Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 18 November 2011

Max Weber and the Weimarer Verfassung - The Abschied of Wilhelmine Zivilisation before the Nazi Catastrophe


But the question still remains of what “modern industrial work” means and of how it leads necessarily – “inescapably” – to “concentration”, to “socialization” and thence to what this last “inevitably means”, namely, “bureaucratization”. This is an all-important chain of historical and theoretical transitions or passages that must be traced carefully. Even as late as Parlament und Regierung, however, Weber fails to do this, preferring instead to leave the whole chain of historical connections entirely open.

The ultimate foundation of social life is “the system of needs and wants”. The ultimate aim and purpose of society is to satisfy these needs and wants that are ineluctably “individual”. Not only is “the individual” and “self-interest” the foundation of human society, not only is the satisfaction of “needs and wants” – their “provision” – the essential aim of social life. But also the efficient satisfaction of these needs and wants depends on the “rational and systematic organization of free labor”. And this “free labor” is understood as “operari”, as mere, sheer “labor power” or “force” – a homogeneous and measurable “quantity” that does not itself “create” anything, pro-duce any goods, but rather “consumes” and “utilizes” the external world so as to satisfy and “provide” for its “wants” – wants that are deemed to be as “insatiable” as the Schopenhauerian Will. In Schopenhauer, the Ding an sich is still present in the entity of the Will whose “objectification is the body”. Therefore “the external world” exists as well, though only as “representation” that can be “com-prehended” scientifically by the Understanding (Verstand) in accordance with the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In the Schopenhauerian version of the negatives Denken the world is still a “Wirk-lichkeit”, a “work-likeness”, an “actu-ality” in which the human operari is “conditioned” by scientific logico-mathematical “laws” just as it was in Kant, whose greatest merit for Schopenhauer consisted precisely in this “separation” of thing-in-itself and phenomena. Except that Schopenhauer effects a “re-versal” (Um-kehrung) of Kant’s metaphysics: the “external” world therefore is not an “inscrutable Ob-ject”, an unknowable “reality” of noumena “op-posed” (Gegen-stand, ob-ject) to the Will, of which we can only register “phenomena”. But because it is now the “subjective side” that is the “thing-in-itself” from which the “phenomena”, the “objectifications” originate, the “scientificity” of experimental observations, of phenomena, is guaranteed by the unity of their “re-presentation” (Vorstellung) as “subject-object” – a unity that overcomes the infamous Kantian “antinomies of thought”: esse est percipi – what you see is what you get. In this sense, Lukacs’s critique of Kant’s “formalism” is fully comprehensible only through the “screen” of Schopenhauer’s “reversal” of Kant.

The “separation” of noumenon and phenomenon also disappears in Machism; but this time it is the “thing-in-itself” that is entirely “eliminated” in favour of the “simple” mathematical con-nection between phenomena or “sensations” (Empfindungen) in an experimental relationship that is “predictable and regular”.  Like Neo-Kantism, Mach’s phenomenology, the Empfindungen, effectively “instrumentalise” science reducing it to the state of a mere “tool”, to its “success” or, in the phrase of one of the founders of the marginalist revolution, Stanley Jevons, to a set of  “predictions and regularities”. There is here a virulent and total rejection of any “reality” or “substance” that may lie “behind” phenomena, of any “metaphysics”. Science is sheer “certainty” achieved in the “simplest” relations capable of being described and calculated with mathematical precision.

For Weber as for Nietzsche, there cannot be any “separation” (Trennung) in the Marxian sense between “labor” and the “means of production” because there was never any union between them! The human operari is entirely “instrumental” to its goal – the provision of want. There is and there can be no Gattungswesen, no species-conscious being, no “original union” of workers with tools because, if anything and quite to the contrary, the nature of human wants and the “scarcity” of their provision ensure that there is “conflict” between and among workers, let alone between workers and capitalists! Human beings are irreducibly and ontologically “things-in-themselves”; they are “Wills” or, as Nietzsche describes them, “instincts of freedom” that can “co-operate” or “col-laborate” to the extent that their “needs”, their “iron necessities” and their “wants” are provided for and satisfied.

