Max Weber (1864–1920) is out of style. To the Left, his apologia for Western civilization makes him a worthy artillery target. To political scientists, he is the architect of “modernization theory”: the notion, now discredited by the rise of China, that the growth of a middle class brings democracy. And to the Right, Weber is a carrier of moral wasting disease, the importer-in-chief of cultural relativism to America.

It is about time for a reappraisal, and an excellent opportunity has been provided in the form of Keith Tribe’s new translation of Weber’s masterpiece, Economy and Society  (Harvard University Press). Readers of this work, never as popular as his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism but still very influential in America, have until now been forced to rely on an edited version of a 1947 translation. This edition has a rich history: Friedrich Hayek had a hand in shepherding it to publication, but its editor heavily modified Weber’s unfinished manuscript to make it more readable. Tribe’s new translation is more faithful to the original and also more difficult to read: it is more “didactic” than “narrative,” as Tribe puts it in his introduction.

Some will likely applaud this change because it might make Weber less contagious. Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind makes a forceful case for why German thinkers—principally Nietzsche, Weber, and Freud—are to blame for the crisis of the university and of American society from the 1960s onward. Nietzsche’s attacks on traditional Christian faith and his emphasis on the individual’s freedom to define and seek values, Bloom argues, have infected American society so thoroughly that his influence reaches even the level of popular culture—the popularity of Superman (i.e. Übermensch) movies—and pervades everyday language used by both Left and Right, terms like “values” and “creativity.” Weber’s sophisticated mockery of what is good and lasting about American culture in the Protestant Ethic, along with his efforts to make political values relative in Economy and Society, leads Bloom to accord to him a share of the blame for a loss of metaphysical purpose in the university and a loss of civilizational purpose in the nation.

It is true that nearly all German thinkers from Kant onward broadcast an insidious aura and should be read with caution, unlike the generally pellucid Frenchmen of the previous era and the ploddingly banal English thinkers of every era. But Bloom would be the first to admit that he is far from free of the influence of these Germans—in fact, Closing is Bloom’s attempt to find his way back to Tocqueville’s America by way of Weber and Nietzsche (as well as Rousseau and Plato).

Weber, however, is probably less harmful than most Germans. He is one of the last straightforward political thinkers in the Western lineage, the last to offer a plausible taxonomy of regimes—lightly disguised as sociology in Economy and Society, as his “types of legitimate domination.” Political regimes sustain themselves, Weber says, not solely through political economy—through appeal to the material interest of the population—but also through legitimacy, the population’s sense that the regime is just. “Legitimate domination” comes in three types: the rational type, in which a “belief in the legality of statutory orders” supplies legitimacy; the traditional type, in which legitimacy comes from a sense of the “sanctity of long-established traditions”; and the charismatic type, in which it comes from a perception of the “exceptional sanctity or heroic qualities or exemplary character of a person.” (Bloom cuttingly remarks at one point that Arendt’s husk of an idea, “totalitarianism,” is just a borrowing of Weber’s theory of the routinization of charisma.)

Deferring the question of which claims to just rule are valid and which are not may seem an example of cultural relativism, but it is not, in fact, very different from Montesquieu’s idea of the “springs” of different regimes—equality in the republic, honor in the monarchy, fear in despotism—or Polybius’s notion of the cycle of regimes.

The neutral presentation of a taxonomy of regimes in Weber’s Economy and Society is less likely the result of a Nietzschean tendency to think “beyond good and evil” and more probably the convention of the genre. From Aristotle through Machiavelli to Montesquieu, political taxonomies generally presented themselves as neutral, even when the author eventually favored one type over the others. Weber is no exception. Far from neutral in his presentation of regime types, as Bloom accuses him of being, Weber clearly prefers what he calls “legal rule with a bureaucratic administrative staff”—that is, the Germany of his era or an idealized version of it. This is such an obviously silly idea of the culmination of human civilization that it can be ignored easily enough. What should not be ignored is his lucid account of bureaucracy as a regime type, and his vicious send-up of American-style bureaucracy.

The American bureaucratic system functioned poorly, Weber says, because it was not properly hierarchical. It was headed by elected officials, who out of fear for their popularity tended to meddle in decisions made further down the hierarchy instead of allowing the system to do its work. This often meant changing right decisions to wrong ones, and by making all decisions appealable to the figure at the top, it introduced not just chaos but a monarchical quality. The main result was inefficiency on the grandest scale. In fact, Weber says, the only reason American government had not already crumbled under its own weight is that the country’s tremendous supply of natural resources buttressed it and its half-democratic bureaucrats against collapse.

In his essay “Reflections of a Neoconservative,” Irving Kristol famously declared that “we have more to learn from Tocqueville than from Max Weber.” Maybe he was being too optimistic. In 1831, Tocqueville affectionately described a humble and largely agrarian nation with a thriving civil society and strong traditions of local self-government—at least in the North. By the time Weber visited in 1904, the country had been remade by the rise of industry and the city, war, the end of slavery, and waves of immigration.

Weber did not like what he saw. Mass democracy in the cities was a cynical farce, where corrupt party bosses rallied ethnic and religious voting blocs and trampled equally upon individual and collective theories of democracy. Whichever boss won got to staff the ranks of officialdom with his own set of bureaucratic cronies, giving voters the choice between one complement of petty tyrants or another.

Weber’s nightmare America is the opposite of the daydream we find in Tocqueville. There is plenty here in the way of ammunition for the new populists of the Right: the notion that regimes depend on more than economics, for example, or the critique of American officialdom and the politics of the city. But there is also much that should give these thinkers pause. It should not surprise us that Weber doubted that an upstart figure could return politics to the people.

To Weber, these upstarts derived their legitimacy not, in the first instance, from the people, but from their charisma itself. At first, their popular support was a consequence of their unique personal qualities; it was only after they won election that popular support became itself the principle on which their rule was based. It was this form of “plebiscitary democracy” that Napoleon III brought about in 1851, when he first seized power and then arranged a referendum to legitimate his coup ex post facto.

The bureaucracy, meanwhile, simply traded its old leader for a new one who was all the more eager to meddle in its affairs, with a mind to preserving the popular approval which now stood in for his personal appeal as the guarantor of his rule. The weight shifted towards the top rather than the bottom, and the government became not more democratic, but less rational.

This is all supposed to lead us to accept Weber’s prescription for “legal rule with a bureaucratic administrative staff.” His demonstration that officialdom cannot be reconciled with the populace through the ballot box is part of a larger (and misguided) argument for the subordination of populace to officialdom. Still, nothing stops us from searching for a reconciliation by other means. There are other remedies to Weber’s problem than Weber’s. One may yet be found in the pages of Tocqueville.

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