The “Puritan Work-Ethic,” Profits, and the Decline of Happiness

We all know the famous story of Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church door.  We know this as the second greatest split in Christendom;  this split marked the moment that half of Europe broke away from the Catholic Church, and formed what would be called the “Protestant Church.” (Which would itself split up numerous times)  What is often overlooked is something far more important:  this split set in motion the creation of an ideology that would be so pervasive that we still live under it today, that even atheists adhere to it, and preach its virtues without even knowing that they are spreading religious dogma.  This ideology is known now as “Puritan Work Ethic.”

At the very beginning of Luther’s “95 Theses,” he makes the argument that repentance for christians is a lifelong endeavor.  Luther believed that Christians must struggle their whole lives against their “sins” and are never free from this struggle.  But he did not deride this struggle, he praised it.  Luther viewed this conflict as a kind of purification, which would ultimately redeem an individual.  Luther also attacked the Catholic definition of “vocation,” which was defined as “spiritual work” at the time, that is; only the work of Priests, Missionaries, and Monks.  Luther argued differently, he believed that God is as pleased by work of the milkmaid as he is the work of the minister; “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.”  Luther would argue throughout his life that God answers prayer through the work of Christians; “God gives the wool, but not without our labor.  If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.”  With these ideas Luther laid the foundation for the deification of labor.  Before Luther’s teachings, work was merely a necessity of life, a means to provide sustenance and other needs.  Now, since God was seen to be working through the act of manual labor, work started to be regarded as a religious act.

This religious regard for work really took form with the Puritan Calvinists of England, specifically those who colonized America.  These Puritans sanctified work in the same way Luther had done, but through the lense of their own religious beliefs.  Puritans went a step further with Luther’s belief about the lifelong struggle against one’s own “sin.”  Puritans didn’t just deify that conflict, they deified the very act of suffering.  Puritans glorified “suffering for God,” believing that suffering to advance “the gospel” was the greatest way any person could glorify God.  Since work was holy, suffering in your work was encouraged.  They also believed that a person’s entire life must be committed to glorifying God; everything a person does or says should bring glory to God.  All this created a culture that emphasized never ceasing difficult work.  Because you weren’t working to provide for your needs, you were working as a necessary part of worshiping God. “Laziness” was no longer just refusing to work, it had become a sin that one could commit simply by not working hard enough.  Even if a person was able to provide for all their needs with the work they did, if the maximum amount of effort wasn’t ceaselessly performed, you were regarded as having committed a sin against God!

Do you see the foundations of our modern work ethic?  It’s represented in the smallest details of our jobs.  Cashiers being required to stand the whole time they are working, office workers being required to stay at work even if all their tasks are completed, soldiers painting rocks or raking dirt!  All of these are examples of the Puritan work ethic being subjected upon a secular society.  They are acts which serve no purpose beyond the performance of the act itself.  They better society in no way, yet they are enforced because we still detest the Puritan ideas of laziness; you must not only work as much as possible, you must suffer at that work regardless of if the work needs done that much, performed that painfully, or even if that work needs done at all!

The insidious nature of this Puritan Work Ethic isn’t just manifested in cruelty towards people and it’s general destruction of happiness, but also in the fact that it is a part of the bedrock of Capitalism.  Max Weber makes this very argument in his l905 book: “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”  In this book, Weber argues that it was the shift from emphasizing metaphysical, other-worldly, rituals and devotion, towards earthly “mundane” work which Puritanism brought about that allowed Capitalism to develop.  But it wasn’t merely a change in culture that Puritanism brought which facilitated the rise of Capitalism, it was the material effect, and its usefulness for profit seekers.

Overworking obviously creates an over-abundance of goods, which is a condition that Capitalism requires to exist in order to function.  Capitalists promoted the Puritan work ethic, knowingly or not, because that mindset was required for them to maximize profit.  Because so long as the workers adhere to Puritan ideas of what constitutes “laziness” and good work, they can be exploited.  Think about the very idea of “hard work” being regarded as a positive thing.  It makes far more sense to try and make work less difficult.  But for a Capitalist to maximize profits, the workers must work as hard as possible for no greater reward.  And the workers will gladly do so as long as they believe it is unethical, that it’s “lazy,” for them to do otherwise.

