What’s most remarkable about the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporate players in each industry is how little public angst it has generated, at least in the United States, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the labor unions’ struggles against corporate power were bitterly fought, they never attracted a majority of the workforce to their cause. Although there have also been occasional populist uprisings challenging the unbridled corporate control exercised over the economic life of society, the most recent being the Occupy Movement, with its rallying cry of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, such outbursts have generally been few and far between and led to only mild regulatory reforms that did little to curb the concentration of power.
To some extent, the criticism was muted because these large, vertically integrated corporate enterprises succeeded in bringing ever-cheaper products and services to the market, spawned millions of jobs, and improved the standard of living of working people throughout the industrial world. There is, however, an additional and more subtle factor at play that has proven to be every bit as effective in dampening potential public opposition. The First and Second Industrial Revolutions brought with them an all-encompassing world view that legitimized the economic system by suggesting that its workings are a reflection of the way nature itself is organized and, therefore, unimpeachable.
The practice of legitimizing economic paradigms by creating grand cosmological narratives to accompany them is an age-old practice. Contemporary historians point to St. Thomas Aquinas’s description of creation as a “Great Chain of Being” during the feudal era as a good example of the process of framing a cosmology that legitimizes the existing social order. Aquinas argued that the proper workings of nature depend on a labyrinth of obligations among God’s creatures. While each creature differs in intellect and capabilities, the diversity and inequality is essential to the orderly functioning of the overall system. If all creatures were equal, St. Thomas Aquinas reasoned, than they could not act for the advantage of others. By making each creature different, God established a hierarchy of obligations in nature that, if faithfully carried out, allowed the “Creation” to flourish.
St. Thomas Aquinas’s description of God’s creation bears a striking resemblance to the way feudal society was set up: everyone’s individual survival depended on them faithfully performing their duties within a rigidly defined social hierarchy. Serfs, knights, lords, and the pope were all unequal in degree and kind but obligated to serve others by the feudal bonds of fealty. The performance of their duties according to their place on the hierarchy paid homage to the perfection of God’s creation.
The late historian Robert Hoyt of the University of Minnesota summed up the mirror relationship between the organization of feudal society and the Great Chain of Being “the basic idea that the created universe was a hierarchy, in which all created beings were assigned a proper rank and station, was congenial with the feudal notion of status within the feudal hierarchy, where every member had his proper rank with its attendant rights and duties.”
The cosmology of the Protestant Reformation that accompanied the soft proto-industrial revolution of the late medieval era performed a similar legitimizing role. Martin Luther launched a frontal attack on the Church’s notion of the Great Chain of Being, arguing that it legitimized the corrupt hierarchal rule of the Pope and the Papal Administration over the lives of the faithful. The Protestant theologian replaced the Church’s feudal cosmology with a worldview centered on the personal relationship of each believer with Christ. The democratization of worship fit well with the new communication/energy matrix that was empowering the new burgher class.
Martin Luther accused the Pope of being the Antichrist and warned that the Catholic Church was neither God’s chosen emissary on Earth nor the anointed intermediary by which the faithful could communicate with the Lord. Nor could Church leaders legitimately claim the power to intercede with God on behalf of their parishioners and assure salvation in the next world.
Instead, Martin Luther called for the priesthood of all believers. He argued that each man and woman stands alone before God. Armed with the Bible, every Christian had a personal responsibility to interpret the word of God, without relying on Church authority to decipher the meaning of the text and assume the role of gatekeeper to heaven. Martin Luther’s admonition spawned the first mass-literacy campaign in world history, as converts to Protestantism quickly learned to read in order to interpret God’s word in the Bible.
Martin Luther also changed the rules for salvation. The Church had long taught that performing good works along with receiving the Church’s sacraments would help secure a place in heaven for believers. Martin Luther, by contrast, argued that one can’t win a place in heaven by racking up good works on Earth. Rather, according to Martin Luther, one’s ultimate fate is sealed at the very get-go, that every individual is either elected to salvation or damned at birth by God. But then the question is: how does one live with the terrible anxiety of not knowing what awaits him? Luther’s answer was that accepting one’s calling in life and performing one’s role fully and without a lapse might be a sign that one had been elected to salvation.
John Calvin went a step further, calling on his followers to continuously work at improving their lot in life as a sign of possible election. By contending that each individual was duty-bound to improve his or her calling, Protestant theologians unwittingly lent theological support to the new spirit of entrepreneurialism. Implicit was the assumption that bettering one’s economic lot was a reflection of one’s proper relationship with God and the natural order.
Although neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin had any intention of despiritualizing the faithful and creating “homo economicus”, eventually the idea of improving one’s calling became indistinguishable from improving one’s economic fortunes. The new emphasis on diligence, hard work, and frugality metamorphosed over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into the more economically laden term of being “more productive.” Self-worth became less about being of good character in the eyes of God and more about being productive in the new market exchange economy.
In time, the idea of each person standing alone with their Lord began to take a back seat to the notion of each person standing alone in the marketplace. Self-worth was now to be measured by self-interest, which, in turn, was measured by the accumulation of property and wealth by cunning dealings in the new market economy. Max Weber referred to this process that created the new man and woman of the market as “the Protestant work ethic.”
The new commercial zeal spilled over, bringing increasing numbers of Catholics and others into the market fold. Where previously one’s place on the rungs of the Great Chain of Being that made up God’s creation had defined one’s life journey in the feudal era, the new autonomous individual of the soft market economy came to define his journey by the amassing of private property in the marketplace.