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Fukuyama on Weber
economic thought
MBA/MA - Anglo-American University International Finance
ERASMUS - International Finance
MBA - Money and Financial Markets
ERASMUS Money & Banking
M.A. Public Policy Economic Sociology
On the Origin of Facts

"The Calvinist Manifesto"


Published: March 13, 2005 (The New York Times)

This year is the 100th anniversary of the most famous
sociological tract ever written, ''The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism,'' by Max Weber. It was a
book that stood Karl Marx on his head. Religion, according
to Weber, was not an ideology produced by economic
interests (the ''opiate of the masses,'' as Marx had put
it); rather, it was what had made the modern capitalist
world possible. In the present decade, when cultures seem
to be clashing and religion is frequently blamed for the
failures of modernization and democracy in the Muslim
world, Weber's book and ideas deserve a fresh look.

Weber's argument centered on ascetic Protestantism. He
said that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led
believers to seek to demonstrate their elect status, which
they did by engaging in commerce and worldly accumulation.
In this way, Protestantism created a work ethic -- that
is, the valuing of work for its own sake rather than for
its results -- and demolished the older Aristotelian-Roman
Catholic doctrine that one should acquire only as much
wealth as one needed to live well. In addition,
Protestantism admonished its believers to behave morally
outside the boundaries of the family, which was crucial in
creating a system of social trust.

The Weber thesis was controversial from the moment it was
published. Various scholars stated that it was empirically
wrong about the superior economic performance of
Protestants over Catholics; that Catholic societies had
started to develop modern capitalism long before the
Reformation; and that it was the Counter-Reformation
rather than Catholicism itself that had led to economic
backwardness. The German economist Werner Sombart claimed
to have found the functional equivalent of the Protestant
ethic in Judaism; Robert Bellah discovered it in Japan's
Tokugawa Buddhism.

It is safe to say that most contemporary economists do not
take Weber's hypothesis, or any other culturalist theory
of economic growth, seriously. Many maintain that culture
is a residual category in which lazy social scientists
take refuge when they can't develop a more rigorous
theory. There is indeed reason to be cautious about using
culture to explain economic and political outcomes.
Weber's own writings on the other great world religions
and their impact on modernization serve as warnings. His
book ''The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism''
(1916) takes a very dim view of the prospects for economic
development in Confucian China, whose culture, he remarks
at one point, provides only slightly less of an obstacle
to the emergence of modern capitalism than Japan's.

What held traditional China and Japan back, we now
understand, was not culture, but stifling institutions,
bad politics and misguided policies. Once these were
fixed, both societies took off. Culture is only one of
many factors that determine the success of a society. This
is something to bear in mind when one hears assertions
that the religion of Islam explains terrorism, the lack of
democracy or other phenomena in the Middle East.

At the same time, no one can deny the importance of
religion and culture in determining why institutions work
better in some countries than in others. The Catholic
parts of Europe were slower to modernize economically than
the Protestant ones, and they took longer to reconcile
themselves to democracy. Thus, much of what Samuel
Huntington called the ''third wave'' of democratization
took place between the 1970's and 90's in places like
Spain, Portugal and many countries of Latin America. Even
today, among the highly secular societies that make up the
European Union, there is a clear gradient in attitudes
toward political corruption from the Protestant north to
the Mediterranean south. It was the entry of the squeaky-
clean Scandinavians into the union that ultimately forced
the resignation of its entire executive leadership in 1999
over a minor corruption scandal involving a former French
prime minister.

''The Protestant Ethic'' raises much more profound
questions about the role of religion in modern life than
most discussions suggest. Weber argues that in the modern
world, the work ethic has become detached from the
religious passions that gave birth to it, and that it now
is part of rational, science-based capitalism. Values for
Weber do not arise rationally, but out of the kind of
human creativity that originally inspired the great world
religions. Their ultimate source, he believed, lay in what
he labeled ''charismatic authority'' -- in the original
Greek meaning of ''touched by God.'' The modern world, he
said, has seen this type of authority give way to a
bureaucratic-rational form that deadens the human spirit
(producing what he called an ''iron cage'') even as it has
made the world peaceful and prosperous. Modernity is still
haunted by ''the ghost of dead religious beliefs,'' but
has largely been emptied of authentic spirituality. This
was especially true, Weber believed, in the United States,
where ''the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious
and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with
purely mundane passions.''

It is worth looking more closely at how Weber's vision of
the modern world has panned out in the century since the
publication of ''The Protestant Ethic.'' In many ways, of
course, it has proved fatally accurate: rational, science-
based capitalism has spread across the globe, bringing
material advancement to large parts of the world and
welding it together into the iron cage we now call

But it goes without saying that religion and religious
passion are not dead, and not only because of Islamic
militancy but also because of the global Protestant-
evangelical upsurge that, in terms of sheer numbers,
rivals fundamentalist Islam as a source of authentic
religiosity. The revival of Hinduism among middle-class
Indians, or the emergence of the Falun Gong movement in
China, or the resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia
and other former Communist lands, or the continuing
vibrancy of religion in America, suggests that
secularization and rationalism are hardly the inevitable
handmaidens of modernization.

One might even take a broader view of what constitutes
religion and charismatic authority. The past century was
marked by what the German theorist Carl Schmitt
labeled ''political-theological'' movements, like Nazism
and Marxism-Leninism, that were based on passionate
commitments to ultimately irrational beliefs. Marxism
claimed to be scientific, but its real-world adherents
followed leaders like Lenin, Stalin or Mao with the kind
of blind commitment to authority that is psychologically
indistinguishable from religious passion. (During the
Cultural Revolution in China, a person had to be careful
about what he did with old newspapers; if a paper
contained a picture of Mao and one sat on the holy image
or used the newspaper to wrap a fish, one was in danger of
being named a counterrevolutionary.)

SURPRISINGLY, the Weberian vision of a modernity
characterized by ''specialists without spirit, sensualists
without heart'' applies much more to modern Europe than to
present-day America. Europe today is a continent that is
peaceful, prosperous, rationally administered by the
European Union and thoroughly secular. Europeans may
continue to use terms like ''human rights'' and ''human
dignity,'' which are rooted in the Christian values of
their civilization, but few of them could give a coherent
account of why they continue to believe in such things.
The ghost of dead religious beliefs haunts Europe much
more than it does America.

Weber's ''Protestant Ethic'' was thus terrifically
successful as a stimulus to serious thought about the
relationship of cultural values to modernity. But as a
historical account of the rise of modern capitalism, or as
an exercise in social prediction, it has turned out to be
less correct. The violent century that followed
publication of his book did not lack for charismatic
authority, and the century to come threatens yet more of
the same. One must wonder whether it was not Weber's
nostalgia for spiritual authenticity -- what one might
term his Nietzscheanism -- that was misplaced, and whether
living in the iron cage of modern rationalism is such a
terrible thing after all.

= = =
Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political
economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies and the author, most recently,
of ''State-Building.''

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