Weber, the body, and capitalism



“It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition ‘the ultimate purpose of life’, instead of treating it as a means for the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our ‘natural state’, by breaking the barriers of nature and by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set by the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as constituted in pre-industrial society.”

Federici S (2017) Caliban And The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York, NY: Autonomedia. p135

This quote from Federici, similar to Barnwell’s article Durkheim as affect theorist, is a good reminder that the tendency to speak of the sociology of the body and emotions as turning focus to what was historically neglected by sociology misleadingly gives the impression the Cartesian dualism was universally shared rather than arising from the way sociology was institutionalised as a discipline. Weber with his writings on ‘rationality’ has often been accused of Cartesianism. Yet as Turner (2008: 59) notes whilst “Weber’s sociology of religion is conventionally approached in terms of a contradiction between meaning and knowledge [’the disenchantment of the world’], there is a major component of Weber’s analysis of religions as various systematizations of irrational salvational paths where the opposition between body and meaning becomes critically important”.

It’s not that Weber accepts the mind-body division as metaphysically fixed, but instead sees this division as a product of socio-historical developments. As Turner puts it, also nicely highlighting similarities between Weber and Foucault –

In mediaeval times, the attempt to create a rational and systematic regimen of denial was largely confined to the religious orders who, as it were, practised asceticism on behalf of the lay man. Expressing this differentiation in spatial terms, reason was allocated to the internal domain of the monastery, while desire ran rampant in the profane world of the lay society. In this respect, we could perceive the principal argument of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) as an account of how the Reformation took the ascetic denial of desire out of the monastic cell into the secular family. Protestantism thus sought to break the distinction between the elite and the mass by transforming elite practices into everyday routines of self-control. Abstinence, the control of passions, fasting and regularity were thus held up as ideal norms for the whole society, since salvation could no longer be achieved vicariously by the labours of monks. The disciplines and regulations of the family, school and factory thus have their historical roots in the redistribution of monastic practices within the wider society. The monastic cell was installed in the prison and the workshop, while ascetic practices spread ever outwards (Foucault, 1979: 238).

  – Turner BS (2008) The Body and Society, Third Edition: Explorations in Social Theory. 3rd edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd. p.22


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