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That’s Not the Weber You’re Looking For

Max Weber, 1864-1920

tl;dr: The New Yorker ran a piece by Corey Robin that elaborated a rather idiosyncratic reading of Max Weber, one of the canonical thinkers of western social science. So I asked my friend and frequent co-author, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, if he wanted to post a response here at LGM. What follows is his critique of Robin’s article. Be forewarned, this is a fairly dense post. Lest you conclude that I’m posting PTJ’s reply simply because Robin is an important figure in the wing of the left that LGM writers often tangle with, let me assure you that there are stakes. Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” advances arguments still used by the reformist wing of the left to critique the further left. It seems pretty clear that Robin is aiming for the source, so to speak…. Anyway, you’ve been warned.

When I was in graduate school, a group of friends and I had a recurrent bit we would enact every time we encountered a more or less completely off-base reading of a theorist. “Oh, you must have been reading James Locke, John Locke’s lesser-known cousin.” If the reading does that much violence to the text, then the only sensible answer is that the author was reading some completely different text written by somebody else.

So you will understand why my reaction to Cory Robin’s piece in The New Yorker is something like: “oh, you must have been reading Moritz Weber, Max Weber’s distant and obscure relative.” According to Robin, Weber — we’re talking Moritz here, the person Robin apparently read — calls for a “political savior” or “genius” to arise and remake politics into something less meaningless. “The nemesis of the Weberian actor,” we are told, “is absorption in the institutions that he’s meant to oppose.” And Weber’s diagnosis ought to be rejected, because it underestimates and forecloses “possibilities…for the collective transformation of the world.”

To quote Luke Skywalker: “every word of what you just said was wrong.” After all, if we look even briefly at Max (and not Moritz) Weber, we quickly see that:

1) The whole point of Weber’s “vocation” lectures was to caution his listeners against either a political or an academic “savior.” In the lecture on Wissenschaft — usually translated “science,” but the sense of the word in German is more like “systematic scholarship” — Weber takes pains to argue that other than “some overgrown children in their professorial chairs or editorial offices,” no one thinks that academic study can teach us anything about the meaning of the world. And in the lecture on politics, Weber is, if anything, more afraid of the revolutionary prophet taking over the reins of government than he is of the amoral cynic who treats politics as a means for personal enrichment:

“…people who have just preached ‘love against force’ are found calling for the use of force the very next moment. It is always the very last use of force that will then bring about a situation in which all violence will have been destroyed — just as our military leaders tell the soldiers that every offensive will be the last. This one will bring victory and then peace. The man who embraces an ethics of conviction is unable to tolerate the ethical irrationality of the world.”

2) “Collective transformation of the world” according to some revolutionary program is precisely what Weber argues cannot happen, and cannot happen for reasons that are considerably more profound than what Robin calls the “stuckness” — “The particles of academic and political life have slowed to a halt; all that was air has become solid.” — of a particular historical period (the end of the nineteen-teens in Germany, the end and the immediate aftermath of the First World War). Weber’s diagnosis is that we heirs of the European Enlightenment tradition are standing at the end of a long historical process and project of “disenchantment,” literally the “de-magification” (Entzauberung) of everyday life, which split empirical fact and moral meaning from one another by elevating the knowledge of cause and effect to the detriment of knowledge of good and evil. This is a lot bigger than the relative devaluation of religion in public life or the criticism of faith by science; it’s a profound intellectual crisis that occupied European philosophers for generations, including (perhaps most importantly) Immanuel Kant, who tried valiantly to demonstrate that pure reason could ground both kinds of knowledge. Spoiler alert: he failed, setting the stage for a bewildering variety of post-Kantian attempted solutions, including Weber’s own work.

The basic problem is that systematic scholarly investigation, whether we are talking about the natural, social, or human sciences, can never establish that its object of investigation is valuable. Scholarship on climate change can tell us what to expect given certain inputs and parameters, but it cannot establish that human life, or life of any sort, is worthy of preservation in the face of changing temperatures. Scholarship on war and peace can tell us when to expect either condition and how to promote it, but it cannot establish the relative value of peace versus war. That’s not a Germany-in-the-early-twentieth-century problem. It’s a perennial problem of living in a disenchanted world, which is to say, a world where the project of disenchantment has been pursued with as much vigor as it has been in ours.

