Personal Reflection on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, by Max Weber. 1930. NY: Scribners, and Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu. 1984. MA. Harvard University Press.
In this reflection, I shall bring Max Weber into conversation with Pierre Bourdieu. Although these theorists attend to sociological issues from different historical period and methodological dimensions, I believe it is significant to bring them into conversation as their theorization resonate and are meaningful for value analysis of contemporary cultural studies.
Max Weber’s classical work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has a long-term impact on interdisciplinary studies. His thesis is central to questions raised about the onset of modern economic, social, and religious change in Western Europe. He explores the impact of certain religious movements on the economic bias of feudal Europe into an economy of competition and free enterprise, and thus, offers an argument in defense of how religion paves way for modern capitalism (119).
Weber mentions that the motivation in early capitalism is an inherent religious belief in money as a means of eternal salvation. The desire for gain has been seen in “all sorts of conditions of [human] at all times and in all countries of the earth (xvii).” And since religion has always had a major impact upon conduct, the particular development of the West is attributed by Weber to “the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of the economic system,” which, in the case “of the spirit of modern economic life [is] the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism (26, 113).” Ascetic Protestantism energizes business people and valorized a new type of capitalism: rational capitalism which, fascinatingly, is much more vibrant in nature than the sort of capitalism that occurred in Europe.
In Weber’s view the rise of capitalism is related to favorable changes in the distribution of economic resources within the society. It is what Weber calls the “democratization of luxuries” that is key source of early market demand (135, 136).” The expression of spiritual energies through works and businesses obviously gives its believers tremendous economic advantage. Instead of being told that business is an inferior quest compared to life, one could be holy through one’s work. Capitalistic enterprise therefore got transformed from being simply a system of economic organization, to a domain of life infused with God. One has to appear to be one of the elects, and this means leading a spotless, well-ordered life of extreme self-control. Salvation is therefore, earned if one’s hard work comes with self-discipline. If one is successful in his or her work, it is a sign that one is one of the chosen. This irrational, spiritual concept oddly gives rise to a very rational brand of economic activity. Two of its notable effects are the self-limiting of consumption and the “ascetic compulsion to save.” The outcome, Weber notes, is that, capital is freed up for systematic investment, making the rich even richer. Through accumulation of more wealth, capitalists tries to prove for themselves that they are worthy of God’s grace and hence secures an afterlife in Paradise. Wealth is in many ways protected by a fear of God, so that spending money is not an option for these capitalists (116, 118). It is considered a sin to use capital gains to satisfy carnal and worldly desires.
Max Weber insists that the factors that steered economic change are based on a particular religion, sets of religious codes, and the attending religious influence (121). In his attempt to understand the source of this spirit, he turned to Protestantism for explanation. He argues that the religious ideas of groups such as the Christian ascetics and Calvinists provide the orientation in starting the “necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity:” What he means is that Protestantism gives secular activity a religious connotation. He takes care to point out how these ideas, values, and character traits, strongly shaped by religion, helps to shape an enormous production of wealth, a capitalistic tendency (87, 121).
Pierre Bourdieu in his work Distinction, as we shall see below, draws upon Weber and agrees with Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy and The Social Construction of Reality, and Alexander Jeffery and Steven Seidman in Culture and Society when they argue that objective individual conditions translate into cultural realities through socialization. In the sense under consideration, the Protestant ethics originates from an individual who imposes the objective principle on the in-group and ultimately becomes a social judgement. This speaks to how values favorable to the birth of capitalism began.
Weber is emphatic when he mentions that Protestant ethics prizes hard work highly as a duty and downplays excessive luxuries. With the value accorded hard work, Protestants (and in a sense, the society) are (in)directly encouraged to save almost all the monetary earnings, and thus increase the funds available for the initiation of a capitalist process. Weber first observes a correlation between being Protestant and being involved in business and theorizes that religion is the cause of the modern economic conditions. He supports his claim when he argues that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and purses profit as virtuous. While this is important, this alone cannot explain the need to pursue profit. So he shows that Calvinists believe in predestination, in which God already predetermines who is saved and damned (22- 24, 174). As Calvinism develops, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one is actually saved arises, and Calvinists look to their successes in worldly activity for those clues. Thus they come to value profit and material success as signs of God’s favor 45, 57, 68-69). This new attitude, I believe, breaks down the traditional economic system and paves way for modern capitalism.
