It is nearly impossible to overestimate Max Weber’s influence upon social theory. He was a lawyer, an economist and a historian who largely invented the discipline of sociology, was fluent in 8 languages and authored enough works to fill 43 massive volumes. Not bad for somebody who suffered a major emotional breakdown at the age of 33 and died at the relatively young age of 56. He was, by any reasonable standard, a walking encyclopedia and (for better or worse) his books read like one too. Indeed, it is the dry style with which he marshals an (often) excessive amount of historical material that is responsible for his lack of Marx and Nietzsche’s far more polemic popularity. My goal in the next few posts will be to distill the historical material to be found in Weber’s writings while adding a bit of my own polemic punch.
Weber felt that the measure of “seriousness” with which any social thinker should be taken is the degree to which s/he had dealt with Marx and Nietzsche. It is not surprising, then, that these two men exercise an enormous influence over his thinking. That said, however, his politics differed markedly from these two men – especially those of Marx. Weber, was a (classical) liberal who largely accepted the social phenomena described by his predecessors while rejecting the extreme reductions to which each tended. Economic relations are very important, but – contra Marx – they do not unilaterally determine a cultural superstructure. Struggles for domination are very significant, but to reduce Christian (or any other) morality to pure “negation” is – contra Nietzsche – demonstrably false.
That said, the influences of Marx and Nietzsche will be obvious to those with a firm understanding of them. Whereas Marx construes world history in terms of a progressive series of economic foundations which unilaterally shape their corresponding religions, politics, morals, etc., Weber sees the latter as being both “caused by” and “causes of” our material relations. (The reproduction of capitalism might constrain our culture, but it took a cultural revolution – the Protestant work ethic – to get it up and running in the first place.) For this reason, he focuses instead on the various types of domination which have served to organize societies.
“We shall emphasize those basic types of domination which result when we search for the ultimate grounds of the validity of a domination, in other words, when we inquire into those grounds upon which there are based the claims of obedience made by the master against the ‘officials’ and of both against the ruled.”
-(All passages from Economy and Society, Vol. 2. Pg. 953-4)
It is important that we do not misunderstand Weber’s use of the word “domination”, since cultural Marxist today use the term somewhat differently. The German word is “Herrschaft” which can be translated as “lordship”, “authority” or – a word much more familiar to LDS ears – “dominion”. By dominion, Weber does not mean any degree of or asymmetry in brute power relations. Rather, he meant the likelihood that a person can issue a command and it will be obeyed by others. While everybody acknowledges that some forms of power are perceived as illegitimate or “unrighteous” dominion, Weber is primarily concerned with developing a typology of the various types of authority that are perceived by any given community as “legitimate” or, as us Mormons might say, “righteous dominion”.
The means by which a community justifies various claims to both obedience and disobedience are, for Weber, anything but an abstract conceptual game:
“For a domination, this kind of justification of its legitimacy is much more than a matter of theoretical or philosophical speculation; it rather constitutes the basis of very real differences in the empirical structure of domination. The reason for this fact lies in the generally observable need of any power, or even of any advantage of life, to justify itself…
”Indeed, the continued exercise of every domination (in our technical sense of the word) always has the strongest need of self-justification through appealing to the principles of its legitimation.”
The legitimacy or righteousness of dominion is essentially grounded in the answer that is given – either actually or potentially – to the question “why?” Why should we listen to you rather than somebody else? Why should we accept your answer rather than some alternative? To whom or what can we make an appeal when we disagree with our lord? Without satisfactory answers to such questions, a community can, with alarming rapidity, descend into chaos and violence.
In this sense, “why?” is not necessarily, or even typically an innocent matter of private interest or romanticized curiosity as we modern often make it out to be. “Why?” is a potentially, if not overtly subversive challenge to the established order of things, the received wisdom and those who have a vested interest in and/or wield control over such things. “Why?” plants the seed of doubt, suggesting that maybe, just maybe we (note the plural) ought not obey our lords when they command us.
Authority figures must be able to legitimize their commands – to answer the question “why?” To do this, they will almost always point to something other than naked power relations, to some external and less arbitrary standard. A tension exists, then, between 1) an authority’s need to place some distance between himself and what is supposed to be an “independent” legitimation of his claims to obedience and 2) his need to remain close to those who control or speak for this source of “independent” legitimation.
What, exactly, is to serve as this independent legitimizer of authority is of practical relevance. An illiterate community which justifies commands and policies in terms of inherited tradition will look to those with the longest memory of that tradition – the elders – for such answers. Genealogists will wield a large amount of power if blood relations (or lines of ordination/coronation) justify rule. Dead prophets can only command us through the living scribes that read such documents “for us” and lawyers will be in high demand if legitimacy is based in property relations, constitutions or other such “contracts”. If commands and obedience are supposed to be grounded in natural law, then natural philosophers, scientists and other such experts wield a disproportionate amount of status and authority – and this in addition to whatever technological improvements they may or may not have produced. The collective will shall always find is most “official” articulation in certain charismatic poets and intellectuals.
(edit: Whichever independent standard and the group that speaks for it is appealed to will have a strong influence upon the common man’s metaphysics within that community. It is a relatively straightforward task to determine which metaphysics tend to be most compatible with or best adapted to each form of legitimacy.)
These varied ways in which obedience and disobedience is justified and legitimated have very practical consequences for the community and the culture that shapes and flows through it:
“Every highly privileged group develops the myth of its natural, especially blood, superiority. Under conditions of stable distribution of power and, consequently, of status order, that myth is accepted by the negatively privileged strata.”
To summarize then: A community is held together and structured according to various myths if legitimacy. These myths not only satisfy and silence “why?” questions, but also stratify different types of cultural production and consumption. In modern societies, those who maintain expert control over both natural and human laws – scientists and lawyers – carry far more prestige than these same professions did during the middle ages. What matters is not that these experts actually can answer any such “why?” question to everybody’s satisfaction, but that they maintain the appearance that they can or soon will be able to do so.
The elders, genealogists and priestly scribes, who were once so closely heeded and highly prized during the middle ages, by contrast, now go largely ignored. It is for this reason that we can now justify our disobedience to the pre-modern authorities that command us today with an appeal to those modern authorities, but not the other way around. We are taught that we can legitimately disagree with religious claims for scientific reasons, but we cannot legitimately disagree with scientific claims for religious reasons. This is what is means to live in a secular society.
Questions to consider:
Who or what legitimizes the claim of a priesthood leader to our obedience?
Who speaks for such “independent” sources of legitimacy?
Who or what might legitimize our disobedience of priesthood leaders?
Which “why?” questions do each set of authorities (religious or secular) most wish to silence?