Kathryn Tanner’s Gifford Lectures – Part 3 “Total Commitment”

Note: I’ve also written a critical review of the whole series in one post.


Kathryn Tanner’s third lecture examines the effect finance dominated capitalism has upon the total commitment required of employees, and suggests a counter-commitment: one’s relation to God that can “drive a wedge between” the current configuration of workplace culture. As detailed in previous lectures, Tanner has argued that capitalism requires incredibly intense effort from workers. Of course, this means there must be potential employees willing to engage in this sort of effort. In short, the maximum profit goal requires maximum commitment from workers, ideally realized when workers’ desires are identical to their corporate employer’s. Tanner finds this result troubling because the identity of desires between worker and employer removes the critical distance necessary to call into question the current relation. Indeed, “how can one criticize what has become the desire of one’s own heart?”

Often, corporations “use their production of worker insecurity to induce worker compliance through fear,” and achieve this through payroll cost-cutting, layoffs, and the use of independent contractors. All of those come on the side of the corporations; yet one must also fear due to the reduction of government benefits that may have once eased one’s anxiety over losing employment.

However, using fear isn’t quite the most effective method to produce total commitment in workers. Using fear means the construction of worker surveillance systems and a large management force capable of watching each worker. A more profitable strategy is manifest in what was described in the last lecture, that workers become self-managing, or self-auditing. But Tanner argues that many of the fear-inducing strategies have been abandoned due to large costs.

So, how is the tension between workers’ desires and the company’s desire to be circumvented? One possibility might be to eradicate alternative desires. For example, work might be so hard and demand so much focus that workers simply do not have effort to think about non-work things. Or, to use the call center example, workers are just given a script and respond in quite mechanical ways to external input – no decisions have to be made, and one automatically does exactly what the company prescribes on the answer cheat sheet. In similar situations, workers are “self-renunciating” for the sake of the company. “One doesn’t conform by struggling to bring one’s own will into line with a superior will or market demand, the latter is simply to replace one’s will.”

Workers are encouraged to want what the company wants so that workers cheerfully comply. If this is achieved, all the costs associated with ensuring compliance can be eliminated. In fact, “finding value oneself in the work one is asked to do is something that the old Protestant ethic supplied” – the simply obedient worker.

Desire for work is to shape one’s entire life, saving work from possible interruption by external demands. One is to direct all of their energies and talents for their self-betterment, to make use of oneself. This self-understanding of work on oneself is to permeate all of life, whereby once again the possibility of a critical attitude is lost. One is just always, in all of life, trying to maximize their value, viewing themselves as their company views them. Each person has assets to capitalize upon, one runs themselves like a business. Life is to be lived as if the subject were an entrepreneur.

The result of all of this is the identity of self-understanding and an employer’s perception of oneself. Both of them are working on me and profiting off of me. “My employer sees me as human capital to be put to maximal use at the least expense, and that is also how I see myself.”

In this scheme, employers are not only interested in one’s abilities to perform well at the job, but they become quite interested in a potential worker’s attitudes. “As much as the doing, to be demonstrated in job performance, one’s being, the character of one’s person and dispensations is a primary matter for employer concern.” One’s whole person must be directed to their work. It may be possible for one to fake one’s attitude, or to give the appearance of total commitment (something that happens quite often!), but ultimately, companies force this commitment and workers either have to buy into it or resist it inwardly and possibly be consigned to a life of dissatisfaction. Above all, Tanner stresses that companies do not just use one of the above strategies or the other, but they use most of them all the time so workers are less apt to be able to criticize or get themselves out of the situation.

So what can Christianity offer? Tanner thinks that Christianity “can help drive a wedge between my desires and the company’s, interrupting the mechanisms for gaining the sort of total commitment required for maximum corporate profitability. Commitment to God and the conversion it brings about interferes with the total commitment to anything else, thereby limiting the degree by which one could ever be completely personally invested in a company’s aims.” In short, Christians total commitment to God means they cannot be totally committed to anything else.

This is, admittedly, a mirroring of what capitalism requires. The Christian is to do everything for God, work on their piety intensely, and turn their religion into a sort of project with an end goal – conformity to God – and a difficult means to do so – conforming one’s will to God’s. Living the Christian life is its own total commitment. One is always to be looking to how their other pursuits can fall in line with their commitment to God.

The means to achieve this total commitment to God, however, are contradictory to the means capitalism uses. The Christian life is not self-evacuation. The Christian’s will remains, it is only reoriented. Moreover, we know God has our best interests at heart – God wants to save us. Moreover, dying to our old selves is not our literal death; it is a turning around or reversal, a turning toward God away from sin. Tanner states, “all that is to be put to death is the will’s sinful orientation.”

Akin to the previous lecture, Tanner stresses the ongoing nature of conversion. One is always to be critical of one’s self to some degree in order to repudiate sin that hinders their orientation to God. There is also a certain divestment in one’s mundane commitments for the sake of commitment to God, which takes priority. One’s orientation to God trumps all other commitments and projects. In fact, every other thing can potentially be turned toward orientation to God: both good and bad situations.

But one dissociates themselves to a degree to any particular social role or task – one’s commitment to God cannot be collapsed into a single social role, it goes across all one’s roles. One’s Christian commitment is not one among many, but can incorporate all other commitments into its overarching goals. All other identities one has prior to conversion should be reworked under the banner of their newfound Christian identity.

Other jobs become valuable, for Tanner, when they are related to God’s mission to the world. But the successful pursuit of mundane projects is not directly correlated to one’s successful God-orientation. When our other commitments or projects fail, God can make up the difference. Failures can thereby be turned God-ward. For example, the failure to alleviate poverty does not mean the absolute failure on the part of the Christian, for they know one-day God will make all things right.

Conversion can be started anew each day, regardless of the outcome of the previous day. The Christian life is a mixture of success and failure, but one can cast their failures upon God. One is saved as a sinner by grace and that same grace provides the ability for one’s further sanctification.

In Christianity, one knows their growth will not be absolutely seamless. One isn’t thereby, unlike in many workplace cultures, concerned with the smallest slip-up. There is no anxiety over intense self-monitoring or managing because one depends upon God. Sins aren’t tailed upon oneself, but forgiven by God – one is detached to sins previously committed. Not, as in the previous lecture’s discussion of debt, chained to them.

In light of one’s Christian commitments, one should ask themselves if their work is compatible with their Christian identity. The point, further, is not to be satisfied in the work itself (as in Capitalism when one’s work is one’s life and determines the success of one’s life), but to glorify God and praise God, which transcends a particular job or role. Moreover, the self is not the primary subject that accomplishes the goals of the Christian life – God brings us to God. God’s agency is continually highlighted by Tanner.

“Conformity to God interrupts attempts at conformity to markets.” Tanner summarizes: “What I’ve shown then, is the way Christianity can re-envision and thereby contest the sort of subject that financially dominated capitalism encourages for its own purposes of profit maximization.” Capitalism tries to conduct our conduct, but we can resist this demand for an alternative sort of self-formation.


Further Reading:

Michel Foucault’s account of subject formation in The Birth of Biopolitics

Daniel Bell – The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

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