Where are the farmers in Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?
Farming is the US capitalist ideal of a people: morally and spiritually strong, selling the products of their hard labor. We idolize them as the pure embodiment of what society should be.
We gain insight into this national myth through the work of Max Weber, a German sociologist whose most important works were written in the early 20th century, and his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is standard reading for introduction to sociology courses across America.
Religion and the Spirit of Capitalism
It’s important to understand that Weber does not argue that religion caused capitalism, i.e. that capitalism would not have occurred in America without Protestantism. Weber argued that this religion, Protestantism, assisted the development of capitalism in the United States. It is likely that capitalism would have emerged in America without Protestantism because, due to density of trade relations among European nations and, eventually, the United States, capitalism was an inexorable global economic force (originating in Europe) sweeping through the modernizing world. The idea here is that America has – or had — a distinctive form of capitalism. Moreover, the protestant ethic changed capitalism from being traditional to modern. Protestantism, theoretically, helped traditional capitalism evolve into modern capitalism.
What is the Protestant ethic?
It is derived from Calvinism, a sect of Christianity that expressed the following logic, leading to a fundamental uncertainty of one’s relationship and fate with the Lord: (a) people are born sinners and are not predisposed to love the Lord, (b) only the Lord can save people from their sin and allow them into Heaven, (c) only select people are atoned for their sins, and those people are selected (by the Lord, of course) and not everybody is selected who wants to be selected, (d) no one knows for certain whether they will be selected.
Religion as Escape from Uncertainty
People do not like uncertainty. This uncertainty about whether they will be elected into Heaven had made people want to search for any sign of certainty. Glorifying the Lord was seen as a sign. Lifestyles that glorified the Lord were evidence of salvation, and a reduction in the uncertainty. Thus, it is what people do on Earth that helps people cope with the uncertainty.
What did people do to satisfy the Lord? They engage in capitalistic enterprises and adhere to the Protestant ethic:
(a) Frugality and thrift
Not spending more than you have, and keeping debts to a minimum. Luxury is bad, living on the minimum to survive is good. Don’t live on credit.
(b) Hard work
People must be willing to engage in their tasks with enthusiasm for completing the tasks, no matter the difficulty in terms of time and physical or emotional strength.
Weber quoted Benjamin Franklin for his definition of the spirit of capitalism. Applying this ethic to capitalism, the following elements added to the Protestant ethic are:
All time and effort must be in the pursuit of generating money. An occupation, what Weber calls a “calling,” must be about making money. Being idle is bad, being energetic about (income producing) work is good. This also means changing and adapting to the times, embracing new technologies that will increase the amount of money one makes.
(d) Profit Seeking
Industriousness should lead to generating more money; in particular, more money should be generated than expenses incurred. Making money is good, making a profit is better. Profit seeking is the ends, i.e. making money is the goal, not the means to the goal. Further, profit seeking must not go against the other elements of the ethic, i.e. the idea that one “would go through hell for gain, even though he scorched his sails” is bad.
Traditional capitalism did not have these values. For example, traditional capitalist economies sought gain, and had greed, but not frugality and thrift, and not industriousness and profit seeking.
Sexism in the Weber’s Theory
And here Weber makes a detour into mindless sexism:
“The type of backward traditional form of labour is to-day very often exemplified by women workers, especially unmarried ones. An almost universal complaint of employers of girls, for instance German girls, is that they are almost entirely unable and unwilling to give up methods of work inherited or once learned in favour of more efficient ones, to adapt themselves to new methods, to learn and to concentrate their intelligence, or even to use it at all. Explanations of the possibility of making work easier, above all more profitable to themselves, generally encounter a complete lack of understanding.”
Weber’s horribly sexist comments aside, in theory, modern capitalism, what Weber called “the spirit” of capitalism, had to embrace the Protestant ethic in order to survive.
How has the Protestant ethic evolved over time?
It is largely seen as a basic value, and a logical thing to do, to adhere to the Protestant ethic, even though Americans nowadays rarely call it as such.
But modern life conflicts with these ideals. Consider:
1. Frugality, thrift and industriousness vs. consumerism.
After 9/11, Americans are told by the President to go shopping, visit Disneyland and get out to other great American destinations, because this is what makes American life great. American media thrives on advertising revenue, and therefore people are told by corporations and the government to spend money.
2. Profit seeking vs. credit card culture.
The government allows people to have access to hundreds of times of more credit than they have as assets, encouraging people to go into debt. The government protects the credit card companies, allowing them to inflict outrageous penalties for late payments and incredibly high interest rates, though recent changes have curbed these behaviors.
Thus the mythical American farmer embodies all that is foundational for modern capitalism: frugality, hard work, industriousness and profit seeking. That ethic permeates US culture today.
Cover Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash
Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.