Calvin, the Free Market, and Poverty
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 22, 2007 at 11:25:29 AM EST
Max Weber noted the synergy between fundamentalist Calvinism and Free Market ideologies in his famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.~1. In the United States this created a particular frame in which the idea of personal initiative and rugged individualism was linked to a blame-the-victim narrative. Anyone who fell through the cracks of a Free Market economy had no one to blame but themselves. This frame shifts attention away from structural, institutional, and systemic causes of poverty and toward individual failure.

The idea behind “Faith-Based Initiatives” is to remove the government’s communal responsibility to design an equitable economic system. This is justified by the underlying ideological claims of fundamentalist Calvinism and Free Market ideologies.

Holly Sklar argues that instead of writing about “poverty,” progressive authors should write about “impoverishment” to highlight the economic processes through which people are made poor and kept poor. In her essay "The Dying American Dream and the Snake Oil of Scapegoating," Sklar writes:

As the American Dream has become more impossible for more people, scapegoating is being used to deflect blame from the economic system and channel anger to support reactionary political causes. Talk-show demagogues have built their careers on a rising volume of hate.

The cycle of unequal opportunity is intensifying. Its beneficiaries often slander those most systematically undervalued, underpaid, underemployed, underfinanced, underinsured, underrated, and otherwise underserved and undermined--as undeserving and underclass, impoverished in moral values, and lacking the proper "work ethic."~2

Sociologists Somers and Block see the growth of “market fundamentalism” as the continuation of an ideology long promoted by some conservatives.~3 To demonstrate this, they picked two examples of legislation—in 1834 and 1966—in which “existing welfare regimes were overturned by market-driven ones.” They concluded that “Despite dramatic differences across the cases, both outcomes were mobilized by "the perversity thesis"—a public discourse that reassigned blame for the poor's condition from "poverty to perversity."~4 In this way, says Somers and Block:

…structural blame for poverty is discredited as empiricist appearance while the real problem is attributed to the corrosive effects of welfare's perverse incentives on poor people themselves—they become sexually promiscuous, thrust aside personal responsibility, and develop longterm dependency. This claim enables market fundamentalism to delegitimate existing ideational regimes, to survive disconfirming data, and to change the terms of debate from social problems to the timeless forces of nature and biology.

Fundamentalist Calvinists and Free Market ideologues may seem like strange bedfellows, but under the sheets they share some basic body parts, and both end up screwing the poor.

Notes

1 Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Chip Berlet, "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration.”

2 Sklar, “The Dying American Dream and the Snake Oil of Scapegoating.”

3 This section is pilfered from Berlet and Chamberlain, Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006.

4 Somers and Block, “From Poverty to Perversity: Ideas, Markets, and Institutions over 200 Years of Welfare Debate.”

References

Chip Berlet and Pam Chamberlain, 2006, Running Against Sodom and Osama: The Christian Right, Values Voters, and the Culture Wars in 2006. A Report from Political Research Associates, October, 2006, http://www.publiceye.org/christian_right/values-voters/vv-toc.html

Holly Sklar. 1995. “The Dying American Dream and the Snake Oil of Scapegoating.” In Chip Berlet (Ed.), Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash (pp. 113–134). Boston: South End Press, online at http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/hs_econo.html

Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block, “From Poverty to Perversity: Ideas, Markets, and Institutions over 200 Years of Welfare Debate,” American Sociological Review (70)2, (April 2005): 260-287. See also, Alexander Hicks, “Comment on Somers and Block, Free-Market and Religious Fundamentalists versus Poor Relief,” American Sociological Review (71)3, (June 2006): 503-510; Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block, “Reply to Hicks: Poverty and Piety,” American Sociological Review (71)3, (June 2006): 511-513.

Max Weber. [1930] 1999. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcot Parsons. New York: Routledge. See also, Chip Berlet, "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration,” The Public Eye, Political Research Associates (18)3, (Winter 2004), http://www.publiceye.org/magazine/v18n3/berlet_calvinism.html.

See Also:

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series

Fundamentalists Embrace Darwin!

The Christian Right, Calvinism, and Free Market Ideology


Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog




Display:
For many modern Americans, the Free Market is a deity. Its hand is all-powerful and can be relied on to right every wrong. What a mess. What blasphemy.

by nogodsnomasters on Tue Jan 23, 2007 at 07:46:39 PM EST
The whole concept of a "free market" needs to have the light of day to shine upon it, as what we have come to call a "free market" is actually a rigged system that benefits the anti-regulatory crowd. I guess that makes it as ethereal as any deity.

by Vesica on Wed Jan 24, 2007 at 09:04:41 AM EST
Parent


I like to say that the "invisible hand" of the "Free Market" is palpable to the impoverished who feel it when it slaps them in the face.

-cb

_ _ _

Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Sat Jan 27, 2007 at 02:17:54 PM EST
a slap in the face is quite an understatement too.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jan 27, 2007 at 04:44:14 PM EST
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