Marx – Darwin – Weber

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew,

A cave painting of a dugong – Tambun Cave, Perak, Malaysia, photo by Cae Hiew

It is often noted that Marx was a great admirer of Darwin, but it has been rarely explored what he actually took from him into his own theory, let alone put to productive use by his followers. There are exceptions, though. Mark Warren (1987: 258) shows that Marx thought of technological progress as well as cultural change in terms of a Darwinian mechanism in which an environment (natural or human-made) poses survival conditions to innovations. The difference, of course, is that the way that the variations that then are either selected or de-selected quasi-naturally come about in different ways:

‘The source of innovation and change comes from human beings who more or less intentionally create new ways of doing things, for any variety of reasons. Marx refers to this process as ‘invention’ (Erfindung). He places the term in quotation marks when referring to natural processes to indicate that creativity is intentional in humans, but not in nature. […] For human inventions, the environment consists in existing technologies and skills (forces of production), together with various social relations of production. This social and technological environment selects for certain inventions while condemning others to obsolescence. According to this interpretation, for example, in a capitalist society an invention or skill can survive and be transmitted to future generations only if it meets with the selective criteria of Marx’s base-superstructure model – assuming, of course, that the model correctly describes the constraints and possibilities of the social and natural environment.’

When it comes to using the full potential of a Darwinian non-teleological functionalism not only in the interpretation of Marx but in the defence of some of his less fashionable concepts, Jerry Cohen makes the most of the Marxian adoption of Darwin’s logic. He shows that if ‘determination’ of ideologies and ‘superstructures’ by the ‘base’ is understood as ‘selection’, the independence of cultural innovation and economic processes can go together with a dominance of the latter ‘in the last instance’:

‘All classes are receptive to whatever ideas are likely to benefit them, and ruling classes are well placed to propagate ideologies particularly congenial to themselves. But before an ideology is received or broadcast it has to be formed. And on that point there are traces in Marx of a Darwinian mechanism, a notion that thought-systems are produced in comparative independence from social constraint, but persist and gain social life following a filtration process which selects those well adapted for ideological service. Thus it is true but in one respect unimportant that the idea of communism has been projected time and again in history, for only when the idea can assist a viable social purpose, as it can now, by figuring in the liberation of the proletariat, will it achieve social significant. There is a kind of “ideology pool” which yields elements in different configurations as social requirements change.’ (Cohen 1978: 291)

I am postponing the question whether a distinction of base and superstructure does make sense at all and if so, what kind of distinction (for a beginning of an argument see here). Intriguingly, while the Marxist tradition was forgetting its Darwinian heritage and preparing to turn back to Hegel instead, the ‘bourgeois Marx’ Max Weber, on the basis of limited access to Marx’s texts, knew it to be crucial. He uses the interplay between variation and selection to make a very strong case for the importance of the study of cultural and spiritual traditions and developments within a historic-materialist frame. To cite the passage again:

‘Thus the capitalism of to-day, which has come to dominate economic life, educates and selects the economic subjects which it needs through a process of economic survival of the fittest. But here one can easily see the limits of the concept of selection as a means of historical explanation. In order that a manner of life so well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism could be selected at all, i.e. should come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to whole groups of men. This origin is what really needs explanation.’ (Weber 1930: 55)

This argument cuts both ways. On the one hand it highlights that a defensible base/superstructure model (i.e. one based on selection) presupposes variation that cannot be defined by the selecting mechanism itself. So here’s space for the kind of cultural sociological investigation that Weber delivers. But on the other hand it thereby also affirms what he called ‘naive historic materialism’. Once the the cultural diversity is explained, which of the variants will become dominant is a question to be answered by historical materialism.

As with Marx, and even more so, the Weber’s debt to Darwin remains underexplored. The only systematic attempt to think through its implications has been made by W. G. Runciman, who replaces the emphasis normally put on ‘elective affinity’ by one of ‘selective affinity’:

‘The environment within which cultural evolution takes place will bring to bear selective pressures of both natural (climatic, demographic, ecololgical) and a social (legal, political, military) kind. But the actual process of selection is one of reciprocal causal feedback, not merely conceptual compatibility. The transmission through imitation or learning of information affecting phenotype, the active reinterpretation of it by the receiving mind, and the competition between rival memes for ongoing replication and diffusion are the literal, not metaphorical Realität. “Elective affinity” remains a perfectly  legitimate metaphor if it is used to stand for an intuitively coherent conceptual association between an original religious or metaphysical doctrine and a rule, norm or strategy which is translated into what Weber calls “practical impulse to action” (praktisch [sic!] Antrieb zum Handeln). But it is appropriate if and only if, in the minds of individual carriers, specifically identified and decoded memes inherited from one or more parents, teachers, pastors, preachers, role-models or peer-group members do in fact produce the behavioural outcome with which they have an “elective affinity” in the mind of the sociologist seeking to explain the behaviour observed.’ (Runciman 2005: 183)

