The Spirit of Capitalism vs. the Spirit of Consumerism: A Comparative Typology

The Spirit of Capitalism vs. the Spirit of Consumerism: A Comparative Typology

Kent A. Van Til (Hope College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6120-0.ch009
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Max Weber's protestant work ethic linked the Calvinist doctrine of election to the rise of capitalism. Weber saw the “worldly asceticism” among Calvinists as the motive for the hard work and savings that are required in capitalism. Though this theory has both detractors and critics, it remains dominant in both academic and popular writings. When this typology is extended to include consumerism, however, it fails, since the doctrine of election is not compatible with choice, which is the leading characteristic of consumerism. Arminian/free-will theology, on the other hand, has choice as its leading characteristic and practice. American evangelists asked their listeners to stand up and choose Christ at roughly the same time and in the same way that advertisers asked consumers to choose their products. Thus, a new typology is warranted which links the free-will theology of American evangelicalism to the choice that characterizes modern consumerism.
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Weber And Capitalism

In his famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, (1776, 2012) recognized as the father of capitalist economics, proposed that the division of labor was the key to wealth creation. His story of the pin factory showed that the same number of laborers could produce many more of a product if they specialized in various aspects of work. The ability to produce more goods would result in greater profit and greater exchange, as each laborer exchanged his specialized goods for those of another. The “Invisible Hand” would guide each person to satisfy his desires while at the same time satisfying the desires of other customers or suppliers. This exchange process would build capital, and that capital could be re-invested ad infinitum. But to build capital required saving. Spending capital on personal luxuries or hoarding it as treasure would not contribute to a nations’ growth. As noted later by Robert Heilbronner (1953), capitalism requires not only the creation of capital, but the constant circulation of capital. Hoarded capital would not create wealth in a nation, but capital in circulation would.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Calling: The idea that one’s work is not merely toil that enables one to survive but a divine commission into a field of labor.

Calvinism: The system of doctrine derived from the 16 th century reformer John Calvin that emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God in human affairs.

Prevenient Grace: Arminian doctrine that sees the gracious work of God within all people before they receive Christ. It must find a response in the heart of believers by accepting Christ.

Asceticism: The religious practice of living simply and sparsely in this life in order to prepare for the life to come.

Consumerism: A process in which individuals freely choose from a wide range of products and services that contribute to or create ones’ identity.

Capitalism: The economic system in which the market is free from outside interference. It requires efficient labor and capital reinvestment in order to yield profit.

Typology: A technique for understanding the relationship between objects or ideas. For example, a collie is a type of dog, since it has all the characteristics of a dog. Similarities in characteristics can create a type; for example, Moses was a type for Christ in that he was a prophet and law-giver.

Free-Will Theology: The doctrine that emphasizes the need for an individual to choose Christ.

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