By: Onya Ganja
If I heard it through the grapevine that German Sociologist Max Weber had ended up in this century … I would write him a letter … and this is what it would say …
Weber, Weber, Weber, I hear you’ve found yourself in contemporary 21st Century North America. Welcome and good luck. I thought you might be interested in what the modern world and its society is like. The “spirit of capitalism” is still alive and to my great dismay quite well. (Weber: 155) The good news is that if you are a conspicuous consumer we have everything from automobiles to automatic cat feeders and strange chemical balloons women get implanted in their chests. The world has changed in more ways than one but there is still an iron cage surrounding society. Unfortunately the cage occupants, including myself, are more fettered than feathered, just as they were in your time. (Weber: 164) North Americans are still “dominated by the making of money”, and making money is still the end-all, be-all purpose of life for most members of society. (Weber: 155) For most, the whole point of making money now is to buy things. Ridiculous things which have become markers of one’s status. How society justifies its infatuation with making money has changed a lot since your time. Society’s norms surrounding the pursuit of money-making is still “by no means a product of nature.” (Weber: 158) Your description of a calling would probably change to have nothing to do with religion and your description of the iron cage might well include the fact that so many people are within the cage now that the door is hidden from view altogether. My mother tells me I am an optimist.
Back in your day people followed their calling to please “God” and their calling’s importance in “God’s” and everyone else’s mind was based on how their job contributed to the community but more importantly how much income it made them personally. (Weber: 160) Not because how much money they made said how important they were to society but rather how important they were to “God”. (Weber: 160) “The spirit of Capitalism” nowadays is all about the individual and very far removed from its religious roots. The financial success or failure of an individual is looked at as a reflection of how hard they work rather than what “God” has planned out for them. The poor are meant to feel like their financial hardships have nothing to do with “God”, capitalism, or anything other than them simply not trying hard enough. In addition, positive community impact and “God” are no longer important factors in society’s assessment of particular occupations.
The bottom line is now, the more money you make, the more power you have in society and the more valued you are. Just as it was in your time, we are all born into this capitalist system with no visible alternative. We see these as our only options – compete in the rat race or be “thrown into the streets without a job”. (Weber: 156) Push the money machine forward, or starve. Now if you starve, society sees it not as “God’s” will but rather that you are simply a defective individual in an effective society. Society has ceased to justify “economic compulsion” altogether as now it is the only justification for any course of action. (Weber: 164) Now with the absence of asceticism in the conversation surrounding callings, the pursuit of wealth is what is really valued by society. (Weber: 162) In the province I live in they have even now criminalized those who live nearest the door of the iron cage. Street-work, which doesn’t contribute to greasing the wheels of the capitalist machine, has been made illegal by provincial by-laws. Can you imagine a world where begging for money for food is illegal? Just like religion is an institution of social control so is the law. If you attempt to escape the iron cage on an individual level you will be controlled via incarceration.
The iron cage and its byproducts makes it seem as though we all have a calling, and that is to be participants in the economic system which we did not create for ourselves. Making money to buy things which humans have never previously needed has become the purpose for most of society. You said that “a man does not ‘by nature’ wish to earn more and more money, but simply live as he is accustomed to live …”, now the ideal course for one’s calling would be nothing other than to earn more and more money. (Weber: 157) Now a calling, just as it was in your time, but in a different sense, is all very gendered. Both men and women are now both actively involved in capitalism in every way possible. Social norms surrounding gender dictate what someone’s calling will be far more than religious notions of what “God” wants. All social norms today including occupational gender roles create a barrier to social change. Social change seems to be so slow that it’s hard to tell what direction we are going in. You may not have travelled far enough into time. “The last ton of fossilized coal” hasn’t been burnt up yet but we are now getting close. (Weber: 164) Soon we will see if that can create a change in society which may turn the iron cage back into the cloak is ought to be. (Weber: 164)
Don’t worry, the bureaucrats are still chained to their desks in the “economic and ideological” sense. (Weber: 193) I say don’t worry, as it would hardly seem fair for society to be caged in by bureaucracy without the bureaucrats being caged in with us. Bureaucracy today creates a great barrier to anything threatening to change the economic and social order of things. There is just simply too much paper work involved in social change nowadays. Sometimes it feels like all the rules and bureaucracy of my time make it so very little gets done in any sort of capacity at all. Every bureaucracy loves a make-work project. How can one be looking for the cage door when drowning under a pile of paper work? All the rules and bureaucracy by-products stifle societal change and lube capitalism. Also, just as in the case of the idea of the calling, bureaucracy and “God” are very much separated today. Bureaucracy never needs to defend itself or justify its actions any longer, it is the reality of how things work in our society now, no alternative is visible.
Perhaps the largest difference between today and your yesterday is that society for the most part finds the cage comfortable, as the pursuit of money and status symbols matters more than freedom and purpose, even to the religious members of society. Religion is still a force and institution of social control in our society but it is no longer needed to justify capitalism. I bet you are probably saying to yourself, “but something needs to direct the ‘spirit of capitalism’ nevertheless”. You are right. Now I would say “God” has been replaced by the mass media. Newspapers, television, movies, celebrities are all bigger and more influential than “God”. Even if religious notions are to play a role in societal trends towards callings I would say that it is the media that truly spreads these notions and gives them weight. The advancement of technology and strange social networks are the by-product of that advancement and have further diminished religion’s effect on society. So, religion started the “spirit of capitalism” in your time and now has been completely overshadowed by things which didn’t even exist in your day. I wondered why religion started pushing toward capitalism in the first place. My Catholic roommate came home from church and the collection that weekend was over $5,000 dollars. Mystery solved.
Well Weber, I wish I had better news for you, I wish I could tell you things have changed for the better. The way things are though, the iron cage is still here and notions of callings still direct lives towards capitalistic goals. Just now “God” has very little to do with anything in comparison to the power of greed. I wish I could at least tell you bureaucracy has dissolved or changed for the better; but now more than ever I don’t think there is a moment of anyone’s life that isn’t confined in action by the cage of bureaucracy. Maybe next century.
Toke it easy Weber and Weberians,