But there remains a problem. A Protestant work ethic without an ongoing efficacy of Protestant religiosity is hardly conceivable, even if one assumes that it would be favoured by the selective processes of the market (i.e. if what the economic system selected is not longer reproduced, it also can no longer be selected and we are back at square one). Runciman seeks to explain the continuity of behavioural patterns and attitudes without the religious motivation through the notion of ‘memes’:

‘For the diffusion and replication through imitation and learning of instructions affecting phenotype, appropriate models are to hand in Boyd and Richerson’s Culture and the Evolutionary Process (1985: Ch.3). “This-worldly asceticism” might have spread through a process of what they call “conformist transmission”, in which the behaviour imitated is that which is most frequently observed, and it might have been supplemented by a process of what they call “indirect bias”, in which imitation is of a so-called “indicator trait” seen as conferring prestige.’ (Runciman 2001: 21)

The problem with assumptions of decontextualised fragments of cultural practice and ideas has been much discussed. I see two problems here. The first is one of theoretical strategy: There may be much to the idea that conformism and the search for prestige override previous cultural orientations and commitments. Especially the search for prestige and recognition sounds plausible enough (and I’ll come back to that ). But the search stops here and no further questions are asked: Why is conformity attractive? What is the nature of prestige sought? If Weberian thought insists on motivated action (Campbell 2006) or at least on there being a ‘vocabulary of motive’ (Mills 1940) then this should apply not only for the emergence of a new pattern (here: the Protestant work ethic), but equally for those who adopt it without the underpinnings of the initial motivation or discourse of legitimacy. According to Runciman those initial motives are hollowed out already in the initial stages, reinforcing Weber’s insistence that once the pattern is there to be selected, theology is no longer needed to explain its persistence or its spreading:

 ‘Notice too that neither conformist transmission nor indirect bias presupposes convinced and consistent belief in Calvinist doctrine. Conversion isn’t necessary – mere “adhesion” will do. It is sometimes argued against Weber that he assumes much too readily that the members of the Protestant bourgeoisie genuinely subscribed to the tenets of Calvin’s theology. But their behaviour could have been directed by Protestant memes, and been in turn influential in promoting the practices constitutive of “modern” capitalism, even if only a small number of convinced predestinarians were actually driven by the “unprecedented inner loneliness” that Weber attributes to the solitary individual faced directly with the immutable decrees of an absolutely transcendental Calvinist God (1922: 93), or by “mastery of fear through control of the known world and oneself”, as expounded by Puritan writers like William Perkins.’ (Runciman 2001: 21)

Seen like this, it becomes also clear why Weber, in a kulturpessimistisch turn saw history coming to a halt if not some new prophet arises. While for the rise of the capitalist spirit cultural/spiritual change provided a for a superior and hence selectable phenotype, once selected that phenotype becomes stiflingly dominant. This leads straight into the iron cage – a structure hard as steel. Arise homogeneity – on individual level and on organisational level (as famously argued by DiMaggio and Powell, 1983) Innovation is no longer a likelihood (and if a possibility at all, a very remote one).

‘Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism – whether finally, who knows? – has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer. The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.’ (Weber 1930: 181f.)

The second, related, problem is that the Darwinian parallel does not allow for this short cut. While phenotypes are selected, they still need to be generated. Conformity, search for recognition etc. can be motivated, generated in all so many different ways. But they need to be accounted for, since, as we learn from Darwin – only because an environment is favours certain phenotypes, what generates them (genotype – of course Darwin didn’t know about genes…), can be very different. And those differences are preserved below the surface

 ‘No one regards the external similarity of a mouse to a shrew, of a dugong to a whale, of a whale to a fish, as of any importance. These resemblances, though so intimately connected with the whole life of the being, are ranked as merely “adaptive or analogical characters;’ but to the consideration of these resemblances we shall have to recur. It may even be given as a general rule, that the less any part of the organisation is concerned with special habits, the more important it becomes for classification.’ (Darwin 1968: 399f.)

