“Go work first!” – On work ethic and the spirit of capitalism

In addressing the question of how capitalist modernity was able to assert itself in Central Europe, the “History and Resistance” initiative in Germany dealt, among other things, with Max Weber’s work on the spirit of capitalism. His theses and the discussion that developed on the basis of his analysis, will be shared here in parts.

The fact that people are socially measured by their profession and income is something we feel is wrong, but it is a bitter reality. We accept self-discipline at work – with a little help from the employment office – as if it were part of the game. The dismissive remarks and humiliations affect us, although we do not really want to be measured by our competitiveness on the labour market. But what social developments have led to these ideas? Where does this work ethic come from, with its specific values and morals, which can also be described as the spirit of capitalism, which seems almost natural? Many have investigated this question and have placed the social changes in values, modes of production and power structures in society in a historical context. Max Weber was one of them. His work can contribute some thoughts to a critical analysis of today’s mentalities and how they have developed.

The development of Protestant ethics played an important role in the enforcement of capitalism as a mentality and hegemonic system in Europe in the 16th century. It not only changed a religious worldview behind the church doors, but also interfered with social conditions and challenged the secular order. It was closely interwoven with uprisings of the peasants against feudal oppression and looked for new explanations beyond Catholic interpretations of the world. It carried the heritage of centuries of heretical (1) and peasant struggles further within itself. But at the same time it also shaped the formation of the bourgeois subject and the ethics and mentality associated with it. Abdullah Öcalan refers to this connection in his analysis of capitalist civilization, which after the Roman-Greek phase of civilization reached its next peak in the centers of Protestantism, the trading cities of Amsterdam and London. How the assertion of capitalism as a hegemonic system is interwoven with the development of a Protestant ethic is analysed by Max Weber in his work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Öcalan agrees with Weber in his analysis that Protestantism prepared the ground for capitalism. However, whether Protestantism played this role out of a strength of its own morality or out of a weakness in moral principles is judged differently. In contrast to Weber, Öcalan sees Protestantism as a weak religion in which morality is weakest in comparison to other denominations of Christianity. This different evaluation comes from a different concept of social morality and the related assessment of its strength or weakness in Protestantism.

In the historical process, Protestantism leads to two mutually influential developments: the further destruction of social morality and thus the weakening of social forces while at the same time deepening and the penetration of the individualized human being with power.

Morals: The actual state of society

If we understand social morality as a system of the collective conscience of society, i.e. values that form the basis for being able to speak of society at all, such as solidarity, mutual aid, connection with nature, a community life that can give itself meaning, then these are far less developed in Protestant ethics than in other denominations. Only in this sense, from this perspective, is it comprehensible that Protestant ethics or morals, despite their deep inscription in the individual and the penetration of the “worldly” areas of life, should be understood as weak. For the ethics of which Protestantism speaks, the values that Protestantism has raised to moral virtue, are the opposite of an intact society in the sense described. It is these values, according to Weber and Öcalan, that prepared the ground for the establishment of capitalism as a hegemonic system.

But we cannot speak here of Protestantism per se. Even if Lutheran Protestantism played a decisive role in the reorganization of the church, it is other Protestant tendencies that have contributed more decisively to the development of the spirit of capitalism, its hegemony, and the constitution of the bourgeois subject – the middle class. It is precisely the confessions that emerged in England, such as Puritanism (2), and its spread in the English colonies, as well as Pietism (3),which is particularly present in Central Europe, and not least Calvinism (4), that have been the bearers and pioneers in this context.

The virtues and values that are found in Calvinism, Puritanism, Pietism and the Anabaptist movement (5) are characterized by the individual’s actions in relation to the “here and now” (6). These are qualities such as diligence, punctuality, modesty, prudence, sobriety and rationality for economic benefit in working life… in short, an ascetic life for the glory of God. But the virtues and also ideas of ascetic life can already be found in earlier phases of social civilizations, i.e. the specific spirit of capitalism cannot be related to this alone. The difference is the development towards a system of these ethical conceptions and a work ethic, which finally left its religious-protestant explanatory framework and way of life and could assert itself in the hegemonic capitalist mentality. In this mentality the new God is money, the acquisition of which becomes an end in itself.

