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Essay/Term paper: The capitalist future: a consequence of calvinist annunciation

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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The Capitalist Future: A Consequence of Calvinist Annunciation


Anukool Lakhina
ID 203, Lindholm
Question #3
October 10th, 1996


In his work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber
predicts that the future will be a world of "mechanized perfection" devoid of
"religious and ethical meaning." In this world modern capitalism becomes a self
sustaining system no longer needing the Calvinist religious impetus that had
inspired the work ethic. Weber argues that the future will be a capitalistic
society, where the proletariat and the bourgeoisie alike, will not be driven by
religious motivation, but instead by a constant struggle to benefit from the
system. He reasons that this future of the capitalist society is a direct
consequence of the teachings of Calvinism. The Calvinist work ethic of 'living
to work' forms the core of modern capitalism. This ethic originated from the
Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the notion of a transcendental God.
Predestination decrees that God has already picked out who those "predestined
into everlasting life" (100) and those "foreordained to everlasting death"
(100). Calvinists also believe that God, a distant "grand conception" (164) who
is "beyond all human comprehension," (164) is unreachable. Both these beliefs
together eliminated any possibility of appeasing God through service or
sacrifice. The answer to the question whether believers were the chosen or the
damned could thus neither be influenced nor known. If, however, one turned his
work into a 'calling,' restricting any desire to wasteful pleasure, he could
experience a feeling of assurance that he is indeed a member of the Elect.
Calvinism preached this ascetic ethic of hard work and complete absence of
frivolous waste of money and time. As a result, the work ethic of the
population shifted from 'working to live' to 'living to work.' Traditional
capitalism which relied on the "greedy maximization of profit in a one-shot
enterprise," (14) became the rational modern capitalism, a continuous cycle
involving the constant "productive investment of capital." (172) The Calvinist
teachings demanded honest dealings in business, steady production and sales, and
continuous savings and reinvestment which no doubt led to phenomenal business
growth and success. Weber illustrates in the following quote: "When the
limitation of consumption is combined with the release of acquisitive activity,
the inevitable practical result is obvious: accumulation of capital through
ascetic compulsion to save." (172)

This "diligent and frugal" (175) attitude made people richer and
"material goods gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the
lives of men." (181) The dependence on external goods went from the "light cloak
which can be thrown aside at any moment" (181) to a necessity, or as Weber puts
it, an "iron cage." (181) The so called acetic lifestyle now led to an increased
dependence on materialism. This is unavoidable, since a religion such as
Calvinism which preaches "industry and frugality" (175) could not help but
produce riches. An increase in riches however, led to a "proportionate increase
in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the
pride of life." (175) As a result, the ascetic 'see no evil, speak no evil, hear
no evil' value lost its importance. In John Wesley's words : "wherever riches
have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion."
(175) In essence, the "form of [the Calvinist] religion remained" but the
"spiri t [continues to] swiftly vanish away." (175) The Calvinist values have
now "faded into the self absorbed luxury of the wealthy." (19) Calvinism had
become rationalized into a tradition and the original religious doctrines began
to die out. Weber illustrates this claim by using the United States as an
example:

"In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of
wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become
associated with purely mundane passions." (182)

While the "Puritans wanted to work in a calling, we are [now] forced to
do so." (181) Calvinist-inspired asceticism had created "the tremendous cosmos
of the modern economic order" (181) which now "determines the lives of all the
individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned
with direct economic acquisitions." (181) Capitalism, unlike the religion that
had originally motivated it, has not perished or been replaced by another
charismatic religious movement. "Victorious capitalism rests on mechanical
foundations"(182) and its Calvinist supports have now stultified. The entire
conception of the calling now "prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead
religious beliefs." (182) The now disenchanted world has lost its God. It is a
cold, heartless but very efficient machine. The work ethic of modern capitalism,
although similar to the Calvinist ethic, remains but the religious reasoning
behind the ethic has eroded away. Constant competition among firms who strugg
le to stay in and benefit from the system has given Capitalism the "character of
[a] sport." (182) It is now a self sustaining system guided by Adam Smith's
invisible hand, no longer needing any religious motivations.

Are we to live in this "mechanized petrification" (182) forever? Weber
reasons that there is no way we can know about the future. "No one knows who
will live in this cage in the future." (182) He does however postulate that "new
prophets" (182) may arise or "a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals" may come
to pass. He also suggests another possibility that of the embellishment of the
"mechanized petrifaction" (182) with a "sort of convulsive self
importance."(182) There is, however, no way we can know what will occur in the
future at the present time. Until then, we are all "specialists without spirit,
[and] sensualists without heart." (182)

Works Cited

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Roxbury
Publishing Company: Los Angeles, rpt. 1995.

 

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