Weber, Exploitation, Capitalism, Protestantism

Category: Culture
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Religion is an aspect of the society that has both social and economic ties. As a part of the society, religion interacts with both the social and economic aspects of the society, thus shaping each other. Weber is one of the social theorists who have touched on religion in their theories. The rise of Protestantism in the world brought about various changes, especially in the working sector. While some of the people became hardworking others turned to exploit others. Weber views the rise of Protestantism as being directly related to exploitation and the rise of capitalism. Weber seeks to demonstrate a relationship between Calvinism and a broad form of capitalism. The rise of capitalism led to the rise of exploitation. This direct correlation resulted from the fact that capitalism focused on the wealth of a single or a few individuals at the expense of many poor workers. As such, one could obtain as much wealth as he or she could get irrespective of the consequences that such an action had on other people without a high financial prowess as his or her. Besides, Protestantism inculcated into the people ideals that supported capitalism Weber explains how Protestantism turned into the exploitation of the working class by referring to the ascetic importance of a fixed calling, types of domination, and the journey into secularism.

Martin Luther’s Role in the Reformation

Martin Luther is regarded as one of the most influential people in the world. Although it might not be known to many people, he is regarded as the father of a majority of the churches other than the Catholic Church. Having been raised and educated in some of the most prestigious schools, Luther’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, but Luther found himself in the church serving as a monk. His role in the church was vast due to his high level of education. Luther published his thesis commonly referred to as The 95 Theses which raised several questions about the Church. One of the things he questioned and rebuked was the selling of indulgences which had become common practice. Although this did not spark a lot of debate, his continued opposition of the doctrines of the church that he served introduced a new arena for war between him and the Church. Notable was his question as to why the Pope, wealthy as he was, could not build the Church at St. Peter’s since it had to be built using the money of poor believers. His continued challenge led to his summon where he was questioned by the Church and instructed to recant all that he had said and written. He refused, and this led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church.

The Reformation steered by Luther was the beginning of a new religious sect, Protestants. According to Weber, Martin Luther’s new sect taught on ideals that seemed support capitalism and exploitation. For example, Luther taught that the greatest role of a person is to make the most he or she could while on earth. Thus, people were determined to gain influence and command respect among their cronies ((Appelrouth and Edles, 144). This was followed by a relentless desire of people to gain wealth through all possible means. This was mere capitalism. Others turned into exploiting the low-class workers with the intention of gaining as much as possible from their ventures.

Origin of Capitalism In Accordance With the Protestant Establishment

Capitalism is a term with a broad meaning, and its usage must be determined by the context. Weber defines capitalism as being more than just unwarranted acquisition since capitalism is also present among the soldiers, noblemen, and gamblers among others. Thus, according to Weber, capitalism is akin to the dire pursuit of profit by means of rational capitalistic enterprise. In this regard, capitalism is not a concrete thing but an abstract concept that combines various observed features. Capitalism is both rational and continuous. People across the globe are in a continuous rush for the acquisition of goods and services without getting satisfied. For Weber, all money-making processes through business, trade may not be termed as capitalism since capitalism must include the peaceful, free exchange of goods and services. The goods and services accrued are used systematically to fulfill a certain function. Through capitalism, people sought to gain power and legitimacy. Legitimacy is the practice of “possessing the ability to “rightfully” exercise domination over others” (Appelrouth and Edles, 816). Capitalism has existed since time immemorial, and the rise of Protestantism took capitalism to a different level. Despite Weber’s views, he also acknowledges that there exists a form of capitalism that is mostly concerned with the primitive accumulation of capital. In this case, the capitalists accumulate wealth by dispossessing the peasants and the poor hoi polloi.

Proper capitalism involves in the economic actors minding about the welfare of others as well as the consequences of their actions to others. But with the emergence of Protestantism, capitalism took a different twist. Economic actors would act without regard for others or the consequences of their actions. The most affected group was the working class which was awarded meager pay for excessive works.

