Can Europe Make It?: Feature

Max Weber on authoritarianism: real problems, false solutions

What can the Weimar period tell us about the present?

Samir Gandesha
27 October 2021, 12.19pm
Max Weber (right) and family, 1888
Wikicommons. Some rights reserved

Better to die by the hand of God than by an artificial vaccine

Slogan seen at an anti-vaccination protest in Vancouver, Canada

The global emergence of authoritarianism has, unsurprisingly, provoked analogies with the Weimar period. Yet caution must be exercised when reasoning by historical analogy. Capitalism has always embodied a sacrificial logic, and the deepening of such logic lies at the heart of its redoubled authoritarian potential today. But how are we to understand the logic of new forms of polarization based on the contradictions produced by neoliberal globalization? While we ought not so easily to be swayed by analogical reasoning, the European interwar period might yet hold some unexpected lessons for us today.

Accordingly, it is worthwhile turning to German sociologist, Max Weber’s account of rationalization and the responses to this phenomenon by thinkers of the German ‘conservative revolution’. Weber and his critical interlocutors can help us to grasp some of the key dimensions of the contemporary contradictions of globalizing neoliberalism, and the political polarization generated in its wake with the waning of a politics grounded in critical analysis of capital, class, and social totality.

Neoliberalism exacerbates the rationalization tendencies of capitalist modernization through heightened processes of institutional and ideological abstraction. This means the unceasing subordination of qualitative human needs and aspirations to the quantitative values of the logic of the market and dynamics of capital accumulation.

Such processes come under pressure in moments of crisis, giving rise to a fragmentation of the universalism that had historically underwritten the struggle for socialism, leading to aspirations to what could be called a ‘false concreteness’ centered on a form of identity on both the contemporary Right as well as the Left.

Each of these forms of false concreteness eschews universalism, and have thus contributed to the crippling polarizations of our times. On the right, this has taken the form of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. On the left, identity politics, far from challenging the neoliberal consensus, only reinforces its iron grip. In these ways, neoliberalism’s deepening of the increasingly abstract nature of social life under capitalism redoubles tendencies towards re-enchantment as a way of providing false solutions to real problems. This becomes clear in the anti-vaxx slogan that serves as the epigraph to this article. The choice appears to be one between a meaningful and a meaningless death.

The modern crisis of meaning

In his famous lectures ‘Politics as a Vocation,’ and ‘Science as a Vocation,’ delivered at the University of Munich in the midst of the ill-fated German Revolution, Max Weber sums up certain key themes of his research agenda. The most important of these are: the distinction between the value-relevance of politics versus value-neutrality of teaching and scientific research, the processes of intellectualization or rationalization and disenchantment, the relationship between the different spheres of value that were once closely integrated, namely: science, morality and art, but are now separate from each other and occasionally conflicting.

It is precisely such a differentiation of value spheres, in Weber’s view, that produces the modern crisis of meaning. Weber understood this in connection with Tolstoy’s novella The death of Ivan Ilyich, as the opposition between being satiated by life versus feeling tired of it, as the essential difference between a traditional society which still permitted access to concrete or immediate sources of meaning and an increasingly abstract and anonymous modernity based on an idea of progress that, nonetheless, culminates in a stultifying “iron cage.” As Weber puts it in his great study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which could be read as a direct commentary on our own neo-liberal order: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”

The choice appears to be one between a meaningful and a meaningless death.

In the very year that Weber's lectures were published, Carl Schmitt came out with a book in which he takes direct aim at what he calls Political Romanticism. Schmitt's political and legal theory as a whole, The Concept of the Political in particular, responds to Weber's articulation of the crisis of political meaning that results not just from the domination of science and technology but more generally the process of formalization of reason within that novel structure of authority that, according to Weber’s typology, displaces both charismatic and traditional forms: namely, legal-rational authority. The authority of government is simply an outcome of correct procedures and rules.

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt attacks the bourgeois liberal-parliamentary conception of politics as based on empty and inconsequential discussion and compromise and defends a form of political existentialism, which responds directly to the crisis of authority. With such a conception, Schmitt infamously defines what he calls ‘the political’ or the essence of politics as the ‘moment at which the enemy comes into view as such;’ the latter ‘threatens our entire way of life.’ Schmitt would go on to join the Nazi Party and become its Crown jurist, preparing the legal ground for Gleichschaltung (the total coordination of the state).

This month and next, splinters are taken from the author’s chapter forthcoming in
Socialist Register 2022 New Polarizations, Old Contradictions: The Crisis
of Centrism
, edited by Greg Albo and Colin Leys (Winnipeg: Fernwood press). This piece was originally published in the October edition of Splinters.

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