proceed we will have to reconcile this matter.

I will be considering the work of four authors who write on this topic, each with greatly differing worldviews; yet there are shared understandings which will help us form our definition:

Adam Smith's Definition:

As the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour, so labour can be more and more subdivided in proportion only as stock is previously more and more accumulated. The quantity of materials which the same number of people can work up, increases in a great proportion as labour comes to be more and more subdivided; and as the operations of each workman are gradually reduced to a greater degree of simplicity, a variety of new machines come to be invented for facilitating and abridging those operations. As the division of labour advances, therefore, in order to give constant employment to an equal number of workmen, an equal stock of provisions, and a greater stock of materials and tools than what would have been necessary in a ruder state of things, must be accumulated beforehand. But the number of workmen in every branch of business generally increases with the division of labour in that branch, or rather it is the increase of their number which enables them to class and subdivide themselves in this manner. (Smith 213)

Karl Marx's Definition:

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour?

First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. (Marx 133)

John Calvin's Definition:

Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man's mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random. So necessary is this distinction, that all our actions are thereby estimated in his sight, and often in a very different way from that in which human reason or philosophy would estimate them.

He who is obscure will not decline to cultivate a private life, that he may not desert the post at which God has placed him. Again, in all our cares, toils, annoyances, and other burdens, it will be no small alleviation to know that all these are under the superintendence of God. The magistrate will more willingly perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his proper sphere. Every one in his particular mode of life will, without repining, suffer its inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety, persuaded that God has laid on the burden. This, too, will afford admirable consolation, that in following your proper calling, no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendour and value in the eye of God. (Calvin 3:10:6)

Bob Black's Definition:

My minimum definition of work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies whether capitalist or communist, work invariably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness. (Black 6)

One characteristic of work is that it is compulsory. Black seems to be the most on-the-nose about this characteristic, but Marx's earlier writings also imply this, when he refers to labour (what we are calling work for the sake of simplicity) as serving abstracted needs. Even John Calvin, who considers work in a much more positive light, acknowledges the compulsion; he simply interprets the compulsion as having a divine origin. However, even if this characteristic is the most apparent, it is by no means primary.

The essential characteristics of work rest in a concept of division.

A simple example of this would be a vocational division. This has been known to us for a while now. Even writers as fresh out of the Enlightenment as Calvin and Smith provide extensive insight into this division. Calvin was interested in understanding what such division could mean to a Christian, whereas for Smith it was a question of the economic origins and implications of its existence.

The Dissolution of Work and Leisure

However, the characteristic of work that requires further discussion is its constitution of a division of time. When we talk about work in relation to time, we counterpose it against leisure, forming a division between the two.

The quickest way to illustrate such a division is to allude to the very first division as a metaphor of sorts:

Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God's Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness.

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. There was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:2-5)

Day and night are both created and defined simultaneously. Day is the not-night, night is the not-day. When there was no day, there was no night either, because there can be no night without a day. It is the same with work and leisure; there cannot be one without the other, because the boundaries of one are defined in opposition to the boundaries of another.

We already conceive work only as one half of this division, but it should also be understood as the catalyst of the division too, the light that divided itself from the darkness, so to speak. Because the existence of work logically precedes the existence of leisure, it is not to just be understood as one half of the division but the division itself.

From a historical perspective, conflicts between labour and capital resulted in the adoption of an eight-hour work schedule:

“The movement to reduce the work-hours is intended by its projectors to give a peaceful solution to the difficulties between the capitalists and laborers. I have always held that there were two ways to settle this trouble, either by peaceable means or violent methods. Reduced hours, or eight-hours, is the peace-offering.”

The unrest that preceded this negotiation should serve as evidence of one thing, and it was that the previous division of time was unsustainable. Work is perpetual by nature, and it was necessary to adjust the division of time to maintain labour's cooperation.

Why must the spheres of time be exclusive? Because another essential characteristic of work is that it itself is exclusive. Those eight hours spent at work belong wholly to work and none else, the existence of the worker reduced to a machine.

With this division of labour on the one hand and the accumulation of capitals on the other, the worker becomes ever more exclusively dependent on labour, and on a particular, very one-sided, machine-like labour. (Marx 35)

Yet, it is incorrect to conclude that the exclusive nature of work restricts its dominion. Leisure is still defined in relation to work, and is thus governed by it. What the 8-8-8 schedule inadvertently highlights is the exclusivity of each of these spheres of life.

Despite what we would initially assume, embracing leisure is no better. Just as night is the not-day, leisure is little more than the not-work.

