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As Marx clearly asserted in his preface to Capital, this class perspective is at the root of his critique of bourgeois political economy.

Capitalism and Modernity - An Excursus on Marx and Weber (Electronic book text)

It is from this social viewpoint that values as "justice" are reinterpreted: their concrete meaning is not the same according to the situation and the interests of different classes. It is on the light of the hypothesis — or the wager, according to Lucien Goldmann — of a free association of producers that the negative features of capitalism appear in all their enormity. The existence of these values does not mean that Marx holds a Kantian perspective, opposing a transcendental ideal to the existing reality: his critique is immanent , in so far as it is developed in the name of a real social force opposed to capitalism — the working class — and in the name of the contradiction between the potentialities created by the rise of productive forces and the limitations imposed by the bourgeois productive relations.

Marx's anti-capitalist critique is organized around five fundamental issues: the injustice of exploitation, the loss of liberty through alienation, venal mercantile quantification, irrationality, and modern barbarism. Let us examine briefly these issues, emphasizing the less known ones:.

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The capitalist system is based, independently of this or that economic policy, on the workers' unpaid surplus labour, source, as "surplus value," of all the forms of rent and profit. The extreme manifestations of this social injustice are the exploitation of children, starvation wages, inhuman labor hours, and miserable life conditions for the proletarians.

But whatever the worker's condition at this or that historical moment, the system itself is intrinsically unjust, because it is parasitic and exploits the labor force of the direct producers. This argument takes a central place in Capital and was essential in the formation of the Marxist labor movement. In the capitalist mode of production, the individuals — and in particular the laborers — are submitted to the domination of their own products, which take the form of autonomous fetishes idols and escape their control.

This issue is extensively dealt with in Marx's early writings, but also in the famous chapter on commodity fetishism in Capital. At the heart of Marx's analysis of alienation is the idea that capitalism is a sort of disenchanted "religion," where commodities replace divinity: "The more the workers estranges himself in his labour, the more the estranged, objective world he has created becomes powerful, while he becomes impoverished.

The same happens in religion. The more man puts things in God, the less he keeps in himself. It is not by chance that liberation theologians, such as Hugo Assmann, Franz Hinkelammert and Enrique Dussel, extensively quote from Marx's writings against capitalist alienation and commodity fetishism in their denunciation of the "market idolatry. Capitalism, regulated by exchange value, the calculation of profits and the accumulation of capital, tends to dissolve and destroy all qualitative values: use values, ethical values, human relations, human feelings.

Having replaces Being, and only subsists the monetary payment — the cash nexus according to the famous expression of Carlyle which Marx takes up — and the " icy waters of egoistic calculation" Communist Manifesto.

Max Weber & Modernity: Crash Course Sociology #9

Now, the struggle against quantification and Mammonism — another term used by Carlyle — is one of the key loci of Romanticism. At last, the time has come in which all that human beings had considered as inalienable has become the object of exchange, of traffic, and may be alienated. It is a time when the very things which before were conveyed, but never bartered; given, but never sold; conquered, but never purchased — virtue, love, opinion, science, conscience etc. It is a time of generalized corruption, universal venality or, to speak in terms of political economy, the time when anything, moral or physical, receives a venal value, and may be taken to market to be appraised for its appropriate value.

The power of money is one of the most brutal expressions of this capitalist quantification: it distorts all "human and natural qualities," by submitting them to the monetary measure: "The quantity of money becomes more and more the unique and powerful property of the human being; at the same time that it reduces all being to its abstraction, it reduces itself in its own movement to a quantitative being.

The periodical crises of overproduction that shake the capitalist system reveal its irrationality — "absurdity" is the term used in the Manifesto: the existence of "too many means of subsistence" while the majority of the population lacks the necessary minimum. This global irrationality is not contradictory, of course, with a partial and local rationality, at the level of the production management of each factory..

