The Elusiveness of Meaning: From Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber argues that the rise of modern capitalism in the West cannot be understood merely in terms of the formal innovations of capitalism. Weber explicitly set out to debunk 'the doctrine of naïve historical materialism', but without retreating to a position of pure idealism. Weber's account is not actually about all of the participants in the variegated cosmology of emerging capitalism, The Protestant Ethic is mainly the story of the new bourgeoisie. An intellectual disposition that cuts across the political spectrum concludes that the political energies and transformative optimism of the New Social Movements were largely exhausted after 1968, replaced by a fractured left politics and a putative 'culture of narcissism'. Over-emphasis on the Protestant Ethic specifically, rather than on varied and contingent ways that culture, subjectivity and instrumental labor may intersect and interact, misses point, and undermines the generative potential for Weber's classic analysis in contemporary scholarship.