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Protestant Values, the Spirit of Capitalism, and the Iron Cage

Updated August 8, 2022

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Protestant Values, the Spirit of Capitalism, and the Iron Cage essay

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In chapter four of the text, Sociological Theory, there is a thorough examination of Max Weber’s review of the ties between the Protestant ethic, with special interest in Calvinism, and the creation of the spirit of capitalism. It is important to note that Weber does not believe that the Protestant religion directly caused Capitalism, but rather that the ethics and values of the Protestant religion were a catalyst in the efforts to create an environment where capitalism can thrive. Weber also had some anxieties about how the need for rationalization within capitalistic societies could create an iron cage mentality. Throughout this reflection, I examine and elaborate on these ideas and how they have inevitably contributed to the capitalistic society the United States has today.

The first stepping stone in the creation of the iron cage of rationality we see today was the Protestant ethic. According to the text, Sociological Theory, “Weber developed a typology of the paths of salvation,” (Ritzer and Stepnisky 144). The path to salvation for Protestants was what Weber called inner-worldly asceticism. Essentially, inner-worldly asceticism is the need for members of a religious group to work hard in this world, so they can find signs of their later salvation. These signs of salvations were often attributed to material success. According to the text, this type of path to salvation creates an environment where the goal is to have “strict, methodical control over of the members’ patterns of life, thought and action.” (Ritzer and Stepnisky 145). The Protestant ethic was a product of their version of what the path to salvation looked like.

It could be argued, that this created path simultaneously, whether intentional or not, created hard-working people because they were all actively trying to find signs of their salvation. This logic created that idealistic environment for capitalism to thrive. For the spirit of capitalism to exist, there needed to be people actively searching for a hidden meaning in benefits of all the work they were doing, or the benefits would have no value to them. Though these benefits were a direct product of their hard work, because of the Protestant path to salvation, they saw the benefits of their production as signs from God. The Protestant ethic created a need to constantly search for these signs from God in the benefits of what they produced. This constant search for signs created a constant need to work hard, and thus, the Protestant ethic directly contributed to the creation of the spirit of capitalism.

The spirit of capitalism is the biggest contributor to the iron cage rationality in today’s society. According to the text, Sociological Theory, “The spirit of capitalism is not simply defined by economic greed… it is a moral and ethical system,” (Ritzer and Stepnisky 146) The need to constantly produce goods and services in order to gain the benefits created this “spirit.” This “spirit” is the ethical need to constantly be chasing after something, that arguably, is not attainable. Though the spirit of capitalism was rooted in the Protestant’s need for salvation, that “spirit” has become so deep-seated in our society that people still have that need to succeed without the Protestant need for salvation. The spirit of capitalism also created a sense of inclusion in the journey to success being very profit and material driven, and consequently made an uninviting environment for those wanting to deviate from that version of success.

The transition of the Protestant ethic to the spirit of capitalism caused western society to integrate capitalism into the essence of its being. Because the spirit of capitalism is so engrained in our society it creates an environment that you have to be a part of in order to succeed, thus the “iron cage.” According to an online article, “Understanding Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage”’ by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D., if you are born into a society that has a capitalistic spirit, then there is no way for you to live outside that system.”

Capitalism gives every person a “fair” chance to succeed in that society (not actually true because of systemic inequality), so it takes away the choice of whether or not you actually want to participate. There is no way for a person living within an individualistic society to create their own collective society. Weber argues you are given the illusion of freedom because you have a chance, but you are not able to act outside of capitalism, so it is not actually freedom. In an online article, “What did Max Weber mean by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism?” the author Peter Ghosh sates “[People] were not in control of their own destiny but were governed by the set of rational and impersonal procedures.” Acting outside of capitalism is nearly impossible at some point you will have to contribute in some way, and in turn, put yourself back into the “iron cage”.

In closing, the Protestant ethic created a domain for the spirit of capitalism to manifest. This spirit of capitalism works well for those who want to actively participate but does not give a chance to those who don’t. Despite the fact that capitalism giving everyone a “fair” chance at success could be considered freedom, this reluctance to accept the outliers of the “spirit” takes away that freedom. The lack of escape for the outlier creates the “iron cage” of rationality. When you give someone one choice, they do not have a chance to choose.

Protestant Values, the Spirit of Capitalism, and the Iron Cage essay

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Protestant Values, the Spirit of Capitalism, and the Iron Cage. (2022, Aug 08). Retrieved from