Meaninglessness is a uniquely modern idea. Before the Industrial Revolution, a world which attributed itself entirely to God could only have taken the concept as a contradiction in terms. But now, it is widely accepted that there has been a decline of spiritual and cultural meaning into rationalized autonomy, moral relativism, and a consequent loss of collective purpose.
The greatest thinker to theorize about the growth of meaninglessness was the German sociologist, Max Weber. It was Weber who observed early in this century that when life is stripped of meaning, authority loses its legitimacy and all values go to war on equal ground. And so the author of The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism emerges with uncanny relevance to our own day: prophetic of our "culture wars"; of the growth of ethical relativism in the academy; of deconstructionist criticism which sees literary text as an instrument of "domination" (Weber's term) in a war of values; of the "politics of identity"; of the promotion of "value pluralism" (also Weber's term); and of social atomization. Most especially, he predicted that "values antagonism" would increase while consensus recedes; while the idea of "meaning" may well be beyond recovery.
We are equally indebted to Weber for a number of older but no less relevant axioms about modernity. Among them, that modernity mechanizes ordinary life and drains it of substance; that religion has lost its spiritual force, leaving society without any moral foundation; and that an amoral bureaucratized state has begun to colonize society while technology discloses itself as merely instrumental, and not a moral force.
And so it seems apposite that Terry Maley of York University and Asher Horowitz of the University of Toronto have edited this book of essays on Weber's peculiarly "postmodern" relevance. Some of the pieces are technical and verge on the obscurantism of the very compartmentalization that Weber criticizes. But when the jargon and circumlocution blow away like smoke from a battle, he is revealed to be thoroughly engaged in the heat of the action of our own times.
More or less, Weber's theory runs like this: long ago we lived in an "enchanted" world full of spirits and mystery whose explication in myth gave meaning to creation and existence. The great, formalized world religions were the first to diminish that meaning by rationalizing it. They took a healthy pluralistic polytheism, and gave it more effective moral purpose by pushing it toward monotheism. This theocracy, socially more useful, was then reinforced by Roman jurisprudence and mediaeval Christian natural law, which in turn provided legal justifications and foundations for power and the state.
By the time of the Reformation, the outlines of the modern rationalizing state were firmly in place. Then Protestant asceticism dispensed with sacraments and the entire Catholic hierarchy, in favour of a direct and personal relation to God. In this new psychic wilderness stripped of Church paraphernalia, God's will could only be carried out through the economic engagement of the lone individual with the world. Now, alongside the state, a new authority grew: the sanctified authority of capital.
With the ascent of money, the world became calculable as never before. After the new reason arrived on the wings of science, the Enlightenment made it possible to rationalize domination by any of the new economic and political systems already so anxious to flex their muscles. This "instrumental", calculative reason of means stood-and still stands-in opposition to the "substantial", realistic, or humane reason of ends and would lead to the blind rationalization of ordinary life. Individual enterprise still looked holy and self-justifying, until it too became rationalized by its absorption into big company bureaucracies. Soon, bureaucratized capitalism destroyed continuity and robbed the world of its unity in mystery, memory, and tradition-in short, robbed it of meaning. And here, democracy cannot save us since politics has also been rationalized by the party organization.
Even as the state underwrites its activities with whatever its "moral" or democratic intentions may be, it expands helplessly. This accretion of power unfounded on any moral principle, Weber calls "domination". Autonomous and moving relentlessly forward like a headless, eyeless serpent, the dominating state justifies itself with reason, but only after the fact. Nor can science come to our aid: ever able to provide knowledge, she is at a loss to come up with meaning, let alone justification for the things she, or the state, chooses to pursue. Values, after all, are not derived from objective fact, but only from opinions. Facts inhabit a world entirely alien to that of values. Thus the process of founding a moral position on values is subjective, indeed arbitrary; what Weber calls "decisionism". And so, the legitimacy of the state itself is no more solid than the "decisionism" of an opinion uttered on a street-corner. It remains a lesson for the twentieth century that political actions founded entirely on such "decisionist" moral convictions and not on their practical consequences approach a perilous field of unforeseen pitfalls.
Though it may be unstable in its external relations, the big modern state is internally quite stable. It provides a greenhouse for conflicting values to proliferate and subdivide. Society thus atomizes, allowing bureaucratic power to increase at expense of communities and individuals. Independent in thought and expression, the individual is powerless in her isolation; private social life becomes an environment of bureaucracy, and the world is bereft of meaning. This rationalized, bureaucratized world with its illusion of "choices", as all-encompassing as it is autonomous, conceived by no-one and not founded on any moral principle-Weber calls it the "Iron Cage". The Iron Cage has no interest in anything that cannot be known through dry calculation. It is indeed the "barbarism of reason", the end-point of our development. We must live, act, and decide within it.
