Posted in Capitalism, History, Modernity, Religion, Theory

Blaustein: Searching for Consolation in Max Weber’s Work Ethic

 

Last summer I posted a classic lecture by the great German sociologist, Max Weber, “Science as a vocation.” Recently I ran across a terrific essay by George Blaustein about Weber’s vision of the modern world, drawing on this lecture and two other seminal works: the lecture “Politics as a Vocation” (delivered a year after the science lecture) and the seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of CapitalismHere’s a link to the original Blaustein essay on the New Republic website.

Like so many great theorists (Marx, Durkheim, Foucault, etc.), Weber was intensely interested in understanding the formation of modernity.  How did the shift from premodern to modern come about?  What prompted it?  What are the central characteristics of modernity?  What are the main forces that drive it?  As Blaustein shows so adeptly, Weber’s take is a remarkably gloomy one.  He sees the change as one of disenchantment, in which we lost the certitudes of faith and tradition and are left with a regime of soulless rationalism and relentless industry.  Here’s how he put it in his science lecture:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations….

In his view, there is no turning back, no matter how much you feel you have lost, unless you are willing to surrender reason to faith.  This he is not willing to do, but he understands why others might choose differently.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice‘ — that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him.

In The Protestant Ethic, he explores the Calvinist roots of the capitalist work ethic, in which the living saints worked hard in this world to demonstrate (especially to themselves) that they had been elected to eternal life in the next world.  Instead of earning to spend on themselves, they reinvested their earnings in economic capital on earth and spiritual capital in heaven.  But the ironic legacy of this noble quest is our own situation. in which we work in order to work, without purpose or hope.  Here’s how he puts it in the famous words that close his book.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.  In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I hope you gain as much insight from this essay as I did.

Protestant Ethic

Searching for Consolation in Max Weber’s Work Ethic

People worked hard long before there was a thing called the “work ethic,” much less a “Protestant work ethic.” The phrase itself emerged early in the twentieth century and has since congealed into a cliché. It is less a real thing than a story that people, and nations, tell themselves about themselves. I am from the United States but now live in Amsterdam; the Dutch often claim the mantle of an industrious, Apollonian Northern Europe, as distinct from a dissolute, Dionysian, imaginary South. Or the Dutch invoke the Protestant ethic with self-deprecating smugness: Alas, we are so productive. Both invocations are absurd. The modern Dutch, bless them, are at least as lazy as everyone else, and their enjoyments are vulgar and plentiful.

In the U.S., meanwhile, celebrations of the “work ethic” add insult to the injury of overwhelming precarity. As the pandemic loomed, it should have been obvious that the U.S. would particularly suffer. People go to work because they have no choice. Those who did not face immediate economic peril could experience quarantine as a kind of relief and then immediately feel a peculiar guilt for that very feeling of relief. Others, hooray, could sustain and perform their work ethic from home.

The German sociologist Max Weber was the first great theorist of the Protestant ethic. If all scholarship is autobiography, it brings an odd comfort to learn that he had himself suffered a nervous breakdown. Travel was his main strategy of recuperation, and it brought him to the Netherlands and to the U.S., among other places. The Hague was “bright and shiny,” he wrote in 1903. “Everyone is well-to-do, exceedingly ungraceful, and rather untastefully dressed.” He had dinner in a vegetarian restaurant. (“No drinks, no tips.”) Dutch architecture made him feel “like Gulliver when he returned from Brobdingnag.” America, by contrast, was Brobdingnag. Weber visited the U.S. for three months in 1904 and faced the lurid enormity of capitalism. Chicago, with its strikes, slaughterhouses, and multi-ethnic working class, seemed to him “like a man whose skin has been peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work.”

Weber theorized the rise of capitalism, the state and its relationship to violence, the role of “charisma” in politics. Again and again he returned, as we still do, to the vocation—the calling—as both a crushing predicament and a noble aspiration. He died 100 years ago, in a later wave of the Spanish flu. It is poignant to read him now, in our own era of pandemic and cataclysm. It might offer consolation. Or it might fail to console.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism emerged, in part, from that American journey. It first appeared in two parts, in 1904 and 1905, in a journal, the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. A revised version appeared in 1920, shortly before his death. Race did not figure into his account of capitalism’s rise, though the American color line had confronted him vividly. In 1906 he would publish W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Negro Question in the United States” in the same journal, which he edited.

