The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber and Marx

The fundamental and underlying thesis of not just The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism but of Max Weber’s entire sociological perspective was profoundly influenced by his childhood maturation. Weber was born to parents whose personalities and basic view of the moral foundation by which one lives out their life could not have been more antagonistic. Trapped between a psyche that was constructed upon a solid foundation of strict observance to devoutly Protestant ethics in the person of his mother on the one hand and an extremely ambitious and sexually liberated father on the other, it is very easy to imagine Weber diverging quite strongly from his place in the pantheon of great economic minds alongside Marx and Veblen and finding himself at the opposite end of that spectrum. However, he managed to get there, Weber eventually wound up writing a work that fits much more comfortably on the bookshelf next Das Kapital than it does sitting next to The Wealth of Nations.

Max Weber shares with Karl Marx a very singular view on the nature of the relationship that labor has to society as a whole: the vital importance of competition on the power to influence and shape how society evolves. This point is also where Weber and Marx diverge quite strongly with Marx viewing competition as a constructed component deemed necessary to reproduce the prevailing ideological, that ability to use the sociological imagination that he developed perhaps out of need to survive growing up in a household that was itself ideologically fractured allows Weber to view competition as the effect of many different societal causes. When Weber writes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that the history of economic evolution has been one in which

The idyllic state collapsed under the pressure of a bitter competitive struggle, respectable fortunes were made, and not lent out at interest, but always reinvested in the business. The old leisurely and comfortable attitude toward life gave way to a hard frugality in which some participated and came to the top, because they did not wish to consume but to earn, while others who wished to keep on with the old ways were forced to curtail their consumption.

The text makes increasingly more evident that though he belongs on the same side the economic spectrum as Marx, he is most certainly not a Marxist. Above all else, Weber is capable of applying an ethical dimension to capitalism that most assuredly does not exist anywhere within the Marxian theory. And yet, when one reads the passage above, it becomes equally manifest that he is just as much a harsh critic of the negative capacities existing within capitalism and even that he is capable of foreseeing how those capacities can be wrought to impugn his positive outlook in a way that is inscribed into the history of the system.

Weber contends that it is not capitalism as a system per se, but the materialism that underpins the growth of capitalism which has been responsible for the negative aspects of that system overtaking its positives. The psychological state of despair, disconnection and depression that runs rampant through most capitalist countries seems to bear this out. When placed within the context of Weber’s lens formulated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which asserts that capitalism was the first economic evolution to hold out the lure of permanent freedom from the crushing oppression of those systems that came before, the low-paid workers that dominate the capitalist system appear less as victims of capitalist oppression than victims of their own lack of resistance to the pressures to conform to materialism as the real opiate of the masses.