Early in the beginning of the Cold War, Communist Yugoslavia broke its relationship with the Soviet Union, without, of course, stopping to be a brutal communist dictatorship. Even more so, it aped each and every idiotic scheme Uncle Joe and his witchdoctors cooked up, in a vain attempt to out-stalin Stalin himself. One of these schemes was the Stakhanovite movement – a meaningless contest among the workers as who would attain the greatest output in his work. This was especially emphasized in the mining – Stakhanov’s own turf .
It was then that a word came out of a miner, named Alija Sirotanović , who with 152 tons of ore mined in a single shift out-Stakhanovited Stakhanov himself. Marshall Tito, the then-ruling dictator of Yugoslavia, came to see Alija in person and, impressed, asked him if there was anything, anything at all, he could get for him. Sirotanović – the root of whose surname translates into something like ” poor orphan ” – replied: ” Comrade Tito, I just need a bigger shovel ! ”
In 1980, the dictator dropped dead and five years later his effigy was put on the largest denomination – five thousand – of Yugoslavia’s rapidly plummeting currency, the dinar. Two years later, an even larger denomination – of twenty thousand – was issued, adorned with the somewhat idealized likeness of Sirotanović. He died, in relative poverty and obscurity, three years later in 1990 . The very next year Yugoslavia collapsed amidst a cluster of bloody civil wars.
But, this is not, in the main, a story about Yugoslavia and its failed experiment with autogestive socialism. Capitalism, regardless of its fallings, as an economic system does not have an alternative – and surely not in socialism, whether autogestive, soviet-style or something else. The go-to guy for explaining and promoting this system to the public used to be Max Weber, a turn of the last century German scholar, whose magnum opus was titled, appropriately ” Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism ” .
Now, I must say this : in choosing this title, Mr. Weber did a bit of a misnomer – not a complete one, to be sure, but still a misnomer. Y’see, he wasn’t comparing the Lutheran North to the Catholic South, nor to the Orthodox East. He was actually comparing the three of them – at the very least – to the Calvinist West.
Not intending to dwell deeper into theological aspects here, the crux of this Calvinist work ethic was somewhat along these lines: There’s no such thing as a free will, either our salvation or our eternal damnation is completely independent of our actions and is, in fact, predetermined by God Himself. We can’t really do anything to earn salvation and a place among the elect, but what we can and should do is signalize that God has chosen us by excelling in business, commerce or in whatever is one’s calling in life.
Ain’t the one to call into question the diligence of the Calvinist folks, either in Europe – like Huguenots, Scots, Genevans – or their spawn across the oceans – the Boers, the Yankees, even the Scot-Irish. They are some of the most industrious people in the world. But, evidently, something’s sorely missing in this picture.
The whole point of production, as Jean Baptist Say informs us, is consumption. This, apparently trifle statement, reveals much more about capitalism than thousands of books written on the subject by both its proponents and detractors. This whole well-oiled machinery of capitalism churns only to satisfy His Majesty The Consumer. And on this particular issue, I’m afraid to note, literally any other creed stands better than Calvinism. Of course, none of them is overtly pro-capitalistic, seeing as they are religious systems, not economic theories, but at the very least the traditional Christian denominations upheld that man is to enjoy – with moderation – the fruits of his labor. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that, besides consuming what one produces, this also includes consumer goods produced by others and freely exchanged on the market.
And what does this supposedly capitalist creed say about the consumer? Nothing. Where every other Christian group upholds the human dignity of the consumer, he does not figure at all in the Calvinist work ethic.
But why then, on God’s Green Earth, would these evidently industrious and supposedly über-capitalistic folks, the Calvinists, produce anything outside their own needs if they have no concept of the consumer, much less a wish to satisfy his desires?
The moderate -which is to say, inconsistent – Calvinists here introduce the concept of the entrepreneur. It is now the brave and adventurous entrepreneur piloting the machinery of capitalism, as if a captain of a adventuring ship – and they did really captain adventuring ships in the early days – for his own fulfillment and, of course, for the Glory of The Almighty.
This is actually close to Weber’s own argument. And it explains the ginormous rise of the Dutch from a collection of few sandy , flood-threatened counties to a powerful commercial thalassocracy , as well as the birth of modern, entrepreneurial capitalism among the Calvinist portions of the Anglo-Saxon world. And it is easy to see why a connection has been made between Calvinism and capitalism in the first place, despite Calvinism’s inability to grasp the very concept of the consumer.
But, as an internally consistent creed, in fact as anything other than post festum rationalization pulled from someone’s rear end, this is deeply flawed. For Calvinism proper doesn’t recognize the entrepreneur any more than he does the consumer. Instead , it extols the laborer and the labor itself. In fact, more than anything else, it extols ” la travail pour la travail ” , labor for labor’s sake.
And this is mighty fine work ethic indeed … if one was running a Gulag or a Stalag , that is. It is of probably no coincidence that the driving force of Prussia’s – and later Germany’s – industrialization was Berlin, a colony of French Huguenots embedded inside a sea of Germanized Slavic Lutherans. More so, it was an industrialization proceeded with all the savagery of the British Industrial Revolution – and, in defense of the British, they were caught in it and didn’t have a clue what they were doing until it was too late. Other nations – especially USA and K.u.K. – learned their lesson by observance and proceeded with the industrialization with extreme care and at very humane pace. But not Prussia. Driven by the desires and ambition of Berlin bourgeoisie, it proceeded with a breakneck pace, in a prefiguration of the maniacal turbo-charged industrialization in mid-twentieth century communist countries .
And here I am obliged to correct another misnomer – the Prussian Junker Militarism. Tons of ink have been spent on writing how it was those pesky, saber-rattling Prussian Junkers who caused so much trouble on the continent. True, the Junkers of Prussia ( and of Brandenburg ) were overrepresented in the officer corps, but that was generally true of each and every post-feudal aristocracy, including Spanish Hidalgos and British Gentlemen. Ever heard of Spanish Hidalgo Militarism, or of British Gentleman Militarism? Me neither. All of these officers, from all these countries, were more than happy to serve the fatherland. So were their peasants, if need be. In every other country, this readiness to serve and protect one’s own country is called patriotism. Somehow, when it comes to Prussia, some wisecrack decided to call it militarism.
To say upfront, there really was a militarism going rampant in the Second Reich , but it originated neither among the Prussian Junkers and their peasants, nor among their Brandenburg counterparts. The same entity behind the Prussian industrialization was behind its militarism – that outpost of Huguenot bourgeois and a literal factory town without a culture of its own – Berlin.
But I digressed. My point here is this : taken to its logical extreme , this so-called capitalist creed, the Calvinist work ethic, acknowledges neither His Majesty The Consumer, nor the Captain of The Industry. Instead, it leads straight to the superhero of autogestive socialism, Comrade Alija ” Heart, Hands and Shovel ” Sirotanović.
Let that sink in.