Modern invocations of the work ethic are usually misreadings: The Protestant Ethic was more lament than celebration. Weber sought to narrate the arrival of what had become a no-longer-questioned assumption: that our duty was to labor in a calling, even to labor for labor’s sake. He sought the origins of this attitude toward work and the meaning of life, of an ethic that saved money but somehow never enjoyed it, of a joyless and irrational rationality. He found the origins in Calvinism, specifically in what he called Calvinism’s “this-worldly asceticism.”

Weber’s argument was not that Calvinism caused capitalism; rather, The Protestant Ethic was a speculative psycho-historical excavation of capitalism’s emergence. The interpretation, like most of his interpretations, had twists that are not easy to summarize. It was, after all, really the failure of Calvinism—in the sense of the unmeetableness of Calvinism’s demands on an individual psyche and soul—that generated a proto-capitalist orientation to the world. The centerpiece of Calvin’s theology—the absolute, opaque sovereignty of God and our utter noncontrol over our own salvation—was, in Weber’s account, impossibly severe, unsustainable for the average person. The strictures of that dogma ended up creating a new kind of individual and a new kind of community: a community bound paradoxically together by their desperate anxiety about their individual salvation. Together and alone.

The germ of the capitalist “spirit” lay in the way Calvinists dealt with that predicament. They labored in their calling, for what else was there to do? To work for work’s sake was Calvinism’s solution to the problem of itself. Having foreclosed all other Christian comforts—a rosary, an indulgence, a ritual, a communion—Weber’s original Calvinists needed always to perform their own salvation, to themselves and to others, precisely because they could never be sure of it. No wonder they would come to see their material blessings as a sign that they were in fact blessed. And no wonder their unlucky descendants would internalize our economic miseries as somehow just.

Calvinism, in other words, was less capitalism’s cause than its ironic precondition. The things people did for desperate religious reasons gave way to a secular psychology. That secular psychology was no “freer” than the religious one; we had been emancipated into jobs. “The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling,” Weber wrote; “we, on the other hand, must be.” As a historical process—i.e., something happening over time—this process was gradual enough that the people participating in it did not really apprehend it as it happened. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden and into the world, the archangel Michael offers faith as a consolation within the worldliness that is humanity’s lot: The faithful, Michael promises Adam, “shal[l] possess / A Paradise within thee, happier by far.” Those lines appeared in 1674, more than a century after John Calvin’s death; for Weber, they were an inadvertent expression of the capitalist spirit’s historical unfolding. Only later still could the gloomy sociologist see, mirrored in that Puritan epic, our own dismal tendency to approach life itself as a task.

For historians of capitalism, the book is inspiring but soon turns frustrating. Weberian interpretations tend to stand back from history’s contingencies and exploitations in order to find some churning and ultimately unstoppable process: “rationalization,” for instance, by which tradition gives way ironically but inexorably to modernity. Humans wanted things like wholeness, community, or salvation; but our efforts, systematized in ways our feeble consciousness can’t ever fully grasp, end up ushering in anomie, bureaucracy, or profit. The Weberian analysis then offers no relief from that process, only a fatalism without a teleology. The moral of the story, if there is a moral, is to reconcile yourself to the modernity that has been narrated and to find in the narrative itself something like an intellectual consolation, which is the only consolation that matters.

Still, the book’s melancholy resonates, if only aesthetically. At moments, it even stabs with a sharpness that Weber could not have foreseen: The “monstrous cosmos” of capitalism now “determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism,” he wrote in the book’s final pages, “and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.” Gothic images—ghosts and shadowy monsters—abound in what is, at times, a remarkably literary portrait. “The idea of the ‘duty in a calling’ haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs.”

The book’s most famous image is the “iron cage.” For Puritans, material concerns were supposed to lie lightly on one’s shoulders, “like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time” (Weber was quoting the English poet Richard Baxter), but for us moderns, “fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” That morsel of sociological poetry was not in fact Weber’s but that of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, whose English translation in 1930 became the definitive version outside of Germany. Weber’s phrase was “stahlhartes Gehäuse”—a shell hard as steel. It describes not a room we can’t leave but a suit we can’t take off.

One wonders what Weber would make of our era’s quarantines. What is a Zoom meeting but another communal experience of intense loneliness? Weber’s portrait of Calvinist isolation might ring a bell. Working from home traps us ever more firmly in the ideology or mystique of a calling. We might then take refuge in a secondary ethic, what we might call the iron cage of “fulfillment.” It is built on the ruins of the work ethic or, just as plausibly, it is the work ethic’s ironic apotheosis: secular salvation through sourdough.

