Freedom, Domination, and The Protestant Ethic

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

robinson-crusoe-potestant-work-ethicincreasing 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 workemax_weber_by_pingchootsrs (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.

cage-in-the-cityThe door



   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.


5 thoughts on “Freedom, Domination, and The Protestant Ethic

  1. I think your post is really interesting in elucidating how Marx, Weber, and Smith determine how we are dominated. Neither of the three subscribe to the notion that we are completely individuals. Smith believes that we are under the dominion of human nature and collective human nature in the form of the invisible hand. The manifestation of the invisible hand is the development of capitalism. Marx agrees that we are under the dominion of the capitalist system but he disagrees with the idea it is inevitable.
    I don’t think I agree with you when you say that through the Protestant Ethic we have more freedom. The issue is not free or not free or even godly or not godly. The protestant workers are still participating in the capitalist society in the same manner and mechanism as the Marxian laborer. Weber is attempting to explain why we work and work to make more money and not to acquire. It makes sense to work to acquire material objects, but there is a limited number of couches or coats one can buy. Weber is attempting to explain through religion how the spirit of capitalism came to be.
    All three attribute different invisible forces to our lack of individuality. That is a really interesting distinction. Smith attributes it to human nature, Marx to dominion of capital, and Weber ultimately the Protestant Ethic. None of these men deny that we are being dominated by some invisible force.


  2. I liked the distinction that you draw between the conclusions that Marx makes about the potential for reform and those which Weber makes. You point out, I think correctly, that Marx is more optimistic about the future possibilities of freedom from capital than Weber is. While Marx gives us a way out, through the communist revolution, Weber does not. His conclusion is that now that the Protestant spirit of capitalism has been codified in our capitalist society, it has become like an iron cage. In Weber’s world, we no longer need to deal with the Protestant idea of work in a calling. Rather, even though most people don’t think of work as being in the service of the glory of God, they are still forced to work in that manner under this system.


  3. I found your inclusion of Smith to be particularly interesting here. You pointed out the very evident distinction between Smith’s conclusion on domination and the presence of the invisible hand as both somewhat a benefactor and at the same time a dominator in prominent circumstances. Something interesting to explore would be the comparison of the dominating forces between Smith and general Marxian theory and the differences (or even similarities) between the dominion of capital and the dominion of the similarly abstract invisible hand. They might even be the same thing under a different name – something Marx pokes at a bit deeper than Smith seems to, since he leaves it as something nameless. I also really liked that you pointed out the grimness and contrasting optimism between Weber and Smith which was definitely a standout piece of information that separates their works. Overall, an interesting post about the authors’ differing/similar sources of domination!


  4. I was a little confused on your part about Smith’s invisible hand creating freedom but I liked it lol. As you said, people are still dictated by what society is ultimately driven towards, while at the same time the driving force behind that movement is people’s own interets. It’s written that by pursuing his own interests, he promotes society; is society creating freedom for man by letting him decide what his interests are and how to pursue them, and in turn being influenced by it (the invisible hand being a benefactor)? And at the same time it creates dominion by having society push its needs onto him (the hand being coersive)? This is especially interesting considering how little I remember of Smith at this point.


  5. I think your part on Weber’s protestant ethos facilitating freedom might need a bit more fleshing out. I do see how it is a dominating agent in the protestant life, but not so much the freeing part. You mention that they’re free because they know that whatever they’re doing is for the good of God, which I agree with. At the same time I think accepting the calling and focusing on work can free them of earthly desires and wastefulness (theoretically anyways) and allow them to fully engage in their potential to make the most of their lives. We all know of some people in our lives who we view as stuck in one place and wasting their lives, so in a way having this ethos drive you towards work can free you of falling into certain kinds of inescapable failures.


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