People worked hard long before there was a thing called the “work ethic,” much less a “Protestant work ethic.” The phrase itself emerged early in the twentieth century and has since congealed into a cliché. It is less a real thing than a story that people, and nations, tell themselves about themselves. I am from the United States but now live in Amsterdam; the Dutch often claim the mantle of an industrious, Apollonian Northern Europe, as distinct from a dissolute, Dionysian, imaginary South. Or the Dutch invoke the Protestant ethic with self-deprecating smugness: Alas, we are so productive. Both invocations are absurd. The modern Dutch, bless them, are at least as lazy as everyone else, and their enjoyments are vulgar and plentiful.
In the U.S., meanwhile, celebrations of the “work ethic” add insult to the injury of overwhelming precarity. As the pandemic loomed, it should have been obvious that the U.S. would particularly suffer. People go to work because they have no choice. Those who did not face immediate economic peril could experience quarantine as a kind of relief and then immediately feel a peculiar guilt for that very feeling of relief. Others, hooray, could sustain and perform their work ethic from home.
The German sociologist Max Weber was the first great theorist of the Protestant ethic. If all scholarship is autobiography, it brings an odd comfort to learn that he had himself suffered a nervous breakdown. Travel was his main strategy of recuperation, and it brought him to the Netherlands and to the U.S., among other places. The Hague was “bright and shiny,” he wrote in 1903. “Everyone is well-to-do, exceedingly ungraceful, and rather untastefully dressed.” He had dinner in a vegetarian restaurant. (“No drinks, no tips.”) Dutch architecture made him feel “like Gulliver when he returned from Brobdingnag.” America, by contrast, was Brobdingnag. Weber visited the U.S. for three months in 1904 and faced the lurid enormity of capitalism. Chicago, with its strikes, slaughterhouses, and multi-ethnic working class, seemed to him “like a man whose skin has been peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work.”
Weber theorized the rise of capitalism, the state and its relationship to violence, the role of “charisma” in politics. Again and again he returned, as we still do, to the vocation—the calling—as both a crushing predicament and a noble aspiration. He died 100 years ago, in a later wave of the Spanish flu. It is poignant to read him now, in our own era of pandemic and cataclysm. It might offer consolation. Or it might fail to console.
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism emerged, in part, from that American journey. It first appeared in two parts, in 1904 and 1905, in a journal, the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. A revised version appeared in 1920, shortly before his death. Race did not figure into his account of capitalism’s rise, though the American color line had confronted him vividly. In 1906 he would publish W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Negro Question in the United States” in the same journal, which he edited.
Modern invocations of the work ethic are usually misreadings: The Protestant Ethic was more lament than celebration. Weber sought to narrate the arrival of what had become a no-longer-questioned assumption: that our duty was to labor in a calling, even to labor for labor’s sake. He sought the origins of this attitude toward work and the meaning of life, of an ethic that saved money but somehow never enjoyed it, of a joyless and irrational rationality. He found the origins in Calvinism, specifically in what he called Calvinism’s “this-worldly asceticism.”
Weber’s argument was not that Calvinism caused capitalism; rather, The Protestant Ethic was a speculative psycho-historical excavation of capitalism’s emergence. The interpretation, like most of his interpretations, had twists that are not easy to summarize. It was, after all, really the failure of Calvinism—in the sense of the unmeetableness of Calvinism’s demands on an individual psyche and soul—that generated a proto-capitalist orientation to the world. The centerpiece of Calvin’s theology—the absolute, opaque sovereignty of God and our utter noncontrol over our own salvation—was, in Weber’s account, impossibly severe, unsustainable for the average person. The strictures of that dogma ended up creating a new kind of individual and a new kind of community: a community bound paradoxically together by their desperate anxiety about their individual salvation. Together and alone.
The germ of the capitalist “spirit” lay in the way Calvinists dealt with that predicament. They labored in their calling, for what else was there to do? To work for work’s sake was Calvinism’s solution to the problem of itself. Having foreclosed all other Christian comforts—a rosary, an indulgence, a ritual, a communion—Weber’s original Calvinists needed always to perform their own salvation, to themselves and to others, precisely because they could never be sure of it. No wonder they would come to see their material blessings as a sign that they were in fact blessed. And no wonder their unlucky descendants would internalize our economic miseries as somehow just.