The “beatification” of each person in the “vocation”

The term “profession” has a special meaning. Protestant Lutheranism laid the foundation for it, but it is other tendencies within Protestantism that have made it what we encounter today. Luther emphasized the profession as the fulfillment of duty on earth, but for the sake of God. In this way he cemented the situation of the working masses and left them in the state in which they would be saved. But even with Luther this did not mean to live a traditionalism in which people work only as much as they need to live and no more. In which the possibility of working less was more attractive than earning more. With his new work ethics, he not only stabbed in the back the rebellious farmers who had exactly such an idea of work and who did not want to bear the burden of their exploitation. Not only did he pave the way for a new middle class seeking advancement, but he also held on to the feudal order in which the peasant should now dedicate themselves even more devoutly to their profession. And just as the class relationship is part of this feudal order propagated by Luther, so is the gender relationship: the woman as subject and property of the man. It should be emphasized that the struggle against the working idea of traditionalism in the above-mentioned sense and the enforcement of the patriarchal order was not an easy one. The many resistances of the peasants, craftsmen and heretical women’s movements bear witness to this. Although Weber emphasizes that this new idea could hardly assert itself, especially against the way of life and mentality of women, we still owe an answer as to the question of the reasons for this and its significance for society. If we understand that women played an important role in the structure of pre-capitalist societies, then we can explain their resistance on the one hand and the severity of the attacks against them on the other.

Much more than Lutheranism, other Protestant movements have given new life to the “profession”. In the fulfillment in the profession and in the economic success from it lies the hope of being chosen by God for eternal life. The chance of a good business or career advancement alone is the moment in which God’s election can express itself. And not to seize this chance to make the best of it is against the ethics of the good Christian. All this economic gain and wealth is not for personal enjoyment, but solely for the glory of God. But there is also nothing wrong with the comfort provided by economic success, as long as it does not become the motive for action. This enjoyment must not lead to laziness or to resting on wealth and letting oneself go. But the temptation to surrender to worldly pleasures, luxury and wealth is great. They are the expression of the “natural state” of the human being with all his drives, lusts and emotional feelings and desires, from which the human being has to free himself. According to the Puritans, sexuality, too, should be practiced solely for the glory of God, for the increase of believing people. But there is a remedy for all the temptations: Diet, cold baths and especially hard work at the workplace, are the Puritans’ medicine for religious doubts. What is needed is an ascetic self-discipline of the bourgeois self for one’s own benefit. It seems understandable that ideas of Christian charity find little or no place in it or in consumed form. The Catholic monk’s garb was understood as a selfish expression of unkindness and escape from worldly duties. Only in the worldly professional work the charity is expressed, because – according to the new economic paradigm – “if all think of themselves, then all will be thought of”.

An important question for the religious life of people was whether they were chosen by God or not. This is the question of the “doctrine of salvation”, of the destiny to eternal life – for others to eternal death. In contrast to Catholicism, in Calvinism, among the Puritans and Pietists, as in the religious practice of the Anabaptists, there is no longer confession, no forgiveness, no church that can absolve from all sins and secure a place in paradise. God is no longer mediated through the Church and its sacraments, teachings, dogmas and salvations. It is the simple demystification of religion. The only thing that remains is the ascetic life for the glory of God and the indications of being God’s chosen ones, which, however, is no guarantee on which man can rest.

But what to do with the many doubts about a self that exist within? Even they must not be thought, not to mention formulated, because it is the doubt about God that speaks through them. And a true Christian does not doubt God. But with that the human being finds herself in a deep isolation, alone with himself in discord. There is no place where she can cool off, formulate her doubts and then find salvation. This is the origin of the personalities of the bourgeois class at the beginning of capitalism as a hegemonic system. It is the outwardly self-confident saints, the rational puritanical merchants, who in their restless professional work attain certainty of their state of grace and dispel all doubts – the self-confident in their subservience.

Protestantism, especially the currents of Calvinism, Pietism and Puritanism, pulled the ascetic life out of the restrictive Catholic path of the nun or monk and threw it into the inner-worldly, moral working life. But this asceticism not only determined working life, but, this is decisive, shaped the entire lifestyle of a new class and with it a modern order, based on the industrial production that emerged and grew strongly during this time. Once the order had been established, everyone – some more, some less – was born into it.

A new spirit in commerce, state and science

It is no coincidence that it is precisely in the new centres of power of the 16th and 17th centuries that we find the meeting of a new spirit of capitalism, science and the state. These centres were the trading cities such as Amsterdam and London, where civilisation paved the way towards capitalist modernity. And this at a moment when the religiosity of the Catholic Church was losing legitimacy and the free cities were under pressure from kingdoms and principalities.

A new form of military and bureaucratic organization into a nation state secured the interests of this developing bourgeois class in Amsterdam. As a result, the Dutch nation-state asserted itself in the long term against the Spanish or Habsburg Empire and the French kingdom. The foundations were laid for a new form of war and military, more bureaucratic, disciplined and technologically advanced than any previous army. These new methods not only secured the defence of the Netherlands against the surrounding empires, but were also widely used in the European colonies and the suppression of uprisings there. This new spirit also found expression in science and art. Rembrandt’s paintings speak of it – revealing the self-confident faces of Amsterdam’s merchants, not in pomp, but in modesty, not in exaggerated and idealised beauty, but in their authenticity.

