April 21, 2010
MAX WEBER (1864-1920) was fascinated by cults and sects, small groups who set out to change the world. He was also one of the first and best interpreters of comparative religion and mass culture. If the standard reading of his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is as an idealist rebuke of Marx’s materialist take on economic ideology, its deeper legacy may be in contemporary cultural studies. Instead of demographic data or high-profile philosophical debates, Weber used close readings of obscure theologians and popular prose like Pilgrim’s Progress and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. History (and literature) offer the sociologist “ideal types” — mental pictures of multiple societies that furnish a vocabulary for analysis. He loved reversals and historical ironies. Protestant Ethic reads like a triumphalist account of the economic might of Puritan thrift, until the end, when Weber reveals that modernity has become an “iron cage.” Socialism fails not because of capitalism’s control of the means of production but because it neglects the state’s monopoly on the means of administration (bureaucracy) and legitimate violence (police and warfare). Weber’s last writings focus on the relationship between politics and scholarship: if the politician is forced into the devil’s pact of using violence instrumentally, the scholar must relentlessly seek both the consequences of those means and any inconvenient facts. Both have a responsibility over the life and death of nations.
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