Monday, November 16, 2020

Corey Robin et al. and the German idea of democracy. 

The professor and the politician are a dyad of perpetual myth. In one myth, they are locked in conflict, sparring over the claims of reason and the imperative of power. Think Socrates and Athens, or Noam Chomsky and the American state. In another myth, they are reconciled, even fused. The professor becomes a politician, saving the polity from corruption and ignorance, demagoguery and vice. Think Plato’s philosopher-king, or Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Bartlet. The nobility of ideas is preserved, and transmuted, slowly, into the stuff of action. 
The sociologist Max Weber spent much of his life seduced by this second fable.... His “secret love,” he confessed to a friend, was “the political.”...
On the page, Weber told a different story. In the last years of his life, which ended in 1920, he delivered two lectures in Munich, one on the vocation of the scholar and the other on the vocation of the politician.... In Weber’s hands, the professor and the politician are not figures to be joined. Each remains a lonely hero of heavy burden, sent to ride against his particular foe: the overly structured institution of the modern mind, the overly structured institution of the modern state. (Weber assumed both of his protagonists were male.) Neither has much probability of success; in part because of that improbability, each is possessed by a great determination to prevail....
Education and government, said Freud, are two of the world’s “impossible professions.” Weber had a theory as to why. Every effort of the professor and the politician is haunted by the spectre of its disappearance. As a scholar, the professor wagers his soul on getting “this specific conjecture exactly right about this particular point in this particular manuscript.” The smaller the question, the larger the devotion—a “strange intoxication,” Weber concedes, “mocked by all who do not share it.” That is the poignancy of the scholar’s vocation: to demonstrate his worth by taking on a task that no one believes is worth doing, and in which “success is by no means guaranteed.” Even if he is successful, the scholar must face the fact that his work will produce new questions. Those can be answered only by new scholarship, which, one day, will surpass his. It is the “destiny,” and even the “point,” of the scholar’s work to be “left behind.”...

Weber delivered the first of the two lectures, on the scholar’s work, on November 7, 1917, the day of the Bolshevik Revolution. One year later, a wave of revolution and counter-revolution swept across Germany. It didn’t break until after Weber delivered his second lecture, on the politician’s work, on January 28, 1919. Weber makes occasional, if oblique, reference to the swirl of events around him, but the dominant motif of both lectures is neither turbulence nor movement. It is stuckness. The particles of academic and political life have slowed to a halt; all that was air has become solid.

Weber’s complaints will sound familiar to contemporary readers. Budget-strapped universities pack as many students as possible into classes. Numbers are a “measure of success,” while quality, because it is “unquantifiable,” is ignored. Young scholars lead a “precarious quasi-proletarian existence,” with little prospect of a long-term career, and the rule of promotion is that “there are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions.” Every aspiring academic must ask himself whether “he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered and broken inside.” The “animating principle” of the university is an “empty fiction.”

The state is equally ossified. Most people lack the time or wealth to devote themselves to politics. Those who have the resources see politics as business by other means. There’s no way that politics can be “institutionally organized to correspond to any kind of ‘higher calling.’ ” For Weber, the only place where “unconditional, ruthless political idealism” is to be found is “among the classes who own nothing.” They don’t participate, except in a revolutionary period, which Weber doesn’t believe he is in. The events of 1918 and 1919 are a “carnival being dignified with the name of ‘revolution.’” 

The spectre haunting Weber is neither bureaucracy nor capitalism (although capitalism does play an under-remarked role in these lectures). Instead, it’s an ancient tension between hero and fate, transposed to modern life. Where classical tragedy sees the hero felled by a destiny that he resists, the nemesis of the Weberian actor is absorption in the institutions that he’s meant to oppose. Society is a siren, forever tempting us to forsake our tasks and seek the smaller goods of reputation and status. The scholar becomes a scribe; the politician, a hack. The danger is not defeat of the opposing self from without but corruption of the self from within, where the self’s diminishing desire to oppose comports all too well with society’s needs....  

It’s tempting to see Weber’s theory as an empirical description of the modern world, particularly as the engines of social movement have slowed, and after we’ve elected a President whose appeal, as a candidate, was the promise of blank stability. 

As the political theorist Steven Klein argues in his enormously clarifying study, “The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State,” Weber had a suspicion, almost a fear, of the realm of everyday needs, particularly material needs. A need or want demands gratification. Sometimes, that demand sets the stage for revolutionary leaders who transform society, whether with a social contract or a worker’s republic. Even capitalism, according to Weber, was once the work of a charismatic cohort of schismatics. But while unmet needs may elicit acts of extraordinary creativity, both moral and political, met needs limit our capacity to experience suffering, and to generate meaning from that suffering. When fulfillment replaces frustration, social structures degenerate into flattened planes of existence, free of friction. For Weber, capitalism and socialism, the market and the welfare state, firms and social movements, economics and politics—all spell the same end: people getting what they want. With that satisfaction comes the retirement from striving, the disappearance of tragedy, and the loss of the tutelage of suffering.