But this instrumental “operari”, this “labor” itself does not have “utility”. Only consumption goods have “utility”: they and they alone ultimately “measure” or “value” or “price” the marginal utility of “the means of production” not in an “objective or substantive sense”, but merely from the “viewpoint” (Gesichtspunkt), from the “per-spective” of the “individual choice”. Utility is an entirely subjective and inscrutable entity that can be “measured” as “Value”, that can be given “social significance” or a “social Form” – that can be “reified” – only through the “social osmosis” of the market pricing mechanism where individual Wills “clash” or “com-pete” for the same “scarce” consumer goods. And this Value can be calculated not just in an instantaneous or timeless analytical dimension but even in a temporal one, in terms of “time preference”, even as a “projection” toward “the future”!

In this “view” (Anschauung), in this “perspective” (Welt-anschauung), “labor” can have no “utility” because it has no intrinsic “value”. Instead, “labor” is “effort”, it is the “objectification of the Will”, it is the “operari”, it is “Pain” (Leid) without “Pleasure” (Lust): “labor” is “dis-utility”! And the “marginal utility” of the consumption goods produced “to provide for the worker’s wants” – the wage - must be equivalent to the “marginal dis-utility of labor” if the production of consumption goods is to be optimal!

Neoclassical theory from Gossen onwards begins with the notion that human living activity is “toil”, it is “effort”, it is “want” (Bedarf) and “pain” (Leid) in search of “provision” (Deckung). It follows from this perspective that human living activity is conceptually “separated” from its “object”, from its environment which supplies it with “the means of production”. And consequently human living labour is seen from the outset as pure and utter “destitution”, as “poverty”, as “want”. Accordingly, all means of production cannot serve as means for the expression or objectification of human living labour but rather as “labour-saving devices”! For the Neoclassics, then, “labour” and workers are by definition the factor of production that is in “want” or “need”, that suffers “toil” and “pain” and “dis-utility” – and that “needs” capital (the means of production as “labour-saving tools”) in order to satisfy its “wants” that are made “immediate”, “urgent” – in contrast with the capitalist owner who can “defer” consumption – by the very fact that it does not now have “provisions” for its subsistence and reproduction and survival!

What this means is that human living labour itself is already considered, for one, as a “tool”, as an instrument whose “productivity” can be measured in terms of “units of output per unit of time”. And for another, it is seen as an activity or a “labour power” that is purely abstract, mere “potentiality”, utter “possibility”, sheer “pro-ject”  not bound to a particular, specific mode of expression or activity. In practice, it is the latter “view” of living labor that serves as the premise that leads inexorably to the former conclusion! Weber's entire understanding of "free labour", discussed here earlier, is the sociological equivalent of this decadence and nihilism – not, pace Lukacs, a “destruction of Reason”, because “Reason” itself is the “summum bonum” that culminates in nihilism - of European thought. In this perspective, this “abstract labour” is sheer, naked, destitute poverty, barren misery – “potential” that can only become “actual” if, and only to the extent and manner that, it is allowed by “the laws of supply and demand” to come into contact as a tool with “the means of production” that are the “endowment” and “possession” of the capitalist.

Weber’s “inexorable separation” (“inexorable” because for him there is no existential basis whatsoever for conceiving of a “union” of the worker with the means of production except on the basis of “individual ownership” of the latter) - the “inescapability of bureaucratic rule over modern industrial work” anticipates fatidically the philosophical synthesis operated by Heidegger only eight years later in 1927 with the publication of his epoch-making Sein und Zeit. Heidegger’s ontology of human Da-sein, of human being as “possibility”, is a philosophical reflection of the politically-enforced “separation” (Trennung) that Weber deems “inescapable” and that Heidegger will misconstrue philosophisch for phenomenological “inauthenticity” (Un-eigentlichkeit) and existential “estrangement” (Verfall). Pathetic (like Schopenhauer’s “sym-pathy” derided by Nietzsche, like Romain Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” refuted by Freud in Die Unbehagen der Kultur) will be Lukacs’s plaintive longing for the “enchantment” of “totality”, his late-romantic vision of the proletariat as “the individual subject-object of history” – just as equally pathetic will remain Heidegger’s appeals to “authenticity” in the face of the Vorhandenheit (instrumentality) of Technik. (The proximity of the two thinkers is reviewed by L. Goldmann in Lukacs et Heidegger.)