To some extent, capitalism is the bearer of historical progress, particularly by the exponential development of the productive forces, creating therefore the material conditions for a new society, a world of freedom and solidarity. But, at the same time, it is also a force of social regression, in so far as it "makes of each economic progress a public calamity. This is the leprous barbarism, barbarism as the leper of civilization.

All these criticisms are intimately linked: they refer to each other, they presuppose each other, and they are combined in a global anti-capitalist vision, which is one of the distinctive features of Marx as a communist thinker. On two other issues — which are today of the greatest topicality — Marx's anti-capitalist critique is more ambiguous or insufficient:. One can perceive in Marx a certain evolution in this respect: if, in the Manifesto, he seems to celebrate as a progress the submission of the "peasant" or "barbarian" sic nations to the bourgeois civilization, in his writings on the British colonization of India the somber aspect of the Western domination is taken into account — but still considered as a necessary evil.

It is only in Capital , particularly in the chapter on primitive accumulation of capital, that one finds a really radical critique of the horrors of colonial expansion: the submission or extermination of the indigenous people, the wars of conquest, the slave trade. These "horrifying barbarisms and atrocities" — which according to Marx, quoting M. Howitt, "have no parallel in any other era of universal history, in any other race, however savage, brutal, pitiless and shameless" — are not simply presented as the cost of historical progress, but clearly denounced as an "infamy.

It is only later, particularly in Capital , that the aggression of the capitalist mode of production against the natural environment is taken into consideration. In a well known passage, Marx suggests a parallel between the exhaustion of labor and of land by the destructive logic of capital:. Each progress of the capitalist agriculture is not only a progress in the art of exploiting the worker, but also in the art of plundering the soil; each short term progress in fertility is a progress in the long term destruction of the basis of this fertility.

Capitalist production thus only develops. One can see here the expression of a really dialectical view of progress — also suggested by the ironical way the word is used — which could be the starting point for a systematic ecological thinking, but this was not to be developed by Marx. Quite different is Max Weber's approach. His attitude towards capitalism is much more ambivalent and contradictory. One could say that he is divided between his identity as a bourgeois which fully supports German capitalism and its imperial power, and his statute as an intellectual, sensitive to the arguments of the Romantic anti-capitalist Zivilisationskritik so influential among the German academic mandarins at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rejecting any socialist idea, Weber does not hesitate, on some occasions, to use apologetic arguments in defense of capitalism. This is particularly obvious in his description, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, of the origins of capitalism as the result of Protestant work ethic, i. Usually he seems to lean towards a resigned acceptance of bourgeois civilization, not as desirable, but as inevitable.

However, in some key texts, which had a very significant impact on 20th century thought, he gives free rein to a insightful, pessimistic and radical critique of the paradoxes of capitalist rationality.

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According to the sociologist Derek Sayer, "to a certain extent his critique of capitalism, as a life negating force, is sharper than Marx's. Obviously, the issues raised by Weber are quite different from those of Marx. Weber ignores exploitation, is not interested in economic crisis, has little sympathy for the struggles of the proletariat, and does not question colonial expansion. However, influenced by the Romantic or Nietzschean Kulturpessimismus , he perceives a deep contradiction between the requirements of the formal modern rationality — of which bureaucracy and private enterprise are concrete manifestations — and those of the acting subject's autonomy.

Distancing himself from Enlightenment's rationalist tradition, he is sensitive to the contradictions and limits of modern rationality, as it expresses itself in capitalist economy and state administration: its formal and instrumental character and its tendency to produce effects that lead to the reversal of the emancipatory aspirations of modernity.

The search for calculation and efficiency at any price leads to the bureaucratization and reification of human activities. This diagnosis of modernity's crisis will be, to a large extent, taken over by the Frankfurt School in its first period Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse. Here is, for instance, what he said in one of his last public interventions in "It is not the flowering of Summer that is waiting for us, but a polar night, icy, somber and rude. One can distinguish two aspects — intimately linked between them — in Weber's critique of the substance itself of the capitalist system:.

