By Richard Swedberg; The Montréal Review, October 2011
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber is one of the world’s most famous studies in social science, competing for the first place with works such as Capital by Karl Marx and Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. What accounts for its fame and that “the Protestant work ethic” has become a common expression in many languages?
First of all, there is the bold and counterintuitive thesis in Weber’s work: religion helped to create modern capitalism. The story of how the link between religion and capitalism came into being is also constructed in a very dramatic way, with the earnest Protestant believer looking for signs to please God, and discovering that hard work and profit-making are such signs.
Second, The Protestant Ethic addresses and tries to explain why modern people live in a world where two of the most central and cherished values are hard work and profit-making, regardless of one’s political and religious beliefs. There is finally an additional quality to The Protestant Ethic that is harder to put one’s finger on, but which is nonetheless there. It has to do with its capacity to simultaneously convince and enervate people. From the moment that it was published, Weber’s study has led to a stormy debate that is still going on. Its readers either admire the arguments in The Protestant Ethic or dislike them.
The ambivalent reception of The Protestant Ethic has no doubt thrived on the subtlety of Weber’s argument. A quick summary of his work would read as follows. During the 16th to 19th century in Europe, certain religious ideas emerged that Weber refers to as ascetic Protestantism. These were not only religious; they also helped to strengthen and spread a radically new type of mentality to economic affairs that would radically change the nature of capitalism, as it had been known till then.
While people had earlier approached economic issues in a traditional manner, be it issues relating to the management of their households or interactions in the marketplace, this now came to an end. From now on, a very rational and methodical type of economic mentality appeared. Once this mentality had grown strong, it helped to accelerate Western capitalism into becoming a new and formidable dynamic force that would change the world in profound ways.
While originally there was an explicit link between religion in the form of ascetic Protestantism and the economy, according to Weber, this would soon change. Today, he says, people live in a cosmos in which you have to work hard and reinvest your money, or you will go under in the relentless competition that exists. Religion no longer has anything to do with modern, rational capitalism.
The ascetic Protestants, who played a key role in helping this new “spirit of modern, rational capitalism” to come into being, consisted of a small number of people organized in sects or sect like churches, such as Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and various Baptist sects. Their beliefs were similar to Lutheranism, Weber says, in that they all saw man’s work on earth as a religious task, something that began with the Reformation and had its roots in Luther’s famous translation of the Bible.
But the beliefs of the ascetic Protestants differed from those of the Lutherans in that they were not traditional in their approach life. Instead, they were strongly rational and methodical in everything they did, whether it was religious tasks or political and economic tasks. While Luther wanted people to render unto God the things that are God’s, and unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, the approach of the ascetic Protestants was different. They were truly radical and not traditional in spirit; and if the secular lords did not behave in accordance to the Bible, they should not be obeyed.
The ascetic Protestants could be found in countries such as Switzerland, England, the Netherlands and, from the 1600s and onwards (but not discussed by Weber in this study), also in the United States. In all of these sects the great motivating force of ascetic religion somehow also got linked to the force of profit-making and the idea that working hard is a way of honoring God. The result was a tremendous social force that made it possible for modern rational capitalism to ideologically emerge as the most important institution in the West, displacing the Church once and for all.
As soon as it was published in 1904-1905, The Protestant Ethic was criticized; and the debate still goes on today, more than a century later. Why, it was asked, did this new type of modern dynamic capitalism only emerge in the West and not, say, in China or India? Do not these countries have religions that are similar to Protestantism in being rational and disciplined, such as Confucianism, Shintoism, Jainism and so on? And even if they do not, does not Japan (and today China) show that the modern type of capitalism can also emerge outside the West?
As far as the West itself was concerned, it was wondered, why just ascetic Protestantism played the key role in ushering in modern capitalism and not, say, Catholicism, Judaism or Protestantism in general (including Lutheranism)? And anyway, where were Weber’s empirical proofs for all of this? More precisely, how do we know that the Calvinists, Baptists and so on indeed looked for signs, that they saw successful profit-making as one of these signs, and that their methodical and ascetic mentality then spread to other people and helped to create and spread this alleged new “spirit of capitalism”? Answers have been given to all of these questions, but the debate still continues.
Richard Swedberg is Professor of Sociology at Cornell University. He is the author of Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology and A Max Weber Dictionary. He is coeditor (with Neil Smelser) of The Handbook of Economic Sociology and (with Mark Granovetter) of The Sociology of Economic Life.
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