[PAGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION]
is Chapter 2 of the web-publication, European Proponents of Sociology Prior To
World War I.
Copyright © 1993 Hans L Zetterberg.
Swedish version available in Sociologins följeslagare, (Ratio, Stockholm 1993).
Hans L Zetterberg
When the best and most fruitful parts of the social science of our century are distilled and summarized, some names will be mentioned more often than others. Sigmund Freud and John Maynard Keynes are examples. To the general public, it is less well known that Max Weber (1864-1920), too, is self-evidently one of this century's great social scientists. His register spans economic history, law and the history of law, government, religion, and sociology. (He himself preferred to be called a sociologist.) He succeeded better than anyone else in defining what was special about the twentieth century and unique about our civilization.
Max Weber's life
Max Weber was a child of the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm: an imperial and imperialist nation, civilized and with the best universities of the day. Industrialization was proceeding rapidly and the country was rich. But Germany had industrialized later than England and its development lagged behind that of England. A debate was therefore under way as to why capitalist development was so retarded in Germany. Weber's interest in the origin and requirements of capitalism was stimulated by this debate.
Weber was born in 1864 at Erfurt in Thüringen (for many years of this century, part of East Germany). When he was five, the family moved to Berlin. The mother's family had made a fortune in textiles (the family company was in Bielefeld). In Berlin, Weber's home became a meeting-point for businessmen, academics, preachers, journalists and politicians ─ but hardly for artists. The tone was upper middle-class and perhaps superficial and opportunist, for the elder Weber was like that. Max's mother was tough, religious, and active in charities. She was also said to be the victim of what we would nowadays call a house-tyrant , or something close to it, but later evidence indicates that the elder Weber was probably no more than a typical patriarchal male of his days. Max, however, was early on the father's side and then on his mother's side.
The young Weber studied in Heidelberg, Berlin and Göttingen. He wrote his doctoral thesis on mediaeval trading societies and qualified himself as a university teacher with a thesis on Roman agriculture. In 1882 he became a professor of law in Berlin, and in the same year he married his cousin Marianne Schnitger. The marriage is said to have been unconsummated.
He exchanged his law professorship for one in political economy, first in Freiberg and then in Heidelberg. When he moved to Heidelberg in 1897 he wanted his mother to visit, and quarreled with his father about the matter. Shortly afterwards, his father died, and Max Weber's had a nervous breakdown. He obtained leave from his job, and traveled extensively in Europe and America. The German universities of the time were generous with leave. But in 1903 the University of Heidelberg tired of waiting for Weber to return to his teaching and examining duties, and gave his job to someone else, making Weber an honorary professor. Weber now began studying privately, which was feasible only because the family was fairly well off. In the family drawing-room, rather than the seminar rooms of the university, he arranged regular intellectual exchange ─ a "salon" ─ for a select few.
Thus, Weber entered a sabbatical period that came to last for over a decade. He assumed responsibility for a sociology magazine entitled Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft. He joined the German sociologists' association and was active in a society for research on public policy that, for example, carried out the first interview surveys among German industrial workers. His research on capitalism and religion dates from this period.
During the 1914-18 war, Weber ran some military hospitals for his beloved native country. The Webers had invested a major part of their private fortune in war bonds which became worthless with the defeat of Germany. After the war Max Weber had to resume normal academic duties, holding professorial lectures in Vienna in 1918 and taking a professorship in Munich in 1919. He played an active part in establishing the Weimar Republic. On 14 June 1920 he died, at the age of 56, of a lung infection. By that time, he had embarked on a lecture series on Marxism in the Soviet Union.
Weber's main scientific work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society, 1968), was never finished. It had to be compiled after his death by his wife and a few friends. Others works are equally important. Circumstances have pushed our civilization into what Max Weber calls a "path of rationalization". In the first passage in the "Vorbemerkung" from Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (1920), Weber gives an overview of how this happened. In "Die Entstehung des modernen Kapitalismus" from Wirtschaftgeschichte, 1923), he shows how this process has given us the fateful forces we call the state and capitalism. Throughout his intellectual life, beginning with Die Protestantische Etik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, Weber sought the deeper roots of capitalism, and the ways in which faith in God and faith in Mammon have interacted in the development of capitalism. In time he became more aware that the rationalization process is proceeding everywhere ─ not only in our Western culture but also in Hebrew, Indian and Chinese culture. In their world religions, we encounter other forms of rationalism, sometimes practical and sometimes detached from the world. After reviewing them, Weber can explain why the combination of rational capitalism and a modern state did not arise in the regions of these religions.
