Weber IV: Politics as Vocation

The problem with having a state that requires constant administration in order to maintain its position of power is that you need people who are constantly involved in administrating it. The power of physical force doesn't get you there; people don't like being pushed around, and you can't push them into pushing for you or they'll just let things slide when you're not around. 

The answer, Weber says, is to create a position that it is an honor to hold -- an honor that comes with remuneration, as well.
[Security of administration requires two means], both of which appeal to personal interests: material reward and social honor. The fiefs of vassals, the prebends of patrimonial officials, the salaries of modern civil servants, the honor of knights, the privileges of estates, and the honor of the civil servant comprise their respective wages. The fear of losing them is the final and decisive basis for solidarity between the  executive staff and the power­holder.  There is honor and booty for the followers in war; for the  demagogue's following, there are 'spoils'­ - ­that is,  exploitation of the dominated through the monopolization of office - ­­and there are politically determined profits and premiums of vanity. 

As mentioned in the previous post, while this holds true for feudalism as well as the modern state, the feudal state is different in that the vassals own their own military power. In the modern state, as in the ancient empire, the central authority consolidates all power. The people who come to work as administrators do not pay themselves, then: they are paid by the central authority.

Taxes levied upon the citizenry thus become not an exercise in providing for the common good through an agreed-upon mutual expenditure, but a means of maintaining the capacity of physical force against the very people who pay for it. It is, Weber suggests, a form of booty distributed to mercenaries by the conqueror. Complaining that 'the government works for us' 'because we pay the taxes' is never persuasive to any member of the government, and Weber shows why: the fact that you pay rather than are paid shows that you are the conquered. Vae Victis

So far Weber is talking about the bureaucrats, policemen, and soldiers. But what about the elected politicians themselves? That is where our defense is supposed to reside, in having a representative who pursues our interest as part of the government.

The problem, Weber says, is that these too must either be paid to do politics or else be rich enough to not need to be paid. Thus, the class of politicians is either corrupt -- because they have turned politics into a racket that they can live off of -- or else a member of a class that does not share the interests of the common people. 

There are two ways of making politics one's vocation: Either one lives 'for' politics or one lives 'off' politics.... He who lives 'for' politics makes politics his life, in an internal sense. Either he enjoys the naked possession of the power he exerts, or he nourishes his inner balance and self­ - feeling by the consciousness that his life has meaning in the service of a 'cause.' In this internal-sense, every sincere man who lives for a cause also lives off this cause. The distinction hence refers to a much more substantial aspect of the matter, namely, to the economic. He who strives to make politics a permanent source of income lives 'off' politics as a vocation, whereas he who does not do this lives 'for' politics. Under the dominance of the private property order, some - ­­if you wish­­ very trivial preconditions must exist in order for a person to be able to live 'for' politics in this economic sense.  Under normal conditions, the politician must be economically independent of the income politics can bring him. This means, quite simply, that the politician must be wealthy or must have a personal position in life which yields a sufficient income.... 

The professional politician must also be economically 'dispensable,' that is, his income must not depend upon the fact that he constantly and personally places his ability and thinking entirely, or at least by far predominantly, in the service of economic acquisition. In the most unconditional way, the rentier is dispensable in this sense. Hence, he is a man who receives completely unearned income. He may be the territorial lord of the past or the large landowner and aristocrat of the present who receives ground rent. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages they who received slave or serf rents or in modern times rents from shares or bonds or similar sources - ­­these are rentiers.  

This is to say that the successful politician must either be an activist who makes politics pay them, or else someone as rich as a Trump who can leave their source of income entirely in other hands. This peril is not new to Weber. Aristotle notes the dangers of having either the rich or the poor in charge of politics (as is likely in an oligarchy or a democracy, respectively). The poor will be intensely interested in making politics pay them to do it, and thus are likely to destabilize the state with their demands to extract wealth from it; the rich will pursue their narrow class interests at the expense everyone else until the populace is ready to revolt. Only the middle class, Aristotle says, is reliably moderate enough to govern rationally: and they will only govern as much as they have to do, because unlike the rentier, they have to get back to managing their farm or their shop. 

