November 6th 2004


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EDITORIAL: Why Bush is better for Australia ...

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ABORTION: Facts banish the myth of the 'backyard butcher'

OPINION: How I would tackle poverty

CULTURE: Children's author plumbs new depths

End the shame of ACT pornography (letter)

Unborn child treated as 'a malignant tumour' (letter)

BOOKS: Catholicism, Protestantism And Capitalism, by Amintore Fanfani

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BOOKS:
Catholicism, Protestantism And Capitalism, by Amintore Fanfani


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, November 6, 2004

Are Christianity and capitalism compatible?



CATHOLICISM, PROTESTANTISM AND CAPITALISM
By Amintore Fanfani
Introduction by Giorgio Campanini


IHS Press. Available from News Weekly Books, RRP: $29.95

Amintore Fanfani was a brilliant young economic historian working at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan when he wrote his great book, Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism. It was 1934 and he was 26. Although Fanfani ended up writing 18 books and hundreds of articles on economic thought and economic history, this remarkable essay in social philosophy, combined as it was with economics and economic history, was his most influential.

Emerging from university teaching and research after the exit of Fascism and the end of World War II, Fanfani, as a Christian Democrat, served as a senator in the Italian Parliament, as Prime Minister and as President of the United Nations General Assembly.

The first English translation of this book came out in 1935 and this new edition, produced by IHS, follows the original translation.

In fact, I used to try to use Fanfani's book, which I always held in high regard, in some of my university courses. Fanfani avoided being contaminated by any of the Fascist or other extremist ideologies of his generation. He would have fitted most easily, I suspect, into the Catholic Social Party, the Populari under Don Sturzo, a party that was influential in the few years between the end of World War I and Mussolini's assumption of power in 1922.

To anticipate: Fanfani produces arguments to assert that Catholicism is incompatible with capitalism; whereas Protestantism and Judaism can both co-exist with capitalism, its form, its works and its spirit. He firmly anchors his position in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

Fanfani takes us through Christian history, from the early Fathers to his own day, identifying and analysing judgments, observations, and critiques by numerous Christian leaders and authorities on the subjects of trade, commerce, manufactures, crafts, usury, banking, and the social, legal and religious institutions in operation, or influential, during the various stages of capitalism's development.

Fanfani is interested in the phenomenon of capitalism, in its beginnings, the ways it developed, the places where it first started and took root, and whether there were unique factors or favourable circumstances which allowed the spread of capitalist economic activities and supportive ideas in some places but not in others.

Following Max Weber, who had written that great pioneering sociological study The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (1928) - from the German Der Geist des Kapitalismus [1904-1905]), Fanfani uses the phrase "the Spirit" [Der Geist] of capitalism.

This is a difficult but rewarding area of inquiry with Germanic flavouring. The Germans were very taken with the term Zeitgeist from Goethe onwards.

But Weber and Fanfani, while studying capitalism and its purely economic aspects, think that there is a theoretically separable phenomenon which they call the "Spirit", that is a whole collection of ideas and values which, having gestated under the crust of established society - its institutions, its status ladders, its mores, etc - gradually, but on occasions suddenly, bursts through and can transform the way people see themselves and see others, influencing ideas on work, marriage and family, the role of religion, and the virtues.

Weber and Fanfani were disappointed with the economic determinist models of, in particular, Marx, whereby changes in economic practices and institutions are preceded by advances in scientific knowledge which, triggering in their turn productive and technological changes, finish with the altering of people's consciousness.

Fanfani saw the endless debates about change and the phenomenon of change to be as much about a battle of ideas and opposing mindsets as of blind economic forces, or of superior ways of achieving economic growth and capital accumulation.

Weber had thought that the Protestant ethic, very different from its Catholic predecessor, encouraged individualism and pluralism, despite all the attempts by the Protestant churches to control what their flocks thought or, in the end, did.

The Protestant's core relationship was with his Maker tête-à-tête. There were usually (but not invariably) intermediaries - parsons, bishops, convocations - but they had no privileged, exclusive relationship with God. They were not infallible; whereas God and the Bible were.

But the Protestant ethic allowed, even encouraged, hard work, thrift and permitted usury, so making possible a great expansion in investment and then credit. This last, incidentally, seems to have undermined the saving ethic.

