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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  • Darcy Hamilton

    First time commenter here. I thought this was a very interesting article. I have a few questions (sorry). Do you think that politics have played a larger role in the decline of capitalism in the U.S. or do you think it’s a direct result of the foundation of the country being built on religion that has caused this decline you’ve written about? I personally am a Christian and I can definitely see your point regarding the decline of religion where I live. Our congregation has declined dramatically in recent years and I often wonder if it’s a result of technology, the economy, changing family values, or all of the above. What do you think about this? I’m going to continue reading your blog and other posts but so far, I find many of the things you write about fascinating. I notice you’re in grad school and hope to become a teacher. Are you going to teach this type of stuff when you’re done? Thanks for hearing me out. Sorry for all of the questions. :)

    • Jason Carr

      Hi Darcy. Welcome to Wired Cosmos! First off…you can NEVER ask too many questions on here. I wish I had many others asking just like you! :)

      To answer your questions:
      1. I think politics have played a large role in the decline of capitalism. I have nothing against religion at all…I just consider it a casualty of the overall decline of America.
      2. I think all 3 of these have played a part in the overall decline to one extent or another.
      3. I’m sure I want to teach…what the subject matter will be remains to be seen. I’m hopeful that I can teach space studies and/or futures studies however.

      Great to have you here Darcy. Let me know if I can clarify anything further or answer any other questions.

  • http://jameswharris.wordpress.com Jim Harris

    Jason, we both ended up writing about capitalism and religion, but in very different ways. I think we both recognize the same problems we all face, but I think we disagree on the solution. I don’t think capitalism needs to be fixed – I think it needs to be evolved. I don’t think it worked in the past. Capitalism has won out over communism, just look at Russia and China, but pure capitalism will fail in the long run. What we have now is capitalism for growth, with a dollop of socialism to buy off the poor.

    But capitalism’s unrestrained growth will eat up the planet and we don’t have enough socialism to stop the growth of social unrest. Plus there’s a growing backlash to socialism. Too many working people do not want to pay for too many non-working people. If that backlash succeeds in cutting social support systems we’ll see a lot more social unrest and crime.

    The economy needs a lot more tuning, and the environment needs to be added into all economic equations. Bureaucracy creates most of our jobs now. Pure capitalism is getting more and more efficient and needs less and less workers. Until we can solve that problem we’re going to be in deep shit. By constantly selling for less and cutting profit margins razor thin, we’re getting so efficient that we probably won’t have real jobs for half the population. Capitalism needs to be evolved into something new, not returned to something old.

    • Jason Carr

      Thanks Jim as always. I thought it was funny that we both chose to write about this subject literally within minutes of each other. :)

      While I disagree with the notion that capitalism never worked (otherwise how does one explain the years of growth/prosperity in America?), I most certainly agree that it needs a major overhaul. I think this is why I “preach” alternatives such as Technocapitalism (not convinced yet that’s a winning solution either however) and push so hard to spread awareness regarding the need for STEM to be a primary focus in our schools. I like to think that new industries will spring up and create jobs (i.e. asteroid mining, biotech, etc.) however perhaps this is simply a way to fill some of the holes created via the current framework of capitalism vs. a real solution.

      I’m for capitalism in that I believe with innovation comes jobs. I’m one of the ones that is most certainly against socialism of any kind. You’ve given me much to think about as always Jim. There are no easy answers on this matter but I’m hopeful that someone far brighter than I will somehow find a solution. In the meantime, I hope that others will agree with both of us that what we have now isn’t working and that things aren’t going to get better until a far greater number call for real change in unison.

      For those of you that aren’t familiar with Jim’s blog, I cannot recommend it enough. Check it out here: http://jameswharris.wordpress.com/ I learn something new from him every time he posts.

  • http://www.xaviersmith.co Xavier Smity

    I have time to reflect on your article. Here are my thoughts.

    First, even though you’re attempting to be pluralistic in this article when you refer to “religion,” your thought process indicates that you’re referring exclusively to Christianity.

    Second, by “capitalism” and the early-on attractive aspects of it, you’re referring to economic liberalism, which is much more related to the social-focused form of government in Europe. If your definition of early-on capitalism is different, please share.

    Third, you’ve openly made the correlation of the decline in capitalism with the decline in religion. Throughout your article, I did not see you flesh out that correlation clearly, so I am left to make inferences.

    Fourth, you have linked “ethical mores” and “religious mores” together, but they are not at all the same. In fact, they are at variance with each other. People become ethical despite religion.

    And therein lies my disagreement with your thesis in this article. People have not become more immoral because an increasing number of them have left the church. Why should a person have to be under the sovereignty of religion in order to be a moral person or a good little economic liberal list? Instead, have become more immoral because of their continued adherence to religion.

