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The moral risk of politics

Why does any of this matter today? Is it any more than mere historical interest? In what follows, it will be my contention that Weber's lecture remains of critical relevance to contemporary political discourse, and that Weber's insights into political leadership - and the relationship between politicians and the societies of which they are part - can help illuminate the challenges faced by democratic theory in what some have called our "post-democratic" age. In particular, I shall examine three central questions: first, the decline of participation in formal representative democracy, and what Weber would have called the role of the "masses" in politics; second, the link between economic and political power in contemporary advanced economies; and third, the question of the reform of the state, which in Weber's sociology was principally a matter of the rise of the bureaucracy and the "iron cage" of rationalisation.

Finally, I will turn to what all this means for contemporary political leadership; its formation, tasks, methods and modalities. The revolutionary events in Germany at the end of the First World War were part of a wider change in the political landscape of Europe. The organised working class had arrived on the political scene. In the first decades of the twentieth century, universal suffrage spread across the advanced economies and mass political parties were formed.

Parties representing the labour interest began to assume leadership of progressive movements. Weber thought that this process of universalising the suffrage and replacing the political elites of the 19th century with new cadres drawn from mass political parties was inevitable and irreversible.

Politics as a Vocation

In his terms, the legitimating bases of political action were now legal-rational and charismatic; the appeal to tradition was no longer effective, as the collapse of the Kaiser's authority had shown. But in common with many of his bourgeois contemporaries, he also saw threats in this new order. Working class party leaders could use charisma to appeal to irrational sentiments among the masses or advance their own sectional interests against those of the nation as a whole.

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His concern with responsible leadership - the Sachlichkeit of realism or "matter of factness" - was motivated in part by a desire to see the organised working class responsibly led and brought into the fold of the emerging European democratic order. Weber never thought that democracy meant the rule of the mass of the population, however.

Elites would still govern. Political leaders needed to be selected by routes that would guarantee their leadership capabilities, but once they had assumed their leadership roles, they - and not the people - would be in charge. The "law of the small number" would always obtain. It was simply that party bosses had become more important than local worthies in political organisation, and party leaders had become more important than individual members of parliament. The leadership of a party meant above all command over a following and control over a machine.

It is not difficult to see how such thinking could pave the way to a plebiscitary politics of charismatic leadership, and Weber's later critics would accuse him of just that, particularly because of his support for an emergency Presidential override of parliamentary majorities in the new Weimar Constitution. After World War Two, the architects of the Federal Republic of Germany would go to great lengths to tie down their new democracy in the constitutional checks and balances of the Rechtsstaat.

But from the vantage point of the 21st century, it is not Weber's insistence on the inevitability of elite leadership that is most striking; rather it is the disappearance of the mas s es. If he were writing today, Weber would be dwelling on the collapse of popular participation in representative democracy, not on how to constrain it. The facts are stark. Voting rates across most industrialised countries are in decline. Within the OECD, the average turnout for national elections fell by 11 percentage points between and At the same time, political inequality has risen sharply.

Meanwhile, mass political parties have largely passed from the scene. Where once parties could count on many hundreds of thousands of members, now they depend on dwindling bands of local activists, with scarce resources. And politicians are held in contempt, not awe. At the start of the 20th century, the "popular" signified mass, democratic engagement in politics, today it has been reduced to a term of abuse: "populism". Weber's demagogues have reappeared on the scene, not as leaders of mass popular movements, but as spokespeople for apparently irrational irruptions of anti-politics.

All that is left in the mainstream are the elites: "ruling the void", as the late Peter Mair put it in a felicitous phrase. Let us sharpen this point a little, with Mair's help. In one of his last essays, Mair argued that two critical roles assigned to political parties in the 20th century understanding of democratic government had broken down: parties are no longer able to represent the interests of the people, nor able to respond effectively, through governing on their behalf, to their demands.

Instead of making representations on behalf of citizens to the state, they have moved to "making representations on behalf of the state to the citizen".

The representative function has become more difficult as parties have lost their moorings in civil society, and became more professionalised and narrow, while at the same time the decline of social class as an organising principle of politics has fractured voters' interests, making them harder to represent. Conversely, parties in office find it increasingly difficult to be responsive to their electorates.

Fiscal constraints, accumulated obligations to direct resources to particular public services and welfare entitlements, and increased accountability to supranational bodies like the European Union, have constrained their ability to respond to the demands of their citizens - demands which they anyway have difficulty deciphering or aggregating, let alone meeting.