As the capitalist ethos took over, scholastic notions of a just wage, a fair price and a fair day's work, were transferred to the state, or were to be of a contractual kind between worker and employer, landlord and tenant, and buyer and seller. The church should butt out.

Many are now also saying the state should butt out of employer/employee relations, and from the corporate world, and ideally, of most of the world of economics. Just as the state should stick to lighting the lamps, cleaning the streets, defending the realm (internally and externally) and seeing contracts are honoured, so churches should stick to religion, i.e., worshipping God, comforting their flocks and maintaining the ritualistic and ecclesiastical practices of the Faith.

To change the subject somewhat: Fanfani sticks to his topics - trade, manufactures, banking and the growth of capitalist forms. He devotes much time to the operations within what is a feudal system, or quasi-feudal system, where most people live on the land in villages and small towns where scarcity - or, for many, starvation - was just around the corner, and a great deal of the land was held by the aristocracy, large landowners and the church.

Serfdom was common, landless labourers or tenant farmers were most numerous. Disease and war helped keep population growth to a very gradual rate of increase. So there was no compelling reason for rapid economic growth.

But the medical revolution changed all that. As diseases were progressively stamped out, as the need for clean water and sewage was recognised, mortality and morbidity rates fell, and populations started to soar.

Without industrialisation and its consequences - urbanisation and/or without an agricultural revolution, or at least access to new, substantial supplies of cheap food - the standard of life for demographically expanding societies would fall drastically. The battle for bread would become Hobbesian.

The solution for much of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was mass migration on a scale the West hadn't experienced since the "barbarian" invasions in Roman times, spurred by similar concerns: shortage of arable land, shortage of food.

Most fortunately, the New World was there as a destination for people from the poorer societies or the poorer parts thereof.

Doomed societies

So, the smallish organic societies and city-states of the medieval period were probably doomed to give way to much larger and very different entities.

But there are people who have read into Fanfani's historical account possible models for remaking contemporary society or at least parts thereof. Realistic models could be the reconnection of religion with man in society and the reintroduction of moral norms into spheres from where they have long been banished - banished in the names of Reason, Individualism, Growth, Progress, Science as a cure-all and as the Great Explainer. And from the life and thoughts of Economic Man, who is now Man the Consumer, rather than the Producer or the Creator.

Fanfani, for one, might say that the basic existential challenges facing man have not changed since the Fall. Nor have his emotional resources, which include his appetites. His reasoning capacities are turning out to be distinctly finite, and far from approaching the secular versions of omniscience and omnipotence, that Reason is only too easily brushed aside, devalued or perverted.

And out of this mismanagement, this mismatch between Man's various propensities, issue his faults, his vices, his neuroses and his despair. He needs all the help he can get, but he should not look to capitalism, nor its spirit, for aid.

If a system relies on Man's greed and covetousness, on envy, on slavery to fashion (i.e., maximum suggestability), on a life with all rights and no duties (with the exception of the duty to respect contracts); if everything is to be commodified and people viewed as means to your ends and not as ends in themselves; if living in a community and observing its rules and mores come to be seen as constraints or burdens to be thrown aside - and capitalism flourishes under such conditions of moral and communal abnegation - then Fanfani might say it is well and truly incompatible with the spirit of Catholicism (and, I would add, also with Protestantism).

Capitalism has survived - obviously - but in forms hardly recognised by Marx or even Fanfani. Were Leo XIII to write his Rerum Novarum now, he might be far more scathing than in 1891.

Our author notes the appearance of the joint-stock company. It seems that the shareholders are the owners - but after a while, they are observed to be as cut off from the decision-making as are the employees and the consumers.

Managers and CEOs take the decisions, while major shareholders increasingly become the banks, mutual funds and overseas companies and magnates. No one deals face-to-face anymore, and accountability goes out the window: only to be periodically jerked back by a reluctant state or enraged shareholders. But only when major scandals or a collapse in profits has occurred.

Profit, in the form of self-aggrandisement or group-aggrandisement, is the beacon in what is otherwise a mist of anonymity. Alienation is complete. And neither Marx, nor Weber, nor Fanfani could predict the enormous influence of advertising in driving the system and in changing the consciousness of people wherever it alighted.

But Fanfani didn't set out to be a prophet: simply to describe the development of capitalism and how it impinged upon a number of religious systems hitherto central to Western man - and he succeeds admirably.

  • Dr Max Teichmann taught politics at Monash University.




























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