The vision of industrialization and capitalism in the work of Max Weber is questionable in two respects: his view of them as the historical destiny of the West, and as the present destiny of the Germany created by Bismarck. Weber believed them to be the destiny of the West because they were the decisive realizations of that Western rationality, the idea of Reason, which he searched for everywhere, in all its open and hidden, progressive and regressive, manifestations. He believed them to be the destiny of Germany because for him they determined the policy of the Reich: the historical vocation of the German bourgeoisie to overthrow the conservative and feudal State, to democratize the nation, and then to fight against revolution and socialism. It is essentially this idea of the interdependence of industrialism, capitalism and national self-preservation which inspired Weber’s passionate and—it cannot too often be said—malevolent struggle against the socialist attempts of 1918. Socialism contradicted the idea of Western Reason and the idea of the Nation-State—therefore it was a world-historical error, if not a world-historical crimefootnote1. For whatever else capitalism meant to mankind, it must first of all, before any evaluation, be understood as necessary Reason.
In Max Weber’s analysis of industrial capitalism, philosophical, sociological, historical and political elements are indissolubly fused. His theory of an internally value-free science revealed itself as what in practice it was: an attempt to ‘free’ science for the acceptance of binding values whose source lay outside science. The function of Weber’s theory of science was clear from his inaugural address at Freiburg onwards—an address in which he openly and unblenchingly subordinated his value-free economics to the demands of imperial power-politics. He later expressed himself quite unambiguously, at the meeting of the Verein für Sozial Politik in 1909: ‘The reason why I denounce with such extraordinary fervour on every occasion—with a certain pedantry peculiar to me—the confusion between “ought” and “is”, is not because I undervalue the problem of the “ought”, but just the opposite: because I cannot bear problems of world-shaking importance, of immense ideal proportions, in a sense the highest problems that can move a human being—I cannot bear these problems being turned into a technical “question of productivity”, and discussed here as if they were within the province of a specialist discipline like economics.’footnote2
The problems of value, of ‘ought’, that are thus separated from science (as a mere specialist discipline), are at the same time protected from science and sealed off from scientific criticism. From the evidence of scientific work ‘the value of any ideal can never be deduced’.footnote3 It is precisely Max Weber’s analysis of industrial capitalism that shows, however, that the idea of scientific neutrality, or rather impotence, in relation to values and ideals, is untenable. The pure, value-free, philosophical-sociological conception becomes in its own development a critique of values; and conversely pure, value-free scientific concepts reveal their own hidden valuations—they become a critique of the given in the light of what the given inflicts on man and things. The ‘ought’ reveals itself in the ‘is’. The inexhaustible dynamism of the concept brings it into the open. In the most value-free of all Max Weber’s works, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, a veritable bacchanalia of formal definition, classification and typology, formalism itself becomes the most concrete of contents. This authentic concreteness is the result of Weber’s mastery of his huge mass of material, his erudition (which would be impossible today) and his intelligence—which gave him a capacity for abstraction based on a constant discrimination between the essential and the inessential, the reality and the appearance. Weber’s formal theory achieves with its abstract concepts what anti-theoretical, pseudo-empirical sociology strives after in vain: a true definition of reality. The concept of industrial capitalism in Weber’s works becomes concrete in his formal theory of rationality and domination—the two fundamental themes of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.
Let us try to set out, first of all, the connection between capitalism, rationality and domination in Weber’s thought. It can be summed up
For Max Weber, there is a kind of rationality that has only come into existence in the West, which formed or helped to form capitalism, and which will decide our foreseeable future. The attempt to seize the manifold (and often contradictory) manifestations of this rationality makes up a large part of Weber’s work. The ‘spirit of capitalism’, as he describes the first volume of his Sociology of Religion, is one of these manifestations: already the preface to this work indicates programmatically that the rationality which becomes incarnate in capitalism distinguishes the Western form of industrialization fundamentally from all other forms of economy and technology.
The characteristic elements of Weber’s concept of reason were:
(1) progressive mathematization of all experience and knowledge, spreading from its spectacular successes in the natural sciences to the conquest of the social sciences and then to the very way of life itself; (2) insistence on the necessity of rational experiment and rational proof in the organization of science and life; (3) constitution and consolidation of a universal, specially trained organization of officials, that tends towards ‘an absolutely inescapable control over our entire existence’.footnote4 This last was for Max Weber the crucial result of the whole development. His definition of it effects the transition from theoretical to practical and historical reason. Weber’s concept of reason initially contained a consciousness of its specific historicity. We shall see that in the course of Weber’s analysis this consciousness weakens, and finally abdicates any decisive position. In his sociology, formal rationality becomes indivisibly capitalist rationality: it appears as the imposition of a systematic discipline on the irrational ‘desire for gain’, and its typical expression becomes the ‘inner-wordly asceticism’ of puritanism. In this discipline, Western Reason becomes economic reason—the drive for ever-renewed profit in the continuous capitalist enterprise. Rationality becomes the condition of profitability, which in turn is oriented towards systematic, methodical calculation, ‘capital accounting.’footnote5