Capitalist Formations of the Self: “spiritual capital” and “merit”

The terminology of “capital” has spread (like wildfire?, like mononucleosis?—choose your own metaphor) from Bourdieu, who introduced the notion of “social capital,” to the extent that it is now becoming a way of thinking about oneself. This is found, for example, in David Brooks’ column (NYT Friday 22 May 2015) which is titled “Building Spiritual Capital.” The column itself goes no further in discussing the concept of spiritual capital, and indeed the title might be a NYT editor’s idea. However, what is important here is not whether it is Brooks’ or not, but rather that the phrase could be used so freely—that is, without definition and with the assumption that readers would understand its meaning.

In general capital refers to assets and resources that can be employed to generate products, which are then sold, creating profit, which in turn can then be converted to capital, and so on. Classically, the three parts of the productive process are capital, labor, and land. Capital in this sense has a functional value—it is valued for its ability to produce a product. In this economic sense of assets and resources, capital is used up in the process of making something else, and therefore needs to be replaced. In this it is considered to be different from land, though the exhaustion of the land as in the era of the Dust Bowl would seem to make that differentiation less hard and fast. One instance of the hegemonic extension of the idea of capital is to convert labor, the second part of the classic analysis, into “human capital.”

The further extension of the notion of capital to intangibles, such as spirituality in the case of the title of Brooks’ column, would therefore seem to be unwarranted—a metaphoric application that entails the danger of bringing the economic connotations of capital into discussions of religion and spirituality.

Consider the difference between the concepts “habits” and “capital.” An instance from the column is that of a grandmother teaching her grandchild to be kind to strangers. (Brooks draws this example from the dubious work The Spiritual Child (St. Martin’s 2015) by Lisa Miller, a psychologist at Columbia University, and a conservative columnist for the Washington Post.) If this is framed as an instance in which the child is generating spiritual capital, then the formulation connotes that it is something that will be used up later in the production of some other “good.” (Note the wondrous ambiguity of good as a moral judgment and good as a commodity for sale.)

As a habit, however, each exercise of kindness makes the habit stronger—rather than creating something that will be used up later. The notion of spiritual capital invokes, in other words, a spiritual economics of scarcity—capital, labor and land are limited, and capital once expended needs to be replaced. Habits, however, are self-reinforcing—their repetition makes them stronger, and the actions involved easier. (This is the significance of the notion of samskaras in Buddhist psychology.)

While the terminology of “spiritual capital” seems relatively recent, a remarkably similar idea has been formulated as a key element in the Euro-American representations of Buddhism in the terminology of “merit.” Reading Rita Langer’s Sermon Studies and Buddhism (Studia Philologica Buddhica, monograph series XXX. Tokyo: IIBS, 2013), I came across the following (all to brief) discussion based on the earlier work on Buddhist sermons by P. Schalk:

A central theme of sermons generally…is pin [Skt. punya], which Schalk translates as “success”. He dismisses the commonly found rendering “merit” (“Verdienst”) on the grounds that the term has polemical associations in Protestant Christian theology which are often ignored by indologists.

My immediate question was, What are those polemical associations that make “merit” an inappropriate gloss for “pin”? The issue is central to the story of the Protestant Reformation, as it is directly involved in Martin Luther’s rejection of the practice of indulgences. Indulgences were for the benefit of human sinners, allowing them to access the unlimited “store of merit” accumulated by Christ and the saints (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History. Penguin, 2003: p. 121). Accessing this store of merit then allows the sinner to pay restitution to God for injuries committed because of one’s sinfulness. Eventually an economics of indulgences was created in which one effectively purchased an indulgence, either for oneself or for the dead in Purgatory. Luther objected to this system on the grounds that it conflicted with the principle of “justification by faith alone,” that is, forgiveness for one’s sinfulness is only in response to one’s faith. Human works, in Luther’s view—even the works of saints—are inadequate for the attainment of salvation (MacCulloch, p. 122).

Although not expanded upon by Langer, it would then appear that the problematic character of the term “merit” for Protestant theology that Schalk is pointing out is that it refers to the notion of the unlimited store of merits that supposedly we humans can access by merely purchasing “a piece of parchment” (ibid.). From the perspective of one informed by Protestant theology, then, “merit” connotes a doctrine that has been rejected, and associates Buddhists with Catholics.

For contemporary Buddhist discourse, I find the tendency toward reifying merit to be problematic. And, this reification has been regularly extended to the idea of karma as well. Thus, we find discussions of the “generation of merit” or the “transfer of merit,” as if it were some kind of object or substance. I recognize that this terminology is well-established in Buddhist Hybrid English—how many times have I repeated the chants at the end of ceremonies or rituals that supposedly transfer “any merit generated by these actions to the benefit of all sentient beings”?? Yet, I find the idea of merit/karma reified in such a fashion to be problematic—giving rise to images of the “First Cosmic Bank of Karma.”

The banking imagery is implicated by both the idea of spiritual capital and merit/karma. In both cases we have a concept that is reified, treated as a substance or object of some kind, that can be accumulated and then expended. Not unlike saving up for a vacation (good karma), and then overspending and having the credit card bills come due (bad karma). And while upon reflection, “we all know” that it doesn’t work this way, there is a (none too) subtle way in which this reinforces conceiving of the self in capitalist forms. One is either like the sound business man who reinvests his profits in order to generate even further wealth, or the spendthrift who squanders his assets in pursuit of short term pleasures. Those of you familiar with the allegory of the ant and the grasshopper will recognize the moralistic point here.

Perhaps, if we can hold this absurd vision of the self as homo economicus long enough, we will be able to see that it is absurd to reify processes such as habits and intangible such as success as if they were actually capital.

2 thoughts on “Capitalist Formations of the Self: “spiritual capital” and “merit”

  1. My observation of the operation of “merit” in Asia led me to believe that it is, indeed, treated very much like financial capital, and that it is largely considered to be interconvertible with financial capital.

    A friend and I have drafted a paper advocating the modernization of merit markets. Although many of the standard forms of financial instruments have merit analogs, this parallelism has not been systematically exploited. For example, merit forward contracts have long been common, but publicly traded, standardized merit futures are not. A great increase in the sophistication of merit transfer mechanisms is definitely feasible, with concomitant efficiency improvements, and a consequent general rapid increase in the merit/population ratio in many Asian economies.

    Possibly our motivation was partly satirical.

  2. And what nobody says is that “merit” is Labour; indeed, it is highly laborious, unpaid labour, like women’s work, like service and charity work. One way to ‘convert’ this labour into a tradable value is “community service” dollars or local script that can be traded for goods and services. But that would only capture a small segment of this work, this labour. The ‘sharing economy’ is the larger economic system of this meritorious labour.

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