Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Puritans are Back: Administrative Nihilism

What would we do without good old George Monbiot? After revealing crucial corporate abuse around genetic engineering, now he's revealed why Bush & Co. are not facists, but rather Puritans. We're back to the mid 17th century, not the mid 20th. (And I should add Hegel's line about historical returns: The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.)

After reminding us of their theology of individualism, Monbiot writes that the Puritan
'conflated their religious calling with their commercial one. "Next to the saving of his soul," the preacher Richard Steele wrote in 1684, the tradesman's "care and business is to serve God in his calling, and to drive it as far as it will go."(8) Success in business became a sign of spiritual grace: providing proof to the entrepreneur, in Steele's words, that "God has blessed his trade". The next step follows automatically. The Puritan minister Joseph Lee anticipated Adam Smith's invisible hand by more than a century, when he claimed that "the advancement of private persons will be the advantage of the public".(9) By private persons, of course, he meant the men of property, who were busily destroying the advancement of everyone else.

'Tawney describes the Puritans as early converts to "administrative nihilism": the doctrine we now call the minimal state. "Business affairs," they believed, "should be left to be settled by business men, unhampered by the intrusions of an antiquated morality".(10) They owed nothing to anyone. Indeed, they formulated a radical new theory of social obligation, which maintained that helping the poor created idleness and spiritual dissolution, divorcing them from God.

Of course, the Puritans differed from Bush's people in that they worshipped production but not consumption. But this is just a different symptom of the same disease. Tawney characterises the late Puritans as people who believed that "the world exists not to be enjoyed, but to be conquered. Only its conqueror deserves the name of Christian."

There were some, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, who remained true to the original spirit of the Reformation, but they were violently suppressed. The pursuit of adulterers and sodomites provided an ideal distraction for the increasingly impoverished lower classes.'

So, that's the essence of Monbiot's historical scoop. I confess that I should have made this connection before, since I survey Puritans for an American Lit course almost every year. And yet, I didn't. If you want the whole article, and you should, follow the link above.


At 7:05 PM, Blogger Brian David Phillips said...

Erick, this was a good read. Thanks for posting it. I never would have made the connection on my own but once exposed to the concept, it seems almost like a no-brainer. - Brian http://briandavidphillips.typepad.com/brian/


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