Calvinism, in other words, was less capitalism’s cause than its ironic precondition. The things people did for desperate religious reasons gave way to a secular psychology. That secular psychology was no “freer” than the religious one; we had been emancipated into jobs. “The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling,” Weber wrote; “we, on the other hand, must be.” As a historical process—i.e., something happening over time—this process was gradual enough that the people participating in it did not really apprehend it as it happened. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden and into the world, the archangel Michael offers faith as a consolation within the worldliness that is humanity’s lot: The faithful, Michael promises Adam, “shal[l] possess / A Paradise within thee, happier by far.” Those lines appeared in 1674, more than a century after John Calvin’s death; for Weber, they were an inadvertent expression of the capitalist spirit’s historical unfolding. Only later still could the gloomy sociologist see, mirrored in that Puritan epic, our own dismal tendency to approach life itself as a task.
As a hypothesis, this one has a maddening unprovability. That is one reason it has endured. It does not really explain capitalism’s rise; it is structured around the “elective affinity” between Calvinist and capitalist asceticism. (Weber took the phrase from Goethe; part of the lore of Weber’s own inner drive is his childhood reading of all 42 volumes of Goethe.) But the argument depended on a caricature of Calvinism, not to mention a selective slice of “capitalism.” A Weberian analysis said little about, say, inequality, but it illuminated manners and mindsets. The spiritual germ of capitalism flowered in the minds of merchants and men of business, and in the paragons of success and frugal living. Benjamin Franklin, secular sermonizer of “The Way to Wealth,” was Weber’s patron saint of capitalism. Weber mocked the Franklinian attitude—indeed he drew his portrait of Franklin from a German satire, Der Amerikamüde (The Man Who Was Tired of America)—but at the same time fell for businessmen’s pious narratives of themselves.
For historians of capitalism, the book is inspiring but soon turns frustrating. Weberian interpretations tend to stand back from history’s contingencies and exploitations in order to find some churning and ultimately unstoppable process: “rationalization,” for instance, by which tradition gives way ironically but inexorably to modernity. Humans wanted things like wholeness, community, or salvation; but our efforts, systematized in ways our feeble consciousness can’t ever fully grasp, end up ushering in anomie, bureaucracy, or profit. The Weberian analysis then offers no relief from that process, only a fatalism without a teleology. The moral of the story, if there is a moral, is to reconcile yourself to the modernity that has been narrated and to find in the narrative itself something like an intellectual consolation, which is the only consolation that matters.
Still, the book’s melancholy resonates, if only aesthetically. At moments, it even stabs with a sharpness that Weber could not have foreseen: The “monstrous cosmos” of capitalism now “determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism,” he wrote in the book’s final pages, “and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.” Gothic images—ghosts and shadowy monsters—abound in what is, at times, a remarkably literary portrait. “The idea of the ‘duty in a calling’ haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs.”
The book’s most famous image is the “iron cage.” For Puritans, material concerns were supposed to lie lightly on one’s shoulders, “like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time” (Weber was quoting the English poet Richard Baxter), but for us moderns, “fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” That morsel of sociological poetry was not in fact Weber’s but that of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose English translation in 1930 became the definitive version outside of Germany. Weber’s phrase was “stahlhartes Gehäuse”—a shell hard as steel. It describes not a room we can’t leave but a suit we can’t take off.
One wonders what Weber would make of our era’s quarantines. What is a Zoom meeting but another communal experience of intense loneliness? Weber’s portrait of Calvinist isolation might ring a bell. Working from home traps us ever more firmly in the ideology or mystique of a calling. We might then take refuge in a secondary ethic, what we might call the iron cage of “fulfillment.” It is built on the ruins of the work ethic or, just as plausibly, it is the work ethic’s ironic apotheosis: secular salvation through sourdough.