Due to the success of separate production as production of the separate, the fundamental experience which in primitive societies is attached to a central task is in the process of being displaced, at the crest of the system’s development. by non-work, by inactivity. But this inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. There can be no freedom outside of activity, and in the context of the spectacle all activity is negated. just as real activity has been captured in its entirety for the global construction of this result. Thus the present “liberation from labor,” the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result. (Society of the Spectacle, Section 27)

As work is the division, any solution must be able to confront the division itself. In other words, what is often called “the abolition of work” is more accurately the dissolution of work and leisure.

This takes effect not just with relation to time, but also other divisions.

Historical Origins of The Ethic [section in-progress]

When dealing with the intersection of Protestant Christianity and the capitalist mode of production, one book stands out as a rather in-depth investigation of this very topic: Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The book mostly deals in historical and sociological terms, focusing moreso on analyzing relationships than making any normative claims. There are some things I heavily disagree with Weber on (which we will get to later), but we'll use the book anyways.

Weber's aim is to connect the virtues of early Protestant theology with what he terms the “capitalist spirit”. He composes the definition of this phrase “from its individual elements, taken from historical reality.” (Weber 94)

We shall nevertheless provisionally use the expression “spirit of capitalism” for that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling [berufsmäβig], strives systematically for profit for its own sake in the manner exemplified by Benjamin Franklin. We do this for the historical reason that this attitude has found its most adequate expression in the capitalist enterprise, and conversely the capitalist enterprise has found in this attitude its most adequate spiritual motivation. (Weber 107)

To put it succinctly, the “spirit of capitalism” is the process of production interpreted as “ethical activity”.

To better illustrate what this ethic entails, Weber cites Benjamin Franklin, more specifically, his Advice to a Young Tradesman.

Some of the “individual elements” to be found in this are:

From this, Weber makes a rather insightful point:

All Franklin’s moral precepts, however, have a utilitarian slant. Honesty is useful because it brings credit. So are punctuality, hard work, moderation, etc., and they are only virtues for this reason—from which it would follow that where, for example, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, then this would suffice, and any unnecessary surplus of this virtue would inevitably seem, in Franklin’s eyes, like unproductive and reprehensible profligacy. And indeed: anyone reading his autobiography must inevitably come to the same conclusion. It contains an account of his “conversion” to those virtues [22] and, in particular, describes how, by strictly preserving the appearance of modesty, or officiously belittling one’s own merits, it is possible to enhance one’s standing in the community. [23] According to Franklin, these virtues, like all others, are only virtues at all to the extent that they are “useful” to the individual in concrete situations; the mere appearance of virtue is an adequate substitute wherever it serves the same purpose. (Weber 97)

These “virtues” are primarily concerned towards the ends of capital. They only hold merit insofar as they continue the reproduction of profit. However, this should not be mistaken for simple greed. After all, greed has existed long before capitalism has, and the “spirit” we are discussing here is something unique to capitalist society.

We have a frenzied desire, an infinite eagerness, to pursue wealth and honour, intrigue for power, accumulate riches, and collect all those frivolities which seem conducive to luxury and splendour. On the other hand, we have a remarkable dread, a remarkable hatred of poverty, mean birth, and a humble condition, and feel the strongest desire to guard against them. Hence, in regard to those who frame their life after their own counsel, we see how restless they are in mind, how many plans they try, to what fatigues they submit, in order that they may gain what avarice or ambition desires, or, on the other hand, escape poverty and meanness. (Calvin 1810)

Calvin's “spirit of greed” would fail to explain the attitude taken upon by the Pietist labourer; why would the greedy man put in additional work for the same reward?

If we had to make a provisional assessment of the practical effect of these differences, we might say that the virtues cultivated by Pietism tend to be those which might be developed by, on the one hand, the “faithful” [berufstreu] employee, laborer, and home worker, and, on the other hand, in the manner of Zinzendorf, rather patriarchally minded employers displaying pious condescension. (Weber 194)

As capitalism is predicated on the existence of wage-labour, workers are just as (if not more) essential to its reproduction as capitalists. What we are dealing with is the tendency for all things to be subordinated to the self-perpetuating logic of capital. This is how these different various of Christianity can coexist, each assuaging Christians of their respective classes of their role in the larger process:

Compared to this, Calvinism seems to have a closer affinity with the tough, upstanding, and active mind of the middle-class [bürgerlich] capitalist entrepreneur. Finally, pure emotional Pietism—as Ritschl [186] has stressed—is a religious pastime for “leisure classes.” Inadequate though this description is—as will be shown—it does tally with certain differences in the economic character of the peoples who have been under the influence of one or other of the two ascetic traditions. (Weber 194)

