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Max Weber: The Protestant Ethics & The Spirit of Capitalism

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is undoubtedly his most acclaimed work published in 1905. It was not translated into English until 1930. In this book, Weber tried to provide an alternative narrative of emergence of capitalism which was totally different from his predecessor, Karl Marx. While Marx saw religion as just a tool of bourgeoisie to maintain the status quo, Weber placed it at the core of capitalism.

In this book, Weber tried to find a plausible rationale for the spread of capitalism in Western societies and its inhibition in the East. After observing the underlying patterns in Europe, he concluded that Protestantism was that idiosyncrasy that made it possible for the capitalism to flourish there. In his subsequent articles about Eastern societies like China, Weber argued that though these communities contained the elements necessary for the growth of capitalism like proper state, bureaucracy, open markets, intense commerce and so on yet a peculiar mindset was missing. West was simply lucky in this regards!

Though there were a number of other historical and social factors yet Protestantism was indicated as the fundamental cause for the propagation of capitalism by Weber. However, it was not Protestantism as such but a particular sect called Calvinism behind this. One must understand here that Calvinism did not preach capitalism but it contributed to the creation of a psychological effect in Europe that in turn facilitated spread of capitalism. This specific mindset was an Weberian ideal type and defined by him as The Spirit of Capitalism. This spirit asked to perform the duties honestly, living a simple life and use reason in the worldly affairs.

The core doctrine of Calvinism (as well as Protestant reformation) served as The Protestant Ethics. According to it, everyone is born into sin. Though Jesus sacrificed himself to vindicate the humanity, yet who goes to heaven or hell depends on the mercy of God. This principle emphasized that birth in a (Catholic) Christian family or membership of Church cannot save one so salvation is an individual affair; an idea which in turn gave strength to individuality in West. Moreover, Calvinism included a concept of pre-destination according to which mankind is divided into two groups; the saved and the damned. Moreover, it states that people are not sure which group they belong to as only God knows that. This belief urged people to work hard, go through a constant physical and mental labor, live an ethical life, abide by laws and look for signs of their salvation in this world. Consequently, it created a social dynamic which generated success. As people struggle more for the signs or success, they started benefiting more and more from their handwork. Yet, they could not use these wealth. Doctrine included a restriction on gratification and asked for leading an ascetic life. Investment of profit (to generate more) is prohibited as a show off of wealth yet one is allowed to accumulate wealth for public good i.e. charity. Moreover, one is allowed to enjoy to aspects of life that are not forbidden by the religion. This doctrine created the The Spirit of Capitalism which facilitated the rise and expansion of capitalism during its initial phases.

But did this spirit persist after capitalism was fully established in West? According to Weber, it did not. He says, as capitalist took its roots in particular societies, the society became increasingly rational. These societies gave up the illogical doctrines like Protestantism but by then capitalism had become a norm. Rationalization also brought about secularization. Investment that was prohibited was now at its full swing. Capital was accumulated not for the social good but for purely personal reasons. Weber said that modern capitalists were spiritless capitalist. In short, The Protestant Ethics created The Spirit of Capitalism which then enable rise of capitalism as we have it today.

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