It brings a sardonic pleasure to puncture the mental and emotional habits of a service economy in Weberian terms. But it doesn’t last. The so-called work ethic is no longer a spiritual contagion but a medical one, especially in America. Weber’s interpretation now offers little illumination and even less consolation. It is not some inner ethic that brings, say, Amazon’s workers to the hideously named “fulfillment centers”; it is a balder cruelty.
The breakdown happened in 1898, when Weber was 34. “When he was overloaded with work,” his wife, Marianne, wrote in her biography of him, after his death, “an evil thing from the unconscious underground of life stretched out its claws toward him.” His father, a politician in the National Liberal Party, had died half a year earlier, mere weeks after a family standoff that remained unresolved. In the dispute, Max had defended his devoutly religious mother against his autocratic father. The guilt was severe. (The Protestant Ethic would lend itself too easily to a Freudian reading.) A psychiatrist diagnosed him with neurasthenia, then the modern medical label for depression, anxiety, panic, fatigue. The neurasthenic brain, befitting an industrial age, was figured as an exhausted steam engine. Marianne, elsewhere in her biography, described the condition as an uprising to be squashed: “Weber’s mind laboriously maintained its dominion over its rebellious vassals.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Heidelberg, Weber had studied law. His doctoral dissertation was on medieval trading companies. By his early thirties he was a full professor in economics and finance, in Freiburg and then back in Heidelberg. After his breakdown, he was released from teaching and eventually given a long leave of absence. He resigned his professorship in 1903, keeping only an honorary title for more than a decade. Weberian neurasthenia meant a life of travel; medical sojourns in Alpine clinics; and convalescent trips to France, Italy, and Austro-Hungary—extravagant settings for insomnia and a genuine inner turmoil. Money was not the problem. Marianne, a prolific scholar and a key but complex figure in the history of German feminism, would inherit money from the family’s linen factory.
Though only an honorary professor, with periods of profound study alternating with periods of depression, Weber loomed large in German academic life. In 1917, students in Munich invited the “myth of Heidelberg,” as he was known, to lecture about “the vocation of scholarship.” He did not mention his peculiar psychological and institutional trajectory in that lecture, now a classic, though one can glimpse it between the lines. “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (“Science as a Vocation”) and another lecture from a year and a half later, “Politik als Beruf” (“Politics as a Vocation”) are Weber’s best-known texts outside The Protestant Ethic. A new English translation by Damion Searls rescues them from the formal German (as translations sometimes must) and from the viscous English into which they’re usually rendered. It restores their vividness and eloquence as lectures.
Of course, now they would be Zoom lectures, which would entirely break the spell. Picture him: bearded and severe, a facial scar still visible from his own college days in a dueling fraternity. He would see not a room full of students but rather his own face in a screen, looking back at him yet unable to make true eye contact. Neurasthenia would claw at him again.
Some lines from “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” even today, would have worked well in the graduation speeches that have been canceled because of the pandemic. Notably: “Nothing is humanly worth doing except what someone can do with passion.” Sounds nice! “Wissenschaft als Beruf” approached the confines of the calling in a more affirmative mode. Other parts of the speech, though—and even that inspirational line, in context—boast a bleak and bracing existentialism. My favorite moment is when Weber channeled Tolstoy on the meaningless of death (and life!) in a rationalized, disenchanted modernity. Since modern scholarship is now predicated on the nonfinality of truth, Weber said, and since any would-be scholar will absorb “merely a tiny fraction of all the new ideas that intellectual life continually produces,” and since “even those ideas are merely provisional, never definitive,” death can no longer mark a life’s harmonious conclusion. Death is now “simply pointless.” And the kicker: “And so too is life as such in our culture, which in its meaningless ‘progression’ stamps death with its own meaninglessness.” If only I had heard that from a graduation speaker.
Weber’s subject was the meaning of scholarship in a “disenchanted” world. “Disenchantment” is another one of Weber’s processes—twisted, born of unintended consequences, but nevertheless unstoppable. It meant a scholar could no longer find “proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse.” Worse, the modern scholar was doomed to work in so dismal an institution as a university. “There are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions,” said Weber about the bureaucratized university of his day, “safe mediocrities or partisan careerists” serving the powers that funded them. Still true.
