Popular Culture and the Spirit of Capitalism

“The most important opponent with which the spirit of capitalism, in the sense of a definite standard of life claiming ethical sanction, has had to struggle, was that type of attitude and reaction to new situations which we may designate as traditionalism…” (Weber 1904/2010:173)

Weber claims that early Protestantism heavily influenced the structure of early capitalist society, and how it is individualistic and entails creating one’s own relationship with God by following a methodical lifestyle and set of morals.  It was believed that if one was successful, or profitable, it was a sign that they were graced by God.  There was strong support for the idea that everyone had a calling, which created the economic ethic of the time. (Edles & Applerouth 1904/2010)  It was determined that an upward change of calling in society, or gaining more profit, was seen as wanting to be more useful in society, and therefore seeking a calling that would be more pleasing to God.  To want to be poor, or move downward in class, was seen as equivalent to wishing to be unhealthy. (Edles & Appelrouth 1904:2010)

Contemporary society still holds this “spirit of capitalism” in its individualistic structure and expectations. Though it is no longer based on religion, society still values material success and rewards those who are able to attain it. One area we see this in particular is in the distribution of welfare.  Our society only likes to give what is necessary for people to survive. We still have a strong belief that we must deserve what we get; that we must earn our place in society.  As a society, we ignore all of the structural and social barriers that prevent individuals from actually being able to move up in society and look at the few cases where people have succeeded, claiming if they can do it, anyone can.

A perfect example of this is the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, which tells the inspirational story of one man who rose up from nothing against all odds, with no help from society.

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We have this perception that people can maximize and reach their full potential by striving in society and reaching that American Dream, which comes from stories such as this.  While this definition of the American Dream may be changing over time, it is still an ideal that we hold as a capitalistic community, and something we believe that if everyone works hard enough, they can achieve.  This individualistic belief was started with the “ethos of Protestantism” and remains today, leaving no real opportunity for community.  We do not provide many opportunities for people to create and value community in capitalism, to help each other profit.  Our main focus is what is best for us personally.

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