What's Tony Thinking

A Theologian Hunts Big Game


A couple years ago I read theologian Kathryn Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity and Trinity. Tanner is a complex thinker, a challenging but rewarding writer.

She’s out with a new book in which she is hunting big game — finance capitalism. That title is Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. 

The first thing to notice is the term “finance capitalism.” In this stage of capitalism wealth is produced not so much by production of actual goods, but by the use of capital and schemes or instruments for making money in financial markets. Things like currency exchange markets, investment of retirement funds, sub-prime mortgages and re-sale of bundled derivatives. Money making money.

Instead of Ford Motor Company, Bethlehem Steel and Alcoa Aluminum, finance capitalism is TIAA-Cref, JP Morgan Chase, or the now defunct (I think) Countrywide Financial. As someone who has most of his wealth tied up in the stock market I am both interested and implicated. I am a bit player in finance capitalism. So I try to understand it and its implications.

A simplistic or moralistic argument would be to say this is all greed-driven and terrible and we should all hate it. Kathy Tanner offers no such simplistic moralism.

What she tries to do is to look at the kind of person finance capitalism forms or gives rise to and how that model of the human being is in real tension with the kind of person formed by Christian faith.

Recently Tanner was interviewed by the editor of The Christian Century, David Heim. Here are a couple of their exchanges.

Q: “In Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism you argue that we live in an era of finance-dominated capitalism in which wealth is determined primarily not through the production of goods and services but by various schemes to maximize profit and minimize risk in the financial markets. This kind of capitalism, you suggest, has created a new personality type. How would you describe the type of person who has fully imbibed ‘the new spirit of capitalism’?

A: “Finance-dominated capitalism encourages people to think of themselves in the same way that profit-making businesses think of them: their persons represent capital that must be put to productive use. Simply put: each person must take individual responsibility for making the most out of his or her life, in a life project that spans the whole of life, both at work and outside it. If one fails in such a project, one has no one but oneself to blame.

Robinson attempt at translation of above: everything is monetized — including you. Moreover, we are each on our own. No community and no grace.

Q. “How does finance capitalism shape the life of the average worker who is still working on the assembly floor, or in the service industry, or in in lower management — not in managing investments?

A. “I am arguing that finance sets the terms for other sorts of business by forcing them to try to match the oversized profits possible in financial markets. This sort of disciplining by finance is especially direct when businesses are managed to maximize shareholder value, that is, with an eye to keeping stock prices high. Non-financial businesses need to be as profitable as possible for such purposes, and this often comes at the expense of labor: employees are overworked, underpaid and have few benefits, and therefore find themselves under enormous stress.”

Robinson translation: maximizing profit — financial gain — becomes the overriding consideration, pushing out any other. This is destructive of human community and stresses families. (Some of you may recall my recent blog on the novel Overstory with notes on changes in the timber industry in Eastern Oregon, which exemplify this phenomenon.)

Q. “Early modern Christians had a sense of vocation in the world — they were called to live out their faith in everyday life, including in business and economics. Does your inquiry into the new spirit of capitalism point toward a new understanding of vocation or of the moral meaning of work?

A. “I am trying to develop an anti-work ethic that extends a Protestant understanding of God’s free grace to everyday life. Devotion to God should be one’s life project — one’s vocation — in ways that encompass the whole of one’s life, including its economic dimensions; but I try to show how that religious vocation sits very uneasily with economic projects of individual self-advancement through work as currently configured in finance capitalism. Specifically, I try to undermine individual attributions of credit for success and failure in highly competitive economic environments.”

Robinson translation: there’s more to life than increasing your net worth. And slick divisions of people into “the producers” and “dependents” (Mitt Romney) or “winners and losers” (Donald Trump) are a lie.

Closing thoughts: I admire Kathy Tanner for taking on something as big and omnipresent as finance capitalism. Too many “theologians” these days are preoccupied with the various iterations of identity politics and are thus a bit of an echo chamber to the culture and its wars.

While the people my wife and I interact with about our money (aka “money managers”) are perfectly nice and do want to be helpful, there’s a way in which these funds seem to have a life and imperative of their own. They are less our servant, toward ends that might be godly (or something else), than our master. This concerns me.

Well, if you made it this far, good on yah! I know this is a dense topic but I think it is also an important one.









Categories: Uncategorized