A brief observation about Max Weber (hottest of takes) — July 29, 2018

A brief observation about Max Weber (hottest of takes)

There’s a weird disconnect between the most widely read of Max Weber’s works, and what I understand to be the most influential. Granted that I’m not a professional sociologist, but most of what I see cited among Weber’s works are “Politics as a Vocation,” containing Weber’s famous definition of a state as a human community claiming a monopoly over legitimate violence in a defined area; and “Bureaucracy,” which contains Weber’s description of the modern civil service and contrasts it with older forms of government where people claim office through, for instance, family relationships. (By the way, I’m not sure if I ever endorsed Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. They take those two essays of Weber’s as their starting point, and they’re really exceptional books—the first more than the second.)

All of which is to say that the works of Weber’s that people still care about are those which map out the functioning of modern government in industrial democracies, whereas the main work of Weber’s that everyone is expected to know is The Protestant Ethic. The thing about The Protestant Ethic is that it’s not very good. At best it feels like an observation about a historical curiosity: this particular thing (the Industrial Revolution) happened in these specific societies (Protestant ones), but not in these others (Catholic ones, or in Asia) during this specific window of time (the early 1800s). So what? Other nations (Japan and South Korea, say) have also industrialized, with vastly different backgrounds. Protestant Ethic has some things going for it, among them that it contrasts the intentions of the individual actors with the aggregate outcome of their behaviors: early-modern Protestants practiced thrift and worked hard for religious reasons, and as an unintended side effect they produced the Industrial Revolution. Even if the substance of the argument is wrong, there’s some value in that way of thinking—the same way we often hear that even if Freud is wrong, it was still novel to discover a subconscious. On the other hand, Adam “Invisible Hand” Smith was already contrasting the intentions of the actors with their aggregate outcomes, so this alone wouldn’t be novel in The Protestant Ethic.

In any case, my sense is that Weber’s real long-lasting impact comes from his mapping the structure of modern bureaucratized industrial democracies, not from a (seems to me) rather fanciful story about the origins of the Industrial Revolution. Yet when I told a friend recently that I was reading the classic sociologists, including Weber, but that I was specifically not reading the Protestant Ethic (having read it previously), he arched his eyebrow and gave me a funny look. My hunch is that sociologists would support my approach.

Something similar, it seems to me, is the case with Kafka: the word “Kafkaesque” is normally used to describe interactions with a faceless nightmare state, because the Kafka that people are thinking of there is his story “The Trial”. But the only Kafka that people are assigned in school is “The Metamorphosis”. I wonder how often this sort of mismatch between popularity and import happens.

Where to start reading Max Weber? — December 12, 2015

Where to start reading Max Weber?

This is a quick question. I read The Protestant Ethic a while ago, and found it very uninteresting. But everyone says that Weber is one of the founders of sociology. Francis Fukuyama’s most recent two books are entirely framed around Weber — specifically, that governments have reached their ideal form when they evolve out of clientelistic, patronage-based rule into professional, bureaucratized, meritocratic administration. As I recall, Fukuyama gave many hat tips to Weber’s Economy and Society; it seems to be Weber’s summa.

However, starting with Economy and Society wasn’t the right way to go. It’s a massive two-volume work, and I recall that it was actually lecture notes assembled by his students; it very much seems to be sociology for sociologists.

So my big-picture question is: how would you recommend that I get into Weber, assuming that he’s worth getting into? I hope the professional sociologists in the room don’t think that my dismissal of The Protestant Ethic is heresy; I’d be surprised if they did, so consequently I’d be surprised if they thought that that book was the proper entrée into Weber’s work.

So what is the right entry point? I am perfectly willing to read multiple books, if that’s what needs doing, and if the payoff justifies the investment. And of course, if the right answer is to start with secondary works — or to read secondary works in parallel with the primary works — I can absolutely do that.

(Those of you who think that the correct answer is “take a class” are probably right. However, my employer is not likely to pay for me to enroll in a sociology class. Hence: to the library we go.)

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — January 18, 2014

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Having now finished this book, I don’t entirely get what the big deal is. The argument runs as follows:

  1. There is a certain spirit that is vital to the life of capitalist societies. It is, roughly speaking, the spirit of the (idealized) Ben Franklin: work for its own sake, working for a calling, diligently saving, etc. It’s this spirit that Weber proposes to trace to its roots. He is explicitly not trying to chase down the origins of business, of industrial production, etc; as he notes, these have all existed in other times and places.
  2. This spirit comes from Calvinism specifically, less so from Lutheranism, and still less from Catholicism. Specifically, Calvin and his heirs transmuted Catholic monastic asceticism into a “worldly asceticism”. That is, rather than prove your devotion to God through quiet scholarly contemplation while holed up in a monastery, you proved that devotion by steady work toward a calling.
  3. Whereas Catholicism enables you to sin on Monday and be forgiven for it on Sunday, thereby leaving you free to sin again the next day, Calvinism requires a life that consistently and strategically aims at the greater glory of God. A Calvinist life is more totalizing, one might say, that Catholicism. It is thereby more in line with the requirements of capitalist life, where businessmen make plans that aim at the rational maximization of profit.

I think there’s an “only if” hidden in here that Weber doesn’t argue, but which would seem vital to the whole project. If the story is simply that “Protestantism carries with it a certain rationalizing spirit, and it also happens that capitalism requires this spirit,” then that would seem to be either a) confusing correlation with causation, or b) a nice coincidence that makes a fun story, nothing more. If there’s no “only if” here — if Weber isn’t telling us that capitalism requires Protestantism of a certain sort — then the story isn’t so interesting. Yes, these two strands of Western civilization sat comfortably alongside one another, but what of it?

To argue the only-if, Weber would have to show that non-Protestant societies simply lacked a fundamental piece, and that they would always be lacking an important piece of the capitalist spirit. Because again: suppose it happens that Confucian societies either a) develop the spirit that Weber calls classically Protestant, or b) don’t develop the Protestant spirit, but go on to successfully build capitalist societies. Then what happens to Weber’s story? I submit that it becomes much less interesting; it becomes a story of two developments — Calvinism and capitalism — that happened at the same time. Which is just not all that world-historically interesting a coincidence.

I could be missing something important here, but I don’t think I am. Much of [book: The Protestant Ethic] is devoted to spinning out this historical tale, so that the story from about Luther’s time to that of Franklin comes through with no gaps. But that just doesn’t seem so interesting to me. Its lack of interest reminds me a lot of Clark’s [book: A Farewell to Alms], which tries to argue that the Industrial Revolution began in England when it did because the English had genetically (sic) developed the bourgeois virtues (saving, breeding less) under ruthless selection pressure. Even granting this facially absurd premise, what of it? Does it mean that when Korea industrialized in the 1970s, it had also attained genetic superiority? If not, then, again, Clark is just telling us a nice story with no relevance beyond its time. That seems to be where Weber has left us.