Protestant Work Ethic, On a Tuesday?
Max Weber famously claimed, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that many capitalist values and practices in early modernity were shaped by a new Protestant ethos and culture. Two central ideas he examined were those of election, seen especially in Calvinism, and calling (Beruf), as explored by Luther, among many others.
In Calvinism, teaching about predestination of an elect group for salvation, coupled with the inscrutability of the sovereign God's will and plan, fueled a kind of spiritual anxiety. No one could be sure of one's elect status. Signs and markers in the world had to be sought, to give hints at God's possible blessing and hence confirming, ideally, one's status among the chosen. A central such sign, Weber surmises, was business success.
What Lutheranism contributed was a secularization of the idea of calling or vocation. Originally a notion of discipleship, following Christ in a specialized religious calling (most notably monks), the idea was extended, per Luther, to all one's worldly activity. Suddenly mundane or earthly tasks were to be infused with the same spiritual vigor and significance as religious endeavors. God's calling was a call to the world. One could follow Christ in one's daily work.
We can imagine how the two impulses could combine in a potent synthesis. On one hand, one sets one's mind to toil hard and gain success in work, in order to "prove" God's election. On the other, one can take comfort that toiling and working in this way is fulfilling one's divine purpose on earth.
Debates rage about whether Weber was on to something or chasing phantoms. Debate also continues about whether we can see this extending to our contemporary moment. This raises questions about secularization and what it means to see these initially religious impulses carried forward in a new guise.
What might it mean that the Protestant ethic is alive and well today, but in a non-religious (or differently religious) way?
One possibility is our culture of busyness and the prestige and status that come from the idea of toiling hard and being successful in business. One need only flip open any issue of Forbes to quickly realize that our society celebrates business success. We're also familiar with the sense of significance we get in proclaiming how busy we are, how hard we're working all the time. Might there be some residue of the Protestant ethic here, such that the new elect status is found in those who are toiling hard and finding success at work, just without concern for the afterlife?
We see this theme in popular culture. It comes up, I suggest, in the hit song "Tuesday" by ILoveMakonnen (feat. Drake). Listen to them:
Wait, isn't this song about partying, cutting loose, and indulging?
Only upon first blush. It actually celebrates something else primarily.
As Drizzy Claims:
Ain't got no motherf#@$*n' time
To party on the weekend...
One night off and this is it
Always workin' OT,
Overtime and out of town
Drake is working too hard to relax and party. He's far too serious and enjoying far too much success. After all:
Squad goin' up
Nobody flippin' packs now
I just did 3 in a row
Them shows is back-to-back to back now
No longer needing to deal, his success means back to back shows and constant working. Working overtime.
ILoveMakonnen offers a similar sentiment, from a different angle:
Workin' Monday night
On the corner flippin' hard
Made at least 3 thousand
On the boulevard
I've been workin' graveyard
Shifts every other weekend
Ain't got f#@$*n' time
To party on the weekend
Here we see that it really isn’t about a pure or prestigious type of work. That’s not the issue. While Drake celebrates moving on from this lifestyle of drug dealing, the counterpoint here is that this lifestyle is still alright, as long as you’re working hard, taking care of your business. Whatever the product, whatever the service, if you’re busting your butt and working so hard you barely have time to chill, and--and this is key--being successful--then you’re worthy of respect
The video's images celebrate ideas of serious toil at work:
The accountant working hard at this desk:
Or the late night work in the boardroom:
My claim is that, ultimately, this song is about the glorification of work, of working hard, of having business success. This success shows one’s worthiness; it is a mark of status and value. Working hard, always working, and finding success at this work through financial gain, marks one’s elect status. Now we see that election is no longer about future salvation, but rather about status, prestige, and worthiness in the present. Calling has been carried forward to infuse any and all work with an almost spiritual significance.
If leisure is celebrated, it is the leisure that comes as a pause in one's commitment to work. These boys have no other time to relax and party than on an insignificant Tuesday night. But, and this is added bonus, their business success and prestige are so great that even on a piddly Tuesday they have the club poppin' off.
"Tuesday" is about a lot of things, but it isn't primarily a song about partying. It's about the afterthought of rest and relaxation that come after an indivisible focus on working hard to find success in one's business. The money made is confirmation of one's chosen status. This may be one way that the Protestant ethic is carried forward in our day.