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Weber’s  mother was a Protestant and a Calvinist and her moral absolutist ideas influenced him a great deal in his writing. Since Weber was a liberal, he became vastly impressed by the System of American Democracy on his short trip to the United States in 1904.Thus,Politics also played a significant role in shaping up his ideas regarding Capitalism.
He wrote about Protestant ethic after recovering from a psychological depression that had kept him away from his writing  for four years. His prolonged illness helped him to develop great insights into the connection between Calvinism and compulsive labor and religious ethics and economic processes.
Weber studied society from the context of historical culture and was amongst the first people to study Marxism objectively.Hence, the influence of Marx in Weber’s writing is quite evident. Contrary to Marx’s views, Weber focused on the role of  religion in the economic structure of society. In this book he explains that the development of capitalism is influenced by Puritan ethics and he traces its origins to the Reformation which introduced the notion of calling. It says that the greatest moral duty of human beings is to full fill their obligations in this world.

He studied the doctrines  of John Calvin.  According to Calvinism and its idea of Predestination, God has predetermined the salvation and damnation of individuals on his will. This created anxiety amongst the   Protestants and they tried to attain success in economic activities with the belief that God signifies his favor by giving prosperity to humans. Thus protestant ethic is a term coined  by Weber which signifies that value attached to hard work and efficiency in worldly dealings is a sign of  being  one of  the elect.
 So instead of engaging in frivolous activities, the  Protestants invested   all of their profit back into the business to make more profit. Even donations to the poor were discouraged because lack of money was seen   as a sign of laziness and  divine  disfavour. Thus, according to Weber, the fervour for economic success achieved through hard work and the  idea  of living a frugal life gave birth to the spirit of capitalism: the rational reinvestment of Profits.
Weber distinguishes the capitalistic enterprise from the pursuit of  money.  Profit in capitalism is gained through continual reinvestment therefore; accumulation of wealth for its own sake rather than for material gains is according to Weber, the spirit of modern Capitalism.
        The concept of Rationalism was also introduced for the first time by Weber in this book. The idea of religious pursuit of wealth was taken as a rational means of spending life. He used  several quotes from Ben  franklin   which were infused with rationality and logic. From Franklin’s work “Necessary Hints to Those That Would be Rich” Weber quotes: “For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty… He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount of a considerable amount of money.” Thus, Weber’s “Spirit of Capitalism” is also the “Spirit of Rationalization.”
This spirit is a test of one’s own moral worth. In light of this view, Durkheim states that the entrepreneur performs his tasks with an eagerness of purpose that gives him a sense of dignity. Monetary gain with this agenda of calling washes away all feelings of greed attached to it and prevent him from becoming self absorbed because the divine purpose of accumulating wealth constantly demands his attention
Amintore Fanfani disagrees  with Weber in his book “Catholicism,   Protestantism, and Capitalism.” He argues  that capitalism was prevalent   in Europe before the protestant revolt so religion was  not  the backbone   of Capitalism. According to him, the general revolution of thought characterized by art, economy, philosophy and morals during the Renaissance and Reformation brought the change in economic system.
However,   it is important to note that it was Reformation  that   released   the individuals from  the chains  of catholic beliefs  and  rituals. The   removal of priest required the Protestants to search for a higher level of learning, which would bring divine salvation. Fanfani’s argument about capitalism existing before reformation is valid but he is more interested   in its definition while Weber  is discussing  the  role of religion as a driving force.
The most important  factor of Weber’s  theory is that it basically provided   a rational explanation for the existence  of capitalism. Why it existed in some places and not in others. The act of money hoarding and a fixed mind set towards accumulation of wealth was given moral significance and its practitioners were given an ideological meaning as opposed to Marx’s strict (“vulgar” in Weber’s terms) materialistic explanation.
 What is also significant about this theory is that it gave rise to the causal effect of an idea. It explained how an idea could initiate a whole movement that it does not necessarily have to be a single man’s initiative as was common to believe at that time. As Gianfranco Poggi puts it, the Calvinist theological idea led to the salvation anxiety which gave rise to worldly asceticism, the “protestant ethic”, finally leading to the “spirit of capitalism”.
But despite its importance, Weber’s paper has been questioned time and again. While on one hand it provides explanations and a break through in sociological thinking process, it has also been criticized for being  incomplete and  faulty. From  claims  like  capitalism existing before Protestantism came about, to the Protestant belief being pitched against industrialization as the cause for the “Protestant work ethic”, to people dismissing it on the basis of the protestant’s high literacy rate as opposed to their ascetic beliefs being the cause of rise in Capitalism, Weber’s thesis has been attacked on all grounds. Yet all these counter arguments miss two basic facts. One, what Weber meant by the terminologies he used, were specific to what they were at that time and not what they have come to mean now. Capitalism then was different than today’s. Where Weber is specific, critics often apply his terms to the general idea as a whole. Second, Weber does not point towards the Protestant   Ethic   as  the source of capitalism.  He rather  proclaims it as a very effective driving force for the capitalist ideas that were already present. It was more of a catalyst rather than an essential source.
 Peter L. Berger, in his article, further reestablishes Weber’s thesis by clearly proving it to be still applicable to today’s capitalist  societies.  He   identifies the  particular “traits” of Weber’s Protestant ethic, and then finding them in contemporary societies relates them to the development of Capitalism. Berger talks about Latin American Pentecostal societies, the Chinese Confucianist societies, their adaptation in the Japanese world, the Opus Dei in Spain and even Islam, and he talks about how with the emergence of Protestant traits in these cultures, there was seen a rise in the development of Capitalistic features. Not all of these societies traditionally had “protestant traits” (Opus Dei for instance), hence the lack    of capitalistic development in their areas, but with time their culture   evolved, absorbing “protestant traits” and those then working as “carriers of modern capital culture”.
Controversy apart, Weber’s thesis also managed to open another methodological pathway for the social sciences. Weber believed that the natural science methods could be adopted to see what people did and why they did it, but you had to see the person’s rationale to accurately decide why they did what they did. People could be asked questions and then based on the answers, we could try to get the point of view of individuals in the society. Hence he mixed the hermeneutic approach, with the natural science one with his belief that humans need to  be understood, for  their   actions to be judged. Also, in  Protestant ethic, he incorporated his theory of social action and rationalization by giving a rational meaning to the protestant trait of wealth accumulation and ascetic lifestyle.
  He also believed that how people developed an  idea  or  a how they   acted, depended largely on what was important to them. It was the idea of human agency, where because of individual’s free will and different cultural values, they could choose what they termed as “development”. It could be material or spiritual or social. This way, Weber lay down his “train-track” theory and explained how different societies develop in different ways depending on their values, rather than as Marx suggested that all of society was moving in  one direction.  This also  led to the idea of  how society  chooses  its own path and a sociologist should only describe the best way of achieving the desired end.
  Moreover, he combined the more prevalent idealist perspective, with Marx’s materialist approach to argue that while the underlying idea or belief was crucial, it was economics that also played  an  important  role   in  deciding  individual’s  actions  and  shaping  their beliefs.
       Giddens easily summed  up the power of  Weber’s   thesis  claiming   that because of his disregard for traditional subject-boundaries, Weber’s  work can be  approached on different levels: a historical thesis,  explaining  the  correlation  between  capitalism  and Calvinism; a  causal analysis:  the  influence  of  Puritanism  on western  societies;  an interpretation  of  the  origins  of  key  components  of  the  western   society;  and  as  a comparative study to identify divergent courses adopted in rationalization of culture in the East and the West.
It is interesting to note that Weber’s protestant ethic is the only German thesis from the pre world war one era (when Germany was still an important world power) that is still alive and hotly debated.
One thing still stands though. It managed to provide a  solid explanation   to   why some society’s developed as fast as they did, and others got left behind. Given the context, his link makes sense too. Whether critics manage to defeat the thesis, or not, is a different story, but Weber’s      knowledge  and the complex methodological framework  that he worked in has yet to be matched by other scholars.
For us, his theory still stands.