The triumph of reason
Max Weber's main key to history is rationalization. Rationalization is a double star towards which development is heading: on the one hand, the multiplicity of human thought is arranged into systems, and on the other the great repertoire of action in human life is arranged in uniform institutions.
The first first star guides a rationalization that secularizes religions, demystifies nature, breaks the enchantment of art, lays bare knowledge of magic and removes the drama from power. The second star guides a rationalization that elucidates everyday life, organizes working life, ritualizes spiritual life, calculates every step in business life, and bureaucratizes government..
These processes unfold unevenly and jerkily, but they nonetheless give us the best guide to our civilization's lines of development at our disposal for the time being. They were first formulated, fairly naively, by thinkers during the Enlightenment, and they were developed further by social philosophers who wrote in Charles Darwin's spirit of optimism about progress. But it was first through Max Weber that these lines of thought became historically established and many-sided: this happened when he sought to report on the special nature of our civilization and describe the severe conflicts in our everyday life and our institutions that have been caused by Western rationalism.
The development of rationalism in its twin forms ─ systematization of ideas and bureaucratization of actions ─ results in a kind of triumph of reason, and in our culture a triumph of technocracy. Weber was not gladdened by this fate: as he saw it, development was moving towards a petrifaction, "an icy polar night". Already in the first decade of the twentieth century, he was able in his study of Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism to outline the typical human being of the twentieth century: "an expert without a heart, a hedonist without moral stature".
Within the framework of rationalism, we either act in accordance with a rationalism governed by values or an instrumental rationalism. Weber refers to value rationalism and goal rationalism. Value-rational behavior is governed by ideals on which we cannot compromise, while goal-rational behavior is governed by practical results.
The craftsman who refuses to lower his quality standards, even if it means that his products have difficulty in holding their own in the competition, is an everyday example of value rationalism. Another is the mother who is reluctant to enter gainful employment and feels that she absolutely must stay at home with her children as long as they are small. A third example is the conscientious objector who refuses to enter armed service as a conscript and will under no circumstances take a job in the armaments industry as a civil person. Instrumental rationalism, on the other hand, is governed by practical results, unfettered considerations of ends and means. An example from working life is the employee who regards his job solely as a means of earning his livelihood. He puts into his job as much ─ or little ─ as he calculates will suffice to meet his financial needs. If he wants a better standard of living and gets a better offer, he changes job and perhaps occupation. He is willing to move away from his home area if he gets a better job somewhere else. And, of course, he always places his savings where they give the greatest yield.
Actions governed by value rationalism are moral in the sense that they comply with a summons or moral command whithersoever these lead (ethics of principle). Actions governed by instrumental rationalism are moral in the sense that those who perform them assume responsibility for their consequences (ethics of responsibility). A dialogue between these two ethical schools permeates many public discussions and private discussions in our time.1 In Weber's opinion, ethics of responsibility usually wins, and personally he did not think one should lament this fact: a society based entirely on ethics of principle would be insufferable.
The evolution of civilizations has usually followed a value-rational main street, developing towards absolute ethics and an unfathomable divinity whose message is forwarded by prophets and priests. Our civilization is different, in the sense that it has sought maximum goal rationalism, and holds the value rationalism in the background. Modern institutions, from parliament and bureaucracies to large companies and markets, are goal-rational institutions. The present-day Islamic reaction to the inroads of capitalism is a reminder of the contrast between value rationalism and goal rationalism.
