Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 29 October 2011

Max Weber and "The Iron Cage"

What is collapsing around us is the “settlement” that had seen the industrial working class “integrated” as the engine of capitalist growth through the institutional instrument of the money wage. What is evaporating, vanishing before our very eyes is the relevance and legitimacy of “Labor” parties that still cling to the “reduction” of living labour to dead objectified labour, and therefore the “representation” of the economic system as an impartial objective “mechanism” or machinery dependent on the “rational organization of labor” – and therefore on the “neutrality” of the State-Plan in co-ordinating the functioning of the system through the maintenance of legality and of the competitive “level playing field”. The “fine-tuning” of Keynesian memory has been blown away – smashed – in the eclipse of the Great Moderation. The central banks – the ultimate Keynesian technocratic refuge of the bourgeoisie – that had celebrated the stamping out of inflation, the coming of “price stability”, now find themselves roasting in the inferno of “financial instability” fuelled diabolically by the attempt to recycle the immense profits accumulated on the blood and sweat of Chinese workers, helplessly tyrannized by the most brutal dictatorship in size and truculence the earth has ever known, that swelled the financial bubble that burst so spectacularly barely three years ago.

Capitalism is in agony, and so is its “science”: we are here to administer its extreme unction and perhaps to draft its post mortem. What dies with this stage of capitalism (Minsky spoke of different “capitalisms”) is the ideology of Social Democracy: the ideology of “Labor”. For “labor” is precisely what we must fight. We must refuse to work. And we must refuse the “labor” that the capitalist “employer” gives to us. It is true: the employer “gives” labor! By accepting to work, we accept “labor” as defined by capital. We rebel therefore principally against the “Labor” parties: our party will be called “the Party Against Labor”. Let us see why by returning to Max Weber, and only later to Keynes.

A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness


of God's grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois business man, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so. The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God.

Weber’s attempt to locate the “spirit” of capitalism and therefore great part of the historical origins of capitalism in “the protestant work ethic” at the beginning of the bourgeois era as “a specifically bourgeois economic ethic” must fail, and for reasons that are both instructive and politically useful to us – us the “party against labor”.

Not only is there a problem with historical periodisation. The timing of the “protestant ethic” does not accord with the rise of agrarian and then industrial capitalism in England and Northern Europe in the early 1600s. Not only is it a horrendous reality that, far from being “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God”, the industrial proletariat that was herded into vast urban centres in England from London to Manchester and beyond resembled an army returning from a horrific war. Just read any Charles Dickens novel and you will understand perfectly well how far from reality Weber is here.

Weber’s judgement is not just wrong but deprecable and contemptible in the extreme. His sociological and theoretical work is motivated by the interests of his own class, the bourgeoisie: and this is precisely why it is not sufficient to say how wrong he was: it is very important “to get inside the mind” of one of the sharpest and perspicacious and encyclopaedic political minds the bourgeoisie has ever produced. It is symptomatic of his espousal of the point of view of his class that Weber should put the cart before the horse both analytically (as we are about to see) and historically by seeking to camouflage as a “religious belief” – a “calling” – the vile and horrific practices of a class that to this day seeks to glorify and rationalize its brutality in the name of scientific objectivity.

Right from the beginning of his monograph, Weber’s quote from Benjamin Franklin to the effect that “time is money” brilliantly illustrates his misapprehension and willful obfuscation: it was not because people “believed” through their religious faith that “time is money” that a protestant work ethic developed. Instead, it was precisely because “time had already become money” that the bourgeoisie developed a religious apology for the enforcement of their “bourgeois economic ethic” on the rest of society. (Cf. on this, the superb study by EP Thompson on “Time and Work Discipline in the Industrial Revolution” - .) What Weber was attempting to do with the central thesis of the Ethik was nothing less than to rewrite the truculent history of the rise of his class in Europe and to cover it in sanctimonious ascetic self-righteousness.

But there are also analytical reasons why Weber is as wrong as can be. Protestantism could never serve as “a specifically bourgeois economic ethic” for the very simple reason that it is founded entirely on “labour”: it is therefore at bottom a profoundly socialistic faith or belief or “ethos” whose highest theoretical economic expression is to be found in the Classical Political Economy that reached its apex with David Ricardo – after which it gave way to the Neoclassical (or marginalist) Revolution which, as we will argue here, represents much more intimately “a specifically bourgeois economic theory and ethic”. In disposing of the labour theory of value, “the Marx of the bourgeoisie”, Eugen Bohm-Bawerk, the chief artificer of the Austrian School, was both blunt and devastating: if “value and interest” are solely attributable to “labour” and to “the theft of labour time”, then competition for workers between capitalists should ensure that there is no “profit” left at all!

