4The Theology of Business

An essay synthesizing Bartleby and The Big Short to investigate how prevailing economic systems influence stakeholder behavior.


Religion can be broken down into three main components: a belief system, ritual worship, and a moral organization of social values. World religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam all satisfy such standards; however, what may not be initially apparent is how capitalism and its manifestations are similar to those of religions. Not unlike religion, capitalism assembles a hegemonic system of values and norms based on principles and assumptions dictated by its holy texts: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, David Hume’s Of the Balance of Trade, and the like. World religions have created dynamic curations of group identity on the basis of prescribed values - its culture.

Two texts produced roughly two centuries apart document the methods through which capitalism’s culture is reproduced; analysis of the texts enable a study in how the culture has evolved. Written in the 1800s, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, a short story about a character by the same name who refuses to submit to the work required by his employers, covers the beginning of modern capitalism taking hold on a societal scale; the 2015 film The Big Short chronicles the financial buildup, crash, and recovery of capitalism in the 21st century to comment on the culture that has been created by the capitalist complex. By way of their plots and character development, the two texts uncover the culture of self-idolatry, limited free will through coerced submission, and value creation that is formed by capitalist business models.

The two texts examine the concept that market players believe themselves to be righteous and saint-like using narration and point of view. Individuals assume that they are acting in a method that is socially and economically beneficial when, in reality, they are doing little more than merely reinforcing the logic of capitalism - to generate profit. At the beginning of Bartleby, the lawyer describes himself as a Good Samaritan; as the story progresses, the autobiographical point of view provides evidence of how the lawyer’s mind is biased. His claim to sainthood is built by his descriptions of the various ways he has shown generosity from little acts such as offering Turkey one of his used coats to granting Ginger Nut an opportunity to intern at his office. Although both acts are objectively beneficial, what the lawyer doesn’t realize is how his acts are innately nothing more than reinforcing the logic of the culture of business that incentivizes material wealth and work; he is imposing his - the employer’s - belief that materialism and an internship are valuable. Another clear example of his self-righteousness is when he places Bartleby in the corner of the office with a window view of a dingy wall. Described by the lawyer as “satisfactory” and a combination of “privacy and society” (Melville 7), the setup was literally and figuratively a wall; the lawyer set up Bartleby in front of a dead end. The wall Bartleby is placed before represents business’s repackaging of menial labor as something much greater, yet the lawyer fails to see this due to his preconceived belief that he is the patron saint of opportunity. The business culture had led the lawyer to believe that his position of power - provided by his ability to employ others - ensures his commercial activity creates social good. Most apparent in Bartleby, the concept of self-idolatry in business culture is presented through the actions of the lawyer as status in a business-dominated culture is conferred through one’s propensity to generate capital.

The Big Short displays a similar concept but in a modified nature; the film uses self-idolatry as a bridge to present the false sense of free will that business provides. The “contrarians” in The Big Short are characterized in a Robin Hood-esque light, stealing from the rich in support of the “little man.” Scripted to be the underdogs going against the “big banks”, their moral justification of bringing justice to the system inevitably falls through as the primary goal of capitalism, the pursuit of profit, guides their money-making. FrontPoint Partners and Brownfield Capital’s ultimate conformity with the overarching culture that stresses the search for profit exposes their real position as pseudo-contrarians. The audience is asked to invest emotionally and pray for their success under the pretense that if their bet succeeds, the damage done to the victims of the big banks’ predatory practices will be reversed. However, the contrarians’ actions are ultimately guided by the principles as those of the designated enemy. In the end, the power structure of capitalism dictates free will. Given that one accepts the dogma of capitalism, free will in the culture extends as far as the logic of the system allows.

The Big Short’s contrarians’ final act of submission by exercising their positions is a testament to the inescapable invisible hand of business - the market’s logic directs the actions of actors within. In Bartleby, Melville mobilizes Bartleby as a martyr who, after coming to the stark realization of the absurd nature of business culture, refuses to accept the dominant values and shows the lawyer the workings of the culture he has internalized. The friction caused by his preference not to abide by the norms displays the consequences that true contrarians face. Bartleby’s conflict with the power structure realizes the engulfing nature of business and the tension it creates with individuality as the culture of business drives its participants to internalize the logic of the employer. Consequently, the best workers in society are those who buy into the pursuit of status and wealth that the culture of business claims holds value. Such is the case with Michael Burry: his quest for high returns corresponds with the fund managers’. Mark Baum’s fund and Brownfield Capital are both aware of the precedent that their market activity is founded on but can’t fathom the notion of not securing their gains; the rating agencies choose to give CDOs ratings of minimal risk rather than assigning their true risk in order to not lose business. With employees on all levels submitting to the same concept of providing value - read profit - to their employers, social solidarity is achieved as societal norms absorb business logic. Solidarity can only be achieved under the aegis of an arrangement of compensation. Compensation in religions comes in the form of salvation or internal peace; in capitalism, the culture equates work to a vehicle to reach salvation.

