Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” ends with a declaration that society exist as if it was trapped inside an iron cage of capitalism. Although this statement may appear unnecessarily fatalistic, it is crucial for understanding the development of Weber’s thesis regarding the relationship between psychological traits of Protestant reformers and the evolution of capitalist social relations. In order to understand the metaphor of the “iron cage” therefore, it is necessary to understand the way in which it develops out of previous notions of “calling” and “vocation” in Weber”s thinking. This paper will trace the genealogy in Weber’s work, and will then consider the possible ways of breaking out of such a cage as they are presented in the thinking of Karl Marx.
When Weber writes that society exists in an “iron cage” of capitalism, he means to argue that capitalist drives and impulses are now so completely related to the way in which goods are produced in our society that it is literally impossible to change this without a complete social catastrophe. The iron cage represents the necessity that each individual faces of entering into the capitalist mode of production and working in a capitalist manner in order secure their own means of life. For each individual within capitalist society, their social relations form a cage in the sense that they must necessarily internalize the capitalist work ethic and the division of labour in order to survive.
When Weber (2001) present the metaphor of the iron cage, he presents it as a having come about via a transformation from of the Protestant notion of calling and this notion’s alignment with the dominant mode of production in society. He writes: “ The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so” (p. 123). A historical transformation has occurred between the protestant calling and the division of labour in modern capitalism. This division forces specialization from an early age and renders it extremely difficult to change one’s profession. As such, Weber argues that the modern division of labour mimics the stricture of the protestant “calling,” but it does so out objective economic necessity, whereby if any one person was unable to find a role in such a division then would likely be condemned to poverty, or even to death. Weber writes that while Protestant asceticism was once a matter of voluntary choice, this same system of specialisation has now taken on objective reality through dominant economic relations. Whereas the “calling” was previously a matter of individual existential decision, it is now objectively enforced by fully functioning capitalist social relations. In order to illustrate this, Weber writes that the Protestant order “is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force (p. 123).
With this statement, and the statements that close the book, Weber does not appear to offer a way out of the cage which he has established. Rather, however he does suggests that secularisation of the Protestant ethic may slip away and that “new prophets” may arise, with the suggestion that such prophets may bring about a change in social relations, as these appear to be objectively determined by the capitalism and the demands of a market economy (p.124). This would not, however, represent something new in the system of social relations but rather it would represent a regression to a period prior to the solidification of capitalist social relations. Such an occurrence would only amount to a cyclical break with regard to the iron cage and would things open for it to be reinstantiated at another point.
However, while Weber may be correct in stating the nature of the iron cage as it appears to an individual who is forced to take part in the division of labour in order to obtain their means of life, he does not sufficiently analyze the dynamics of these means of production. Several commentators, most notably Marx, have insisted that while the capitalist mode of production appears inevitable to those who take part in it, it is nonetheless inherently contradictory and prone to crisis. At one part, Marx suggests that it is just as possible to argue that the developments which Weber identifies may intensify inherent contradictions in capitalism itself and, in this way, may lead to change in its systems of production. Marx (1993) writes: “’Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high” (p. 700). In describing the iron cage as permanent and inescapable, Weber can be argued to be paying attention to only one aspect of capitalist social reactions, and ignoring a potentially more dynamic and emancipatory consideration of the objective contradictions contained within such relations.
In conclusion, while Weber may be correct in asserting that the iron cage is a feature of life for the individual, this cage must also be seen to be mediated by the contradictions inherent to a capitalist economy. According to Marx, it is from this standpoint of capitalism as a totality that one may be able to understand an end to capitalist social relations, rather than from the perspective of the trapped and caged individual.