So why do it? To be a scholar meant caring, as if it mattered, about a thing that objectively does not matter and caring as if “the fate of his very soul depends on whether he gets this specific conjecture exactly right about this particular point in this particular manuscript.” Scholarship was the good kind of calling, insofar as one could make one’s way to some kind of meaning, however provisional that meaning was, and however fleeting and inscrutable the spark of “inspiration.”
That part of the sermon is no longer quite so moving. Weber styled himself a tough-minded realist when it came to institutions, but our era’s exploitation of adjunct academic labor punctures the romance that Weber could nevertheless still inflate. Universities in an age of austerity do not support or reward scholarly inquiry as a self-justifying vocation. Scholars must act more and more like entrepreneurs, manufacturing and marketing our own “relevance.” For some university managers (as for many corporate CEOs), the coronavirus is as much an opportunity as a crisis, to further strip and “streamline” the university—to conjoin, cheaply, the incompatible ethics of efficiency and intellect. And we teachers are stuck in the gears: The digital technologies by which we persist in our Beruf will only further erode our professional stability. “Who but a blessed, tenured few,” the translation’s editors, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, ask, “could continue to believe that scholarship is a vocation?”
And yet as a sermon on teaching, Weber’s lecture still stirs me. Having given up on absolute claims about truth or beauty, and having given up on academic inquiry revealing the workings of God, he arrived at a religious truth about pedagogy that you can still hang a hat on:
If we understand our own subject (I am necessarily assuming we do), we can force, or at least help, an individual to reckon with the ultimate meaning of his own actions. This strikes me as no small matter, in terms of a student’s inner life too.
I want this to be true. On good days, teaching delivers what Weber called that “strange intoxication,” even on Zoom.
An enormous historical gulf divides the two vocation lectures, though they were delivered only 14 months apart. In November 1917, Weber didn’t even mention the war. When it broke out in 1914, he served for a year as a medical director in the reserve forces; he did not see combat but supported German aspiration to the status of Machtstaat and its claim to empire. The war dragged miserably on, but in late 1917 it was far from clear that Germany would lose. Tsarist Russia had collapsed, and the American entry into the war had not proved decisive. The defeat that Germany would experience in the coming months was then unimaginable.
Weber was a progressive nationalist, moving between social democracy and the political center. During the war, besides his essays on the sociology of religion, he wrote about German political futures and criticized military management, all while angling for some role in the affairs of state himself. As the tide turned, he argued for military retrenchment as the honorable course. A month after Germany’s surrender on November 11, 1918, he stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament with the new German Democratic Party, of which he was a founder.
In January 1919 he returned to a Munich gripped by socialist revolution. It was now the capital of the People’s State of Bavaria, which would be short-lived. Weber, for years, had dismissed both pacifism and revolution as naïve. Many in the room where he spoke supported the revolution that he so disdained, and many of them had seen industrial slaughter in the state’s trenches. Part of the lecture’s mystique is its timing: He stood at a podium in the eye of the storm.
“Politik als Beruf” would seem to speak to our times, from one era of calamity and revolution to another. It is about the modern state and its vast machineries. It is about statesmen and epigones, bureaucracy and its discontents, “leadership” and political breakdown. To that moment’s overwhelming historical flux, Weber brought, or tried to bring, the intellectual sturdiness of sociological categories, “essential” vocabularies that could in theory apply at any time.
He offered a now-famous definition of the state in general: “the state is the only human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly on legitimate physical violence for itself, within a certain geographical territory.… All other groups and individuals are granted the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state allows it.” This definition, powerfully tautological, was the sociological floor on which stood all of the battles over what we might want the state to be. Philosophically, it operated beneath all ideological or moral debates over rights, democracy, welfare. It countered liberalism’s fantasy of a social contract, because Weber’s state, both foundationally and when push came to shove, was not contractual but coercive.
