Monastic Ethics and the Demon of Capitalism

Or: That time I tried talking about capitalism in a way that I think matters and makes sense at personal and social scales

The Torment of St. Anthony by Michelangelo. Wikimedia Commons.

What I’m doing here: clarifying ideal types

This reflection touches on history, and it can help us think and talk more clearly about history. That includes the history in which we’re living at the moment. But the heart of what I’m doing here is clarifying some concepts and their relationships to each other. In other words, this is a modelling exercise, or an exercise in clarifying some ideal types.

What’s the point of something like that? It lets us see patterns that matter, even if nothing looks exactly like the pattern. In that sense, it is like clarifying exactly what we mean by a circle so that we can understand and interact with more-or-less circular things in reality better. The fact that nothing (or at least pretty-much nothing) is truly circular isn’t an argument against understanding circles. In a similar way, I don’t think anything exactly fits either of the ideal types or the relationship between them here. But lots of things are shaped enough like them for the ideas to be useful, especially if the ideal types are used to help us compare as well as contrast. So let’s clearly draw two circles and their strange dance of overlap, cooptation, retreat and engagement. This can help us better see and talk about similar patterns in life and history. The first circle is the Monastic Ethic. The second is the Demon of Capitalism.

This article also serves another function. By defining some concepts clearly in ways that sound fairly familiar, relevant at various scales and just a bit distinctive, I hope I can reframe conversations about capitalism that are often pretty unfruitful.

Monastic Ethics

A monastic work ethic is expressed nicely in the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 48:

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading. We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: From Easter to the first of October, they will spend their mornings after Prime till about the fourth hour at whatever work needs to be done. From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should a brother wish to read privately, let him do so, but without disturbing the others. They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour, and then until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.

The rhythm of life envisioned here involves a perennially-scheduled habit of study, the work of liturgy and prayer, and the physical work of the monastery. Central to this ethic is the notion that the monks should at least do the labor needed to sustain themselves, requiring nothing of anyone else, and then provide their study, prayer and potential economic gains as a pure surplus. This isn’t to say that each individual monk must fully provide for themself, but rather that the monastic community must (in aggregate) be economically autonomous, at a minimum. If a sister or brother fell ill, for example, the community would naturally provide for them within their means. This would be a fulfillment of the spiritual aspirations of the monastic ethic rather than an abandonment of it. What matters is the economic self-sufficiency of their corporate mode of life, not the personal self-sufficiency of each member at every moment.

In this combination of expected corporate economic autonomy, rigorous and constant discipline around labor, and routine surpluses (of both spiritual and economic varieties), we can discern a form of corporate (communal) life that really resembles corporate (communal business) culture today. And while we might question whether corporations really pursue spiritual goods, they usually do make elevated, non-financial goals into part of their business cultures.

There was a brief period in the US in the 1980’s (a period where we might say that a mask slipped) where a lot of corporate culture seemed to embrace the notion that “Greed is good.” But even then, Gordon Gekko didn’t say, “I just want to be greedy, okay?” Even at this extreme, there is a spiritual striving toward a higher ethos in play, however misdirected. It isn’t enough for a corporation to want to be greedy; that greed must be called good.

Also notice that this sentiment that “Greed is Good” has been openly expressed here and there, especially in radical right wing media. But usually, as in the case of Gekko, it shows up as a critique. And as the 80’s gave way to the 90’s, real live corporations went all-in on producing vision statements and value statements and talking about work-life balance (at least for those at certain levels of status). So we can notice that this monastic pattern of corporate (collective) life, rooted in an economically-autonomous group working hard to produce economic and spiritual surplus, still marks a lot of corporate culture today. We might say that whether we like it or not, we’re all supposed to be monks now. Often very weird monks. Often terrible monks. But the idea of weird and terrible monks has also been with us for about as long as there have been monks.

Why does this monastic ethic, in its general shape, mark so much of public and private life? My understanding is that it spreads because it is often successful, even observed partially and in a faltering way. Monastic movements are perennially reforming themselves, which is to say that they’re constantly aspiring to fulfill the challenging ideal of the monastic ethic. In and through this struggle, again and again, we can find institutions and communities that have grown because this ethic at least partially ‘infected’ them. Out of this rhythm of life that collectively elevates both physical and spiritual work, and which rigorously organizes human life around constantly alternating between them, there spring churches and schools and public welfare institutions and businesses and hospitals and universities and more.

