Rereading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism after a gap of many years reminded me of the misguided methodology of the ‘Evil Ideologists’ — those who believe that the world’s troubles have their roots in a ‘jihadist’ ideology which has suddenly and inexplicably descended on the Muslim world and infected the brains of thousands of young men, driving them to take up arms and bombs against ‘Western civilisation’. Weber is rather more subtle, of course, and he qualifies his theory enough to protect himself from any charge of naivety. The thrust of his argument, in case you are not familiar with it or have forgotten it, is that the spirit of capitalism sprang from Protestant Asceticism, which combined the essential elements of frugality and sustained dedication to a ‘calling’ in the practical world, regardless of whether the combination led to great individual wealth. With time the religious element receded, leaving as its residue the Protestant work ethic, which holds that man’s duty in this world to do a job well, invest and take advantage of economic opportunities that arise.
The link between Protestantism and acquisitive capitalism of the bourgeois kind which dominates the developed world is almost indisputable, but Weber fails to explain convincingly why Calvinism, or more generally Protestant Asceticism, became so widespread in the early modern period. He presents early capitalism as an accidental consequence of an ideology which started out as a means to secure eternal salvation, or at least which gave the adherent the illusion that he had a better than average chance of eternal salvation.
But in the real world, people have a vast range of ideologies to choose from, and their choice depends less on what is currently available in the marketplace of ideas than on what suits their economic, political and social interests at any given moment. The ideology of frugality and dedication to hard work has always been available, but few people adopted it before the 16th century and even then mainly in the most advanced economies of Europe — England, Holland and parts of France. What we need to look at is the motives of the individuals who chose Calvinism over Lutheranism or Catholicism and try to establish what practical benefits it offered them in the real world, where most people live. Is it not more likely that, once economic and political circumstances made it possible for individuals without special privileges to accumulate capital through hard work, those individuals chose and adjusted a religious philosophy which justified their abandonment of traditional economic morality? I think so.
Similarly, versions of militant Islamism have always been available in the repertoir of variants of Islam (historically represented by the Khawarij, the Qarmatians and Ibn Taimiya, for example) but large numbers of Muslims were not inclined to adopt those ideologies until the circumstances of the real world made them attractive. The social, political and economic conditions came first and the popularity of the ideologies followed.