 How is this relevant for the Weberian argument? In two ways. One, it allows for cutting out its Euro-centrism. His search for similarities to the Protestant ethic in other world religion (which of course was already planned to be a failure from the outset) was a futile enterprise, since different kinds of skeletal structures (to stick to the Darwinian metaphor) can produce similar external shapes. But on the other hand – if the motivational (or motive-discursive) and other cultural and ideological differences are maintained, then different possibilities of development beyond the homogenised status quo are afforded by different ways of generating (motivating, legitimising…) similar behavioural patterns. And if we are not to follow the implausible assumption that a selective mechanism has a homogenising effect beyond surface adaptation, then variety below the adapted surface will be maintained (so the Catholic industrialist August Thyssen, for example, may have followed a Catholicism modified by the adaptation to a capitalist society, but that does not make their Catholicism indistinguishable from the Protestantism of industrialist Friedrich Krupp – as Mark Twain observed: the Catholic Church ‘knew more than one way to skin a cat – or a nation’). This would also serve to de-Orientalise Weberian sociology in that the search for Calvinism look-alikes is replaced by an investigation of the myriad of ways that different religious and cultural traditions are conducive to specific adaptations to capitalist processes – as suggested by Jack Barbalet in relation to Daoism:

‘The relationships that are important to enterprise in this sense are those of changing circumstances in which new opportunities for money-making can arise. In this context the ‘mentality’ most likely to capitalize on such opportunities is consonant with the Daoist intellectual tradition that assumes unavoidable change and which has no conception of an idealized and enduring stability, as in Greek and also Christian thought.’ (Barbalet 2014: 297)

And by the looks of it, not being too much of a Protestant ,may then even be an advantage. One thing often overlooked when drawing on the determination-by-selection aspect of capitalism is, after all, that even natural selection, if not tampered with, tends to lead to diversity rather than homogeneity – so while there is a cultural bias towards playing it safe by doing what everybody else does (DiMaggio and Powell’s point), there are also potentially great rewards for doing things differently (why management studies have discovered the value of ‘diversity’). What in nature would be genetic variety and what Cohen adopts as ‘pool of ideologies’ , then, not only constitutes a tool kit for different ways of achieving the same thing, but also provides for distinctive developmental opportunities.

Protestant mentalities themselves were more apt to transformation and further development than Weber saw. Colin Campbell (1987) explains the ascendancy of consumerism, which he sees as a process that set in already in the late 18th and early 19th century middle classes, as a transformation of Protestant mentalities into Romantic ones. He declares this a Weberian argument – and of course it follows the logic of Weber’s Protestant Ethic quite closely. Although he claims that, like Weber’s Protestant work ethic his own Romantic consumer ethic does no longer need the     – I have suggested that this can be supplied by turning to Simmel for a structural romanticism of money) But he also remarks that, given Weber’s point about the ascetic producer capitalism, the fact that it is odd to see the demand for fashion, tableware, novels etc. surge in precisely those social strata that one or two generations before were ardent Puritans. This was before Weber’s time and, according to him, should not have been possible.[1] The inner-directed Puritan producers were supposed to be gradually transformed into outer-directed slaves of the capitalist machinery (and joined in this by all others). From now on any change could only be further adaptation to the immutable logic of capital accumulation (and in fact this is how Marxist and post-Marxist analysts tried to explain the emergence of consumerism – most stringently W. F. Haug, 1986). In not only linking consumerism to Romanticism in the way that Weber linked capitalism to Protestantism, but also showing how Romanticism developed out of Protestantism, Campbell realises one potential of the Darwinian parallel that escaped Weber (probably because he did not reflect much on his relation to Darwin – as mentioned, inflicting an inconsistency on the parallel to Weber’s argument).

The inner logic of cultural development can explain the choices at certain historical switchpoints (to use another of Weber’s metaphor’s which link his own approach to historical materialism) and which are as much ‘determined’ by the intellectual/theological/cultural traditions out of which the previous adaptations were generated as by economic/institutional/political circumstances.

 Finally, given the way that cultural variation differs from natural variation, the selecting circumstances must also be seen as provoking new interpretations, even if informed by existing cultural patterns of meaning. One good example is the prestige or better: recognition transferred (seemingly) by the market process. Again, it is critical not just to view the conditions of market success and market failure as parallel to Darwinian survival in a physical sense, but in relation to human psychology. Money here confers material opportunities (Lebenschancen as Weber calls it), but by doing so also communicates social recognition in a specific way (Varul 2010).