Meanwhile, politicians' ability to persuade - and thence to demonstrate their responsiveness to their voters - has waned as trust in them had fallen. Into this gap have stepped populist parties, political actors who are prepared to offer an apparently unmediated representation of voters' demands without any pretence that they will try to respond to them in office.

Populists buy an "authenticity" precisely by eschewing the "slow, strong drilling through hard boards" of which Weber spoke. They are not serious contenders for power. Yet their mainstream counterparts face the dilemma that they are unable to hold together the demands of representation and responsibility. They have cleaved to an "ethic of responsibility" but at a price of denuding themselves of a claims to democratic representation. Even that commitment to responsible government is under pressure in contemporary political culture. Our hollowed out, elite driven party politics, besieged by populist forces and an insatiable media, finds itself responding ever more frenetically and tactically to the fickle electorate, so that politicians are increasingly unable to take hold of the major long-term structural challenges, like climate change and ageing, that advanced societies face.

Responsible governance becomes harder to exercise, falling victim to the structural contradiction between politicking and governing well. As popular democratic representation has declined, and access to political careers has become professionalised, so the spaces of political governance have become increasingly inhabited by interlocking networks of elites, with an extensive role for lobbyists and others who provide channels between economic and political power in which one can certainly include think-tanks, particularly those who make no pretence of openness over their funding sources.

This intermeshing of political and economic power was a particular concern of Weber's. His political theory was informed by his understanding of social class. He did not believe that political leaders or the state bureaucracy floated entirely free of economic class interests, and he was particularly exercised by the possibility that the owners of large corporations and the banks would dominate the state, unless boundaries were maintained between the spheres of market exchange and politics. Thus he resisted proposals for state direction of economic activity, on the grounds that superior knowledge of business would enable cartels to usurp state powers and privileges, rather than vice versa.

And as a supporter of liberal capitalism, he also raised these objections against the claims of socialists: the fusing of economic and political power would mean greater bureaucratisation, not the withering away of the state. In this, the course of events in the 20th century proved him right.

Intellectual Vocation & Political Struggle in the Trump Moment

For theorists of "post-democracy", however, the situation facing democracies at the beginning of the 21st century can no longer give us confidence to assert, on the one hand, that a liberal market will maintain a balance between social interests, or on the other, that the state will not become dominated by economically powerful interests. The rise in inequality in the s across most advanced economies - accompanying the processes of financialisation, deindustrialisation and the breaking of trade union power in the US and UK - led to concentrations of power being formed in the state and the economy.

When the global financial crisis struck in , these nodal points of power were exposed and crises spread through the institutions - Parliament, the media, the big banks and more - locked into them.

As David Runciman has written:. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don't apply to them. In any democracy, people with power will abuse it.

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All public institutions follow the path of least resistance over time. The usual democratic remedy is for other public institutions to rein them in: it is the job of the press and the police to keep an eye on the politicians, just as it is the job of the politicians to keep an eye on the press and police. In Britain, it looks like the opposite was happening. A managerial political class, with extensive links to other elites in media and business, colluded in the sort of lax scrutiny that served their joint interests.

Much of this behaviour coincided with a period of unparalleled political stability and economic prosperity: the long boom that lasted from the early s until But when boom turned to bust, the cosy world of the elites became a joint liability.

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Here then, is a Madisonian task for contemporary politics: to rebuild the institutional frameworks of British political economy the better to insulate political power from colonisation by economic forces. But this institutional reform is not the only factor to weigh in the discussion of the relationship of contemporary democracies to their market economies - as Mair indicates, fiscal issues have become more salient too. In Weber's time, the fiscal reach of the state was limited. Despite the marshalling of state resources behind the war effort, the European powers were only in the foothills of the growth of the welfare state and the public sector at the beginning of the 20th century.

In time, demographic change and distributional claims over the proceeds of economic growth, would all drive up public spending and expand the fiscal role of the state. In recent decades, this process has pushed up against limits.


The tax base needed to sustain public services has become more precarious, as capital has become more mobile and states have engaged in tax competition. Stagnant median wages have sapped voters' appetite for more tax-funded services, even as they defend the services for which they already pay. And fiscal room for manoeuvre has become ever more constrained by cumulative obligations to fund services and entitlements, particularly pensions.

Seen through this lens, austerity is simply a further tightening of the screw on democratic politicians - albeit with unprecedented severity in the periphery of the Eurozone, where tax revenues from housing bubbles and bloated banks disguised the underlying fragility of the public finances. Politicians have no room for manoeuvre over the public finances - the core business of governments - and must account as much to the financial markets as to their electorates.

