Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 22 April 2014

At the Origins of the Concept of 'Rationalisierung' - Max Weber's Entwurf

This is the first section of our 'Weberbuch'. Here we trace the political history and meaning of the concept of "rationalization" that plays a central role in Weber's work and, after him, in that of countless social theoreticians and economists, no less than philosophers, from Lukacs to Schumpeter to the Frankfurt School. Although he never used this term, the philosophical antecedents of this concept and the historical unfolding of the political reality it contains were expounded originally in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Although a most powerful elaboration can be found also in Karl Marx's critique of political economy and of capitalism, the limitation of Marx's insight in this specific respect is that he failed to see how a "scientific framework of analysis" can be much more than "merely" ideological. Unlike Nietzsche, Marx always believed in "reality" and "science" - which is why he could not see how "science", like "history", is a praxis that is always conducted and written by those who happen to hold power in human societies. Economic "science", as Schumpeter knew, is "a box of tools": but it is not a "value-neutral" box of tools (contra Weber) because the "regularities and patterns", the "data", that it seemingly records  or discovers are not objective or spontaneous reflections of "reality"; rather, they reflect the state of affairs imposed and coerced upon the polity by the people who lead it - as Nietzsche put it, "we find what we already put there"! This, in a nutshell, is the "truth" and the "lie" of scientific positivism.
To make the reading of this piece a little easier, we can summarise its thesis quite simply as follows: the essence of capitalism is "the exact calculation" of profit made possible by the violent "rational organization of formally free labour through the regular discipline of the factory". The modality of this violence, its "scientific" application, cannot be comprehended by economic analysis because this analysis serves only to sanction as "science" what is instead the product of social and political antagonism the conduct and administration of which has become the overriding purpose of what we call "the  nation State", that is, a specific form of political command that has been refined since the rise of government bureaucracies and modern armies dating back to 17th century Europe, especially in Stuart England and in Absolutist France - and whose great theoreticians are, of course, Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Introduction: State and Capitalist Bureaucracy as ‘Trennung


In a modern state real rule, which becomes effective in everyday life

neither through parliamentary speeches nor through the pronouncements

of monarchs but through the day-to-day management of the

administration, necessarily and inevitably lies in the hands of officialdom,

both military and civilian. The modern high-ranking officer even

conducts battles from his ‘office’. (‘Parliament and Government’, p.145 in CWP)


In statistical terms the numbers of office workers in private firms are growing

faster than manual workers, and it is quite ridiculous for our litterateurs

to imagine that there is the slightest difference between the

mental work done in the office of a private firm and that performed

in an office of the state.

Fundamentally they are both exactly the same kind of thing.

Looked at from a social-scientific point of view, the modern state is

an ‘organisation’ (Betrieb) in exactly the same way as a factory; indeed

this is its specific historical characteristic. (p.146)



Weber’s approach to and theorization of the Rationalisierung experiences a marked and dramatic evolution between the year 1917 when he writes and publishes the articles on Parlament und Regierung and the year 1920 when he completes the Vorbemerkung to the Aufsatzes zur Religionssoziologie. This last contains a definition of the Rationalisierung encompassing its origins in both state administration and in industrial capitalism that reveals a marked deviation from its abstract “ideal type” sociology prior to 1917 traceable back to the Protestantische Ethik. The tide of events – the worsening of the military position of the Reich and apprehension over its domestic political repercussions together with the revolutionary tumults in Russia and their significant echoes in Western Europe – had forced Weber to turn his attention sharply to the re-structuring of “Parliament and Government in a ‘Newly-Ordered’ [neu-geordneten] Germany”, and particularly to “the nature of political parties” (Parteienwesen) and of the existing bureaucracy (Beamtentum, officialdom) within the overall problematic of the Demokratisierung of the old European absolutist regimes that followed the rise of the industrial working class. The evolution of Weber’s thought over this period offers a unique vantage point from which to trace this entire Problematik of the relationship between capitalist social relations of production, their intrinsic social antagonism in the dynamic context of “economic growth and development”, and the mode of political organization and representation of the antagonistic forces it pro-duces.


