Theory course The Iron Cage: Calvin, Weber, Foucault


Tuesdays, 6:30-9:30pm

Goethe-Institut New York

30 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

In his seminal sociological study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber – borrowing a concept from the fiction of Goethe and the chemistry of his day – argued for the “elective affinity” between Protestant Christianity and capitalism. In particular, the mixture of asceticism, election, and individual success described by theologian John Calvin dovetailed neatly with the ethics of capitalism’s nascent subject. This form of subjectivity can be traced from the early Reformation to multiplying forms of self-denial, faith, and visible performance of success and failure in our own neoliberal era. According to Weber, the structures of capitalism in fact created an “iron cage,” a “secularized” society that mimics the structure of Calvinism in service of an increasingly out-of-control economic machine. Do all of us – Christian or otherwise – live in such an “iron cage”? And can we move beyond Weber’s pessimistic vision of an socio-economic order that will run, in his words, until “the last lump of fossilized coal is burnt”?

In this course, we will explore these questions through a close reading of works by Weber and Calvin, alongside selections from Rousseau and more contemporary reflections by Michel Foucault. How does Calvin’s idea of signs of election compliment Rousseau’s theories of the origins of inequality? In what ways does Foucault’s famous theory of “panopticism” – the heightened demand for visibility and surveillance of all knowledge in modern society – fit with Weber’s economically and religiously underlined “iron cage”? Is Weber’s pessimism warranted or is the “cage” less “iron” than he imagined? In addition to Weber’s Protestant Ethic, readings will include selections from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Basis of Inequality Among Men, and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the founding director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He holds a PhD from Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society through the MESAAS Department specializing in comparative philosophy.