The use of the word ascetic was very popular any time the topic of capitalism and Protestantism emerged. This word is used to depict a form of self-discipline, self-denial, and abstinence with a religious connotation. It was mainly used to refer to the hermit in Greek or the monks. Later on, it was used with the monks who devoted their works to God and denied themselves the bodily pleasures. Weber, viewed this term as having been deeply entrenched in Western history. Protestantism involved a lot of ascetism since it dictates that the greatest form of moral obligation for a person is to play his or her roles as it relates to worldly affairs. This was the basis on which capitalism was born. This contrasted the Catholic ideal where people were required to fulfill the demands of their mundane existence. This meant that one did not have to own a lot of wealth to be termed as successful or moral.

Reformation did not arise as a historical need. Similarly, capitalism did not come as a result of Reformation, but the two are closely tied so that they appear to influence each other. Perhaps, they were formed from similar frameworks. According to Weber, Reformation emerged independently and did not have anything to do with economic factors. However, Weber looks at the various ways in which several ideas from Reformation was linked to the capitalistic spirit. For instance, the Reformation introduced the concept referred to as “a religious task set by God” which was absent in Roman Catholicism and other religions. This calling is a product of the protestants, and it dictates that a person must, before anything else, fulfill his or her position in the world for them to accepted by God. Without this fulfilling, no one would be able to enter the Kingdom of God. This makes people seek wealth by all means which is a feature of capitalism. On the contrary, the Catholic Church taught that the surest way to Heaven is through self-denial and the denial of worldly things.

Weber’s View on Reformation

Max Weber was, to a great extent, influenced by the likes of Karl Marx. However, Weber did not support Marx in his argument on the monocausal interpretation of change. Weber used The Protestant Ethic to show the essentiality of ideology as a contributing determinant of social structure. The Protestant ethic “unleashed the process of rationalization, disenchanting western society and creating an iron cage in which the individual is left with little power to escape” (Appelrouth and Edles, 137). Weber views that religion has a way of influencing the social and economic behavior of men. When the protestants emerged, they were taught to read and wrote so that they could interpret the Bible properly. Through this reading, many of them were able to conduct their economic activities and to relate socially in a better manner than they did before. Some theorists argue that religious changes were the beginning of various changes in society. Some of the changes arising from religious change were witnessed in the political, social and economic arena. For example, more than before, politicians were able to win the masses by associating with them in their places of worship and also promising to improve their places of worship. Although Protestantism was a key factor for the development and rise of capitalism, it was not the only factor but a subcategory of others.

There is a close-knit relationship, as Weber views, between education, economic prosperity, and Protestantism. Religion is an expression of the culture of a people. When people express their culture, they are affirming and celebrating what they are made of. According to Weber, the expression of culture had been rationalized. Rationalization may be termed as “an ongoing process in which social interaction and institutions become increasingly governed by methodical procedures and calculable rules” (Appelrouth and Edles, 818). Before the advent of Protestantism, people practiced a particular culture distinct from the one that they practiced after the rise of the Protestantism. As such there was a change in what people value and how they do things. With Protestantism, capitalism was more valued than socialism. People who were seen to prosper in society were regarded as having been blessed by God. The measure for blessings was quantified and was associated with the wealth of a person. With this changed belief system, people began to seek wealth by all available means. They did not care about the status of others as they rose up the prosperity ladder. Those who were in organizations oppressed and exploited their workers to maximize their returns. This became the greatest cause of exploitation of workers. The workers continued to be oppressed and exploited since did they did not have the power to stop this.