Capitalism is inherently paradoxical as corporations hold power but only under the condition that their workers confirm their power. The monetization of social values is one of the methods corporations assert their power - corporations use monetization to motivate people to conform to the objectively mundane and routinized tasks capitalism requires. Business culture redistributes the perceived value of goods and services in a manner that benefits its goals: homeownership and social mobility become two forms of social currency that are nothing less than existential. In order to achieve predicated social currencies, businesses heavily influence one to accumulate capital, leading societies to understand work as a vehicle for success. Bartleby stops working because he refuses to accept such forms of compensation - he even goes as far as rejecting every attempt by the lawyer to offer him money. Melville’s characterization of Bartleby acts as a foil to the culture of the environment he is in. Bartleby’s act of rebellion is contrasted by the majority of contrarians in The Big Short who are too deeply invested in business culture’s belief system to walk away from the industry. They have practiced the ritual of earning and spending to an extent where other possibilities are alienated; even Ben Rickert who claimed he left the industry for good ends up assisting Brownfield Capital execute their trade. The values held by businesses are not only incubated within but extend to the rest of society.

The separation of elements from their true nature is the result of the synecdochical essence of capitalism’s methodology. Outside of Bartleby, the other characters in the lawyer’s office are referred to by nicknames based on their eccentric behaviors. By calling them by nicknames, the lawyer removes their identity as individuals but as replaceable parts that exhibit flairs of personality. The lawyer’s inability to fire Turkey and Nippers despite their eccentricities
is the result of the value both employees add when they are working; this carries over to the lawyer’s initial obsession with Bartleby’s early productivity. Bartleby presents how capitalism’s fixation on production leads to employers participating in a game where individuals are disposable parts and the objective is to reach maximum efficiency. While Bartleby shows how reduction is enacted in terms of labor, The Big Short displays its implementation in terms of business practices. As banks and financial organizations attempt to judge clients’ profitability, they replace people with FICO scores and other numerical metrics with the same goal as employers like Bartleby’s lawyer. The result is a culture that enables corporations greater range of action due to the lessened moral implications their decisions may cause. Seen in Wall Street’s lack of pathos and facade of accountability after the financial crisis, as well as globalization’s disregard for the socioeconomic havoc its business creates, reduction is an essential aspect that enables business to operate.

Business and its culture wins because, as the controlling power, it cannot lose. Both Bartleby and The Big Short attest to the power: Baum and company’s final act of submission to the system, the recovery of the financial industry to be the same with minimal consequences, the lawyer’s removal of Bartleby caused by other businessmen threatening his reputation - and consequently his livelihood - all demonstrate how pervasive and immortal the culture has become. Given that Bartleby was written in capitalism’s infancy, The Big Short shows the epitome of how business culture controls the narrative. Even if they had carried through their opposing logic, the other market players would have reinforced the original cultural fixation on profit. The contrarians’ adherence to making a profit is materialized through the risk managers that loom over FrontPoint Partners and the directors of Scion capital. FrontPoint and Brownfield were supposed to be the heroes of the film but the failure to institute change to the system deconstructs the audience’s faith for change. The final minutes of the film reports the changes - or lack thereof - in the wake of the financial crisis, refracting the reality that in a society where value and power are created by wealth, those already successful will continue to be successful with minimal consequences. The Big Short exemplifies this via showing how regulating agencies like the SEC are plagued with self-interest, corrupting the morals that the public holds them accountable to. Jamie’s cousin proves the point as she explains that if she completes her role at the SEC, she loses the possibility to gain a position at Goldman Sachs. With corporations having the ability to write and rewrite the rules to benefit themselves, the reality is that the societal power structure of business leads to a perpetual cycle; one where corporations always come out on top, where banks are truly “too big to fail.”

As Christopher Hitchens described Christianity, capitalism “would not even deserve to be called quixotic if it had not inspired masterpieces of art and music and architecture as well as the most appalling atrocities and depredations.” It becomes difficult to accept the claim that capitalism is the fecundity of freedom after analyzing the ways culture that capitalism has manifested in societies; capitalism forms a walled garden whose walls become increasingly imposing as long as it is accepted. Bartleby was an early observer of the culture imposed by business - he was at least able to peer over the walls and understand the reality of the culture in business. In the modern age, the walls are too tall - dissenting is nearly impossible as it is hard to imagine anything outside of the system. By disseminating its logic, capitalism has shaped the culture of society; society has shifted from the setting in which businesses act to the provider of resources for business activity.
(Works Cited)

Analytical Essay / 2019
Written for Professor Robert Wosnitzer, Commerce and Culture