In my reflection, Weber makes the case for two main values in his argument: hard work and profit making, regardless of one’s economic, political or religious belief. To achieve this, he draws a relation between what he perceives as the link of the work ethics of Protestant spiritual teachings, and the success of Capitalism in some Western European societies. Protestants believe and look for signs to please God. For them, working hard and profit making are such signs (91, 98). Religion helps them determine the levels of wealth. The result of this attitude, he asserts, is a tremendous social force that encourages modern capitalism to ideologically emerge as the most essential institution in the West. And, in my thought, what follows this development is the sudden (or maybe a gradual) displacement of the church. Weber shows that culture in the form of the protestant ethics is better adapted to fit capitalism. He presents an anecdotal case of why protestant societies succeed in capitalism as shown above. His main argument is that it is socially acceptable in protestant societies to make profit. Interestingly, Weber is firm in his argument that capitalism has an impact on the development of religious ideas.
Weber’s theories is faulted, and at the same time supported by work of scholars. I believe Weber raises a central issue and his approach remains significant to scholars across disciplines. His work does not only provide an alternative approach to understanding economic change, it significantly serves a good framework for examining the way religious thought influences and interacts with the world economy when he considers the interactions between religious and economic thoughts. What, for me, is not clear in his argument is the influence of the modern economic trends on religious beliefs, codes and practices. Evidently, this ground-breaking work that critically considers the causes and effects of sociological chance, and how the sociology of religion changes meaning as a result of ideological principles is not applicable to the West or Europe alone. This theory is found relevant to non-Western world and therefore challenges his idea and raises a question for me: what could be the outcome of his theory if it is established that contrary to his theorization, capitalism gave birth to religion? It is unclear whether or not he succeeds in stepping further to establish the effect of capitalism on religion.
I may be right to here argue that Pierre Bourdieu, a sociological theorist, coming from another generation and sociological landscape, leans heavily on Max Weber’s theory of value production to argue for the social judgement of taste in our societies. Bourdieu in his well-received work, Distinction, argues that the judgement of taste is not pure. His position on the purity of taste resonate with Weber as individual aesthetic choices are made in opposition and many times in consonance with those made by other people.
For Weber, capitalists create realities and according to Bourdieu, personal judgement of these capitalists’ objective taste, many times, become socially and culturally binding as is the case of the Protestant and their economic principles. Largely, the capitalist, either through personal or group effort, are endowed with cultural, economic, political, religious, and social capital. Bourdieu argues that social structures are reproduced rather on the level of individual dispositions and life styles. However, he is quick to add that individuals feel themselves to be an act as though they are members of institutions. He explores, I believe, a very interesting strand when he considers the relationship between individuals and social groups.
Building on Weber, Bourdieu in Distinction explores the effect of institutions on general social and cultural patterns. He mentions that some social group members share a communal lifestyle, and argues that unless we can understand the ways in which the attitudes and actions of individuals reproduce for themselves and for other elements of culture and society then we will be forced to continue to think of these as external existing entities (233). He argues that the society functions simultaneously as a system of power relations and as a symbolic system in which objective condition set by recognized individuals is legitimated because the opinion and self-image of a certain charismatic individual is imposed as subjective (107, 207). Their objective condition are valued as they possess cultural and social capital that gets legitimated, validated, maintained and passed down as the basis for social judgement (26, 28, 208, 291). These individuals have the symbolic power to dominate in the symbolic struggle when their opinion makes them constitute power that enables them produce and impose their own objectification. When they produce their objectification, they are doing what Peter Berger calls externalization in The Sacred Canopy. Objectification is further enhanced when the social judgement is objectified and the judgement of taste is imposed, and begins to affect or influence the producer and/or other members of the community (208). In a sense, what this means is that certain individuals within their social space develop cultural peculiarities, label themselves and distinguish themselves from others within the same social space. With time, these individuals seek to establish the dominance of their trademark and insist that permission must be sort before any other person gains access. It is remarkable to know that these (charismatic) individuals (or groups) hardly relinquish their generic power of objectification to other people considered as object.