For the spirit of capitalism, of which Benjamin Franklin is an ideal- typical figure — almost chemically pure! The pursuit of riches is fully stripped of all pleasurable, and surely all hedonistic aspects. Accordingly, this striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself — to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational, at least when viewed from the perspective of the 'happiness' or 'utility' of the single individual. Here, people are oriented to acquisition as the purpose of life: acquisition is no longer viewed as a means to the end of satisfying the substantive needs of life.


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Those people in possession of spontaneous unbefangene dispositions experience this situation as an absolutely meaningless reversal of 'natural' conditions as we would say today. Yet, this reversal constitutes just as surely a guiding principle of [modern] capitalism as incomprehension of this new situation characterizes all who remain untouched by [modern] capitalism's tentacles. Of course Weber believes that this "absurd" and "irrational" system has its own formidable rationality: his remarks show nevertheless a deep critical distance towards the spirit of capitalism.

This definition of capitalism as irrational is not without certain affinities with Marx' ideas. The subordination of the aim — the human being — to the means — the enterprise, money, commodity — is an argument that comes very near to the Marxist concept of alienation. Weber was conscious of this similarity, and refers to it in his conference on Socialism: "All this [the impersonal functioning of capital] is what socialism defines as the 'domination of things over the human beings.

Capitalism and modernity : an excursus on Marx and Weber / Derek Sayer - Details - Trove

This issue is intimately related to the former one, but it emphasizes the loss of freedom, the decline of individual autonomy. The locus classicus of this criticism is to be found in the last paragraphs of The Protestant Ethic , doubtless the most famous and influential passage of Weber's work — and one of the rare moments where he permitted himself what he calls "value and faith judgements. First of all Weber considers, with a resigned nostalgia, that the triumph of the modern capitalist spirit requires the "renunciation of the Faustian multi- dimensionality of the human species.

On the other hand, capitalist rationality creates a more and more constraining and coercive context: "The Puritan wanted to be a person with a vocational calling; today we are forced to be. The expression became famous. It strikes by its tragic resignation, but also by its critical dimension.


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  5. Weber's pessimism leads him to fear the end of all values and ideals, and the advent, under the aegis of modern capitalism, of a "mechanized ossification, embellished with a sort of rigidly compelled sense of self-importance. The peculiar irrationality formed within the process of rationalization … also appears to Weber in terms of this relation between means and ends, which for him is the basis for the concepts of rationality and freedom — namely, in terms of a reversal of this relation. This reversal marks the whole of modern civilization, whose arrangements, institutions and activities are so 'rationalized,' that whereas humanity once established itself within them, now it is they which enclose and determine humanity like an 'iron cage.

    Weber himself declared that here lies the real problem of culture — rationalization towards the irrational — and that he and Marx agreed in the definition of this problem but differed in its evaluation. And precisely here it becomes plainly apparent that, and how, behavior which is purely purposive-rational in intention turns inexorably into its own opposite in the process of its rationalization. Weber, on the other hand, saw religion to be pivotal to society and hence included religious considerations alongside economic ones.

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    Although Weber helped enrich the understanding of the then emerging capitalist world order, he did not completely condemn it as Marx did. For example, during his lifetime Christianity was the dominant religious ideology in Germany and most of Europe. So Weber asserted that the rise and flourishing of capitalist economic systems had their underpinnings in the Christian ethic. In other words, the seeds for the eventual flowering of industrial capitalism in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards were already evident in the moral fabric of society as conditioned by principles laid out by Christianity.

    Indeed, Weber believed that the political and economic institutions of a nation are shaped by its dominant religious ideology. Sayer, Despite the differences in their emphasis, both Marx and Weber greatly influenced scholars, politicians and commentators for generations to come. More importantly, their theories and insights have a direct appeal to lay people, for the state of economic and political organization of society has a direct and immediate bearing on its members.