For the Nietzschean Weber, these “literati” with their “romantic fantasies” fail to grasp the irreducible and overriding irreconcilability of human individual “needs and wants”, the total absence of any “social syn-thesis”, the complete lack of any inter esse in human Da-sein. Life is “conflict”; it is “struggle”; it is Will to Power. This much Weber has learned from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche combined. But this ineluctable, physio-logical human conflict can and does allow for human co-operation in a purely instrumental sense, to achieve practical purposes that satisfy individual “needs and wants”. Social institutions, both symbolic and political, can lead to the “socialization” of the instincts through “compromises” that channel human instincts of freedom toward the construction of an “ontogeny of thought” that stretches from the notions of consciousness and “ego-ity” (Ich-heit), to those of logic and mathematics, and then to science, individuality, society and the State. This “ontogeny of thought” is what allows Weber to reconcile Nietzsche’s “true perspectivism and phenomenalism” with Neo-Kantian epistemology and Machian philosophy of science. Kant’s transcendental idealism remained fundamentally “subjective”. The universality of Pure Reason is questioned in the Critique of Judgement and made to retreat to the sphere of intuition and aesthetics, as Heidegger would argue later in the Kantbuch. Neo-Kantism is the avowal of this “retreat of Reason”, of the definitive abandonment of the “summum bonum” of German Idealism of unifying metaphysics with epistemology – a surrender presaged already by Kant in the Opus Postumum and the subject of the dramatic clash at Davos between Heidegger and Cassirer. The Natur-wissenschaften and the Geistes-wissenschaften will never be “united” again: the irretrievable “separation” of the Subject from the Object is finally conceded. The social sciences must turn to the Unicum of the “Soul” which can ex-press and “externalize” its “spirit” through “symbolic and social forms”. This is the essence of “socialization” that mani-fests itself in all areas of human life even to such an extent that these “Forms” acquire “a life of their own”, until they become a “crystallized Spirit” (geronnener Geist) that dominates the lives of “individual souls”. The intellectual path of Lukacs from Die Seele und die Formen (adopting Simmel’s schema of “Soul” and “Forms” from the Philosophische Kultur) to the elaboration of the concept of “reification” out of the Marxian “fetishism of commodities” in Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein describes faithfully and fatefully this “flirtation” of Marxism with the Vollendung of German Idealism:

At the time, then, it was Marx the ‘sociologist’ that attracted me and I saw him through spectacles tinged by Simmel and Max Weber. I resumed my studies of Marx during World War I, but this time I was led to do so by my general philosophical interests and under the influence of Hegel rather than any contemporary thinkers. (from ‘1967 Preface’, p.ix)

Indeed, it was Marx who first acknowledged this “flirtation” with Hegel (in the Preface to Kapital) and then coined the phrase “crystallized labor-time” [blosse Gerinnung von Arbeitszeit, Vol.1, Kapital] to indicate the “socially necessary labor time” that is “embodied” in the means of production used by living labor “to valorize” commodities in the process of production. Marx sought thereby to circumvent the obvious inconsistency that it is impossible for “market prices”, which are “subjectively” allocated according to “demand”, to determine what is “socially necessary” labor-time. It is something with which the most discerning Marxists have struggled since the publication of Volume Three of Das Kapital. The finest among them have sought to reconcile the inconsistency by appealing precisely to this “crystallization” of labor-time through the “reification” of human living labor that the “fetishism of commodities” engenders through the market mechanism. (See especially Lukacs’s chapter on “Reification” in Geschichte and the final chapter on “Marxism: Scienza o Rivoluzione?” in L. Colletti’s Ideologia e Societa’.) The insuperable objection to this “version” of Marx’s critique is that if “value” is sheer “mystification” and “fetishism”, then it is absolutely impossible for it to determine the quantitative allocation of social resources for production! Nor is it possible for us to discern a way to evade this “fetishism”! Lukacs himself confesses to the “overriding subjectivism” of this framework (p.xviii) and indeed to its affinity with Weber’s own brand of Neo-Kantian “rationalization” (as we will see later) and Heidegger’s phenomenological account of “inauthenticity” and “totality” in Sein und Zeit (p.xxii).