The nation state reflects the changing form of power, as we find it in the Protestant movements, unlike Catholicism. Power as an external force, standing above everything, exerting pressure and demanding obedience, in Protestantism, becomes a penetrating force that calls from within the individual again and again for her discipline. This is precisely what we can also see in the nation state, which deepens and at the same time broadens power socially, which brings together economic and military exploitation with the ideological hegemony of the new positivist sciences.

The bourgeois subject in us

To illustrate how the spirit of capitalism expressed itself, starting out but detached from Protestantism, Max Weber refers to some of Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts. Franklin himself was still influenced by Puritanism at his parental home, but he formulated bourgeois work ethics without continuing the reference to religious values. With him the God had already come to earth in the form of money.

Today, many people often have no direct connection to Protestantism or Catholicism. They grew up in families in which people perhaps went to church at Christmas. Not being a believer leads to the mistaken belief that the church no longer has any influence on personalities. If we follow Weber’s thought, religiously determined work ethics have become socially generalized over time, across generations, classes and regions. It is through socialisation that this ethics inscribes itself in all our personalities and mentalities and is socially reproduced every day, including through and within ourselves.

Especially in the middle class we know the argument “go to work first” only too well. It expresses what Protestantism, through its various tendencies, has brought into our mentalities. Work and earnings are the decisive factor, not the extent to which a person contributes to a healthy, fulfilled, free and happy social life or not. Work has outgrown moral values, it alone has become a value. It has become an end in itself, the centre of individual and social life. Especially in times of neo-liberalism, these characteristics were taken to extremes. Self-discipline, optimization, the divine character of money… But it is not an expectation imposed on us from outside, but a self-image that wants to be fulfilled. If it is not fulfilled, it is the shame that is also laid out in the individual themself. If one stands there by oneself without one’s social task, one’s profession, rather one’s vocation, then one’s place and one’s role in society will be shaken. Out of this insecurity arises the self-image of one’s own uselessness and worthlessness in and for society.

It is often only in contrast to societies in which this form of capitalist spirit has not been able to establish itself in its full strength that we see how deeply these ideas have inscribed themselves in our personalities. The capitalist form of exploitation and power has penetrated into all pores of society and its ways of life. And they do not stop at our personalities. It is reflected in the approaches to political work, even if the aim is not a good wage or economic advantage, but social liberation. We, too, reproduce the ideas and behaviour of a hard-working, punctual, modest, sober and rational character, combined with the feeling of not doing “enough” in the face of the catastrophic reality of this world. Not infrequently, out of a self-critical attitude of wanting to overcome the capitalist mentality, the abolition of this ethics is attempted in its opposite: hedonism and noncommitment. Neither in reproduction, nor in its opposite, will we find an emancipatory way. Our way is a third way: reliability, modesty, self-discipline and thoughtfulness, combined with a deep love for people and ourselves, with empathy and emotional connection and with joy in what we do. A personality who, with effort, devotion and inner struggle, is always on the lookout for the solution of social problems – and thus in search of freedom and social truth.

But even if the spirit of capitalism has meanwhile expressed itself detached from Protestantism, there is still much that remains open, if we want to answer the question what meaning religion in general, the Protestant tendencies in contrast to Catholicism in particular, had and still has for German society. It is essential to consider how the social role and significance of women has been and still is expressed in the various religious movements. And do we find, historically and still today, a regional difference in attitudes to life, in the capitalist spirit, which can be concluded from the regionally different implementation of Protestantism and its movements?

Protestantism in the flow of democratic civilisation

The Reformation is one of the waves of the river of democratic civilization that has been constantly making its way through history and has never been and can never be completely stopped by power and domination. To be part of democratic civilization does not mean to be free of contradictions. It means insisting on being human, defending the fundamental values of societies and thus perpetuating the heritage of those fighting for freedom.

The Reformation, triggered by the centuries-long struggles of heretical movements, represents a moment in the long history of democratic forces in the flow of democratic civilisation. The heretical movements recalled the Christianity of the poor as the basis for a revolutionary awakening in connection with the struggles of the peasant population.