Weber leads up to a transition from election as recognition by God to selection by the market as social recognition via the intermediate stage of social recognition within the religious community – the Protestant sect and the way it links hope for election, social recognition of membership, and economic and political success. As Etzrodt (2008: 56) points out:

‘But because not all Neo-Calvinist groups shared the belief in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, Weber proposed in The Protestant Sects the alternative explanation that a specific organizational structure of some sects could produce group pressure which resulted in similar strong incentives for proof of election as the doctrine of predestination. Therefore, not the doctrine of predestination but the believer’s need to prove his election was the central point of Weber’s argument.’ (Etzrodt, 2008: 56)

Etzrodt goes on to show, with reference to Adam Smith, that the market itself can take over the role of the group pressure of the sect – and therefore gradually render it obsolete as the capitalist market is established as a functional equivalent of God’s final judgement:

‘ Smith favoured the market not only because it provided efficient allocations of resources, but also because the competition in the market forced the economic actors to be ascetic and efficient if they wanted to survive in the market. Consequently, he regarded the market as God’s beneficent Design. He used the metaphor of the “invisible hand” for the Great Designer. And it is this invisible hand which works behind the market and leads to the best result for the society, although the individual actors had only their own goals in mind.’ (Etzrodt, 2008: 69)

For this Weberian argument to be developed fully it has to be integrated with the historical materialism it falls back on. Which is not possible with a Marxist tradition that in recognising the efficacy or operational nature of superstructures and ideologies either, as the Gramsci school does, clings on to residual economism, or, as does the Althusser school, absorbs culture with everything else into an inescapable overdetermined structure, as complex as that may be. If the alluded to base/superstructure logic is to be of any help, it will be necessary to follow up on Raymond Williams’ interjection that ‘determination’ can mean different things

‘There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity. But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures. Now there is clearly a difference between a process of setting limits and exerting pressures, whether by some external force or by the internal laws of a particular development, and that other process in which a subsequent content is essentially prefigured, predicted and controlled by a pre-existing external force. Yet it is fair to say, looking at many applications of Marxist cultural analysis, that it is the second sense, the notion of prefiguration, prediction or control, which has often explicitly or implicitly been used.’ (Williams 1973: 414)

It goes without saying that the Darwinian logic suggested as a hinge between Weber and Marx would imply to go with the former rather than the latter – and that reference this process of setting limits and exerting pressure is an invocation of ‘conditions’ in the empirical sense vilified by Althusser who, invoking the grand gods Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao (Althusser 1965: 312) reintegrates what appear to be accidental conditions into a prefigurational scheme (and hides behind the assertion of complexity to avert the risk of being pinned down by any derived predictions). Further, it will also be necessary to rethink what can be meaningfully meant by notions like ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. 

Althusser, Louis (1965): Pour Marx, Paris: François Maspero.

Barbalet, Jack (2014): ‘Weber’s Daoism: A Failure of Orthodoxy’, in: Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol.14, no.3, pp.284-301.

Campbell, Colin (2006): ‘Do Today’s Sociologists Really Appreciate Weber’s Essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?’, in: Sociological Review, Vol.54, no.2, pp.207-23.

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cohen, G. A. (1978): Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Oxford: Clarendon.

Darwin, Charles (1968) [1859]: The Origins of Species, London: Penguin.

DiMaggio, Paul J./Powell, Walter W. (1983): ‘The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields’, in: American Sociological Review, Vol.48, no.2, pp.147-60.

Haug, Wolfgang Fritz (1986): Critique of Commodity Æsthetics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Mills, C. Wright (1940): ‘Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive (1940)’, in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.5, no.6, pp.904-13.

Runciman, W. G. (2005): ‘Not Elective but Selective Affinities’, in: Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol.5, No.2, pp.175-87.

Runciman, W. G. (2001): ‘Was Max Weber a Selectionist in Spite of Himself?’, in: Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol.1, No.1, pp.13-32.

Varul, Matthias Z. (2010): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value: Marx’s Incidental Moral Anthropology of Capitalist Market Exchange’, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.41, no.1, pp.50-72.

Warren, Mark (1987): ‘The Marx-Darwin Question: Implications for the Critical Aspects of Marx’s Social Theory’, in: International Sociology, Vol.2, no.3, pp.251-269

Weber, Max (1930): The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Unwin.

Williams, Raymond (1973): ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, in: New Left Review, I/82, Nov/Dec.

[1] in fairness it has to be said that at the time Weber wrote the iron cage seemed a likely outcome of the heavy-industry dominated and militaristically oriented German variant of high capitalism. Nonetheless, the kulturpessimistisch conclusion violates the premises of his own approach – evidence that sometimes, but only sometimes,  you better trust your theory than your experience…

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