“Mommy, where does capitalism come from??”

Ahh, capitalism.  It’s the driving force behind the American economy and, really, its very way of life.  It’s the rapid-eye-movement that facilitates the American Dream.  It seems like it’s been around forever, but it’s actually a relatively new development in human history (only a couple hundred years old, in fact).  People used to only collect enough resources to meet their needs; working for a surplus to reinvest was a dramatic shift from that practice.

So where did capitalism come from?

German sociologist Max Weber had a fascinating theory:  it came from religion.

“Zat’s pronounced Vay-ber!”

Although it’s not obvious in today’s world, capitalism was much slower to develop in countries like China and India than it was in Europe, even though people in China and India had comparable access to resources as those in Europe.  What was the big difference?  According to Weber, it was Protestantism (and especially Calvinism).

You see, Roman Catholicism, and the religions of China and India (Hinduism, Buddism, Taoism, Muslim, Sikhism, Jainism) encouraged the traditional “just what you need” way of living.  In addition, Roman Catholics were taught that being a member of the church was the path to salvation.

Calvinism, though, is different.  A major component of Calvinism is predestination — the belief that some people are predestined to go to heaven, and others to hell.  It’s lucky I’m not a  Calvinist; I’d figure that since I was already blessed/doomed to one fate or another, I’d live it up in this life!  Apparently, Calvinists of old thought quite differently than that, though; they tried to prove that they were predestined for salvation by living well.  Financial success, they thought, is proof God loves me and that I’ll be spending the afterlife on a jet ski with bikini-clad ladies and bottomless margaritas!

Because everybody loves jet skis, Calvinists worked hard, spent little, and reinvested to make more…and then pointed to God’s will, not their hard work, as an explanation.  And thus (according to Weber), the spirit of capitalism was born by the labor pains of the Protestant ethic.

Obviously, there’s no way to know for sure if Weber was correct, and capitalism certainly didn’t stay confined to Protestant areas even if it is.  It’s pretty interesting, though, to think of man-made “evidence” of God’s favor sparking the entire foundation of everything for which American stands…especially since we seem to use our wealth now as proof that “God Bless[es] America!”


One thought on ““Mommy, where does capitalism come from??”

  1. I like Weber’s view on Calvanism and capitalism, giving rise to the stereotypical protestant work ethic. Countries which developed capitalism later did generally have a religious outlook advocating zero/little growth Whether this connection is just a coincidence it’s an interesting correlation.

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