Max Weber?s original theory on the rise of Capitalism in Western Europe has been an often studied theory. In its relationship to Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, Weber?s theory has been in scholarly debate since it?s release in 1904. ?The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? puts forth not capitalism as an institute, but as the precursor to the historical origins of capitalism. Weber?s attempts to use statistical data, as well as church doctrine to prove his theory, has been the foundation for the main arena of debate amongst his peers.
Weber, although touching on other religions and countries, specifically focuses on the Reformation and its correlation to the dominance of capitalism in Western civilizations. He centers his work on the thesis ?that the chances of overcoming traditionalism are greatest on account of the religious upbringing?, thus ?it is worthwhile to ask how this connection of adaptability to capitalism with religious factors occurred in the early days of capitalism(1).? This break with tradition could be attributed to the ?calling? as depicted in the Protestant faith. Weber believes Protestants saw the ?calling? as finally sanctifying the earning of a profit and as a sign of salvation. In this, he saw a breaking of the ?backward-sloping supply curve? for labor by instilling a new work ethic and the bringing forth of capitalistic values.
Amintore Fanfani in his critical work ?Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism? disagrees with Weber on the role Protestantism played in the development of capitalism. He argues that ?Europe was acquainted with capitalism before the Protestant revolt? and thus ??we have ruled out that Protestantism could have produced a phenomenon that already existed(2).? He does agree that capitalism acquired prominence after the Reformation; however, he attributes the success to Italian merchants who operated under Catholicism decades earlier. Fanfani believes this discredits the influential aspects of religion on capitalism, and instead credits ?that general revolution of thought that characterizes the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation, by which in art, philosophy, morals, and economy, the individual emancipates?himself from the bonds imposed on him during the Middle Ages(2).? Arguments could be made on Weber?s behalf that it was the Reformation that ?emancipated? Protestants from the bonds of Catholic ritual. The removal of the Catholic priest necessitated Protestants to acquire a higher degree of learning for their own salvation. An education combined with divine sanction towards profit and a sinful attitude towards idleness would only lead towards a diligent work ethic. It can be inferred, in this rebuttal, that the Reformation may have been a guiding factor in the Renaissance and therefore Fanfani?s argument would be inclusive of Weber?s theory.
Weber?s thoughts, that rationality being a basis for capitalism, inspired him to use several quotes from Ben Franklin early in his work. In where, even before there was a strong capitalistic foundation formed in the colonies, Weber found Franklin?s writings to be infused with the prudence of rationality. From Franklin?s work ?Necessary Hints to Those That Would be Rich? Weber quotes:
He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount of a considerable amount of money(3).
Weber?s critiques Dickson and McLachlan deny that Franklin is preaching a Protestant work ethic, and suggest that by the title of Franklin?s work he is merely suggesting prudent advise. Yet, it is that prudent advise that fits neatly into Weber?s definition of capitalism in where he states that ?one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on peaceful chances of profit? and pursuit of profit and forever renewed profits through continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise(1).? Dickson and McLachlan, like many other critiques, don?t take into account that although Weber attempts to prove a statistical and specific point as to the origin of capitalism, it?s a generalization he refers to. ?The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? must be taken as a whole work, additions and explanations of this work given at a later date by Weber must also be included.
Weber?s work is theoretical. It is based on one man?s view of the evidence, and must be taken as a whole, and as a theory. Whether or not the Protestant ideal was the complete basis for capitalist domination can never be fully proven. Weber?s discussion of Protestantism, as a factor in capitalism, cannot be discredited either. Even though statistical and historical facts may prove it somewhat inconsistent, there will always be an idea before a movement, and until one man can be proven to be the founder of capitalism Weber?s thesis still stands.
(2)Green,Robert W.Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critiques. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1959.
(3)Dickson, Tony and McLachlan, ?In Search of ?The Spirit of Capitalism?: Weber?s Misinterpretation of Franklin,? Sociology, Vol.23, No.1 (81-89).
(4)Weber, Max: General Economic History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc., 1979.