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.
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