Aristotle's solution won't work, Weber says, precisely because the middle class can't afford to go after politics full time. What Aristotle saw as a moderating factor turns out to be a limit that will prevent ordinary working class guys, or small business owners, or even large business owners, from succeeding in politics. 

Neither the worker nor­­ - and this has to be noted well­­ - the entrepreneur, especially the modern, large­-scale entrepreneur, is economically dispensable in this sense. For it is precisely the entrepreneur who is tied to his enterprise and is therefore not dispensable. This holds for the entrepreneur in industry far more than for the entrepreneur in agriculture, considering the seasonal character of agriculture. In the main, it is very difficult for the entrepreneur to be represented in his enterprise by someone else, even temporarily. He is as little dispensable as is the medical doctor, and the more eminent and busy he is the less dispensable he is. For purely organizational reasons, it is easier for the lawyer to be dispensable; and therefore the lawyer has played an incomparably greater,  and often even a dominant, role as a professional politician.

Trump could walk away from his business because he was always delegating the work of running it to an endless series of hotel managers, accountants, lawyers, and the like. Someone who really is the genius behind their successful business can't walk away from it: they are indispensable. 

Nor does turning to the super-rich solve the corruption problem. The rich also like to use government to make themselves even richer.

The leadership of a state or of a party by men who (in the economic sense of the word) live exclusively for politics and not off politics means necessarily a 'plutocratic' recruitment of the leading political strata. To be sure, this does not mean that such plutocratic leadership signifies at the same time that the politically dominant strata will not also seek to live 'off' politics, and hence that the dominant stratum will not usually exploit their political domination in their own economic interest. All that is unquestionable, of course. There has never been such a stratum that has not somehow lived 'off' politics.

Weber was himself a member of the class of citizens that tends to produce small businesses and middle-class lives. What he is lamenting here, in his way, is that his class is not able to effectively wield political power. 

Yet this may be an understandable complaint to many of you, too. You would like to enjoy your lives, and politics is maddening. (Perhaps literally so.) The good life of family, productive work, membership in a religious community, pleasant hobbies, arts and crafts, none of these things are very compatible with a life lived in the political sphere. If you are like me, the last thing you want is political power over other people; you just want those other people to please go away and leave you be to live according to your own lights. 

Because you don't care to make politics into your vocation, however, if Weber is right you will be dominated and forced by those who do. These are none other than corrupt professional activists, and corrupt rentiers. They're all getting rich, and they're getting rich by stealing from you.

Either politics can be conducted 'honorifically' and then, as one usually says, by 'independent,' that is, by wealthy,  men, and especially by rentiers. Or, political leadership is made accessible to propertyless men who must then be rewarded.... For loyal services today, party leaders give offices of all sorts - ­­in parties, newspapers, co­operative societies, health insurance, municipalities, as well as in the state. All party struggles are struggles for the patronage of office, as well as struggles for objective goal.

The next parts are a rehearsal of how this corruption was playing out in Weber's own time. This speech was published in 1919, and a better example can be found from our position of perspective in how it played out in the years after Weber spoke. 


J Melcher said...

"Because you don't care to make politics into your vocation, however, if Weber is right you will be dominated and forced by those who do. These are none other than corrupt professional activists, and corrupt rentiers. "

This observation is consistent with my observations of nepotism -- the wives, sons, other relatives, and select "loyal staff" of one generation of politicians selects the next generation. Politics as a family enterprise. The relations -- the "insiders" -- if nothing else have seen the process from the inside. Like a butcher doing medical surgery, maybe, but starting off with more relevant experience than most of us.

Grim said...

As well, I suppose, as many a family business survives when it passes out of the hands of those who suffered the hardships that originally built it. The Chinese say of that dynamic, "In the third generation comes disaster."

SJBC said...

The ancient Athenians used lotteries for minor positions, such as attending the Assembly or serving on a jury, and these positions were modestly renumerated. More important positions; in charge of the public finances, admirals and generals, were appointed by the Assembly and were unrenumerated; therefore positions of honour for the elites.