Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Max Weber's Sociological Ontology of 'Ideal Type'

As the Weber-buch nears completion, here is another excerpt from it that we hope will concentrate the minds of our friends. Cheers!

The “ideal-type constructions of political economy,” writes Weber, do not have pretensions to a “general empirical validity” that is “problematic” because they cannot sustain or provide the foundations for themselves: political economy, just like politics, is “without foundation” and its axioms remain purely heuristic and “silent” as to the “prescription” of the final goals or “ends” to be pursued through their “means”. But this time Weber goes on to state (we translate from above):

It is only because and uniquely because the categories of means and ends condition – the moment that one begins to utilize them – the rationalization of empirical reality, that it is possible to construct them [!].

This is an extraordinary statement which, if taken literally and at face value, seems to confirm our central thesis in this Part: - namely, that “rationalization” has nothing to do with the ec-sistence of an “objective rationality” that is “technically correct” and that is determined autonomously by an independent “empirical reality”; rather, it has everything to do with the strategic and practical political “ordering” (not simply and solely the “inter-pretation”!) of a “reality” that serves the political interests of those who “construct” these “ideal types”, these “axiomatic disciplines” such as “political economy”! To be sure, this “strategic” approach to the self-understanding of his craft had been outlined quite explicitly by Weber as early as 1904 in what was then his clearest and most comprehensive discussion of “objectivity” in social science. Here it is not the “truth” of the entire analysis that is claimed or aimed at, and not even the “moving average” of the “results” of the analysis, but rather – precisely! - its “strategic” efficacy – its Position.

The distinctive characteristic of a problem of social policy is indeed the fact that it cannot be resolved merely on the basis of purely technical considerations which assume already settled ends. Normative standards of value can and must be the objects of dispute in a discussion of a problem of social policy because the problem lies in the domain of general cultural values. And the conflict occurs not merely, as we are too easily inclined to believe today, between "class interests" but between general views on life and the universe as well. This latter point, however, does not lessen the truth that the particular ultimate value judgment which the individual espouses is decided among other factors and certainly to a quite significant degree by the degree of affinity between it and his class interests — accepting for the time being this only superficially unambiguous term. One thing is certain under all circumstances, namely, the more "general" the problem involved, i.e., in this case, the broader its cultural significance, the less subject it is to a single unambiguous answer on the basis of the data of empirical sciences and the greater the role played by value-ideas (Wertideen) and the ultimate and highest personal axioms of belief. It is simply naive to believe, although there are many specialists who even now occasionally do, that it is possible to establish and to demonstrate as scientifically valid "a principle" for practical social science from which the norms for the solution of practical problems can be unambiguously derived….[p.57]

The fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals which are just as sacred to others as ours are to us.

Only an optimistic syncretism, such as is, at times, the product of evolutionary-historical relativism, can theoretically delude itself about the profound seriousness of this situation or practically shirk its consequences. It can, to be sure, be just as obligatory subjectively for the practical politician, in the individual case, to mediate between antagonistic points of view as to take sides with one of them. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with scientific "objectivity." Scientifically the "middle course" is not truer even by a hair's breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right or left. (pp57-58)

Obvious is the attempt “to recuperate” the validity of bourgeois “science”, its “scientificity”, in terms of a “greater truth” (meta-logical or dialectical or ontic) that abandons the notion of “totality” and “system” – of universality - the better “to intervene” tactically to safeguard the overriding politico-institutional asset of capitalism, of “class interests” broadly understood. The “truth” ec-sists: it can refer to a “reality”, a “totality”, a “thing-iness”. The truth must be “falsifiable”, however; it cannot “close” the “system”, it cannot “circumscribe” or “en-compass” (um-greifen, Jaspers) the “totality of reality” which is “irrational and incommunicable”; it can-not reconcile the ineluctable conflict of class interests.

In the method of investigation, the guiding "point of view" is of great importance for the construction of the conceptual scheme which will be used in the investigation. In the mode of their use, however, the investigator is obviously bound by the norms of our thought just as much here as elsewhere. For scientific truth is precisely what is valid for all who seek the truth.

However, there emerges from this the meaninglessness of the idea which prevails occasionally even among historians, namely, that the goal of the cultural sciences, however far it may be from realization, is to construct a closed system of concepts, in which reality is synthesized in some sort of permanently and universally valid classification and from which it can again be deduced. The stream of immeasurable events flows unendingly towards eternity. (p.84)

