The Church of American Startups and Capitalism

Ed Zitron 7 min read

The website for the Lakewood Church makes a simple promise to would-be worshippers - that “the Bible says when you are planted in the house of the Lord, you will flourish.” As the nexus of the thoroughly American “prosperity gospel” movement, the church promises material and financial returns for the faithful. Those who are sufficiently able to complete the right rituals and be “good Christians.” It’s the natural endpoint of the protestant work ethic - borne of Luther and grown by Calvin into a monstrous concept of material success being the only indicator of one’s place as one of the “Elect,” a person “chosen by God to inherit eternal life.” This could be said to be the beginning of work becoming a moral act - that one’s success in life was a result of being a good, hard-working person, and indeed that success was an indicator of someone being “better” or, depending on who you ask, more holy.

In a video by Tai Lopez from 2016 titled “Why Do Only Certain People Become Successful?” he uses the gospel of fellow charlatan Malcolm Gladwell to discuss the theory of “opportunistic luck.” This theory seems as if it acknowledges the chaos of the world but quickly comes down to saying that those who take advantage of this luck - and that, specifically, that everybody has some luck in their life, and thus you just need to “use that luck” to succeed. The “outliers” are those who choose to use that luck to succeed, which is what makes them a success. It is only a few steps from the Calvinist baptist C.H. Spurgeon’s quote that “a mighty grace which [man] does not wish to resist enters [him], disarms him, and makes a new creature of him, and he is saved.” Spurgeon, much like the modern hustle culture peddler, said that “he that perishes chooses to perish, but he that is saved is saved because God has chosen to save him.”

Those who do not follow the holy path of hard work and choosing to use the luck given to them are lazy and damned.

The New Capitalist Religion

The modern entrepreneur and the surrounding startup ecosystem continue to resemble the world of religious figures and saints and the dogma that comes with classical Calvinist and prosperity gospel thinking. In a specific culture that actively rejects religion and replaces it with “logical” and meritocratic thinking, God has been replaced by wealth, Venture Capital has replaced the Church, and saints have been replaced by Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and others.

Those who are blessed with success are described as having earned it through trials and tribulations written into a form of moral code. The “right” way to raise money, the “right” way to run a company, and like any good religion, there are constant branches of thought and dissent that ultimately still lead to a single point where a particular founder and their “successful company” are God. It is an attempt - much like religion itself - to add a moral justification to what Bertrand Russell would call “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” It is the same logic that people use to add meaning to the world through religion - where Bill Gates’ success might otherwise just be “guy with wealthy family does well at the right time,” it’s now “Bill Gates worked hard and revolutionized software through his powerful brain.”

It is an easier and more comfortable way to perceive the world if you add morality and worship to it, and that’s why so many people have developed parasocial relationships with the Andreessens and Musks of the world. They follow them, defend them, harass for them because they believe that they have earned and were destined for greatness. By following Musk and others’ stories, they follow a doctrine that can be repeatable and thus receive similar if not better rewards.

This is where the New Church of American Business has grown from - not from actually good business, but from operating in a similar personal and moral way to those that have succeeded. It is attributing morality to success - that Musk or Andreessen being fetid assholes is, in fact, the right thing to do because it led to success, and indeed that Tesla nearly going bankrupt was a good thing, because it didn’t. It is on some level anti-capitalist - where capitalism is theoretically meant to be the most efficient way to make money; these businesses have been grown and done things for reasons not to make money and have inspired others to do so.

Startups are commonly described in the trappings of Calvinism - the ideas of vocation and purpose, that they have to do this because it’s important, and the framing of labor as a moral good - that performing labor is a means to prevent sin. If they were Gary Vaynerchuk, one might even say that our failures are not based on our circumstances, “but” in the justifications we make to not take action. Vaynerchuk saying that you should “stop saying “but,” and you’ll be forced to move forward” is simply Spurgeon saying that “there is no fatigue so wearisome as that which comes from lack of work.”

Where startups claim to be so unique in their thinking and in what they do, they are absolutely a product of the protestant work ethic that frames America’s belief in what capitalism is. The church of business - modern American business - has become so absorbed by the cult of personality because it is easier to pray to the saints of startups than to recognize that a culture geared toward a conveyer belt of endless labor is beyond depressing. The further step that the world of startups has taken is formalizing the belief system to justify increasingly illogical, anti-capitalist ideals.