To be sure, “looked at from a social-scientific point of view, the modern state is an ‘organisation’ [Betrieb] in exactly the same way as a factory” – which is why it is of fundamental importance to understand their symbiosis and “con-currence” in the fact that if indeed it is the “specific historical characteristic” of the “modern state” to be “organized in exactly the same way as a factory”, it was also the new asset of the European absolutist nation-state that made possible the concentration of political power that enabled the bourgeoisie to impose “the rational organization of free labor under the regular discipline of the factory” on the rest of society!


The literati, the nostalgics and apologists for the aristocratic status quo, for the “republique des notables”, overlook the reality that “there is [not] the slightest difference between the mental work done in the office of a private firm and that performed in an office of the state”. Indeed, “the number of office workers in private firms is growing faster than that of manual workers”. There is a profound and urgent need to understand the transformation of capitalist industry and labor process because it is this that forms the foundation of the modern nation-state – it is its “model” that must be examined closely so that the “machinery of State” may adapt to the “needs” of society, of its “economy” in such a way that the “political will” of the economically decisive parts of society may be expressed “powerfully” – for there to be “positive politics” and not the present “negative politics” whereby Parliament is “prevented or impeded” from exercising the vital functions of “leadership” that the “national economy” – the economy understood in terms of the Machtsstaat – demands and requires.


The capitalist “entrepreneur” here has been already side-lined. It is not that his “function” is unimportant: it is rather that the entrepreneurial function itself is incapable of “mediating” and “realizing” the trans-formation of the economy, of capitalist “development” in the broadest sense, even in the manner championed by Joseph Schumpeter! The genial Austrian economist had sought to identify and describe precisely the “mechanism of transformation” that is specific to the capitalist economy and that leads to its “development”. But this “development” is dependent on society not just in the sense that it occurs in a social context but also in the far more important sense that the “trans-formations” that capitalist industry generates have far-reaching political implications and consequences that need themselves to be mediated and mustered to maximize the Macht of the Nationaloekonomie, the power of the nation-state and of its leading class, and not only “profits”. The differentiation between the “dynamic” role of the “entrepreneur” and the “static” or passive one of the rentier or “capitalist” is duplicated at the political level by the pressing need to by-pass the passive and abulic inertia of the machinery of bureaucratic state administration with the active powerful leadership of a parliamentary elite that is not imposed on the country from above but that rises instead from its midst as the powerful expression of the political will of the nation, of its industrially relevant components - “the representatives of the truly important powers in the economic world today”(PuR, in Political Writings, p.93).


This “problematic” had been completely missing in Weber’s earlier studies on the Protestant Ethic and the “entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism”. Armed with the insights of Schumpeter’s Theorie, however, Weber is now able to integrate the Austrian’s “theory of economic development” with a much more powerful Nietzschean account of parliamentary politics “in a society that is destined to remain capitalistic for a long time to come”! The essential and urgent task is how to co-ordinate the Demokratisierung of social forces within the institutional framework of the Parlamentarisierung. The problem is no longer so much to interpret the role of the entrepreneur as the herald of capitalist development within the “organisation” that is the capitalist factory. Instead, the essential and pressing task is that of preserving the rule of the bourgeoisie and of invigorating the nation-state by understanding whereupon and wherefrom capitalist industry derives its explosive dynamic “power” – a power that drives the national economy and therefore its “Macht” a lot more efficiently and “rationally” than does the state administration. It is not the specific role of the entrepreneur within the “congealed spirit” represented by the capitalist machine that interests Weber, but rather the “source” of the energy, of the productive power that the entrepreneur musters and channels in the direction of “development”. And if, as Schumpeter argues, “development” is really the entrepreneurial channeling or use of crisis, then the state bureaucracy must learn in equal measure how to muster and channel its own “crisis”, how to relinquish the romantic utopian dreams of “social equilibrium” in order to utilize social conflict, to mediate and to govern it so as to preserve the power of the nation in the global arena.


That the capitalist economy can occasion and provoke “crises” cannot be put in doubt. Weber had already experienced the economic convulsions of 1905 and their political complications reverberating from Russia to Germany – prompting him even to engage in a rapid study of the Russian language! But now the Great War and the October revolution of 1917 in Russia bring prepotently to the fore this “problematic” of capitalism, of how to “guide” its development within a social body that is dramatically more “interdependent” and “interconnected” than ever before – in which capitalist “development” can provoke “crises” that threaten and traverse the entire “fabric” of society by reason of its own “socialization” (Vergesellschaftung). The Bolshevik “leap forward” to the dictatorship of the proletariat in conditions that Lenin himself admits are “premature” (see The Development of Capitalism in Russia) shows that “socialization” need not mean “evolution” – that it can portend revolution! - and that it poses “problems” not just for capitalism but also for socialism itself! Capitalist development poses the Problematik of “rational Socialism”.



The central problem of Socialism is one posed by capitalist industry itself - the “anarchy of production”, the unequal distribution of wealth in society; and both are a direct result of the “separation” (the Marxian Trennung) of the worker from the means of production.


The relative independence of the craftsman or the home-worker, the

freehold farmer, the Commendatar, the knight and the vassal, rested in (147)

each case on the fact that they themselves owned the tools, provisions,

finances or weapons which they used to perform their economic,

political or military functions, and lived off them while they were

carrying out those functions. Conversely, the hierarchical dependency

of the worker, clerk, technical employee, the assistant in an academic

institution and also of the official and soldier of the state rests in every

case on the fact that the tools, provisions and finances which are

indispensable both for the performance of his work and for his economic

existence are concentrated in the hands of an entrepreneur in

the one case, and in those of a political master in the other. (146-7)


The former “autonomy” of the artisanal skilled worker, of the Gelernte, belonged to a stage of society in which communities were relatively self-reliant and controlled the “totality” of the labour process. But this is exactly what capitalist industrial “development” has changed – what occasions its “crises” in the explosive “socialization” of the reproduction of society itself! The concentration of industry by capitalism with the Taylorisation of the labor process has determined the massification of society to such an extent that all pining for a lost paradise of “artisanal” control over the labour process, of “totality”, all resentment and ranting against the “dis-enchantment” (Ent-zauberung) engendered by the rise of capitalist industrialisation are sheer “romantic fantasy”.


Whether an organisation is a modern state

apparatus engaging in power politics or cultural politics (Kulturpolitik)

or pursuing military aims, or a private capitalist business, the same

decisive economic basis is common to both, namely the ‘separation

of the worker from the material means of conducting the activity of

the organisation - the means of production in the economy, the

means of war in the army, or the means of research in a university

institution or laboratory, and the financial means in all of them. (147)


“The same decisive economic basis is common to both”! Common to the “modern state apparatus” and to “private capitalist business”. Both are “organizations”; they are “businesses” or “factories” – and what distinguishes them is precisely “the ‘separation’ of the worker from the material means of conducting the activity of the organization”. This “separation”, this Marxian Trennung, then, may well seem peculiar to capitalist industry but in reality it extends to the rest of society and in especial mode to the “modern state apparatus” that we call “bureaucracy”, including the army and indeed even “scientific research”.


This apparatus is the common feature shared

by all these formations, its existence and function being inseparably

linked, both as cause and effect, with the 'concentration of the material

means of operation'. Or rather this apparatus is the form taken

by that very process of concentration. Today increasing 'socialisation’ [Sozialisierung]

inevitably means increasing bureaucratisation.

Historically, too 'progress’ towards the bureaucratic state which

adjudicates in accordance with rationally established law and administers

according to rationally devised regulations stands in the closest

relation to the development of modem capitalism.


Bureaucratisation is the “inevitable” outcome of “socialization” which, in turn, is engendered by “the concentration of the material means of operation” – and of course also of “the material means of production”. Now, this “apparatus is the form taken by that very process of concentration”: it is this extensive and pervasive parcelisation of social labor, the very inter-connectedness of social functions that cater to “the most basic needs of social life” that make a nostalgic return to the “artisanal ownership of the means of production” on the part of the individual worker more than just a fantasy – but a dangerous one as well! With one fell swoop, Weber exposes the sheer “reactionary” content of the utopian ramblings of the Sozialismus.


The modern state emerges when the prince takes this business into his

own household, employs salaried officials and thereby brings about

the 'separation' of the officials from the means of conducting their

duties. Everywhere we find the same thing: the means of operation

within the factories, the state administration, the army and university

departments are concentrated by means of a bureaucratically structured

human apparatus in the hands of the person who has command

over (beherrscht) this human apparatus. This is due partly to purely

technical considerations, to the nature of modern means of operation

- machines, artillery and so on - bur partly simply to the greater

efficiency of this kind of human cooperation: to the development of

'discipline" the discipline of the army, office, workshop and business.

In any event it is a serious mistake to think that this separation of

the worker from the means of operation is something peculiar to

industry, and, moreover, to private industry. The basic state of affairs

remains the same when a different person becomes lord and master

of this apparatus, when, say, a state president or minister controls it

instead of a private manufacturer. The ‘separation' from the means of

operation continues in any case. (“Der Sozialismus”, p.281, CPW)


To seek a remedy to “the anarchy of private production” in a “socialism” whereby the ownership of the means of production is “socialized” by the State is a pathetic and reactionary chimaera for the simple reason that – as Weber blithely intuits here without perhaps realizing the full implications of what he is writing – it was the State in the first place that effected the “separation” of soldiers from their means of operation, and the State that enabled a class of capitalists “to separate” the workers from the means of production! Indeed, Weber may well have argued here that it was some of the workers themselves who rose from the ranks of artisanry to become accumulators of capital thereby “separating” or “expropriating” their erstwhile fellow workers and huddling them into factories!


Weber does make this last point in the Vorbermerkungen, quoted later here [Maurice Dobb makes it a central plank of his Studies in the Development of Capitalism]. In Politik als Beruf, he is even more explicit about the first point:


Everywhere the development of the modern state is initiated through

the action of the prince. He paves the way for the expropriation of the

autonomous and 'private' bearers of executive power who stand beside

him, of those who in their own right possess the means of administration,

warfare, and financial organization, as well as politically usable goods of

all sorts. The whole process is a complete parallel to the development

of the capitalist enterprise through gradual expropriation of the independent

producers. In the end, the modern state controls the total means

of political organization, which actually come together under a single

head. No single official personally owns the money he pays out, or the

buildings, stores, tools, and war machines he controls. In the contemporary

'state' — and this is essential for the concept of state - the 'separation'

of the administrative staff, of the administrative officials, and of the

workers from the material means of administrative organization is completed.

Here the most modern development begins, and we see with our

own eyes the attempt to inaugurate the expropriation of this expropriator

of the political means, and therewith of political power. (‘PaB’, p.82).


Lukacs, who quotes and discusses some of these passages from Weber (at pp.95-6 of Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein), can only lament further on [at p.103] that “[t]he specialisation of skills leads to the destruction of every image of the whole”. Totally lost to him are the far-reaching political implications of Weber’s observations about the role of the State administration in Western Europe after the Great Crisis of the early seventeenth century in the development of capitalist industry (a topic closely canvassed in M. Tronti et alii, Stato e Rivoluzione in Inghilterra). Nor can it be doubted that this deficiency has its roots in Marx’s own insistence on the “superstructural” role of the State as against the “determinant” role of “the social relations of production”. Evidently, somewhere along the line, Marx lost sight of the fact that there is no such thing as a “capitalist economy” or an “Economics” with a “market” functioning according to an objectively definable “Law of Value” that can be abstracted from Politics – and that indeed “the State” is part and parcel of those “social relations of production”, as we are seeking to demonstrate with this study (on Marx’s theory of the State, cf. N. Bobbio, “Marx e lo Stato” in Bobbio et al. Dizionario di Politica).