This method of overwork and over-production is not only unethical because of how it needlessly abuses the workers, but because it’s ecologically unsound.  Its very foundation is inefficiency, because it encourages the continuation of work long after there is a need to do so, wasting both resources and labor-power, which should be used to address other needs.  Instead, it’s all wasted on producing more food than can be eaten, more cars than need exist, and a myriad of products that no one even wants, all to be thrown away and add to the degradation of the environment.

As it stands now, society places work before needs, work before happiness.  In fact, you should be happy to work so hard!  How can anyone not see the echoes of the Puritan sanctity of suffering in this?  This moral insanity has to end. There is no morality in suffering and misery, there is no morality in working more than we must.  “But we will become weak!” The Unquestionable-They will cry.  “Haven’t you seen WALL-E?! ”  God help us all, now that we have based our society on the “wisdom” of cartoons.  There is no material basis for the idea that humans become fat, stupid, and incapable of taking care of themselves when not worked to exhaustion day-in and day-out.  If this were true, the owning class should have died out naturally long ago.  “But that’s not true! Owners do work hard!”  The Unquestionable-They is likely saying now.  Pretending this point is correct, then they’ve only proven their first point wrong, because the owners don’t have to work at all.  They can hire managers and accountants to do everything for them.  If they work, they do so simply because they want to.  No more, no less.

The owners allow themselves to live according to more natural laws of work ethic.  Working only when they have to and when they want to, never any more.  This was the state of being for all of humanity (except slaves, of course) until our subjection to Capitalism and the tyrannical Puritan Work Ethic it favors.  Even the serfs of Medieval-Europe had more days off than modern wage-workers!  Hunter-Gatherers work only a few hours a week, and that is the most successful system humanity ever devised.

I can already hear the cries of the Unquestionable-They: “Those were ‘primitive’ societies.  To live in modern society with modern technology, we need to work harder.”  No, we don’t.  I refer you to what we’ve been talking about: over-working, and undue suffering while at work.  Being uncomfortable while working doesn’t even require any serious consideration.  You cannot work as effectively if you are miserable.  As for overworking: at the very base of it, it’s a type of discomfort.  It prematurely wears a person out, wasting their energy that could be saved for that job later, or applied to different meaningful work.  And the products that it produces: tell me, how do the thousands of acres of unbought new cars, that are parked to rot in the deserts of the American southwest, help provide cars for everyone?  How does this even warrant consideration?  It’s literally producing more than is needed.  It does nothing but waste human energy and resources.

The Puritan work ethic is the last vestige of theocratic Medieval-Society, ironically continued often by even atheists.  And like the rule by the priest and the bishop, the domination of the masses by work before need is slowly crushing our species, and bringing the planet with us.  The clergy of Europe began the conquest of the world, and their shadow continues to be cast in every Capitalist workplace, every clearcut forest, every industrial slaughterhouse.  That shadow was felt by the Sioux Nation as it opposed the Dakota Access pipeline.  That shadow is felt in every sweatshop.  That shadow is felt by you, the wage-worker, every time you find yourself forced to endure needless work, and needless suffering at work.  Step out of this shadow, reject this archaic religious dogma, and overthrow the tyranny of the Puritan Work Ethic.  Take back your happiness.

But, you may be wondering, why can’t we end the Protestant Work Ethic now, without instituting Communism?  How does it relate?  That answer is in the need for profits to exist under Capitalism.  We just discussed how this ethic is necessary to maximize profits, but the very act of maximizing profit, which allows Capitalism to have some semblance of functionality, is a flawed design.

Capitalism is a system of endless economic growth.  A business must continually produce profits, it cannot “break even,” and it must always grow, else-wise it will have to close.  And here we encounter perhaps the most damning aspect of Capitalism:  it is inherently unstable, it actually is not a system that can function properly in any capacity.  Capitalism has within it a huge and glaring inherent contradiction between profits and wage-labor, the two defining aspects of it.

One Reply to “The “Puritan Work-Ethic,” Profits, and the Decline of Happiness”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *