Explaining Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as evidences of the (PE) in the current African society

The role of religion in every society has been a point of deliberation for several years and counting. Religion as an institute has evolved all through human history. Once it kicked in during the primordial phases of anthropological existence, it was primarily concerned with the well-being of the society at large. But as it grew, people like Karl Marx have argued that there has been a shift in goal, and that religion has deviated from its role of ensuring the societal good, and instead is more centered on individualistic needs and interest. Religion according to Marx is an opium of the people, used by the rich and wealthy to manipulate the underprivileged, and keep them happy while they stay poor.

One person who holds an entirely different view is Marx Weber. Weber believes that instead of being an apparatus for accomplishing idiosyncratic inclination, religion instead is a means of social change. This view he elaborated on his famous work “the protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism”. So this piece will be evaluating Webber’s key ideas in the Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism, as well as relate it to the social change in a contemporary African societies.

To be able to identify how Weber’s key ideas in “the protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism” relates to social change in contemporary African societies, it is very crucial to know what is meant by social change. These are changes in the social organization. According to Jones Sharma,“Social change is a term used to describe variations in, or modifications of any aspect of social processes, social patterns, social interaction or social organization” (Sharma, 1996, p. 23). Weber sought to discern why the West had advanced and became more sophisticated than other regions. He noticed that capitalism has developed in these European countries, and these countries follow Calvinist Protestantism which was a main division of Protestantism that subscribes to the theological custom and systems of Christian practice of John Calvin (Weber, 1930, p. 56). So these countries as Weber noted, shared a religious world view (Calvinism) as well as an economic ideology. Their religious view is of the interpretation that their work is a calling from God, so it was a moral duty.  In his opinion, other nations had the resources required for industrialization, but are yet to initiate this move. He established that development will not be realized until people are enthused to forfeit the orthodox style of living, because such patterns requires the individual to only acquire wealth that will sustain his current standards. Therefore according to Weber, they are no dared to become rich. In his words, “A man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose” (Weber 1930, p. 60). The Calvinist approach was ideal in motivating people to pursue treasures. In Calvin’s conviction of “election,” individuals can do little or nothing to save themselves. They were either selected to make heaven, or they were not. Nevertheless, the “elected” would demonstrate certain qualities like productiveness, austere hard work, and prosperity.

 Hence, the spirit of capitalism requires people to abandon the traditional way of living and adopt an approach of wealth accumulation through ascetic work ethics. This western capitalistic improvement has however been creeping into contemporary African societies, hence dissolving the strong traditional grips on most African societies according to (Barrett, 1977). African traditional belief and principles are subscribing to the spirit of capitalism. Prehistorically, the main aim in most African societies was not the promulgation of wealth, but rather having enough for the given life standard, but there has been a massive in the way people view wealth accumulation. In the eastern part of Nigeria for instance in the 1920s, money or materials were not used as payments for labor. The laborer rather gets food in return for his labor according to (Damachi, 1988). This however has shifted in contemporary African societies, as wages comprises of just money or other valuable materials. There has been an emergence of family chain of business in contemporary African societies, as parents tend to accrue as much wealth as they could, for even their third generation.

From a religious perspective, the concept of Calvinism has also been a driving force in recent entrepreneurship in contemporary African societies. Since the advent of religions like Christianity in the continent, wealth accretion has been on the rise, as the religious followers believe this is an evidence of God’s blessing in their lives. Various scriptural passages have intensified this call, and religion has been a driving factor towards bettering the lives of individuals. For example, people flock into churches with hopes of hearing the good news of prosperity, and the clergymen relate to them the need work hard, as well as the abundance of riches in God. So there has been a transferal from the prehistoric Christian dogma which portrays God’s followers as poor and meager, into being rich and prosperous, and this prosperity comes as a result of hard work and commitment to God. Therefore the richer you are, the more blessed you are. The ascetic work ethics of the Protestants as stated by Weber is evident in the lives of modern African Christians, and this has led to an upsurge in recent work ethic in the continent.

“The religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means of asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of the spirit of capitalism” (Weber 1930, p. 172).

From the above statement, Weber is trying to establish a point that the moment capitalism is attained, the Protestant ethic seizes to be relevant. In a contemporary African society like South Africa where capitalism seem to have been achieved, there is perhaps a reflection of this point stated by Weber. The work ethics is less than it is most part of the continent, and this has led to various uprisings that has marred the land in recent years. The capitalist spirit and the Calvinist ethics inculcates hard work into individuals, as they everyone strives for a better life. This has also led to the increase in corruption in contemporary African societies. As the main ethic of Calvinism is material wealth and earthly prosperity, there has been a pressure to acquire wealth at all cost, hence creating room for fraudulent practices and other form of evil. Through capitalism, there has been a decline in religious practices in countries like South Africa for example. This is because, in capitalism, the hunt for competence and riches results to a growing dependence on rationalization of financial and administrative procedures. Governments become streamlined, labor grows progressively specialized, and the less skilled or uneducated becomes almost irrelevant. This has also led to some of the rebellion in the continent, from these specialized individuals who cannot match the requirements of capitalism. A good example is the recurring xenophobic attacks in South Africa, as well as various unemployment crises in most African states. This progressive specialization of labour has led come to a more reliance on science over religion. The result is secularization and depersonalization in most African states.

