Saturday, 23 November 2013

Disenchantment: Weber's Postscript to Modernity

Weber is a great proponent of the importance of beliefs and ideas, and more generally of culture, in shaping our history. What is the culture of modernity? It is impersonal and utilitarian: the pursuit of pre-given ends which are taken to be self-evident. Reason, instead of founding our values, is used instrumentally to maximize, accumulate and attain pre-given values. That is to say that reason is not allowed to ask the right questions, but is devoted solely to actions and answers. This process, legitimized by a philosophy of progress, is increasingly specialized and institutionalized, but the ideal never seems to live up to its imagined promise and the results never satisfy. In the face of existential crisis of “what is the purpose of success?”, the advice is “check your bank account!”. Money becomes the substitute that man has created for his unattainable desire.

The fruition of this ideal of efficiency in politics is the bureaucratic state whose perfection is order. In the name of order, the state imposes a whole tapestry of rights, rules, duties, and in short expert knowledge, so as to make itself militarily strong and financially wealthy whilst also theoretically proffering the aim of maximizing health, wealth, education and well-being of those whom it regards as its citizens. The result of this seemingly admirable pursuit of excellence is that ultimate meanings are lost. Values are reduced to calculation and become disenchanted, or to use Nietzsche’s term devalued. Weber agrees with Nietzsche that the highest values devalue themselves. His response is resigned resistance: “what can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parcelling-out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life?” The bureaucratic way of life is supreme because it is disciplined and reliable, and so predictable and efficient. It saves time and money, but it can never answer the question: “How best to use the time and money that we save?”

While the founding premise of capitalism is that greed is an irresistible facet of human nature, the capitalist promise is basically enjoyment. The imperative is to enjoy the surplus and so sustain the system, or at least to take satisfaction from the expectation of enjoyment. This expectation continues to circulate freely as our investment in the financial system, as well as in the legal system that founds it, whilst always susceptible to the risk of withering away through calamity, taxes or simply inflation. But this enjoyment is not an ultimate value! It can only be cashed in by consumption, and the socially acceptable forms of consumption, while incredibly diverse, are also highly regulated. Our ends, like society’s values, have become pre-given. Capitalist man has been tricked into being a consumer instead of a creator, and even when he creates, he creates to consume.

By calling this phenomenon disenchantment, Weber expresses the loss in ultimate values as a loss of magic. Prehistoric religion involved a magical and direct manipulation of forces of nature. In stark contrast to the logical formal rationality of modern bureaucracy, Weber characterizes the forms of leadership of earlier ages as either charismatic (based on the ruler’s exceptional qualities) or traditional (based on the sanctity of custom). These become supplanted by a universal ethic, an impersonal manipulation of economic, political and intellectual concepts. It is a paradox that it is the systematic methodical character of worldly asceticism (the Calvinist belief of work as a way to God, the Protestant calling to engage in the world) which propel industrialization, rule of law and scientific progress. It is the same practice of instrumental-rationality that necessitates all three, leaving no room for value-rationality that asks why. Ironically, these processes also create institutions which destabilize the religious ethic that birthed them. Religion in response becomes other-worldly, and increasingly irrational. It is no longer the holistic source of our ultimate values.

Capitalism, like democracy and science, obeys its own formal logic of production, accumulation and exchange and no longer requires any form of spiritual legitimation. It disenchants the ultimate values that once founded it and engenders their demise. But not only is religion disenchanted, but so are the proliferation of new values created: such as efficiency, discipline and truth, all to be pursued now for their own sake. They bring about bad conscience because of the impossibility of attaining their perfection, and also because of an inevitable and irresolvable conflict between them. It is no longer a polytheistic charismatic or traditional struggle between gods, as in ancient Greece, but an impersonal struggle of concepts. Caught in the cross-fire of ideologies, man has become a means to an end, and Mother Earth also, when of course she should be end within ourselves.

A good example of one such struggle is Polanyi’s dichotomy between traditional morality and free-market capitalism. Not only is it impossible to commit to both, but commitment to one leads to the decadence or decline of the other which will ultimately undermine both. But perhaps this need not be cause for pessimism if we can find an appropriate balance between the two, and one way of achieving this, suggested by Nancy Fraser, is by mediation through a third: the value sphere of emancipation. While historically emancipation has been allied with free-market capitalism in breaking down class structures, there may also be times when emancipation must ally itself with traditional morality to ward off the anti-liberal effects of consumerism. But perhaps Weber's main point is that no value sphere can sit in judgment on all the rest, as religion once did.

Could reason not replace religion? Weber writes: “The intellect like all cultural values has created an aristocracy based on the possession of rational culture and independent of all personal ethical qualities of man. The aristocracy of intellect is hence an unbrotherly aristocracy.” It is without hate, but also without love. Nevertheless, unlike postmodernism which reacts against the rational ideal, Weber still stands by it. He sees man as facing a tragic responsibility to make a stand between competing value spheres needing to take individual initiative out of an inner conviction. As in Plato’s Phaedrus, reason for Weber is a pharmakon: both a poison and a cure. Unlike Durkheim, he does not go so far as to accept the idea that science can be used to found our values, for example by measures of health and well-being; these can only ever be relative to our current understanding of what it means for man to be healthy and fulfilled. Many of the greatest artists, poets and scientists in history were imperfect examples of what we might imagine as human well-being. To use the metaphor of evolution as a spiralling walk up a mountain path, there will be times at a peak when we may see a higher peak in view, but whether we realize it or not, a stepping-down is necessary for us to ever reach it. Though science cannot found our values, it can nevertheless help us analyse, clarify and understand them. But as in our aesthetics or our jurisprudence, what we lack is an outside view. This is because aesthetics, like jurisprudence represses at the outset its own presuppositions: the question of whether there should be works of art, or law.

How to reconcile man’s inner conviction with his tragic responsibility? Weber’s answer is that we must ground ultimate values in our own person: with passion, responsibility, and sincere and proportionate perspective. It is true that reason which was supposed to set us free from personality and prejudice paradoxically works counter to individual autonomy and freedom. But this is only because the individual has been robbed of the self-legislative authority to found values in himself. Whereas once there was a single holistic value sphere in spiritual authority, now there is a separation into the separate often competing value spheres of the religious, economic, political, intellectual, aesthetic and erotic. Moreover, each of these spheres has become increasingly normative, making man the object of rational calculation. In asking the right questions (Foucault), or in the play of puzzling over things (Baudrillard), or in the seemingly irrational spheres of art and eros, or in mystical self-knowledge, perhaps we may find the magical enchantment which can set us free. The critical, puzzling mind, the beauteous eye, the passionate heart, the dancing spirit — all serve to re-enchant the world, to free ourselves from old spells and let us cast our own magic.
The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics. 
—G. H. Hardy

We are not meant to be perfect; we are meant to be whole. 
Jane Fonda

The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it. 
Max Weber

Photo: 'Maths Department at Dusk' —okei

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