The Incarnation of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in Post-Colonial Sub-Saharan African Economic Discourse: The Quest for an African Economic Ethic*

Article excerpt

Max Weber's thesis that there was an early connection between the Protestant ethic and the ascendance of Western capitalism has been integral to contemporary scholarly efforts to explain why capitalism has failed in Africa while succeeding in the Western world. The failure of Western capitalistic development in post-colonial Africa is construed as evidence of the absence of the spirit of capitalism. The argument of this article is that African traditional religion and ethics are incompatible with the spirit of capitalism, and that it would be fallacious to expect the spirit of capitalism to incarnate in all social contexts when opposed by the values of that particular society. Contemporary attempts by African scholars to devise a modified system of economic philosophy that would incorporate traditional African indigenous values are aimed at making capitalism contextually relevant to African cultural realities.

Key Words: Weber; Protestant ethic; Puritans; capitalism; colonialism; Labor; Africa; Indigenous values; African religion.


The failure of Western capitalistic economic development in Africa has given rise to many theories about the real cause of this failure. Stories of modern Western capitalism are replete with the motif that such an economic system was the result of evolutionary socio-economic transformations that occurred in the Western world. One of those motifs is Marx Weber's thesis that says that there has been some connection between the Protestant ethic and the triumph of modern Western capitalism. This thesis has been integral to African scholarly efforts to explain the failure of Western capitalism in post-colonial Africa. The failure of Western capitalism in post-colonial Africa is thus construed to imply the absence of the Protestant ethic.

A closely related claim is that the values and traditional religions of sub-Saharan Africa are an impediment to the acceptance of Western capitalism. The argument is that an economic system such as that of Western capitalism that evolves around the primacy of personal gain and individualism is inevitably in conflict with communitarian-oriented economic relations. Even the mediation of Western capitalism to Africa through colonialism is attributed to the Protestant ethic and its spirit of capitalism. This argument presumes the indispensability of the Weberian Protestant ethic to the ascendancy of Western capitalism and does not take into consideration the diversity of cultural and religious values.

The first section of this paper will provide a summary of Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and some of the arguments that are leveled against it. Secondly, Weber's thesis will be discussed with reference to the mediation of Western capitalism through colonialism. It will be observed in the third section that African economic discourses on Weber's thesis have seen missionary Christianity as having assumed the role of the Puritans in disseminating the spirit of capitalism. In the fourth section, the paper will show how African communitarian values oppose the spirit of Western capitalism.

A Revisiting of Max Weber's thesis of the Protestant Ethic

Scholarly opinion is unanimous in thinking that modern Western capitalism evolved with an understanding of a human being as individualistic and self-interested. Such a presumption constituted a paradigm shift from the teachings of ecclesiastical medieval economic ethics, which had consistently condemned avarice and usury as the antithesis of the common good.1 With the rise of reformed Protestantism in the seventeenth century, especially Puritanism, Max Weber said there was moral justification for fostering the spirit of modern Western capitalism. According to Weber, this new religious economic ethic gave rise to the "Spirit - Geist"2 of capitalism or capitalistic motives and objectives characterized by hard work, acquisitiveness and the accumulation of wealth. …


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