Being able to recognize the monastic ethic at work isn’t mainly about establishing a genealogy or causal pattern in history that connects some ethic back to the Rule of Benedict (for example). I’m not trying to argue that the monastery was the unique source for the development of these institutions. Instead, the point is that the monastic ethic can be found at work in them as well, and seems to have something to do with their successes. I think a fine case can be made that the monastic ethic’s relative importance was also high as a matter of historical genealogy; ie, to at least some degree, the lived practice of Benedictine monastic communities really did directly inspire imitators. But here, my goal is more limited. I’m just outlining a useful shape.

So let’s draw the circle plainly.

The monastic ethic refers to this practical ideal: a community that is collectively economically autonomous due to its rigorous discipline of regular work (physical as well as intellectual and spiritual), which generates self-sufficient corporate entities as well as an economic and spiritual surplus. This surplus includes higher ideals (whether good or not is another question), which legitimate the rest of the work, build and maintain group cohesion over time, and which may also have profound value in themselves (or not).

I want to draw out two important things about this definition. First, there’s no mention of leisure here. It isn’t that the monastic ethic explicitly excludes various things we might call leisure today, but that it simply doesn’t leave any room for them. Unless a release-valve is found within the structure of a monastic ethic (for example, by spiritualizing leisure or turning work into play) it presents a totalizing vision of human life as a structured routine of work. That can feel oppressive, and maybe it should. In discussing the demon of capitalism, though, I’m not going to bring leisure into the picture explicitly. I do want to note its absence from the monastic ethic, though. And second: there’s no discussion here of what exactly counts as normal labor, and what exactly counts as the communal spiritual work of any particular monastic ethic. This absence is intentional. It is what allows us to consider various Christian and non-Christian manifestations of this monastic ethic, and reflect critically on what, exactly, fits into different rhythms of various monastic ethics. Both of these characteristics, the absence of leisure and the bracketing of the practical and spiritual details, leave my ideal type relatively flexible and open. The broad category of ‘monastic ethic’ doesn’t tell us if any particular monastic ethic is good or bad, or if any particular imperfect manifestation of an ethic is good or bad. Those are worthy questions, and I’m making space for those questions to really be questions precisely by leaving this open in terms of the definition. The point of the ideal type is not to elevate or denigrate monastic ethics, but instead to enable us to see them.

The Demon of Capitalism

While the Rule of Benedict provides a nice and explicit articulation of our first ideal type, this second type lurks in the shadows around those who practice a monastic ethic. You won’t find the demon of capitalism in the Rule of Benedict, but I think you will find it lurking wherever the monastic ethic is found.

First, let me clarify what “capitalism” often means to different people, and how political rhetorical combat beat it into its current double-edged shape. Then I’ll contest the mental space occupied by the term by articulating what I mean by “the demon of capitalism”, in a way that hopefully rings familiar while also reframing the endless (and endlessly boring) debates about capitalism in light of the monastic ethic.

So how did the word “capitalism” get this way? The term emerges as a pejorative, beginning its life as an insult used by socialists to describe an economic system (or ideal) that they considered bad. From its inception, it is unclear if capitalism actually refers to real economic systems in a clear way that can let us distinguish between systems, or if it actually refers to a set of exploitative values, a bad ideal and bad ideal type. While it became associated with 20th Century Marxism, it wasn’t a term that Marx really used. While some popularly map capitalism onto a crude Marxist stage theory, distinguishing slavery/primitive accumulation from feudalism from capitalism, this contrast with feudalism and slavery sits oddly next to the real prevalence of slavery in common forms of capitalism (in another sense) at the time. Shortly after the word rose in prominence in socialist circles around the turn of the 20th Century, others decided to Yankee Doodle the term, turning the insult into a source of pride instead. Importantly, for these pro-capitalists, it is also unclear if the term actually refers to a real economic system, or if it is an ideal that must be fought for. It emerges from these fights with a four-fold character. So to start, it helps to notice that “capitalism” clearly refers to the way things are/should be/shouldn’t be/aren’t.

