Rethinking Weber's Capitalist Spirit in the Age of Algorithmic Management: A Brief Exposition / by Michael Motala

Image Source:

Image Source:

What accounts for the origins of the liberal-rationalist modality of capitalist production? Capitalism, we are told, involves more than the mere “impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money” (Weber, 1992 [1930], p.xxxi). The capitalist mode of economic action is “one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chance of profit” (ibid., p.xxxii). Historically speaking, its liberal-rationalist variant is unique. For “[c]apitalism [has long] existed in China, India, Babylon, in the classic world, in the Middle Ages … [b]ut in all these cases … [a] particular ethos was lacking” (ibid., p.17). “Only in the West,” sociologist Max Weber argues, “does science exist at a stage of development which we recognize today as valid” (ibid., p.xxviii). Western capitalism, however, is not solely about the application of valid science to “rational industrial organization” (ibid.,xxxv). Rather, its hallmark is found in the “capitalistic organization of labour” (ibid., xxxv-xxxvi). In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1992 [1930])Weber thus argues that the provenance of the “peculiar rationalism of Western culture” (ibid., xxxviii) is found neither in the stories told by idealism, principally the form of Anglo-American utilitarianism, nor materialism, as envisaged by Marxism. Instead, the origins of the liberal-rationalist modality of capitalist production are found in Western culture (ibid., xxxviii). In this brief exposition, I pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I briefly summarize Weber’s argument about the protestant work ethic. Second, I respond to the main point of his book in light of contemporary industrial relations in the digital sector.

         Adopting the methodology of verstehen (understanding) rather than erklären(explaining), Weber argues that it is the “duty to labour” (ibid., p.106) that distinguishes Occidental capitalism from its historical antecedents, and that this duty is rooted in the Calvinist doctrine of predetermination (ibid., p.56; p.62; p.65). In short, Weber identifies a connection between the “fundamental religious ideas of ascetic Protestantism” with the “maxims for everyday economic conduct” (ibid., p.102). Asceticism, which describes a doctrine of self-discipline and the avoidance of indulgence, holds that wasting time is “the first and in principle the deadliest of sins,” for “the span of human life is infinitely short and precious” (ibid., p.104). Thus, in contrast with the Catholic Church’s rejection of the profit motive, a doctrine which traces its origins to Aristotle’s rejection of usury in Greek antiquity, Protestants yielded an ideology that permitted the acquisition of wealth “because every lost hour is lost to labour for the glory of God” (ibid., p.104). Thus, rather than being intrinsically bad, “wealth is thus bad ethically only in so far as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life” (ibid., p.108). Thus emerges the quasi-religious duty to labour (ibid., p.106), which played in instrumental role in the emergence and development of Occidental capitalism. 

         Compared to Lockean theory of rationalism, Weber’s book, by seeking to understand rather than explain, prescribe, or proscribe, critically highlights the social, moral, and metaphysical dimensions of capitalist production from the labour perspective---one that is sorely missing even in the contemporary theoretical debate. His notion of a duty to work illuminates the implicit and oft-unacknowledged role of morality in capitalist production. While I am loath to believe that Protestantism caused capitalism to occur in its peculiar form in the West in the same way a positivist might argue, in Weber, I see a generally clear causal arrow that historically led from the Protestant moral constitution to the liberal-rationalist modalities of exchange and production on the market. 

         Now consider the contemporary labour market, epitomized by the emergence and dominance of global multinational firms like Amazon, which has had a transformative impact on industrial relations. In a 2015 article in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld describe Amazon as a “bruising workplace” (Kantor & Streitfeld, 2015). In one particular egregious incident, the authors describe 

[a] woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you (Kantor & Streitfeld, 2015).

Whereas the moral doctrines of Protestantism—the spirit of capitalism if you will—constituted historical industrial relations, it now seems that the market itself is restructuring the moral frontiers of labour exploitation: such companies observe the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. Amazon’s oft-reported abuse of its labour force, being just one example of many egregious practices at firms like Uber, Google, etc., highlights a critical gap in the current business ethics debate. In the spirit of Weber’s work, what is needed in contemporary business practice, therefore, is a reverse engineering of capitalism from a moral standpoint: we must reverse the causal arrow between metaphysics and markets. To get there, however, moral philosophers must wholly reimagine the moral constitution of markets in light of the transformation of digial market structure—a task wholly out of scope for this short exposition.


 Kantor, J., Streitfeld, D., 2015. "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," New York Times, August 15. Available at:

Weber, M., 1992 [1930]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.