Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?” or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30:8,9
In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1904-1905, Max Weber argues that the religious ideas of some groups, notably Calvinists and Puritans, played a role in the development of capitalism. He begins by pointing out that many businesses are owned by Protestants. He believes that there is a correlation between “certain expressions of the old Protestant spirit and modern capitalistic culture” (page 8) and he sets out to explore the possible relationships.
Weber gives some historical background to what he means by “the spirit of capitalism” as he lays out the problem. He believes that the idea of one’s duty in one’s calling is one of the sources of the Protestant work ethic. Weber is not unfairly criticizing Protestantism; he is looking for answers. Seemingly an agnostic himself, Weber is familiar with the Bible verses that have been used by Christians to support the idea of “calling”. (His mother whom he loved very much was a devout Calvinist). He wants to show that this “call” leads to the Protestant work ethic as understood today (Or at least in 1904 for him!).
It’s a complex issue and he weaves through other strands of ideas such as traditionalism (in organizational structures), rationalism (leading to increasing individualism), and “disenchantment” with the old way of explaining things through mystery and magic.
Weber recognizes that in Reformed thinking, especially Calvinism, there is an emphasis on Providence. During the time of the Reformation a big question was, “How do I know if I’m saved?” Roman Catholics could look to the Catholic Church. Some of the followers of Calvin looked for evidence of a providential God’s blessing as proof that they were right with God or saved.
Weber also stressed that the emphasis on the transcendental as an explanation of depersonalizing the religious ethic of giving. (My side reflection – But is doesn’t have to be that way. The emphasis on the transcendental, unchanging God (pages 55,72) is only one side of the picture. God is also an immanent God. The holiness movement (probably fairly new in Weber’s time, and possibly not in Germany yet?) would give Christians a balanced view.) The experiential side of our faith should balance the rational side.
Weber explains the concept of religious and worldly asceticism. Christian groups early on, Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists did practice asceticism and they shunned ostentation and worldliness. But at some point, the religious roots gave way as prosperity and material success became the order of the day in secular society.
Until one gets to the end of the book, it often seems as if Weber is contradicting himself. How did asceticism lead to capitalism? Weber himself admits to the paradoxes but invites us to see that the issue is very complex. I think he sums up his case best with the quote from Wesley:
“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. … 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 he world in all it branches.”
But do riches always lead to greed? I think the changes occurred gradually. There was a time when businesses actually were more responsible. The following picture shows what I mean. (Another aside – Jason hinted that we seem to be less selfish when we are in dire circumstances. This photo was taken during the depression.)
Weber’s observation near the end of the book was that the gain should be given away. As we noted in last week’s chat, the Christian can grow in grace and lay up treasure in Heaven. Weber noted that some religious people still believed that external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But “fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” (page 115)
Weber’s answer then is – Protestant groups may have started out with good intentions, but their religious roots withered and utilitarian worldliness took their place. Puritans only desired to work at their callings. But the secular economic system which gradually came to be is now in place. We are thoroughly entrenched in it. Material goods have “gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.” (page 115)
Weber wondered “who will live in this cage in the future?” (page 115) If he could have seen the world a century later he would note that our whole society seems to be built around consumerism. People’s desire for more goods, less expensive, and more convenient just fuels the fires of “greedy” capitalism. Businesses must make decisions on how to keep costs down, and often do so while treating workers like numbers on their spreadsheets.
Mr. Obama recognized that our economy is based on consumerism. After a recession, he wanted to get the economy going again by sending out “stimulus” checks to everyone. The idea was that people would inject money back into the economy. When he came up with his plan, I prayed that people would just put their checks in their savings accounts, or pay off debt. (We had a negative savings rate for the first time in history – debt, especially credit card debt, exceeded savings.)
The media was pumping up the idea that it was our Patriotic duty to spend the money. Wow! That’s a new one. I wonder if Polanyi would have seen this as good government intervention? But a reporter that was interviewed about Mr. Obama’s plan said that giving out the checks was like giving a heroin addict another dose of heroin to keep him happy in the short run. Eventually, a day of reckoning will come as the inflation bubble bursts.
For my part, I just cry every time I drive by one of the huge land fills we have here.
I wonder if Weber would have said “I warned you of the danger of the ‘iron cage’?”
I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this mess. Everybody will just have to agree that we will all stop being selfish I guess. Wherever I have influence I will try and encourage people to see what is happening and learn to give more.
As a Christian, if the whole thing comes crashing down, I want to be ready to open my door to the poor and invite them in to share my daily bread with me.