For countries that have given up their currencies and central banks, without any corresponding extension of democratic decision-making at the supranational European level, this democratic deprivation is experienced as a double loss. In Weberian terms, they are locked in a new iron cage. Should we then yield, in the spirit of realism, to this account, and agree with contemporary German political economists and democratic theorists like Wolfgang Streeck and Claus Offe, who argue that democracy and welfare capitalism are no longer compatible, and that working people have stopped voting for good reason - there is nothing politicians can do for them anymore?

Or is this simply an academic version of the Russell Brand thesis - there's nothing to choose between the parties, so I won't bother? There is of course a structural logic to this case - one that Weber's twentieth century followers would probably have admired. But not only does it deprive us of any space for political agency, or rub out the differences that plainly exist between the tax and spend profiles of advanced democracies, it ends up asserting a functional equivalence between democracy and public spending.

All other areas of deep and powerful public contestation - climate change, immigration and identity politics, the future geo-political structure of the world, even the particular configurations of taxation and spending choices - are erased from the arena of democracy. And from a social democratic perspective - the political tradition from which I speak - it commits the Croslandite error of leaving the realm of the market economy untouched, while equating the possibility of progress with how much public expenditure there is to distribute.

It invites centre-left political forces to defend the ramparts of the existing structure of the state, while their conservative opponents reconstruct the market economy - a replay of the political story of the last thirty years. There is indeed an aphorism of the New Labour government that it was "too hands off with the market, too hands on with the state".

To caricature Labour's approach to statecraft, you might argue that it thought of the state as a giant delivery machine, over which political leaders sat pulling levers to deliver better services. This is too crude, to be sure. But it speaks to a certain truth about bureaucracy and public administration to which a Weberian political leadership would have been more alert. Weber's analysis of the rise of bureaucracy and the accompanying processes of instrumental rationalisation in capitalist modernity is one of the most celebrated and influential parts of his sociology.

As a political theorist and commentator, Weber articulated a deep suspicion of public bureaucracies, and the weight he placed on political leadership flowed from his concern to rein in and exert control over officialdom. He did not seek - as neo-liberal public choice theorists would later do - to denude society of effective public administration. But he provided twentieth century thought with a fuller, more extensive historical and theoretical treatment of the state than it could hope to obtain from any other intellectual tradition.

There were currents of socialist thought in Great Britain that nurtured pluralist ambitions for participatory self-government in the economy and society, pre-eminent amongst them, the guild socialism of GDH Cole. The British social liberal tradition had similar concerns. More ambitious still were the Catholic social theorists clustered around French Personalism, whose objective of creating a political theory and strategy that would challenge both free market liberalism and communist statism, and root politics in a conception of the common good, would bear remarkable fruit in the political success of Christian Democracy.

Yet in the mainstream of both Marxian and social democratic political traditions, state theory - giving the state both the empirical and normative attention it deserved - would remain remarkably undeveloped. There are obvious reasons for addressing that lacuna today. For one, the new public management paradigm that has dominated public service reform for the last thirty years now appears to have run its course: relational approaches, complexity theory and other new intellectual movements are challenging its position.

But more substantively, the state is also the site of major contemporary political struggles - whether in the challenge to its powers of surveillance, the battles over cuts to services, resistance to centralised decision-making, or the growth of what we might call the "Serco State", according to which services are commissioned and paid for by results in such a way that only large corporates with working capital can win the government contracts.

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Politics as a Vocation - Wikipedia

About Contact News Giving to the Press. Hyperpolitics Mauro Calise. The Second Birth Tilo Schabert. John G. This provocative work reveals the origins and development of political theory as it is presently understood—and misunderstood. Tracing the evolution of the field from the nineteenth century to the present, John G.

Gunnell shows how current controversies, like those over liberalism or the relationship of theory to practice, are actually the unresolved legacy of a forgotten past. By uncovering this past, Gunnell exposes the forces that animate and structure political theory today. Gunnell reconstructs the evolution of the field by locating it within the broader development of political science and American social science in general. During the behavioral revolution that swept political science in the s, the relationship between political theory and political science changed dramatically, relegating theory to the margins of an increasingly empirical discipline.

Gunnell demonstrates that the estrangement of political theory is rooted in a much older quarrel: the authority of knowledge versus political theory is rooted in a much older quarrel: the authority of knowledge versus political authority, academic versus public discourse. By disclosing the origin of this dispute, he opens the way for a clearer understanding of the basis and purpose of political theory. As critical as it is revelatory, this thoughtful book should be read by any one interested in the history of political theory or science—or in the relationship of social science to political practice in the United States.