Friday, March 21, 2014

The “Spirit” of Capitalism and the Legacy of the Protestant Ethic

An essay for the class I am taking.             

Max Weber first published his The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism in 1905.  Its reception, even at the time, was controversial and attracted attack.  Fifteen years later, he published a revised edition and again it was received with mixed approval.  Since then, for almost one hundred years, the book has continued to be much praised and found to be misguided and inaccurate in its analysis.  While it seems that most critics and the general public accept the foundational assumption—that certain Protestant nations experienced greater economic growth that other nations in the nineteenth century—there is much disagreement concerning Weber’s  level of assigned causation.  Even the recent volume, Why Nations Fail:  The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson relegate cultural features such as the Protestant Work Ethic to unimportant roles.  This essay will review a few critiques of Max Weber’s thesis and evaluate a few competing theories.
Max Weber appears to be one of a type of scholar-professor who seeks to become a public intellectual, a person of energy and verve, who describes contemporary society and discovers the historical root sources of that society. He does it publicly; he does it boldly and confidently.  In Weber’s case, in his most generally read work, he opens by identifying a feature in nineteen century society:  large, successful business industrial enterprises appear to be lead and staffed by Protestants, not Catholics.  He writes: 
“With relatively few variations and exceptions, the occupational statistics of a denominationally mixed region reveals a phenomenon which in recent years has frequently been the subject of lively debate in the Catholic press, in Catholic literature, and at Catholic conventions:  business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the skilled higher strata of the labor force and especially the higher technical or commercially trained staff of modern enterprises tend to be predominately Protestant” [emphasis Weber’s] (1).  
In this opening sentence, Weber establishes that the reality he hopes to explain the root causes of is clearly established and recognized even by those whom it identifies as lacking.  At this early moment of this essay, Weber does not yet wonder if these historical developments have been positive or negative for society in general.  At this juncture, Weber privileges Western Protestant Capitalism and appears to support that privilege.
He does so by pointing out two critical features of two sects of Protestantism, the idea of a secular calling in service of God (Lutheranism), and the concept of predestination (Calvinism).  In Weber’s analysis, these two concepts allowed the practitioners of these ideas to discard a traditional distrust of money and riches, and to justify the creation and accumulation of wealth.  “Just as the emphasis on the ascetic significance of the “certain calling” ethically transforms modern professional practice, so also the knowledge that the opportunity of profit forms part of God’s providence ethically transforms the men of business” [emphasis Weber’s] (110).  He explains that following one’s calling does not allow one to become snobbish or profligate, qualities of the nobility.  Instead, it supports a “self-man man” steadily, unostentatiously following one’s trade, saving one’s earnings, and reinvesting them in further economical development.  Weber writes, “[innerworldly Protestant asceticism works with all its force against the uninhibited enjoyment of possessions; it discourages consumption, especially the consumption of luxuries.  Conversely, it has the effect of liberating the acquisition of wealth from the inhibitions of traditionalist ethics; it breaks the fetters on the striving for gain by not only legalizing it, but (in the sense described) seeing it as directly willed by God” [emphasis Weber’s] (115).  In other words, God blesses those who use their intelligence and skills to make money, and who shun earthly pleasures, thus using the money that might go toward those pleasures to reinvest and produce more money.
But Weber does something very interesting at the end of his essay.  He begins to explore the success motive, especially as it relates to the industrial revolution, in which not only does the success of factory owner become an example of protestant ethic in action, but so does the entrapment of the factory worker.  As he writes:  “The Puritans wanted to be of the calling—we, on the other hand, must be” [emphasis Weber’s] (120). The Protestant work ethic has become “a shell as hard as steel” (121) or in another translation, “an iron cage” (Baeher 154).  “Where capitalism is at its most unbridled, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, divested of its metaphysical significance, today tends to be associated with purely elemental passions, which at times virtually turn it into a sporting contest” (Weber 121). He wonders if humans will turn into “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart,” (121) and knows that only time will reveal the truth and points the way for further study.
            Weber published his first version of essay in 1905, and sustained a series of criticisms, especially from Professor H. Karl Fischer.  While not destroying Weber’s thesis, Fischer appears to pick around the edges of it:  Did Martin Luther really introduce the idea of “the calling”; when did “capitalism” really begin; is Benjamin Franklin really the best example of the “Capitalist Spirit’; and what about psychological explanations for the accumulation of wealth (as opposed to the renouncing pleasures).  Weber countered Fischer’s arguments in a separate paper and then countered again as Fischer continued to engage Weber. (Baehr and Wells 221) In addition, Professor Felix Rachfahl, an historian, challenged Weber, and again Weber enthusiastically entered into academic combat with him, even snidely deeming his challenges “professorial,” which Rachfahl chaffed at.  Weber’s response illustrates his ambitions to rise above the intellectual station of the typical college professor:  “In is indeed the case that he not only is a ‘professor,’ he has also written what is in my view an unusually ‘professorial’ essay. Everyone knows, however, that not everything that a professor writes (even Rachfahl, thank God!) must necessarily be tainted with the familiar flavor of that petty, opinionated quibbling and smug superiority that is the essence of the ‘professorial’” (“Final Rebuttal” 283). I think we can see here that Weber, in his essay and in further works, was attempting to contribute to society something bold and useful.  In 1920, Weber revisited his original essay, revised it and published a newer, somewhat fuller version. He died the same year at age 56.