It brings a sardonic pleasure to puncture the mental and emotional habits of a service economy in Weberian terms. But it doesn’t last. The so-called work ethic is no longer a spiritual contagion but a medical one, especially in America. Weber’s interpretation now offers little illumination and even less consolation. It is not some inner ethic that brings, say, Amazon’s workers to the hideously named “fulfillment centers”; it is a balder cruelty.

The breakdown happened in 1898, when Weber was 34. “When he was overloaded with work,” his wife, Marianne, wrote in her biography of him, after his death, “an evil thing from the unconscious underground of life stretched out its claws toward him.” His father, a politician in the National Liberal Party, had died half a year earlier, mere weeks after a family standoff that remained unresolved. In the dispute, Max had defended his devoutly religious mother against his autocratic father. The guilt was severe. (The Protestant Ethic would lend itself too easily to a Freudian reading.) A psychiatrist diagnosed him with neurasthenia, then the modern medical label for depression, anxiety, panic, fatigue. The neurasthenic brain, befitting an industrial age, was figured as an exhausted steam engine. Marianne, elsewhere in her biography, described the condition as an uprising to be squashed: “Weber’s mind laboriously maintained its dominion over its rebellious vassals.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Heidelberg, Weber had studied law. His doctoral dissertation was on medieval trading companies. By his early thirties he was a full professor in economics and finance, in Freiburg and then back in Heidelberg. After his breakdown, he was released from teaching and eventually given a long leave of absence. He resigned his professorship in 1903, keeping only an honorary title for more than a decade. Weberian neurasthenia meant a life of travel; medical sojourns in Alpine clinics; and convalescent trips to France, Italy, and Austro-Hungary—extravagant settings for insomnia and a genuine inner turmoil. Money was not the problem. Marianne, a prolific scholar and a key but complex figure in the history of German feminism, would inherit money from the family’s linen factory.

Though only an honorary professor, with periods of profound study alternating with periods of depression, Weber loomed large in German academic life. In 1917, students in Munich invited the “myth of Heidelberg,” as he was known, to lecture about “the vocation of scholarship.” He did not mention his peculiar psychological and institutional trajectory in that lecture, now a classic, though one can glimpse it between the lines. “Wissenschaft als Beruf” (“Science as a Vocation”) and another lecture from a year and a half later, “Politik als Beruf” (“Politics as a Vocation”) are Weber’s best-known texts outside The Protestant Ethic. A new English translation by Damion Searls rescues them from the formal German (as translations sometimes must) and from the viscous English into which they’re usually rendered. It restores their vividness and eloquence as lectures.

Of course, now they would be Zoom lectures, which would entirely break the spell. Picture him: bearded and severe, a facial scar still visible from his own college days in a dueling fraternity. He would see not a room full of students but rather his own face in a screen, looking back at him yet unable to make true eye contact. Neurasthenia would claw at him again.

Some lines from “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” even today, would have worked well in the graduation speeches that have been canceled because of the pandemic. Notably: “Nothing is humanly worth doing except what someone can do with passion.” Sounds nice! “Wissenschaft als Beruf” approached the confines of the calling in a more affirmative mode. Other parts of the speech, though—and even that inspirational line, in context—boast a bleak and bracing existentialism. My favorite moment is when Weber channeled Tolstoy on the meaningless of death (and life!) in a rationalized, disenchanted modernity. Since modern scholarship is now predicated on the nonfinality of truth, Weber said, and since any would-be scholar will absorb “merely a tiny fraction of all the new ideas that intellectual life continually produces,” and since “even those ideas are merely provisional, never definitive,” death can no longer mark a life’s harmonious conclusion. Death is now “simply pointless.” And the kicker: “And so too is life as such in our culture, which in its meaningless ‘progression’ stamps death with its own meaninglessness.” If only I had heard that from a graduation speaker.

Weber’s subject was the meaning of scholarship in a “disenchanted” world. “Disenchantment” is another one of Weber’s processes—twisted, born of unintended consequences, but nevertheless unstoppable. It meant a scholar could no longer find “proof of God’s providence in the anatomy of a louse.” Worse, the modern scholar was doomed to work in so dismal an institution as a university. “There are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions,” said Weber about the bureaucratized university of his day, “safe mediocrities or partisan careerists” serving the powers that funded them. Still true.

So why do it? To be a scholar meant caring, as if it mattered, about a thing that objectively does not matter and caring as if “the fate of his very soul depends on whether he gets this specific conjecture exactly right about this particular point in this particular manuscript.” Scholarship was the good kind of calling, insofar as one could make one’s way to some kind of meaning, however provisional that meaning was, and however fleeting and inscrutable the spark of “inspiration.”

