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Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Revision Notes)

Weber argued that the values of the protestant religion led to the emergence of Capitalism in Western Europe around the 17th century.

Weber observed that Capitalism first took* off in Holland and England, in the mid 17th century. He asked himself the question: ‘why did Capitalism develop in these two countries first?’

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Protestant Individualism and the Emergence of Capitalism 

Based on historical observation and analysis, Weber theorized this was because these were the only two countries in which Protestantism was the predominant religion, rather than Catholicism, which was the formal religion of every other European country.

Weber theorized that the different value systems of the two religions had different effects: the values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries.

Protestantism encouraged people to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that silent reflection, introspection and prayer were the best ways to find God. This (unintentionally, and over many years) encouraged Protestants to adopt a more ‘individualistic’ attitude to their religion by seeking their own interpretations of Christianity.

In contrast, Catholicism was a religion which encouraged more conservative values and thus was resistant to such changes. The Catholic Church has a top-down structure: from God to the Pope to the Senior Bishops and then down to the people. Ultimate power to interpret Catholic doctrine lies with the Pope and his closest advisers. Practicing Catholics are expected to abide by such interpretations, they are generally not encouraged to interpret religious scripture for themselves. Similarly, part of being a good Catholic means attending mass, which is administered by a member of the Catholic establishment, which reinforces the idea that the church is in control of religious matters, rather than spirituality being a personal matter as is more the case in Protestant traditions.

Part of Weber’s theory of why Capitalism first emerged in Protestant countries was that the more individualistic ethos of Protestantism laid the foundations for a greater sense of individual freedom, and the idea that it was acceptable to challenge ‘top down’ interpretations of Christian doctrine, as laid down by the clergy. Societies which have more individual freedom are more open to social changes.

Calvinist Asceticism and the Development of Capitalism

Weber argued that a particular denomination of Protestantism known as Calvinism played a key role in ushering in the social change of Capitalism.

Calvinism preached the doctrine of predestination: God had basically already decided who was going to heaven (‘the saved) before they were born. Similarly, he had also already decided who the damned were – whether or not you were going to hell had already been decided before your birth.

This fatalistic situation raised the question of how you would know who was saved and who was damned. Fortunately, Calvinism also taught that there was a way of figuring this out: there were indicators which could tell you who was more likely to be saved, and who was more likely to be damned.

Simply put, the harder you worked, and the less time you spent idling and/ or engaged in unproductive, frivolous activities, then the more likely it was that you were one of those pre-chosen for a life in heaven. This is because, according to Calvinist doctrine, God valued hard-work and a ‘pure-life’ non-materialistic life.

According to Weber this led to a situation in which Calvinist communities encouraged work for the glory of God, and discouraged laziness and frivolity. Needless to say there was quite a motivation to stick to these ethical codes, given that hell was the punishment if you didn’t.

Over the decades, this ‘work-ethic’ encouraged individuals and whole communities to set up businesses, and re-invest any money they earned to grow these businesses (because it was a sin to spend the money you’d made on enjoying yourself), which laid the foundations for modern capitalism.

Weber argued that over the following centuries, the norm of working hard and investing in your business became entrenched in European societies, but the old religious ideas withered away. Nonetheless, if we take the longer term view, it was still the Protestant work ethic which was (unintentionally) responsible for the emergence of Capitalism

Evaluations 

On the plus side, Weber’s theory of social change recognizes that we need to take account of individual motivations for action in order to understand massive social structural changes

On the negative side, critics have pointed out that the emergence of Capitalism doesn’t actually correlated that well with Protestantism: there are plenty of historical examples of Capitalist systems having emerged in non-Protestant countries – such as Italian Mercantilism a couple of centuries early.

Find out More

This post is a very brief summary of Max Weber’s theory of religion and social change. For a much more detailed account, including more specific historical details of Calvinism, please see this post (forthcoming!) 

 

*Weber recongized that features of the Capitalist system were present in other parts of Europe previous to the 17th century, but Holland and England were the first societies to really adopt capitalist values at the level of society as a whole, rather than it just existing in relatively isolated pockets.

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The End of Development?

20170923_100207A summary of The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity, by Andrew Brooks (2017)

This blog post covers Part 1: Making the Modern World

Chapter 1: environmental determinism and early human history

The argument in this chapter is that nature (as in the natural environment) does not determine human society and culture, rather it is more accurate to talk of humans shaping nature, especially since the emergence of agricultural societies 12000 years ago.

From between 12-8000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged independently in 11 distinct places, and in each region, these societies domesticated crops and animals, thus adapting to and changing local environments in different ways.

