Technology and Progress

I just updated my desktop to 10.13.1 for no other reason than that I was prompted to do so.

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Knowing full well that it will gradually make my hardware obsolete. Should I care?

There are a couple of issues that we need to tease out here. One is the infallible drive toward innovation. I innovate because my bottom line depends on it. Failure to innovate makes me a dinosaur. Innovate or risk — no, guarantee — extinction.

The other issue is, I am actually attracted to goods that do more and do more well in less time and with greater accuracy, skill, thoroughness, etc. And, like it or not, I have no interest returning to iPhone 4 or 3; even though I realize that had all of us held still at iPhone 3 — like all of us have held still with human beings 2.o — little would be lost. But that would also mean that everything else held still. We would then find ourselves in John Steward Mills “steady state.” OK. Worse things have happened.

These two issues are, of course, related. The absolute necessity to innovate (or die) has inured all of us to the expectation that our world will constantly change. (If it didn’t, we would worry.) On the other hand, this expectation is itself driven by necessity. We cannot not change. All of us, existentially, have learned to feel the risk we associate with the failure to advance, in careers, in knowledge, in wealth, in social standing. Standing still is death. Moving forward is attractive.

So my challenge is to think about what would have to happen in order for the two to be isolated from one another. What if innovation was driven, for example, by my desire for better health care for all, or safer streets, or better educational opportunity. What if every innovation left us safer, healthier, smarter, more enriched, more friendly?

My point is that narrowing our incentive structure down to cold, hard cash deprives us of a range of enjoyments and pleasures to which we might otherwise feel entitled.

What if, when I upgraded to 10.13.1 I also received a desktop that could handle it elegantly? What if the drive here was not only the bottom line, but the beauty or speed or wonder that Apple features in its advertisements?

What if?



All Hail Comrade Lenin

No surprise. I have a few issues with Comrade Lenin. He was on the wrong side of the Russian revolution. His associates were of questionable character. (Keep an eye on that Joseph Stalin character. He’s up to no good.) And he completely misread Das Kapital — I mean completely.

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That said, I want to (as they say) take a couple steps back from what (no thanks to Comrade Lenin) has become an ideological quagmire. I want to note the astonishingly poor conditions of all Russians and, indeed, all Eastern Europeans and most Europeans as World War I dragged on. I want to note the inconceivably high casualty rate suffered by Russians in particular in that conflict (see chart below). And I want to note the unlikelihood of a predominantly agrarian, quasi-feudal society governed by a thin strata of elites gradually, peacefully, joyfully developing into a French- or British-style representative democracy mediated by nominally free markets. Ain’t gonna’ happen.


Here we have only to notice the non-democratic path taken by Germany’s southern and eastern regions in the 1920s; or, for that matter, the non-democratic path taken by France’s southern and western regions. Or we could look at the attraction that fascism held for British high society; or American high society for that matter. The 1920s were not a good decade for democracy anywhere, even in the most industrially advanced regions of the globe. Could be mistaken, but wasn’t it the free-market, democratic, capitalist nations that plunged the world into war?

Which is all to say that Russia’s path from 1917 forward is not all that unusual; even when compared to western Europe; even when compared to North America. North America was saved — if we can count a nation plagued by lynchings, cross burnings, and officially sanctioned eugenics “saved”; North America was “saved” only insofar as it emerged from WWI with nary a scratch (see chart above). Even more, North America emerged enjoying a huge economic advantage. It and not England was now the world’s bank. And it made the 1920s in the United States quite literally roar. The wealthy could not spend their money fast enough. And this meant that some — though not much — was bound to trickle down to working families.

Russia enjoyed none of this. None. In 1917, Russia was completely broke. Its debt soared. Its currency was a joke. The Romanovs hadn’t the slightest idea where to turn or what to do. Its haute bourgeoisie was in continuous, non-stop terror over the future status of their wealth (see Tom Reiss’ brilliant account of one family, The Orientalist). The exceedingly small petit bourgeoisie (wrongly) assumed that it was powerful enough, or at least enjoyed sufficient moral suasion, to recreate republican France or Great Britain in quasi-feudal Russia.

