“Our puritan background has allowed about half the population to want to work hard and the other half to want a hand out.” said a friend of mine this week as we discussed Max Weber’s book Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism.1 Weber asserts that capitalism and the economic growth of the west has been attributed to our protestant faith; this giving us a good work ethic. China, within the vacuum of Christianity, has leaned upon their Confucian culture even as it has embraced the race to be first in the world’s economy. Though there are stark differences in philosophies from eastern and western versions of capitalism, China has seemed to find and redefine capitalism and thus modify Confucius to fit within the ever changing drive to succeed.
Weber makes a an argument for the importance of religion in contributing to the capitalist culture. He claims that Protestants believed that working hard should be valued for its own sake. He also defines the “spirit of capitalism” as a motivation to work hard and save money not in order to survive, but in order to make a profit. The core of Weber’s argument is that the spirit of capitalism is an attitude that regards work as an end in and of itself. 2 Max Weber also wrote on what has been mistranslated as the “Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism”. He writes about the relationship between the “Confucian rationalism” and the “rationalism of Protestantism” and saw parallel virtues and values in Confucianism and Puritanism which today are again being discussed in China.3 China’s history is not forgotten, but has laid a foundation on how it moves forward.
The Communist Party under Mao Zedong had rejected, often violently, both Confucianism and Taoism, even though it benefited from the ethical teachings of both. The emphasis of detachment from worldly things was key to the revolutionary communist movement. Today, China portrays itself as almost the antithesis of Maoism. It is said like the Chinese dragon, the younger generation consumes and devours the goods that spur the Chinese capitalist movement. “Women no longer wear hair cut short or Mao’s cap; they perm their hair, undergo surgery to widen their eyes, use the world’s most sophisticated cosmetics and chief luxury brands. This reflects a society that produces at breakneck intensities, and increasingly consumes what it produces.”4 With the fast changing society and the breakdown of traditional values, the government has instituted a call to reintroduce teaching Confucius ethics-especially harmony and balance-as a way to help people understand problems associated with consumerism.
Many have long thought that Capitalism and Confucianism are diametrically opposed. Even though Confucius was against personal gain and profit, China has been able to incorporate some foundational ideas within the culture to promote the world we live in today. Confucius taught that the idea of the group takes precedence over the individual, or individuals serve the needs of the group first to create a harmonious society. For a society to function well there needs to be a boss, a social hierarchy in place whether that is the state or the head of a business. If a worker understands ones place in society; understanding that they exist in, and have a responsibility to, the group as well as hold a strict set of moral values and ethics, are the core foundations of Confucianism. Confucius said, “When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are things to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honor are things to be ashamed of.”5
“Weber[…]asked why capitalism arose only in the West, not in other societies. In China, he found, the Confucian ethic served as a religious barrier to the development of capitalism. [According to Weber], ‘the characteristics of Confucianism militated against the development of a spirit of capitalism, and Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism’”6 China has been experiencing an extraordinary transformation toward capitalism, especially in the last 20 years. It’s industrial revolution is the largest and most accelerated in world’s history. Not too long ago, China was one of the poorest countries in the world; now it is the world’s largest exporter and importer.
Since the 1980s, China has built zones for economic development. Over the last 3 decades, 280 million migrant workers (Chinese peasants) relocated to work in factories in these new economic zones. The money they sent back to the rural villages helped 3 times as many people rise out of poverty. These workers were willing to endure dangerous working environments, low wages, long hours and poor living conditions for the good of the community and the betterment of their own families. 7 These ideas are at the root of Confucian ethics.
Some have asserted that Weber‘s thesis on China, and the Confucian influence, was faulty. Confucianism cannot be both a hindrance to and a promoter of modern capitalism at the same time. So was Weber wrong? How could Weber have known that China would go through a process of removing traditional and cultural landmarks throughout that last 100 years. In his time, Weber understood some of the limitations that the Chinese culture put upon itself. Now a hundred years later, we have seen a new China that struggles with its place in the world and the ethical issues of corruption, abuse, pollution, and morality as it has achieved its success without a foundation of faith. Peter Zhao, a Communist Party member and adviser to the Chinese Central Committee said, “Without a unifying moral system enforced by common values there can be no real trust between people. Without faith among business partners and between management and shareholders, only the threat of the law can keep people honest. There are problems of corruption emerging. . . . There is concern about whether China’s economy will ever become a sound market economy.”8
So as China remakes itself by pushing the bounds of economic growth and political leadership, the party controlled capitalism, this authoritarian capitalism, remains a structure without a spirit. It is a system that is mostly based on faith in their own country, their own leaders, and their own hard work. This model of leadership is seen even within the church. Work hard and build your community and people will see your church as a success. Even though capitalism and Confucianism has been redefined in ways Max Weber would never have thought, I do not think either can last without a foundation in faith.
1Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge Classics. London ; New York: Routledge, 2001.
2https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/ch02.htm accessed March 8, 2018
3Weber, Max. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Free Press Paperback. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1964.
4http://socialsciences.scielo.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0104-71832008000100006 accessed March 8, 2018
5http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?l=Lunyu&no=201 accessed March 8, 2018
6Deng, Fang (2016). Is Max Weber Wrong? The Confucian Ethic, Migrant Workers, and China’s Rise. Bridgewater Review, 35(2), 28-32. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/br_rev/vol35/iss2/9
8https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB121815556386722667?cb=logged0.08580369760620343 accessed March 8, 2018