Agricultural societies eventually came to dominate hunter gather societies because they are more resistant to environmental shocks, given their greater capacity to store food to see them through famine periods.

Early agricultural societies also allowed for the development of a specialized division of labour, and were organised along feudal lines, with a tiered hierarchy of ruling classes taking tribute from those working the land. Europe in the 15th century was only one such system among many historical antecedants.

Brooks rounds this chapter off by reminding us that Europe did not colonize the rest of the world because of some kind of manifest destiny based on a unique set of environmental and cultural advantages, there were plenty of other cultures existing around the world in the 15th century that had similar features to the European feudal system.

What Europe did have was an emerging capitalist system, it is this that sets it apart and explains its rise to globalpower from the 15th century onwards.

Chapter 2: colonizing the world

This chapter outlines a brief history of colonialism, starting with the early colonial projects of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, which provided the silver and gold which kick started the global capitalist economy.

Brooks goes on to outline European colonial expansion across the globe more generally, arguing that European big business, governments and religion all worked together to dominate The Americas, Asia and Africa – often exploiting existing power structures to establish rule: profit, politics, piety and patriarchy all played a role in reshaping the colonial world from 1992 to 1945.

Brooks breaks down the history of colonialism something like this:

1500 – 1650 – Spanish and Portuguese colonialism – which involved the extraction of gold and silver, which was used to finance wars against Islam and other European nations. Spain also borrowed heavily from Holland on the basis of expected future returns from its mines in Latin America.  This led to the establishment of financial centers in Holland, and increasing wealth. Span eventually went into decline as its wars were unsuccessful and its colonial returns decreased

1650 – 1900 – Dutch and British colonialism – A newly rich Holland and Britain took over as the main colonial powers – state building was essential to this – a combination of political power and the granting of monopolies to the Dutch and British East India companies (for example) led to the increasing dominance of these two powers.

Brooks also outlines how slavery and the industrial revolution were crucial to the rise of these two powers, and includes a section on the famine in India to illustrate how brutal their colonial projects were.

It’s also important to realise that increasing inequality was an important aspect of Colonialism – obviously between Europe and poorer parts of the world, but there were also some colonies which were more prosperous (such as Australia) and also, within the the mother countries and colonies, this period of history led to increasing inequality.

The chapter rounds of by pointing out that from 1900, the base of world power is already starting to shift from European centers to America.

Chapter Three: American Colonialism 

This chapter starts with the ‘rise and fall of Detroit‘ which illustrates how industrial capitalism led to huge economic growth in America from the late 19th century to the 1960s, only to decline once industrial production moved abroad.

Brooks now argues that, following US Independence in 1776, American capitalists essentially focused on colonising the homeland rather than overseas territories, as there was so much land and so many resources within America – typically treating native Americans as non-people, who ended up in reservations.

There was some expansion overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries – most notably with establishment of the Panama canal, but the ideology of American isolationism prevented this from happening.

It was effectively WW1 which led America to become to the world’s global hegemon – through lending money to the Allies, it built up huge economic dominance, which only grew as Europe was thrown into turmoil during WW2, following which America rose to dominance as the country which would seek to ‘develop’ the rest of the world, which is the focus of part two of the book….. (to be updated later)

 

 

 

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The End of Poverty? A Documentary taking a ‘Dependency Theory’ View of Underdevelopment and Development

This 2008 Documentary seeks to answer the question of why there is still so much poverty in the world when there is sufficient wealth to eradicate it.

In order to answer this question, the video goes back to 1492, which marks the start of European colonialism and the beginning of the global capitalist system, making the argument that European wealth was built on the back of a 500 year project of extraction and exploitation of the Americas, and then Asia and Africa.

Using various case studies of countries including Venezula, Bolivia, and Kenya the video charts how brutal colonial policies made the colonies destitute while the wealth extracted led to the establishment of global finance, the industrial revolution, and the foundation of a global capitalist system which locked poor countries into unequal relations with rich countries.

Following Independence, a combination of unfair trade rules  and debt, managed through global institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation have effectively kept these unequal relationships between countries in place, meaning wealthy countries have got richer while many ex-colonies have remained destitute.

This video is quite heavy going, and jumps around from continenent to continent a bit too much for my liking, which, combined with a lot of sub-titles (as many of the people interviewed are not English-speakers) does make it quite hard to follow. Nonetheless, this video does offer a systematic account of a Dependency Theory view of underdevelopment and development, including interviews with numerous politicians and activists from development countries as critical thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein, among many more.