Works Cited:

Mardellat, Patrick."Max Weber's critical response to theoretical   economics" The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 16.4 (2009).

Berger, Peter L. (2010) 'Max Weber is Alive and Well, and Living in Gautemala: The Protestant Ethic Today’,The Review of Faith & International Affairs,8:4,3—9

Friedman, Jeffrey (2005) 'Popper, Weber, and Hayek: The epistemology and politics of ignorance', Critical Review, 17:1,1—58 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08913810508443623>

Lee, D. and Newby, H. (2000) “The Problem of Sociology”. (Routledge, UK).
Cuff, E et al. (2006) “Perspectives in Sociology” (Routledge, UK 5th Edition).
Weber (Translated by  Talcott  Parsons)   (2001)   “The  Protestant   Ethic  and  the Spirit  of Capitalism” (Routledge, UK)

Lehman,  H.  and  Roth, G. (1993)   “Weber’s Protestant Ethic –   Origins,   Evidence, Contexts” (Cambridge University Press, UK)

Cosandey, David (2011) “The Rise of the West: Max Weber” Web  <http://www.riseofthewest.com/thinkers/weber03.htm>

Hadden, Richard,   W (30  Sept,  1998),   “Sociology 250: Max Weber” <http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/s30f99.htm>

Kilcullen, John (1996), “Max Weber: On Capitalism” (Macquarie University) <http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/y64l10.html>

“The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism”

“Capital Disenchantment” (Net Industries)

Written BY: Zareen Mohsin, Zahra Rashid

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