That part of the sermon is no longer quite so moving. Weber styled himself a tough-minded realist when it came to institutions, but our era’s exploitation of adjunct academic labor punctures the romance that Weber could nevertheless still inflate. Universities in an age of austerity do not support or reward scholarly inquiry as a self-justifying vocation. Scholars must act more and more like entrepreneurs, manufacturing and marketing our own “relevance.” For some university managers (as for many corporate CEOs), the coronavirus is as much an opportunity as a crisis, to further strip and “streamline” the university—to conjoin, cheaply, the incompatible ethics of efficiency and intellect. And we teachers are stuck in the gears: The digital technologies by which we persist in our Beruf will only further erode our professional stability. “Who but a blessed, tenured few,” the translation’s editors, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, ask, “could continue to believe that scholarship is a vocation?”

And yet as a sermon on teaching, Weber’s lecture still stirs me. Having given up on absolute claims about truth or beauty, and having given up on academic inquiry revealing the workings of God, he arrived at a religious truth about pedagogy that you can still hang a hat on:

If we understand our own subject (I am necessarily assuming we do), we can force, or at least help, an individual to reckon with the ultimate meaning of his own actions. This strikes me as no small matter, in terms of a student’s inner life too.

I want this to be true. On good days, teaching delivers what Weber called that “strange intoxication,” even on Zoom.

An enormous historical gulf divides the two vocation lectures, though they were delivered only 14 months apart. In November 1917, Weber didn’t even mention the war. When it broke out in 1914, he served for a year as a medical director in the reserve forces; he did not see combat but supported German aspiration to the status of Machtstaat and its claim to empire. The war dragged miserably on, but in late 1917 it was far from clear that Germany would lose. Tsarist Russia had collapsed, and the American entry into the war had not proved decisive. The defeat that Germany would experience in the coming months was then unimaginable.

Weber was a progressive nationalist, moving between social democracy and the political center. During the war, besides his essays on the sociology of religion, he wrote about German political futures and criticized military management, all while angling for some role in the affairs of state himself. As the tide turned, he argued for military retrenchment as the honorable course. A month after Germany’s surrender on November 11, 1918, he stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament with the new German Democratic Party, of which he was a founder.

In January 1919 he returned to a Munich gripped by socialist revolution. It was now the capital of the People’s State of Bavaria, which would be short-lived. Weber, for years, had dismissed both pacifism and revolution as naïve. Many in the room where he spoke supported the revolution that he so disdained, and many of them had seen industrial slaughter in the state’s trenches. Part of the lecture’s mystique is its timing: He stood at a podium in the eye of the storm.

“Politik als Beruf” would seem to speak to our times, from one era of calamity and revolution to another. It is about the modern state and its vast machineries. It is about statesmen and epigones, bureaucracy and its discontents, “leadership” and political breakdown. To that moment’s overwhelming historical flux, Weber brought, or tried to bring, the intellectual sturdiness of sociological categories, “essential” vocabularies that could in theory apply at any time.

He offered a now-famous definition of the state in general: “the state is the only human community that (successfully) claims a monopoly on legitimate physical violence for itself, within a certain geographical territory.… All other groups and individuals are granted the right to use physical violence only insofar as the state allows it.” This definition, powerfully tautological, was the sociological floor on which stood all of the battles over what we might want the state to be. Philosophically, it operated beneath all ideological or moral debates over rights, democracy, welfare. It countered liberalism’s fantasy of a social contract, because Weber’s state, both foundationally and when push came to shove, was not contractual but coercive.

It was a bracing demystification. Legitimacy had nothing to do with justice; it meant only that the people acquiesced to the state’s authority. Some regimes “legitimately” protected “rights,” while others “legitimately” trampled them. Why did we acquiesce? Weber identified three “pure” categories of acquiescence: We’re conditioned to it, by custom or tradition; or we’re devoted to a leader’s charisma; or we’ve been convinced that the state’s legitimacy is in fact just, that its laws are valid and its ministers competent. Real political life, Weber wryly said, was always a cocktail of these three categories of acquiescence, never mind what stories we might tell ourselves about why we go along with anything.

With that floor of a definition laid, varieties of statehood could now emerge. Every state was a configuration of power and bureaucratic machinery, and the many massive apparatuses that made it up had their own deep sociological genealogies, each with their own Weberian twists. So did the apparatuses that produced those people who felt called to politics. Weber’s sweep encompassed parliaments, monarchs, political parties, corporations, newspapers, universities (law schools especially), a professional civil service, militaries.