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Dependency Theory

This post is a brief summary of the Dependency Theory view of Development and Underdevelopment. It is, broadly speaking, a Marxist theory of development.

Andre Gunder Frank (1971) argues that developing nations have failed to develop not because of ‘internal barriers to development’ as modernization theorists argue, but because the developed West has systematically underdeveloped them, keeping them in a state of dependency (hence ‘dependency theory’.)

The World Capitalist System

Frank argued that a world capitalist system emerged in the 16th century which progressively locked Latin America, Asia and Africa into an unequal and exploitative relationship with the more powerful European nations.

This world Capitalist system is organised as an interlocking chain: at one end are the wealthy ‘metropolis’ or ‘core’ nations (European nations), and at the other are the undeveloped ‘satellite’ or ‘periphery’ nations. The core nations are able to exploit the peripheral nations because of their superior economic and military power.

From Frank’s dependency perspective, world history from 1500 to the 1960s is best understood as a process whereby wealthier European nations accumulated enormous wealth through extracting natural resources from the developing world, the profits of which paid for their industrialisation and economic and social development, while the developing countries were made destitute in the process.

Writing in the late 1960s, Frank argued that the developed nations had a vested interest in keeping poor countries  in a state of underdevelopment so they could continue to benefit from their economic weakness – desperate countries are prepared to sell raw materials for a cheaper price, and the workers will work for less than people in more economically powerful countries. According to Frank, developed nations actually fear the development of poorer countries because their development threatens the dominance and prosperity of the West.

Colonialism, Slavery and Dependency

Colonialism is a process through which a more powerful nation takes control of another territory, settles it, takes political control of that territory and exploits its resources for its own benefit. Under colonial rule, colonies are effectively seen as part of the mother country and are not viewed as independent entities in their own right. Colonialism is fundamentally tied up with the process of ‘Empire building’ or ‘Imperialism’.

According to Frank the main period of colonial expansion was from 1650 to 1900 when European powers, with Britain to the fore, used their superior naval and military technology to conquer and colonise most of the rest of the world.

During this 250 year period the European ‘metropolis’ powers basically saw the rest of the world as a place from which to extract resources and thus wealth. In some regions extraction took the simple form of mining precious metals or resources – in the early days of colonialism, for example, the Portuguese and Spanish extracted huge volumes of gold and silver from colonies in South America, and later on, as the industrial revolution took off in Europe, Belgium profited hugely from extracting rubber (for car tyres) from its colony in DRC, and the United Kingdom profited from oil reserves in what is now Saudi Arabia.

In other parts of the world (where there were no raw materials to be mined), the European colonial powers established plantations on their colonies, with each colony producing different agricultural products for export back to the ‘mother land’. As colonialism evolved, different colonies came to specialise in the production of different raw materials (dependent on climate) – Bananas and Sugar Cane from the Caribbean, Cocoa (and of course slaves) from West Africa, Coffee from East Africa, Tea from India, and spices such as Nutmeg from Indonesia.

All of this resulted in huge social changes in the colonial regions: in order to set up their plantations and extract resources the colonial powers had to establish local systems of government in order to organise labour and keep social order – sometimes brute force was used to do this, but a more efficient tactic was to employ willing natives to run local government on behalf of the colonial powers, rewarding them with money and status for keeping the peace and the resources flowing out of the colonial territory and back to the mother country.

Dependency Theorists argue that such policies enhanced divisions between ethnic groups and sowed the seeds of ethnic conflict in years to come, following independence from colonial rule. In Rwanda for example, the Belgians made the minority Tutsis into the ruling elite, giving them power over the majority Hutus. Before colonial rule there was very little tension between these two groups, but tensions progressively increased once the Belgians defined the Tutsis as politically superior. Following independence it was this ethnic division which went on to fuel the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s.

An unequal and dependent relationship

What is often forgotten in world history is the fact that before colonialism started, there were a number of well-functioning political and economic systems around the globe, most of them based on small-scale subsistence farming. 400 years of colonialism brought all that to end.

Colonialism destroyed local economies which were self-sufficient and independent and replaced them with plantation mono-crop economies which were geared up to export one product to the mother country. This meant that whole populations had effectively gone from growing their own food and producing their own goods, to earning wages from growing and harvesting sugar, tea, or coffee for export back to Europe.

As a result of this some colonies actually became dependent on their colonial masters for food imports, which of course resulted in even more profit for the colonial powers as this food had to be purchased with the scant wages earnt by the colonies.