1 It may be worth noting that several of the political movements of the 1960s and '70s (such as the environmental, women's and peace movements) were value-rational. Weber's distinction helps us to understand how arguments on these matters are at mutual cross-purposes. In the public debate on nuclear power, adherents of instrumental rationalism, for example, considered nuclear power just one among many sources of energy. They reasoned in pragmatic terms: how could the correct and most economic combination of energy resources be found. For adherents of value rationalism, nuclear power was a question of conscience that should be judged on moral, not economic, grounds.
The conclusion that rationalization is the fate of humanity is by no means a trivial one. Max Weber uses it in his polemic against Marxism. In Kerstin Lindskoug's summary:
The terms of production and the polarised class structure, which take up the central position in Marx's theory of social change, are to Weber only one element in a considerably more wide-ranging rationalisation that extends far beyond material conditions at work and transcends matters of property. Weber derives human alienation at work and in society from the bureaucratic rationalism that, in his view, characterises modern society in general, whether it is capitalist or socialist. Here, then, is a clear theoretical contradiction to Marx, who sees alienation as a product of specific class relations and working conditions in capitalist society. Weber polemicised against Marx's interpreters, who thought the power of the bureaucracy should be broken through the working-class revolution and seizure of the means of production. `The future belongs to bureaucratisation,' writes Weber, meaning that the financial gains to be made by the working class through a socialist revolution and the needs of redistribution that would thereby arise would, in turn, necessitate continued extension of the bureaucratic organisations, which could thereby persist in their oppression.2
2 Lindskoug, 1979.
Weber accepted Marx's thinking only as a first approximation. He himself made not only more generally worded statements but also detailed criticism. He found socialist theory on marriage and ownership mistaken in terms of facts. He did not accept the basic thesis of historical materialism, and pointed to cases where societies' economic structures were similar but their political and cultural superstructures entirely different. He felt that Marx's determinism underestimated the ethical motives that certainly exist as independent components in human behavior.
Where the debate focused on the newly formed Soviet Union, Weber concurred with Marx's idea that only rich countries could introduce socialism. Notes on a meeting in Vienna in 1919 between Weber and his friend, the prominent economist Joseph Schumpeter, cast light on the two men's opinions, temperaments and moral views:
"Schumpeter remarked how pleased he was with the Russian Revolution. Socialism was no longer a discussion on paper, but had to prove its viability. Max Weber responded in great agitation: communism, at this stage in Russian development, was virtually a crime, the road would lead over unparalleled human misery and end in a terrible catastrophe. `Quite likely,' Schumpeter answered, `but what a fine laboratory.' `A laboratory filled with mounds of corpses,' Weber answered heatedly. `The same can be said of every dissection room,' Schumpeter replied. Every attempt to divert them failed. Weber became increasingly violent and loud, Schumpeter increasingly sarcastic and muted. The other guests listened with curiosity, until Weber jumped up, shouting `I can't stand any more of this,' and rushed out... Schumpeter, left behind, said with a smile: `How can a man shout like that in a coffeehouse?'3
3 Quoted in Jaspers, 1992. (Thanks to Richard Swedberg).
In Weber's day, as often in our own, the question "What does society consist of?" was answered with "Politics, economics and culture". This is an unsatisfactory reply, not only because the word "politics" seldom covers all aspects of government, from the military to the legal and fiscal. It is above all unsatisfactory because "culture" must accommodate everything from religion and ethics to science and art.
As mentioned, during World War I Weber got involved in the war effort as a full-time manager of military hospitals. He rushed into print with studies on world religions and economy that had long been in preparation. He published them in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, the journal that he himself edited and where he could include long papers of his own to the envy of his colleagues. A 1915 essay called "Zwischenbetrachtung" (Intermediate Reflections) appears between two sections on Asian religions. It deals with much more than religion and economy, but is not marked as such with any subtitles or any other identifications. It contains Weber's reflections on total societies, their constituent orders and value spheres with their limited internal autonomy. This essay was not finished to Weber's satisfaction at the time. He kept revising it up to his death in summer of 1920. In his posthumously published collected writings on sociology of religion (Weber, 1920, pp. 542–567) we have his latest version, still without descriptive title and any subtitles. This is one of the pearls of Weberian sociology that has been hard to find for many students.