In an age of deep polarization, neoliberalism, and global warming, Weber’s vision can seem like an appealing one. (The fact that he died at the tail end of a pandemic, which may have taken his life, and in the midst of a street battle between left and right, only adds to his aura.) His spirit of melancholy—a word often heard on the academic left—registers a desire for something different without committing us to the confidence that collective action requires. Yet for all the potency of that vision, Klein’s reading suggests the perils of overstating the vice grip of the material world and underestimating the possibilities of political action—possibilities not for the tragic elevation of the self or the sadness of social movements but for the collective transformation of the world. 

Needs, after all, can and should be met. If the last half century’s struggles over the economy have taught us anything, it’s that the provision of comforts will always be contested; social democracy will always need defending. We needn’t worry too much about the end of con!ict or an abundance of ease. When Weber constructed his theory, it was less a description than a prayer, a desperate bid to $nd friction in a world supposedly smoothed by structure. He was hardly the only social theorist to over-structure reality, to mistake the suspended animation of a moment for the immobilisme of an epoch. Tocqueville suffered from the same malady; Marcuse, Arendt, and Foucault shared some of its symptoms as well. But Weber needed the malady. The question is: Do we? 

"who codes as". The language of tech geeks, statisticians and pedants.  And the last paragraphs... as if Weber's melancholy were anything but conservative, or in fact reactionary.

Klein, The Work of Politics.
From the Introduction.

This book is about the dilemmas and possibilities that the social welfare state presents to political movements aspiring to enact democratic transformations. By democratic transformations, I mean a mode of politics that brings critical scrutiny upon previously unchallenged and rigid forms of domination and that thereby seeks to change not just the distribution of material goods or the electoral fortunes of a particular party but the basic structure of social relation- ships. As a confrontation between the first modern, nation-wide social welfare institutions and a movement seeking such democratic transformations, the clash between Bismarck and the SPD distills the questions I address: Can democratic political movements use social welfare institutions to achieve lasting change in society? Or will participation in hierarchical state structures inevitably dissipate the transformative aspirations of such movements?

In response to these questions, I advance a theory of democracy and the welfare state that rests on two fundamental pillars. The first is a reconceptualization of the means of social democracy: the democratic welfare state. I develop a theory of welfare institutions that shows how they can function, not as bureaucratic, passive-client-creating entitlements, but as mechanisms for collective democratic empowerment and participation. The second is a reconceptualization of the goal of social democracy. Against the idea that the purpose of welfare institutions is material equality, redistribution, or social rights, I argue that social democratic movements have and should aspire to transform entrenched structures of social domination through participatory welfare politics. Together, these two threads provide a reconceptualization of social democracy as a political theory and historical political project, one that emphasizes the democratic rather than merely protective dimensions of welfare politics.

This is a work of historically grounded political theory. I develop its central arguments by moving between concrete historical examples and reflection on the conceptual categories through which political theorists interpret democratic politics in the welfare state. As a result, my method is dialogic and diagnostic rather than deductive: I search, not for higher-level normative principles that could justify welfare institutions but for the theoretical concepts that can illuminate the traces of past transformative and utopian movements embedded in our current political practices and institutions. I examine three of the most influential twentieth-century theorists of democracy and the welfare state – Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Jürgen Habermas – to diagnose the theoretical deadlocks behind current approaches to the welfare state and to develop my own positive vision of transformative politics in the welfare state. In each case, I unearth the basic philosophical and socio-theoretic concepts animating their respective thoughts. However, I view these concepts not as self-contained, philosophical edifices, but as always-partial efforts to make sense of our common world and the political events contained within it. Connecting this analysis up with the history of political mobilizations in Bismarck’s welfare institutions and the postwar Swedish welfare state, I show that they can illuminate concrete political dynamics of democratic world-making in the welfare state.

Most briefly, my argument is that democratic theorists are unable to articulate the participatory aspects of welfare politics because they inherit the horizon of political possibility generated by Max Weber’s thought.... By accepting Weber’s assumptions, democratic theorists reduce welfare institutions to state mechanisms of mastery and calculation, thereby foreclosing possibilities for popular democratic participation in those institutions.

I turn to Arendt’s thought for an analysis of the relationship between democracy and the welfare state that overcomes Weber’s socio-theoretic categories. Against the widespread view that Arendt was irredeemably hostile to “the social question” – that is, to using democratic state power to address economic or social injustices – I recover unappreciated elements of her thought that prove vital for thinking about democratic politics in the welfare state. Developing her implicit dialogue with Weber, I use elements of Arendt’s thought to develop a view of the welfare institutions as what I call worldly mediators between calculable material needs and non-calculative, political judgments. I show that once political theorists understand welfare institutions to be the result of democratic world-making – the lasting, worldly objects produced in the course of political struggle – they can better see opportunities for democratic participation and engagement that welfare institutions create. 

Weber pissed me off so much as a "social scientist" that I treated him only as that, to play him off others I read as writers. "Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genußmenschen ohne Herz", "hollow men,"  torn between positivism and irrationalism, and also in his case with fantasies of Übermenschen. So now he's being read a a writer, but still for his model-making as if the models weren't another form of art. I was so fucking lazy. Weber is closer to Adorno, but unlike Adorno he refused to rebel.

