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The term was first coined by Max Weber, the “youngest” of the German Historical School of
economics, in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The Protestant work ethic is
often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where
Protestantism was strong (for example, the Scandinavian countries, northern Germany, the
United Kingdom, and the United States of America). In such societies, it is regarded by many
observers as one of the cornerstones of national prosperity. Such observers would say that people
in countries with Protestant roots tend to be more materialistic, perfectionist, and more focused
on work as compared to people in many Catholic countries (for example, Spain, Italy, and
France) where the people had a more relaxed attitude towards work and were less materialistic.

[edit] Criticism
Proponents of the notion of the "Protestant work ethic" claim that the term refers to its Protestant
origin and does not require Protestantism itself. As Ireland was ruled by a Protestant nation,
while Japan modeled its modernization on largely-Protestant nations like the United States, Great
Britain, and Germany, they could have received the secularized ethic from Protestants without
accepting any religious underpinning to it. Similarly, successful capitalist countries with
relatively-large Catholic minorities such as the United States, Australia, United Kingdom and
New Zealand tend to be ignored in the analysis and lumped together as Protestant, despite the
strong influence and 'capitalist outlook' of Catholics in the business community in all of these
countries. Catholics make up the majority in much of Southern Germany (Bavaria has the
highest GDP of all German States, but this is a rather recent, post-WWII development).

The notion of the Protestant work ethic faced some criticism in the Twentieth century. The
strongest of such criticism was that it revolved mostly around the culture and history of Europe
and did not take into account societies that had never been Christian. Examples often cited are
East Asian nations like Japan which have a strong work ethic but never had more than a small
minority of Protestants. Others feel that the recent economic progress of Catholic nations like
Ireland and Brazil makes the term at best of historical use.

The capitalist development of Catholic northern Italy and southwestern Germany before and
during the Protestant Reformation is also cited as a counterargument that other factors, including
geographical and political ones, were the main drivers for capitalist development, not
Protestantism per se. Similarly, the deep economic factors that gave rise to capitalist
accumulation and development existed in Europe prior to the Reformation in 1517 and owe little
to any religious factor, but more to the unraveling of feudalism and the functioning of
governance institutions that strengthened property rights and lowered transaction costs.
The Protestant Ethic
Max Weber

Weber's concern with the meaning that people give to their actions
allowed him to understand the drift of historical change. He
believed that rational action within a system of rational-legal
authority is at the heart of modern society. His sociology was first
and foremost an attempt to explore and explain this shift from
traditional to rational action.

Weber believed that the rationalisation of action can only be

realised when traditional ways of life are abandoned. Modern
people often have a difficult time realising the hold of tradition on
pre-industrial peoples. Tradition was overpowering in pre-modern
societies. Weber's task was to uncover the forces in the West that
caused people to abandon their traditional religious value
orientation and encouraged them to develop a desire for acquiring
goods and wealth.

After careful study, Weber came to the belief that the protestant
ethic broke the hold of tradition while it encouraged men to apply
themselves rationally to their work. Calvinism, he found, had
developed a set of beliefs around the concept of predestination. It
was believed by followers of Calvin that one could not do good
works or perform acts of faith to assure your place in heaven. You
were either among the "elect" (in which case you were in) or you
were not. However, wealth was taken as a sign (by you and your
neighbours) that you were one of the God's elect, thereby providing
encouragement for people to acquire wealth. The protestant ethic
therefore provided religious sanctions that fostered a spirit of
rigorous discipline, encouraging men to apply themselves rationally
to acquire wealth.

Weber studied non-Western cultures as well. He found that several

of these pre-industrial societies had the technological infrastructure
and other necessary preconditions to begin capitalism and economic
expansion. The only force missing were the positive sanctions to
abandon traditional ways. While Weber does not believe that the
protestant ethic was the only cause of the rise of capitalism, he
believed it to be a powerful force in fostering its emergence.
Weber and Marx
Weber's views about the inescapable rationalisation and
bureaucratisation of the world have some obvious
similarities to Marx's notion of alienation. Both men
agree that modern methods of organisation have
tremendously increased the effectiveness and efficiency
of production. Both agree that this has allowed an
unprecedented domination of man over the world of
nature. Both also agree that the new world of rationalised efficiency
threatens to turn into a monster and dehumanise its creators.

But Weber disagrees with Marx's claim that alienation is only a

transitional stage on the road to man's true emancipation. Weber
does not believe in the "inevitability" of socialism. However, if it
came to pass he thought that socialism would be even more
bureaucratic and rationalised than capitalism--and thus even more
alienating to man. Weber believed that the alienation documented
by Marx had little to do with the ownership of the mode of
production, but was a consequence of bureaucracy.

Marx asserted that capitalism has led to the "expropriation" of the

worker from the mode of production. How the modern worker is not
in control of his fate, is forced to sell his labour (and thus his self) to
private capitalists. Weber countered that loss of control at work was
an inescapable result of any system of rationally co-ordinated
production. Weber argued that men could no longer engage in
socially significant action unless they joined a large-scale
organisation. In joining organisations they would have to sacrifice
their personal desires and goals to the impersonal goals and
procedures of the organisation itself. By doing so, they would be cut
off from a part of themselves, they would become alienated.

Socialism and capitalism are both economic systems based on

industrialisation --the rational application of science, observation,
and reason to the production of goods and services. Both capitalism
and socialism are forms of a rational organisation of social life to
control and co-ordinate this production. Socialism is predicated on
government ownership of the economy to provide co-ordination to
meet the needs of people within society. If anything, Weber
maintained, socialism would be even more rationalised, even more
bureaucratic than capitalism. And thus, more alienating to human
beings as well.

To Max Weber, writing in the early 1900s, Marx's view was too simple - he agreed that
different classes exist, but he thought that "Status" or "Social Prestige" was the key
factor in deciding which group each one of us belongs to. So, where we live, our manner of
speech, our schooling, our leisure habits, these, and many other factors, decide our social
class - he called these different aspects of the way we behave our "Life-Style". Particularly
important, he thought, was the way each person thinks about his/her "Life-Chances" - if we
feel that we can become a respected and highly valued member of wider society, then this
is likely to put us in a higher social class than some others e.g. a child who goes to a Private
School, live in a large house, has parents who are "professional" people, and has a
"standard" BBC accent is likely (but not certain) to feel that he/she has a greater chance of
becoming generally respected than a child who is educated in an inner city, crowded school,
and who lives in a Council Estate, and who speaks with a regional accent.