When Capitalism Outgrows Its Roots

In this post, our group investigates the theme of “Surface/Structure” in relation to Marx and Weber’s structural analysis of modern capitalism. On the “surface” side of our discussion, we consider how capitalism looks in society, mainly how it manifests in human behavior. Then, we delve into a discussion of the structural determinants of capitalism as Marx and Weber see them; essentially, we seek to establish what underlying forces motivate the human behavior that one sees in capitalist society.

Marx and Weber both examine the economic structure of the society they lived in, late 19th century Europe, and develop social theories that explain the roles and activities of various people in this society. Specifically,  Marx and Weber analyze the surface appearance of modern capitalism as it exists in their society, and attempt to explain the underlying structure that determines this surface appearance. Although they both ponder the same capitalism, they each propose very different structures to explain how this system developed. While the Marxian and Weberian structures manifested in the same surface appearance, they have different implications for the future of capitalist society.


Before defining Marx and Weber’s distinct underlying structures of capitalism, we will first recount the surface form of capitalism, which they both describe similarly. Weber states in his introduction to his structural analysis that “capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise (Weber xxxii).” In other words, capitalism is systematic human behavior based on an assessment of what will expand their capital the most. As is depicted in the “Pyramid of Capitalism” graphic, money sits above all human actions as the highest goal; accumulation of capital is an end in itself, toward which all people are directed. Marx sees the same thing on on the surface of capitalism, arguing, “Use-values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist;  nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making. This boundless drive for enrichment, this passionate chase after value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser (Fowkes 254).”  Thus, both Marx and Weber speak to the surface appearance of capitalism as rational behavior dedicated to the growth of capital.  As we discuss in the coming paragraphs, Weber and Marx identify different foundational reasons that humans behave as seen in capitalism.

Aids drug price increases by more than 5000% after acquired by pharmaceutical

One clear example of modern capitalism and the pursuit of profit over all else is the recent scandal over Martin Shkreli, the pharmaceutical CEO who raised prices on a life-saving drug by 5,000% almost a year ago. This article discusses Shkreli’s reasoning behind the price hike and the public outrage it engendered.

The work will never end.

Weber proposes that the modern form of capitalism came about first as a moral obligation, a duty to a calling set by God. He argues that capitalism has its roots in the idea that working diligently and unendingly in the calling is, under Protestantism, the highest degree of morality and the path to salvation. Because work should be continuous and one should not use the wealth one creates in leisure or pursuit of pleasure, more and more wealth is created. Wealth shouldn’t be used in pursuit of pleasure because, according to Weber, “the real, moral objection is to relaxation in the security of possession, the enjoyment of wealth with the consequence of idleness and the temptations of the flesh, above all of distraction from the pursuit of a righteous life (Weber 104).” Protestantism was the first religious branch which espoused this importance of labor in addition to the rejection of material luxury. In Protestantism, the pursuit of wealth is sinful. Wealth is simply a byproduct of doing God’s work, and should be disregarded as more than a sign of such. It is clear how this became the basis for modern capitalism–wealth is not used for luxury or enjoyment, only for the endless production of more wealth. This religious obligation to God was the basis of capitalism, but now that capitalism has spread to control all of society, it no longer needs religion, standing unshakably on its own.

The capitalist’s dream

Unlike Weber, who suggests that the initial foundation of capitalism is an individual moral spirit, Marx suggests that the form of appearance of capitalism is shaped by forces that are independent of the individual. Weber argues that “what is most important … was not generally in such cases a stream of new money invested in the industry … but the new spirit, the spirit of modern capitalism (30-31)”. This statement reiterates Weber’s belief discussed earlier that when it comes to the development of capitalism, a positive ethos toward work is a stronger driving force than capital. This contrasts Marx’s belief regarding what structures underly capitalism. Weber’s observation of “a stream of new money invested in the industry (30)” refers to the self-valorization of capital, which Marx believes drives capitalism’s expansion. This belief that capital augments in value autonomously is supported by Marx’s quote that “the ceaseless augmentation of value is achieved by the more acute capitalist by means of throwing his money again and again into circulation … [value] preserves and expands itself through all these changes … M-C-M’ is in fact therefore the general formula for capital (Fowkes translation, 255-257)”. In this quote, Marx reveals a belief that capitalism grows within a self-contained machine that operates independently of individual agency. 


