Saturday, September 16, 2023

old: What Exactly is Neoliberalism?

and new: It's all so obvious. Academia circling the wagons. I wonder what her girlfriend says.

Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber is a revised and expanded version of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that Wendy Brown gave at Yale in 2019. As she acknowledges, Weber is, on the face of it, a surprising choice of ally for a radical political thinker who has done so much to scrutinise and oppose political orthodoxies. Weber is typically dismissed on the left as a conservative defender of bourgeois liberalism and a critic of socialism. In recent years, Brown has been best known for her critical analysis of neoliberal rationality and the way it has weakened resources for political action; recent scholarship, meanwhile, has highlighted significant continuities between Weber’s thought and that of early neoliberals such as Ludwig von Mises. Brown isn’t a sociologist, but her work is unquestionably animated by what C. Wright Mills called the ‘sociological imagination’, which connects ‘private troubles’ to ‘public issues’. Although Weber was one of the founding fathers of sociology, he has become unfashionable among sociologists because of his insistence on a rigid distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’, and his refusal to let politics or ethical reasoning intrude into scholarship.

So why Weber? The texts Brown focuses on are the two famous lectures given in Munich in 1917 and 1919, ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’, which Nihilistic Times reads in reverse order. Here Brown finds Weber responding to ‘crises of political and academic life bearing certain parallels to our own, including a crisis of liberalism’. In a time of war, demagoguery and bureaucratisation, and when the ‘death of God’ had become a given, Weber sought to reorient politics and scholarship through a dogged commitment to what distinguished each of them. As Brown admits, some of this made for dry and disappointing reading (‘Science as a Vocation’ is ‘one long depressive sigh about what scholarship is and requires, even apart from its miserable contemporary conditions’). But what she finds most valuable in Weber’s ethos, not least in its implications both for the left and for the academy, is the willingness to face uncomfortable truths without lapsing into wishful thinking or despair.

Weber insists that everything remain in its rightful place. Politicians should stick to politics, and scientists to science. Religion should vacate public life, except as an inner psychological ‘vocation’ through which individuals commit to their life course. The tragedy of modernity, as recognised most acutely by Nietzsche, is that modern knowledge can tell us a great deal about how the world works (facts), but nothing whatever about what we should do about it (values). This, Weber argued, is just the way it is, and to deny the split between facts and values (in the form of mysticism, say, or Marxism) only makes things worse. Modern society is therefore suffused by nihilism, in the sense that values no longer have any stable or consensual foundation, while scholars have nothing helpful to say about them, other than to study them sociologically.

In these circumstances, both science and politics carry a heavy burden. Once values come to be regarded as non-objective cultural artefacts, politics becomes a never-ending battle to assert one set of values over others. In spite of this, or because of it, values must be defended to keep nihilism at bay, and the responsibility for doing this falls especially to politicians, and political leaders in particular. Weber’s central injunction to scholars, meanwhile, is to stay in their lane and avoid the temptation to issue edicts on morality or politics. Both scientists and politicians must take ‘responsibility’ for their own sphere of activity, and ensure that there remains, as Brown puts it, a ‘moat between academic and political life’.

recently on Weber, and the political origins of value free science. 
Weber now has a tag.

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