But large parts of the Protestant movements, especially the political line around Luther, just established new centres of power against the Catholic emperor and pope. It was the princes who, out of their own interest in power, joined Luther’s side and became the strongest opponents of those Protestant movements that no longer accepted the worldly order of rule and oppression. And as so often in history, different, sometimes competing centres of power joined forces in the face of the social revolution from below. And so it is not surprising that the alliance against the peasant revolts and against the social role of women extended beyond all contradictions between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Even if, and this is no coincidence, almost no women held leading roles in Protestantism, they played a central role within the heretical movements in the search for free Christianity based on social values. Conventions of the Beguines, which had spread over many countries in Europe, bear witness to this influence and the strength of their values and ways of life, and first prepared the ground for what we now call the Reformation. But they did not manage to defend their values and economic structure against the attacks of the ruling patriarchal order. The brutality with which these attacks were carried out can be seen in the persecution of witches. With these women, who were persecuted and exterminated as witches, an attempt was made to destroy a social culture and its values. This culture lived from an economic traditionalism, a connection to nature and society, in a belief in the sacredness and vitality of nature. The holistic relationship with the world was thus in contradiction to a newly established patriarchal and capitalist order of power.

It is not the discussion about the question of the existence of God according to which revolutionary movements should define their relationship to religion and religious movements. Religion is to be understood as a social reality, as a structure of thought to explain the world. This meaning of religion necessarily makes it a subject of a revolutionary society-changing theory and practice. And just as religious explanations prepared the ground for the capitalist spirit, so did these explanations give rise to revolutionary movements such as early Christianity, Beguine Conventions and liberation theological movements on the side of anti-colonial struggles. Therefore, the question is not whether, but how religious movements that want to free themselves from power and domination to become part of the awakening into democratic modernity.

The awakening to democratic modernity can only be based on strong morals that focus on society and not on power and profit. A strong morality that protects social forces from becoming part of power. A morality that ties in with what constitutes society: mutual aid, solidarity, freedom, equality and democracy.

  1. Heresy (“view”, “school”) is a statement or teaching that contradicts church-religious principles of faith. A heretic is a representative of heresy.
  2. Puritanism was an especially effective movement of the Reformation from the 16th to the 17th century. Especially in England, Scotland and from 1629 in “New England” it had a large following. The term “Puritan” comes from the word “purification”. Particularly characteristic of Puritanism is the total rejection of all religious ceremonies and ecclesiastical hierarchy that stood between the community and God. Its character is marked by a pessimistic and illusionless individualism that trusts no other person but God. At the same time the Puritans, we follow Janet Biehl’s remarks about the Citizens’ Assemblies, “once they settled in New England after 1629, founding towns where none had existed before, that religious autonomy extended into the civil world in the form of political autonomy”. Thus they laid the foundation for an important form of social self-government. (Janet Biehl: “Citizens’ Assemblies, From New England to Rojava”, in Challenging Capitalist Modernity II. Dissecting Capitalist Modernity – Building Democratic Confederalism)
  3. In the second half of the 17th century, the Pietist movement in Germany developed out of the Reformation. Characteristic of Pietism is its inner struggle between the emotional side of religious life and rational asceticism. Connected with this emotional side was the desire to taste the “communion with God in its blessedness” already in this world and not to wait for an indefinite afterlife. However, the rational side in principle retained the upper hand, even if it was less pronounced, e.g. in Calvinism. And so also work remained as the decisive ascetic instrument for the grace of God, which blesses his people through success in work life.
  4. Calvinism refers to the theological teachings of John Calvin, who lived at the beginning of the 16th century. In contrast to the Protestantism of Lutheranism, Calvinism was particularly effective outside the present geographical area of Germany. In contrast to Lutheranism, Calvinism replaced the emotional approach to religion with a strict self-control and regulation of religious life.
  5. The Anabaptist movement developed at the beginning of the 16th century. Its climax can be seen in the control of the city of Münster in the 1930s of the 16th century. In contrast to other Protestant movements, its reference to early Christianity is characterized by the concrete reference to the life of Christ and the disciples. These disciples serve as a model for the way of life. Everything worldly is avoided and all reverence is to serve God alone. In doing so, each individual believer can establish a connection to the Holy Spirit, which is associated with a radical rejection of all the teachings of the Church’s corpse. And with this rejection, the Anabaptist movement relies entirely on an inner control of the person.
  6. The Anabaptist movement developed at the beginning of the 16th century. Its climax can be seen in the control of the city of Münster in the 1530s. In contrast to other Protestant movements, its reference to early Christianity is characterized by the concrete reference to the life of Christ and the disciples. These disciples serve as a model for the way of life. Everything worldly is avoided and all reverence is to serve God alone. In doing so, each individual believer can establish a connection to the Holy Spirit, which is associated with a radical rejection of all the teachings of the Church’s corpse. And with this rejection, the Anabaptist movement relies entirely on an inner control of the person.