Here Max Weber specified these "life orders" (Lebensordnungen) for advanced societies: the economic, political, religious, intellectual, amorous, and the family order. Each of these orders is matched by a value sphere (Wertssphär) of particular priorities. The orders and spheres tend to become relatively autonomous and develop their own structures with considerable independence from one another, this Weber called Eigengesetzlichkeit der Wertsphären, "the bounded autonomy of spheres of value." In a couple of brilliant lectures on politics and science as professions, he elucidated the competition of the life orders as a perpetual "struggle of demons" (Weber 1921, 1922). Unfortunately, a rich and full personal life is fairly unattainable, since that entails capturing all life spheres.
Friedrich Nietzsche had assigned a distinctive position to the aesthetic sphere. Contemporary economic, political, intellectual, religious and ethical criteria were, basically, arbitrary according to his analysis. But beyond good and evil, aesthetic criteria remained for judging the manifestations of life and civilization by.
Max Weber assayed the idea of giving ethical criteria a similar special position, as a kind of "higher language" with which one could assess conflicts within and between politics, economics, science and religion. His reasoning is not entirely brought to a conclusion: the reader is left skeptical, with the enduring impression that all life spheres (including ethics) in our time are demons, but the body politic and economics are big demons.
The rationalization process affects all life spheres. In later writings Weber opens the door ajar to the idea of different rationalisms in different areas of society (Schluchter 1985). If every life sphere has a rationalism of its own a new very modern debate is open: can politics, economics, art, science and religion actually understand one another?
Weber's best-known research project concerned the role of religion in the origin of the capitalist economy. Great sociology is created when one asks how events in one sphere of life have consequences in another.
Rational capitalism is a way of organizing society so that the bulk of individuals' and groups' needs are satisfied by private enterprises run according to long-term principles of profitability.
The following five conditions must be fulfilled in order for Weber to apply the term "rational capitalism":
(i) Most everyday needs of the population must be covered by products and services from firms. Historically, companies have periodically met individual needs. Nevertheless, one can disregard these companies without the course of history being appreciably changed. Under rational capitalism, there are a plethora of needs among vast numbers of people that are satisfied by private companies working according to profitability principles.
(ii) The factors of production must be controlled by entrepreneurs. Production factors are of various kinds and they must all be capable of being co-ordinated by companies: land, buildings, machinery, input goods, inventions, financial capital, raw materials, labour and finished products. The art of entrepreneurship lies in utilising one's control of the factors of production not to satisfy the lust for power, greed or private desires, but to gain a lasting rise in value for the company.
(iii) Companies must be governed by demands for long-term profitability, calculated by means of systematic book-keeping. All entrepreneurship except book-keeping and companies in which the company's money and the entrepreneur's household cash are not separate may be excluded from (rational) capitalism. In addition, we can discount enterprises that are a sheer means of livelihood, i.e. serve solely to give the owner-entrepreneur bread for the day ─ neither more nor less ─ and we can also exclude companies that depend on the entrepreneur's survival, i.e. vanish when he or she retires or dies. Belonging to rational capitalism are companies that systematically work to retain or improve profits (according to the income statement) for every business period, and for having assets that exceed their liabilities (according to the balance sheet) on each accounting occasion.
Rational capitalism presupposes that all business events are entered in an accounting system in which data are registered, processed, calculated and reported to facilitate profitable business decisions. One essential aid to rational capitalism is double book-keeping, a social innovation from the end of the fifteenth century, which made the production of correct income statements and balance sheets a matter of routine.
(iv) Companies must operate in a market economy. Companies can most easily effect rational adjustment to long-term profitability if they are operating in a market economy in which various factors of production may be bought and sold, and in which goods and services produced may be sold. Thus, companies must be capable of buying and selling in markets for property, investments, raw materials, finished products, etc. They must be able to trade in patent rights, copyrights and licenses of various kinds, and to purchase securities in markets for the same ─ indeed, to be commodities on the stock exchange themselves.