Weber’s View on Calvinism

Calvinism refers to the teachings of that were fronted by John Calvin. His teachings dominate the Reformed tradition with some of the groups including the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Reformed Churches of Holland and the Calvinists of Geneva. Weber studied Calvinist and showed how Calvinist theology as well as practice connected with capitalist accumulation and asceticism. Calvinism operates on various doctrines. Firstly, it views that the church has a major obligation in shaping society through the use of the church leaders who have charismatic authority. Charismatic authority is the “dominance based on disciples’ trust in and devotion to their leader and their duty to recognize the genuineness of their leader’s charisma” (Appelrouth and Edles, 812). The relationship between the state and the church is that the church should not be subject to the state. Secondly, no one has the power to resist grace, and it has a theocratic view of the state. Those who go to heaven are chosen by God, and they are not chosen by any criteria. God chooses those that He wishes to. Therefore, man does not have any power to influence his salvation.
Weber’s view of Calvinism is that their major interest is on God who is the controller of everything. God has absolute powers to do whatever He pleases, and He does not have to get permission from anyone. He is the reason that people exist, and that is why He is the only who can influence salvation. God chooses a few people as He pleases and leaves the others damned. For a person to be saved by God, it does not matter his or her efforts in influencing the decision. Whether he or she is good or not does not have a place in being chosen. According to Weber, Calvinism has the pessimistically disillusioned type of individualism as opposed to a spirit of enlightenment.

Weber further views that Calvinists holds that the salvation of a person does not depend on the church, the priests or any earthly thing but solely on God. This differed greatly with the Catholic Church which had high regard for the church. Catholicism teaches that the church and sacraments are essential vessels for salvation.

The Iron Cage and Exploitation

In support of his thesis about how Protestantism brought about the idea of an iron cage, Weber argues that the idea of the iron cage was an idea of exploitation. Iron cage was a concept that sought to describe the increased rationalization that permeates social life, more so in the Western capitalist societies. It is the “dominance of material acquisition and impersonal, bureaucratic forms of the organization resulting in the decay of the human spirit and the disenchantment of the world” (Appelrouth and Edles, 816). In this regard, the iron cage is a means of entrapping people according to their teleological efficiency, and control. Weber argues that the protestants had a strong work ethic as well as a conditioned belief in hard work coupled with living frugally. This helped to foster the development of a capitalistic economic system in various nations. Protestantism weakened the social bond that held people together and converted them into economic oriented people. There was also the rise of a bureaucratic social structure, values, and worldviews which became key in supporting such kind of social life. It is from this form of life that Weber developed the concept of the iron cage.

In support of this system, other theorists aired their views about it. The Western world witnessed increased activities in technological developments as well as great impacts on the production culture of the people. All these intensified the ability of the iron cage to shape as well as constrain the thought and behavior of the people. Thus, Weber’s concept remains essential to the theorists and sociologists today since his idea of the iron cage as continued to prove that people’s behavior is shaped mostly by their culture which is entrenched in their religion. The impacts of Weber’s iron cage concept raises some essential problems which social scientists gobble with every day without getting satisfactory answers. One of the questions that remain embedded in the minds of the sociologists is how people can overcome the forces posed by the iron cage to explain the challenges of climate change and such calamities.

Weber was of the idea that people relate based on the products and services that each of the parties can offer. Without these services and products, then there would be very minimal interactions. Thus, Weber does not pay great attention to the relationship aspect of people but on the commonality that comes in due to production.

Rejection of Indulgence and Asceticism Being Important

In medieval times, asceticism sought to take a person far from their everyday life. The Reformation focused on the spirituality of a person where every person had to be renewed and strengthened spiritually. People wanted to prove their idea of salvation in the worldly activity. In this regard, Weber addresses various Protestant movements such as Pietism, Methodism, and Anabaptism. When one is in grace, he or she is set out from the rest of the world and has to live a life that is spiritual paying less attention to the flesh and earthly things. Besides, magical sacraments and repentance were not a means to grace since God was the ultimate decider and He could choose whoever He wanted. A person also needed to look into himself or herself for proper conduct and also have asceticism.

The exploitation of lower classes happened from such a religious lifestyle based on the principles of rejection of indulgence. The lower classes were composed of the peasants, and they occupied the lowest strata of society. They were overly exploited as they literally supported all the activities of the state. They did this through working for meager pay as well as through the payment of taxes. The peasants maintained all the estates of society through direct taxation. They also played a key role in the keeping of livestock and agriculture. The did not have a voice and had to be manipulated to the whims of those in high positions.