Any reader now will be tempted to decode our politicians in Weber’s terms. Trump: ostensibly from the world of business, which, in Weber’s scheme, would usually keep such a figure out of electoral politics (although Weber did note that “plutocratic leaders certainly can try to live ‘from’ politics,” to “exploit their political dominance for private economic gain”). Maybe we’d say that Trump hijacked the apparatus of the administrative state, already in a state of erosion, and that he grifts from that apparatus while wrecking it further. Or maybe Trump is returning American politics to the pre-professional, “amateur” spoils system of the nineteenth century. Or he is himself a grotesque amateur, brought to the fore by an already odious political party that somehow collapsed to victory. Or maybe Trump is an ersatz aristocrat, from inherited wealth, who only played a businessman on television. (Weber’s writings do not anticipate our hideous celebrity politics.) Or Trump is a would-be warlord, postmodern or atavistically neo-feudal, committed to stamping a personal brand on the formerly “professional” military. Or, or, or. All are true, in their way. Maybe Weber would see in Trump a moron on the order of Kaiser Wilhelm—an equally cogent analysis.

Do these decodings clarify the matter or complicate it? Do they help us at all? They deliver a rhetorical satisfaction, certainly, and maybe an intellectual consolation. Then what? “Politik als Beruf” leaves sociology behind and becomes a secular sermon about “leadership,” and here the spell begins to break. Weber sought political salvation, of a kind, in charisma. The word is now a cliché, but for him it had a specific charge. Politics, he told his listeners in so many words, was a postlapsarian business. It cannot save any souls, because violence and coercion are conceptually essential to politics. A disenchanted universe is still a fallen universe. What had emerged from the fall was the monstrous apparatus of the modern nation-state. It was there, with its attendant armies of professionals and hangers-on, it fed you or it starved you. It was a mountain that no one really built but that we all had to live on.

Politics for Weber was brutally Darwinian in the end: Some states succeeded, and others failed. His Germany did not deserve defeat any more than the Allies deserved victory. That same moral arbitrariness made him look with a kind of grudging respect at Britain and the U.S.—made him even congratulate America for graduating from political amateurism into professional power. Meanwhile, he belittled revolutionaries. Anyone who imagined they could escape power’s realities or usher in some fundamentally new arrangement of power, he mocked. “Let’s be honest with ourselves here,” he said to the revolutionists in Munich. A belief in a revolutionary cause, “as subjectively sincere as it may be, is almost always merely a moral ‘legitimation’ for the desire for power, revenge, booty, and benefits.” (He was recycling a straw-man argument he had made for several years.)

To be enchanted by this argument is to end up thinking in a particular way about history with a capital h and politics with a capital p. History was always a kind of test of the state: wars, economic calamities, pandemics. Such things arrived, like natural disasters. For all the twists and complexities of Weber’s sociology, this conception of History is superficial, and its prescription for Politics thin. He demystified the state only to remystify the statesman. It is an insider’s sermon, because politics was an insider’s game, and it is the state’s insiders who, nowadays, will thrill to it. Very well.

“The relationship between violence and the state is particularly close at present,” Weber said, early in his lecture. At present could mean this week, this decade, this century, this modernity. The lecture retains, no doubt, a curious power in times of calamity. I am inclined to call it a literary power. Weber held two things in profound narrative tension: We feel both the state’s glacial inevitability and the terror of its collapse. Without a bureaucrat’s “discipline and self-restraint, which is in the deepest sense ethical,” Weber said in passing, “the whole system would fall apart.” So too would it fall apart without a leader’s charisma. If this horror vacui was powerful, for Weber and his listeners, it was because in 1919 things would fall apart, or were falling apart, or had already fallen apart. The lecture contemplates that layered historical collapse with both dread and wonder.

A century on, Weber’s definition of the state is still, sometimes, a good tool to think with. The coronavirus lockdowns, for instance, laid bare the state’s essentially coercive function. In Europe, on balance, lockdowns have been accepted—acquiesced to—as a benevolent coercion, an expression of a trusted bureaucracy and a responsible leadership. In some American states, too. The lockdowns even generated their own (in Weberian terms) legitimating civic rituals. Fifteen months after “Politik als Beruf,” Weber himself would die of the flu that his lecture did not mention.

In the Netherlands, where I live and teach, the drama of that lecture, even in a pandemic, might fall on deaf ears. The peril and fragileness that Weber channeled can be hard to imagine in the low countries, which boasted an “intelligent lockdown” that needed no spectacular show of coercion. History, here, tends not to feel like an onrushing avalanche, or a panorama of sin and suffering, or a test we might fail, but rather a march of manageable problems, all of which seem—seem—solvable. This conception is a luxury.