The stupidity of all of the theory of democracy shit is explained by Krieger.

Better to watch a Wiseman film than read Klein. Democracy is sport, not romantic poetry. More than that it's team sport, not for pedants.

I'm not done with this one.


I’m being unfair to Weber. He contradicts himself, as writers do. He’s torn between romanticism and positivism. He’s perfectly capable of discussing Rembrandt’s art[i] or the “plebian” German people[ii], and aesthetics as inseparable from ethics, in those other than himself. And then this, from the same lecture quoted above.


After Nietzsche's devastating criticism of those 'last men' who 'invented happiness,' I may leave aside altogether the naive optimism in which science--that is, the technique of mastering life which rests upon science-–has been celebrated as the way to happiness. Who believes in this? –aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices.


Weber’s pessimism is founded in irrationalism, an irrationalism he nonetheless champions, defending an inevitably authoritarian bureaucracy in the absence of the justifications of an almighty god. He mourns the death of heroes. So much for disenchantment; who needs gods when you have ghosts?  But for the sociology and political science of the children of university chairs, the source of the argument needed to be forgotten. 


Stephen A. Kent in 1983


Ideas formulated by Nietzsche were major sources of Weber’s inspiration for the last, pessimistic section of The Protestant Ethic (Mommsen, 1974: 106-, see 79). Those of us who know Weber’s work primarily through Parsons’ translation fail to realize this because, once again, of deficiencies in Parsons’ rendering of a crucial and revealing phrase.[iii]


Earlier Kent had discussed the mistranslation of stahlhartes Gehäuse, and now it’s “last stage” for “last men” Kent quotes Parsons’ translation adding the original where needed.


No one knows who will live in this cage (Gehäuse) in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of the old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage (die 'letzten Menschen') of this cultural/development it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.' 


The translation problem is clear: in the original German Weber referred to Nietzsche’s “last men” as those who would be “‘specialists without Spirit, sensualists without heart.’” He even put letzten Menschen in quotation marks, so that his readers would be certain to pick up the Nietzschean allusion to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Parsons’ translation of the German phrase as “the last stage,” not to mention his omission of the quotations around it, inarguably misrepresents what Weber tried to convey. The “specialists without spirit” quotation that Weber offered was not taken verbatim from Nietzsche. Rather, Weber himself constructed it with the tenor of Zarathustra in mind. [iv]


Kent sprinkles the text with sources and I’ve removed them for simplicity. His source for the last claim is Wolfgang Mommsen, in 1965.  Anthony Giddens, in his introduction to the Parsons translation in 1976, refers without reference to it as a quote from Goethe.[v]  


Franz Kafka published “The Metamorphosis” ten years after Weber published The Protestant Ethic. In 1905 Kafka was a student of Weber's younger brother; In the Penal Colony is now assumed to have lifted images and phrases from Alfred Weber's essay, “Der Beamte,” (“The Official” or “The Bureaucrat”)[vi],  so it’s safe to say Kafka had read Die protestantische Ethik. Even with debates over the Parsons’ translation, the first reference to Kafka I’ve found is from 2001, and stahlhartes Gehäuse translated simply as “shell as hard as steel”.[vii]


By the time anything becomes known as an idea, it’s been around for awhile. Concepts come late to the game. Sensibilities predate their clear articulation. Most serious scholars of Eliot and Kafka, and the literature from the period have read Weber, and know the connection. The reverse is less common, at least in English.  This isn’t a matter of taste or aesthetics but error, the mistake Weber himself makes, though he was a broadly literate man in a time when it was assumed a man in his position would be. It’s a mistake all philosophers make in imagining themselves an unmoved mover, the cause but not the product, imagining their own freedom even as their arguments describe, and prescribe, the lack of it for others. Their followers, in their role as followers compound this, smoothing out the conflicts their masters’ works describe. 


We need, finally, to separate Modernism from modernity. They are not synonyms. 

[i] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Translated byTalcott Parsons, Introduction Anthony Giddens (1976), George Allen and Unwin Ltd. p.169

[ii] Max Weber, "Suffrage and Democracy in Germany", in Weber: Political Writings. Edited by Peter Lassman. Translated by Ronald Speirs, Cambridge University Press, 1994. pp-119-121

[iii] Stephen A. Kent, “Weber, Goethe, and the Nietzschean Allusion: Capturing the Source of the ‘Iron Cage’ Metaphor.” Sociological Analysis, vol. 44, no. 4, 1983, pp. 297–319.

[iv] ibid

[v] Weber, The Protestant Ethic, trans. Parsons, Introduction by Giddens (1976), pp. vii-xxvi.

[vi] Austin Harrington, “Alfred Weber's essay `The Civil Servant' and Kafka's `In the Penal Colony': the evidence of an influence”, History of the Human Sciences, August 2007 20: 41-63

[vii] Peter Baehr, "The "Iron Cage" and the "Shell as Hard as Steel": Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." History and Theory 40.2 (2001): 153-69.

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