But yet again Weber assumes that the nature and substance of the “labor” that goes into production can be aggregated into a homogeneous mass and be “divided” into “separate individual labors” subject to the rational discipline of the factory for the maximization of industrial production and ultimately profit. Weber fails to theorize and to specify what the “content”, the historical “substance”, of this entity called “labor” is: he continues to skirt the edges of the question, describing the rise of “the bureaucratic state” as a “‘progress’ toward rationally devised regulations [which] stands in the closest relation to the development of modern capitalism”. We are still none the wiser as to the “content” of this “rationality” and, in causal regressus, of bureaucracy, of socialization, and then of concentration of both the means of production and operation.


The main inner foundation of the modern capitalist business is calculation. In order

to exist, it requires a system of justice and administration which in


principle at any rate, function in a rationally calculable manner according to stable,

general norms just as one calculates the predictable performance of a machine.


The fact of the matter is that “calculation”, however “rational”, is not and can never be more than a “mathematical” or logical form of behaviour. But it is as clear as daylight that “behaviour” itself can never be “rationally calculable” unless it first assumes a “content”, a substantive purpose that is capable of being calculated, that makes this behaviour “calculable”! For it is simply impossible to calculate or to rationalize the “incalculable” or the “irrational”! Mathematics and logic all by themselves are mere “form”: they cannot be “applied” to human behaviour and “functions” unless these are first reduced to operations or tasks that can be “meaningfully quantified”! But such “quantification” cannot be in and of itself “calculable and rational” precisely because it is the “pre-condition” of the “mathesis”, of the “Rationalisierung” that Weber says is “the inner foundation of modern capitalist business” and of “the modern state apparatus” that make them both akin to (but not “identical with”!) “the predictable performance of a machine”. The entire sociological meaning of the Rationalisierung, then, hinges on its being a certain “practical conduct” whose content is exquisitely political and can never be reduced to “science” whilst its form can be made “rationally calculable” within broad parameters of that “practical conduct”. (We have examined in our Nietzschebuch the far-reaching consequences of these Nietzschean insights on the entire logico-mathematical foundations of Western “values”.)


We need to go further, to dig deeper and find out what are the “stable, general norms” that allow such “predictable performance”.


Bureaucracy is certainly far from being the only modern form of organisation,

just as the factory is far from being the only form in which manufacture can be

conducted. But these are the two forms which have put their stamp on the present

age and the foreseeable future. The future belongs to bureaucratization…

Compared with all these older forms, modern bureaucracy is distinguished by a

characteristic which makes its inescapability much more absolute than theirs,

namely rational, technical specialisation and training. (156)


Yet, specialization and training may well make the “inescapability” of bureaucracy “much more absolute” than previous forms of organization; they certainly cannot account for it in the first place.


But wherever the trained, specialised, modern official has once begun to rule,

his power is absolutely unbreakable, because the entire organisation of providing

even the most basic needs in life [Organisation der elementarsten Lebensversorgung] then depends on his performance of his duties.


In other words, what makes “the power of the modern official and of bureaucracy absolutely unbreakable” is the fact that “the entire organization of providing even the most basic needs in life then depends on the performance of his duties”. At last, we are now able to join the dots of Weber’s circuitous definitions to conclude that the “socialization” on which bureaucracy rests depends in turn on the “concentration” of the means of production and operation of society itself that are “organized” in such a manner that “even the most basic needs in social life” depend on the rational, technical specialization and training of modern bureaucracy and, a fortiori, of modern capitalism on which it is founded or at least “stands in closest relation”.

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