Bourdieu argues, and I agree, that the superiority of peculiarities produce symbolic struggles (208). I would argue that these peculiarities enhance the production of boundaries. Max Weber succinctly captures this idea in his Protestant Ethics when he argues about the religious imposition of Protestants and the attendant symbolic alienation that follows. The ideologies of the Protestants, being charismatic, are prized by certain individuals and groups highly. Obviously, prizing money making and profit making far and above human values by a charismatic religious group gives birth to economic, religious, political, and class structure. The accumulation of wealth by certain individuals within this group gives the institution a sense of currency to set and establish class trajectories (110). I believe this attitude initiates a certain form of symbolic power that in turn produces symbolic violence. A clear example of the dominant form of judgement of taste is the control over knowledge that is valued, sanctioned, and rewarded within the education system, and the dominant form of judgement of taste in the control of sex and gender. In my view and in line with Bourdieu and Weber, the Protestants form themselves into class habitus with their distinguishing features and symbols of superiority, and perpetuated in-group interaction (101 – 02).
Bourdieu further supports Weber when he shows how those with cultural capital employ their symbolic powers to define what constitute taste as the Protestants. They also set the agenda for those with lower cultural capital. In an attempt for taste makers to set standards for those with lower social assets, they define and promote certain ideology in the name of taste in the society. The choice of an individual or group of individuals with rich capital to legitimizing and making natural their choice does not only create class struggles, it also creates alienation, particularly for those with low capital who may be unable to access high cultural capital (446).
Distinction, according to Bourdieu, is simply when clusters of individuals in social space each develop cultural peculiarities and marks them out from one another. The distinct culture is what Bourdieu calls ‘distinction.’ However, these differences severally become a focus of symbolic struggles (struggles for symbolic power and distinction) in which members of those groups seek to establish both the superiority of their peculiarities and an official sanction for them. These symbolic struggles are aspects of economic, class, etc. struggles. Symbolic power to control the knowledge that is valued, sanctioned and rewarded within the education system is one aspect of this. When these distinctions are made and inherited through socialization by families and institutions with specific tastes, what follows is a generational conflict as younger generations are compelled to assume a particular social disposition (19, 76 – 78). Bourdieu agrees with Berger that the disposition is internalized when the younger generations have preferences for certain taste and behavior fit for them within a group and detest the taste of another class. Taste becomes an example of cultural dominance which ensures the reproduction of class and alienation. It is the case that it is difficult to change the preference that is already internalized after a child inherits a certain taste at very tender age. This is where the production of social and cultural identity which inhibits upward social mobility begins. In this case, if this individual belongs to the dominant class, the cultural taste dominates the taste of the dominant social class in ways that the individual with lower social and cultural capital conforms to certain taste and many times becomes an accomplice (53-4).
Bourdieu is at home at explaining what Weber means with his idea of the capitalist spirit and how it takes root substantially. What is not clear to me in my reading of Distinction, however, is the position that Bourdieu may assume should everyone in the society have equal capital and symbolic power? Does number matter in helping to gain symbolic power? I ask this because the dominant form of judgement of taste in the control of women, sex, bodies, and gender that is valued and rewarded in the society is evident. I make this statement because although many women gain access into areas that used to be considered predominantly male enclave, it does not seem as if women have gained equality in many areas of culture. What do women need to do and do differently?
Alexander, J.C. and Seidman. C. 1990. “Introduction” in Culture and Society. NY: Cambridge University Press
Berger Peter. 1969. The Sacred Canopy. New York, NY: Anchor.
Bourdieu Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. MA. Harvard University Press.
Max Weber. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. NY: Scribners.