Classical political economists like John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith did not shy away from using culture to define and explain economic outcomes. In both the Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, culture plays a significant role in how the economist examine and explain economic phenomena. Karl Marx on the other hand saw a reverse causal mechanism at play. He considered economic factors as determinants of cultural outcomes. Marx developed an elaborate theory on how the economy and technological advances led to the development of variant social structures. In the feudal economy, the hand-mill technology developed the feudal society and its social instruments while the steam engine developed capitalism. Theorist like Max Weber however sought to bring back the argument that cultural traits affected economic outcomes. Antonio Gramsci in his theory on hegemony synthesized Marx and Weber’s ideas about history and culture to develop a modern Marxist understanding of culture and the economy. This paper seeks to analyze and examine how Marx, Weber and Gramsci treat the question of cultural influence on the economy. It furthers argues that economic conditions determine cultural outcomes rather than the opposite.
Karl Marx is one of the most influential political economy theorists of the 20th century. Even though his ideas took a dangerous turn in Communist Russia, their effect and relevance on society are still felt today. In his culture and economics argument, Marx sought to reverse the tradition thinking that individual consciousness determined their social wellbeing. He argued instead that it was people’s social wellbeing that determined their consciousness. Marx wrote in a constantly cited passage from the book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. For Marx, markets and production determined human relations and the culture that emerged out of this economic production. Marx observed that dominant and ruling ideas in a society were mostly those of the ruling classes. In these ruling ideas developed ideologies that advanced the interests of the elite. In mostly capitalist societies justifications were made for the domination of one social group by the other based on understandings that those dominations were natural and were a product of work ethic. This led to the development of false consciousness in dominated social groups who accepted the social divide as natural given and to some extent god ordained. In Marx’s critique of the economy and culture, he postulates that commodity fetishness is the epitome of capitalist societies. Produced goods end up taking human qualities and human life become ingrained into the instruments of production like the technology of the day. In present day, there are arguments that the ruling elite determine both social and political outcomes. Karl Marx’s ideas are relevant in that economic class today still determine individual social well-being.
In a graveside speech at Karl Marx’s funeral, Friedrich Engels sought to advance Marx’s ideas about how economic conditions determine one’s social consciousness and cultural wellbeing. Engels asserts that in Darwin, human beings got the evolution and in Karl Marx humanity got the “laws of development of human history”. Engels’ agreed with Marx’s assumption that “human beings must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before they can pursue politics, science, art, religion.” Engels believes that the the economy precedes culture.
Karl Marx views culture in particular religion as a product of economic relations and production. On the other hand, Max Weber saw an inverse causal mechanism. In the seminal study on religion in America, Weber postulated that Protestantism which advocated for individual relations with God and its preference for hard work had led to better economic outcomes as evidenced by the emergence of the United States as a powerful economic force. Weber famously notes that “as far as the influence of the Puritan outlook extended, It favored the development of rational bourgeois economic life.” In Karl Marx’s critique of the economy culture is merely one of the few expressions of how the economy is ordered. In Weber however, culture plays a significant role in economic outcomes. Weber’s contention is that Protestant ethics led to the rise of the modern capitalism society as we know it today. He calls this ethic, the “spirit of capitalism” and it comprised of the thinking that if one works hard and attain a significant amount of wealth that in itself was a justified divine end. He observed that the spirit of capitalism was unique from the traditional work ethic. He fused this spirit of capitalism in the works of Martin Luther who argued that through a calling, human beings were able to work hard and fulfill the works of the divine. Weber further develops the religious-cultural argument for the emergence of capitalist economies by linking it to what he termed Ascetic Protestantism. Ascetic Protestantism rigorously developed the Lutheran notion of calling in sects that comprise of Calvinism, Methodism, Pietism and Baptism. This form of Protestantism saw virtue in amassing large amounts of wealth. Amassing wealth was seen as attainment of blessings and worldly service to the divine. In the Protestant Ethic, Calvinism in particular is advocated for hard work, calling, hospitality, honesty and thrift.
Whereas Marx saw economic relations as critical in producing cultural outcomes and history as an important component in understanding social relation, and, Weber tried to prove that the opposite was true. Gramsci on the other hand, argued that history and culture played an important role in economic outcomes. Gramsci argued that a people’s worldview was susceptible to the dominance of one ideology that managed to suppress all other thinking and worldviews. He called this ideological domination ‘hegemony’. Hegemony denoted class relations in which those with the most dominant interest and power, present and defines those interest as representative of all other individual interests. One of the main elements of hegemony is cultural hegemony. This is the control of the intellectual sphere of human existence by cultural methods. Cultural hegemony is argued to be critical for economic and political domination of lower classes. From this understanding, Gramsci argues that both economic interests and cultural phenomenon have a great impact on political outcomes. In a synthesis of both Marx and Weberian ideas, Gramsci does not see the relationship between culture and economics as that of one direction causality. Many factors contribute to cultural and economic outcomes. Cultural domination in turn leads to hegemonic economic ideas. According to Gramsci, there exists no single dominant class. What exist are cultural alliances and these are a result of the dominant forces making cultural alliances with the less dominant forces. This has a bearing on how the economy functions.
In conclusion, even though it has taken years of debate, economic factors have been proven to be critical in determining cultural outcomes. Even though Karl Marx and Max Weber differ on the direction of causality they agree that culture has a critical part to play on the economy. In Marx’s work culture in seen as an outcome of uneven economic conditions. The proletariat in the end use religion to escape from their miserable condition. Weber saw religion as an integral ingredient in the development of societies. Now that economic development is being witnessed in all corners of the globe including China with its Confucius cultural background and Russia with its communist history, questions are raised about the validity of Weber’s theory. On the other hand, the relevance, cannot be ignored.
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