Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 23 February 2012

'Free-dom' vs. 'Greed-dom': Benjamin Constant as Precursor of Max Weber

For our loyal friends, this is the beginning of Part Four of the Weber-buch and it draws on the intriguing similarities or cor-respondence between Constant's early theorisation of Liberalism and its evident assimilation in Weber's political sociology. Constant's important texts are available here:

One hundred years before Max Weber “crystallised” the entire Romantic opposition to the ravages of capitalist industry, of its “iron cage”, of its “soul-less bureaucratisation” and “dis-enchanted” Rationalisierung of all aspects of social life; one hundred years before Weber had finally isolated and identified the source of this otherwise inexplicable socio-political and politico-economic development in the Vorbermerkungen as the “exact calculation” enabled by the constitution of “rational organisation of free labor under the regular [calculable] discipline of the [capitalist] factory”, Benjamin Constant, one of the greatest exponents of the European Liberalism that emerged triumphant out of the upheaval of the Age of Revolution, summarised what he perceived to be the great transformation of human society from Antiquity to Modernity as follows:

Cette différence en amène une autre. La guerre est antérieure au commerce; car la guerre et le commerce ne sont que deux moyens différents d'atteindre le même but, celui de posséder ce que l'on désire. Le commerce n'est qu'un hommage rendu à la force du possesseur par l'aspirant à la possession. C'est une tentative pour obtenir de gré à gré ce qu'on n'espère plus conquérir par la violence. Un homme qui serait toujours le plus fort n'aurait jamais l'idée du commerce. C'est l'expérience qui, en lui prouvant que la guerre, c'est-a-dire, l'emploi de sa force contre la force d'autrui, l'expose à diverses résistances et à divers échecs, le porte à recourir au commerce, c'est-à-dire, à un moyen plus doux et plus sûr d'engager l'intérêt d'un autre à consentir à ce qui convient à son intérêt. La guerre est l'impulsion, le commerce est le calcul. Mais par la’ même il doit venir une époque où le commerce remplace la guerre. Nous sommes arrivés a cette époque.

Utterly evident is the Hobbesian derivation of Constant’s hypothesis, which however he does not seem to appreciate in its explicit and dramatic implications. If, indeed, “commerce has replaced war” as the ex-pression of human individualist antagonism, of human conflict in the state of nature or of the degeneration of civil society into civil war (remember von Klausewitz, “War is the continuation of politics by other means”), Constant is unable to explain how and why this switch, how and why this quasi-religious conversion has taken place historically  and  indeed how and why this “commerce” can take place at all (!) beyond the mere statement that “le commerce n'est qu'un hommage rendu à la force du possesseur par l'aspirant à la possession; c'est une tentative pour obtenir de gré à gré ce qu'on n'espère plus conquérir par la violence”. Had Constant read Hobbes more carefully, or had he lived long enough to read Nietzsche, he would have realised that commerce can replace war as a manifestation of human conflict whilst still providing the basis of the social synthesis, only if commerce or exchange involve not the exchange of mere “possessions”(however “gradual”) but rather that of dead labor (Constant’s “possessions”) with living labor – that is to say, only if this “exchange” is categorically incommensurable in that it involves the reduction of human living labor to mere  dead objectified labor so that the former may be commanded politically by means of the latter! - And that such “exchange” can take place if and only if living labor is “separated” from the means of its reproduction and of production. It is only if living labor is politically and violently reduced to dead objectified labor that its pro-duct can be “calculated” or “measured” under “the regular discipline of the factory”.

As we explained in Part Two, contrary to Marx’s own account of this “reduction” (or “fetishism” as he styles it), there is absolutely no way in which this can occur by means of “market forces” or a “market mechanism” that operates automatically! There is no way therefore, contrary to Marxian theory and orthodoxy, how a capitalist society can function without the wilful and conscious action of specific political institutions (whose operation and function we will describe in this Part). Our task in this Part is not to describe how capitalist society is politically regulated but simply to show that it must be so regulated if it is to function at all!