It was a bracing demystification. Legitimacy had nothing to do with justice; it meant only that the people acquiesced to the state’s authority. Some regimes “legitimately” protected “rights,” while others “legitimately” trampled them. Why did we acquiesce? Weber identified three “pure” categories of acquiescence: We’re conditioned to it, by custom or tradition; or we’re devoted to a leader’s charisma; or we’ve been convinced that the state’s legitimacy is in fact just, that its laws are valid and its ministers competent. Real political life, Weber wryly said, was always a cocktail of these three categories of acquiescence, never mind what stories we might tell ourselves about why we go along with anything.
With that floor of a definition laid, varieties of statehood could now emerge. Every state was a configuration of power and bureaucratic machinery, and the many massive apparatuses that made it up had their own deep sociological genealogies, each with their own Weberian twists. So did the apparatuses that produced those people who felt called to politics. Weber’s sweep encompassed parliaments, monarchs, political parties, corporations, newspapers, universities (law schools especially), a professional civil service, militaries.
Any reader now will be tempted to decode our politicians in Weber’s terms. Trump: ostensibly from the world of business, which, in Weber’s scheme, would usually keep such a figure out of electoral politics (although Weber did note that “plutocratic leaders certainly can try to live ‘from’ politics,” to “exploit their political dominance for private economic gain”). Maybe we’d say that Trump hijacked the apparatus of the administrative state, already in a state of erosion, and that he grifts from that apparatus while wrecking it further. Or maybe Trump is returning American politics to the pre-professional, “amateur” spoils system of the nineteenth century. Or he is himself a grotesque amateur, brought to the fore by an already odious political party that somehow collapsed to victory. Or maybe Trump is an ersatz aristocrat, from inherited wealth, who only played a businessman on television. (Weber’s writings do not anticipate our hideous celebrity politics.) Or Trump is a would-be warlord, postmodern or atavistically neo-feudal, committed to stamping a personal brand on the formerly “professional” military. Or, or, or. All are true, in their way. Maybe Weber would see in Trump a moron on the order of Kaiser Wilhelm—an equally cogent analysis.
Do these decodings clarify the matter or complicate it? Do they help us at all? They deliver a rhetorical satisfaction, certainly, and maybe an intellectual consolation. Then what? “Politik als Beruf” leaves sociology behind and becomes a secular sermon about “leadership,” and here the spell begins to break. Weber sought political salvation, of a kind, in charisma. The word is now a cliché, but for him it had a specific charge. Politics, he told his listeners in so many words, was a postlapsarian business. It cannot save any souls, because violence and coercion are conceptually essential to politics. A disenchanted universe is still a fallen universe. What had emerged from the fall was the monstrous apparatus of the modern nation-state. It was there, with its attendant armies of professionals and hangers-on, it fed you or it starved you. It was a mountain that no one really built but that we all had to live on.
Politics for Weber was brutally Darwinian in the end: Some states succeeded, and others failed. His Germany did not deserve defeat any more than the Allies deserved victory. That same moral arbitrariness made him look with a kind of grudging respect at Britain and the U.S.—made him even congratulate America for graduating from political amateurism into professional power. Meanwhile, he belittled revolutionaries. Anyone who imagined they could escape power’s realities or usher in some fundamentally new arrangement of power, he mocked. “Let’s be honest with ourselves here,” he said to the revolutionists in Munich. A belief in a revolutionary cause, “as subjectively sincere as it may be, is almost always merely a moral ‘legitimation’ for the desire for power, revenge, booty, and benefits.” (He was recycling a straw-man argument he had made for several years.)
But in that postlapsarian politics, there were still leaders to be found, men (always men) who could endure the psychological strain of leadership, who could cut it, who could make the Faustian bargain and emerge with their souls intact. (Weber, the reader of Goethe, was a closet romantic.) This was the good kind of charisma. “Politik als Beruf” is a text that would-be statesmen love to read, for it imparts a grandeur, a deeper moral necessity, to actions that are objectively immoral, coercive, and violent. A particular political order was noble, and maybe even good, to the extent that its apparatuses could bring to the fore leaders who straddled the ever-conflicting ethics of responsibility and conviction. In that sense, Weber’s state was not unlike Calvin’s church: imperfect, locked in a maddening covenant with an inscrutable universe, and yet the only thing we have. Charisma was the political analog to divine grace; Weber was narrating his own aspiration to be in that elect.