The rejection of indulgences meant that the state did not have as enough funds as it used to have. The reason for this is that the proceeds from indulgences helped to boost the economy of a state. However, its rejection meant that the state had to seek alternative means of a source of income. This entire burden was taken down to the low-class citizens through the imposition of a higher tax. The bourgeoise felt that they were justified to occupy high positions of power and the felt that they were fulfilling a duty (Appelrouth and Edles, 148). There were a number of taxes that were pushed to the peasants and for them to be able to pay them; they had to spend more time working on the lord’s estate. The peasants were also required to pay some form of tax before they were allowed to marry. This impoverished them further since the Reformation taught about the importance of marriage in Christian life. Other than tax, they were also obliged to pay tithe in the churches which were seen as a divine duty. The peasants were forced to work for the meager pay so that they could cater to their lives and also pay taxes. There were no other means of doing this since they could not farm crops or keep livestock as all of their lands had been taken away.

Division of Labor Justified by Divine Calling

Luther’s teachings stipulated that the division of labor was a divine calling and everyone in the society must accept the position that God had placed him or her in. In this regard, there were to be the wealthy and the low-class citizens since this was the will of God. Luther also argued that the mundane daily labor was ordained by God and people had to accept it as such. The division of labor was good since it served a wider public good. Those who worked supported the society and that is the way that people were able to grow. People were supposed to live as brothers and sisters helping each other to do work. Thus, working was a divine calling which could not be disputed.
Later on, Luther abandoned this view and held that Providence was the major source for a calling. At the center of this, was the sanctity of divine calling which was dependent upon nothing else but the will of God. This view had a direct influence on the status of life as life was now regarded with higher esteem than before. People started to value life as having a direct connection with God. Previously, it was thought that only the works of heroes, heroines and religious men such as priests were necessary as it could lead to salvation. However, with the changed status, and the introduction of Providence, people came to realize how important their lives were since the work of any person could lead him or her to salvation.

Class Definition

The class can be defined as the “people who share life chances or possibilities that are determined by economic interests in possession of goods and opportunities for income within the commodity and labor markets” (Appelrouth and Edles, 812). Weber views society from the perspective of classes. The society was divided into various classes which every member belonged to. Members of the same class could interact effectively and conduct their business with a mutual understanding.

In many cases, classes were formed along the lines of the economic status of a person. Those who possessed a lot of wealth belonged to a particular class distinct from those who did not have a lot of wealth. This is what brought about the idea of the high class and the low-class people. The people in the high class were more capitalistic than those in the lower class. To maintain their position, the people in the high class used those in the low class as the stepping stones. They employed their cheap labor and services which were basically meant to keep them in the low class forever. Although there sometimes existed differences and tension between these two groups at times, those in the high class would always win since they had the material benefit.

Religious Importance Recently with Work

Religion viewed work as a necessary tool for the survival of human beings. Good deeds and almsgiving were valued, but the protestants refused to acknowledge that there was any direct link between work and salvation. Although Reformation did not explicitly introduce capitalism, it came up with values and a way of thinking that encouraged the development of capitalism. The Protestant religions brought about psychological changes which were satiable ingredients for the spirit of capitalism. They also brought the idea of a calling, with worldly asceticism which emerged as a result of Reformation. It was not in any way related to structures and institutions. This greatly changed the way that people think. There was a consensus emanating from the changed ways of thinking especially in the minds of the workers and capitalists. Weber linked the inner motives developed by the Reformation as a great influence of capitalism. The religious factors had a lot to do with the development and rise of capitalism.


In conclusion, Weber explains how Protestantism turned into the exploitation of the working class by referring to the ascetic importance of a fixed calling, types of domination, and the journey into secularism. Weber traverses the journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and looks at the changes that took place. The major observation is that Reformation, led by Martin Luther was one of the greatest causes of capitalism. The ideals held by the Protestants became the greatest steers towards capitalism. Capitalism was dominated by the overexploitation of the lowly through the provision of cheap labor and over taxation. Thus, the advent of Protestantism was one of the greatest propellers of capitalism and the exploitation of the working class.

Works Cited

  1. Appelrouth, Scott, and Edles, Laura. Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. Print.
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