Kathryn Tanner on Finance-Dominated Capitalism

This week Kathryn Tanner is delivering the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, titled “Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism.” I am still processing some of the theological arguments she is laying out, but I found her assessment of global finance-dominated capitalism (and the subjects it produces) over the first three lectures to be so compelling that I wanted to share some of it in one place. So below are tweets and quotes (none of which are my original thoughts) pulled from Twitter, where people like Joshua Ralston, Vincent Williams, David Robinson, Linn Marie, and Sara Misgen are doing the Lord’s work in sharing this material. Over the next week, follow the hashtag #GiffordsEd and follow the live blog.


(image via @joshaw)

Today’s capitalism is finance-dominated, and shapes how subjects relate to self and to others: the point is to create individuals who will do willingly what capitalism requires.

In recent years, profit rates in the financial sector have become outsized, increasingly important, and distanced from production/demand. Now, in one sentence, finance finances finance. Finance has become unhooked from actual production of goods The decoupling of finance from production of goods and services means profit can be made even without employment or increase of wage.

Debt increasingly makes up for services no longer offered by government. People are forced to take out loans for education/healthcare/housing/etc. Creditors no longer need debt to be repaid for profit, since the debt itself will be sold on secondary markets. It is often more profitable to keep people in debt (up to a point), and more profitable to lend to those with poor credit, who are assigned a higher rate of interest. Maximum difficulty in paying back debt, borrower insolvency, becomes something of an ideal under finance-dominated capitalism. This is because profit is generated not by the slow trickle of repayment, but by repackaging loans for sale to other investors.

Growing debt from servicing payday loans, for instance, forces extremes of self-management from the poor. Demands of debt consume whole of life, and discipline the whole of life, work and leisure. Individuals must manage themselves to maximize productivity both at home and at work. This brings them into perfect alignment with what companies, and the larger market, demand.

How to motivate intense effort in service of profit? Fear is not enough – the self must be reshaped. Neither fear nor external motivation can make workers comply totally with aspirations of companies and finance capitalism. Coercion can’t produce enough productivity; employees must learn to desire what employment demands of them. The issue is subject formation. Finance has shaped persons so they are made to ‘want’ internally what finance offers.

The capitalist subject is obliged to maximise personal growth, leading to an ever-increasing GDP in one’s person. One’s self is a kind of economic property whose value is to be maximised … one’s self is what one works on. One takes up a peculiar sort of business relationship with oneself. The employer/corporation profits when capital in self grows; as a result, interests seem perfectly aligned. I am made to work on myself for the sake of the company for the sake of some greater good – the MARKET. Employers are interested in the person and not just work, as can be seen in questions about family or hobbies in performance reviews. Corporations foster an employee’s self-realisation, and so can trust that employee to be totally invested in his or her work (entrepreneurship). Like a penitent, the worker who fails must not just regret lapse in performance but show heartfelt contrition, tears. The only arena of freedom left for workers seems to be attitude: total commitment or aimless dissatisfaction. One’s own life becomes a project, about the accumulation of capital, or at least about the repayment of debt.

Foucault’s bio-politics is employed to talk about how one’s self becomes project and capital. One’s own life is about profit. Workers must self-manage to meet nearly impossible productivity targets, all the slack has been taken out of the system. Discipline by finance means downsizing and outsourcing regardless of community or workers. Contradiction between different temporal patterns: must commit to repay debt over long term, but there is no certainty in one’s work.

There is little value in contesting finance-dominated capitalism by incremental measures regarding personal virtue. One cannot replace critiques of capitalism with critiques of “greed” or vices in general. Christianity might be a way of revolution and radical time alteration toward finance and not simply about reforming system.


Nathaniel Grimes

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