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Mitt Romney: Weber’s true poster boy for the “spirit” of capitalism

August 15, 2012 1 Comment

It’s easy, perhaps, to get caught up in the moment and conclude that Mitt Romney’s seeming inability to state any policy or core belief unequivocally is simply a matter of calculating ambition, mixed with political expediency. Yet, Romney’s low standards for consistency and logic go much deeper and reveal an essential truth about the man who would be president: that worldly “success” is the only proper measure of a person.

More than one hundred years ago, the great social theorist Max Weber proposed the figure of Benjamin Franklin as the poster child for what he termed the Protestant “spirit” of Western capitalism. Franklin, wrote Weber, was dedicated to “the making of money and yet more money” to the exclusion of all personal pleasure and purely “as an end in itself.”

Weber relied on a German translation of Franklin’s highly circumscribed and self-serving memoir, and his analyses of both America’s oldest Founding Father and of the spirit of capitalism itself have since been subjected to considerable criticism. Weber would have found himself on firmer footing with the public figure of Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president.

The Romney campaign’s confusion and waffling over his Massachusetts health program; the Ryan Plan (Romney was against it before he was for it), the auto industry bailout, and other policies reveals the candidate’s core indifference to the issues.

In the world of Mitt, all that matters is success, which he clearly defines as making money and yet more money for its own sake. Who gets hurt, who else benefits, who helped him along the way, and notions such as social justice or the betterment of society are all subordinated to the one true aim of life, to get as rich as possible.

All of Romney’s interactions reflect this. His idea of a side bet is a $10,000 wager. He posed with Bain colleagues with hundred dollar bills stuffed in their clothing. When he appealed for votes among blue-collar NASCAR and baseball fans, he could not help but remind them of his close ties to the rich team owners, that is to other successful people like himself. And a recent campaign stop at an Iowa “farm” was hosted by a real estate mogul and millionaire – hardly the rugged yeoman of American political mythology or campaign photo-ops.

These are Romney’s people and they inhabit a world in which no one asks how or why or why not, but only how much? It is a world in which any moral and ethical accounting is reduced to the dollars and cents of the balance sheet, to figures on the spreadsheet. Of course, Romney is hardly alone in such a world view, but his understanding of his Mormon faith buffers him against any possibilities of self-reflection, empathy, of self-doubt. It is why he appears to obtuse, tone-deaf even, to many of us.

Mormonism grew out of the feverish era of the Second Great Awakening in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a period of social, religious, and political ferment in the life of the new and expanding nation. Like many other sects and movements of the time, it pushed the boundaries of Protestant ideals in new and often radical directions.

As Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker review of several books on the subject makes clear, Mormonism eventually cut a deal with mainstream America: it would abandon some of its more controversial tenets, including polygamy, in exchange for begrudging acceptance by the rest of society. Their place now more or less secure, Mormons were free to follow their inclinations to create Zion here on earth, chiefly through making money.

Here, then, Weber’s analysis is on target. The radical Protestantism that runs through Mormon beliefs, as well as Mormonism’s own unique experience, ties worldly success rather than worldly behavior to salvation. In contrast to traditional Christian teachings, there is nothing morally suspect about attaining wealth. Instead, the acquisitive calling becomes, in Weber’s words, “the epitome of a morally laudable conduct of life.”

The Romney campaign has now put these attributes on full display. Good works, social justice, benign intentions must all fall by the wayside, for the real mark of the elect is material achievement – the only sure sign of God’s favor. And given the recurring doubts that plague even the richest denizens of such a world, none of whom are ever assured of salvation, one can apparently never truly have too much money.

1 Comment for this entry

Burl Grey

November 4th, 2013 on 3:14 pm

Well done!
A friend of mine sent me your website because he knows my interest is ‘systems epistemology’.
I’ve only read your Romney piece but will explore more of your ‘shift’ toward the deeper and wider (meta?) perspective of epistemology.

I believe I’ll have a few questions for you after I learn a little more about your particular epistemological perspective.
thanks,
bg