Weber himself acknowledges the inadequacy of “the protestant work ethic” as an explanation for the mature stages of capitalism:

In Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history.

To-day the spirit of religious asceticism—whether finally, who knows?—has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical


foundations, needs its support no longer.

Note how Weber is talking merely of a “supporting role” for the protestant work ethic in the origins of capitalism. But did the bourgeoisie really need this “ethos” except as pure ideology? The question is worth exploring because it may well be that the history of asceticism may still lead us to “a specifically bourgeois economic ethic” interpreted in a sense very different from Weber’s. Perhaps the biggest objection to Weber’s formulation of the problem is that he seeks to present the work ethic as an attribute not just of the bourgeoisie but also of the working class!

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. (p181)

Again, Weber is confusing consumerism with the urge to work and save. Even at its apex, the protestant work ethic had to do with “working and saving and investing” – not at all with “spending and consuming”! In his ill-advised attempt to implicate workers in the “work ethic”, Weber conveniently forgets the “ideological function” of that ethic right from the beginning! Nor does Weber even attempt to explain how and why the work ethic transformed itself from an autonomous motivational “calling” to a “mechanical foundation”, to an “iron cage” (stahlhartes Gehause, steel-hard casing) in which individuals are more “inmates” of industrial capitalism than free agents or “entrepreneurs”. Weber has fallen victim here to the very “late romanticism” – an echo of the Freiheit (free will) of German Idealism – whose eclipse and demise Nietzsche had announced and certified with unprecedented and perhaps since unequalled clairvoyance.

“God is dead!” – Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement - means also this: not merely that “values” and Weber’s “calling” (Beruf) or “ascetic ideal” have been “killed”, have “died”, as Weber seems nostalgically to lament. Nietzsche’s phrase “God is dead” means above all the discovery, the realization that the centrality of human “consciousness”, of the Ego, the Ich-heit, the “individual” and his Individualitat – that all these lofty “idols” have been destroyed and an-nihilated (hence, nihilism) by the rise of precisely that “rational organization of free labour”, that “rational Sozialismus” that Weber identified!

There is no Ent-zauberung (dis-enchantment) for Nietzsche as there is for Weber! (Cf. K. Lowith’s study, ‘Max Weber and Karl Marx’.) Nietzsche shows as conclusively as is humanly possible that the “freedom” of the “individual” was a ruse from its Judaeo-Christian beginnings through the “astute theology” of German Idealism, to the Nihilism of the late nineteenth century that presaged the cataclysms of the twentieth! And it is as revealing as it is surprising that Weber himself who more than any other social theoretician and “scientist” documented and theorized the Rationalisierung should ultimately fall back on the notions of “ethos” and “calling” to explain social developments such as the rise of the bourgeoisie and capitalism that will inexorably lead to the (precisely!) an-nihilation of “faith” and “calling” and “ethos” and their en-casement, their im-prisonment in the “mechanical foundations” of the society of capital!

Once again, the question for us as for Weber should be NOT how the belief that “time is money” gave rise to capitalist industry, but rather how the reality of industrial capitalism – the wage relation, or “the organization of free labour under regular discipline” – ensured the “reduction” of the experience of time into the fetishistic accumulation of capital!

We need to isolate from asceticism, therefore, those elements that support strategically the interests of the bourgeoisie from those that support the interests of the working class. - Remembering all the while, of course, that ideologies do not always work to the advantage of those who devise them. Indeed, it is precisely the history and critique of the concept of the Arbeit, the notion of “Labour” from its early monastic version as labor to its Hobbesian and British empiricist version as “labour Power” in Classical Political Economy, to the dialectical Askesis of German Idealism, and finally to the Neoclassical version as the calculus of Lust und Leid (Pleasure and Pain) that will reveal to us the separate, even superficially opposed (!), yet cognate philosophical and conceptual origins of both bourgeois and socialist ideologies.

We need to find what Goethe called a  Kontignation (Latin, contignatio, meaning architrave making “different” concepts “con-tiguous”), a “passage-way” that leads us from Weber’s genial political and sociological analyses to Keynes’s politico-economic “science”.  This is what we will do in our next intervention.

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