So, let us suppose that Russia needs to modernize and modernize quickly. No one knows this better than industrial workers whose very livelihood rests on industrial expansion and modernization. Indeed, it is still taken as a given that industrial expansion and economic growth give rise to — and do not follow from — democratic institutions and process. Here Russia’s teeny democratic party is exposed as hopelessly romantic, believing as it did that peasants, sailors, and workers — contrary to every precedent anywhere on the planet — would flock to democratic process and republican institutions. They did not.

Which brings us back to Comrade Lenin. Lenin’s favorite author? Ok. After Pushkin and Gogol, Shakespeare and Goethe. The author to whom he returned again and again; the author he compelled Russian publishers to print edition after edition of his works? That would be Henry Ford, by whom Comrade Lenin was transfixed. What’s not to love? Military discipline applied to the assembly line. Taylorist time and motion efficiencies. And it was with this image of large scale industrial production — an image born of Henry Ford’s mind — that Comrade Lenin and his associates set out to build an industrial giant. Indeed, long before Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland, Comrade Lenin had already applied modern industrial rationality to the vast grain growing regions of Central Asia. To this extent, the Russian industrial revolution was American born and American made — down to the smallest details of brutally suppressing the least stirrings of worker unrest. Russia — Red Russia — is an American success story!

All Hail Comrade Lenin!

So, why isn’t Russia celebrating? Why aren’t we? I suspect that it may have something to do with Comrade Lenin’s modus operandi hitting a bit too close to home. A worker’s state? Full employment in high end industrial jobs? Universal health care? Democracy? Get real. That ship has sailed, both in Russia and in the United States. Which may explain why no one is celebrating.

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda

For the handful of hoodlums who follow my blog closely, it might at some point have occurred to one or another of you that, “Hey! Is this guy a Protestant?” Good question.

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It is true. I believe that there is indisputable evidence suggesting that Protestantism is a spiritual form born out of and wholly adequate to the capitalist social formation. As I argued in Weber and the Persistence of Religion (Routledge 2006), capitalism gave rise to Protestantism, not the reverse.

But, should that prove true, and should capitalism prove to be a peculiarly noxious form of self-domination, which I believe is true, then who but a masochist would continue to call her or himself a Protestant? Who, indeed.

Let us now assume, however, that no social formation has a corner on the God market; that, with apologies to Leopold von Ranke, every age is equally distant from God. (Admittedly, this also means that each is equally near.) In that case, our aim might be not to defend Reformation “culture” as much as to explore how the gospel makes itself known in a world that is now shaped entirely by the capitalist social form.

Elsewhere I have attempted to call attention to what I call “graceful bodies,” meaning by this bodies — constrained by time and space —that convey grace. I believe that relics can be graceful bodies. I believe that chapels can convey grace, and liturgies, and candles, oil, incense, music, even institutions, offices, scripture, and theology; and, let us not forget the waters of baptism, the sacred loaf and the sacred cup. Such attention to graceful bodies, I admit, makes me a highly unusual Protestant. (Just as it places me and my kind squarely in the cross-hairs of Diana Butler-Bass’s “Third Great Awakening.”) Nevertheless, I am convinced that the God Who was truly present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth — in the flesh, in the body, with all of the limitations and constraints that this suggests — is not the least troubled by graceful bodies.

This suggests that a self-critique of the community of faith cannot begin — as so often Protestant critiques of Roman piety begin — with a critique of embodied grace. Theologically, such a critique simply does not fly. Instead, I propose that our self-critique begin with the official and non-official abuses of embodied grace — where these instruments of grace are bent ungracefully toward other ends; as, for example, when some “ministers of darkness” bend the Sacred Word toward hatred, racism, exclusion, misogyny, nationalism, militarism, homophobia — “to their own destruction.”

By guiding us back to the Word of God, as an embodied and embodying presence, Reformers sought to shed light on such abuses. And, yet, this did not prevent them from intently listening to and seeking guidance from saints in earlier ages who had sought to do the same. It did not prevent them from seeking divine guidance from and finding such guidance in graceful bodies.

This attentiveness to the voices of the dead is sometimes rejected by Protestants because it is felt to fall to close to Roman piety. (As though the voices articulated in Holy Scripture or in the Creed are not themselves voices of both the living and the dead.)