While Travis Kalanick of Uber has more recently been given a hard time, he was treated like a God for many years, despite running a company that constantly burned money. The Church of Startups has reframed even the moral norms of business - where businesses used to be appreciated for making more money than they spent, startups that do the opposite are considered “winners.” Their CEOs are given awards, they are used as templates for future startups, and their success is not measured in actual success, but in the moral code of startup success - which is more labor, more things built, more code written, conspicuous consumption, and creation that ultimately makes the founder a “hard worker” that “hustles.” Repeat founders are considered moral paragons - those who cannot resist the pull of creating more things and being part of a culture that actively rewards those who are doing and building, and falsely equates that to success.

The reason that this is so hard to stamp out is the overwhelming power of the Church of Business, of which the Church of Startups is only one part. We are raised to believe that work is our calling and purpose and that we must do things as kids so that we can get further in work so that we are a “success.” Success is usually framed in outward material acquisitions - nice houses, nice cars, a family, vacations - and that’s exactly where both prosperity gospel and the Church of Startups have grown from. They play on and grow from a deeply-rooted societal belief that Business and Work Is Good and that we must dedicate ourselves to it. Being a founder is, by that logic, one of the holiest things one can do - you aren’t simply working; you are building something that you work at, you have created your own little Church, and by extension your own little congregation.

The physical acts that are colored as moral in the world of startups are the struggles they face, the growth stages, the “hard things about hard things.” The romanticization of struggle in labor is both the justification of the rewards of wealth at the end and the act of worshipping those who suffer to become more holy. It is a culture built on submitting to power - pitching the powerful to give you money to create a company so that you too may become powerful and have others that pray to you. Actual wealth - money, things - is not enough without believing that you are considered a “thought leader” and “one of the best,” because simmering your success down to simply having money doesn’t feel holy; it feels greedy. “Disruption” is an act of holiness - to separate oneself from sin (inaction where action could be taken), and there is conscious derision of “old school” businesses that have failed to keep up with the times - not being modern is also an act of sin.

There is nowhere near as much adulation for those who simply make a lot of money and decide that they’re done because the acceptance of being “done” is contrary to the holiness of work. To willingly retire is to commit to only the base rewards of wealth - the money and the stuff you buy with it - and ultimately the goal of doing this work is not really money, but to be positioned as “good” in the eyes of many, as one of the paragons of work, and then to die having worked until you physically could not. This is why so few of these insanely rich people seem to actually be happy - all they had was the submission to the process of work, of knowing people who felt and acted similarly. And this is why, on a macro-societal level, so many people are so unhappy when they retire - they have only ever had the conveyer belt.

It all comes down to two crucial elements - the acts of holiness (working, then working at a startup, then building a startup yourself, then selling the startup) and worshipping the saints that have reached The Top Of Business (Benioff, Bezos, et al.). The solipsistic, repetitive nature of startup culture - the constant lionization of those who “rise and grind” - is simply a replacement for the meaning that might have otherwise come from a realistic understanding of the world or religion. It is seeking meaning in something - in work, in building, in doing stuff - other than the acquisition of money or the enjoyment of the act, and attempting to justify one’s own acts in any other terms than “I wanted to do this and it would make me money.”

It’s why we’re always going to see unprofitable startups and worthless businesses swell, receive glowing profiles, and acquire armies of loyal, violent fans. People want to believe there is more meaning in wealth other than having money and stuff and more meaning in work than doing stuff in exchange for money. Startup culture’s religious search for meaning is simply an extrapolation of the Calvinism that underpins a depressing amount of modern business. The vile, aggressive defense of Musk and his ilk comes from a similar place as those who claim they’re “good Christians” while committing vile acts - their corrupt belief system says that they must defend those that they consider holy, who have suffered enough to have earned their place in Heaven.

And it may pretend to be, but it is absolutely not a meritocracy. It is a belief system, an interconnected series of churches and preachers and saints, of smaller branches that must be navigated and moral judgments that empower illogical decisions.

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