This long process with its harsh terminus is what Weber calls "the disenchantment of the world". He mourns this loss of enchantment that is both mystery and meaning, and yet he finds in ancient polytheism a model for his own "value pluralism". Though he sees no wisdom in turning back, he holds out hope: the Iron Cage is haunted by the ancient gods, now disguised as "impersonal forces"-perhaps perversely nourishing "angst" and the fundamental existential problems that persist. This is the field of battle.
As to the future, it is no more rational than history itself; and history is chaos. There has never been any "mind" in history, let alone any reasoned progressive development. The future, likewise, is obscure, and in this stormy twilight, Weber's only prescription is leadership flying by the seat of the leader's pants, without building new moralities, but painstakingly, responsibly-indeed, unheroically-calculating the consequences of every minute action like a pilot in a hurricane.
Like Nietzsche and Orwell, Weber has a protean ambivalence that can be used to reinforce or demolish the assumptions of liberals and conservatives alike. While he held that the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment have decayed into a soulless instrumental rationalism, he foresaw the dangers of illiberal, totalizing ideologies fifteen years before Hitler and thirty years before Soviet expansion.
Skeptical as he is of ideology, Weber's hero remains the Protestant or "Puritan" capitalist who successfully unites life and work in meaning: a drive to produce in the here-and-now as an expression of intense, introverted religious faith. Weber says, however, that the Protestant work ethic and Western individualism are not universal human values but the products of strictly localized circumstances in the Europe of the Reformation, which nevertheless grew to dominate the world. Moreover, he is a severe critic of modern capitalism, for when the old ethic loses its religiosity, it becomes something that is mindless, rationalized, and autonomous. And there are many today who would agree with his view that the bureaucratization of capitalism has placed the market ahead of politics, thus limiting democracy's effectiveness.
Weber's brilliant if gloomy world-view arose in outwardly ordinary circumstances: he was born in suburban Berlin in 1864 of middle-class German parents. But it could be argued that he was the inevitable result of a perennial conflict between German metaphysical profundity and German mediocrity and conformity. Weber was a cerebral Mama's boy who stood up to his father's conventional patriarchal authority. And even while he cleaved to his mother, he rejected her emotional, German, middle-class spiritualism. Inwardly independent and contemptuous of the masculine German military culture with its beer-drinking clubbiness, he learned nevertheless to conform. Thus we get the intriguing portrait of a skeptical and driven man who evinces all the conventions of German life down to military service, a patriarchal presence, a Teutonic girth, and the ancient, bellicose collegiate code of honour with the obligatory duelling scars that mark his face. He was, in short, a man of antinomies.
Likewise in his education, Weber drew upon classic convention and nonconformity alike: from Kant the rationalist and from Nietzsche the irrationalist. From Kant, a degree of detached objectivity about humanity and the world; and from Nietzsche, ethical relativism and a view that the Enlightenment inspired the use of mere instrumental reason to serve subjective and arbitrary ends. And so he bequeathed to us a picture of a positivist struggling to be a subjectivist, a social scientist tempted to be a politician, a scientist who rejects the idolatry of the sciences, and a man at once resigned and not resigned to the Iron Cage which he declared to enclose modern life.
Weber's ideas have penetrated our daily thinking. They did not come without a price. In 1898, he suffered a nervous collapse. The prophet of mechanized modernity and the theorist of the Protestant work ethic was scarcely able to read, write, or lecture until 1903-five painful years that seem emblematically to cross the threshold into the century of modernization, mass politics, and total war. At the age of thirty-four, his life had fallen into the driven, sleep-walking routine that he was later to ascribe to his own Protestant background, as combined with the vicissitudes of modernity. Indeed, the pioneering sociologist admitted to being unable to function without being "crushed by an enormous work load." Though the ultimate cause of his breakdown remains elusive, there are hints he had discovered his own life to be bereft of the cohesion and meaning whose history he had traced in world religions and societies. In short, work and life had become alien to one another. In due course, he emerged from the crisis, triumphantly reuniting them in the opus that made him famous, The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism, and in his immortal essays, "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation".