It is not an accident then if Karl Lowith focused on the convergence of the concepts of “rationalization” in Weber and of “alienation” in Marx in his appositely titled early work on Max Weber and Karl Marx. This complex web of “sociological forms” characterizes also Weber’s entire methodology from the “ideal type” (Simmel’s “Form”) as a “sociological form” to the hermeneutic Verstehen of social phenomena (clearly drawn from Dilthey) that allows the liberation of “social science” from its “normative content” (wert-frei, “value-free” science). Indeed, we will argue that Weber’s entire sociology and “Wissenschaftslehre” is founded on these Simmelian “sociological Forms” that allow him – as they do Schumpeter in the Theorie and the Austrian School generally, especially von Mises who had links with Weber – to conceive of the Rationalisierung in terms of its “instrumental purpose” (Zweck-rationalitat – what we may call “mathesis”) and therefore “scientificity” that can be distinguished from its “Norm” or “Value” (Wert-rationalitat). Once more, we are back full circle to Simmel’s Neo-Kantian dualism of “Soul” (value, norm) and “Forms” (instrumental purpose). But in pursuing this schema, Weber moves very far from Nietzsche’s much more consistent and sophisticated philosophical Entwurf and his own original version of the Rationalisierung. Weber is more “ecumenical” than Nietzsche in highlighting the “irrational” elements of Kultur – in which Ratio and iron cage are “crystallizations” or “Forms” of the “Spirit or Soul”. Such a neat “Kantian” distinction would have seemed absurd to Nietzsche – part of that “moral theology” of German Idealism that he vehemently denounced. And indeed part of the “emanationism” that Weber himself had rebuffed when reviewing the “old” German Historical School in his Roscher und Knies.

It is a fact beyond doubt that Weber’s scornful jibes at the “literati” and their “romantic fantasies” can be retorted with some justice against his own “nostalgic lamentations” about the “steel-hard casing” of “the care for external goods”, at his ethereal conceptions of a “crystallised Spirit” of modern industrial work (to be examined below), and the “Ent-seelung” (out-souling, desecration) of political life through its “massification” (in Politik als Beruf), and the “Ent-zauberung” (dis-enchantment) of human experience through its “instrumental rationalization”. Above all, as we will see, it is that central notion of “free labor” that contains in its denotation of “autonomous market demand” guiding and determining the “profitability” that is the benchmark of “the rational conduct of capitalist business” – it is this notion of “free labor” that hides Weber’s ultimate allegiance to the Spontaneitat of human “needs and wants”. Here Weber jettisons the initial Nietzschean “Resolve” (the notion of Gewissen or “conscience” or “responsibility” expounded and championed against its opposite – schlechte Gewissen [bad conscience or bad faith, later to mimetise into Heidegger’s Un-eigentlichkeit and Sartre’s mauvaise foi] - by Nietzsche at length in the Genealogie) that he had espoused and proclaimed in his Inaugural Lecture at Heidelberg in the attempt to bridge the divide between the “revolutionary” and technocratic appeal of Austrian Machian empiricism, which sanctions the validity of “scientific methods” in the study of social life, and the staid “conservatism” of German Historical School historicism that seeks to preserve the aura of “subjectivity”, of Hegelian Ver-geist-igung (embodiment of spirit, or divine emanation), for human existence. It is the “machinery” of the “congealed spirit”, whether “lifeless” (the care for external goods, the wants and needs embodied in the labor process), or “living” (rational bureaucratic rule) that Weber seeks to balance (the “opposition” he vehemently emphasizes) with the Dezisionismus, the “responsibility” (Gewiss, Verantwortung), of the leitender Geist. Even as late as 1918, Weber can still believe in the “value-neutrality” of his parliamentary framework. But as we shall see, already in 1919 political developments inside Germany had shaken the self-assuredness of his “social-scientific” analysis and proposals. Two short years after his death, in 1922, Carl Schmitt will publish his Politische Theologie in direct challenge of Weber’s philosophical and scientific assumptions and the Verfassung of the Weimar Republic, and in 1927, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit will serve as the epitaph to Wilhelmine Zivilisation and to the Kultur of Weimar. The Nazi Catastrophe was just around the corner, presaging the imminent “obscuring of the world”.


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