Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Max Weber on capitalism and religion

What must surely count as one of the shrewdest, albeit debatable, accounts of the distinctive traits of capitalism was penned by the justly famous German sociologist Max Weber in his controversial book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism of 1930 (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

The reasons for its controversial status are summarised as follows by Anthony Giddens in the Introduction (p. xix):

“The most important reason for the emotional intensity provoked by the book is no doubt the fact that the two major terms in Weber’s equation, ‘religion’ and ‘capitalism’, were each potentially explosive when applied to the interpretation of the origins of the modern Western economy. Weber argued for the transformative force of certain religious ideas, thus earning the opposition of most contemporary Marxists; his characterisation of Catholicism as lacking in mundane discipline, and as a retarding rather than a stimulating influence upon modern economic development, ensured the hostility of many Catholic historians; and his analysis of Protestantism, emphasising the role of the Puritan sects (whose influence is in turn linked to the ‘iron cage’ of modern culture), was hardly likely to meet a universal welcome from Protestant thinkers. Finally, the use of the term ‘capitalism’ was controversial in itself: many were, and some still are, inclined to argue that the notion has no useful application in economic history.”

Weber captures the “spirit” of capitalism in terms of what he terms a “calling”, which he justifies by quoting Benjamin Franklin formulating guidelines for the appropriate behaviour of employees under capitalist conditions (Franklin in Weber 2001 :14-15):

“Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.

Remember, that credit is money. If a man lets his money lie in my hands after it is due, he gives me the interest, or so much as I can make of it during that time. This amounts to a considerable sum where a man has good and large credit, and makes good use of it…

…After industry and frugality, nothing contributes more to the raising of a young man in the world than punctuality and justice in all his dealings; therefore never keep borrowed money an hour beyond the time you promised, lest a disappointment shut up your friend’s purse for ever.

The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard-table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day; demands it, before he can receive it, in a lump.

It shows, besides, that you are mindful of what you owe; it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest man, and that still increases your credit.”

The moral of these observations is clear: under capitalist conditions everyone who has to earn a living (ie most people) should behave in such a way that they are perceived as keeping their noses to the grindstone and as servicing their debt conscientiously and punctually; in the absence of this your indispensable creditworthiness collapses. Moreover, as mentioned above, Weber regards Franklin’s exhortation to workers as a formulation of nothing less than a “calling”, that is, an injunction to labour with unfailing conscientiousness.

Contrary to what one might expect, it is striking that Weber describes the behaviour of individuals which he sees as exemplifying the capitalist ethos encapsulated in Franklin’s advice in terms of irrational motivation: “He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well” (Weber 2001: 33) and: “We are here particularly interested in the origin of precisely the irrational element which lies in this, as in every conception of a calling” (p. 38).

What Weber regards as being peculiar to what he calls a “philosophy of avarice” (p. 17) is particularly the notion that individuals have a DUTY to increase their capital; in other words, it assumes the proportions of an ethical obligation. As he puts it (p. 17): “It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos.” This was what interested Weber – whence this quality of moral obligation in Franklin’s practical advice on “proper” behaviour under capitalist circumstances?

It may come as a surprise to readers that Weber (2001) ultimately uncovers such punctilious labouring as having its roots in the convoluted history of Protestant practices (too involved to pay detailed attention to here), which were eventually discarded when capitalism had developed sufficient independence to be able to do without religious justification of its work ethos. He establishes the link between capitalism and religion as follows (p. 18):

“In fact, the summum bonum of this [capitalist] 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 eudæmonistic, 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. 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. This reversal of what we should call the natural relationship, so irrational from a naïve point of view, is evidently as definitely a leading principle of capitalism as it is foreign to all peoples not under capitalistic influence. At the same time it expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas.”

Weber points out that in New England, where Franklin was born, there was evidence of the “spirit” of capitalism, outlined above, before it was established as a distinctive economic order (p. 20). It was here that the peculiar character of capitalist behaviour as a “duty” developed, which was new, according to him. He readily grants that monetary acquisitiveness (had) existed in many other places and countries, sometimes accompanied by conspicuous unscrupulousness, but without the spirit that marks capitalism as an ethos demanding duty-bound labour, so well captured in Franklin’s words, and often accompanied by an ascetic tendency (p. 33).

Weber (2001: 19-20) is quite aware that people who are born into the capitalist universe do not necessarily “consciously” accept these “ethical” precepts; at the same time, if one does not assimilate and live according to them, he points out, one would soon be ejected mercilessly:

“The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action. The manufacturer who in the long run acts counter to these norms, will just as inevitably be eliminated from the economic scene as the worker who cannot or will not adapt himself to them will be thrown into the streets without a job” (Weber 2001: 19-20).

To be sure, since Weber wrote this in the early 20th century capitalism has passed into a new phase of development, with the financial sector surpassing the manufacturing sphere in importance. Hence it is a moot question, whether the capitalist ethos discerned by Weber is still as central to labour under capitalist conditions. Judging by what some see as increasing resistance to capitalist work, it may indeed be the case.

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