Monday, May 9, 2011

On the Protestant Work Ethic and Capitalism

"In a universal history of culture the central problem for us is not…the development of capitalistic activity as such, differing in different cultures only in form…it is rather the origin of this sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor” (Protestant Ethic, 23-24).

The goal of this post is to examine Max Weber's conclusion that the main origin of this "sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor" is the Protestant Work Ethic. In doing so, I hope to also address the following questions: what is the driving force for most people in our post-modern, mixed socialist-capitalist societies? Are we living in a society with the remnants of the Protestant Work Ethic, but without the underlying spiritual force to meaningfully sustains it? While this topic might appear to be quite removed from Energy Technology or Physics, it's a worthwhile topic because I believe that there's no point in arguing over what type of electricity power plants to build or what type of cars to drive until we come to some shared agreement in our society about the goal of life.

It appears to me that we are living in fractured society without an overarching, shared philosophical belief system. And while I don't believe that it's a good thing for us to share the same exact philosophy on life, I think that our society is particularly fractured in the sense that many of our philosophies of life aren't even remotely related to each other, and are often quite contradictory. For example, here's a quick list of the dominant philosophies of life that I see around me:

1) The goal of life is to win God's favor in order to reach heaven in the afterlife
2) The goal of life is to care for and to help protect our families
3) The goal of life is to help our brothers and sisters in this world who are in need
4) The goal of life is to discover the laws of the universe
5) The goal of life is to make money and satisfy our personal desires
6) The goal of life is to protect Mother Earth and minimize our impact on the environment
7) The goal of life is to become famous or powerful
8) The goal of life is to reproduce
9) The goal of life is to expand life both here on Earth and on other planets

It appears to me that we will not be able to tackle the variety of challenges that different people see (global warming, poverty, terrorism, environmental destruction, sin, capitalism, socialism, communism, ignorance, crime, industry, laziness, environmentalism, or name a rival religion) without addressing our fractured philosophical beliefs. It appears to me that it's going to be really hard to tackle any of these challenges without us having first prioritized our 'goals of life.'

So, I'd like to discuss one of the philosophical underlying of our society in this post by asking the following questions: Is the sober bourgeois capitalism of a few centuries ago a good thing? And how does our modern sober bourgeois capitalism survive without the underlying belief that the best way to prove that one is going to heaven is to work hard?


In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber traces the development of sober bourgeois capitalism in northern Europe due to the rise and development of the major Protestant religions. While Weber admits at the end of his book that this is a one-sided look at history, my main critique of his thesis is not that he leaves open the chicken-or-egg argument. (i.e., which came first: the 'sober bourgeois capitalism' or the major Protestant religions?) My main critique is of a more philosophical nature. It is that knowing "what was" or "what is" doesn't help us answer the question "what should be."  Does the correlation between sober bourgeois capitalism and Protestant religion mean that sober bourgeois capitalism is just a cultural fad, like the hoola-hop or the pet rock, that we should throw away? Or is sober bourgeois capitalism something that we should keep? i.e.  Is sober bourgeois capitalism a better philosophy of life to hold today than every other philosophy of life?

As in many of my posts, I've argued that the meaning of life is to "expand life both here on Earth and on other planets as a mean of increasing the production of entropy and bring the universe to equilibrium at a faster rate." This theme will woven into the discuss on the origin of sober bourgeois capitalism.


The central problem at hand for Max Weber is how to account for sober bourgeois capitalism as it appeared in the Occident and why it didn’t appear in the Orient. Previous thinkers, such as Adam Smith and other British classical economists, focused on the economics of capitalism, creating such phrases as ‘division of labor’ and ‘iron law of wages.’ It was, however, the German thinkers who focused on the relationship between the economy and the state of society. Karl Marx examined Adam Smith’s thesis from a 'collective' perspective, rather than from the individual basis. And Max Weber took a radically new stand to study capitalism. He examined the gaps in Smith’s and Marx’s arguments, and proposed that the emergence of modern capitalism is no more than an outcome of a certain set of historically important events. (Notice the similarity in arguments made by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs & Steel: that western dominance is nothing more due to a set of geographical circumstances.)

