Max Weber Today

Wendy Brown’s Nihilistic Times

Max Weber is the thinker of modernity par excellence.

Too complicated for Germans. Berlin, 2021.

He was a theorist of science unwilling to elide the fundamental distinctions between facts and values, a perceptive analyst of the role of bureaucracy who also theorised the power of charisma to destabilise and remake political orders, and a believer in responsible politics in a world that no longer produced men capable of political judgment.

Early takes on Weber’s politics characterised him as an unwavering German nationalist.  Since the 1960s, the intersection of his ethical views and politics has overtaken most studies of his work.

The opening salvo came with Wolfgang Mommsen’s Max Weber und die deutsche Politik (1959), but the relevant issues came more clearly into view at a German Sociological Society (DGS) special conference in 1964 held to mark the centenary of Weber’s birth.

Discussing a paper entitled “Value Freedom and Objectivity” delivered by the eminent American sociologist Talcott Parsons, the young Frankfurt School scholar Jürgen Habermas offered a particularly pointed critique.

Americans could celebrate Weber’s “liberalism”, but the sociologist’s “national-state imperialism” had somewhat different implications in the context of twentieth-century German history.

“If we are to judge Weber here and now, we cannot overlook the fact that Carl Schmitt was a ‘legitimate pupil’ of Max Weber,” wrote Habermas.

DGS meetings in the postwar decades were often fractious affairs, but this took matters to a new level.

Max Weber was a revered figure in both Germany in the United States. In the hands of Parsons, responsible for making his work known to the English-speaking world, Weber was the doyen of value-free social science in the politically conflicted era of the high cold war.

Comparing Weber to Carl Schmitt was some epic-level shade. Schmitt was a representative of the extreme right, a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, and an unrepentant Antisemite.

Beginning in the 1920s, he had been among the most trenchant critics of parliamentary democracy.

Making Schmitt a ‘legitimate pupil’ of Weber was tantamount to saddling Weber with partial responsibility for the rise of Nazism.

Cooler heads prevailed, both at the time and in subsequent years.

In the 1980s, scholars such as Wolfgang Schluchter, Wilhelm Hennis, David Beetham, and Robert Eden developed more complex and nuanced interpretations of Weber’s occasional writings.

Weber never published a complete and distinct statement of his political views.

What exists had to be read from books such as 1905’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his journalistic writings, and a number of speeches spanning the decades of his career.

Of these, the most significant were two talks delivered in Munich in late 1917 and early 1919, respectively.

In the first, “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (translated as “Science as a Vocation”,) Weber discussed the connection between science and ethics.

In the later talk, “Politik als Beruf” (“Politics as a Vocation”,) Weber laid out the clearest statement of his views on politics in an era of value relativism.

In her Tanner Lectures, delivered at Yale in 2019, political theorist Wendy Brown undertook a close reading of these two talks as the basis for creating a Weberian account of modern politics.

The lectures, recently published under the title Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber, feature the type of close reading that typifies Brown’s engagement with other thinkers (for instance, her incisive reading of Michel Foucault in 2017’s Undoing the Demos).

Given the paucity of explicitly political writings and Brown’s candid admission that she is not a Weber scholar, these two talks are an apt choice. They were among the last works Weber composed before dying of complications from influenza in June 1920.

In addition to being clear statements of principle, the two articles touch on most of the major themes that animated Weber’s larger project.

Weber’s talks took place at a time of political turmoil.

In November 1918, WWI ended, and socialists overthrew the Bavarian Wittelsbach monarchy.

In February 1919, only weeks after the second of Weber’s lectures, young nobleman (and member of the far-right Thule Society) Anton Graf von Arco auf der Valley assassinated the socialist Premier Kurt Eisner.

Sentenced to death, Arco was spared after demonstrations by students and others on the far right in support of him.

Weber reportedly told the students that although he sympathised with their attitude toward Arco, “I would have had him shot. Political murder will become epidemic.”

As Brown makes clear, Weber’s lectures were virtuoso expressions of his complex understanding of how facts and values interacted in modernity.

Max Weber’s work touched on that of Nietzsche. Both thought that secularisation defined the modern condition.

While Weber was not inclined to talk of the death of God, as Nietzsche was wont to do, it was clear by 1895 that he viewed transcendence as a thing of the past.

Although Brown sees Weber as having identified some key factors in the modern condition, she is critical of his failure to systematically bridge the moat he built between truth and power.

For Wendy Brown, failing that “deepened the prospects for someone else, namely irresponsible demagogues crassly preying on popular fears, suffering, wounded supremacism, and scapegoating, themselves unchecked by accountability to facts, law, constitutions, humanity, or ecosystems”.

Brown is not wrong. However, another reading of Weber’s politics is possible, assuming one is willing to look at other writings.

At the most general level is the broader issue of what is called Weber’s “central question”.

Weber’s concern was the failure of the modern West to produce people with the capacity for complex political thinking.

Humans of an earlier age were capable of a kind of ethical thought that their descendants are not.

In The Protestant Ethic, Weber looked back to the ethical life of Puritanism and its economic and political outgrowths to see an ideal.

Its time passed, and it was replaced by a coarse rationalism that trapped modern man in a casing as hard as steel.

When The Protestant Ethic was composed, Weber was pessimistic.

The civilisation most likely to arise comprised of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity never before achieved”.

Given the negativity of this statement, it is interesting to find that in some of his journalistic efforts composed during the First World War, Weber took a more pragmatic, if not precisely optimistic, view.

In “Suffrage and Democracy in Germany” (1917) and “Parliament and Government Germany under a New Political Order” (1918), two long essays written late in WWI, Max Weber tried to come to terms with what political life might look like in Germany after the end of the war.

These are long essays that resist simple summaries. They differ from Weber’s programmatic vocation talks in that they take a more matter-of-fact approach to how parliamentary systems function and how this might influence German politics.

Here too, we find an antidote to the claim of kinship between Weber and Schmitt.

As discussed at the start of this article, Carl Schmitt viewed parliamentary democracy as a muddle. Weber, by contrast, viewed parliaments as a salutary part of politics.

Given that there is no objective basis on which to decide policies and that there is a wide range of outlooks within society, parliaments provide an institutional space to create social stability.

Even in the last years of WWI, Weber could foresee profound changes that would come to Germany, whatever its outcome. Not the least of these would be the return of millions of men from military service who could no longer be denied a say in politics.

Given that unavoidable situation, the only thing to do was to create institutions to contain conflict. Reconciling worldviews would be critical.

In an 1895 work often cited as proof of Weber’s nationalism, we find the following passage:

As an explanatory and analytic science, political economy is international, but as soon as it makes value judgments, it is tied to the particular strain of humankind we find within our own nature. Often these ties are strongest precisely when we think we have escaped our own political limitations most completely.

Indeed, our cultural traditions are inescapable, and unresolvable conflicts between them characterised the modern era. Postmodernity has been the era in which Weber’s institutions finally gave way.

Such concerns are mostly absent from the work of Weber that Wendy Brown’s book focuses on. Her engagement with it links them profitably to contemporary politics instead.

But viewed without Weber’s account of political institutions, Nihilistic Thinking lacks the practical element that brings us nearer to solutions than the profound problems we face today.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.