DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Spirit of Capitalism: Happiness – Labor – Profit

Written by: on February 21, 2014

There is an advertisement running currently by the venture capital branch of a large banking firm. The ad sequence follows an obviously entrepreneurial type person through several scenes of a busy workplace environment. Each scene depicts organized activity, unified effort, and the rapid transition through several scenes creates a sense of the purpose, growth, and even destiny in the company’s activity. The young looking leader, the executive and obvious creator of the progressive business venture, is asked the question, “When will your work be done?” In a scene where the office is under construction, he is asked, “Will it be when the expansion is complete?” Or, while viewing the obvious “war room” where a marketing advance is being planned, “Will it be when the marketing campaign is complete and a greater market share is acquired?” Perhaps, the narrator asked, your work will be done when “The purchase of a business competitor is complete?” Or, “when you complete the negotiation of the sale of your business venture [obviously ‘cutting edge’ and at a huge profit]?”

It is apparent; the work of the entrepreneur will never be done. The advertisement portrays all the elements of capitalism in a workplace and business environment. The international banking firm, Barclays, was offering to become a part of the business team; they could provide the capital requirements necessary to achieve expansion, acquisition and the growth of profit. Adding the banking firm’s business perspicuity, according to the narrator, would be a good business decision and expand the possibility of accumulating more capital through investment.

In the book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber attributes the development and the presence in contemporary society, of entrepreneurial capitalism to the spirit of capitalism. Although difficult to define, he notes the implication of the spirit of capitalism is “above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself.” [1]  It is an ethic, more than simply getting along or having enough; “It is not mere business astuteness … it is an ethos.”[2]

Capitalism expands not through infusion of greater sums of capital, expansion of technology or a larger pool of labor; according to Weber, rather, it is “the new spirit, the spirit of modern capitalism”[3] that drives the capitalist entrepreneur. This spirit is the transition from the traditional manner of life (leisure and comfort), the standard expectation of productivity (amount of work), and the acceptance of a standard rate of return (profit) to a progressive desire and willingness to sacrifice (frugal living and hard work) in order earn more. This is the “spirit of capitalism.”[4] Of course, those who would hold on to the traditional concepts of social economy were forced into a situation of having to lower consumption; or as Weber footnotes, experience “the catastrophic degradation of taste in the style of articles of everyday use.”[5] The capitalistic entrepreneur characterized themselves not as spenders or consumers but rather, as earners or producers.

Weber provides a wealth of leaning as he pursues how the protestant ethic, ethos and asceticism underpin the spirit of modern capitalism. I relate the concepts to several current situations in social economy and business capitalism.

Happiness is …

Gallup recently released its annual “well-being poll” which ranks each state according to a “happiness index” based on criterion of how people feel about where they live. According to the Live Science news release, North Dakota ranks number one in the fifty states. One could say so much for the palm trees, beaches and balmy weather of states like Hawaii which has been number one for the last five years. North Dakota is characterized by short days, cold, ice, and wintry blasts from the North. The primary characteristic that leads North Dakota to surge past Hawaii was workplace satisfaction which declined in Hawaii while North Dakota saw a significant increase. The report on the Gallup poll can be found here. [6]

I was especially impressed with the leading indicators of happiness in today’s social economy as demonstrated by North Dakotans:

  1. Physical health and healthy living (wellness plus how people eat and exercise)
  2. Workplace environment (includes work and workplace relationships)
  3. Access to basic necessities (food shelter, clean water and medical care)

We are made to consider what it is that we seek or sacrifice for happiness? Weber notes that it is the distinction of “comfort and enjoyment” as opposed to gaining wealth that defines the spirit of capitalism. He states the pre-capitalistic (traditional) concept of obtaining wealth as the reason/purpose/call in life would be “incomprehensible and mysterious, so unworthy and contemptible. …to make it [gaining wealth] the sole purpose of his life-work, to sink into the grave weighed down with a great material load of money and goods, seems to him explicable only as the product of a perverse instinct, the auri sacra fames[7]

Consider the relevancy of Weber’s statement, “either eat well or sleep well.”[8] (p.8)

Fox Business news in an article (2/20/2014) discusses the mental and physical health risks of working in investment banking firms on Wall Street. The newscast reveals the toll taken on human life and living resulting from the stress and pressure of working 100 hour weeks while juggling work-assignments in a multi-tasking environment. The unfortunate and frightening impetus for the report is the apparent suicide of seven high level Wall Street executives from Dec. 23, 2013 through February 18, 2014, an eight week period. The big question is “What drives young executives, male and female in the age bracket of 24- 34 to agree to and perform in such a strenuous work environment?” The business article can be found here.

Weber points out that one’s perspective on labor in a capitalistic entrepreneurial environment must be taught. He notes,

Labor must … be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling. But such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It cannot be evoked by low wages or high ones alone, but can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.[9]

Working to live or living to work?

There is a political debate that revolves around the workplace including job loss/creation and how it would benefit Americans to “work less.”  In fact, it has been reported that one of the planks in the 2016 Democratic platform will be “less work is better.” The issue here centers on the role of government intervening in market capitalism by providing subsidies and/or mandating minimum wages. One of the many business article can be found here.[10]

Subsidies and wage support are anti-capitalistic. The traditional answer to the question, “Why do people work? is answered, “because of basic needs.”  Weber notes, in reference to the traditional/pre-capitalistic perspective, labor was not for making money but the simple pursuit of meeting needs. “The opportunity of earning more was less attractive than that of working less,”[11] states Weber, therefore, wage supports resulting in higher wages did/does not insure increased productivity and is likely to result in fewer hours worked (hence, jobs lost).

One has to wonder if the players in today’s political arena have paid attention to Polabyi, Bebbington, and Weber. If they have, we can better understand the perspectives that drive their social and political initiates. If not, we would all do well to heed Weber when he says:

“A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”[12]

Understanding the multi-complicity of these matters colors how we look at the issues.

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Ibid., 59.

[6] Live Science, “This State Bumps Hawaii as Happiest Place to live,” (accessed Feb. 20, 2014).

[7] Weber, Ibid., 33.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] Ibid., 25.

[10] Fox News, “Dems struggle (again) to explain why less work is better” (Accessed Feb. 20, 2014)

[11] Weber, Ibid., 24.

[12] Ibid.

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