The revolution caused by Weber in Protestant Ethic, or the revolution caused by any other great thinker, is a revolution of how we perceive our surroundings. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, presents his thesis that modern science is not caused by a simple progress or accumulation of facts. Instead, science goes through cycles of normal sciences and revolutions, where a revolution represents a change in worldview. However, Kuhn points out that progress of social sciences is not so evident of the progress in the physical sciences because competing paradigms in the social sciences can’t be shown to be false, as is the case in the physical sciences. This is an important point to make because the reason that competing economic paradigms (such as capitalism, communism, or socialism) can't be proved false is that, even if we could all agree on the goal of life, there is no way to prove what is the best way to achieve the goal of life. The future can not be predicted for large, non-linear processes that are far from equilibrium (such as life on Earth.) The reason that there has been so much progress in 'physics' and 'chemistry' is that these fields have avoided the question of the goal of life, and instead have contented themselves with the question: 'what is' for some fairly simple processes, not 'what should be' for large, non-linear processes like life. But since we live in a world far from equilibrium, we have no choice but to address the question 'what should be.'

Unfortunately, Weber doesn't delve into the question of 'what should be' in Protestant Ethic, even though he does address this topic in other works. The central problem in Protestant Ethic is accounting for the development of a sober bourgeois capitalism, but he begins by stating how this form of capitalism is similar and how it is different from other ‘capitalisms’ of the past. “The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism” (Protestant Ethic, 17). Weber wants to quickly distinguish this sober bourgeois capitalism from the adventure capitalism of the Vikings, or the political capitalism of the Roman and British Empires. Never perhaps, in all of history, have people placed so much emphasis on doing their job well than in Protestant culture. Labor was performed as if it were an end in itself. Weber is quick to see the connection between hard work and the idea of a calling, which Luther originated during the Reformation. For this hypothetical Protestant worker, “What God demands is not labor in itself, but rational labor in a calling” (161-162). The idea of a calling is Weber’s main argument for how the Protestant work ethic affects the economy. Also important was Franklin’s many maxims, which appear to be almost a religion in of and themselves. To disrespect one of Franklin’s maxims, like ‘time is money’ or ‘early to bed, early to rise…’ was almost as bad as committing a sin. In Weber's opinion, it is the reification of Franklin’s ideas that has had more effect on the modern world than Calvin’s idea of predestination.

However, Weber focuses more attention on Calvin than on Franklin because he simply wants to determine how this first form of sober bourgeois capitalism formed, and not how subsequent forms of sober bourgeois capitalism have survived. (which I wish to address later in this post.) But, we'll continue with the focus on Calvin and his followers. Calvin’s followers had to ask themselves a question that Calvin never had to ask himself, “Am I one of the elect?” His follower had to prove their faith in worldly activities, and most importantly they believed that God’s elect would be prosperous in the here-and-now. “The role of the conscience as the revelation of God to the individual gave their conduct in worldly callings a character which was of the greatest significance for the development of the spirit of capitalism” (151). This spirit of capitalism has its roots in the psychological effects of a conscience created by a Protestant work ethic, but how does the spirit of this sober bourgeois capitalism survive without the belief in predestination or a calling from God? For example, as Benjamin Franklin often says, the hard worker gets nothing out of his wealth except the "irrational sense" of having done his job well.

In predestination, Weber believes that interests are entirely individualistic. The question that every Puritan had to eventually ask was, am I one of the elect? “He felt himself to be a chosen agent of the Lord, and was certain of his own salvation” (110). The interest of the individual was not only whether he would go to heaven, but also whether being elect would imply prosperity on earth, as it would be in heaven. Saints may focus only on attaining salvation, but the majority of people have material interests. Since Puritans were able to obtain their ascetic interests while at the same time obtaining their economic interest, they were able to shun away from materialistic/prodigal interests such as 'an enjoyment of life.' Under the Puritan institution, enjoyment of life violated economic and spiritual rules, and was accordingly exempted from daily practices.

