The great sociologist Max Weber, known for naming and describing the “Protestant work ethic”, had an insight into this classism that has origins in our nation’s puritan background. He examined the pervasive belief in predestination that was central to his own Calvinist upbringing and found powerful threads running from it into capitalism and classism. The idea that our fates are decided beforehand and some of our names are “written in the book of God” became, for early capitalism, an organizing principle.
The fever pitch of election season always brings out the histrionics in us. The way the political right frames it, we now have an “invasion force” coming at us from the south, not carrying guns but.. of all things, flags of their home country! This unusually selected detail was used by a post I saw on social media focusing on the flags (accompanied by an inflated statistic of the size of the group) as solid evidence of an “invasion.” So our President sends 5,200 troops to the border and speculates about “middle easterners” being among the refugees. Simultaneously, our own military files a threat assessment that predicts only 20% (1,400) will actually make it to the border and finds exactly zero middle easterners in the group.
We also get to witness the cries from the left of “Nazi!” and Fascist!” which get thrown around at any sign of the exercise of power politics on the part of the ascendant political class. While I am aware of a growing number of cases where rights are abrogated and power is used that has not been designated by democratic representation, it is my opinion that these terms fly about too readily and too unrealistically. I’m sure there is a sociological formula for the average gap in time between mentioning the President’s name on Facebook and the appearance of these words. There are times when we witness true fascistic behavior. And we would be better served to hold those terms in reserve for the times when law enforcement actually aids and abets extremist elements, or acts to deny us our constitutional rights with impunity.
Another word that we hear frequently in this context is “racist.” All indications are that at a bare minimum, the president struggles with a tendency towards racism. But his racism, like most racism, is context driven. A member of another ethnic group is not treated unfairly unless they are a threat, either as a member of a group with a contrary agenda (immigrants, “Jewish bankers”) or as part of an economic underclass. This second type of racism results from a peculiar class awareness that makes associations with being financially well-off the hinge factor. Financial status is the key element that determines whether or not a member of the wide variety of humanity that is not Scotch-Irish is worthy.
Since predestination was real but only God knew who was pre-selected, the stout and hearty Calvanist took life as an opportunity to demonstrate salvation. Hard work, upright morals, and thrift were salient features that proved a person’s eternal destiny. The notion of thrift in particular acted to fund the store of surplus capital that led directly to institutions of lending at interest and equity markets that we consider natural today. In prior ages, if any money was earned by commoners it was by and large spent as soon after it arrived.
All of this of course is the well-rehearsed underpinning that Weber provided to his theory of the Protestant work ethic fueling capitalism. A lesser known corollary helps clarify our current dilemma over immigration and racism. Weber thought that this demonstration on the earthy plane by God’s “select” (i.e. that they had been predestined by God) became reinforced over time to become an assumption. In other words, the stricture that we do not know the mind of God as regards to who is predestined for glory went by the wayside and those who demonstrated an ethic of hard work and thrift began to assume that they were as a group clearly marked for eternity in heaven.
The political philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes a parallel here with the end times teachings about the rapture and those “left behind” who remain after the select enter into heaven. The same principle of “chosen” and “damned” seen in the theology of predestination applies to this formulation. Even the rough percentage holds: 10% matter, 90% don’t.
Inevitably, this led to where we are today. The mere appearance of being financially well off is enough to delineate who is “clean” in the eyes of God and who is “the unwashed.” The feelings of sympathy and comity with the poor become less important and the burden of responsibility and connection to their well-being is lifted. The idea that the poor are responsible for their own fate begins to dominates and any guilt associated with having surplus is allowed to vent.
Those who are not currently wealthy but only aspire to be part of this club of the well-to-do buy into this same program. The recognition that the rich have a responsibility to the poor is seen as sentimental hogwash. All of life is reduced to tooth and nail struggle to reach a lifeboat and if that means climbing over your neighbor to save yourself, so be it. That person, by losing out, in effect demonstrates that they were not predestined for glory anyway.
Weber had much else to say that we could stand to hear today. He provided insights into political ethics that are as sharply descriptive as they were when he first published his essay “Politics as Vocation” almost a hundred years ago. He argues that political leaders must balance what he calls the “ethic of conviction” with the “ethic of responsibility”. Conviction is doing what you feel is right regardless of the consequences. Responsibility lies in seeing where an action might possibly lead. It takes into account the implications and ramifications.
We are more closely being led by political convictions today and they emerge from that bottomless font of political enthusiasm; ideology. It starts with unshakeable premises like “government is bad” and “foreigners are dangerous” and all actions flows from that. Subtlety, nuance, fact sorting and consensus are left begging. And unintended consequences are the result of acting on irresponsible conviction. “Political stunts” (as Barack Obama deftly termed it) like the militaristic overkill at our southern border work more as emotive electioneering engines than practical strategy.
The immigration issue is real and problems regarding refugees, economic inequality and political stability must be addressed. Dividing off and dismissing a group of humans as arbitrarily unworthy is not helpful or humane.