Similarly Weber, in reprising a century later “the brilliant Constant hypothesis” with its functionalist and organicist ideal type of “the ancient State”, as he himself acknowledges in ‘Objektivitat’, is entirely silent about the real historical and theoretical foundations of this exakte Kalkulation that he too places at the centre of capitalist society and industry:

The constructs of the natural law and the organic theories of the state have

exactly the same function and, to recall an ideal type in our sense, so does

Benjamin Constant's theory of the ancient state. It serves as a harbor

until one has learned to navigate safely in the vast sea of empirical

facts. The coming of age of science in fact always implies the transcendence

of the ideal-type, insofar as it was thought of as possessing

empirical validity or as a class concept (Gattungsbegriff) . However,

it is still legitimate today to use the brilliant Constant hypothesis to

demonstrate certain aspects and historically unique features of ancient

political life, as long as one carefully bears in mind its ideal-typical

character. (p.104, MoSS)

In effect, Weber adopts much more than what he, following Simmel’s neo-Kantian theory of “social forms”, styles as merely Constant’s “ideal-type” analysis of “ancient political life”: by exploiting the contrast that Constant so ably draws between the State in Antiquity and “the modern State”, Weber effectively assimilates and elaborates the Frenchman’s “brilliant hypothesis” to erect upon it his entire analysis of capitalism and theory of society as well! – In doing so, Weber wholly eludes and elides and even obfuscates Constant’s genial distinction between the importance of “political freedom” (liberte’) for the citizens of Antiquity and the functional retreat from this “public happiness” (jouissance publique) occasioned by the spread of “commerce and circulation of property” under the novel capitalist regime, in favour of “private happiness” (jouissance privee), of the pursuit of private wealth and luxury. The reason for this apparent “omission” is that Weber’s rigorous intellectual training, and in particular his thorough grounding in and assimilation of the negatives Denken of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, prevent him from com-prehending the fundamental dif-ference (the different practical effect) between that “public happiness”, that political “freedom” that had been so precious to the artificers of the American and French Revolutions, and the mere “private happiness”, the petty and restricted “liberties” – what Constant calls “garanties” – to which the rise of the bourgeoisie and its “commerce”, or the rule of capital, have dramatically reduced and confined human political freedom.

Constant continues,

Il résulte de ce que je viens d'exposer, que nous ne pouvons plus jouir de la liberté des anciens, qui se composait de la participation active et constante au pouvoir collectif. Notre liberté à nous, doit se composer de la jouissance paisible de l'indépendance privée. La part que dans l'antiquité chacun prenait à la souveraineté nationale n'était point, comme de nos jours, une supposition abstraite. La volonté de chacun avait une influence réelle: l'exercice de cette volonté était un plaisir vif et répété. En conséquence, les anciens étaient disposés à faire beaucoup de sacrifices pour la conservation de leurs droits politiques et de leur part dans l'administration de l'État. Chacun sentant avec orgueil tout ce que valait son suffrage, trouvait dans cette conscience de son importance personnelle, un ample dédommagement.

With Classics and Neoclassics, the sphere of “happiness” or “utility” (for the Classics “labor” has utility because it “creates value” positively, whereas for Neoclassics it “consumes” the world so that “utility” or “value” consists in the “saving of labor” instead, which therefore has “dis-utility”) is always “private” because “labor” can be “divided” into “individual labors” and can thereby be alienated in exchange for dead objectified labor, so that the whole point of the “sociality” of social labor, its phylogenetic interdependence, is lost. This is the root cause for the fact that

nous ne pouvons plus jouir de la liberté des anciens, qui se composait de la participation active et constante au pouvoir collectif.

Under the rule of capital with its Trennung or enforced separation of living labor from means of production, and its parcelisation of social labor into “individual labors”, the private sphere, civil society or the status civilis, is what must be protected from the State, which was constituted for this purpose by political convention as a way of preventing or escaping from the state of nature or status naturae into civil society or the status civilis and its concomitant scientific hypothesis as the domain of necessity. Already, therefore, the “everyday life” of “citizens” is subjected to the “sovereignty” of the constituted powers and cannot itself act as a constituent power. The original contractum unionis, by virtue of the fact that it always understood the subjects of this “union” to be individuals in opposition to one another under the dire necessity (Hobbes) or the simple “necessity” (negatives Denken) that leads to the alienation of individual political “freedom” to a Sovereign who will “pre-vent civil war” and assure “public safety”– by virtue of this fact, the con-vention of the contractum unionis between “individuals” was bound to degenerate into a contractum subjectionis of these “individuals” by the Sovereign or State. Put differently, because in this status civilis, in this “State”, the individuals composing civil society have necessarily alienated the “freedom” they enjoyed in the state of nature, now this “freedom” is reduced to and even confused with “liberty”, that is to say, with the “protection” of their “possessions” and the preservation of the salus publica (public safety).

