I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.
Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).
I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.
To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.
First, in terms of parochialism: without some historical context, it might seem difficult to make sense of why Weber is covering the topics he covers. The lecture often resembles a desultory survey of various political jobs a person could hold in various Western countries a century ago. Based on some secondary reading, I found it was useful to think of the lecture as Weber’s response to what he perceived as the fatal decline of the German political order after the end of its stewardship by Otto von Bismarck in the 1870s and 1880s. In essence, Weber apparently looked back to the political order overseen by Bismarck as a high-water mark resulting from Bismarck’s exceptional personal qualities as a leader. Weber also strikes German nationalist notes in the lecture. I assume he found the defeat of Germany in the war disheartening, and placed blame on the country’s inadequate leadership after Bismarck.
Starting from this unstated background, Weber appears to have arrived at a view of politics in which the personal qualities of leaders are paramount — a necessary condition for a well-functioning political order, yet one that is often lacking. The final, rhetorically heightened sections of “Politics as a Vocation” grapple with the kind of character that a true political leader needs: “One can say that three pre-eminent qualities are decisive for the politician: passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.” In particular, Weber distinguishes the “ethic of ultimate ends” that is appropriate to, for example, a religious figure who can disregard the consequences of her choices (concluding, for example, “The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord”), from the “ethic of responsibility” appropriate to a political leader, who must consider and take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of her decisions and actions.
Without going into the details of Weber’s presentation — I am making no attempt to be anything other than shallow here — there is certainly something valuable in an academic theorist taking what might be called a morally serious perspective on political matters, as opposed to the recklessness that characterizes so much intellectual engagement with politics. (Foucault praising Ayatollah Khomeini, “Maoists” from Sartre to Badiou, and on and on…) Part of being morally serious about politics may mean thinking seriously about how political leadership works, including thinking through the challenges and limitations faced by historically situated, institutionally constrained actors who do not have the spectator’s luxury of not making a decision.
On the other hand, by treating the ethical attitudes of political leaders as so profoundly consequential, the lecture bears an unfortunate resemblance to the kind of great-leader character-obsession that often fills newspaper Op-Ed. pages and televised political commentary. I’m thinking, for example, of a routine genre of opinion-piece — less common today, but routine from the 1990s through the early 2010s, for example in the New York Times Op-Ed.s of Thomas Friedman and David Brooks — that ignored constitutional and other institutional structures, and instead chastised various political leaders for not being more cooperative or otherwise personally virtuous, as though these personal failings, and not structural failings of our democracy, were the reasons for partisanship, gridlock, and policy failures.
This personality-focused perspective on politics contrasts with the tradition of institutionally focused political thought associated with, for example, James Madison, and currently practiced by many legal scholars and political theorists such as Jeremy Waldron, in which it is assumed that leaders (and everyone else) will be anything but angels, and one of the primary goals of political theorizing is to design institutional structures that promote good behavior, or, barring that, at least good outcomes, regardless of the idiosyncratic personalities of individual actors. In his apparent faith in the causal importance of the personalities of leaders, Weber sometimes sounds almost like an early Frank Bruni — although that may go too far, because at least Weber is focused on evaluating the ethics of political leaders, versus the aesthetics of their political-dramatic performances, the latter being Bruni’s (particularly counterproductive) specialty.
If Weber looked at the United States today, for example, he would presumably criticize the extraordinary character flaws and incapacities of President Trump, and perhaps also those of various Congressional leaders — and stop there, lamenting that our leaders are so disappointing. But this, of course, would distract from the deeper, more important, and more potentially productive questions regarding our politics: How did this spectacularly unqualified demagogue come to be elected? How did his congressional Republican enablers come to be where they are, and why do they continue to support him? Why do Trump’s supporters support him? (My latest thoughts in response to these questions would focus on what Jack Balkin calls constitutional rot, with an emphasis on our new-Gilded-Age oligarchy, as well as the enormous significance of Fox News and other right-wing media in contemporary American democracy.) Weber has virtually nothing to contribute, at least in “Politics as a Vocation,” regarding the analogous structural, institutional, legal, economic, cultural, etc., questions he might have raised about the conditions that shaped the identities and choices of German officials after Bismarck, and the outcomes resulting from their actions. If the problems in a state are structural rather than a feature of the personalities of individual leaders, then removing an individual from office will not solve the problems.
Perhaps Weber provides a less individualistic, personality-focused account of politics in general elsewhere, possibly in Economy & Society — after all, “Politics as a Vocation” announces its narrow focus on its title subject at the outset — but if so, then it is remarkable how little of a hint of that alternative, institutionally focused view he provides in this lecture, even where it would seem to be highly relevant to do so. At least one writer suggests that Economy & Society maintains a focus similar to the one I found in “Politics as a Vocation,” ultimately concerning itself not with the structural aspects of a political order such as political and economic institutions, but with the charisma of political leaders, the “never-ending struggle of charisma … with the routinizing forces of bureaucratization and routinization.” It is clear that in Economy & Society, Weber developed a historically informed typology of forms of rule and administration, and that elsewhere he also defended concrete, practical views regarding contemporary constitutional design. Even against this background, however, the claims in “Politics as a Vocation” seem to place an unjustified causal weight on the individual ethical attitudes of political leaders.
Second, the dangerously misguided aspect of the lecture proceeds from the parochial aspect: by placing all of his faith in the potential of a leader with the right political virtues to arise as a kind of savior for the state, Weber obviously fails to foresee the dangers of charismatic political leader-worship and power-concentration — dangers that, needless to say, would soon materialize in Germany and elsewhere. He casually dismisses the viability of anything resembling grassroots democracy or parliamentary deliberation and seems to look favorably on the efficacy of political machines such as Tammany Hall, in which a leader mechanically controls the votes of a blindly obedient mass following. Weber writes, for example: “there is only the choice between leadership democracy with a ‘machine’ and leaderless democracy, namely, the rule of professional politicians without a calling… For the time being,” he laments, “we in Germany have only the latter.”
Apparently the future Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt was in the audience for Weber’s lecture, and was influenced by Weber’s intertwining of the concept of the state and the use of force. He presumably also found sympathetic Weber’s contempt for parliamentary deliberation, and his emphasis on the importance of “genuine leadership” — the kind of leadership that Schmitt would praise in his defense of dictatorship.
As a modern, age-of-democracy “mirror for princes,” “Politics as a Vocation” has some value. But as a political theory, its weaknesses seem to illustrate the wisdom of what Hans Sluga calls a “diagnostic” approach to political theorizing: an approach that attempts to recognize one’s own historical condition, the practical problems inevitably driving one’s inquiry, and the limits of perspective that these factors impose.