8:  Religion of the Rich

There is a precedent for the Bush Project, but itís not fascism

George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th November 2004

"I f Bush wins", the US writer  Barbara Probst Solomon  claimed just before the election,  "fascism is possible in the United  States."(1) Blind faith in a leader, she  said, a conservative working class and  the use of fear as a political weapon  provide the necessary preconditions.

She's wrong. So is Richard Sennett,  who described Bush's security state as  "soft fascism" in the Guardian last  month.(2) So is the endless traffic on  the internet. In The Anatomy of  Fascism, Robert Paxton persuasively  describes it as "... a form of political  behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline,  humiliation or victimhood and by  compensatory cults of unity, energy  and purity".(3) It is hard to read  Republican politics in these terms.  Fascism recruited the elite, but it did  not come from the elite. It relied on  hysterical popular excitement: some- thing which no one could accuse  George Bush of provoking.

But this is not to say that the Bush  project is unprecedented. It is, in fact,  a repetition of quite another ideology.  If we don't understand it, we have no  hope of confronting it.

Puritanism is perhaps the least-understood of any political movement in  European history. In popular mythology it is reduced to a joyless cult  of self-denial, obsessed by stripping  churches and banning entertainment: a  perception which removes it as far as  possible from the conspicuous  consumption of Republican America.  But Puritanism was the product of an  economic transformation.

In England in the first half of the 17th  Century, the remnants of the feudal  state performed a role analogous to  that of social democracy in the second  half of the 20th. It was run, of course,  in the interests of the monarchy and  clergy. But it also regulated the  economic exploitation of the lower  orders. As RH Tawney observed in  Religion and the Rise of Capitalism  (1926), Charles 1st sought to nationalise industries, control foreign  exchange and prosecute lords who  evicted peasants from the land,  employers who refused to pay the full  wage, and magistrates who failed to  give relief to the poor.(4)

But this model was no longer viable.  Over the preceding 150 years, "the  rise of commercial companies, no  longer local, but international" led in  Europe to "a concentration of financial power on a scale unknown  before" and "the subjection of the  collegiate industrial organization of the  Middle Ages to a new money-power".  The economy was "swept forward by  an immense expansion of commerce  and finance, rather than of industry".  The kings and princes of Europe had  become "puppets dancing on wires"  held by the financiers.(5)

In England the dissolution of the  monasteries had catalysed a massive  seizure of wealth by a new commercial  class. They began by grabbing  ("enclosing") the land and shaking out  its inhabitants. This generated a mania  for land speculation, which in turn led  to the creation of sophisticated  financial markets, experimenting in  futures, arbitrage and almost all the  vices we now associate with the Age  of Enron.

All this was furiously denounced by  the early theologists of the English  Reformation. The first Puritans  preached that men should be charitable, encourage justice and punish  exploitation. This character persisted  through the 17th Century among the  settlers of New England. But in the  old country it didn't stand a chance.

Puritanism was primarily the religion  of the new commercial classes. It  attracted traders, money lenders,  bankers and industrialists. Calvin had  given them what the old order could  not: a theological justification of  commerce. Capitalism, in his teachings, was not unchristian, but could be  used for the glorification of God.  From his doctrine of individual  purification, the late Puritans forged a  new theology.

At its heart was an "idealization of  personal responsibility" before God.  This rapidly turned into "a theory of  individual rights" in which "the  traditional scheme of Christian virtues  was almost exactly reversed". By the  mid-17th Century, most English  Puritans saw in poverty "not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a  moral failing to be condemned, and in  riches, not an object of suspicion ...  but the blessing which rewards the  triumph of energy and will."(6)

It wasn't hard for them to make this  leap. If the Christian life, as idealised  by both Calvin and Luther, was to  concentrate on the direct contact of  the individual soul with God, then  society, of the kind perceived and  protected by the medieval Church,  becomes redundant. "Individualism in  religion led ... to an individualist  morality, and an individualist morality  to a disparagement of the significance  of the social fabric".(7)

To this the late Puritans added  another concept. They 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.

Ronan Bennett's excellent new novel,  Havoc in Its Third Year, about a  Puritan revolution in the 1630s, has  the force of a parable.(11) An obsession  with terrorists (in this case Irish and  Jesuit), homosexuality and sexual  licence, the vicious chastisement of  moral deviance, the disparagement of  public support for the poor: swap the  black suits for grey ones, and the  characters could have walked out of  Bush's America.

So why has this ideology resurfaced in  2004? Because it has to. The enrichment of the elite and impoverishment  of the lower classes requires a justifying ideology if it is to be sustained.  In the United States this ideology has  to be a religious one. Bush's government is forced back to the doctrines  of Puritanism as an historical necessity. If we are to understand what it's  up to, we must look not to the 1930s,  but to the 1630s.


1. Quoted by Quico Alsedo, 27th  October 2004. "El Fascismo Es Posible  Si Gana Bush" Dice Probst  Salomon(sic). El Mundo.

2. Richard Sennett, 23rd October 2004.  The Age of Anxiety. The Guardian.

3. Robert O. Paxton, 2004. The  Anatomy of Fascism. Alfred A. Knopf,  New York.

4. RH Tawney, 1998 edition. Religion  and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction  publishers, New Brunswick.

5. ibid.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. Richard Steele, 1684. The  Tradesmanís Calling. Cited in Tawney  (ibid).

9. Joseph Lee, cited in Tawney, ibid.

10. Tawney, ibid.

11. Ronan Bennett, 2004. Havoc in its  Third Year. Bloomsbury, London.

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