As for the study of the U.S., which I suppose is my own meaningful or meaningless calling, Weber said, in 1917, that “it is often possible to see things in their purest form there.” In the century since his death, the transatlantic tables have turned, and American Studies often becomes the study of political breakdown. The vocabulary of failed statehood abounds in commentaries on America, from within and without, while American liberals look often to Germany’s Angela Merkel as the paragon of Weberian statesmanship. Step back from such commentaries, though, and American history will overwhelm even Weber’s bleak definition. America sits atop other kinds of violence, it accommodates a privatized violence, it outsources violence, it brings its wars back home.

I started this essay before the murder of George Floyd, and I am finishing it during the uprising that has followed in its wake. Weber’s definition of the state, ironically, can now fit with a political temperament more far radical than Weber’s own. The uprising has as its premise that the social contract, if it ever held, has long since been broken: The state’s veil is thus drawn back. The uprising then looks Weber’s definition in the eye: The monstrous state’s violence is unjust, therefore we do not accept it as legitimate.

I was looking in Weber for illumination, or consolation, or something. I haven’t found a rudder for the present, and I don’t know how to end. But the desire for consolation brought to my mind, of all things, the unconsoling diary of Franz Kafka. I read it years ago, and every once in a while its last lines will suddenly haunt me, like the opposite of a mantra, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Kafka died in 1924, more an outsider than an insider; his diary’s last entry reflects, in an elliptical or inscrutable way, on another disease—tuberculosis—and on another calling. “More and more fearful as I write. Every word,” he felt, was “twisted in the hands of the spirit” and became “a spear turned against the speaker.” He also looked for consolation. “The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help.” He then looked beyond it. “More than consolation is: You too have weapons.”

 

Posted in Empire, History, Modernity, War

What If Napoleon Had Won at Waterloo?

Today I want to explore an interesting case of counterfactual history.  What would have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had won in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo?  What consequences might have followed for Europe in the next two centuries?  That he might have succeeded is not mere fantasy.  According to the victor, Lord Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”

The standard account, written by the winners, is that the allies arrayed against Napoleon (primarily Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia) had joined together to stop him from continuing to rampage across the continent, conquering one territory after another.  From this angle, they were the saviors of freedom, who finally succeeded in vanquishing and deposing the evil dictator. 

I want to explore an alternative interpretation, which draws on two sources.  One is an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Andrew Roberts, “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon never Lost at Waterloo.”  The other is a book by the same author, Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon

The story revolves around two different Napoleons:  the general and the ruler.  As a general, he was one of the greatest in history.  Depending on how you count, he fought 60 or 70 battles and lost only seven of them, mostly at the end.  In the process, he conquered (or controlled through alliance) most of Western Europe.  So the allies had reason to fear him and to eliminate the threat he posed.  

As a ruler, however, Napoleon looks quite different.  In this role, he was the agent of the French Revolution and its Enlightenment principles, which he succeeded in institutionalizing within France and spreading across the continent.  Andrews notes in his article that Napoleon 

said he would be remembered not for his military victories, but for his domestic reforms, especially the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law. In fact, Napoleon’s years as first consul, from 1799 to 1804, were extraordinarily peaceful and productive. He also created the educational system based on lycées and grandes écoles and the Sorbonne, which put France at the forefront of European educational achievement. He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France and the Légion d’Honneur, which thrive today. He also built or renovated much of the Parisian architecture that we still enjoy, both the useful—the quays along the Seine and four bridges over it, the sewers and reservoirs—and the beautiful, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli and the Vendôme column.

He stood as the antithesis of the monarchical state system at the time, grounded in preserving the feudal privileges of the nobility and the church and the subordination of peasants and workers.  As a result, he ended up creating a lot of enemies, who initiated most of the battles he fought.  In addition, however, he drew a lot of support from key actors within the territories he conquered, to whom he looked less like an invader than a liberator.  Andrews points out in his book that:

Napoleon’s political support from inside the annexed territories came from many constituencies: urban elites who didn’t want to return to the rule of their local Legitimists, administrative reformers who valued efficiency, religious minorities such as Protestants and Jews whose rights were protected by law, liberals who believed in concepts such as secular education and the liberating power of divorce, Poles and other nationalities who hoped for national self-determination, businessmen (at least until the Continental System started to bite), admirers of the simplicity of the Code Napoléon, opponents of the way the guilds had worked to restrain trade, middle-class reformers, in France those who wanted legal protection for their purchases of hitherto ecclesiastical or princely confiscated property, and – especially in Germany – peasants who no longer had to pay feudal dues.

