I’ve come across the work of the sociologist, Max
Weber, a couple
of times recently.
Firstly, in their book, Why
Should Anyone be Led by You?, Rob
Goffee and Gareth
Jones talk about the implications of Weber’s thinking
for Leadership in business. I hope to write a piece on this book
in the near future.
However, the catalyst for this post is this thought provoking piece,
by Lorin Loverde.
Loverde discusses Weber’s book The
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I am fascinated by Loverde’s
analysis which is that the development of capitalism only became possible
with the widespread influence of the ‘Protestant
According to Loverde, there is a vast contradiction inherent in capitalism — we
seek to gain wealth but when we do we are immediately tempted to spend
it on ourselves. So previous societies over millennia created great
edifices to themselves or lived in debauchery, but there was nothing
left to invest in future investment for wealth creation. So the civilisation
collapsed only to start the process over again.
But then came the Reformation and the Protestant Age. The capitalist
contradiction was held by a ‘transcendent
wordly life was but a preparation for a future life. In this life our
purpose was to serve God and deny ourselves. Loverde puts it this way:
“…we demonstrated on earth by our economic success that we
were predestined to go to heaven after death; thus, our success was
a sign of goodness, but we still had to avoid being extremely selfish
with extravagant spending and conspicuous consumption to typical of
Having a “Reformed
Baptist” background myself, I would
contest Loverde’s theological interpretation but the end result
is the same. The Protestant ethic was one of self discipline (as opposed
to the self-denial of the pre-reformation
Christian Church.) This involved
enjoyment but avoidance of the wordly pleasures or ‘sins of the
flesh’. In Wesley’s Methodism,
this developed into avoiding anything that was thought to be worldly — including dancing,
drinking alcohol, anything that had a sexual association, the theatre
and even reading ‘wordly’ (ie non-religious) books.
Most “Protestant” christians today would regard this methodism
as extreme but would still aspire to some notion of avoiding ‘wordliness’ – that
is that their ultimate purpose in this life is in preparation for the
The point Loverde is making is that this live view — that of
having a transcendent purpose — made, and to some extent continues
to make, capitalism possible. Without it, previous generations would
have spent all the wealth they created and we would not now be enjoying
the benefits of the ‘great industrial west.’ There would
be no infrastructure, no large industrialised capacity.
The problem now is we have capitalism but have lost the Protestant
It reminds of the RAF’s Bomber
II. It was formed during the darkest days of the Battle
of Britain in an attempt
to strike at the German war machine at its source. From it’s
origins as a cobbled together unit with hopelessly inadequate and out
of date machinery, it became itself an efficient and ruthless machine
that could ‘take out’ any city in Germany on any night
it chose. And, in the end, it did for no other reason than because
it could. It had been set up in the dire need to defend Great
Britain but when the hour of desperation had passed it continued to bomb cities
because that’s what it did – with devastating impact and
little military gain as we say in Dresden.
Perhaps that’s the point we have reached in capitalism. We make
wealth because we can. We’ve forgotten why. We just do it. For
ourselves we could say this is no problem, except that our continuing
to make wealth threatens our very ability to make wealth.
We have become so efficient at extracting and using the Earth’s
resources that we can, for the first time in our history, envision
the day when we have used all there is to use. Again our efficiency
at using resources has created daunting problems of waste and impact
on the world’s environment. It has gone well past the stage where
the West can live without regard to the pollution we create in the
World. The world is now just too small.
Finally, continuing to create and concentrate wealth while at the
same time making communications technology easily available to almost
every square millimetre of our planet, we have allowed the world’s
poorest peoples to know about our affluence and, many would say, decadence.
There can be little doubt that this is a major driving force towards
This has perhaps always been the case, as long as there has been a
divide between rich and poor. What is driving, and makes so threatening,
the extremism in the terrorism of the “fundamentalists” is
the juxtaposition of this divide with what they see as the purposelessness
of the West.
Loverde’s response is to propose the need for a transcendent
For better or worse we have left behind the Protestant Ethic and now,
Harris, we build bigger businesses because we can. We have
forgotten why. The catch cry is that business exists to make a profit.
If we believe this, we are sounding the death knell of capitalism as
we know it for there will be nothing left to invest. That is if the
earth’s resources don’t run out first or fundamentalist
extremist terrorism doesn’t make it impossible to continue to
operate business on a global scale.
So what might a viable transcendent purpose be? How about you tell