Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 1 January 2012

Liberum Arbitrium - Reflections on the Constitution of Freedom

These are preliminary notes that will form part of the chapter on Weber's Methodology. In the current politico-economic climate, the task of devising new approaches to the re-founding of "constituent power" is ever more pressing and the subject of these reflections.

The problematic of “free will” in terms of the reconciliation of the “freedom of the will” with the “co-existence” of “many wills” is already implicit in the Christian eschatology of the fate of the soul after death whereby human beings are “free” through their earthly actions to decide whether to be summoned to heaven or to hell. In the words of Saint Augustine, “it was so that there might be a ‘beginning’ that the human being was created”. The Scholastic notion of ‘liberum arbitrium’ neatly encapsulates this problematic of the will that has become central to our own theorization of the political and economic shape of a free and rational post-capitalist society.

This problematic may be made explicit through close analysis of the notion of ‘arbitrium’ with its twin connotations of “arbitrariness” and “arbitration”. Both connotations involve the supreme element of “decision” in the sense that all human action, however “arbitrary” or “arbitrated”, involves a form of “autonomy” of the subject who decides without which no ‘arbitrium’ would be possible. In this regard, the expression ‘liberum arbitrium’ is clearly pleonastic. But the notion of the “autonomy” of the “arbitrium” runs into the difficulty that the other connotation of “arbitrium”, that of “arbitration”, involves the element of “judgement” that makes the “decision” in its very “auto-nomy”, subject to the “laws” of judgement, of “rationality” itself! In other words, the very “autonomy” that in the Kantian systematization of the problematic of the Will (in the Praktischen Vernunft) rescues the Will from the heteronomy of the operari – from the “laws of physics” – also threatens to bind the Will to the “law” of the Categorical Imperative, that is to say, to a “formal” subordination to “the rule of Reason”. The fact that Kant himself in the Opus Postumum expressed worried reservations about the validity of even logico-mathematical “laws” as applied to physical events goes to show that ultimately the only source of the Kantian Vernunft could be a Leibnizian intuitus originarius or divinus to which Kant himself alluded in the Third Critique – the one appropriately devoted to “Judgement”.

The negatives Denken from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, through to Weber, Schumpeter and even Heidegger, approaches the problematic of freedom from this “negative” angle: the expression “freedom of the will” is understood in the subjective genitive: it is not “the will” that is “free” – free to decide whatever it “wills” – but rather it is “freedom” that de-fines the “will”, that “de-limits” its “sphere of competence”. Thus, for the negatives Denken the Will is “free” to do whatever it “can” do – the “free will” becomes “will to Power” where the “Macht” is what defines the will – and the “Macht” is defined not “trans-scendentally” in the manner of German Idealism, as in the “dialectic of self-consciousness” whereby the “individual wills” engage in a discursive “diachronic” process of “reconciliation” leading up to the harmonious “freedom” of a “rational society”. Instead, “freedom” is now defined “immanently” in terms of the material “power” of individual wills to exert their “volitions”.
Weber is quite explicit in this regard – [Quote]

It is this inevitable “clash of wills” that determines the “free-dom” of the individual will. It is certainly not “the will” that “chooses” its own “free-dom” but rather “free-dom” is the by-product of the “room to manoeuvre” available to each individual will from its eristic “Strife” (Schopenhauer) or “struggle” against other wills. And it is this “Strife” that allows individual wills to ex-ercise their “Macht” instrumentally, in terms of “choosing” means that are “adequate” to the proposed ends. As Weber calls it, this is “causation in reverse”: in the physical sciences, the aim is to establish what “causes” lie behind given “effects”, whereas in the social sciences the aim is to select the effects or means that will satisfy or be conducive to certain “causes” or “goals”. This is why the “freedom of the will” can be ascertained or “measured” only from the adequacy of the human utilisation of certain “means” to achieve proposed goals. In social science we must assume that the human will is “freest” when it chooses the “appropriate” means, determined “scientifically” in the pursuit of given goals: “freedom” here is understood in a wholly “instrumental” sense – as a means to an end -, a far cry from the German Idealist concept of “freedom” as the apotheosis of the human spirit.
In this context, “irrationality”, far from being the hallmark of “freedom” in the sense of “liberation from the laws of nature”, is actually the clearest sign of the human subjection to these “laws” – the fact that human action has been “constrained” or “conditioned” by “powers external” to the Will. Freedom is therefore the “resultant” of the conflicting and opposing wills striving and struggling against one another in Life and the World.

In Weber’s own words, “future generations will judge us not by our discoveries and wealth but by the ‘room to manoeuvre’ that we will have bequeathed them”. There is no “progress” in the constitution of human consciousness, no Hegelian “Idea” extrinsicating, unfolding in time and in space. Even the technical progress of humanity can be assessed as “progress” only in terms of “technical rationality”, certainly not in terms of “Reason” or “Civilisation” or “culture” – not in terms of “Aufklarung”. Weber’s concern, then, is not “freedom of the will”, but rather the ability of a social system to allow the satisfaction of human wants in a “rational” manner, one that provides for the selection of means “adequate” to the achievement of given goals through the ex-ercise of “free individual choice”, not through the hypostasis of extrinsic “final goals” including that of “rationality”. – Which is why the Sozialismus is doomed in that it aims at the attainment of an ideal society of “equality” through the centralisation of political power such that “only certain dictatorships have ever achieved”.

The danger posed by the Demokratisierung is that the “freedom of the will” turns into a collective “freedom from the will” in the manner feared by de Tocqueville – and Nietzsche no less than by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard – and that leads to the Schmittian “total state”. In Kierkegaard’s words, since the idea of “equality” has spread, popes, kings, ministers and diplomats have not been able to rule society any longer. The idea of “equality”, as Nietzsche has shown, is incompatible with that of “justice”, that of Demokratisierung is incompatible with the Parlamentarismus. For the negatives Denken the State can only seek to govern “the instincts of freedom”, to protect the disintegration of society into the bellum civium. The question is “how” this can be done, and indeed it is whether and how it can be done “rationally”. There is no question that this is Weber’s leitmotiv, the guiding problematic of his entire oeuvre. And the difference between Weber and Nietzsche is the belief that this can be done according to a “technical rationality” that does constitute “scientific progress” in the history of humanity. True it is that Abraham died in contentment just as much as any modern man, and that Robinson Crusoe’s adaptation on a desert island is “experientially” similar to that of any modern entrepreneur. But although the “experience” of life cannot differ because human instincts remain unchanged, the “technical rationality” of the means and methods adopted to achieve stated human goals is amenable to “scientific verification”.

This leads Weber straight into the “evaluation” of various scientific approaches to social life, chief among them that of the Economics, and then straight onto the question of the State, whose Vergeistigung is destined to turn into the Enr-seelung of the Rationalisierung. And this Rationalisierung, far from constituting a restriction of the will, means only that the “free” ex-ercise of the will, its “rational” and “responsible” application, can be ensured ever more “scientifically”. Weber here con-fuses (mis-takes by “fusing” them) the con-cepts of Rationalisierung and “rationality” – the second being the “ideological rationalization (apology and justification)” of the first. It is because Weber seeks to justify the Rationalisierung that he needs to dress it up in “scientific” terms. But his eventual realisation of the im-possibility of this task, finally turns Weber to the examination of the “standard of value” (in the Freiburg lecture) which he finds in the nation-state.

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