When the allies defeated Napoleon the first time, they exiled him to Elba and installed Louis XVIII as king, seeking to sweep away all of the gains from the revolution and the empire.  Louis failed spectacularly in gaining local support for the reversion to the Ancien Regime.  Sensing this, Napoleon escaped to the mainland after only nine months and headed for Paris.  The royalist troops sent to stop him instead rallied to his cause, and in 18 days he was eating Louis’s dinner in the Tuileries, restored as emperor without anyone firing a single shot in defense of the Bourbons.  Quite a statement about how the French, as opposed to the allies, viewed his return.  

Once back in charge, Napoleon sent a note to the allies, reassuring them that he was content to rule at home and leave conquest to the past: “After presenting the spectacle of great campaigns to the world, from now on it will be more pleasant to know no other rivalry than that of the benefits of peace, of no other struggle than the holy conflict of the happiness of peoples.” 

They weren’t buying it.  They had reason to be suspicious, but instead of waiting and seeing they launched an all out assault on France in an effort to get him out of the way.  Andrews argues, and I agree, that their aim was not defensive but actively reactionary.  His liberalized and modernized France posed a threat to the preservation of the traditional powers of monarchy, nobility, and church.  They sought to tamp out the fires of reform and revolution before it reared up in their own domains.  In this sense, then, Andrews says Waterloo was a battle that didn’t need to happen.  It was an unprovoked, preemptive strike.

Andrews concludes his Smithsonian article with this assessment of what might have been if Waterloo had turned out differently:

If Napoleon had remained emperor of France for the six years remaining in his natural life, European civilization would have benefited inestimably. The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.

Napoleon deserved to lose Waterloo, and Wellington to win it, but the essential point in this bicentenary year is that the epic battle did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been.

What followed his loss was a century of reaction across the continent of Europe. The Bourbons were restored and the liberal gains in Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy were rolled back.  Royalist statesmen such as Metternich and Bismarck aggressively defended their regimes against reform efforts by liberals and Marxists alike.  These regimes persisted until the First World War, which they precipitated and which eventually brought them all down — Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Ottomans.  The reactions to the fall of these monarchies in turn set the stage for the Second World War.

You can only play out historical counterfactuals so far, before the chain of contingencies becomes too long and the analysis turns wholly speculative.  But it seems quite reasonable to me to think that, if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, this history would have played out quite differently.  The existence proof of a modern liberal state in the middle of Europe would have shored up reform efforts in the surrounding monarchies and headed off the reactionary status quo that finally erupted in the Great War that extinguished them all.

Posted in Family, Meritocracy, Modernity, Schooling, Sociology, Teaching

What Schools Can Do that Families Can’t: Robert Dreeben’s Analysis

In this post, I explore a key issue in understanding the social role that schools play:  Why do we need schools anyway?  For thousands of years, children grew up learning the skills, knowledge, and values they would need in order to be fully functioning adults.  They didn’t need schools to accomplish this.  The family, the tribe, the apprenticeship, and the church were sufficient to provide them with this kind of acculturation.  Keep in mind that education is ancient but universal public schooling is a quite recent invention, which arose about 200 years ago as part of the creation of modernity.

Here I focus on a comparison between family and school as institutions for social learning.  In particular, I examine what social ends schools can accomplish that families can’t.  I’m drawing on a classic analysis by Robert Dreeben in his 1968 book, On What Is Learned in School.  Dreeben is a sociologist in the structural functionalist tradition who was a student of Talcott Parsons.  His book demonstrates the strengths of functionalism in helping us understand schooling as a critically important mechanism for societies to survive in competition with other societies in the modern era.  The section I’m focusing on here is chapter six, “The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms: Independence, Achievement, Universalism, and Specificity.”   I strongly recommend that you read the original, using the preceding link.  My discussion is merely a commentary on his text.

Dreeben Cover

I’m drawing on a set of slides I used when I taught this chapter in class.

This is structural functionalism at its best:

      • The structure of schooling teaches students values that modern societies require; the structure functions even if that outcome is unintended

He examines the social functions of the school compared with the family

      • Not the explicit learning that goes on in school – the subject matter, the curriculum (English, math, science, social studies)

      • Instead he looks as the social norms you learn in school

He’s not focusing on the explicit teaching that goes on in school – the formal curriculum

      • Instead he focuses on what the structure of the school setting teaches students – vs. what the structure of the family teaches children

      • The emphasis, therefore, is on the differences in social structure of the two settings

      • What can and can’t be learned in each setting?

