The Spirit under Capitalism

I am now roughly half way through Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (2016), and, in the main, appreciate how Dr Roper weaves personal biography, regional history, and broader cultural history together. Nor does Dr Roper steer clear of Luther’s hostility toward “capitalists,” by which Luther meant not private investors but principally bankers and financiers, a point I will touch on below.

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Nevertheless, I am troubled by Dr Roper’s failure to more adequately integrate the frame of Luther’s experience with the rapidly changing practical landscape that shaped these experiences. Dr Roper does consider the interests German princes and investors had in limiting the control emperor and Pope exercised over their fate. But she is less eager, or, perhaps, less curious, when it comes to thinking through how the changing economic landscape of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries might have given rise to a rapidly changing experience of the relationship between spirit and flesh. She treats the conflict between Aristotelians and anti-scholastics as though it were entirely independent from the practical isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance that was one of the principle expressions of the emergent capitalist social form. In fact, the two were intimately — which is to say, causally related.

Luther’s (and apparently also Dr Roper’s) failure to appreciate this connection allows “Two Kingdoms” orthodoxy to appear merely pragmatic rather than phenomenal and therefore pragmatic. It also allows Luther’s sacramental theology — mystery — to be set against Jean Calvin’s symbolic presence. The two, however, are much more intimately related than either orthodox Calvinists or Lutherans care to acknowledge. When it embraced preeminence over earthly power and authority, the Roman Church both consecrated, but also recognized the already sacred character of constrained bodies. Oddly, it was with this doctrine that Luther agreed: Christ’s Body, precisely in its limitation, was to be celebrated. Yet, because his understanding of faith had no body, Luther could not assert the Church’s preeminence over earthly power and authority. To do so suggested, for Luther, a kind of works righteousness; redemption by sinful flesh. The “Freedom of the Christian Man” already presupposed the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance; the phenomenal bifurcation of the world into . . . two Kingdoms: the abstract value form (faith) and its material form of appearance (works).

When set in this light, Luther’s doctrine is not altogether different from Calvin’s, except that Calvin does away with the mystery. Or, at least, he feels that he does. By translating the Holy Sacrament into symbol, Calvin invites believers into the Saussurian dreamworld of sign and signified, the fun house of mirrors in which Protestantism feels most comfortable. Ferdinand Saussure was the French linguist who successfully characterized the correspondence of social and linguistic form that would become “structuralism.” In Calvin, all is symbol. The body disappears. For Luther, by contrast, the body itself becomes mysterious. Its translation into sacred presence cannot be explained. Nor should we try to.

But this did not mean that bodies were not sacred. To the contrary: bodies were sacred only when they were not sacred — only when they embraced power and authority not as righteous works deserving of salvation, but only under the law of God, only under the constraint of heaven. In practice, as well as experience — pragmatically and phenomenally — this meant that good government was, by definition, not Christian. That is to say, it exercised no emancipatory power. Bodies do not reveal Christ. They do not contain Christ. They cannot. Except through a via negativa.

The unredeemed, sinful body is redeemed by renouncing its sacred character. Money as money is good. Power as power is good. Authority as authority is good. Not divine, not emancipatory, not redemptive. It is good in its negativity, in absence.

On the one hand, this is the theology of the First Commandment. Nothing, but nothing shall be God: no thing shall be God. And, yet, we only experience this through thingly mediation. Or, we deny even the thingly character of the mediation through which we know this: it is a mystery. Constraint ≠ the Divine. Constraint = Flesh. But flesh is not evil. Therefore, a flesh that is not divine is good. Secular authority rules over the flesh. God rules over the spirit.

This, of course, is wholly consistent with the emerging social form, where abstract value frees itself from its material form of appearance, the merely material commodity. The material commodity is not evil or bad. But it is not sacred. The immaterial value form, which knits all social being together, is cannot be fixed in any of its expressions. It is a mystery. This mystery Jean Calvin merely formalizes.

It might be supposed that, whether in its Lutheran or in its Calvinist forms, this isolation of immaterial value from its material form of appearance advances a fundamental critique of secular power. In fact, it advances a coherent defense of secular power. A gospel that expresses itself in bodies lends itself to judgment and to repentance. But a gospel that transcends bodies is only prohibited from posing as redemptive. Any body that acknowledges its merely earthly, worldly character — the Two Kingdoms — cannot be faulted. It must instead be obeyed. A secular body that submits to divine reprimand, divine constraint, falls within the Kingdom of God. I am authorized to criticize it precisely because it is sacred. A merely secular body is just that: a body.

The celebration of the critique of the body was evident nowhere more clearly than in Martin Luther’s 1522 in coena Domini, which Dr Roper describes as follows:

As a New Year’s prank for 1522, he published a mock version complete with glosses of the bull in coena Domini, issued regularly by the Pope at Easter to condemn heresy. Luther, of course, condemned the “bull-sellers, cardinals, legates, commissaries, under-commissaries, archbishops, bishops, abbots, provosts, deacons, cathedral clergy, priors…and who can list the gang of all these rascals, which the Rhine would hardly be big enough to drown?” Although his adversaries wrongly accused him of having fomented sedition and falsely alleged that he had taught that there was no need to obey secular authority, they were not wrong to scent the potential for social disturbance in Luther’s message.

Yes. Social disturbance. But it is the social disturbance not of God, but of capital.

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