If Protestantism is to avoid the echo-chamber created by its own voice, or, if it is to avoid falling victim to the spell cast by the capitalist social form, it must learn to hear and listen to voices articulated in social formations that were not capitalist — not because these social formations are more divine, but because they arise from a different place and therefore see and hear God’s guidance in ways that we need to see and hear.

“Non-capitalist spiritual formation” does not translate into “historically or socially disembedded spiritual formation”: there is nothing the least divine about Neoplatonic or Aristotelian thought or about social formations that are not shaped by the abstract value form of capital. Aristotle’s defense of the so-called “natural slave,” or his defense of both domestic and public hierarchies of power and domination are not more divine for their submission to the natural order.

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8.19-23).

To suppose, as all too many do, that Stoicism is an acceptable form of natural theology wholly compatible with orthodox Christology is to embrace Romans 1-2, and 13 while completely ignoring the better part of the remainder of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. There we learn that, while the natural order is sufficient to guide those without Christ, in the end it is sufficient only for their condemnation (Rom. 1.20).

The natural hierarchies and forms of domination that underlie traditional societies — whether Roman or pagan or Chinese or Indian or African, it makes no difference — need always to be made subject to radical Christological critique, where all natural hierarchies are made to give way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28).

This most unnaturalforcednon-compliant intervention is, of course, itself clothed in flesh (1 Cor. 1-2), which constitutes its very offense. Those therefore who reject the fourteen centuries of witness prior to 1517 on no other grounds than the all too apparent historical and social embeddedness of this witness therein display a complete misunderstanding of the mystery to which Saint Paul attests in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 2).

But just as it is written,


For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2.9-10).

That mystery is the emancipatory character of the incarnation, which, judged by — yes Stoic — human wisdom, is nothing but foolishness (1 Cor. 1.18).

No. There is nothing specially sacred or divine about the historical and social formations that constrained and shaped communities of faith prior to the sixteenth century. And, yet, they do offer us a glimpse into spiritual formations that, by definition, were not structured by the abstract value form of capital and which, for this very reason, may offer us clues to our own blindness.

The danger, as ever, is that we will mistake non-emancipatory dimensions of pre-capitalist piety — such as the nearly ubiquitous misogyny — for good news. This is not good news.

But this also means that we are invited to cast a critical eye on the non-emancipatory dimensions of the Reformation itself — chief among which must be the central role played by the abstract value form of capital. This abstract form and its dynamic relationship to the bodies it occupies lent itself all too easily to a Protestant habit of absolutely differentiating faith from worksspirit from flesheternity from timegospel from law. To the extent that the Reformation pinned its hopes on this radical differentiation, it borrowed a page from the abstract value form itself, giving rise to what is transparently a uniquely capitalist variety of spiritual piety and practice. (And a variety of spiritual piety and practice, I might add, that is infinitely transferable to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism once these cultural forms too are invaded by this peculiar social form of capital.)

Recognizing the central role capital has played in spiritual formation does not require that we reject the Reformation. And, yet, it might require that we submit its canons to the same critical scrutiny Protestants have been all too willing to apply to other social and historical formations. As Karl Barth urged us: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.” Of course. But reform what?


Joseph W.H. Lough teaches economic history and theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He holds an MA in History from Pacific School of Religion and a Ph.D. in European History from the University of Chicago.

Reformation minus Luther?

Even after 500 years, some Protestants get all weird over the Protestant Reformation. A FB friend posts:

Many of my clergy colleagues seem vehemently against any observation of the Reformation yesterday or at all. Here’s my question, and it seems to me it can be answered either way: Absent Luther and the 95 Theses, would there have been an English Reformation? What would it have looked like and when would it have occurred?

Paging through the responses, the consensus is that the Reformation, minus Luther, would have occurred, but, without Luther, would have occurred differently in England than it did.

For those who are not tuned in to things religious, this is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. And, so, there is some amount of chatter on the Internet about the same.

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That Anglicans might not commemorate the Reformation seems a bit odd to me. But that is part of the patient-therapist relationship and I don’t want to go there.

