Few things have depressed me more this semester than reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Once I understood what Weber was saying about the ‘Iron Cage’ and how people are forced into doing what they must do in order to survive, it became apparent to that there are many meaningless structures of power that control my life that have little to do with my actual likes, dislikes, preferences, dreams, and fantasies, etc. The main structure around which everything else revolves is that I must find some way to create capital so that I can be a productive member of society and contribute to the good of the whole while sustaining myself. It doesn’t really matter how or what I choose to do in order to do so, but I must do it. This means that I, like many others, will need to get a job. The system does not care whether or not I like it; if I want to survive and live comfortably, it is a necessity. I find myself privileged enough that I have been given the chance to go into music, but at the end of a lifetime, I will still have worked very hard against my will for most of my life in order to sustain a baseline level of living.
To support and supply this structure, other structures of power prop up this one. School, government, taxation, social media, consumerism, health care, organized religion, and many, many more aspects of daily life have evolved in order to ensure that I enter and maintain a state of productivity to benefit the good of the whole. Together, these structures, which for the most part are arbitrary and apathetic to my existence, form Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’ mentioned earlier. At the end of the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber leaves the critique for the reader to ponder – He offers no key we may use to escape the cage.
Upon reflection, it becomes clear to me that we have two choices. We can either do nothing, or actively resist. It does not matter whether or not you accept your fate; your fate has already been decided for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t resist in futility and create meaning in vain. To me, the best way to resist meaninglessness is to find meaning in pleasure and pain. The Protestant Ethic (if it were some sort of written code of conduct) would say that one should avoid earthly pleasures as to not use your time for anything other than productivity. Nay, I say! Equating your productivity with your worth is dehumanizing and objectifying, and ultimately morally degrading. Philosophical Hedonism, in which the goal is to maximize pleasure over pain, is the key. Maybe it doesn’t free us of the cage, as we all still have to work, but it makes life inside a lot more tolerable. I’m not just talking about sex and chocolate here; there are all kinds of pleasures – watching sunsets, going on hikes, smelling flowers, holding hands with someone. If people could stop feeling so guilty for enjoying the things in their lives that made them happy, the world could be a much better place. In the words of Keely Smith, “You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack – But when you kiss a dollar bill it doesn’t kiss you back!”