Max Weber and capitalism without a compass

Long ago a poli sci professor introduced me to the Weber Thesis. Max Weber in the early 1900s argued that certain moral values in the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism, ultimately lead to the rise of capitalism. The Wikipedia writeup is lucid and reasonably succinct, but I’ll try to be even more succinct. Prior to the Reformation, Weber said, most “spiritual” people in the West regarded money as a sort of necessary evil, a contaminent of sorts. An important principle of Calvinism was that a person should strive to glorify God in everything, including his vocation. I imagine that the New Testament verses Colossians 3:23-24 underlie this idea. In this view, working hard and banking money got the gold seal of approval. And so, Weber said, capitalism took off like a rocket. The faith system fed the economic system.

Eventually the religious underpinnings of the economic system faded away, leaving “rational capitalism” in which making buckets of money is the end unto itself.

Okay fine. However, Michael Fitzgerald’s excellent post on Fast Food Nation (and associated economic/historical chronicles like The Jungle) brings to mind a sort of corollary to the Weber Thesis: that capitalism conducted by people with no moral compass at all can get pretty ugly. In fact, gets ugly in fairly predictable, exploitative ways, with alarming frequency. It calls to mind the entrepreneurs who ran out on 9/12/01 to claim all sorts of 9/11-related marketing phrases and URLs – one such person, guy confronted by a newspaper reporter about the exploitation of others’ misfortune, responded along the lines of, “Hey man, it’s just good old fashioned capitalism.” Well, no sir, it isn’t. The question wasn’t about the economic system. 

A possible Weber Thesis corollary is that an economic system deprived of any moral underpinnings (whatever those may be) starts to devour its own participants.


5 thoughts on “Max Weber and capitalism without a compass

  1. More on Weber
    […]I followed Derek’s link to Wikipedia on the Weber thesis, which was useful for expanding on the Thesis and its interpretations, and also for noting that Weber, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, thought that the catalyst of Calvinism had long since been forgotten. No longer did people feel called to serve in two kingdoms, heaven and earth. For the most part, if they were capitalists, they just served themselves here on Earth.[…]

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