Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

From p. 211 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Thus the final and definitive concept cannot stand at the beginning of the investigation, but must come at the end.Here Weber is laying the groundwork for developing an ideal-type of the “spirit of capitalism.” Recall from Weber’s Profile page that ideal-types are analytical constructs, sort of like measuring sticks, which can be used to understand concrete empirical cases. Some ideal-types are abstract (like bureaucracies) whereas others are derived from actual historical events. Here, Weber is explaining why, since we look for evidence of the spirit of capitalism in history, we cannot simply pull a definition of it out of thin air. We must, in other words, work out in the course of the discussion, as its most important result, the best conceptual formulation of what we here understand by the spirit of capitalism, that is the best from the point of view which interests us here.

From p. 211 in Social Theory Re-Wired

Thus, if we try to determine the object, the analysis and historical explanation of which we are attempting, it cannot be in the form of a conceptual definition, but at least in the beginning only a provisional description of what is here meant by the spirit of capitalism. Such a description is, however, indispensable in order clearly to understand the object of the investigation.Even though he cannot pull a definition out of thin air, Weber still needs a provisional one to conduct his analysis. He argues that the spirit of capitalism can be found in history, but each of us may find different elements of it if we were to each look for it. Therefore, Weber cannot yet come up with a universal definition but rather only one that is temporary and approximate. To come up with his provisional definition, Weber turns to the writings of Ben Franklin. 

From p. 213 in Social Theory Re-Wired

In fact, the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.Here Weber is describing the rationality of capitalism where the sole purpose has become to make money even though the money may not fulfill other human needs. Notice how Weber’s definition of capitalism differs from Marx’s definition. Whereas Marx defined capitalism through the mode of production in which capital was accumulated through the exploitation of the proletariat, Weber is saying that capitalism also requires more rational moneymaking systems, such as bookkeeping and trade in goods and services. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.

From pp. 221–22 in Social Theory Re-Wired

A specifically bourgeois economic ethicHave you ever felt it is a duty, and not just a desire, to work hard and make money? If so, where do you think this duty came from? We can see evidence of a bourgeois work ethic in the amount of vacation time we take (or don’t take). According to a recent survey by a global marketing firm, the United States offers among the fewest vacation days in the world. Weber might point to this as yet another example of the “bourgeois economic ethic.” had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness of God’s grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois business man, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so. The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God.Weber is summarizing the two elements of Protestantism that provided the springboard for the legitimating ethos of capitalism as we know it. The first is Martin Luther’s notion of “the calling,” or the duty to pursue God’s will in day-to-day life. This idea meant that it was no longer the clergy called to do God’s will but was instead a duty for everyone. 

Finally, it gave him the comforting assurance that the unequal distribution of the goods of this world was a special dispensation of Divine Providence, which in these differences, as in particular grace, pursued secret ends unknown to men.The other is John Calvin’s idea of predestination. Calvin argued that all people are predestined to go to heaven or hell. This helped make sense of why some people were rewarded in their daily work and others were not. And, if you did not know if you were chosen to go to heaven or hell, the best that you could do was look for a sign that you were part of the chosen elect. And what could be a better sign than the earnings garnered and saved from hard work? 

From p. 223 in Social Theory Re-Wired

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.Weber is now saying that the sense of religious calling that motivated Puritans to engage in capitalist endeavors has all but disappeared. Yet, we are still heavily entrenched in a rational capitalist system that is hard to escape. Think about your own profession (or profession you hope to join). Imagine the amount of hard work and rational calculation it takes to become successful in your profession. According to author Malcolm Gladwell, it takes up to 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in our profession, regardless of whether we were “called” to do it or not. Now that’s a work ethic! For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.The relationship between Protestant religiosity and capitalism didn’t last long, according to Weber. Capitalism soon became an “iron cage” when it lost its ethical foundation. Sociologist George Ritzer has written a lot about how modern social institutions resemble an iron cage where rationality reigns. And, as he oftentimes humorously points out, rationality is oftentimes quite irrational in practice. Go here to watch Ritzer talk about the irrational aspects of that most beloved of espresso-serving bureaucracies: Starbucks. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.Weber is saying that the machines (in a literal but also figurative sense) have grown to be so large and pervasive that no one is left unaffected by them. Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man presented a similar idea when he described how modern forces of production and consumption produce new forms of social control. 

From p. 223 in Social Theory Re-Wired

To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. Where the fulfilment of the calling cannot directly be related to the highest spiritual and cultural values, or when, on the other hand, it need not be felt simply as economic compulsion, the individual generally abandons the attempt to justify it at all. In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.Weber is making the connection to sport because the sport world is one where practice and hard work are invested for a very rational end: to win a game, match, or contest. For example, in the “The Mundanity of Excellence,” Dan Chambliss uncovers how ordinary swimmers become great through repetitive and habitual practice. In a culture that equates work with success, excellence is rationally achieved.

No one knows who will live in this cage in the futureIt is fair to say that Weber didn’t have much hope in the future of the iron cage. However, it is also fair to say that he probably underestimated how rationalized the world would become. In a provocative TED talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes how our society has run amok with rationality at the expense of actual wisdom., or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

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