Throughout both Marx’s works and Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, explanations of the function and origin of capitalism within modern society hinge upon a certain conceptualization of the individual, the group (or collective), and the relationship between the two. In order for Marx to reach his conclusions, he conceptualizes society as a collective body of people that functions like a machine, impelled by certain forces that have more control over us than we have of them – in our case, capital, which appears to us in the form of commodities and money but is really just the life-force that money takes on when we participate in moving it. In terms of the individual, we each make conscious choices to surrender our agency to the system and become cogs in the machine, a machine that shapes us as individuals in ways we don’t anticipate.
The conceptualization of the capitalist society as an entrapment of the collective is reflected in Weber’s work, in which he frames the society as an environment that ultimately strips the individual of agency:
“The capitalistic economy of the present day is an immense cosmos into which the individual is born, and which presents itself to him, at least as an individual, as an unalterable order of things in which he must live. It forces the individual, in so far as he is involved in the system of market relationships, to conform to capitalistic rules of action” (Weber 19).
The difference, however, is that Weber moves from there into an explanation of how the individual is tied to the system by a personal obligation to fulfill one’s calling: The duty calling of the individual in Protestantism, unlike in Catholicism, exists in “the fulfillment of obligations upon the individual by his position in the world” (40). These obligations of the individual’s calling are his earthly duty, and for God, the devout Protestant must fulfill his duty of laboring, so in Protestantism, calling and duty are aligned, and impel the individual not to pursue God in monastic prayer but by diligent labor. Divine calling inspires the individual to labor, and in service to this obligation, he labors “as if [labor] were an absolute end in itself” (25). In Marx, the individual’s duty is to advance capital, and this mandate comes from the collective, the capitalist fabric of his society, while in Weber, the individual’s adherence to his divine calling directs his duty to labor for the sake of laboring alone. In his dedication to laboring, luxury and pleasure become sinful, so as a worker who strives only to work regardless of profit, he becomes a commercial ascetic.
Weber doesn’t expound on the stratified division of labor and the alienation of workers, because his interest in society is secondary to his commitment to explaining the dogged work ethic from which it stems. In Weber’s model of capitalism, “every legitimate calling has exactly the same worth in the sight of God” (41). Every member of the Protestant influenced capitalist society labors to please God and his diligence makes him presentable to God, rather than the type of work he performs or the amount of capital he accrues. He proves his faith to God by “restless, continuous systematic work” (116), and works for God not for capital. The society he lives in is the product of his labor, and it comes into being as individuals work for God. Even as God loses his importance in the minds of the capitalist laborers, they retain the Protestant ethic of systematic, continuous labor, and it becomes an inescapable “iron cage” (124), an implacable social paradigm to which Weber sees no alternative.
The 1966 film, Seconds, starring Rock Hudson, explores a situation in which the duty of the individual clashes with his calling. In the film, a middle-aged banker finds himself deeply dissatisfied with the “all work and no play” model of the Protestant ethic. He hates his work, his wealth, and his wife, so when an old friend tells him about a secret company, that allows rich men to escape their lives by faking their deaths and getting new faces via plastic surgery, he jumps at the opportunity. The banker gets Rock Hudson’s face and begins a new life in Malibu as an oil painter. He engages in Dionysian excess and strikes up a relationship with a beautiful young woman, but having been born into the “unalterable cosmos” (19) of The Protestant Ethic’s “iron cage”, he cannot fully enjoy his new life or his new identity, not only because he misses his wife and daughter, but also because he is at heart a Protestant laborer, a man who works to work without leisure. The film ends in tragedy as the iron cage closes in on him, corroborating Weber’s theory.
The fulfillment of a calling places a premium on moral conduct, not on the enjoyment of life. Weber points out that “faithful labor, even at low wages, on the part of those whom life offers no other opportunities, is highly favorable to God” (121), so a workforce of people who diligently worked at minimum wage tasks was created. As a result, “the exploitation of this specific willingness to work” (121) was sanctioned. While Weber cites this occurrence in Europe in the 16th century, similar behaviors still occur in the present day. The documentary Hair India (read more here and here) follows the process by which hair from Indian women becomes expensive extensions in the United States and Europe. Many Hindu women make a pilgrimage, several times over the course of their lives, to temples in southern India to donate their hair “in an attempt to purify themselves and repay debt to their gods”, the debt that, as the myth states, Vishnu, a god of creation, incurred to finance his wedding. As a way of showing their devotion to the religion, women who are impoverished, aid in repaying his debt by giving away the prized possession that is their hair. It is also said that donating hair in honor of the gods is a way to give thanks for blessings and to prevent being egotistical, but women of higher social standing are only required to give up three strands of their hair, instead of going completely bald. Their hair is then sold by the temples to companies who make and distribute the highly sought after extensions. While the temples claim that they use to the money from the sales to provide services such as meals and health care to the community, it is unclear who exactly those services reach, and the women who offer their hair by no means see any of the profits directly. The same conditions that Weber indicates as factors for this kind of exploitation as a result of the Protestant Reformation, people without means who are dedicated to serving their religion, are still present and result in people being taken advantage of in similar fashions. This example serves to point out that, because we are in the same capitalist system, history will continue to repeat itself given the appropriate conditions.
Topic: Individual/Collective (Section 20)
Contributors: Sylvia De Boer, Theodore Davis, Seychelle Mikofsky