The market economy provides continuous information on what is in demand and what individuals and groups are willing to pay. This information is used by entrepreneurs when they carry out calculations. They can ─ at least in principle ─ work out in every accounting period whether a particular deal is still profitable, and rapidly adjust it if the figures are heading into the red. They are also reasonably well able to carry out a calculation for new deals through signals on openings in the market for new products and services to meet new and old needs. The process of calculation aimed at attaining continuous adjustment to changing markets is the capitalist enterprise's modus vivendi. Here, the essential is always to make efficient use of buildings and machinery, always to use staff right and give them good motivation, and always charge correct prices on the best terms of payment or, for example, continuously work the market in order to achieve the best sales. Since companies themselves control their factors of production, they can rapidly adjust to new situations.
Compared with other social systems, rational capitalism has immense dynamic force.
Max Weber is anxious to point out that capitalism cannot be defined as acquisitiveness or greed. Capitalist entrepreneurs are no greedier than officials, judges, priests or doctors. The latter occupational groups work under various systems of rules: the rules of the civil service, the legal system, the church and the health services. Devoted and unselfish work can be put into these, just as it is feasible within the rule system for a capitalist company. There are selfish and greedy people in every system.4
4 On this point, one might wish that Weber's arguments penetrated the common debate, which cherishes the belief that capitalism is the incarnation of all selfishness and acquisitiveness. A modicum of reflection must, after all, reveal the absurdity of the idea that directors-general and government agencies are nicer than managing directors, that the prime minister is a more morally elevated person than the group chief executive, that the girl working at the municipal day nursery is less selfish than the small entrepreneur, or that doctors in the public health service love people more than bank managers do, to take but a few prejudices from the many. Both libertarians and socialists should pay heed to Max Weber's reprimand: "`Acquisitiveness', `striving for profit' ─ for profit in terms of money, for the largest possible pecuniary gain ─have, as such, nothing at all to do with capitalism. This endeavour has existed and exists in waiters, doctors, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, corrupt officials, soldiers, brigands, crusaders, gamblers, beggars, indeed one might say in all sorts and conditions of men, during all periods in all countries of the world in which the objective opportunity to do so has been or is in some way available. It is part of the ABC of cultural history that one should, once and for all, refrain from this naive definition of concepts. Unfettered acquisitiveness is in no way tantamount to capitalism, and even less with its `spirit'. Capitalism may quite simply be synonymous with the subjugating or at least the rational tempering of this irrational instinct. But capitalism is indeed tantamount to the quest for profit ─ in continuous, rational capitalist business operations; for constantly renewed profit; for remunerativeness ─ since this must be so. Within a capitalist order that embraces the whole economy, an individual capitalist company would be doomed to failure if it did not orient itself according to the chances of achieving remunerativeness." (Weber, 1986, pp. XX et seq.)
(v) The labor market must be free. Labor is an exception to the capitalist rule that the company must be able to own and trade in its factors of production. Workers must not be for sale as in a slave economy. The labour market in rational capitalism must,
instead, comprise free individuals who can accept and leave positions at short notice ─for economic or other motives. Pay and pay trends in such a system are well known,
flexible and reasonably calculable. In such a system, workers move from unprofitable companies that cannot pay good wages to profitable, expansive ones that need to recruit more staff and can pay well.
Employees' households constitute the mainstay and final mass market of rational capitalism.
Even the most highly developed agrarian societies invariably lack some of the five distinctive features of capitalism. Land in agrarian societies can be owned only by certain groups, such as aristocracies or free peasants. Trade is monopolized by other groups, such as guilds. Labor is not free: workers are serfs, slaves or bound by day-work or the like. The market is concentrated in one local area, and long-distance trade is mainly in luxury goods. Long-term, methodical profitability thinking is unknown in agrarian societies. True, strangers may be tricked into parting with all their assets, but a systematic quest for profit by doing business with one's own people is regarded as immoral.
The chapter "Die Entstehung des modernen Kapitalismus" contains one of Weber's best summaries of the immediate causes of Western capitalism. Three classes of preconditions are discussed: (a) instrumental rationalism in financing, technology, work organization and distribution; (b) a modern legal state with a knowledgeable citizenry, impartial bureaucracy and legislation on contracts, with predictable court judgments; and (c) generally applicable (universal) economic ethics that treats transactions with outsiders and transactions with fellow citizens equally, and a fundamental value in the form of a methodical approach to profitability.