This is the essence of liberalism. And this is what Constant, and Weber who copies his analytical blueprint, both fail to grasp. Constant mistakes for a “technical” fact – the difficulty and complexity of “modern life” – what is indeed the reality of the dis-enfranchisement of the entire class of workers from ownership and decision-making in capitalist society under the rule of the bourgeoisie. 

Ce dédommagement n'existe plus aujourd'hui pour nous. Perdu dans la multitude, l'individu n'aperçoit presque jamais l'influence qu'il exerce. Jamais sa volonté ne s'empreint sur l'ensemble, rien ne constate à ses propres yeux sa coopération. L'exercice des droits politiques ne nous offre donc plus qu'une partie des jouissances que les anciens y trouvaient, et en même temps les progrès de la civilisation, la tendance commerciale de l'époque, la communication des peuples entre eux, ont multiplié et varié à l'infini les moyens de bonheur particulier.

Whether it be under Hobbes’s “Leviathan” or State-machine, or else under Locke’s consensual “common-wealth”, what the State protects are the “possessions” of “self-interested individuals” – life, liberty and estate – to which they had either a “natural right” (Locke) or a de facto claim (Hobbes) already in the state of nature but which were then under constant threat from mutual aggression. There is no notion of “public happiness” in this political theory because “happiness” or “utility” or “pleasure” is limited to the sphere of “individual possessions”, which includes the power “to possess and alienate” human living labor as if it were a mere “object”, as if it were mere dead objectified labor – in such a way that the “pro-ducer” (the worker) is homologated with and mistaken for the object, the pro-duct of the work! Indeed, the social, political and economic reality that underpins the concomitant social theory of liberalism is that this “private happiness” made up of the ownership of private property is entirely dependent on the “separation” (Trennung) of living labor from its means of production, its “parcelisation” from social labor into “separate individual labors”, and its violent “exchange”and therefore homogenisation with dead labor (Constant’s “possessions”): this and this alone is the basis of the capitalist social synthesis.

The problem arises, as Constant and Tocqueville perceive, when this “protection” comes to permeate every aspect of the “private sphere” through the process of what Constant calls “commerce” and Weber describes more aptly as “socialisation”, that is, the development of social capital. Both Constant and Weber, following the classic lines of liberalist doctrine, mistake the effect for the cause: - they believe that the Parlamentarisierung is the “result” of a “natural progression” to the Demokratisierung, dictated by “the system of needs and wants”, by “the state of nature”, by the “freedom of the will” occasioning “the iron cage”, from the political model of Antiquity to that of “modern capitalism”, rather than being the “instrumental political expression” of capitalist relations of production.

Car, de ce que la liberté moderne diffère de la liberté antique, il s'ensuit qu'elle est aussi menacée d'un danger d'espèce différente.
Le danger de la liberté antique était qu'attentifs uniquement à s'assurer le partage du pouvoir social, les hommes ne fissent trop bon marché des droits et des jouissances individuelles.
Le danger de la liberté moderne, c'est qu'absorbés dans la jouissance de notre indépendance privée, et dans la poursuite de nos intérêts particuliers, nous ne renoncions trop facilement à notre droit de partage dans le pouvoir politique.

Il s'ensuit que nous devons être bien plus attachés que les anciens à notre indépendance individuelle; car les anciens, lorsqu'ils sacrifiaient cette indépendance aux droits politiques, sacrifiaient moins pour obtenir plus; tandis qu'en faisant le même sacrifice, nous donnerions plus pour obtenir moins.
Le but des anciens était le partage du pouvoir social entre tous les citoyens d'une même patrie: c'était là ce qu'ils nommaient liberté. Le but des modernes est la sécurité dans les jouissances privées; et ils nomment liberté les garanties accordées par les institutions à ces jouissances….

