Max Weber’s View of Capitalism

What role does the protestant work ethic play in Weber’s view of the origins of capitalism?

Max Weber\'s theory of the part in which Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, played in the development of a spirit of capitalism in western Europe has had a profound effect on the thinking of sociologists and historians since its publication in 1904. Many historians value its application of social theory to historical events and praise it for its attempt to explain why capitalism thrived in Europe and subsequently the United States and significantly less in other places. While Weber does not believe that the protestant ethic was the only cause of the rise of capitalism, he believed it to be a powerful force in fostering its emergence (Green 1959 pg 5). The most fateful force in modern life is capitalism. The impulse to acquisition has existed always and everywhere and has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. Capitalism is the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. This enterprise must be continuous, because in a capitalistic society, anyone who did not take advantage of opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction (Bannon 2004 Ch.1 para. 1). For Weber, capitalism was more than simply an accumulation of wealth. It had in roots in rationality. In fact, Weber insisted that capitalism was the triumph of rationality over tradition. Explicit in his view of capitalism were a disciplined labour force and the re-investment of capital. Weber asserted that this combination took place only in Europe and most strongly in Protestant nations, such as England, Holland, and Germany, where there were influential groups of ascetic Protestant sects (Bannon 2004 Ch.2 para.2, 3, 4). Weber hypothesized that capitalism was a product of the western mind for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the Protestant Ethic. The Protestant Ethic spawned and encouraged what Weber’s spirit of capitalism. By Weber\'s definition, this is more than simply capitalist activity. It is, in fact, the essence which underlies the economic system. During the long 16th century, this spirit became embodied in European society and provided the momentum for capitalism to emerge as the dominant economic system in the world (Green 1958 pg 14). Weber studied non-Western cultures as well. He found that several of these pre-industrial societies had the technological infrastructure and other necessary preconditions to begin capitalism and economic expansion. The only force missing was the positive sanctions to abandon traditional ways. While Weber does not believe that the protestant ethic was the only cause of the rise of capitalism, he believed it to be a powerful force in fostering its emergence (Kilcullen 1996 para. 9). Weber, although touching on other religions and countries, specifically focuses on the Protestant Reformation and its correlation to the dominance of capitalism in Western civilizations (Anderson et al, 1987, p.54). In 1517, changes led to the formation of a splinter group of the traditional Catholic Church, led by Martin Luther. Thus it was the Reformation that ‘emancipated’ Protestants from the bonds of Catholic ritual. The removal of the Catholic priest necessitated Protestants to acquire a higher degree of learning for their own salvation. An education combined with divine sanction towards profit and a sinful attitude towards idleness would only lead towards a diligent work ethic (Collins, 1986, p.48-51). Weber shows that certain types of Protestantism favoured rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a by product - the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain (Green 1959 pg 43). Weber\'s approach connects the emergence of some Protestant religions with the psychological changes necessary to allow for the development of the spirit of capitalism. The Protestant idea of a calling, with worldly self-discipline is an independent force, one which was not created by the change in institutions and structures (e.g. money, trade, commerce, etc.) but emerged entirely separately as an unintended consequence of the Reformation. Weber believes Protestants saw the ‘calling’ as finally sanctifying the earning of a profit and as a sign of salvation. In this,