The next transition in Protestant Ethic is to relate asceticism with the spirit of capitalism. So far, the comparison has been to the calling. Working hard is not the sole cause of an ethos of capitalism. This hard work for the glory of God needed a practical direction and application to business. Franklin picked up the calling part of Calvin and Luther’s ideas, but turned these ideas toward the interests of society. “Waste of time was the first and in principle the deadliest sin” (157). This is where Franklin’s maxims fit into Weber’s thesis. They provide the transition between religion and secular culture. Now Weber jumps into the economics of capitalism by starting where Adam Smith starts, with the division of labor. The idea of the division of labor is given as a statement of fact in Wealth of Nations. Weber attempts to give a reason for this phenomenon. “The specialization of occupations leads, since it makes the development of skill possible, to a quantitative improvement in production, and thus serves the common good, which is identical with the good of the greatest possible number” (161). So far, reasoning is given in purely utilitarian motives. At some point in time, its appears that utilitarianism began to replace Puritanism as the underlying philosophy behind sober bourgeois capitalism. Since utilitarianism can be viewed as either religious or as secular, it provided a transition between the asceticism of Puritanism and the atheism of modern egoism while keeping the spirit of capitalism alive.

The spirit of capitalism may rest on the idea of the calling, but in order to create a bourgeois class there must be capital in which the people can invest. Weber says, “When the limitation of consumption is combined with this release of acquisitive activity, the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save” (172). The Protestant ethic imposed restraints upon the consumption of wealth. Yet, the result was an accumulation of wealth, which would become productive investments of capital. This is the foundation of what Weber calls the modern economic man. Despite the large-scale introduction of Existential philosophy and Environmental nihilism, modern economic man continues to survive and to strive for perfection, perhaps driven by some desire to help others (perhaps a follower of Marx) or desire to help himself (perhaps a follower of Rand).

While Weber admits many times in the essay that there were other sources of development of an ethos of sober bourgeois capitalism (such the practice of moving business away from the home and the practice of double-entry bookkeeping), the main interest for Weber was the development of the Protestant Work Ethic. “Calvinism, for Weber, maximizes the moral impulsion deriving from the active commitment to the achievement of salvation and focuses it upon economic activity” (Introduction, xvii). This impulsion has found its way into our post-modern world where, unlike the Protestants who “wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so” (181). The conscience formed by a strict religion has somehow been passed down through the generations and still causes a strict work ethic for many of us, even though almost none of us believe that hard work is the only way to prove that God has saved us. Do most of us believe in utilitarianism? Or is the Protestant Work Ethic still somewhat embedded in our western institutions even though the spiritual aspects of the work ethic have mostly disappeared? For example, recent attempts to end individual and corporate welfare and attempts to raise the retirement age (to keep people ‘productive’) only seem to reinforce Weber’s belief that “Puritanism has played a part in creating the ‘iron cage’ in which modern man has to exist—an increasingly bureaucratic order from which the ‘spontaneous enjoyment of life’ is ruthlessly expunged” (Introduction, xix). Weber’s idea of the iron cage stems from his psychological connection between a conscience, a work ethic, and sober bourgeois capitalism. So, for Weber, an institution such as modern capitalism is not a form of progress (implying growth from lower conditions), but rather a phenomenon following from his view that there are “no laws of history.” Protestant Ethic and Economy and Society are in some ways Weber's attack on Hegel’s dialect principle (i.e. that there is such thing as progress ) and Weber's attack on the increasingly bureaucratic order he saw all around him that appears to be devoid of meaning and increasingly at arms with enjoyment of life.

Despite the secular nature of society today, we still appear to be following the Protestant work ethic. This is because it has become embedded in our political institutions and our non-religious social norms. The founding fathers’ belief in the separation of the church and state has left us just a little scatterbrained. We can separate the institutions of the church and the government, but it seems impossible to separate the dominant philosophy of life in a society from the form and structure of that society's government. Government and sober bourgeois capitalism seem to be as united as ever. And it is not a new idea to think that the modern laborer has an ascetic character. In Faust, Goethe decided to play on both the secular and religious tones of man’s internal striving for perfection through hard work. The Protestant ethic definitely affects Faust’s life, even though he may not have the asceticism that the Puritans had. Weber finally analyzes the problem of modern man at the end of Protestant Ethic because he realized that many businessmen of his time were actually atheists. (Atheists even before reading Ayn Rand's novels.) For Weber, businessmen live in the same iron cage that the Puritans lived in. Weber, however, does not analyze the transition between the neo-classical era where capitalism was formed and his own time period. Freud would be the first to analyze this transition. Somewhere along the line, spiritual interests disappeared. People worked just as hard, but they were no longer working for the glory of God. They worked hard because secular laws like Franklin’s maxims still were  followed religiously. (Only a few people today, mostly followers of the Mormon or strict Puritan religions, still have the religious connection between hard work, a calling, and the afterlife.) Most of us instead work to make money so that we can help others or satisfy our 'wants, needs and desires.'