Let’s unpack some more of the contested meanings at the heart of this rhetorical fight over “capitalism”. To some, it refers to a system of relentless greed and capital accumulation that is intimately connected to slavery, extractive industries like mining that leave communities environmentally and socially devastated, and brutal factories that mine the childhood from children for sixteen hours a day, in exchange for the privilege of bare survival. To others “capitalism” refers to the right to buy and sell goods in any form, and the right to own property at all. This anti-pejorative use refers to really different things than the pejorative use, in part because both sides are selectively focusing attention in ways designed to assist their causes. There are clearly connections that might be drawn between crushing child labor in factories and private ownership of anything, but it should also be equally clear that these are very different things.

As the word “capitalism” developed in the United States, the question of slavery and its ongoing significance illustrates a crucial ambiguity at work in widespread responses to the word. A lot of fights over capitalism are about the right to personal and/or private property, which can refer to everything from owning your own toothbrush to owning human beings as if they are cattle. Even if we agree that “capitalism” is largely about property rights, we have to deal with these vicious and highly salient ambiguities around the word “property”. Imagine that we grant that capitalism is largely about private property. Already this is a bit odd, since hardly any society has ever banned all private business, let alone private property; even Mao’s China’s encouraged private enterprise in various sectors. And even the United States, sometimes elevated as a paragon of capitalism, has a lot of essential, publicly-managed and owned elements of its economy. This is just the tip of an iceberg of ambiguities that quickly open up, once we really try to define capitalism in a coherent and informative way.

Still, let’s grant for the sake of argument that capitalism has a lot to do with private property, and that anti-capitalists are often interested in abolishing private property. When we think of property, are we thinking of things like toothbrushes, or things like retail stores, or things like libraries, or things like factories, or things like factory towns, or “things” like human beings? Considering the period when the term “capitalism” developed as a pejorative and then as an anti-pejorative, these different implicit meanings are central to the rhetorical battle. For those using “capitalism” pejoratively, human beings are generally directly in view, while the question of who owns toothbrushes is generally in the background or non-existent. (Public ownership of toothbrushes has hardly ever been anyone’s goal at relevant social scale.) For those using the word anti-pejoratively, the situation is very much the reverse: the toothbrush is in the foreground along with all enterprises. (Although things like private ownership of urban sewage systems, for example, are generally a very fringe concept.) Meanwhile, concerns about humans being reduced to the status of cattle (while often not far from the surface) are pushed into the background of discussion and consciousness by the pro-capitalism team. This creates non-conversations that have a very specific structure of rhetorically-cultivated confusion: some people think they’re advocating for having their own toothbrushes, while others hear them advocating for slavery, or for the piecemeal reduction of all human life to property. So “capitalism” is fairly interesting to me as rhetoric. But it quickly makes the air so smoky and hot that it is of limited analytical value. Usually it is vastly less useful for understanding our world than it is for picking fights and sides.

In light of these common confusions, I want to use “the demon of capitalism” explicitly as an ideal type. This means that I’m not committed to whether any given economic system represents, or is occupied by, the demon at any particular scale. The demon of capitalism, like the monastic ethic, can crop up here or there in our personal lives, or in the functioning of a church or city, or in the functioning of a nation or global system. But that doesn’t require that entire nations or their economies manifest capitalism in a total way. Like the monastic ethic, capitalism (for me) is a shape to be recognized, imperfectly, in different places. Is the United States capitalist? Has it ever been? Those are interesting questions to explore, ideally with some careful definitions designed for that purpose. Regardless of that, I want to learn to spot the demon of capitalism, so we can find the ways it bedevils various monastic ethics.

So now that we understand that the “demon of capitalism” is an ideal type at various scales, what is it exactly?

The demon of capitalism is what happens when capital accumulation through bodies that are required to be economically autonomous is treated as an end in itself, whether those bodies are individual or corporate. (Here, “capital” refers to wealth that is expected to produce more wealth, whether it is property or Bitcoin or a factory town or a prison or a slave.)