Two fallacies in Weber’s reasoning here leap immediately to our attention and we have sought to expose them in this Part: First, Weber attempts erroneously to distinguish “scientific method”, which for him is “value-neutral”, from its “focus”, which he thinks is “evaluative”. We have shown that this is an erroneous distinction because the very “act” of “seeking the truth” – this very “will to truth” (Nietzsche) – is a political act. Second, Weber still considers this “stream”, this “system” and its “totality” as real and the Ratio-Ordo as scientifically communicable (therefore “true”, Jaspers) to that extent. Yet in actual fact, Weber here is openly acknowledging the “instrumentality” of his “science”, its effectuality, because “in an age that has eaten of the tree of knowledge” this “science” cannot become a “closed system” and therefore will be able to tell “the political practitioner” what he “can” do rather than what he “should” do, but still from the point of view of his “class interests”! To be effective, to have Power, “science” must be “dynamic”, it must “move and adapt”, “capture” reality “as it is now” (!) and dominate it, subjugate it, command it, exploit it, put it to its use, its service. This is the “use value” of “science” as an instrument that is inseparable, indistinguishable from the “uses” to which it is put! Just as the use value of living labour for the capitalist class is that it can be commanded so as to pro-duce dead objectified labour for the “re-production” of living labour – but only (!) “separated” (Trennung), divided (Krisis) from the means of production of those use values. The “measure” of this command is “money”, because it indicates the “availability” of living labour for its exploitation in the institutional shape of “the money-wage”.

(Note in this regard the similar approach adopted by Langlois and Loasby to the com-prehension of general equilibrium economic analysis in terms of “closed” and of economic “development” or “growth” in terms of “open” systems – one that clearly refers back to Heidegger’s and Jaspers’s phenomenology and one that was applied by Schumpeter on the back of Schelling. Lawson for his part, with his distinction between “knowledge” [mathematical] and “ontic” [historical] being, reprises uncritically and simplistically this schema.)

What, then, is the “knowledge” that “this [capitalist] epoch” has acquired after it has –with Nietzsche! - “eaten from the tree of knowledge”? Precisely this: that “science” is not an “autonomous”, “neutral”, “scientific” or “objective” activity (enterprise!) except in its being a “tool” for the Macht of the capitalist class, of the political leitender Geist that can govern and direct its instrumental use! As we saw in Part One, Weber does not turn to Schumpeter’s Unternehmergeist despite the fact that he had studied the origins of the capitalist entrepreneur well before Schumpeter published his Theorie! Instead, Weber’s great diptych of 1918-19 will remain the lectures “Politik als Beruf” and “Wissenschaft als Beruf” as if to emphasise the direct instrumental sub-sumption by politics of “science as activity”. The “aura” of Schumpeter’s entrepreneur remained that of the “freedom” of Romanticism, of German Idealism, of “the beautiful souls” that preceded Nietzsche’s De-struktion of Western metaphysics. Weber’s leitender Geist instead shares nothing of the “trans-scendence” of Schumpeterian “creative destruction”: not “entrepreneurial Innovation” but a highly specific mediation of “class interests”, of conflict over needs and wants is the “rational scientific task” of the new Politiker “in an epoch that has eaten from the tree of knowledge”.

This is the point at which Weber will turn to the Parlamentarisierung as a means of governing and directing the “trans-crescence” of the society of capital amidst “the struggle of conflicting values” that the rise of the industrial working class has occasioned in the form of the Demokratisierung. The real social “foundations” of this social reality will form the subject of the next and final Part of this study. As we anticipated in Part Two, it is “the money wage” that constitutes the standard of value that allows the osmosis, the “exchange value” at the base of all social relations in the society of capital. For Weber, instead, it is “the nation state” – but only because he believes in that “free play of economic forces” (the stahlhartes Gehause) and their “autonomous development”, in that “system of needs and wants” that we have shown to be illusory but that Weber believes to be “apparently self-evident things”.

The science of political economy is a political science. It is a servant of politics, not the

day-to-day politics of the persons and classes who happen to be ruling

at any given time, but the enduring power-political interests of the

nation. For us the nation state is not something vague which (as some

believe) is elevated ever higher the more its nature is shrouded in

16 The Nation State and Economic Policy

mystical obscurity. Rather, it is the worldly organisation of the

nation’s power. In this nation state the ultimate criterion for economic

policy, as for all others, is in our view ‘reason of state'. By this we do

not mean, as some strange misunderstanding would have it, 'help

from the state' rather than 'self-help’, state regulation of economic

life rather than the free play of economic forces. In using this slogan

of ‘reason of state' we wish to present the demand that the economic

and political power-interests of our nation and their bearer, the

German nation-state, should have the final and decisive say in all

questions of German economic policy, including the questions of

whether, and how far, the state should intervene in economic life, or

of whether and when it is better for it to free the economic forces of

the nation from their fetters and to tear down the barriers in the way

of their autonomous development.

Was there no need tor me to remind you of these apparently self-evident

things? Was it particularly unnecessary for one of the younger

representatives of economic science to do so? I think not, for our

generation in particular seems frequently to lose sight of these very

simple foundations of judgement more easily than most. (CWP, p.17.)

Yet the question that we posed above still remains, the one to which Keynes will seek to provide a “scientific” answer, of how it is possible to ensure the expanded reproduction of the society of capital on its own terms, in a language that is specific to its schema, to its “ideal type” – to its “Utopia”.

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