The Calvinist work ethic

Calvinism has become proverbial, even for people without any idea of religion or faith. Calvinism and work ethic actually coincide for the common understanding. This makes the title of this blog sound like a pleonasm. After all, Calvinism is work ethic!

When people want to explain why such is the case, they always revert to Weber. Weber explains the Calvinist ethic from a pietistic attitude: how do I get to heaven? According to Calvinism, he explains, you could never know that for sure, because before the foundation of the world God decided who would be admitted and who would not. And that doesn’t depend on faith or achievement. But, Weber points out, the Calvinists had found a way to get around that. You can never know it for sure, but if you were able to achieve a good life through work and effort, then that was a good indication; a sign that you belonged to the elect.

Here Weber, as a German, shows himself to be more familiar with the Lutheran tradition that asks the question, “How do I get a merciful God?” This pietistic attitude also had its influence in Calvinist countries, but it is not really the origin of Calvinist work ethic. The Calvinists were not individualists. Nor were they pietistic individualists.

For Calvin and his followers, the congregation was central, the community from below. So in England and the Netherlands where Calvinism was strong you see a recurring emphasis on cooperation and trust. That led to the first joint stock corporations, where people put their investments under joint management. That demanded a high degree of trust. And that trust came about not through anxiety about individual salvation, but through the covenant with God and the human community that was called into being by this divine covenant. That was going to realize God’s Kingdom in this world.

Both in England and in the Netherlands one sees coming about the construction of canals, the draining of marshes and the development of the land in a common effort. In a certain sense the Calvinist congregations continued the work of the guilds. The guilds too were not only labor organizations but also religious organizations, and why? They, too, had to constantly cultivate their religious beliefs together in order to keep each other in line and guard the common morality. They had to prevent individuals from being more focused on their own advantage, or that of their own family, and thus harming the common cause, even if only by stealing the treasury and that sort of thing.

Cooperation was thus surrounded by religious sanction and motivation. Therefore, in Calvin’s Geneva, where this new commitment was first put into practice, entrepreneurs had to be on their guard. Those who made exorbitant profits could expect the church council paying a visit to them! Profit was allowed and even required, but it was to serve a common goal: social welfare and justice.

Certainly, as success increased a kind of secularization occurred. Instead of the congregation and the covenant, the idea of the social contract emerged. In this conception, God is not needed and people make a covenant with each other for mutual benefit. It is rationalistically motivated: well reasoned self-interest and commerce. But that should not lead one to underestimate the original religious motivation! Weber likes to denigrate the religious anxiety that led to such great labor achievements. For him, it is a paradoxical ironic fact: heavenly salvation leads to earthly success.

The pursuit of heavenly salvation leads to earthly success: in fact, it always works like this. A new economy can only come about by high inspiration. In this sense, economics is always salvation economics. In our time this is just as true. Innovation never comes from the selfish, but always from people who act with self-forgetfulness. Why is this so? Innovation always requires excessive commitment. And it is not a question of religious people being better able to exercise such commitment (after all, this is not true for the average churchgoer), but of recognizing that this this excessive effort itself inescapably has a religious character! Religious here means: high words are invoked and evoked for which people are willing to pay a price, and they are leading.

This is also visible in the field of entrepreneurship. The pioneers often fail. But they pave the way for the success of others, and from then on it just seems to be all just human effort.

Posted by Otto Kroesen

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