A sociological successor to Nietzsche, Weber remains seminal in that disruptive postmodern strain of thinkers who would look at human life without moral assumptions, from Foucault to Habermas to Derrida-despite the duelling scars, the beer drinking, and his cool self-description as a bourgeois.
If little of this strange drama comes across in Maley's and Horowitz's anthology, perhaps it's because the editors are mostly concerned with Weber's influence upon the finer points of postmodern thinking. Even so, this dry region needs passion as a parched field needs rain. Only a few of the authors speak with the kind of feeling that clarifies. One is Terry Maley himself (from York University), who writes with engagement about Weber's conception of modern time, its loss of substantial emotional content, and its spatialization and mechanization. The other is Professor Alkis Kontos of the University of Toronto, who addresses us with enchantment about the disenchantment of the world, keeping forever in mind the undying relevance of Greece, whose polytheism, for Weber, reached a sort of optimum when it was enriched by the beginnings of philosophy.
Weber's more recent philosophic influences are treated by Christian Lenhardt, who mentions the sociologist's view that Kant's rationalism was later exploited to justify the ideological abuses of modern revolutions. Mark Warren discusses Weber's debt to Nietzsche, whence emerges the point that Western rationalism has become compulsively engaged with the world, but for the sake of engagement itself and not toward any end.
The essays of Fred Dallmayr, Asher Horowitz, and Raymond Morrow cover the dense and difficult region where Weber's more left-wing successors have tried to take what they can from his legacy while attempting to "save" the Enlightenment; that same Enlightenment that Weber himself had declared exhausted and corrupted. Here there is the faint whiff of an intellectually byzantine project of reinterpreting Weber for a postmodern political left that is still trying to reinterpret itself. And so we get from Professor Morrow discussions of Weber's complex relation to the Marxists Adorno and Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School as a whole. And there is a good deal on one contemporary, Jürgen Habermas, by Horowitz and Dallmayr. Horowitz discusses Habermas's theory of "communicative action"-an attempt to use language to bring real power to the world of ordinary life ("the life world"), which, in Weber's Iron Cage, has been reduced to a colony of the bureaucratized world of business and the state. With Horowitz above all, the tangled circumlocutions freighted with opaque jargon were, for a non-academic like me, nearly overwhelming. Though I am a poor judge of the seaworthiness of the finer arguments, it seemed that the sheer laboriousness of these latter essays betrayed the strain of arguing a square peg into a hexagonal hole or of twisting Weber into the embrace of the left.
Perhaps it is hardly fair to say that after all is said and done, Weber still looms larger than any of his critics. But looming larger and more startlingly than even Weber himself is the Iron Cage of his conception. Like Frankenstein's monster, it seems to take on a life of its own. Even the contributors to The Barbarism of Reason seem to grope and manage unquestioningly within it, as Weber himself advises for lack of anything better.
What no-one seems to mention is that the Iron Cage is made up of both left and right. And so, with little attention to the residual meaning of the left or of the Enlightenment itself, the more "postmodern" contributors don't seem to know quite how to approach the Cage itself. But if it is real (and it may very well be), this ambivalent resignation is indeed what the Cage would desire. Unlike Louis XVI's Estates General or Nicholas II's Constitutional Government, the Cage is diabolically adaptable, indeed elastic (to mix a metaphor), recruiting radicals of both left and right to its own passionless, hidden designs. And even as it appears to relax its iron grip, benignly accepting critics and collaborators alike-in reality it is seizing us with all the more force.
Weber himself seems to have taken on some of the elasticity of his Iron Cage; like Nietzsche, he is rarely debunked. Like Nietzsche, he is instead twisted, adapted, and reinterpreted, and like Nietzsche again (and unlike Marx) he provides no simple or gratifying solution. The only saviour in the Cage is the charismatic leader (a term of his coinage). But this "ideal type" is ultimately no more interesting than Nietzsche's "superman", an anticlimactic footnote to a magnificent opus.
Nevertheless, Weber's insistence that we can find "re-enchantment" in the enigmas of the unplanned desert of modernity is intriguing. After all, this great rationalizing accident in which we live remains in many ways as complex as the enchanted natural world it has displaced. And if anything, Weber reminds us to beware of those who would declare that there are no longer mysteries or paradoxes or unsolvable problems, much less that there are any simple, "common-sense" solutions. And to take comfort in the very pregnant darkness of our new wilderness. l
Hugh Graham is working on The Vestibule of Hell, a book on modern ideology-on left, right, and beyond-which is to be published by Stoddart.