This all does sound familiar.
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 analagous 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 â€œswept 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 â€œa theory of individual rightsâ€? 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.â€?(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. â€œIndividualism 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 Steeleâ€™s words, that â€œGod has blessed his tradeâ€?. The next step follows automatically. The Puritan minister Joseph Lee anticipated Adam Smithâ€™s invisible hand by more than a century, when he claimed that â€œthe advancement of private persons will be the advantage of the publicâ€?.(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 â€œadministrative nihilismâ€?: 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 Bushâ€™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 â€œthe world exists not to be enjoyed, but to be conquered. Only its conqueror deserves the name of Christian.â€?
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.