Both Karl Marx and Max Weber have contributed substantially in our understanding of how capitalism has flourished in some parts of the world and not in others, however “Weber sought to show that the path of causation often ran in the reverse direction” to Marx.
In other words, Marx’s macro theory (focus on the world, and not individuals) relies on the assumption that capitalism (its forces, relations and modes of production) supplies an idealistic society with norms, values and attitudes (brought by institutions such as family, education, religion, law, art etc) that enable capitalist means to flourish; it is a “cunning of production” where capitalism exploits, alienates and oppresses the masses.
On the other hand Weber’s micro theory states that Religion, using the Calvinist Protestant ethic as a “principal cause of capitalism” as an example, has led to a moral calling which leads to class domination, power and status which leads to the development of capitalism. He also says that Capitalism is not all bad for society; it sustains levels of social integration where necessary roles perhaps good or bad have a function for the smooth running of the state; there is a “particular conjunction of social relationships and institutions” .
This essay will question what contemporary relevance both theories have today as society is becoming increasingly secularized and highlight some criticisms that have been noted by other sociologists including a “widespread feeling… contemporary social theory stands in need of a radical revision” , adding to this I will be identifying similarities and contrasting concepts within both theories.
Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto and Capital in the late 19th century and Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in the early 20th century, this was during the time of industrialization and urbanization where both sociologists saw society as moving in a direction that was unsuitable for the masses and generating undesirable effects, yet the differing causes of this outcome need to be analysed.
Weber explored the relationship between a “particular religious ethic and a certain kind of capitalist spirit or mentality” , he noted the cultural influences within Calvinism that created the basic attitudes that contributed towards capitalism. For example, Calvinists believed in pre-destination; their place in heaven was already decided for them and they could do nothing on earth that would change their fate, therefore by working hard and being successful (financially and bstaining from luxury) they perceived that wealth was a sign of Gods favour, diminishing uncertainty and anxiety. This in turn led to the establishment of capitalism; Calvinists became increasingly acquisitive and less ascetic generating a wealth accumulation. Instead of spending their money on themselves, they would distribute profit back into their business in order for it to grow.
Weber sees this as a social action (individual motives, actions and desires that shape human nature) that has a value-rational ideal type (making sense in the relation to the individual); through interpretivist understanding (verstehen) he has perceived this in regards to capitalism. However, it must be said here that “Weber does not exactly bombard us with evidence to show that the typical Calvinist was in fact deeply troubled by uncertainties about salvation” , this is supported by McKinnon (1998) who stated that Weber misunderstood the Calvinist notion of the calling.
Adding to this, in hindsight we can question as to why capitalism did not flourish in parts of the world where there were Calvinists present and furthermore as to why it did develop in societies where Calvinists had little influence: in Scotland, Viner (1978) showed how Calvinism had a constraining, repressive effect on economic development. In complete contrast, Marx argues that religion is the product of capitalism –“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. By masking their misfortune (the proletariat do not notice the exploitation they are subject to and see it as fate) and justifying their inferior position in society (no ownership of production and alienation from humans, products and processes) with the hope that in the afterlife they will be happier and wealthier, religion benefits capitalism; Marx sees religion as an ideology created by the elite as a form of coercion, he focuses on Christianity to explain this point, for example, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. ” Matthew 19:23-24. This phrase gives the proletariat some comfort in knowing that they are favoured to go to heaven more so than a rich man so accept their position in society on earth. In some ways, this coincides with Marx’s theory of false-consciousness whereby the proletariat adopt views of the bourgeoisie nd do not realise that these oppress them and thereby “contribute to the disadvantaged position of the self or the group” . Weber would however argue that society is in more control of their actions than Marx thought, ideal types and integration in society determines how one acts and the specific meaning to their actions is different for every individual, for example, a working-class worker may be aware that they are being underpaid yet have to work to support their family. However, what contemporary relevance do both these example have?
Both Marx and Weber use religion as an example of the justification of capitalism, yet rationalisation of society and the development of science has become a common belief system for the masses (both the proletariat and bourgeoisie). It has been suggested that society is becoming disenchanted by religion and are looking for proof or visible explanations for the state of the world and no longer rely on faith, on the other hand, some are sceptical of science and question some findings; even though there are positive effects of science and technology such as cures for disease there also negative ones including nuclear bombs.
Weber argued that Capitalism would ultimately become self-perpetuating; there would no longer be any need for religious beliefs to motivate economic action: this seems correct when considering today’s society. Events such as the French revolution and influential British economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo influenced Marx heavily when developing his ideas (and of course Hegel).
The state of the economy determined how the superstructure of society was run; the proletariat (working class) would work for the bourgeoisie (elite, who were seen as greedy capitalists in contrast to Weber’s claim that they were acting upon a religious moral calling), whereby their wages did not match the true worth of what they were producing, therefore supplying a profit for the bourgeoisie to use for their own benefit.
Marx goes on to explain how the proletariat are victims of alienation; the proletariat have a distant relationship to the products they produce and its process, the worker becomes a commodity, almost a machine with an issue of control with no creative outlets (making them too tired to realise their position and do something about it). Interestingly, Marx also notes how the bourgeoisie can be victims of this too: the strength of competition in a Capitalist society forces the owners of production to pay low wages and produce surplus goods in order to remain at the top of their field, this too reduces their control.
Marx’s macro-level positivist theory contrasts with Weber’s interpretivist micro-level theory in regards to alienation. Weber sees society as having ideal types driven by social action. The types consist of affective (driven by emotions), traditional (based on the way things have always been), value-rational (making sense in relation to individuals values) and instrumental rational (costs and benefits of different types of action, a rationally decided action). Weber disagrees with alienation, his view states that society is aware of their social actions and capitalism is an inevitable cause of individual’s motives and desires.
For example, Marx may see the celebration of Christmas as reinforcing capitalist ideals (presents as materialistic and creating profit for a number of businesses and justify Christian beliefs which support capitalism), however Weber would say it is a traditional ideal type whereby those who are religious and those who are not celebrate Christmas as it is a historically traditional celebration which contributes different meanings to everyone; some may see Christmas as reinforcing family values therefore strengthening social integration.
Weber has some contemporary relevance here as in the 21st century it could be argued that society is becoming more secularized yet Christmas is still celebrated positively within a number of cultures and ceases to be seen as a religious celebration and more of an individual experience with close friends and family. By looking at both Marx and Weber, we have seen how Religion can be explained to be the cause or product of capitalism. Yet, as religion is having decreasing influence in society, we must question how and capitalism will continue to develop.
It has become the norm to live in a capitalist society in the western world, where bureaucracy has become the norm. It is clear that Marx and Weber disagree on the development of Capitalism yet agree on some of the effects it has/will have on society. It is clear to me that both theories have some relevance to identifying some of the causes of the development of capitalism yet they neither can explain the state of contemporary society which is understandable as the research was carried out a long time ago.