Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
In this work on the intersection of religion, society and economics, Weber considers the link between Protestantism and wealth and capitalism. He tries to explain how capitalism was created by looking at religion and the Protestant Reformation. The this-wordly Protestants, particularly the Calvinists, seem to be outperforming the other-worldly Catholics. Weber examines why this is the case.
He links the sense of “Beruf” expressed by Martin Luther with regard to work. The German word means both work/job/occupation and calling, and Luther saw hard work as a calling and the creation of wealth as an ethical imperative.
Equally, the Calvinists stressed the importance of rationalism, honesty, punctuality, industry and frugality, which makes up what Weber refers to as the “Spirit of Capitalism.”
With their emphasis on predestination and election, and fear of not being part of the elect, the Calvinists began to see economic and business success as a sign of God’s favour and blessing, and an indication that they were heading towards heaven as part of the Elect. (Sounds a bit like the modern prosperity gospel of the affluent West. Wealth and success are a sure sign of God’s blessings and favour!)
The Spirit of Capitalism was the pursuit of ever-increasing wealth and profitability, linked with a sense of asceticism. Profits and wealth would be reinvested into the business, and increasing financial gains would follow. The Calvinists did not believe in overly luxurious lifestyles, but lived frugally and ascetically.
Thus, argues Weber, modern-day capitalism has a theological source. As rationalistic secularism spread, however, the making of money became an end in itself, and capitalism moved away from its spiritual roots and belief systems. The early moorings of a sense of calling, frugal living, honesty and constant reinvestment that marked the early Protestant work ethic, gave way over time to greed, the maximisation of profit, and the making of money as an end in itself.
- The concept of calling (Beruf) to work as outlined by Luther is an interesting one. As time has gone on, many in the church have used the language of calling to refer to “spiritual” pursuits or positions. Yet we are all called of God to be creative and productive where we are, and we would do well to see the teacher in the classroom or the nurse in the hospital ward as being just as “called” as the pastor in the church. There is no sacred/secular divide.
- The disconnection of money-making from an ethic, from its moral moorings, has led to greed, globalisation, and the near financial collapse of the banking system. As Christians, we need a theology of work and a strong ethical framework. The Protestant work ethic could be such a framework.
- Secularisation has left the Protestant work ethic behind and seeks, for the most part, to maximise profit come what may.
- We could do far worse than follow the guiding principles of rationalism, honesty, punctuality, industry and frugality.
- In spite of the excesses of the prosperity gospel, thankfully most of us no longer equate wealth and prosperity as a sign that we are part of God’s elect and heading towards heaven. That would mean Trump would be near the front of the queue?!