The most important sections are concerned with the second point: the evolution of the modern state as a prerequisite of the emergence of capitalism. Those who merely listen to our contemporary debate on the state's need to regulate companies and companies' need of deregulation easily get the impression that the state is inimical to capitalism. This did not apply at the advent of rational capitalism. Rational capitalism quite simply does not develop without a modern state that pacifies a territory, establishes central control of the armed forces' weapons, creates courts that follow impartial rules for the peaceful resolution of conflicts between private interests, establishes a stable monetary standard, and develops a bureaucracy based on impartiality and written documentation. These are the structural preconditions of capitalism. Point (c) is not as trivial as it initially appears. Weber assumes that all societies except modern ones contain two distinct systems of economic rules. The economic transactions effected within a group follow stable, equitable rules linked to notions of status, kinship, group traditions, rituals, gifts and gifts made in return. In transactions with other groups, these rules do not apply. Here, one must go further in tricking outsiders ─ charging exorbitant prices and extortionate interest, and in other ways acting in direct contravention of the rules applying to transactions within the group.
This economic double standard of morality discourages all capitalism on a broad and large scale. Distrust and deception make trade across the group's boundaries episodic. At worst, deals become like Viking raids. Violence and blackmail are then just as common, as methods of marketing, as beating the drum and shouting out the merits of the merchandise. Loans and credits cannot be provided routinely on stable terms. Transactions are mainly first-time purchases, while repurchase is not the rule. People are more interested in making a grand slam than arranging a long-term, regular flow of goods and services in which each repeated transaction involves a small but relatively reliable profit that can be accumulated to form a large fortune.
Thus, Weber finds that every in-depth study of the origins of capitalism must also be a study of how the economic double standard of morality disappears and a long-term profitability approach arises. This is where the value-related conditions of capitalism are located. The quest for these leads him to analyses of religion.
An economic double standard of morality is supported by ideas about magic and by a priesthood that deals with the magical practices of the group. What they do around the tribe's totem pole ─ before their own gods (who are assuredly not the gods of enemies and strangers) ─ confirms the double morality.
The rationalization process transforms religions so that the magic elements become fewer and the value-rational elements more numerous. The prophets of the Old Testament preached less magic and more ethics, for example, and represent an illustration of the process. They did not abolish the double standard, but they undermined it. The apostles of the New Testament, especially Paul, extended religious participation to apply to non-Jewish peoples as well, further undermining the double standard: "Here is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free man; you are all one in Christ". The Greek city religions often also had universalistic doctrines, and the temples were open to people of varying backgrounds.
Weber seeks in the development of religion not only answers to the question of the double standard, but also answers to the question of methodical rationalism, the systematic quest for profitability, that has become so typical of the modern age.
Rationalism is not only the destiny of humanity but also its scourge. Weber did not believe that humankind would hold it more dear than "an iron cage in the enchanted garden of life". When our rational philosophies, plans and Utopias fail to explain injustices, famine, suffering, loneliness and death, we seek charismatic leaders and ideologies, people and ideas that we think can solve these enigmas and give us the right guidance in our predicaments.
But charismatic solutions bring only temporary interruptions in the triumphal march of rationalism. With time, the charismatic prophets are succeeded by popes, and the revolutionaries become administrators. In other words, the rationalization process assimilates the charisma and transforms it into routine. Charisma cannot stop the onward march of rationalism in the long run.
In his study of the world religions, Max Weber finds only a few religious systems of thought ─ three, to be exact ─ that rationally explain the incongruity between destiny and devotion, between the suffering we incur and the efforts we have made in the service of life. Within these systems of thought, rationalism free from magic and without charisma can prevail, at least for a small group of religious virtuosos. These three are the Indian doctrine of karma, Zoroastrian dualism and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.
