Max Weber’s Iron Cage

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist who lived during a time of rapid industrialization and economic growth accompanied by the growth of cities. He studied this phenomenon, made observations, generated arguments, and came to conclusions about capitalism which he wrote about in his sociological work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904-05.

Weber observed that Protestants outnumbered other religious affiliations in business, commerce, and economic activity. At the time of this massive economic and technological growth, both Catholicism and Protestantism were strong religious systems, and yet economic activity and leadership was much more observed in the lifestyle of Protestants than Catholics. Weber, therefore, made the argument that this situation must be a result of differences in beliefs or thought systems rather than technology or any other historical or political contexts of the time. So he studied the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism belief systems looking for answers to his research questions. Is there a correlation between specific forms of religious belief and practical ethics? If so, what impact has this had on the trajectory of modern culture and society?

One difference Weber observed was that of the concept of “calling.” In Catholicism calling meant a calling out of the affairs of the world into the priesthood or some sort of monastic life. Only this category of men and women had a calling. Martin Luther, the sixteenth century reformer, put forth the radical idea that everyone has a calling, some specific work they are called by God to do in this life. The baker or the housemaid had as much of a legitimate calling as the priest or the nun and should give their work all their best efforts. Weber observed that work for the Protestant lay person was sacred and special. The individual’s calling was not a fate to submit to, but a commandment to work for the glory of God in every vocation. Weber believed this had a great psychological effect on the Protestant individual.

Weber also studied the legacy of the other great figure of the Reformation, John Calvin. Calvin taught the doctrine of predestination in which only a select number of people have been chosen in advance to go to heaven, and the rest are lost. The only sure way to know if you were among the elect would be when you died and discovered whether you ended in heaven or hell. Weber vividly describes the state of mind this created for Calvinists. No one could help you- no priest, no sacraments, no Church as they could in the Catholic belief system. You were on your path alone towards an eternal destiny that was foreordained for you. You would live anxiously with the question of whether you were one of the elect, and common pastoral counseling would be to exhort piety and hard work as ways to try to prove to yourself, and others, that you were indeed chosen and saved.

In addition to Luther and Calvin, Weber studied various other “ascetic” branches of Protestantism whose belief systems included a great emphasis on piety, sanctification, ethical conduct, and the like – Pietism, Methodism, Baptist sects, Mennonites, and Quakers. These belief systems, while not holding to the doctrine of predestination, also taught a disciplined, methodical spiritual growth that included deep piety and hard work.

The obsession with work as holy and with hard work as “proof” of grace contributed to what Weber called the Protestant work ethic. The other major contributor was the thinking of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Enlightenment which followed on the heels of the Protestant Reformation. The Enlightenment elevated individual rational thought over miracles, imagination, and mystery. Rational thought and conduct was the perfect mechanism for upholding the new work ethic. If a business man reasoned methodically, behaved with honesty, and worked industriously, he could make a great deal of profit and be convinced that he was pleasing God and bringing him glory. Prosperity was no longer simply a gift from God, but the result of rational thought and hard work done for God. Nearly every page of Weber’s book has on the word “rational” on it – rationalism was a huge component of the Protestant work ethic.

Weber believed that this Protestant work ethic was the cause of what he called the “spirit” of capitalism.  Capitalism existed before the Protestant reformation and the development of its work ethic. Capitalism simply means an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and intended to make a profit for the owners. Weber observed that in earlier forms of capitalism, an owner would be satisfied to work hard enough to make enough profit to provide for his family with a little backup savings and have plenty of time left over to enjoy leisure with his friends and family. The Protestant work ethic changed the end goal from meeting your needs to the profit itself, pursuing an ever-increasing profit with no time to relax and enjoy. This goal of increasing your capital without end achieved by an attitude of “all work and no play” was what Weber termed the spirit of capitalism. Living in the spirit of capitalism meant always prioritizing work, working hard to make and invest profits to gain ever increasing profits, and living frugally. Spending your earnings of anything beyond needs was seen as a moral failure since that money was now no longer available to reinvest and create more profit, the ultimate end goal.

All work as a calling, hard work as a sign of the grace of God and genuine faith, and rational work as the means to ever increasing profits to God’s glory– ideas which came together out of the Reformation and Enlightenment to create the Protestant work ethic from which sprung the spirit of capitalism through the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. By the time Weber was doing his research and writing this book at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of twentieth centuries, the religious foundation of the spirit of capitalism had been lost. The Puritans wanted to work like this, but now, according to Weber, we are essentially trapped in the modern economic order until new ideas are born and take hold. The spirit of capitalism no longer needs religious belief systems to support it. And by 1904, in the words of Weber, it had become for us an “iron cage.”




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