The work of Max Weber is large and diverse but there is one particular insight of his which has become rightly famous beyond sociology. This is from a book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which is actually one of the shortest. Nevertheless, it does cover a wide range of historical material and provide some profound insights.

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I think there are two key points for sociology students to take away from this book. The first, and the most well-known, is that capitalism developed out of the Protestant ethic. The second is that we need a meaningful reason to go to work.

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For me perhaps the most important insight of Weber’s is that in order for capitalism to emerge, develop and continue it requires the subjective investment of most people in it. That is, on some level we have to get some satisfaction out of the processes of capital accumulation (work itself) in order to keep the wheels of capitalism turning.

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Initially the relationship between religion and capitalism might not seem that obvious to us. On the surface it seems that most religions are largely concerned with the life after this one, with ways in which we can get into heaven or be judged on our conduct. We might think that religion is entirely counter to the acquisitiveness and exploitation many people associate with capitalism. In particular we might think this is true of the Protestant sect of Christianity which is quite austere and ascetic. Catholcism, for instance, seems to have a more accepting attitude towards material wealth than Protestantism. But this, for Weber, is the thing which makes it a particularly good breeding ground for the development of a capitalist attitude.

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One of the driving forces for Weber’s investigation was a desire to understand why capitalism developed in particular places first. In particular capitalism seemed to take hold more easily in he United Kingdon, United States, as well as the Netherlands and some of the other mostly protestant northern European countries. It seemed that there was something in the protestant faith which made it particularly amenable to transformation into capitalist societies.

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One of the crucial aspects of Protestantism was the notion of a “calling”. That is, the idea that we can all express our “goodness” through pursuing a particular profession. Just as monks or nuns are called to God and then dedicate their lives to prayer or good works so can an accountant or a teacher dedicate their lives in the same way to their chosen profession. This helped to instil all work with moral virtue not just the practices of explicitly religious vocations.

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There is a further aspect of the Calvinist sect of Protestantism in particular which became useful for the development of a capitalist subjectivity. Followers of Calvinism believe in the doctrine of predestination. This claims that there are a limited number of people who will be able to get access to heaven and importantly that those individuals have already been chosen by God. This means it is not possible to earn your way into God’s favour but you can look for evidence that you have been chosen. This evidence can be seen in your success in this world and of course if you’re not a hard-working successful person then you have not been chosen so you have to work hard in order to be one of the chosen ones.

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But the Protestant religion, in contrast to Catholicism, has a distaste for material wealth and displays of abundance. This is why catholic churches and cathedrals tend to have a great deal of decoration, artwork and expensive gold and silver ornamentation. While Protestant churches tend to have much less decoration and be more plain and austere. This particular combination in which hard work and business success is infused with a sense of morality but enjoying the success and wealth that comes with it is looked down upon creates a particular situation in which capitalistic virtues can be fostered.

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This is because although we might think of capitalism as being all about making fat cats rich actually the key element, at least for Weber, is reinvestment. The capitalist is never satisfied simply to make a lot of money and then enjoy the pleasures of life. Rather, they always want to make more and more money simply for its own sake. A good capitalist is successful and generates bigger stashes of capital which they then reinvest in new innovations, factories and workers.

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Bus for Weber tjhe crucial thing which capitalism takes from the Protestant religion is a “rational attitude”. Captialists calculate the most effective, efficient, cost-effective and profitable method of conducting their business and all aspects of their lives.

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Although this brings many benefits to many people, not least the capitalist themselves, Weber is very concerned about this because he believes it could create a situation in which all areas of our lives have become taken over by this rational attitude. It is possible we could see a “disenchantment of the world”. So, no longer would we be able to see the world for its beauty, poetry or other simple pleasures rather, everything would be reduced to profit and loss and measures of efficiency.

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Religious systems of thought instil the world with meaning and magic, they have a sense of morality, beauty and human connection but if we were to be completely taken over by the capitalist rationalist attitude then all of this could be lost.

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