Morality and Capitalism in Sociological Perspective

Other more politically detached sociologists, like Durkheim and Max Weber, made considerable efforts to chart the effects of a modern dynamic capitalism on the social division of labour. From a moral point of view both Durkheim and Weber offer intriguing but different approaches. Weber deployed an extremely sharp cultural critique of modern capitalism. Like Tawney, he saw the origins of modern capitalism as being forged by a Puritan sensibility that raised hard systematic work into a Lebensführung that came to define modernity.

For reasons of salvation, the Puritans adopted a rational and systematic approach to life, not for economic purposes but as a way of immunising themselves from sinful temptation. Puritanism, said Weber, created a monastic regime in the profane everyday world. This caused a step change in the already developing world of capitalist enterprise in the late medieval period. Modern industrial capitalism replicated the rationality structures laid down by the Puritans. Entering the twentieth century, Weber saw modern capitalism as an unstoppable global force.

Modern capitalism triumphed because its practitioners still exercised a set of virtues inherited from their Puritan forebears. This is probably best described as an accountant’s mentality based on probity, restraint, and a self-denying asceticism in the face of wealth. Prior to modern capitalism, a form of base capitalism oriented to immediate gratification and acquisition had existed throughout the world. The Puritan disciplined himself, and so transformed capitalism into an enterprise with rational budgeting, investment, and the calculation of return.

Weber’s critique of this system was that it was soulless, that it rationalised and compartmentalised life itself, and in a famous phrase produced the “iron cage” of modernity. In this sense capitalism was the product of an overdetermined or exaggerated moral habitus. Yet modern machine age capitalism was a thing apart from its human and extremely moral progenitors.

Weber’s realism insisted that modern capitalism was irremovable and he considered Marxist and all other revolutionary schemes as a form of romanticism. Nevertheless he did belong to the wider school of thought that saw capitalism as alienating some essential human spirit of spontaneity and expressiveness. Weber used the term disenchantment to describe this feeling. Ernest Gellner, in the 1970s, was able to point out that modernity was turning out to have a diverse range of re-enchantments, indicating that capitalism was now compatible with hedonism and expressiveness.

From where we stand now, Gellner’s benediction might have been premature. While the 1960s and 1970s did offer the possibility of high levels of consumption and its pleasures on a mass scale, the political conjuncture that produced those conditions no longer function in the same way. De-industrialisation, shifts in inequality, stagnant wages for both working and middle class occupational groups are characteristic of today’s finance driven capitalism.

Also, Weber’s diagnosis of capitalism was based on an assumed affinity between the rational requirements of industrial capitalism and the personal qualities of those who led and directed that capitalism. Bernard-Henri Levy recently commented that capitalism has not failed, but rather we have failed capitalism, and this has some resonance here. Modern capitalism and rationality were almost interchangeable terms in Weber’s discourse.

The finance capitalism of today has some startlingly irrational features and is no longer led by those who possess the requisite moral probity. Greed might be a psychological motivation, but Weber would have regarded it fatal if carried through as a norm determining business practice. Greed and the acquisitive instinct are universal attributes. Modern capitalism succeeded by banishing the all too human and ushering in a bunch of business ascetics – the so-called Protestant virtues of hard work, delayed gratification and selflessness.

For Durkheim, economics and sociology are in conflict with each other in modern society. The modern market economy promotes individualism and egoism. But this dynamic increased the necessity for a counteracting moral community. Society, at some essential level, was defined by Durkheim as a moral community. Only moral forces act on the individual as an effective external control of behaviour.

The modern individual has her own internal desires and, indeed, a greater freedom to pursue those desires, but it is the collective idea of morality that in a proper society is inculcated into the individual’s thinking that produces moral actions. Collective ideas of nation, patriotism, family, religion, and civic sense fostered by education keep individual behaviour within moral boundaries.

However, capitalism itself is without morality, and in this Durkheim followed the English sociologist Herbert Spencer who argued that the rise of market capitalism followed an evolutionary logic. Spencer did not distress himself over the individualising effects of market society. For him they belonged to the process of social evolution. More individualism meant greater differentiation, and this evolution represented progress. Progress is taken for granted as a “good thing” but whether it constitutes moral behaviour is another question.

The egoistic interest of individuals produces beneficial outcomes at the level of society. In this way, Spencer could ignore the moral concerns as articulated by Durkheim and Tawney. Spencer dispenses with morality since evolution produces progress and residual problems of morality belong to the sphere of interpersonal ethics. Certainly there is no justification for the state or government to interfere in the workings of the market and still less the calling forth of moral and social entities to combat an impersonal capitalism. Continuities between Spencer and contemporary neoliberalism may of course be drawn. In fact it was Spencer who came up with the idea of the self-organising capacities existing within society, an idea with as many deleterious consequences as Hayek’s subsequent use of the idea.