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By Eugene McCarraher


Max Weber and the Enchanted Cage

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved." That eloquent and desolate line comes near the very end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and it sounds Max Weber's discordant note amidst our chorus of capitalist triumphalism. The lyrical bleakness of Weber's assertion could be easily dismissed as the weltschmerz of a German mandarin, the dying gasp of a highbrow humanism marked for historical extinction. Indeed, separated from its author, Weber's indictment could even be mistaken for the rant of a Muslim cleric, or at least as the "unhelpful" and "anti-American" spite of some Tory leftist egghead.

Which is why the centenary of Weber's classic couldn't come at a more appropriate moment. Despite its many errors and misconceptions, The Protestant Ethic remains indispensable, even urgent, precisely because of its humanist resistance to the authority of experts and moneybags. For all Weber's insistence on "value-free" social science, he produced a work of historical sociology that doubles as cultural criticism. It confronts the clichés that pass for wisdom among our punditocracy—"globalization," "the New Economy," "democratic capitalism"—and reminds us that the current victory of capitalism is as pyrrhic as it is global. It exposes our manic culture of labor as historically contingent, and invites us to wonder if Adam's sweat is really an oil of anointment. And despite Weber's brooding resignation to the "disenchantment of the world," it compels us to revisit some basic issues in Christian theology.

The Protestant Ethic clearly emerged from its author's personal turmoil. The eldest son of a prosperous but mismatched couple, Weber bore all of that role's ambitions and pathologies. His mother was intellectual, religious, and reform-minded; his father, heir to a sizeable mercantile fortune, was the prototype for the driven capitalist who shadows Weber's masterpiece. ...

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