            In the long run, we can access that he accomplished his goals.   Indeed, the very fact that the book continues to be in print and read and that we and others continue to engage with it indicates its importance.  Just three years after his death, Carl Diehl published an appreciative, yet objective and occasionally critical assessment of Weber’s life and contributions to the fields of economics and sociology.  Diehl points out that Weber possessed an extraordinary wide ranging intellect:  “His investigations were uncommonly varied and widespread, and it is difficult to say what field was his chief domain” (88).  Diehl is probably premature in asserting that Weber did not create a “school” of thought that invited disciples who continued his work, since he is writing before the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, his first English translator of The Protestant Ethic, in 1930, began using Weber’s work in support of his own project to develop his “voluntaristic theory of action” (Baehr and Wells xxvii). Parsons continued to praise Weber as one of the three greatest thinkers in the social sciences.  However, perhaps it is important in this context to point out that, over the years, critics have detailed how Parsons was often not loyal to Weber’s text.  For instance, he avoided certain connotations of a few of Weber’s turns of phrases.  He avoided, for instance, the Goethian implications of phrase “elective affinities,” and the Nietzchean use of “the last man.”  Parsons opted instead for “correlations” and “last stage,” respectively (Baehr and Wells xxvii).  Most famously, Parsons turned Weber’s phrase, more accurately translated as “shell hard as steel,” into the “iron cage” (Baehr 154).  “Iron cage” of “the care for external goods” has become a metaphor employed now in many fields.  As Baehr points out, even thought this usage is the creation of Parson’s, it is usually attributed to Weber. Therefore, the question of whether Weber founded a school might remain open, as Parson may well have employed and redirected Weber as much as followed him.     
Finally, Diehl details one of the recurrent criticisms of Weber’s work, his use of “Ideal Types,” a concept and technique that “aims to bring to the simplest and sharpest possible expression those constituents of phenomena upon which their cultural significance depends and which are characteristic of their individuality” (96).  Diehl, here, is repeating one of the criticisms that Fischer leveled at Weber’s technique, that he too simply generalizes one aspect of a historical phenomenon, such as capitalism or Christian asceticism, excluding features of individuals and historical occurrences that would complicate or contaminate the type.  But one could argue that it is exactly Weber’s use of “Ideal Types” that makes his theory so assessable and so long-lived in both the minds of academics and the general public.
One indication that the phrase “Protestant Ethic” continues as a generally, non-academic, recognizable semiotic gesture is a discussion in a recent article.  In 2001, scholars Jacques Delacroix and Francois Nielson felt that the phrase had so entered into general cultural understanding that in an academic paper they referred not to Weber’s definitions, but to the “Common Interpretation,” that is, their understanding of what most people are discussing when they refer to the “Protestant Ethic.”  “We argue instead that, irrespective of what Max Weber may have himself believed or written, there is a dominant interpretation of Protestant Ethic that has taken a life of its own.  This is the belief that the rise of capitalism was facilitated in predominantly Protestant countries and occurred earlier there as a consequence” [emphasis Delacroix and Nielson’s] (510).    
In their lengthy essay, they assert that there is little evidence for such an interpretation of economic history.  This is not the place for a lengthy recapitulation of data and arguments.  However, a review will be useful.  They examined five variables from data from the nineteen century: wealth and savings, the founding of stock markets, development of railroads, distribution of male labor force, and infant mortality.  Over all, the data is fairly mixed when examining these factors in nations European nations that are predominantly Protestant or Catholic.  While one Protestant nation may have greater penetration of railroad of development or a larger average amount of savings per capita, another may lag behind several predominantly Catholic nations.  And so on when examining the many variables.  The writers conclude, therefore, “Absence such evidence, [the Common Interpretation of the Protestant Ethic] remains no more than an intellectually enticing hypothesis and a beloved academic myth” (545).   This study appears to attack Weber’s thesis at its very roots—stating essentially that the observation is false that predominantly Protestant nations developed economically with greater benefit from the Industrial Revolution than predominately Catholic nations.  If this article were written for a general popular audience, rather than for fellow academicians, it could have be a set of facts that dispels the myth. 
A recent New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, however, might be the implement that does it.  In Why Nations Fail, Danron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson critique several theories that attempt to answer the basic question—which was at the heart of Weber’s work—why are some nations successful economically and able to provide prosperity for the general run of their citizens and why are some nations not?  What makes a United States, England France, Japan or South Korea, and what makes a Mexico, Congo, India, or Egypt?  The authors offer three explanations that they believe are inadequate.  The first two are geography and ignorance of economic policy.  Many poor, unsuccessful nations have substantial natural resources, and similarly many have had access to sound economic advice.  The third theory for why nations fail is related to Weber’s analysis.  Acemoglu and Robinson identify Weber as an early proponent of what they call “cultural theories.”  “The culture theory no longer relies solely on religion, but stresses other types of beliefs, values, and ethics as well” (57).  And while they discuss certain cultural beliefs and practices that could, but don’t, explain the differences between the relative prosperity of the United States and Mexico, North and South Korea, they assert “there is little relationship between religion and economic success,” and point to the success of France, a predominantly Catholic nation, is matching the success of England and the Netherlands (60).   
Acemoglu and Robinson then develop their arguments that it is political institutions that  provide trust, stability, and open access to wealth development that eventually prosper. Leaders must allow for the development of destabilizing inventions and business opportunities.  If  Weber today might argue that these are developments from a Protestant Ethic, we will not know.  But we do know that while historians and economists attempt to discredit all or part of Weber’s argument, it remains a popular and common description for the few whom it flatters, and it remains a curse for those whom it excludes.  During the 2012 election, the following use of Weber’s thesis appeared when describing Republican Party on welfare recipients:
These attacks, rooted in the value system of the Republican Party and empowered by the Protestant Ethic and the pulpits of churches, have been around for years, well before the current crop of neo-conservative theocrats. Poor people have been looked down upon by those who believe their poorness is their own doing and cause. They believe poor people are a drain on society and they should not have to pay poor people’s way. Under the philosophy of the Protestant Ethic, poor people are poor because they have sinned and their poverty is a result of god’s wrath.  (Scourby)
Weber’s thesis may be a “Beloved Myth.”  It is also a hated one.







