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September 8, 2005

Max Weber Speak, You Listen
Posted by Patrick at 10:02 PM * 13 comments

Nathan Newman clues us in:

As I’m coincidentally preparing readings for a class on government and bureaucracies, I came across this piece by Max Weber, the early 20th century sociologist, who outlined what was needed for a well-functioning bureaucracy.
Office Holding is a Vocation: That is the office is a vocation finds expression, first, in the requirement of a prescribed course of training…Furthermore, it finds expression in that the position of the official is in the nature of a “duty”…Entrance into an office, including one in the private economy, is considered an acceptable of a specific duty of fealty to the purpose of the office in return for the grant of a secure existence. It is decisvie for the modern loyalty to an office that, in the pure type, it does not establish a relationship to a person, like the vassal’s or disciple’s faith under feudal or patrimonial authority, but rather is devoted to impersonal and functional purposes…The political official—at least in the fully developed modern state — is not considered the personal servant of a ruler.
Guess what was lacking at FEMA, with its untrained hacks acting not with duty to their office, but as vassals to Bush’s political needs?

The story of Katrina is not of individual incompetence but a more fundamental breakdown in the operations of our nation’s civil service. Step by step, Bush has been dismantling every rule and every law that they can that would ensure loyalty by government employees to the public, rather than to the political needs of the incumbent. From the destruction of union rights in [the Department of] Homeland Security to the privatization of services to allied political cronies, a Katrina disaster became inevitable.

Weber describes what a functioning “modern developed state” looks like. If Katrina made our response look like a third world nation, it’s because while our technology and wealth may be the top in the world, our political institutions are sinking back into feudalism.

Even that’s giving them too much credit, though. Feudalism entailed the idea that rulers had obligations to the ruled. What we’re “sinking back into” is barbarism, plain and simple: unmediated Might Makes Right.

Comments on Max Weber Speak, You Listen:
#1 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 10:28 PM:

I am reminded of the bread riots that began the French Revolution. A large number of starving workers went to Versailles because they thought the king didn't know about the punitively high price of bread. They wanted to tell him so that he could fix things. Instead, he saw them as a threatening mob, and ordered his troops to get rid of them.

Not that I'm trying to draw any parallels, you understand.

#2 ::: Sarah Pearson ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 10:42 PM:

It's occurred to me a number of times during the last two weeks that as much as I agree with those calling for the heads of the leaders of state, I am just as guilty as said leaders.

I don't get involved.

How many of the people who are angry at the government right now would ever run for office? How many would actually consider a career as a politician? How many might want to work for the government as a public servant for their entire career? Who would like to be a mid-level administrative manager?

Obviously, not me. It doesn't interest me, and I don't think it makes a good match. I've volunteered at organizations before, and I've tried to make a difference - sometimes it worked out, sometimes not. But how many kindergarteners in class today are saying to themselves: I want to be a administrator for the Department of Defense someday.

I'm thinking not so many.

In no way does this excuse this catastrophe. But if we want to make it work the next time, we need to be in the same room as those making the plans.

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 10:56 PM:

Even those who might consider running for office turn away from it, when it means having your private as well as public life scrutinized for any possible scandal of even the smallest kind, possibly even opponents having one invented, just to prevent you winning. Who would want to live in a glass house, where people throw stone just for the sake of throwing them?

#4 ::: Saucyworchester ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 10:58 PM:

I thought it was the high taxes on salt that started the French revolution?

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 11:17 PM:

There are plenty of ways to do meaningful political work other than running for office.

#6 ::: Henry ::: (view all by) ::: September 08, 2005, 11:45 PM:

Weber's essay on Politics as a Vocation makes it clear that journalism of a certain kind is an important form of politics.

Since the time of the constitutional state, and definitely since democracy has been established, the 'demagogue' has been the typical political leader in the Occident. The distasteful flavor of the word must not make us forget that not Cleon but Pericles was the first to bear the name of demagogue. In contrast to the offices of ancient democracy that were filled by lot, Pericles led the sovereign Ecclesia of the demos of Athens as a supreme strategist holding the only elective office or without holding any office at all. Modern demagoguery also makes use of oratory, even to a tremendous extent, if one considers the election speeches a modern candidate has to deliver. But the use of the printed word is more enduring. The political publicist, and above all the journalist, is nowadays the most important representative of the demagogic species.

Plenty of sharp, tough observations in there amid the sociologese. This seems apposite for Sarah and for all of us during these grim days.

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth--that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.
#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 12:28 AM:

Holy crap. Not only does that last go into our commonplaces, but obviously I now have to go actually read someone I thought I was going to get away with bluffing about.

I hate it when that happens.

#8 ::: Simstim ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 04:25 AM:

If you're going to read Weber, then the sister essay/lecture "Science as a Vocation" is also well worth a look, although one thing to bear in mind is that wissenschaft has a broader sense than just "natural science".

#9 ::: Henry ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 09:13 AM:

Now it's not all as good as that. The teacher who got me hooked on Weber described his work as "vast swathes of sociological stodge, shot through with occasional flashes of Nietzschian brilliance." While I've come to appreciate the sociological stodge too, there is an amount of it that you have to wade through to get to the political wisdom. But when it's good, it's really good. Weber was a strange kind of liberal (with some quite anti-liberal views), but his view of politics as an irresolvable conflict, and his particular take on political heroism are extraordinary and wonderful. He has the number of the neo-cons down cold. Claiming that you're doing everything for a worthwhile ultimate end (promoting democracy worldwide for the neocons) is worth nothing, nothing, unless you're prepared to accept the difficulty and compromises of politics. In the end, it's a kind of quite fundamental dishonesty. Real political heroism isn't cheap rhetoric or the embrace of lofty positions; it's the painstaking, unflashy work of reconciling your ultimate ends, worthwhile as they may be, with a world which isn't suited for grand abstract projects.

As Simstim says, his essay on science as a vocation (also available online) is well worth reading too. Advice for people like me, who are teaching the social sciences, that if we fail to recognize that part of our duty is to recognize the truths that are uncomfortable for our political position, we're failing in our vocation.

#10 ::: Mrs. Coulter ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 09:26 AM:

Actually, in the context of Weber, it seems better to describe the Bush administration as a form of charismatic authority rather than either traditional (feudal) or rational-legal. Authority is not primarily derived from the charisma of tradition, but rather direct personal loyalty to George W. Bush. Of course, true ideal types never obtain in the real world, so there are definite elements of traditional authority (his daddy was president, after all).

Weber rocks. Everyone should read him in copious quantity.

#11 ::: sars ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2005, 11:46 AM:

Weber also distinguishes what he calls predatory capitalism from other kinds of capitalism.

Think the colonial conquests, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, saying "Greed is good," or the executives of Enron. More passively, the anti-tax Republicans and libertarians, Grover Norquist and the Randites, the defenders of repealing the estate tax.

#12 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2005, 01:42 PM:

Claiming that you're doing everything for a worthwhile ultimate end ... is worth nothing, nothing, unless you're prepared to accept the difficulty and compromises of politics. In the end, it's a kind of quite fundamental dishonesty.

Going with recent comments on other threads -- the above is a wonderful answer to Naderites.

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2009, 07:52 PM:

Since there were no links, I figure we're dealing with drive by cluelessness.

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