The demon of capitalism can overtake, occupy and possess a monastic ethic, in part because it is so similar to it. It is aided in this because it is a deficient subtraction from a monastic ethic, or a particularly flawed monastic ethic, or maybe the opposite of a true monastic ethic. This demon is arguably an opposite because it overlaps substantially with a monastic ethic, but diverges entirely at a crucial point. This understanding of opposites is sometimes counter-intuitive, but consider that darkness and light are both related in intricate ways. Both concepts speak to the way photons are experientially accessible to humans in a relative way. And both darkening and lightening, when related to mixing paints, usually lead to a reduced saturation of color. So it is precisely because opposites have so much in common, but diverge completely at a crucial point, that they are opposites. The demon of capitalism diverges from a monastic ethic in the way it completely foregrounds the background of a monastic ethic, and obliterates its foreground. Capital accumulation through bodies forced into economic autonomy claims the stage, and the rhythm of spiritual labor that this corporate autonomy serves in a monastic ethic is subverted, effaced, or erased. But maybe subversion and effacement of these higher goals are often issues within monastic ethics anyway. (Remember, we didn’t clarify what, exactly, was going on inside of that spiritual black box, and even “Greed is Good” can fit there.) In this sense, the demon of capitalism is a monastic ethic that looks especially hollow, if we simply look at it as a monastic ethic. We might also say that it amounts to a lethal subtraction from a monastic ethic, a headless and heartless monastic ethic, perhaps passing itself off as a living thing.

Reflection

Now that we have our ideal types in place, I can offer a reflection that will lead into some of the questions that I hope these categories can help us articulate.

First, one of the central themes in Christian monasticism involves wrestling with demons in the desert, in the monastery. Wouldn’t it be better to just avoid monasticism, the desert, and all these demons in the first place? And in a deeply related way, it might seem strange that Jesus went into the desert to be tempted by the slanderer who falsely promises him all kinds of authority and power. Wouldn’t it be better to just avoid these temptations, these near occasions of sin, in the first place?

Behind these desert stories, I think we see something that maps onto how easily monastic ethics can collapse into other things, being taken over, co-opted and subverted by oppressive occupying forces. But if you’re going to be in the fight against these kinds of forces, you do kind of have to be in the fight against these kinds of forces. The demon of capitalism can beset any attempt to build anything that is genuinely life-giving, helpful, and capable of sustaining and reproducing itself. It seems best to be able to discern its shape so that you can see when it threatens to overtake those efforts. So what does the demon of capitalism really look like? What does it really feel like? Can we become attuned to sensing it in own hearts, in our families, in a given mode of corporate life, and in our cities and nations and world?

I think it is especially to important to notice the one-two punch that this kind of deceptive co-optation delivers against efforts to live decently. First there is the danger of subversion itself: people might think they have built a community that pursues a good monastic ethic, but maybe they’ve actually given themselves over to some demon of capitalism. It isn’t hard to find examples of communities that fit this bill. If this happens, maybe there is something abusive within the ethic’s spiritual practices. Maybe the totalizing form of monastic ethics is, itself, excessively prone to these demons. Regardless of where someone comes down on that, the first punch comes when the ideal of a monastic ethic is subverted. The second punch is harder to see coming, but I think ultimately more devastating. It comes after people have encountered deeply subverted versions of monastic ethics, fortunately seeing that they are abusive and vicious. The damage here comes from overgeneralizing from this: blaming all attempts at monastic ethics a bit too hastily for something which is in fact their opposite. This one-two punch fits a general pattern of subversion and co-optation, and it explains a confusing situation in which we often find ourselves. I’ve found myself on both sides of situations like this throughout my life. It is what arises when co-optation has landed both of its punches, and those who betray an ideal face off against those who reject the betrayers. In all of their vociferous combat with each other, they’re often unaware that their conflict has joined them in common cause against the betrayed ideal.

Questions

These aren’t reflection questions to see if you read the material. Instead, these are questions that will hopefully interest you and make sense to you because you’ve read the material. They’re things that I’ve been wondering about, which I can now ask clearly and succinctly because of the conceptual work that’s been done here.

How do we discern better or worse monastic ethics for a given situation? How can we spot betrayals of them by the demon of capitalism, and other forms of co-optation?

What does the history of actual monasticism look like, if we use these categories to help us notice the work of the demon of capitalism? How would a more in-depth engagement with the history and lived practice of monasticism modulate and adjust these types?

What is the relative historical importance of monastic ethics, relative to the famed Protestant ethic? And is the Protestant ethic, like so much else that characterized the Magisterial Reformation, closer to the things from which it diverged than to the things that have since come from it? That is to say, is the Protestant work ethic actually just an example of a monastic ethic, maybe made more universal by the elimination of the notion of a particular monastic vocation?

To what degree does the “demon of capitalism” actually express something of interest to socialists and anti-socialists in their conflicts over the meaning of “capitalism”? Is it possible that both of them will hate the concept equally? Hope springs eternal.

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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