Where Has Our Capitalist Spirit Gone?

The Source of Consumption and Commodity

Max Weber was concerned, sociologically, on the effects of class, status, party, and the bureaucratic nature of the struggling lower classes in everyday life. He, too, spent much time contemplating religion (since it has been known to shape party), status, and the daily life of citizens, as well as effecting attitudes about work and the free market. Everything that Weber studied revolved around rational works done by meaningful action and behavior. He was concerned about how life was shaped in the minds and actions of those in a capitalist system. He realized that religion and capitalism did influence one another and that those, who were fortunate monetarily, were viewed to be fortunate religiously. Weber will be used extensively in this post to cite the changes in capitalist society that have alienated religion from capitalism and has made consumption a sport.

Maximilian Karl Emil Weber

The World Today

We live in a world that places absurd valuations on companies that produce very little while enriching a very few. Case in point: Facebook’s $90-100B IPO. Keep in mind that individuals providing these valuations are the likes of JP Morgan Chase. We’re seeing how well they do their jobs right now. And of course we have politician’s to thank for encouraging this type of behavior. After all, why worry about tomorrow when Uncle Sam will be there to bail you out? Of course, we all know that those bailed out always change their ways right?

Workplaces are now classified by units called teams. Bureaucracy has won the day. Capitalism and aggressive consumption have upset the rest of the world in its disregard for ethical and religious mores, as we as capitalists have easily given up the institutions we once held dear – our families and our religious lives. We do not have to be lured into bureaucratic life, we volunteer. Life today is about mundane passions. Therefore, capitalism is an institution in itself. We no longer need the institution of religion or the ethics instilled by religious life.

Cover of the German edition from 1934

It is important to note that Weber did not agree that the institutions he reviewed were dysfunctional or rational. Instead he saw institutions as being functional in a structural-functionalist sense. He also looked at the behavior of persons involved in the institutions he studied as rational. He labeled and studied different types of rational behavior and legitimate authorities for information that people received and believed. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber outlined the religious beliefs that positively influenced the minds of the people.

According to Roberta Garner, desperate to see signs of grace, predestinarian Protestants believed that they could discern it [who is saved and who is damned] in worldly economic success. Success in business and accumulation of wealth could be read as evidence of God‘s grace, and so religion became an incentive for capitalist activities (Garner, 2000).

Therefore, success in a material world meant that one was graceful and ordained to their success by God. This incentive worked in the eyes of Weber and continued to compel the capitalist machine to keep workers moving toward grace. What Weber noticed also, was that workers seemed oblivious to the fact that they did not possess much upward mobility in highly bureaucratic economic systems, but continued to be a simple cog in the machine. Although workers did not possess the ability to move toward real wealth, they did have the ability to acquire possessions. This has seemed to initiate the mundane working and spending that has permeated society today.

Today, it seems as if work is a supplement for family and religious life while consumption fills the void of being horizontal in jobs. Caught in what Weber would consider a web of bureaucracy, we are confronted with little room for setting one apart from the next. The condition we live in is much like a sport. We compete for higher positions and higher pay while we secretly befriend those on our work team only to use them as the commodities that are traded in a capitalist system. There is no doubt that religion has dissipated in the working world…at least religion that is practiced in the idea of being kind to one another. There is worry of outsourcing and job loss due to unforeseen causes and this does not fit within the framework of capitalism. No one can quite believe that God would preordain such conditions. So work is an exercise in role playing, being contented by products that we may buy, working on a team in a spirit of winning. And we willingly do so at the expense of family and friends, as we strive to maintain the competitive edge.

There was…a mysterious rite of initiation which, in one way or another, almost every member of the team passed. The term that the old hands used for this rite…was signing up. By signing up for the project, you agreed to do whatever was necessary for success. You agreed to forsake, if necessary, family, hobbies, and friends – if you had any of these left (and you might not if you had signed up too many times before)…Labor was no longer coerced. Labor volunteered. ( Kidder, 1981).

So, it is fair to say that work is largely done out of team spirit so to speak, and not in the spirit of capitalism. Work is done as an expense to family and morality and of the literal expense of buying commodities to fill the the void to obtain what we think we should have. Many children where taught in church (and this is still true today) that it is good to work and to be subservient to God. But this seems to largely translate to the subservient past of the serfs, who slaved away at their jobs endlessly. Next followed the Enlightenment and the idea that the blessed would be rich. This gave hope and the idea prospered, even if the people did not.

Weber believed also that people would abandon thought and pleasure in order to work and never be idle. In today’s world, we can see the fast-paced way in which lives are lived and there is little room for idle time. But people have seemed to move away from the idea of abandoning pleasures in life. Though the idea of contemplating a mechanized life  is still mostly abhorred, God and religion no longer are the needed, enlightened, reasons to work.

