Hazem Saghieh

Max Weber’s Reading of Protestantism and Capitalism

Since he was a youth, the industrial revolution that was making its way through Europe had taken took hold of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). He got a sense, early on, of its implications, seeing them in the expansion of cities, the formation of large corporations, and the emergence of an administrative elite that replaced the old aristocracy. In his analysis of these phenomena, especially the origins and fundamentals of capitalism, which he had immersed himself in for a long time, he concluded his famous link between its “spirit” and “the Protestant ethic.”

With its publication in 1905, his thesis has engendered indignation among Catholics, who saw that nothing but the “conceit of the northerners” could make them associate Protestantism with capitalism and progress while associating southern European Catholicism with backwardness. However, it reinforced a sense of self-exaltation among other Catholics who saw it as confirming a preconceived notion of theirs: Protestants, unlike them, dedicated their lives to making money.
The fact is that Weber, in his explanation of this phenomenon, was not satisfied with the traditional view that attributed capitalism to technical factors, especially the evolution of steam power. He thus put forward another element, ideas, especially religious ones, Protestantism to be more specific, and Calvinism to be exact.

Indeed, reconciling religion and life in this world was easy for Catholics because of the “confessions” they made to the clergy. They would regularly acknowledge their mistakes and sins, while the priests would absolve them of these sins. Requests for salvation thus found their fulfillment in the medieval practices of the Church through confession and absolution, as well as pilgrimage rites.

However, with the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century, these practices suffered a setback because the new Protestants in northern Europe became unwilling to engage in them and opted for new practices that led to salvation.

Priests, in this new creed, did not have the authority to forgive and absolve the faithful of their sins - only god could. But we cannot know god’s intentions, and we will remain in this ignorance until judgment day. In the interim, Protestants remain captive to severe and torturous anxiety and guilt. How, then, should a Protestant behave to prove that he is virtuous and worthy of salvation, keeping in mind that god, who sees everything, does not reveal any stances to humanity? Moreover, given that the All-Knowing Master of the Universe has predetermined all of our fates, no one can do anything in the hope of changing his preordained destiny, while the faithful are pressured by “an absolute duty to consider oneself chosen, and to combat all doubts as temptations of the devil.”

Protestantism thereby channeled the guilt of its adherents into devotion to arduous work, and this is what Weber called the “Protestant ethic.” John Calvin had previously argued for the existence of tangible and visible signs of salvation, including economic well-being and success in this world. And so, with religious behavior made more worldly, constant toiling that leads to wealth could now erase sins. It is indicative that Protestants had, and continue to have, fewer holidays, festivities, and days off than Catholics, as their enthusiasm for work, and consequently for profit and investment, are categorized as “glorification of God:” “Even the wealthy shall not eat without working, for even though they do not need to labor to support their own needs, there is God’s commandment which they, like the poor, must obey.” This hard work is accompanied by asceticism, austerity, the denial or postponement of worldly pleasures, and shunning the enjoyment of wealth and its display, whereby profit engenders little more than additional work, saving, and investment.

If only the religious professions (priests, monks and nuns) are divine to Catholics, work itself is sacred to Protestants, and this is true for every form of work, from the simplest to the most complex. This outlook was reflected in the vigor and enthusiasm seen in all walks of professional and practical life, in which the Protestant must be the best in his field.

The distinction between the sacred and the profane is thus abolished, with the ascetic ideal that had been adhered to in the monasteries becoming an ideal that is adhered to in temporal life as well.
This is where the social and cultural dimensions and conclusions arise from.

This process did not take place, according to Weber, anywhere but in western Europe, at the hands of Protestantism, which carried the “spirit of capitalism.” And if the family is the Catholics’ primary social and emotional unit, then Protestants seem less familial. The family could be a blessing, but it could also be a curse and an avenue for pursuing selfish desires. And so, the righteous individual must channel his benevolent energy to the community as a whole, as well as the public sphere, treating every being with the justice and respect they deserve.

Protestantism and capitalism also turned their backs on superstition, a process Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” and through it, affluence was no longer seen as a gift from god. Rather, it was thinking of and practicing one’s profession correctly and diligently for a long period. Moreover, with miracles having become a thing of the past, we had to return to science to understand the world, which encouraged scientific experimentation and discovery, and eventually, technological progress.

Together, these elements helped create a generation of laborers and entrepreneurs who took their work seriously. They also created incentives for reinvesting the surplus into the productive process, pushing adherents to become more individualistic as they strove to achieve salvation through professional excellence.

Weber’s capitalism has been replaced with another capitalism in which spending plays the same role saving had played previously. His analysis has been criticized for being “Eurocentric” and “insensitive” or “uninformed” about the experiences of other peoples. The Marxist critique of Weber also became popular; it argued that he had put the cart before the horse (that is, explaining the economy through religious ideas), while Marxism demands the opposite.

However, the sociologist who studied charisma was not oblivious to such critiques, as he concluded his book by pointing out that remarking the influence that Protestant asceticism had had on the spirit of capitalism does not negate the need for research that shows how that Asceticism “was in turn influenced in its development and its character by the totality of social conditions, especially economic.” He also stressed that “of course” he had not aimed to substitute a one-sided materialistic causal interpretation of culture and history with an equally one-sided spiritualist causal interpretation.

And the debate rages on to the present day.