Capitalism: the resistance

01 November 2019

It is time to formulate an anti-work ethic, Kathryn Tanner tells Nathan Mladin


AT LEAST, if Max Weber is to be believed, Christianity — and Protestantism, specifically — must take the blame or reap the praise for capitalism.

In her new book Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, Dr Kathryn Tanner, Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, wants us to see it as a source for developing “resistant subjects”: people who can resist capitalism’s most pernicious features.

Since the publication of The Economy of Grace (Fortress Press, 2005), Professor Tanner has been an important voice in the conversation about how Christian thought and practice intersect with economic realities, and capitalism in particular. This new volume is based on the Gifford Lectures, which she delivered in Edinburgh in 2016.

“Theologians have an obligation to engage with issues of current importance,” she says. “And there are few more important issues today than economic ones. Economics seems to be determining every aspect of our lives. It is the lingua franca of our times, especially in the context of neoliberalism, where everything is discussed in economic terms, and where all social interactions are basically seen as transactions, evaluated in terms of costs and benefits, and monetised.”


FOR the lectures and subsequent book, Professor Tanner chose to home in on the current configuration of capitalism “as a finance-dominated global force”.

“I was particularly interested in the way that contemporary capitalism, birthed in the US but subsequently exported globally, forms the whole of what human beings are as persons,” she says.

Her work explores how capitalism shapes or, rather, captures our deepest desires, the sense of value and possibility it instils in us, and the picture of the good life which it paints in our advertising-drenched imaginations.

I’m reminded of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which examines how big digital giants such as Google and Facebook exploit the full gamut of human experience as behavioural data, which they process, package, and sell for a profit, without our consent, on what Zuboff calls “behavioural futures markets”.

Professor Tanner describes this approach, seeing people’s whole lives as opportunities for profit-making as “a destructive way of forming persons, and it happens in insidious ways that are damaging to them and to their relationships.” But Christianity has a comparable power to shape persons (although she acknowledges other moral and religious traditions could equally be invoked). Her aim, she says, is to show how a Christian belief system might “be the most resistant to the current way that people are being formed under capitalism”.

Her particular interest is to show how Christianity can shape “resistance subjects”.

Does she think that other forms or configurations of capitalism are more compatible or less threatening to the human person?

“Yes, industrial capitalism is a good example, because, for all its problems, it was not interested in persons as a whole as the site for profit-making. Or ‘global Keynesianism’, to give another example, is a system that would be closer to some basic norms and principles of economic organisation that I think figure prominently in Christianity: namely, the principle of mutual benefit.”


ONE of the foils for Professor Tanner’s thesis is Weber’s argument that capitalism boomed in the modern West because of hard-working Puritan believers who sought to prove their salvation through good work(s).

But Professor Tanner will have none of the endless exerting of oneself in work that, she argues, is inevitable under the diktats of finance-heavy capitalism. Instead, she speaks, with a whiff of anarchy, of an “anti-work ethic”: “I mean by that, that people shouldn’t think of their work, or at least the product of their work, as a condition of God’s love.”

yale divinity schoolProfessor Kathryn Tanner

She explains: “It’s not that people shouldn’t work. It’s just the significance of what they are doing is radically changed in capitalism. In the book, I show how productive employment becomes a condition for any kind of state benefit. I think this is a big mistake. Dignified living should not be conditional on anything.”

Her anti-work ethic is also a way of pushing back on the idea that the workplace is the site for self-realisation: “It is, in a sense, true that you make who you are by what you do. I am an academic because that’s what I’ve done all my life. But your own worth as a person should not be fundamentally determined by how successful you’ve been in any enterprise.”

She is referring to work in general, not simply paid work: “If you think of your family life as a kind of work, you have ‘capital’ which you need to invest. So, if you think of your marriage and children in this framework, for example, you want a return on investment and want a maximal return, no? Isn’t this why so many parents pay for their children’s private lessons, enrol them in sports, and pay their coaches huge amounts of money just to write letters of recommendation?

“It’s not simply that your gainful employment becomes everything, but that work becomes a category that extends to everything.”

It is not an approach that she recommends.


IN Redeeming Capitalism (Eerdmans, 2018), Kenneth J. Barnes advocates a juster capitalism. My own think tank, Theos, has argued that Catholic Social Teaching could be the catalyst for this redemption. Does Professor Tanner share this hope?

“I’m not even sure what ‘redeeming’ and ‘saving’ capitalism actually means, particularly since capitalism comes in so many forms,” she says. “But, if you’re stuck with capitalism, and you can’t conceive of another way of doing things — as Communism and state Socialism are not viable alternatives — then there are definitely better ways of organising capitalism.”

She points to more experimental, worker-owned and -managed businesses, and social enterprises.

“These are exciting developments, though many of these are small-scale and local and could not be scaled up so easily,” she says. “Churches should be more directly involved in these, creating alternatives to the usual way in which profit is pursued.”

She believes that Socialism is no longer useful as a term. “I prefer to retire it for rhetorical purposes, because it’s become a term of opprobrium, especially in the US and Continental Europe.”


AFTER the latest Business Roundtable — an association of CEOs in the United States who, together, employ more than 15 million people — 181 CEOs signed a new “statement on the purpose of a corporation”, pledging to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

“Maximising shareholder value as the sole purpose of business is awful,” Professor Tanner says. “It’s good to see this dislodged, but a lot of the things done these days by corporations is window-dressing and whitewashing, and doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue. This could be just another marketing ploy.”

She concedes that “any restructuring that means more profit is going to workers, and that profit is made taking other social and environmental concerns into account” is “not radical, but it is good”; but she remains sceptical.

“These kinds of developments all have the character of changing the ends of an organisation that remains fundamentally the same,” she explains. “Another problem is that these changes are dependent on the good will of the corporation and the people who are managing it. I’m trying to get away from the emphasis on ‘We need good people to run companies — Christians, people with different values. . .’

“I’m thinking more of a reorganisation of the basic structures of making money. Churches and other fixed institutions can pool their money, like banks, and can set up worker-owned and -managed businesses, for example, that would generate some profit to be self-sustaining, but operate on a fundamentally different organisational model.”

In the mean time, can Christians working in finance be a force for good in places such as investment banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms? Or should they withdraw completely ?

“It depends on the area of business they are in,” she says. “If you are in the payday-loan sector, you couldn’t really be in there with a good conscience. There are different kinds of business in the financial sector. Some can be modified in interesting ways.”

She tells the story of a Christian who works in private equity, “who buys companies that are actually struggling, turns them around, and makes a profit only so long as the companies themselves are making a profit. This is perfectly fine: it is doing business in a way that leads to mutual benefit.”

We finish by talking through some options for labelling an alternative economic vision: “civil economy” and “stakeholder capitalism” get a mention. In the end, however, we reach consensus on “mutualist economy”.

It resonates theologically, she says, but, since nominal determinism is nonsense, and fixing capitalism through semantics does not work, we must think through what this entails practically. The task is to start embedding more mutuality in our social relations, in the organisations and structures we inhabit or run, especially in the Church.

“Capitalism is the only game in town, but it is a mutating form that can be twisted and turned in all kinds of directions. My interest lies not in finding a strictly alternative scheme — that would be heaven itself — but in taking this future world as a kind of foil to change what actually exists.”


Dr Nathan Mladin is a researcher at Theos. Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner is published by Yale University Press at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50).

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Hear three of the UK’s best up-and-coming young theologians as they reflect on the most pressing issues of our time.  Book tickets

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)