A typewriter type Sunday: thoughts on Marx, Weber and motivation under a capitalist economic system



I’ve been thinking that Weber’s theory of motivation (‘the spirit of Capitalism’) is somehow the inverse of Marx’s theory of motivation as per the nature and experience of alienation under a capitalist system.

I think Marx would say that the worker is forever driven or destined to pursue the product of their labour from which they have been alienated or estranged. This is in large part because we are not only alienated from other workers, from the process and product of our labour, and from anything and everything we might want to be doing were we not compelled to labour so as ‘a means to satisfy needs or desires external to it’ – but we are alienated or estranged from the very horizons of possibility – of imagining what life could otherwise entail.

In contrast, Weber would argue that the product of labour (and the accumulation of wealth) is neither cause nor motivation for what he called ‘the spirit of capitalism.’ I think Weber would say that they are aspects or outcomes of an ascetic life, the motivation or drive of which is born of the need to demonstrate (to oneself and others) that one is among God’s elect and thus destined for salvation.

‘Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will’, Weber writes.

Idleness and excess are a waste of resources that could nay should be used for the sole purpose and pursuit of serving and thus glorifying God. But why accumulation and not distribution? Well, because you wouldn’t want to fuel the fire of the damned –  laziness is sinful, leisure is ungodly and the damned are damned in any case – the doctrine of unconditional election holds that they cannot be saved. These days I think the ghost of Weber would reason that these associative values have become broader cultural understandings imbued with motivational and directive force – the whole notion of the American Dream is an overdetermined exemplar of this, I’d say.

Anyhow, so it seems for Marx  – we’re motivated by a lack or loss – affected by the experience of estranged or alienation in socio-economic relations. It seems for Weber, in contrast, the experience of estrangement or alienation in socio-economic relations is not cause but effect – we are motivated by an anxiety that cannot be assuaged by any earthly relations or changes therein – and it is this anxiety (or the way we attempt to deal with it) that gave rise to the work ethic now associated with the spirit of capitalism, which, in turn, came to entail or gave rise to the experience of ‘earthly’ estrangement and alienation that Mr. Marx began with.


Goodness. I have no good reason to be wasting time thinking about this but it is a curious train of thought.



Filed under Anthropology, General personal writings, Incidental

9 responses to “A typewriter type Sunday: thoughts on Marx, Weber and motivation under a capitalist economic system

  1. Diatribe

    I reckon Marx’s theory of alienation are part of his ideas on commodity fetishism – that social relations mediated by commodities (e.g. money) disguise the relationships of production. We are alienated from the products of our work because we are instruments of production – commodities, owned by capitial.
    Weber was talking about a particular historical phenomenon – the rise of Calvinism and predistination and its relationship to capital accumulation. I have never been to the US, but I think that the American Dream, as revealed through the media is reached through infinite consumption not accumulation

  2. Certainly, Marx’s alienation is inseparable from his ideas on commodity fetishism – they are flip sides of the same coin. It was with reference to both (or with this inseparability in mind), that I mention the drive to pursue the product of their labour from which they have been alienated or estranged.

    Certainly #2, Weber was writing about an historical phenomenon. However, his work on the Protestant work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is also a critique of – or at least a corrective of sorts with regard to – Marx’s historical-materialist approach, which seems at times to border on materialist-determinism (for want of a better description). I think this critical relationship between Weber with regard to Marx is quite widely recognised.

    Weber does write about the rise of Calivinism and predestination and its relationship to capital accumulation but ‘the spirit of capitalism’ is not about accumulation per se – it is about the motivation, drive and desire to work and the external pressures to do so, which reflect or derive from ideas about disciplined labour or hard work in contrast to laziness etc. etc.

    Re: the American Dream – as I see it the defining characteristic of the American Dream is the perverse idea that ‘freedom and equality’ are realised as equality of opportunity – to access the market economy. Equality of opportunity in this sense is valorised (and moralised) over and above, for example, equality of condition and equality of outcome.

  3. Do you speak Spanish, by the by? I thought it worth asking as I have not been able to find a translation of the song in the clip in this post.

    If anyone could offer a translation it would be much appreciated.

  4. Diatribe

    Sounds like Castellano – Latin American?. When I speak Castellano (“Spanish”}, I speak Portugese with a Castellano accent – good enough that I don’t starve. I understand about 50 % of the song without transcribing it. ANU must be a hotspot of Spanish speakers.

  5. “Good enough that I don’t starve” – I like that!
    You are probably right about ANU and Spanish speakers – I should make more of an effort to leave my thesis-writing-hermitage.

    Thanking you kindly for the reply.

    Yours in consociation ~

  6. Diatribe

    Bree, you know you should let your brain cool once in a while. Get out of the hermitage – life is elsewhere than the university. Diatribe

    ‘One concept corrupts and confuses the others. I am not speaking of the Evil whose limited sphere is ethics; I am speaking of the infinite”. Jorge Luis Borges

  7. I should admit or confess that ’twas actually a love letter of some kind that I was typing on the ‘writer this particular Sunday in the clip. Not exactly thesis work nor hermitage-type concerns.

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