To be enchanted by this argument is to end up thinking in a particular way about history with a capital h and politics with a capital p. History was always a kind of test of the state: wars, economic calamities, pandemics. Such things arrived, like natural disasters. For all the twists and complexities of Weber’s sociology, this conception of History is superficial, and its prescription for Politics thin. He demystified the state only to remystify the statesman. It is an insider’s sermon, because politics was an insider’s game, and it is the state’s insiders who, nowadays, will thrill to it. Very well.
“The relationship between violence and the state is particularly close at present,” Weber said, early in his lecture. At present could mean this week, this decade, this century, this modernity. The lecture retains, no doubt, a curious power in times of calamity. I am inclined to call it a literary power. Weber held two things in profound narrative tension: We feel both the state’s glacial inevitability and the terror of its collapse. Without a bureaucrat’s “discipline and self-restraint, which is in the deepest sense ethical,” Weber said in passing, “the whole system would fall apart.” So too would it fall apart without a leader’s charisma. If this horror vacui was powerful, for Weber and his listeners, it was because in 1919 things would fall apart, or were falling apart, or had already fallen apart. The lecture contemplates that layered historical collapse with both dread and wonder.
A century on, Weber’s definition of the state is still, sometimes, a good tool to think with. The coronavirus lockdowns, for instance, laid bare the state’s essentially coercive function. In Europe, on balance, lockdowns have been accepted—acquiesced to—as a benevolent coercion, an expression of a trusted bureaucracy and a responsible leadership. In some American states, too. The lockdowns even generated their own (in Weberian terms) legitimating civic rituals. Fifteen months after “Politik als Beruf,” Weber himself would die of the flu that his lecture did not mention.
In the Netherlands, where I live and teach, the drama of that lecture, even in a pandemic, might fall on deaf ears. The peril and fragileness that Weber channeled can be hard to imagine in the low countries, which boasted an “intelligent lockdown” that needed no spectacular show of coercion. History, here, tends not to feel like an onrushing avalanche, or a panorama of sin and suffering, or a test we might fail, but rather a march of manageable problems, all of which seem—seem—solvable. This conception is a luxury.
As for the study of the U.S., which I suppose is my own meaningful or meaningless calling, Weber said, in 1917, that “it is often possible to see things in their purest form there.” In the century since his death, the transatlantic tables have turned, and American Studies often becomes the study of political breakdown. The vocabulary of failed statehood abounds in commentaries on America, from within and without, while American liberals look often to Germany’s Angela Merkel as the paragon of Weberian statesmanship. Step back from such commentaries, though, and American history will overwhelm even Weber’s bleak definition. America sits atop other kinds of violence, it accommodates a privatized violence, it outsources violence, it brings its wars back home.
I started this essay before the murder of George Floyd, and I am finishing it during the uprising that has followed in its wake. Weber’s definition of the state, ironically, can now fit with a political temperament more far radical than Weber’s own. The uprising has as its premise that the social contract, if it ever held, has long since been broken: The state’s veil is thus drawn back. The uprising then looks Weber’s definition in the eye: The monstrous state’s violence is unjust, therefore we do not accept it as legitimate.
I was looking in Weber for illumination, or consolation, or something. I haven’t found a rudder for the present, and I don’t know how to end. But the desire for consolation brought to my mind, of all things, the unconsoling diary of Franz Kafka. I read it years ago, and every once in a while its last lines will suddenly haunt me, like the opposite of a mantra, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Kafka died in 1924, more an outsider than an insider; his diary’s last entry reflects, in an elliptical or inscrutable way, on another disease—tuberculosis—and on another calling. “More and more fearful as I write. Every word,” he felt, was “twisted in the hands of the spirit” and became “a spear turned against the speaker.” He also looked for consolation. “The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help.” He then looked beyond it. “More than consolation is: You too have weapons.”