The moral obligation of the Protestant according to Weber is amassed: the phase of sin, penitence and clemency, repeated all through the life of the Catholic, does not exist in Protestantism. Even though the notion of the calling was by this time present in the doctrines of Luther, Weber maintains, it turned out to be more scrupulously established in the numerous Puritan sects. The result of this view was diligence, abstinence and discipline. So pleasure and extemporaneity in satisfaction of life is absent in the lives of protestants, hence they are committed to working tirelessly as they deem it as being a moral obligation. This however relates to some social changes in Africa, as various institutions and firms prefer to hire protestant workers. There also is the quest for various nationals who are deemed as ascetic hard workers to come into the continent. For instance in Nigeria, Indian doctors are preferred over others because they are seen as being hardworking and diligent (Guyana Chronicle, 2012). The Chinese are also beginning to explore various parts of the country, and this move has been welcomed by the people, as a result of what they stand for. So the spirit of capitalism in gradually being born in the western African society of Nigeria, and this is evident in the increasing number of private owned companies in the land. Self-employment has also been on the rise in most African societies. And the prosperity doctrine as discussed by Weber is becoming more and more dominant. In the ancient African society, a farmer for instance only harvests what he believe will be enough to keep him and his family going in the main time. Though they had barns, they were just for storage of crops for the next farming season. But in current African society, farmers tends to export their products, create a more refined branding for what they produce, and make as much profit as possible. There also has emerged the use of various machines in the form, as a way of maximizing profit.

Another aspect of Protestantism as stated by Weber was wise spending of money. Profligate lifestyle was seen as wrong, and they ploughed the profit they made out any business into the business. They were different from other makers, as they forbade themselves from spending their profits on unnecessary things, instead they reinvested them into the business. This is a common trend in most African economies of late. In Nigeria, the Igbos are well known for their ascetic work ethics as symbolized by Achebe in his book “Things fall apart”. Even though they make excessive profit, they are also prudent as they stockpile these profits and accumulate great affluence. That prudence made them drive up demand for cheaper, hence they mass-manufacture majority of the good in the market (Metuh, 1981). The most important part of this ethics, the stringent accumulation of wealth, as well as the abstinence from all form of extemporaneous enjoyment of life has brought about some changes in African societies. Money is no longer lavished on irrelevant materials, as people are seeing the need to save, hence the emergence and wild spread of commercial banks in contemporary African societies. In places like Onitsha in the eastern part of Nigeria, this ethic is vastly practiced. It is very difficult to tell a wealthy man based on the materials they put on or acquire. They are self-disciplined and very prudent. Their main focus is the expansion and growth of their business, hence they deny themselves the urge of spending money on unwanted materials.

In conclusion, Weber reckons that commerce and industry have been in existence for several centuries, and have been run traditionally, and traditional means of life and techniques have been preponderating. Then came a shift in these methods of conducting events. Abruptly, employers began to supervise the activities of the laborers increasingly, a transferal to growth of production on the base of lower costs emerged, and the traditional leisurely methods of business conduction made way for the recent economical struggle, as this has been the case in  the African market.

“And, what is most important in this connection, it was not generally in such cases a stream of new money invested in the industry which brought about this revolution … but the new spirit, the spirit of modern capitalism, had set to work.”  The spirit of capitalism is the important development. “The rational pursuit of gain” according to (Adams p. 178) started to be inculcated into entrepreneurs and business people in Africa. This competition made other entrepreneurs who in the continent behave in the same manner as those who practice the ethics wholeheartedly. This could be seen in Africans venturing into business that were hitherto considered alien. Example, there are African owned telecommunication companies like MTN South Africa, GLO Nigeria, as well as automobile industries like Innoson in Nnewi of Nigeria . Historically, imperialism, the desire to expand affluence, as well as escape financial backwardness, all have led to this spirit being heeded to in most part of the world, and in the contemporary African society; and Africans are moving from becoming just petty businessmen and farmers, into company owners and great entrepreneurs, for example, Mr Dangote who is regarded as the richest black man in the world at the moment.

works cited

Achebe, C. (2012, October 20). Truth in defence of freedom. Retrieved from The Nation: http://thenationonlineng.net/new/why-nigerians-hate-igbo-by-chinua-achebe/

Barrett, S. (1977). The Rise and Fall of an African Utopia. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Chronicle, G. (2012, January 21). India the preferred ‘heath tourism’ destination among Nigerians. Retrieved May 5, 2015, from Guyana Chronicle: http://guyanachronicle.com/india-the-preferred-heath-tourism-destination-among-nigerians/

Damachi, U. D. (1988). Continuity and Change among African Factory Workers. University of Cologne Journals, 6-32.

Metuh, E. I. (1981). God and man in African religion: a case study of the Igbo of Nigeria. New York: G. Chapman.

PewForum.org. (2006, October 5). Religion & Public Life. Retrieved from Pew Research Centre: http://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/overview-pentecostalism-in-africa/

Sharma, R. K. (1996). Fundamentals of Sociology. Delhi: Rajendra K. Sharma.

Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and. spirit of capitalism. Burns, C. D. Book review, 56-92.