The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber essentially needs no introduction. It is a classic in western culture and even more broadly known and referred to than this around the world.
However, being a classic, it can be something of which people and to which they refer without ever having actually looked at it. So, perhaps a bit of explanation is within reason. Too simply really to offer any kind of justice to a text of the magnitude of import such as Weber’s here, I would simply say that in this text Weber explores how the organization of particular material means coupled with a particular set of belief practices can exponentially drive a society forward in relation to the acquisition of wealth/prosperity. However, such acquisition comes at a price (pun intended). Calvinism in its sense of both predetermined election (salvation) and the need to essentially “prove” ones election through good works, brought about a drive of unflagging energy, but also a supreme sense of internal anomie from the normal workings of the surrounding universe. One was “set apart,” but in such a way that the scripture verse “if God be for us than who can be against us” became semi-farcical because, really, with “friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Protestantism specifically viewed through the lenses of Puritanism and Calvinism — but writ larger too – with all of its tendencies toward ascetic restraint offered its organic fuel to the mechanistic nature of the economic machine. It provided impetus, but the impetus abused birthed impotence. The creation took control of its master; except in this case, unlike the Frankenstein story, there is no redemptive aspect of the struggle of the created over-against the creator; the machine of capitalist enterprise is not sentient, it just drains the sentience and volition of others. This is Weber’s noted “Iron Cage” which is metaphorically representative of the rationalization, control, calculation, efficiency, bureaucracy that takes over the social sphere through the pursuit of economic ends. These characteristics choke out freedom, democracy, choice, volition, and the like.
Thus, the original motivation for doing well soon dissipates from the self upon entering the system of rationalization which is “the market.” Anthony Giddens offers a passage from Weber in his preface to the text that powerfully sums up this macabre dilemma, “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 … victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer … the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs. (pp.123-4)”
So what is the answer to this? Weber quotes the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, as wondering about the same thing and having a suggestion:
“’I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this – this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.’
There follows the advice that those who gain all they can and save all they can should also give all they can, so that they will grow in grace and lay up a treasure in heaven”
Weber uses this piece as a sense of further solidifying his overall argument that he has been making up to this point. However, I want to use it instead to suggest a way out. Wesley is not coming from the same perspective as Calvinists and Puritans in his rendering. Wesley recognizes that it is the love of money not money itself per se which is the root of all evil. As long as there remains a willingness (not obligatory necessity) to bequeath the money onward, the dilemma is resolved. Unlike Calvinism and Puritanism, money is not forwarded onward here first out of moral obligation at core, but first out of the freedom offered by the gifting of the Spirit breaking all kinds of bonds of vice. The difference here is at times subtle, but I think vital.
Finally, I want to take the piece that Anthony Giddens references above from Max Weber related to the idea of duty prowling about in our heads like the ghosts of dead religious beliefs and breathe life into dead bones – to use a scriptural reference. Jacques Derrida often speaks about the seeds of new life lie buried and waiting for growth within us. The haunting of ghosts offers this reflection of something former that might yet be again. Those ghosts prowling about might be simply showcasing husks of what was, but these husks like embers that suggest a fire that once was given proper oxygenation can be the renewal pieces for transformed living.
If there is a Spirit with capitalism, it is a Spirit of what once was and what can yet be again. Let us hope indeed that ghosts trump iron cages.