Smith On Domination and Freedom
Smith’s invisible hand creates a dialectic where it is as once a symbol of freedom as well as one of domination. Smith writes:
He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (484-5)
The invisible hand creates freedom for society by guiding it to its ultimate result. In the end society tends to progress in a positive way resulting in the people gaining freedoms as society evolves. For example, the American Revolution. When the founding fathers and other Americans were personally inconvenienced they revolted against the British in order to get what they wanted. As a result America was founded, granting more power and freedom to its (white male) citizens. This is an example of the invisible hand transforming people’s self interest into society’s greater interest. However, the invisible hand is not strictly benevolent. It takes power out of the people’s hands and into its own. As a result people are not able to control society themselves and are left to the mercy of what the invisible hand guides society towards. In this way it can also be interpreted that the invisible hand has dominion over society as it makes all the ultimate decisions in regard to its progression.
Weber on Domination
Weber’s interpretation of the driving force of capitalism in the West is that every individual’s life is dominated by driven by a religious ethos that compels us to create profit as a service to God. “The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.” (19) The “calling” that we each have is a direct mandate from God, and must inform all our choices and control our entire lives. No matter what our job is, be it student, baker, construction worker, or doctor, we are obligated to work our hardest and achieve the most we can in our respective field. However, we should not do this for any type of social or monetary reward. We should not be working to get rich or to live opulently. “The circumstances [Benjamin Franklin] ascribes his recognition of the utility of virtue to a divine revelation which was intended to lead him in the path of righteousness, shows that something more than mere garnishing for purely egocentric motives is involved. In fact, the…earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life…is thought of purely as an end in itself…Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life.”(pg30) We don’t get a reward for working hard our entire lives, the work itself is the reward. In this ethic there is virtue in working hard, and in living simply and frugally in order to save money, and that virtue is the only thing we are working towards.
However, there can also be an element of freedom to this calling. In accepting the calling given to us by God, we are
increasing the glory of God. There can be comfort and freedom in knowing that whatever you do is considered good in the eyes of God so long as you work hard at it.
What do Marx and Weber have in common?
In Capital, Marx constantly reminds the reader how capital continually dominates both the lives of the capitalists and, somewhat less directly, the workers (as the fruits of the labor go to the capitalists). Society’s entire focus on capital and the value of its accumulation renders the worker a commodity as a means to increase this capital, and the distant relation between the workers and the fruits of their labor lead to estrangement and commodity fetishism. This domination of capital is reminiscent of the way wealth dominates Protestants’ lives in Weber. This domination is in ways perhaps even more extreme and explicit in Weber: while in Marx the value of capital is explained in practical terms, in Weber the importance of accumulating wealth is simply to accumulate it as a hope to achieve God’s grace. Where Marx explains the need and use of expending capital, the Protestant Ethic that Weber describes is to solely accumulate wealth. Hence, in Weber wealth not only indirectly dominates one’s life via the society that values it so much but wealth here literally dictates Protestants’ end goal. As one is not free to spend this wealth, one is arguably less free while following the Protestant Ethic than in Marx’s explanation. But while Marx points to communism as the “door” to a post-capitalist society, as a way to achieve freedom from capital, Weber is less optimistic in his description of our indefinite domination by an “iron cage,” describing less freedom and more domination for Protestants than Marx gives to workers in his slightly more optimistic text.
It is often assumed that society is the force that is dominating us, but in Smith’s Wealth of Nations society is formed in the background of human nature. It is human nature to trade for things when you need them and someone else has them, each person trades playing on the other’s self love, so both benefit. This is seen on an even bigger scale with the invisible hand that benefits everyone when the capitalist acts in his own self interest. For Marx it also isn’t the society that is the dominating force, but capital that dominates the worker.