Imagine capitalism to be a plant, to grow as a plant does. Marx’s capitalist society is analogized in the self-watering planter that contains its own source of water, as shown below. The water represents the capitalist’s drive for surplus value. The water source is the capitalist, who is a vessel for capital to valorize itself. Thus, to Marx, a society for capital’s growth has been set up–it will operate autonomously. Just as water in the self-watering planter allows the plant to grow, the Marxian drive for surplus value allows the continued cycle of M-C-M, or what comes to the same thing, the growth of capitalism.

But enough on Marx’s self-watering planter. Weber’s plant of capitalism is shown below.


Just as this pot contains no self-cultivating mechanism to continuously inject water, Weber’s interpretation of capitalist society contains no intrinsic driving force that pushes people to continuously expand capitalism, as capital does for Marx. On the contrary, Weber believes that the drive for capitalist expansion comes from God’s instillment of a calling in each individual, from which will arise a moral obligation to labor and expand capital.

Thus, while Weber and Marx can both be said to see capitalism as a cycle of growth of capital, they believe that there are different driving forces underlying this growth: a calling from God and self-valorizing capital itself, respectively.

Both of the proposed structures explain the current appearance of modern capitalism. However, they have very different implications for the future of capitalism and our society. For Marx, capitalism is fundamentally based on contradictions–for example, a society where worth is determined by labor-hours but machines make labor-hours irrelevant–and these contradictions make capitalism unstable, and a revolution inevitable. For Weber, there are no contradictions. Capitalism began with a solid base of moral duty, and now dominates society so irresistibly that every person is forced to comply, and it has become an “iron cage (Weber 123).”



3 thoughts on “When Capitalism Outgrows Its Roots

  1. I really liked your post! The example of Martin Shrkeli really elucidates how we have completely lost all semblance of the Protestant Ethic. I don’t think morality crossed Shrkeli’s mind and I don’t think that he thinks that hiking up pharmaceutical prices is his calling. I heard that he spent thousands of dollars on an unheard Wu-Tang album just to have. He is not going to share it with anyone. It almost seems as though Shrkeli has gotten bored with making money to make money and working just to work. Now, it seems as though the more money you make the more inclined you are to spend it on symbols of status such as a brand new car (when your old one works just fine) or a bigger house (when you don’t need one) or really expensive clothes. I guess we are falling to the sinful temptation that capital brings as Weber described. Today, it seems as though the spirit of capitalism has shifted, once we have fulfilled our needs and are fairly comfortable.

    In our secular and pop-culturized society, we do not want to be seen as godly but rather seen at a high social status. The spirit of capitalism is still relatively intact as Benjamin Franklin described and Weber defined, but it looks more extravagant today. I would say that it is now a blend of acquiring material goods and acquiring money for money. The example of Shrkeli’s Wu-Tang album represents his pursuit of status symbols. Another example would be the trope that when someone gets a big promotion they upgrade on a car or buy a bigger house. Even fashion trends like the Yeezy sneakers that are hundreds and even thousands of dollars represents our pursuit of status symbols. The Protestant Ethic had a lot to do with social perception as does status symbols of today. There seems to be parallels.

    The idea of the evolution of the spirit of capitalism is really interesting and I think is crucial to understanding the spirit of capitalism today as it differs to the spirit of capitalism when Weber was defining it. Staying parallel with your analogy, if capitalism is the plant, then it would be really helpful to understand how it is watered today.


  2. I really like the distinction that is drawn here between the theory that Marx develops as opposed to Weber’s theory. It really helped me clarify the distinction between self-valorizing value and labor in a calling. Although both social theories seem similar on the surface, it is clear that Marx relies on the intrinsic power of value as a commodity and in self-valorization, while Weber relies on the seizing of a human calling to labor, that then gets codified as a necessity of life in the society (i.e the steel cage that Weber refers to). Whereas Marx discusses the invisible forces (the dominion of capital) that control workers and the capitalists alike, Weber makes a slightly different argument by explaining that the invisible forces aren’t intrinsic to capitalism, but rather are intrinsic to the spirit that drove the creation of capitalism- the Protestant work ethic. This article does a superb job of explaining that difference, and draw a clear distinction between the two sociologists.


  3. I’m most interested in your plant analogy here and am wondering whether an apt differentiation of a capitalist vs. post-capitalist society is that one is self-watering while the other is dependent. Would a post-capitalist (I suppose communist) society be able to function without any external force? Or even an internal force propelling it, as Weber’s spirit of capitalism is associated here with the plant that needs watering, even though that calling is supposed to come from within? I suppose it’s unclear to know just how a post-capitalist society would function.


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