Families and schools are parallel in several important ways

      • Socialization: they teach the young

        • Both provide the young with skills, knowledge, values, and norms

        • Both use explicit and implicit teaching

      • Selection: they set the young on a particular social trajectory in the social hierarchy

        • Both provide them with social means to attain a particular social position

        • School: via grades, credits and degrees

        • Families: via economic, social, and cultural capital

The difference between family and school boils down to preparing the young for two very different kinds of social relationships

      • Primary relationships, which families model as the relations between parent and child and between siblings

      • Secondary relationships, which schools model as the relations between teacher and student and between students

Each setting prepares children to take on a distinctive kind of relationship

Dreeben argues that schools teach students four norms that are central to the effective functioning of modern societies:  Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity.  These are central to the kinds of roles we play in public life, which sociologists call secondary roles, roles that are institutionally structured in relation to other secondary roles, such as employee-employer, customer-clerk, bus rider-bus driver, teacher-student.  The norms that define proper behavior in secondary roles differ strikingly from the norms for another set of relationship defined as primary roles.  These are the intimate relationship we have with our closest friends and family members.  One difference is that we play a large number of secondary roles in order to function in complex modern societies but only a small number of primary roles.  Another is that secondary roles are strictly utilitarian, means to practical ends, whereas primary roles are ends in themselves.  A third is that secondary role relationships are narrowly defined; you don’t need or want to know much about the salesperson in the store in order to make your purchase.  Primary relationship are quite diffuse, requiring deeper involvement — friends vs. acquaintances.

As a result, each of the four norms that schools teach, which are essential for maintaining secondary role relationships, correspond to equal and opposite norms that are essential for maintaining primary role relationships.  Modern social life requires expertise at moving back and forth effortlessly between these different kinds of roles and the contrasting norms they require of us.  We have to be good at maintaining our work relations and our personal relations and knowing which norms apply to which setting.

Secondary Roles                      Primary Roles

(Work, public, school)           (Family, friends)

Independence                          Group orientation

Achievement                            Ascription

Universalism                            Particularism

Specificity                                  Diffuseness

Here is what’s involved in each of these contrasting norms:

Independence                            Group orientation

      Self reliance                                Dependence on group

      Individualism                             Group membership

      Individual effort                        Collective effort

      Act on your own                         Need/owe group support

Achievement                               Ascription

      Status based on what you do  Status based on who you are

      Active                                             Passive

      Earned                                           Inherited

                         Meritocracy                                  Aristocracy

Universalism                              Particularism

      Equality within category —       Personal uniqueness — my child

           a 5th grade student

      General rules apply to all        Different rules for us vs. them

      Central to fairness, justice      Central to being special

Specificity                                   Diffuseness

       Narrow relations                       Broad relations

       Extrinsic relations                    Intrinsic relations

       Means to an end                        An end in itself

Think about how the structure of the school differs from the structure of the family and what the consequences of these differences are.

Family vs. School:

Structure of the school (vs. structure of the family)

      • Teacher and student are both achieved roles (ascribed roles)

      • Large number of kids per adult (few)

      • No particularistic ties between teacher and students (blood ties)

      • Teachers deal with the class as a group (families as individuals based on sex and birth order)

      • Teacher and student are universalistic roles, with individuals being interchangeable in these roles (family roles are unique to that family and not interchangeable)

      • Relationship is short term, especially as you move up the grades (relations are lifelong)

      • Teachers and students are subject to objective evaluation (familie use subjective, emotional criteria)

      • Teachers and students both see their roles as means to an end (family relations are supposed to be selfless, ends in themselves)

      • Students are all the same age (in family birth order is central)

  Consider the modes of differentiation and stratification in families vs. schools.

Children in families:

Race, class, ethnicity, and religion are all the same

Age and gender are different

Children in schools:

Age is the same

Race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender are different

This allows for meritocratic evaluation, fostering the learning of achievement and independence

Questions

Do you agree that characteristics of school as a social structure makes it effective at transmitting secondary social norms, preparing for secondary roles?

Do you agree that characteristics of family as a social structure makes it ineffective at transmitting secondary norms, preparing for secondary roles?

But consider this complication to the story

Are schools, workplaces, public interactions fully in tune with the secondary model?

Are families, friends fully in tune with the primary model?

How do these two intermingle?  Why?

      • Having friends at work and school, makes life nicer – and also makes you work more efficiently

      • Getting students to like you makes you a more effective teacher

      • But the norm for a professional or occupational relationship is secondary – that’s how you define a good teacher, lawyer, worker

      • The norm for primary relations is that they are ends in themselves not means to an end

      • Family members may use each other for personal gain, but that is not considered the right way to behave