The religious virtuosos either rework the everyday world or flee from it into contemplation. Generally speaking, the relationship of virtuoso religiosity to everyday life became different in the West and the East. The Western tradition based on the Israeli prophets was one of acting in the world without being of the world. Weber describes the relationship thus:
"When the religious virtuoso stood out in the world as a kind of divine `instrument', cut off from all magic means of salvation, with the demand that he should `prove himself' to be called to salvation before God ─ which in effect meant before oneself ─ by the ethical quality of his behaviour and only thereby, then the `world' could never so much be devalued and rejected from a religious viewpoint as something created (animal-like) and as a kind of weak vessel of sin: thus, it came to be affirmed psychologically even more as the scene of service pleasing to God in the worldly `vocation'. This asceticism within the world was indeed world-denying, in the sense that it scorned such values as dignity and beauty, ecstatic intoxication and glorious dreams, purely worldly power and purely worldly heroism, rejecting them as competitors to the Kingdom of God. But for that very reason, it did not flee like contemplation from the world, but wanted to rationalise the world ethically in accordance with God's commandments, thus remaining world-oriented in a specifically more profound sense than the intact human being's naive `affirmation of the world', for example in ancient times or in lay Catholicism. In everyday life, in particular, it was to prove that the person advanced in religion was selected, a recipient of grace ─not, it is true, in everyday life as it was, but in methodically rationalised everyday behaviour in God's service. When everyday behaviour was rationally elevated into a calling, it became a confirmation of salvation. The sects of religious virtuosos created ferment in the West for a methodical rationalisation of one's way of life, including economic behaviour, and not ─ like the Asiatic associations of contemplative, orgiastic or apathetic ecstatics ─ outlets for the longing to escape from the meaninglessness of acting within the world."5
5 Weber, ...
Thus Weber lays the foundation of his thesis that Protestant ethics have been a starting-point for the systematic quest for profitability that is part of the spirit of capitalism. Methodical religious rationalisation of everyday life underlies the methodical thinking on profitability that is the value cornerstone of capitalism.
Weber's theses on the
origin of capitalism have been greatly debated and questioned. His reasoning is
complex, and not all his critics have been able to follow it. One must realize that both the structural
and the value-related factors must be present in order for rational capitalism
to arise. This has been the case only
in the modern Western world.
In the cities of India, Weber can point to highly advantageous structural conditions: here was a legal system at least as useful for capitalism as that of mediaeval Europe; here was rational science; here was a mathematics that should have made profitability calculations as easy to accomplish as in Europe; here were handicrafts and division of labor. But the requisite values were lacking and India developed no domestic form of capitalism.
In China too, there were outstandingly favorable conditions for capitalist development. Much that inhibited capitalism in Europe, such as feudalism and the guilds, did not exist in China. The economic double standard of morality was defeated by a pragmatic, worldly religious tradition. Here, there was a cultivated and literate bureaucracy. But in China the spark that could have kindled capitalism, namely the motivation that ensues from values concerning obligatory methodical profitability, was lacking.
Only in Europe did the unique combination exist ─ but not in the whole of Europe, either. Only where ascetic Protestantism had put down firm roots were conditions particularly good, for example among the Calvinists in The Netherlands, the Huguenots in France, the Methodists in England, the Pietisten in Germany and the Free Churches of the revivalist movements in the Nordic countries. And the Protestant sects in the United States were clearly a capitalist hothouse. Nevertheless, there are exceptions difficult to explain: For example, Catholic northern Italy developed a flourishing capitalism.
Weber's vision of history has ─ quite naturally, for a highlight ─ become a watershed in sociology. Before Weber there were, assuredly, many theories and systems that sought to find an intellectually acceptable order in the hard-to-understand phenomena we call society and culture. Weber gave us a picture of society and culture in world history that had a better basis in evidence. He did not spend time on airy abstractions, yet his vision is worded in the language of the historical sources that he gives a more precise meanings than the original usage of the terms.
Without ending up in speculative theories, Weber gave us the formulae that have created the predominant values and structures of our own time. And within their terms, hard to manage as they are, we can continue ourselves to shape our own and humankind's destiny ─ with greater understanding of our historical situation.