Why does this make “collective transformation of the world” according to a revolutionary program impossible? Because politicians operate with one of three orientations, according to Weber: the “ethics of conviction” in which their putatively good end justifies the use of any and all evil means, especially the use of violent coercion; the cynical and amoral treatment of politics as a vehicle for personal enrichment or gratification (Trump, reportedly, only really liked going to rallies and feeling the adulation of the crowd); and Weber’s preferred option, an “ethics of responsibility,” in which the politician balances the twin imperatives of ethically praiseworthy ends and tragically necessary means in a way that prevents falling into either of the other two alternatives. Politics as the “slow boring of hard boards” (in the famous phrase attributed to Weber which is more of a free translation but effectively captures his meaning) is what prevents it from becoming the unfettered exercise of coercion either for individual profit or in the name of some grandiose cause — or, to name perhaps the truest nightmare, both at once, as might happen if an amoral cynic surrounds himself with ideological crusaders.

3) Politics could only be fundamentally remade or transformed if it were possible to “re-enchant” the world, and the most profound error that arises from reading Moritz instead of Max Weber is to confuse “vocation” with an effort to transform the world back into something that is inherently meaningful. That ship, Max Weber maintains, has sailed, and unless we were willing to turn our backs on the procedures and products of systematic, scientific activity — the streetcar that is Weber’s example in both lectures of something that might at first appear mysterious but the operation of which we know has a perfectly non-transcendental explanation, the communication devices we carry in our pockets, and so on — we are fated to figure out how to live in a disenchanted world instead of futilely railing against it. The vocations for Wissenschaft and politics do not “re-enchant” the world. They enable us to “go on,” despite the absence of transcendent meaning.

The politician, Weber fears, lives in continual danger of falling off of the tension-filled center point between ethical imperatives and practical necessities. So the purpose of his lecture is to remind his listeners — students aspiring to enter politics — of precisely this danger. As a politician, Weber suggests, you will fail to achieve your maximal ends, and that’s a good thing because of the cost of succeeding. But that doesn’t mean that you should moderate your ends; it means that you should strive to balance that far ethical horizon with the day-to-day needs of governing, which Weber reminds us, invariably involve coercion. The challenge is not the institutions of government or social life, and contra Robin, the call is not to free oneself from them; the challenge is acting without the reassurance of an inherently meaningful world to inform your choices — and, perhaps, to have the decency to feel guilty about the gap between aspirations and actuality. That would be a person with the vocation for politics.

As for the scholar, the hope that Weber holds out is slimmer, but potentially more profound. The scholar can both diagnose the contemporary condition — that, after all, is what Weber spent much of his time as a scholar doing — and make a very specific and particular contribution to the future even though it is the inevitable fate of scholarship to be superseded by future scholarship. As a diagnostic voice, the scholar can provide “clarity”:

If you take up this or that attitude, the lessons of science [Wissenschaft] are that you must apply such and such means in order to convert your beliefs into a reality. These means may well turn out to be of a kind that you feel compelled to reject. You will then be forced to choose between the end and the inevitable means. Does the end ‘justify’ these means or not? The teacher can demonstrate to you the necessity of this choice. As long as he wishes to remain a teacher, and not turn into a demagogue, he can do no more.”

Weber suggests that this function of showing someone the “uncomfortable facts” that their partisan position tends to overlook is best carried out in the classroom, but he certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of a scholar doing this through their writings and public talks, much as he himself was doing in delivering these lectures. In this way a scholar sounds a cautionary note that helps to prevent runaway ideologues from exercising coercion without impunity.

The other thing that a scholar can do, however is to contribute to the longer-term collective effort to wrestle with the meaningful resources on which we continue to draw even as we have lost the collective confidence that they somehow mirror the way that the world is in and of itself. The disenchantment of the world doesn’t mean that we stop having ethical debates; it just means that none of those debates can terminate in the real moral substance of the world. We don’t live in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings universes, where reality itself is charged with moral purpose and skeptics are proven demonstrably wrong in the course of the narrative. So instead of definitive resolutions or overarching consensuses, what we have instead are shared cultural resources — commonplaces, topoi — on which we draw in making our way into the future. Scholars can inventory and elaborate those commonplaces, treating them as “ideal-types” in their explanatory accounts, making them available for future practical deployment.

That’s not the salvation of the world, but it’s an oar in the water as we try to collectively steer ourselves. And Max Weber’s most profound lesson for us may be that we should not find this particularly depressing, but we should instead look at it with clear eyes, and “go on” regardless.

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