You are on page 1of 16

Max Weber

Weber was born in Germany in 1864, to parents who were

In 1905 he published his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism. He returned to teaching in 1918 and died in
1920. He is considered the father of modern sociology.

What is the Spirit of Capitalism?

Preliminary observation of Weber: Protestant Countries in Europe are wealthier
than Catholic Countries
In Capitalism greed is turned into an ethical imperative. (Greed as distinct from
mere excessive consumption)
Marx, the chief critic of capitalism doesnt explain why capitalists start
accumulating capital. Marx cannot explain the motivation behind original
capitalist accumulation (except to call it theft).
Weber is not a historical materialist (i.e., Marxist). He proposes an alternative
explanation for how capitalism got started.

Capitalist Spirit Continued

Capitalism is marked by a kind of attitude of working incessantly and
reinvesting the profit.
The question is: why dont they enjoy themselves? Why not relax,
have fun? Pre-capitalist man would not have understood this need.
Earn enough to eat, and then enjoy would have been their ethic.
This attitude is unique for capitalism, and is a uniquely modern

Spirit of Capitalism Continued

Second Capitalism is represented by rationality and calculation.

Rational economic calculation is according to Weber a historically new

emergence (Adam Smith thought it always existed). We do double entry
bookkeeping. We measure our profits against our efforts.
Capitalism got rid of magical thinking. That it didnt matter whether you
pray for rain. Rain happens naturally. There is nothing you can do about it.
You have a calling to work at a particular job

Pre-Protestant Christian Teachings: Economic

Catholicism stressed different religious values:
It is easier for a rich man to get into heaven than a camel
to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19: 2324).
Give your wealth to the poor.
Work until immediate needs are met, then enjoy life
with family and friends.
Striving to accumulate profit is seen as a sin of desire
and greed.

The Protestant Ethic

How it differs from Catholicism
An ideal type, which is the heart of the spirit of capitalist
What is your calling?
Luther used the work Beruf (calling). An action
orientation idea of a calling- individual must view
work/accumulation of profit as a spiritual calling. Hard work
is a sign of Gods favor
Doctrine of predestination our paths to heaven or hell are
predetermined by God- allowed justification of class
system. Puritans in North America.
Denial of worldly asceticism Work hard, but dont play
hard. Save and invest to accumulate more.

John Calvin, 1509-1564

What Weber argued, in simple terms:

According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously
compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal
as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to
accumulate money.
The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere
Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard earned money
and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Donations to an individual's
church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain
Protestant sects of icons.
Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned
on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived
as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not
working, one failed to glorify God.

The Secularization of the Protestant Ethic

(Elective Affinity)
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, 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 money is the prolific, generating nature.
Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is
six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The
more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and
quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation.
He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.

Weber continues argues against the idea that the

spirit of capitalism is just a reflection of economic

Protestant Ethic Spirit of Capitalism based on

Economic Rationalism Modern Capitalism
Far from automatically reflecting an economic base, he says, it
was quite extraordinary that this ethos emerged, given that
striving for financial gain is considered to be low-status,
undignified behavior in most societies...

Where does this spirit of capitalism, this social ethic of

capitalist culture come from?
Weber dismisses the idea that such ideas originate as a
reflection or superstructure of economic situations this is
an explicit argument versus Marxism.
He uses an example from the United States:

Southern states founded

by large capitalists for

spirit of

Northern states founded

by preachers, small
merchants & craftsmen

Highly developed
spirit of

Weber: What is the difference between the Protestant Ethic

and age-old hunger for gold (Auri sacra fames, p. 235)?
Weber emphasizes that he is not saying that people are not
greedy within traditionalist societies

Yes we find greed everywhere, in

fact lack of trust often prevents
more complex economic

greed is usually expressed by the most

unscrupulous, or only in relations with
outsiders. Greed is not morally regulated
within the community.

i.e. only the Protestants and their capitalist descendants think that making
money can actually be the sign that somebody is a good person. Because
they connect personal honor with economic enterprise, they set up a
system of rules for pursuing vigorous trade while being scrupulously

Weber argues that capitalism needed the Protestant

ethic to evolve! (236-237)
(Switchman argument)
Raising wages does not necessarily make people work harder
a man does not by nature wish to own more and more money, but
simply to live as he is accustomed to live (p. 236-237)
Lowering wages is perhaps more effective, but can backfire (p.

What capitalism needs is workers with a sense of calling but

such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It is the
product of a long process of socialization and education (p. 237)

Recap: the creation of the Protestant ethic


Legalizes and
gives Gods
approval to

asceticism looked upon

the pursuit of wealth as
an end in itself as highly
reprehensible; but the
attainment of it as a fruit
of labour in a calling was
a sign of Gods blessing


worldly Protestant asceticism

freed moneymaking from the
inhibitions of traditionalistic
Now only the enjoyment of wealth is
considered immoral.

Capitalism is an unintended consequence

Protestant emphasis on
mundane tasks and duties,
rather than enjoyment and
luxury, was summed up in
the notion of the calling.
Protestants produce
more and spend less
(High productivity and
capitalist growth.)
Capitalist success
becomes theologically
justified as a sign of hard

Implications of this Argument

1. What lasts from the theological innovation of the Protestants is an
amazingly good conscience in the acquisition of money, so long
as it took place legally. Weber calls this the bourgeois economic
2. The bourgeois believe that inequality is decided by God. They
develop a double standard, where they can be rich and stay
righteous, but they help their workforce stay close to God by
forcing discipline and frugality (as well as religion) onto them.
(doctrine of predestination)
3. The spirit of capitalism becomes channeled into rational economic
conduct. We dont need true religious asceticism anymore, as
capitalism now has its own mechanical foundations, functioning
as an inescapable system.

THE IRON CAGE (p. 245)

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 today determine the lives of all the individuals which 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.

The Protestant Ethic broke the hold of tradition by calling people to apply
themselves rationally to their work. Behavior had come to be dominated by
instrumental rationality, the efficient application of means to ends, replacing
other types of social action.