Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist, economist, political scientist, and writer. One of Weber's main interests was developing a methodology for social science. His works had a considerable influence on 20th century sociologists. He devised the concept of "ideal types," generalized models of historical situations that could be used as a basis for comparing societies. He opposed the orthodox Marxian view of the time that economics was the primary determining factor in social causation, and instead stressed the plurality and interdependence of causes. Weber emphasized the role of religious values, ideologies, and charismatic leaders in shaping societies. In his most famous work, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he developed a thesis concerning the connection between the ascetic ideal fostered by Calvinism and the rise of capitalist institutions.
Weber viewed the Reformation as a critical period in European history that saw a reorientation of basic cultural frameworks of spiritual direction and human outlook, destined to have a great impact on economic life as well as other aspects of modern culture. Weber tended to view Protestant rationalism as one further step in the series of stages of increasing rationalization of every area of modern society.
The Iron Cage
Weber's point in the seminal work Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is not the success of Protestant nations or capitalism over other nations or economic organizations. He actually questioned the historicist conclusion that the Protestant ethic or capitalism were responsible for the "success" of modernity. In fact, such a conclusion is entirely Marxist, who Weber was in deliberate argument with. This is expressed in Weber's notion of the Iron Cage from a passage in the conclusion of his book:
- "...care for external goods should lie on the shoulders of the "saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed the cloak should become an iron cage"
Weber's point is that the rationalization of individual behaviors towards a capitalist organization would create a rigid, authoritarian, materialistic, and dehumanized bureaucracy. Some argue Weber was a pessimist in this regards but that he actually thought this was the best means of social organization. Others note that he has argued that capitalism and its benefits existed before Protestantism and that the Protestant ethic only rationalized individual behavior towards this mode of production. These people claim he was lamenting the ways in which human society had come to serve their tools and organizations (such as capitalism) rather than let these things serve them.
Regardless of which interpretation of Weber we take on this point, he was very clear that due to the rationalization of capitalism, the entire globe would be effected by it, perhaps forced to adopt it. Whether or not this is a good thing is, of course, a point of debate related directly to the interpretation of the Iron Cage.