Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 23 September 2011

Schopenhauer’s Ethics and Weber’s “Protestant Ethic”

Weber’s Protestant Ethic still indirectly glorifies “labour” as at least one motor of wealth-creation in tracing “the spirit of capitalism” to the Christian notions of human expiation of the original sin – “ora et labora” (work and pray). Yet although “puritanical parsimony” is one means (“saving”) of accumulating wealth, it is by no means a method of “creating or producing” wealth. This is the side that Weber neglects but that is present in Schopenhauer and is insightfully theorized by Bohm-Bawerk. For Weber’s Calvinists and Puritans, wealth is a sign of “Beruf”, of blessedness and active “divine calling”. But the Beruf, even in the religious specification of Entsagung, of “renunciation” and Askesis, does not yet sever decisively the theoretical link between labour and accumulation which is absolutely vital to the development of a specifically “capitalist ethic” freed from the “moral theology” of an obsolete Judaeo-Christian eschatology. Labour is still “consumption of the world” in that it pro-duces greater wealth; it is not deliverance from the world and from wealth; it is not “resignation”. Labour is still intimately connected with wealth-creation (see Weber, ‘PE’, beginning of section on “Asceticism”).

Only by severing the nexus between labour and “utility” or wealth-creation will an economic theory emerge that will relegate “labour” and the working class to their proper place in the market economy. Above all, only by severing the social/teleological osmotic link between labour and wealth will it be possible to replace the Judaeo-Christian “Beruf”, so burdened with religious tenets and “moral theology” (Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant and Hegel), with the “amoral, effective Entsagung” that leads to the Unternehmergeist! This is the “specifically bourgeois economic ethic” that Weber was seeking at the end of Die Protestantische Ethik but incorrectly understood. The new link that needs to be theorized is that between “saving as renunciation of consumption” and thence as “deliverance from the world” (Schop), on one side, and “utility” and “interest” on the other.

Thus, Weber was unwittingly reprising Smith’s theory: - division of labour as wealth-creation. Wealth is created through growing labour productivity enabled by exchange and therefore “specialization”, that is, through the pro-duction of more goods for exchange and  the use of fewer goods for consumption. This “growth of productivity” through exchange is the source of wealth. Thus wealth is a “saving of labour disutility” and consequent greater command of “utility-for-exchange”. In this perspective, wealth is the “squeezing out” of greater output from existing means of production or resources. By consuming less for himself, the worker can exchange more. Otherwise, the worker can be more productive by specializing, producing more and consuming less in the exchange. Smith assumes constant/fixed and exogenous technology. Smith’s theory does not allow for “innovation” or the role of wealth as “delayed consumption”. Thus, “consuming less for oneself” becomes “producing wealth through exchange by producing more”. Weber points this out as an aspect of “Asceticism” in ‘PE’, p161. It can be seen how this “protestant work ethic” rationale preserved entirely the link between labour and wealth that could no longer serve the bourgeoisie after the initial phase of accumulation.

What for Smith and the Puritans – and for Weber? - was wealth-creating division of labour, Hegel perceived in Smith’s “pin production” as the antithesis of productivity that does not enrich the worker! This occasioned the diatribe between Mandeville and Smith where the former could see that “the Publick” that benefitted from “Private Vices” was not the working class. And Mandeville took delight both in the ferity of humans as well as in exposing the hypocrisy of enrichment and immiseration for a divine purpose. But Mandeville still shared the condemnation of “laziness”, of the charity halls, not for ‘Deistic’ reasons related to “the work ethic”, but for the cynical realization that they invited work-shirking.

In the negatives Denken, “wealth” stands against and is the ob-jective of (Gegenstand – op-posite) work, not its pro-duct, just as the Body and the World are the “objectification of the Will”, its “variance” or “resistance” or “polarity” or source of “strife”. Wealth (capital) employs labour; labour consumes wealth to earn its keep, to produce more wealth. But the “active” part is wealth, which is “stored consumption” or “utility”, whereas labour is the “passive” (passio, suffering) part, the part that “consumes wealth” and in consuming affirms “the world”. Wealth is “consumed” after it has been “saved”. Wealth is “delayed consumption”. Piercing the veil of Maya, seeing through the illusion of “striving” and “labouring”, the mortification of the body, the abnegation of the Will is the “renunciation” of consumption and the preservation of wealth.

 As we noted above, these features are lacking in Weber. Above all, the “mundanity” of wealth, its evanescence, is left unexplained and is yet another “inconsistency” in the “Protestant ethic” as a rationale for accumulation as an end in itself in the “spirit of capitalism”. By contrast, this “evanescence” is the very centerpiece of Schopenhauer’s “system”, the “Unwirklichkeit der Erscheinungswelt” (unreality of the evanescent world) and of the “will to live” (Simmel, ‘Schop. Und Nietzsche’, pp29-30).

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