Weber On Rationalisation

Max Weber’s study of history, economics, and law allowed him to analyse social movements in their microcosm, especially his views of Rationalisation.  Critics have argued that Weber viewed rationalization as progress, while, I would counter that Weber described it as a modern reality, much as Machievelli described power and the state in The Prince.  Weber’s views of rationalization, the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions for rational, calculated, societal behavioral motivators, primarily manifest themselves in economics, politics, and social processes (leaving religion to a later discussion).

According to Weber’s view, the highest form of capitalist sprit did not arrive until Calvinist Protestantism during the Reformation.  Commercial capitalism existed in small pockets in Europe, but not to this heighten extent where individuals daily hoarded monies to prove their individual worth as the “Godly elect”.  While providing “spiritual” reasoning for the original Calvinists, it provided excessive wealth to their children and grandchildren and the resulting capitalism was no longer a Calvinist concept as first and second generation Calvinists engaged in economic trade with non-Calvinist societies and this technological work ethic spread.

With the political, rationalisation becomes a concrete reality permeated into every aspect of public and private life, but it began long before the Calvinists.  Rationalisation is nothing more than Jacques Ellul’s definition of technique, where he describes it as, “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” (Ellul 1964: xxv)  Rationalisation, or technique, was growing and evolving long before the growth of Calvinism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere.  Early governments established bureaucracies that codified technological processes alongside early capitalist developers, but they created these processes unconsciously based upon earlier techniques.  At this point, technique cannot be controlled.  Any attempts in the political, economic, or social sphere to control it are fruitless because technique feeds upon itself, is perpetually evolving.  This has always been the nature of technique.  All that we can do in each sphere is accept it and codify that acceptance into tradition and law.

This rationalization of the social is its control by the economic and the political, essentially a bureaucracy, that first manifested itself in the traveling organization of the Roman army where highways were created in order for the army to conquer other peoples easily.  But in order to accomplish this, portable social instructions had to be “invented,” i.e. a common alphabet that all were taught to read.  (McLuhan 1964:  39, 139). This created a bureaucratic uniformity that was necessary for Roman [military] society to function properly).  Much the same could be said for Soviet society in the age of Lenin.  Without universal literacy programs, the Soviet people would not have followed Soviet bureaucratic standards, and they could not have read the propaganda as an illiterate citizenry.  Today, the former Soviet Union has one the world’s highest literacy rates.

Like Ellul, Weber described “the further advance of bureaucratic mechanization” as “inevitable” (Giddens 1971:  235).  Weber studied societies in isolation and made generalizing observations which had far reaching consequences beyond the economic, political, and social of his day.  He described a technique that began long before his day and will continue to evolve long after ours.

Sources:

Giddens, A. (1981). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A Knopf.