By Paul-François Tremlett
In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.
Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.
Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.
The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.
Guyer, J. I. (2007) ‘Prophecy and the Near Future: Thoughts on Macroeconomic, Evangelical, and Punctuated Time’ in American Ethnologist, 34 (3): 409-421.
Hayek, F. (1949) Individualism and Economic Order. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Weber, M. (2002) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by T. Parsons. London: Routledge.