Study notes

Weber, Calvinism and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Max Weber published his highly-influential work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904. The focus of Weber's study was that religion was an engine of social change. Weber identified features of the Calvinist protestant religion which he argued had the unintended consequence of playing a major role in kick-starting capitalism.

Calvinism was a protestant religious movement from the 16th century. The two features of Calvinism that Weber considered to be especially influential in the development of capitalism were ascetism and predestination.

Ascetism is a philosophy of self-denial: the idea that Christians should lead an austere life, without luxuries. This may seem an odd philosophy to kick-start an economic system based on the accumulation of ever greater wealth, but it does make sense – wait for it!

Predestination is the idea that it has already been decided who will go to heaven and who will go to hell and there is nothing you can do about this during your time on Earth. Good deeds, repentance, penance: none of this will save you: God had already decided your fate before you were born. The problem with this belief is that it fails to perform many of the functions that sociologists like Parsons or Malinowski suggested religion should perform, because it offers little comfort. Indeed, people were leading these ascetic, joyless lives without knowing if they were to receive any reward in heaven. This contributed to a sense of anxiety, sometimes described as salvation panic. This led to Calvinists looking for signs from God that they were indeed among the elect (those who would go to heaven). They increasingly came to see success as a sign, and therefore threw themselves into their work.

Because of ascetism and the idea that people should make themselves useful and follow a “calling”, it was business at which Calvinists might be successful, and when they were successful, instead of spending the money on luxury items, they reinvested the money into their businesses. Making money and reinvesting it in order to make more money was the origin of the values and spirit of capitalism.

Evaluating Weber

  • Even Weber himself acknowledged that Calvinism was not the only factor responsible for the development of capitalism. He believed it to be a significant factor, but acknowledged that there would have been others (outside the scope of his study).
  • Weber has been accused of holding a ‘debate with the ghost of Marx’. While Marx saw capitalism as the product of material relationships and religion as something which reflected those material interests, Weber sought to turn it on its head, by suggesting that economic change could be driven by religious beliefs and values.
  • Weber’s conclusions have received some criticism. Eisenstadt (1968) argues that capitalism did occur in places where there was no Calvinism and indeed pre-dated Calvinism in some places. He pointed to Roman Catholic Italy, for example.
  • R.H. Tawney concluded that capitalism helped create Protestantism at least as much as the other way around. He thought that early protestants embraced features of the new capitalism as fitting with their world-view and ethic. It was rationalism, rather than salvation panic, that brought the two together.
  • Others have pointed out that there were places were Calvinism was very strong where there was very little development of capitalism and indeed hostility to commerce. The clearest example of this was Scotland, which remained very poor while Calvinism was dominant.
  • Finally, some have questioned Weber’s understanding of Calvinism and other religions and therefore his explanation is incorrect on a theological level.

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