When writing about Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism two obvious things have to be born in mind (and I wouldn’t bother writing about them except a friend pointed to an article which completely ignored them). You need to understand what Weber understood by the ‘Protestant Ethic’, and explain how and why Weber connected it to ‘capitalism’. Weber did not write about the ‘Christian Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, or the ‘Modernist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, but the ‘Protestant ethic and… ‘

The book is about the Ethic/ideology of Protestantism, and why this led to the formation of capitalism as an unintended consequence of the actions and dispositions protestant (really puritan) religion generated. It is a reply to those Marxists who insisted that economic behaviour and structures was the complete determinate of religious ideology. In counter argument Weber proposes we have a positive feedback loop (although he could not use those terms of course). In this argument Protestantism both was, and generated, a major break with the Christian past and previous economic formations processes. For Weber, Protestantism formed the generator and essence of capitalism or in other words its ‘spirit,’ or ‘internal rationality.’ It is also a mild criticism of that ‘spirit’ and of those people who think wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and the consequences these views have built.

So the Protestant and particularly the puritan ethic had the following consequences (and this is a bit of elaboration of Weber, and taken from other places).

1) Salvation became purely individual. You could not work together for salvation, such as say prayers for those in purgatory. Hence the idea that everything depends on the individual – and there is no such thing as supportive community with anyone other than believers.

2) Everything that happened is and was predestined, including your salvation or damnation. Nothing you did in the way of good works could make a difference to your future, only your strong faith, and separation from sin.

3) Poverty was a result of sin and God’s will, so the poor were beyond help through charity, only through their personal/individual conversion and God’s will. It was even considered sinful to give ‘indiscriminate charity’. The Poor had no legitimate demand on the rich, or anyone else, for help. This helped to break the social relations which operated against capital accumulation. It also led to punishing the poor through workhouses, which may have formed the template for the factory.

4) As you did not know whether you were saved or damned and good works did nothing, you looked for signs of God’s favour in this life such as wealth.

5) Work and capital accumulation became the measure for true ‘vocation’ rather than mysticism, open charity, love or prayer for others.

6) Eventually work became everything, and everything that was not work was an indicator of potential damnation – the devil makes work for idle hands – the poor must work, human life is work/labour. Time is money and must not be ‘wasted’…. etc. The Workhouse was considered good for the poor as well as preventing them from committing sin.

7) Nature was purely a resource for work and conversion into wealth. Unless land was ‘productive’ for good puritans it was valueless, and needing ownership and improvement to make productive. Hence, first people’s did not treat land as ‘property’ or ‘properly’ and it should belong to protestants by right of God.

With the loss of joyful activity, all that was left was work, money and condemnation of the sinful.

None of these results were intended by the original protestants, and only a fairly small portion of the population were ever driven puritans, but the ideology and the habits it inculcated had a major effect on the formation of modern life.

While this opened a pathway to allow the formation of a prosperous and plentiful mercantile middle class, as opposed to peasants and aristocrats, priests and warriors, the problem is (and I think that the criticism is implied by Weber), is that this protestant ethic is not a particularly pleasant foundation for a society. It destroys human sociability, mutuality, joy, spontaneity and connection to the Earth, and reduces all value to money and self-righteousness…. It is a very bleak basis for life and permeates the modern world.