Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

The whole of Weber's thesis can be summarised in his own words:

One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, was born -that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate - from the spirit of Christian asceticism. - p. 123

The same central idea is repeated numerous times, and it is to his great credit (and must be one of the reasons why it is regarded as such a classic text) that the argument never strays. It is clear, brief and yet cuts through the confusion of modern culture to reveal a possible vein of lifeblood importance connecting us to the past.

Weber alludes to the complexity of the forces involved, and makes it clear that no easy causal relationship exists between economic circumstances and the dynamics of the Reformation. He further clarifies that we should not confuse his thesis with an attempt to deduce capitalism from the Reformation – many of the founding fathers would jig in their tombs if they suspected the consequences of their ambitions.

But it is not to be understood that we expect to find any of the founders or representatives of these religious movements considering the promotion of what we have called the spirit of capitalism as in any sense the end of his life-work ... The salvation of the soul and that alone was the centre of their life and work ... We shall thus have to admit that the cultural consequences of the Reformation were to a great extent, perhaps in the particular aspects with which we are dealing predominantly, unforeseen and even unwished for results of the labours of the reformers ... we have no intention whatever of maintaining such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit of capitalism (in the provisional sense of the term explained above) could only have arisen as the result of certain effects of the Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation. In itself, the fact that certain important forms of capitalistic business organization are known to be considerably older than the Reformation is a sufficient refutation of such a claim. - p. 48-9

He outlines his aim as more modest.

we only wish to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that spirit over the world. Furthermore, what concrete aspects of our capitalistic culture can be traced to them? - p. 49

It is thus clear that his thesis forms a subset of capitalism rather than an explanation of the origins of capitalism. Certain qualities of capitalism and the overall expansion of capitalism is at stake.

What are those qualities? The “rational conduct on the basis of a calling” objectively describes the ethos internalised by religious subjects and applied in the secular field of economics. The calling is central to his thesis. He holds that as a result of the Reformation

at least one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. - p. 40

The essential ingredient of this ethos is found in Calvinism, in the genius invention of predestination. According to predestination only the chosen ones will be saved – and they are chosen even before they are born. Christ had died only for the elect. Calvin held that one should have faith in God and that should be enough. Weber rightly deduces that there must have been ”a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual” (p. 60) - it was nigh intolerable to live in such ignorance of one's state of grace yet try to make the best of it in life.

So although Calvin considered himself saved, his followers had to find ways to make their state of grace more tangible. Evidence of their electedness. Profound secular industriousness – and success therein – was the surprising effect.

On the one hand it is held to be an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen ... On the other hand, in order to attain that self-confidence intense worldly activity is recommended as the most suitable means. - p.66 -7

Coupled with the notion that “the world exists for the glorification of God and for that purpose alone” (p. 64) you have a recipe for intense secular activity. This activity was a manifestation of God's will in the individual's life.

But this rational individual did not spend his money on luxuries - indeed, this was considered sinful. In fact, riches were seen as an inevitable by-product and not to be utilised for personal pleasure. This ascetic tendency was carried over from the medieval mystics.

the difference of the Calvinistic from the medieval asceticism is evident. It consisted in the disappearance of the evangelical recommendation and the accompanying transformation of asceticism to activity within the world ... The drain of asceticism from everyday worldly life had been stopped by a dam, and those passionately spiritual natures which had formerly supplied the highest type of monk were now forced to pursue their ascetic ideals within mundane occupations ... By founding its ethic in the doctrine of predestination, it substituted for the spiritual aristocracy of monks outside of and above the world the spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints of God within the world p. 73-5

Clearly, by focusing all that rational religious passion in the world, some excellence should result. And Weber early on observes that those who succeeded in capitalism were often protestants – it is as if their natures were more suitable to capitalism.

Eventually, as serious Christianity went the way of the dinosaurs in much of Europe, the spirit of protestantism remained in the practical hardworking, rational person who regarded the accumulation – rather than the use – of wealth a worthy end in itself without necessarily considering the accompanying glamour and pleasure that comes with spending it on every available luxury.

the intensity of the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness. - p. 119

Weber's fascinating thesis has challenged numerous thinkers since its publication in 1905 - has it stimulated you?