Works Cited

Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson.  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power,
Prosperity, and Poverty.  New York: Crown Business. 2012.
Baehr, Peter.  “The ‘Iron Cage’ and the ‘Shell as Hard as Steel’:  Parsons, Weber, and
the Stahlhartes Gehause Metephor in the Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of
Capitalism.”  History and Theory 40:2 (May 2001).  153-169.
Baehr, Peter and Gordon C. Wells.  Ed and Tr..  The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit”
            of Capitalism and Other Writings. By Max Weber.  New York:  Penguin.  2002.
Delacroix, Jacques and Francois Nielsen.  “The Beloved Myth:  Protestantism and the Rise
            of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Europe.”  Social Forces 80:2
(Dec. 2001).  509-553.
Diehl, Carl. “The Life and Work of Max Weber.”  The Quarterly Journal of Economics
38:1 (Nov. 1923).  87-107.
Scourby, Mike. “The Republicans, The Protestant Ethic and the Poor.”   Borderless News
and Views.  31 August 2012. <http://borderlessnewsandviews.com/2012/08/the-republicans-the-protestant-ethic-and-the-poor/>  Accessed:  11 February 2014.
Weber, Max.  “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism [1905].  The Protestant Ethic
 and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings.  Tr. and Ed. Peter Baehr and Gordon
 C. Wells.  New York:  Penguin. 2002.  1-202.
Weber, Max.  “A Final Rebuttal of Rachfahl’s Critique of the ‘Spirit of Capitalism.’”
The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings.  Tr. and

Ed. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells.  New York:  Penguin. 2002. 282-339.

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