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From a purely historical vantage point, the question is intriguing. Is the Reformation a one-off? Can we ascribe it to the powerful personality of a lone monk; or, even more intriguing, to the Spirit’s illumination of or visitation to said Monk? Who’s image is printed on the coin?

As a social theorist and historian turned economic theorist and historian (long story), I do have a horse in this race. For economic historians, there is nothing the least bit surprising about the arrival of the Reformation. What is surprising and what invites research is — why Germany? Why not Italy? Why Germany? And why not Great Britain or the Netherlands or anywhere? Why Germany?

To answer this question, we need to address a prior question: why do economic historians find nothing surprising in the Reformation’s arrival?

Why? Because the Reformation requires a shift in social subjectivity predicated upon changes in social mediation that have long been the subject of historical inquiry. Why? Because the shift in where divine grace is located, from material substances to immaterial (divine) actions, is well understood and well documented. Why? Because the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance leaves a paper record that is quite deep and quite wide. Why? Because capitalism is the parent, not the child (vide M Weber) of the Reformation.

Given this foundation in research, we still have to deal with the difference between Germany and England — not to mention France or the United Provinces. Why Germany? Why not England?

Let us assume that the capitalist social formation takes off in Ghent, in 1342, when the Abbot of St Pierre instructs the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently erected by them in the parish of St John. And let us assume that the leading (not exclusive) clients of the textiles there produced were Italian or Spanish. Suffice it to say that English wealth was not there yet. Nevertheless, among the beneficiaries of the economic activity between the Dutch lowlands, Spain, and Italy were the German towns that stood in-between. German lands benefited immensely from trans-continental trade. British towns, not so much.

Supposing then that the Reformation chiefly bears evidence of a shift in social subjectivity, from value-in-things and substance metaphysics to value-in-abstract and transcendental metaphysics, we should in this case expect that the migration of shifts in social subjectivity should follow a course that allows: (1) for cultural, historical and institutional differences from place to place and (2) for the transmission of expressions of social subjectivity from place to place. So, for example, while Cranmer’s, Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s institutional forms and cultural affinities will give rise to differences in their respective reformations, we should anticipate that they will share similar suspicions over the capacity of material bodies to convey grace, over the capacity of human action to convey or elicit divine favor, and over the transcendental character of divine will and action.

The Anglican version of Reformation only differs from the Lutheran if we forget those many within the Anglican communion who felt a stronger affinity towards Luther than towards Calvin and who — often for socially and historically specific reasons — bore contempt for anything coming out of Westminster, the Orangemen being only the most obvious example. The settlement — itself a historically, institutionally and socially specific artifact — is inconceivable in Germany, France, or the United Provinces. And, yet, oddly, it is a very reformed outcome: if outward forms do not convey grace then it should make no difference whether they are retained or abandoned. Do the words of consecration force God’s hand? Is it the priest that is the conduit of this grace? Some Anglicans walk very close to the line; but, and this is critical, they do not call themselves nor do they subscribe to Roman Catholicism.

Today Anglicans are weathering some of the consequences of this tight-rope walk. Anglicans disciplined under the authority of foreign British imperialism and occupation — whose faithful enjoy a dramatically different social, political, institutional, and historical formation — have elected to abandon many of the features that North American and British Anglicans find most definitive to their faith. In this respect post-colonial Anglicans take on more the appearance of radical Orangemen than broad-tent Elizabethan Anglo-Catholics. For this reason, Professor Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is certainly correct:

I think given the dynamics of the 16th century some political entities would have ended up following Bohemia and the Hussites in breaking with Rome. Zwingli and Zurich for instance. Papal refusal to grant an annulment still might have led to heightened tensions between Henry and Rome that view the right climate could have inspired a move similar to Bohemia’s split. But it is hard to say. Which is all to say, Luther was a spark to tinder (FB).

Socially and historically specific conditions are critical to how the Reformation unfolds; but not, I would argue, to the Reformation itself, which was a natural outgrowth of the new social formation — capitalism — and the novel forms of social subjectivity — including spiritual subjectivity — to which it was adequate.

But this raises another speculative question: would reformed and evangelical social subjectivity survive the end of capitalism? Or might believers be more inclined in a post-capitalist world to embrace the graceful bodies they have reason to value?