It is impossible to chalk this up to simple”greed”, for it is not individualistic ends that capitalism perpetuates. There is no opposition between the labourer and the lazy. Both are essential for the reproduction of something larger than their own self-interests:

In truth, though, matters are not as simple as that. We are here dealing with something quite other than a case of purely egocentric maxims being dressed up as moral precepts. This is clear both from the character of Benjamin Franklin himself, as revealed in the rare honesty of his autobiography, and the fact that he saw his discovery of the “usefulness” of virtue as a revelation from God, who wished to direct him toward virtue by this means. Instead, the “summum bonum” of this “ethic” is the making of money and yet more money, coupled with a strict avoidance of all uninhibited enjoyment. Indeed, it is so completely devoid of all eudaemonistic, let alone hedonist, motives, so much purely thought of as an end in itself that it appears as something wholly transcendent and irrational, beyond the “happiness” or the “benefit” of the individual. (Weber 98)

Calvinists could testify to the existence of such an ethic, but because they failed to grasp the larger picture, they assumed this was towards a greater social end:

But what had been for him a tentative suggestion became for the Calvinists a characteristic part of their ethical system. “Christian charity” [Nächstenliebe]—since, after all, it was to serve only the glory of God, not that of the creature[86]—expressed itself principally in the fulfillment of the duties of the calling given through the lex naturae, and in this it took on a peculiarly neutral and impersonal character—one which served the rational structuring of the surrounding social cosmos. The wonderfully purposeful structuring and organization of this cosmos, which, according to the biblical revelation and equally according to natural insight, is evidently designed to be of “use” to the human race, shows that labor in the service of this social usefulness furthers the divine glory and is willed by God. Later, we shall be analyzing the significance of these points for the light they shed on the political and economic rationalism of Calvinism: the source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics lies here; important peculiarities of the Calvinist concept of the calling also originate from it. (Weber)

There was a conflation of the ends of capital and the ends of society; capitalism is not just a tool, it is an end in and of itself. It is not a tool, we cannot just expect to be able to employ it “towards the glory of God”. It is in the concept of exchange-value and its opposition to use-value that this is reflected:

Let us take two commodities, e.g., corn and iron. The proportions in which they are exchangeable, whatever those proportions may be, can always be represented by an equation in which a given quantity of corn is equated to some quantity of iron: e.g., 1 quarter corn = x cwt. iron. What does this equation tell us? It tells us that in two different things – in 1 quarter of corn and x cwt. of iron, there exists in equal quantities something common to both. The two things must therefore be equal to a third, which in itself is neither the one nor the other. Each of them, so far as it is exchange value, must therefore be reducible to this third...

This common “something” cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities. Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities, make them use values. But the exchange of commodities is evidently an act characterised by a total abstraction from use value. Then one use value is just as good as another, provided only it be present in sufficient quantity...

As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value. (Marx 28)

Note that it is upon the moment of exchange that a commodity takes upon a new character; the exchange-value we speak of is an end peculiar to capital itself. This is why I refer to the logic of capitalism as self-perpetuating; all that is subject to it must continue its reproduction:

As we have seen, capital is M-C-M’, self-valorising value, value that gives birth to value...

Capital, in contrast, does not come out of the process as it entered it. It is in the process that it is first converted into actual capital, into self-valorising value. The total product is now the form in which capital exists as realised capital, and as such it again confronts labour as the property of the capitalist, as a power which is independent and has been created by labour itself. Hence the production process was not only its reproduction process, but its process of production as capital. Previously the conditions of production confronted the worker as capital in so far as he found them to be present over against him in independence. Now it is the product of his own labour that he finds confronting him as conditions of production that have been converted into capital. What started as a presupposition is now the result of the production process...

Capitalist production is not only the reproduction of the relation, it is its reproduction on an ever growing scale; and in the same proportion as the social productive power of labour develops, along with the capitalist mode of production, the pile of wealth confronting the worker grows, as wealth ruling over him, as capital, and the world of wealth expands vis-à-vis the worker as an alien and dominating world. At the opposite pole, and in the same proportion, the worker’s subjective poverty, neediness and dependency develop. The deprivation of the worker and the abundance of capital correspond with each other, they keep in step. At the same time the numbers of the working proletarian these living means for the production of capital, increase. (Results)

Distilling the Ethic [section to-do]

Understanding our Calling [section to-do]