Like Weber, I define 'modern economic man' as that part of society that values hard work, but does not believe that his hard work on Earth improves his success in the afterlife. The problem I see is three fold:

P#1) People who work hard and believe that hard work will have reward in the afterlife (such as some existing protestant religions, Mormonism, and perhaps some Hindu cultures that believe in reincarnation) have the goal correct, but for the wrong reason. The value of hard work is not that it gets you a better place in heaven. The value of hard work should be that it brings you in touch with heaven here and now. (I suggest reading some Joseph Cambell or watch one of his videos to follow my thinking here.) The goal of hard work is to bring the individual into his or his calling in life (to follow one's bliss). Hard work is an effect of finding one's bliss and coming to the realization that you and the universe are one. You are part of the universe's drive to reach equilibrium. Your desires for hard work and a calling are natural because you and nature are one in the same.

P#2) There are people who are quite content to live off of the hard work of other people. Some of these people think that the protestant work ethic is a joke because God is dead. Perhaps, they think that the goal of life is to keep Mother Earth sacred, and there's no point in hard work because it just harms Mother Nature. Perhaps, they are nihilists and don't believe in anything. They think this life is just a cruel joke. Or perhaps, they are existentialists who don't want to join any organized group because groups cause Group Think, and Group Think causes death. Or perhaps, they are experimentalists who think that the goal of life is to experiment with different forms of consciousness by taking all sorts of different drugs. Either way, there are large portions of our society who don't value hard work, and I see this as a problem for them and for us. Some of them might be getting spiritual or personal satisfaction, but it is often at the expense of those people who are working hard.

P#3) There are large portions of our society that work hard, but are often working hard without a spiritual satisfaction because they are being told by environmentalists, existentialists and experimentalists that God is dead or that their work is meaningless at best or perhaps even harmful. Perhaps, they know that the universe is multiple billion years old, but they are being told by family back home that the only 'true' religion is to believe that God created the universe a couple of thousands years ago. Some of these people live with constant anxiety because they are told that there is no meaning to life, but they don't have the time to refute this idea because they are busy living life and working to help others and themselves.

I think that it is possible and that is crucial for us to reconcile our science and our religion here in the US and Europe. (I think that other countries are doing a lot better job than we are in reconciling science and religion; for example, it appears that Japan, China and India are doing a lot better job than we are.)

As Nietzsche says, and Weber reinforces, it is time for new ideas (perhaps a new religion) that adheres more to our interests. Or in a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘the rains will once again return to our barren wasteland.’

I think that the best way to do this is to generate a mythology or religion around the purpose of life, which is to expand and grow to other planets in order to increase the entropy of the universe. This appears to be the goal of life and we should embrace this goal of life because I think that we can find spiritual satisfaction in knowing that our actions are in accord with nature. While it might seem depressing at first to know that the meaning of life is to expand (as a means of generating more entropy), there are a lot of ways to think about it that are positive: 1) Life has a meaning  2) Increasing entropy is driving the universe towards equilibrium, which you can think of as highly symmetric 3) At equilibrium, there is no such thing as 'time.'  The duality of the world disappears at equilibrium. There is no good vs. evil and there is no male vs. female in equilibrium because there is just the lack of any differentiation. 4) It's conceivable that there might be another Big Bang, and the whole thing starts over again, but with a slightly different turn of events between the Big Bang and the Big Collapse.
Regardless of one's view on the goal of life, the goal remains the same for all life. The goal is to expand life.  And it seems to be more rewarding to live your life in accord with the goal of life than it is to try to fight it and prevent life from expanding.

Let me know what you think about the topics in this post.

Below are the references for the books I quoted.

Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1970).

Weber, Max, From Max Weber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946).

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Routledge,

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