Max Weber and the Spirit of Capitalism

I’ve come across the work of the sociologist, Max
, a couple
of times recently.

Firstly, in their book, Why
Should Anyone be Led by You?
, Rob
and Gareth
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
.’ Our
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
non-Protestant cultures.”

Having a “Reformed
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
World War
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
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
. 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
global terrorism.
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,
like Bomber
, 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

Lost Opportunities

My Dad was a fitter
and turner
, toolmaker and maintenance fitter.
He was exceptionally good at his trade. Dad could make anything involving
metal and would prefer to make it rather than buy it.

As I was growing up and developing an interest in science and electronics, Dad
seemed to be able to answer any question I put to him. He knew how a radio worked
and helped me build my first crystal set.
When I got to high school and started learning algebra, calculus and trigonometry
he seemed to be able to explain every question I had at least as well as my teachers.
Dad often had his own particular way of explaining a topic that made it come
alive in my mind. I didn’t
think about this much until later in my adult years. This seemed to me just what
a Dad should be able to do. But as I became a science and maths teacher myself,
I started to realise he would be what we would now classify as a gifted student.
We would regard him as having the potential to go a long way. Had he been born
in the fifties like I was, he would almost certainly have gone to university
and had the opportunity to do post graduate studies.

Dad was also a gifted and advanced pianist. As we were growing up we realised
that not everyone’s dad played the piano and certainly not everyone’s
dad played what we later learned was called classical music. But although we
loved his music and loved hearing him play pretty well every night we didn’t
realise until late in our teens how advanced he was. He played Chopin, Paganini,
Liszt and many other
composers’ works from memory. Even then it was only well into my adult years
that I started to realise how amazing it was that a fitter and turner son of
a blacksmith from Kalgoorlie was such an advanced musician. He was certainly
talented enough that had the opportunity arisen, he could have made a career
from his music.

Yet Dad never had the opportunity to go to university or had the opportunity
to make a career from his music. My dad was a teenager (although the term wasn’t
used then) during the depression and had to leave school to go to work as soon
as work was available. He worked as a Diesel Mechanic in the Kalgoorlie mines
and the power station there. Each week he would bring his pay packet home and
give it to my grandmother who would then give him whatever she thought was a
reasonable allowance to live on. He wasn’t destitute. Dad was able to buy
a number of old motorbikes and eventually a brand new Francis
in the late 30s. He
even bought a piano as far as I know with my grandmother’s blessing. Who
knows, if things had continued as they were he may have had the opportunity to
advance his education and eventually make it to university or have opportunity
to play music as a career.

But this was not to be. The war came and Dad joined the RAAF as a Fitter. Even
there he excelled. I recently applied for and received his air force records.
The results of his examinations for his group of trainees is included. The names
are listed in order of merit and at the top of the list, alone in the category “Pass
with Special Distinction” is dad’s name. While he was training in
Melbourne, my auntie contributed to the war effort by inviting some of these
young men home to replace some of family comforts they were missing. I still
have a photo from those days of my dad in his RAAF dark blue uniform sitting
at the piano at my auntie’s house. That’s how he met my mum (my auntie’s
sister). The were married on December 6th 1941. Pearl
was bombed on December
7th 1941. All leave was cancelled and within days of becoming a married man,
he found himself at the receiving end of Japanese bombs in the Northern
Although mum and dad were able to correspond, all mum was allowed to know was
that he was somewhere in Australia and was left to guess that he was in the Northern

Just a few months later she received a telegram from the Air Force:





Thanks to the surgeons at an American
Military Hospital
, Dad did recover although
he was left with permanent paralysis of one side of his face and for a long time
was very embarrassed about this. I don’t know all the details of his recovery
but he was not discharged until 1944 without taking any further active part in
the war. (One of his brothers was killed in the Battle
for Singapore
and the
other spent 11 days drifting in a dinghy in the Mediterranean after being shot

On medical grounds, Dad was advised not to return to Kalgoorlie where work was
being offered to him and was forced to compete in a much tougher employment market
in Melbourne. Eventually he was able to get a position as an apprentice fitter
and turner as part of a scheme to retrain returned servicemen. He remained with
the same employer for the next forty years. However, despite his proven intellect
and ability Dad remained a blue collar worker all his working life. One of the
high points of those early days was the young husband and wife, with my then
infant eldest brother being able to move into a War
home in Highett which
remained the family home for the rest of Dad’s life and until Mum was no
longer able to live by herself.

Interspersed with periods of great happiness, perhaps the greatest of them the
birth of their four children, Dad experienced periods of deep melancholy. It
wasn’t easy feeding, clothing and schooling four children on a fitter and
turner’s wage even though he worked long hours of overtime when it was
available and took on a second job as a waiter at a golf club on weekends.

Things probably got to their lowest point at the death of my brother after a
long and difficult illness, but then things started to look up as Dad neared
retirement age. After years of working amongst heavy machinery he had suffered
significant hearing loss and was successful in receiving a small but useful compensation
payout. Then again, after years of hearings, letters and appointments with government
bodies (mainly the Repatration
he was finally awarded a compensation payment and pension
for his war injuries. Although the compensation payment did not cover the pension
he would have received if the government had originally admitted liability
for his injuries, it was enough to allow Mum and Dad to live comfortably for
their twenty years of retirement.

I wrote this piece for another purpose. But as I was writing it, it made me
think again about the concept of "potential." Given my Dad’s ability and talent,
many would say he had the potential to acheive much more than he did.

When I think about that, my first reaction is to wonder who has the right
to judge the worth of one life’s achievements and whether something "better"
could have been achieved.

Leaving that aside though, did my Dad have that potential, or when you think
about potential do you have to take circumstances into account? I guess we
can never really now.

What we can now is how we respond to what we believe is our own potential.
What do we do with the gifts we have? This is not about beating ourselves up
and telling ourselves we should be doing more than we are. It is about taking
an honest assessment of ourselves and asking ourselves what do we really want
to do and what can we do about that.

I leave this with you.