Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reading :: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
By Max Weber

I regret having taken so long to get to this fascinating book, which introduced the notion of the Protestant work ethic. Weber is recognized as one of the three founders of sociology (alongside Marx and Durkheim), and in this influential book, we can see why.

Weber wrote the book after visiting, and becoming fascinated with, the United States. In fact, in Chapter 2, he quotes several of Benjamin Franklin's aphorisms—along the lines of "time is money" (p.48) and "The good paymaster is lord of another man's purse" (p.49)—and warns us not to simply interpret these statements as avarice. Rather, he says, through Franklin speaks "the spirit of capitalism," and his words describe not astuteness but an ethos (p.51):
The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is preached here is not simply a means of making one's way in the world, but a particular ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. This is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos. This is the quality that interests us. (p.51)
Weber sees this particular ethic as uniquely Western European and North American (p.52). This ethic is summed up in this way: "the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of any spontaneous enjoyment of life" (53). When pressed, even that "colorless deist" Franklin justifies the ethic with Scripture (p.53); making money, to Franklin, is the result and expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling (p.54). And it is this ethic, Weber says, that is a condition of capitalism, shaping the system and its conditions for success (p.54).

To those who have not become capitalist, it seems like mere avarice (p.56), and Weber claims that capitalism's development is retarded in countries where workers pursue money unscrupulously, without this ethic (p.57). In part, that's because labor must be performed as a calling if wage incentives are to work (p.62). And that characteristic of a calling shows up elsewhere: for instance, "The ideal type of the capitalistic entrepreneur" is "distinguished by a certain ascetic tendency"; "He gets nothing out of his wealth for himself, except the irrational sense of having done his job well" (p.71).

Where does this "irrational sense" come from? Weber traces the concept of the calling back to Martin Luther (Ch.3), defining the calling as "a life-task, a definite field in which to work"—a concept, he says, that was foreign to both Catholic peoples and those of classical antiquity (p.79). In Protestantism, everyday activity took on a religious significance (p.80). For Luther, the monks' renunciation of worldly obligations seemed selfish; "In contrast, labor in a calling appears to him as the outward expression of brotherly love" (p.81).

Weber traces the history of the Protestant church forward to see how this concept of the calling led to the Protestant ethic. He fingers the doctrine of predestination as a key moment, since it imparted "a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual" (p.104). Priests, sacraments, the church, and even God could not help the individual (p.104). Hence the individual was torn away from his closed ties; everything, even social activity, was pursued solely for God's glory—and that included labor, conceived as "a calling which serves the mundane life of the community" (p.108). In the Calvinist reading,
The community of the elect with their God could only take place and be perceptible to them in that God worked (operatur) through them and that they were conscious of it. That is, their action originated from the faith caused by God's grace, and this faith in turn justified itself by the quality of that action. (p.113). 
To put it more colloquially, people wanted to be assured of whether they were the elect. They did not believe that their works would save them, but they did believe that works were the result and evidence of a saving faith. "Thus the Calvinist, as it is sometimes put, himself creates his own salvation, or, as would be more correct, the conviction of it. But this creation cannot, as in Catholicism, consist in a gradual accumulation of individual good works to one's credit, but rather in a systematic self-control which at every moment stands before the inexorable alternative, chosen or damned" (p.115).

So Calvinism demanded, "not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system" (p.117). The average man's moral conduct couldn't be planless and unsystematic (p.117). This systematization developed through the Puritans, who saw God as sort of a shopkeeper who constantly took measures (p.124); then the Methodists; then the Baptists, whose anti-state and anti-aristrocacy leanings pushed them into economic occupations (p.150).

Other developments suited the Protestant ethic for capitalism. For instance, "the emphasis on the ascetic importance of a fixed calling provided an ethical justification of the modern specialized division of labor. In a similar way the providential interpretation of profit-making justified the activities of the business man" (p.163).

Weber concludes by lamenting,
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. 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. 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 "saint like a light cloak which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage. (p.181)
In all, a fascinating book. Don't wait as long as I did before reading it.

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