The wealth which flowed from Latin America, Asia and Africa into the European countries provided the funds to kick start the industrial revolution, which enabled European countries to start producing higher value, manufactured goods for export which further accelerated the wealth generating capacity of the colonial powers, and lead to increasing inequality between Europe and the rest of the world.

The products manufactured through industrialisation eventually made their way into the markets of developing countries, which further undermined local economies, as well as the capacity for these countries to develop on their own terms. A good example of this is in India in the 1930s-40s where cheap imports of textiles manufactured in Britain undermined local hand-weaving industries. It was precisely this process that Ghandi resisted as the leading figure of the Indian Independence movement.

Neo-colonialism

By the 1960s most colonies had achieved their independence, but European nations continued to see developing countries as sources of cheap raw materials and labour and, according to Dependency Theory,  they had no interest in developing them because they continued to benefit from their poverty.

Exploitation continued via neo-colonialism – which describes a situation where European powers no longer have direct political control over countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but they continue to exploit them economically in more subtle ways.

Frank identities three main types of neo-colonialism:

Firstly, the terms of trade continue to benefit Western interests. Following colonialism, many of the ex-colonies were dependent for their export earnings on primary products, mostly agricultural cash crops such as Coffee or Tea which have very little value in themselves – It is the processing of those raw materials which adds value to them, and the processing takes place mainly in the West

Second, Frank highlights the increasing dominance of Transnational Corporations in exploiting labour and resources in poor countries – because these companies are globally mobile, they are able to make poor countries compete in a ‘race to the bottom’ in which they offer lower and lower wages to attract the company, which does not promote development.

Finally, Frank argues that Western aid money is another means whereby rich countries continue to exploit poor countries and keep them dependent on them – aid is, in fact, often in the term of loans, which come with conditions attached, such as requiring that poor countries open up their markets to Western corporations.

Strategies for Development 

  1. Breaking away from dependency

  2. Associate or dependent development

  1. Breaking away from dependency

This view argues that dependency is not just a phase, but rather a permanent position. The only way developing countries can escape dependency is to escape from the whole capitalist system. Under this category, there are different paths to development:

  • Isolation, as in the example of China from about 1960 to 2000, which is now successfully emerging as a global economic superpower having isolated itself from the West for the past 4 decades.

  • A second solution is to break away at a time when the metropolis country is weak, as India did in Britain in the 1950s, following world war 2. India is now a rising economic power.

  • Thirdly, there is socialist revolution as in the case of Cuba. This, however, resulted in sanctions being applies by America which limited trade with the country, holding its development back.

  • Many leaders in African countries adopted dependency theory, arguing that and developing political movements that aimed to liberate Africa from western exploitation, stressing nationalism rather than neo-colonialism.

  1. Associate or dependent development.

Here, one can be part of the system, and adopt national economic policies to being about economic growth such as

Import substitution industrialisation where industrialisation produces consumer goods that would normally be imported from abroad, as successfully adopted by many South American countries. The biggest failure of this, however, was that it did not address inequalities within the countries. ISI was controlled by elites, and these policies lead to economic growth while increasing inequality.

Criticisms of Dependency Theory

1. Some countries appear to have benefited from Colonialism – Goldethorpe (1975) pointed out that those countries that had been colonised at least have the benefits of good transport and communication networks, such as India, whereas many countries that were never colonised, such as Ethiopia, are much less developed.

2. Modernisation theorists would argue against the view that Isolation and communist revolution is an effective path to development, given the well-known failings of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. They would also point out that many developing countries have benefitted from Aid-for Development programmes run by western governments, and that those countries which have adopted Capitalist models of development since World War Two have developed at a faster rate than those that pursued communism.

3. Neoliberalists would argue that it is mainly internal factors that lead to underdevelopment, not exploitation – They argue that it is corruption within governments (poor governance) that is mainly to blame for the lack of development in many African countries. According to Neoliberals what Africa needs is less isolation and more Capitalism.

4. Later on we will come across Paul Collier’s theory of the bottom billion. He argues that the causes of underdevelopment cannot be reduced to a history of exploitation. He argues that factors such as civil wars, ethnic tensions and being land-locked with poor neighbours are correlated with underdevelopment.

Related Posts 

Evaluate explanations of development and underdevelopment put forward by dependency theorists – essay plan

World Systems Theory

The New Rulers of the World – summary of the documentary by John Pilger, which seems to be a pretty unambiguous dependency theory perspective on the role of the World Bank, the IMF, and Transnational Corporations in globalisation. The video focuses especially on their role in underdevelopment in Indonesia.

Neoliberalism

People Centred Development