Waste of time is thus the first, and in principle, the deadliest of sins. The span of human life is infinitely short and precious to achieve one’s own success. Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, more sleep than is necessary for health (six to at most eight hours on average), is worthy of absolute moral condemnation. It does not yet hold, with Franklin, that time is money. But the proposition is true in a certain spiritual sense. It is infinitely valuable because every hour lost is lost to labor for the glory of God. Thus inactive contemplation is also valueless, or at the very least directly reprehensible, if it is at the expense of one’s daily work. For it is less pleasing to God than the active performance of His will in a calling. Besides, Sunday is provided for that, and, according to Baxter, it is always those who are not diligent in their callings who have no time for God when the occasion demands (Weber, 1930).

It is perhaps fair to say that Americans are prone to mundane passions and that the things, previously considered to be sins, are viewed as something unnatural, while work is the most natural of processes. But attending church is deemed to be equally important in this process, though it is no longer necessary for capitalism to have its gains. Even at the expense of social life and so-called luxury, we work.

There would be no enterprise of capitalism if it were not for fear. The fear of God and his condemnation worked for a very long time, and still continues to motivate many people in America today. Of course today, there are other fears that are just as efficient in creating chaos where there absolutely could be calm. Work could be simpler, less bureaucratic, and though Weber strived to find the ideal bureaucracy, it is hard to say that one does exist. Living life without structure (as we find within bureaucracy) is unfathomable for most. The difference today however, is that those things that used to be considered condemnation from God, are now translated into laziness or deviance. We fear these labels and we strive for the simplicity of the mundane. We risk pluralism and expression by adopting these means. And we risk the condemnation of the rest of the world that we are taught to fear so much.

To much of the world, we (Americans) represent McDonald’s, MTV, the Chicago Bulls, television, Disneyland, Nike, and all those other advantages of the virtual and physical malls that define American shopping and the possibilities of prosperity. To many people in other parts of the world, this represents a threat to their indigenous cultures, a threat to the pluralism and variety of their own societies and, above all, a threat to their religious beliefs. We should understand this…such is our increasingly commercialized, pornographic, and aggressively materialistic culture. And in some ways, this may be a greater threat to individuals in the Third World than our armies, our dollars, or global trade itself (Barber, 2004).

It is interesting to note that so-called Third World citizens view capitalism in a completely different way then we do. The lengths that are taken toward prosperity is a threat to other religions, cultures, and pluralism. What we have shown in America is the opposite of what religion teaches. We do not give, we take. We blame our poor, as there has always been the Protestant ethic to ordain it. We have given up ethics in the spirit of a capitalist team sport.

In closing, Weber has illuminated through his research, the beginnings of the work ethic that helps capitalism to survive as its own institution. Though religion was needed early on as a foundation for many to believe that God would provide for them through hard work, this spirit is no longer needed today. This is perhaps the primary reason we are witnessing a decline in religion in America today. We work for our team, our co-workers, and leave little time to rest and contemplate such a state of being. Perhaps we may fear the answers that we would discover. We certainly began with a fear of God’s condemnation, and now live with a fear of others in less industrialized societies. They fear us too, but not for the reasons that many would believe.

Conclusion

It is because of the abandonment of our plurality and our personality that the capitalist spirit has changed in America. Personally, I still would like to believe that capitalism in this country can be fixed. The problem with capitalism is not the framework itself necessarily, but the people controlling it. Greed and widespread curruption, dysfunctional and paralyzed politics, broken legal and tax systems, lack of economic morality, record deficits, etc. have all led to the problems in America today. This is hardly news to anyone. What people need to realize however is that nothing will change until we stand up and recapture the capitalist spirit that worked so well for America in years gone by. Unfortunately, I have little hope that this will happen until things have deteriorated so severely that Americans unite as one to bring about real economic reform. How long this will take is anyone’s guess. Where should we start? I’m not entirely sure but I’ll leave you with one thought: more countries are destroyed by their own politicians than by foreign armies.

 References:

Coser, L., & Agger, B. (1991). The Decline of Discourse: Reading, Writing and Resistance in Postmodern Capitalism. Contemporary Sociology, 20 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2072981

Barber, B. (2004). in Jhally & Earp. Hijacking Catastrophe: Fear and the Selling of the American Empire. Northhampton, MA: Olive Branch Press. pp. 13-26.

Garner, R. (2000). Max Weber (1864-1920) in Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation. Toronto, Ontario, CA: Broadview Press, Ltd. p 89.

Kidder, T. (1981) from The Soul of a New Machine in in Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation. Toronto, Ontario, CA: Broadview Press, Ltd. p. 126.

Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Scanned, tagged, copy-edited and published by the University of Virginia American Studies Program 2001. Accessible online http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/weber/header.html.

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