This year marks the centenary of Max Weber’s landmark The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the most influential books ever written in the social sciences. The book was written as a substantive and methodological response to Karl Marx, as well as an attempt to follow in Marx’s line. The shift from the acquisition of what is needed to maintain a historically determined standard of living to the ever more accumulation of wealth in the form of the medium of exchange, money, was, as Marx observed, world-historical. This shift perhaps more than any other has made the modern world, and how this core element of capitalism came into being and why in England is among the most explored in economic history. Weber’s answer was that Protestant ethic had a mutually reinforcing “elective affinity” with capitalism.
“The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of . . . the spirit of capitalism.”
Needless to say, the claim has been disputed for a century as well.
Weber’s life was no less interesting than his thought, and in the latter are echoes of the former, or so suggests Elizabeth Kolbert in this weeks New Yorker.
“Everyone who is part of the modern capitalist economy—whether he’s employed flipping burgers, writing code, or putting out a weekly magazine—has at one point or another considered that his efforts had an ascetic cast. We all accept the notion that our jobs ought to be more than just a way to sustain ourselves and acknowledge working to be our duty. But we don’t quite understand why this is the case. Post-nervous breakdown, Weber appears to have felt with peculiar intensity both the compulsion to labor and its fundamental motivelessness. And, if he didn’t actually come up with a resolution to the problem (either a good reason to work or a way to stop doing so), he did invent in ‘The Protestant Ethic’ a myth to explain his, and our, befuddlement.”