In the uni-versal Eris of the newly-constituted liberal bourgeois society, the overriding function of the State can be one and one only: the “security” of its component “self-interested individuals” from the rapacity of one another that threatens always to erupt into the “war of all against all”! The essential apory in Constant’s and Weber’s “formulation” of this problem – of how “conflicting self-interests” in their “freedom” can ever “converge” so as to found a “rationality”, whether economic or still less “political”, or else of how these self-interests can “diverge” and still found a sphere of “necessity” or “scarcity”! – is that this Schopenhauerian and Hobbesian “universal Eris” cannot resolve these conundrums of political “freedom” and of economic “necessity” except by sublating and reducing the former to the latter (determinism) or by hypostatising the former by postulating its “autonomy”. By contrast, Nietzsche understood all too well that Schopenhauer’s postulate of this universal Eris (in Book IV of Die Welt) was “powerless” (ohnmachtig) to confront Hegel’s problematic of the social synthesis - of the actual existence of society, of human com-unitas, of co-operation and even of inter esse! That is why he gave the problem of the Rationalisierung a “solution” that we have explored in the Nietzschebuch. And this “solution” involves the definition of “parliamentary democracy”, of the Weberian reconciliation of Demokratisierung with Parlamentarisierung, as an oxymoron, a contradictio in adjecto. So important, so “apocalyptic”, so “fundamental”, is this Nietzschean pitiless critique of the Political in both its Hegelian and Liberal forms, that Weber would surely have made it explicit in his work had he truly understood it rather than simply “pass it by” (allusion to ‘On Passing-By’ in Zarathustra). Instead, Weber follows faithfully the lead proffered by the “liberal” Constant:

Que le pouvoir s'y résigne donc; il nous faut de la liberté, et nous l'aurons; mais comme la liberté qu'il nous faut est différente de celle des anciens, il faut à cette liberté une autre organisation que celle qui pourrait convenir a la liberté antique; dans celle-ci, plus l'homme consacrait de temps et de force a l'exercice de ses droits politiques, plus il se croyait libre; dans l'espèce de liberté dont nous sommes susceptibles, plus l'exercice de nos droits politiques nous laissera de temps pour nos intérêts privés, plus la liberté nous sera précieuse.

De la vient, Messieurs, la nécessité du système représentatif. Le système représentatif n'est autre chose qu'une organisation à l'aide de laquelle une nation se décharge sur quelques individus de ce qu'elle ne peut ou ne veut pas faire elle-même. Les individus pauvres font eux-mêmes leurs affaires: les hommes riches prennent des intendants. C'est l'histoire des nations anciennes et des nations modernes. Le système représentatif est une procuration donnée à un certain nombre d'hommes par la masse du peuple, qui veut que ses intérêts soient défendus, et qui néanmoins n'a pas le temps de les défendre toujours lui-même. Mais a moins d'être insensés, les hommes riches qui ont des intendants examinent avec attention et sévérité si ces intendants font leur devoir, s'ils ne sont ni négligents ni corruptibles, ni incapables; et pour juger de la gestion de ces mandataires, les commettants qui ont de la prudence se mettent bien au fait des affaires dont ils leur confient l'administration. De même, les peuples qui, dans le but de jouir de la liberté qui leur convient, recourent au système représentatif, doivent exercer une surveillance active et constante sur leur représentants, et se réserver, à des époques qui ne soient pas séparées par de trop longs intervalles, le droit de les écarter s'ils ont trompé leurs voeux, et de révoquer les pouvoirs dont ils auraient abusé.

For both Constant and Weber, then, the “trans-formation” of the experience of “freedom” from that of “active participation” in the affairs of State in Antiquity to that of “passive protection” under the State, of bourgeois Sekuritat and salus publica in “modern capitalism”, is related functionally and organically to the progress and evolution of the “system of needs and wants”, of the “iron cage of modern industrial labor” (Weber). This helps explain why in Weber there is concern for the State and parliamentary democracy only to the extent that they are functional and organic to “the rational organisation of free labor” and ultimately to “the iron cage”. Both the ascetic ideal and the iron cage are “irrational”. Weber sees the “freedom” of “labor” only as “autonomous market demand” and not in broader “political” terms.

The question that Arendt poses by way of implicit criticism of Weber (so does Marcuse in terms of “industrialisation” and “science”, or Heidegger with his ‘Technik’, as “ideology”) is that “the iron cage” is taken by him to be naturaliter the entirety of the Political, as it was for Hobbes, in that “civil society” now is identical with the State because the entire “task”, legality and legitimacy, of the State is precisely this “guarantee” (cf. Benjamin Constant, Reflexions sur les Constitutions et les Guaranties) of the market mechanism as the ultima ratio, the necessitas(either “dire” or not, given that for Weber the will is not identical with Hobbesian liberum arbitrium and there ec-sists a “technical rationality”), the scientific hypothesis of the equi-librium of self-interests of atomised individuals whose only aim in social life, in exiting the state of nature, is the pursuit of “private happiness” or “utility”. The Political becomes absorbed into the Economic – except that the “freedom” of labor involves the “specification” of its wants and needs not merely through the market mechanism but also through “compromise” in Parliament of the necessarily conflicting self-interests that are filtered by the market.