    Unless you cherry-pick through the bible, which it seems that you are doing in your article, there is nothing in Christianity that states overall that incontinent consumption is immoral. A review of the first book of the Old Testament clearly demonstrates that. The commandments of god in the Old Testament clearly demonstrated his penchant for telling his “children” that they should conquer other nations that were different, consume their culture, and decimate anything else that refused to submit. This is no different in the New Testament, either. A peripheral review of Revelations indicates that. So your statement, “What we have shown in America is the opposite of religion teaches, ” is patently inaccurate.

    If you cherry-pick and focus exclusively on the teachings of Jesus, then I would agree that his statements are consistent with economic liberalism, that we all should care for each other, focus on behaviors that develop each other, and avoid devious antics toward each other. However, you cannot use only parts of the bible that support good behavior and act as if the other parts that don’t support actually don’t exist.

    You said, “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.” I want to emphasize that this is same behavior that god orders in the bible–a team-based approach to living life, a them-versus-us approach, a conquer-or-be-conquered approach. Although the European system has its own problems, a general problem they do not have is consumption for the sake of consumption, or a bigger-is-better mentality. In fact, that behavior is the reason why they ridicule Americans so much.

    If we want to return to ways that do not promote human depravity, we need to teach people reasoning skills so they don’t have to rely on fairy tales to inform their orientation toward morality. Reasonable people do not enmesh themselves in anarchy or look to usurp everything that comes under their purview. Reasonable people are interested in being successful in light, but not to the exclusion of being immoral about it.

    In other words, if we want to get our country back on track economically and morally, critical thinking is the way to go. Asking people to stick their heads in the sand and believe in an entity that is as impotent as Mithra, but infinitely more blood thirsty, intolerant, and insistent on dominion over the entire world will only continue our decline.

    • Jason Carr

      Great insights as always Xavier. You’re right..this is written with a Christian slant for the most part as I’m focused on the U.S. in this post and that’s the largest religious sector currently in the states. I want to be clear…when I write these posts they’re often not necessarily what I believe (in fact this is very often the case) but are written to incite the very thing you mention – critical thinking. In other words, I typically don’t write opinion pieces as that’s not the purpose of this blog. I want readers to read my posts and come to their own conclusions. In other words, I don’t try to influence readers on any matter (other than perhaps the importance of STEM in education, space exploration, and scientific inquiry as a whole). Your amazing response shows that perhaps I’m succeeding. :)

      Aside from the Conclusion at the end and the first paragraph under “The World Today” heading, the majority of this post is a reiteration of Weber’s work rather than my own personal beliefs. Great thoughts Xavier and I do appreciate the time you took to read and analyze this post as I know you’re extremely busy. Hopefully you got as much out of it as I did in writing it.

  • Steve Smith

    Sorry for the delayed response. I am not an overly religious person. Heck, I do not even read the Bible or go to church. However, I do agree that it seems religion is declining but I am not sure if it is due to capitalism.

    In my opinion, I believe as the younger generation is coming of age, they are more open to different views than that of the previous generations and do not focus on religion as much as other generations may have.

    I noticed you said in your blog that work seems to have become a supplement for family and religious life, but I remember being taught in church that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, that you have to work to take care of your family. I also remember being taught that you were blessed if you were rich or had lots of possessions but that is simply not the case. When I look at someone who has been successful, I see a person that worked his/her way through the chains to get there. I do not look at them and say, God has blessed him with all of that.

    We live in a cut-throat society and I do agree with you that we compete in jobs like a sport. And yes we do befriend people in the workplace that we feel can help us achieve a better position. I also believe so many lie their way through life to get somewhere, i.e. politicians.

    I do somewhat agree with you that countries are destroyed by their politicians, but all due respect, we put these people in office. There are so many elected officials that write laws or run our country based on what their religion tells them and not necessarily what is best for our country. To me this is what causes so many issues.

    If politicians were to get in office and actually do the job they promise on the campaign trail and leave their religion out of their work, the country would be a better place. I still believe our country is a great place to live but I do see that there is a lot of room for improvement and that all starts with each one of us.

    I hope that made sense.

    • Jason Carr

      Great thoughts Steve. I particularly agree with your insights regarding younger generations. The world has changed so dramatically just in the past two decades in so many ways, religious views included. I appreciate your input and hope that you’ll continue to frequent the blog as you have time. :)

      • Aloyce

        Capitalism as a Capitalism as a system does pridove freedom and the ability to make a larger profit than your neighbor.But, if you take a look at the core changes / motivations as effects from capitalism, it’s alarmingly frightening.We are now focused predominantly on self interest via monetary profit and competition. We are all literally fighting each other over the transfer of funds. It’s completely absurd!Instead of working collectively toward human progression, we love to fight and say, look at me!

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