Indeed, as we pointed out above, Weber’s position represents a regression with regard to Constant’s still clear and sharp distinction between “freedom” and “guarantees”, between active participation in politics and passive “enjoyment” of constitutional “rights and liberties”. Both Constant and Weber maintain the metaphysical notion of “possession”, of the “in-dividual’s” natural right to the pro-duct of individual labors. But whilst Constant still preserves the validity of the Classical notion of “freedom” which, to his mind, has been eclipsed by the complexity of the “socialisation” occasioned by “the system of needs and wants”, for Weber, instead, this classical “freedom” or Freiheit never existed! It was never “real”, but was only a “meta-physical” delusion. What is real for Weber, what is physical is the “greed-dom” of conflicting individual self-interests that have finally found their most “rational” expression as the end-result of the “ascetic Ideal”that has debouched into “the iron cage of modern industrial labor”.

Arendt rebukes Weber (implicitly) for assuming that the “frugality” of the Founding Fathers was exclusively “Puritanical” – when in fact it could have been the “opposite” of retreat from the world, the opposite of “renunciation”: the “frugality” and “industry” of the Puritans could have been due to a greater concern for “public happiness” and therefore “freedom” than for “private happiness” and therefore “luxury”.

However that may be, of one thing at least we may be sure: the Declaration of Independence, though it blurs the distinction between private and public happiness, at least still intends us to hear the term 'pursuit of happiness' in its twofold meaning: private welfare as well as the right to public happiness, the pursuit of well-being as well as being a 'participator in public affairs'. But the rapidity with which the second meaning was forgotten and the term used and understood without its original qualifying adjective may well be the standard by which to measure, in America no less than in France, the loss of the original meaning and the oblivion of the spirit that had been manifest in the Revolution…. Tocqueville again is quite right when he remarks that 'of all ideas and sentiments which prepared the Revolution, the notion and the taste of public liberty strictly speaking have been the first ones to disappear' .31 (p.132)

For abundance and endless consumption are the ideals of the poor: they are the mirage in the desert of misery.In this sense, affluence and wretchedness are only two sides of the same coin; the bonds of necessity need not be of iron, they can be made of silk. Freedom and luxury have always been thought to be incompatible, and the modern estimate that tends to blame the insistence of the Founding Fathers on frugality and 'simplicity of manners' (Jefferson) upon a Puritan contempt for the delights of the world much rather testifies to an inability to understand freedom than to a freedom from prejudice. (H. Arendt, On Revolution, ch.3, p.139)

What Arendt means here, if one subtracts the verbosity, is that “the pursuit of luxury” or Constant’s “private happiness”, may tend to shrink the political or “public” space or universe of human beings so as to render them a-political – with the consequent neglect of the forms of political activity that “freedom”, and the “public happiness” it inspires, must stand for, in opposition to “passive” liberties. To be “free” is for Arendt, as it was for Constant, to engage actively in the political life of one’s community. To be “at liberty” to do something, instead, is to be the passive beneficiary of a right or benefit “conceded” to oneself by the constituted powers, by “the powers that be”. In this sense, one may say that “freedom” and “the pursuit of luxury” – not “luxury” itself! - may well be at odds, but not be necessarily “incompatible”! That “freedom and poverty” may be incompatible is a problem or “social question” that may be resolved simply by eliminating poverty through the diffusion of the institutions of “freedom”. But if “freedom and luxury” also are incompatible, then humanity has an even greater problem – and freedom has found an insurmountable barrier!

This is Arendt’s reproach to Weber and indirectly also to Marx in that she highlights the need to avoid the reduction of political freedom to the “technical” sphere of the economy: it is most enlightening from a conceptual or analytical perspective, and it is also quite appropriate in some respects. But she forgets, as Marx would pointedly remind her, that her own high-brow, neo-Aristotelian conception of “freedom” does not deal integrally (let alone fairly) with what is the most important aspect of human existence under capitalism: - wage labor, which neither Weber nor Arendt, and least of all Constant, ever distinguish from human living labor. Arendt therefore re-presents the nostalgic apotheosis of the dichotomy of bourgeois and citoyen that has been the bane of Western political theory since Hobbes. She forgets that whilst the American Founding Fathers may well have preferred the “public happiness” of active participation in the political affairs of the newly-founded nation-state (the famed spectemur agendo coveted by John Adams), their ability to do so depended exclusively or predominantly on that “luxury” that she says they eschewed and self-righteously (hypocritically) denigrated!

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