THE TRAGEDY OF WEBER
John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber
11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Democracy, according to the undemocratic Weber, is not actually rule by the people. It is rule by bureaucratic organizations, above all political parties, which claim falsely to represent the people. Modern democracy is governed by the idea that society must or should be controlled by reason, Weber says. And since such control must be organized in a rational manner, those who do the organizing -- the bureaucrats -- have the power. The bureaucrats in a democracy even organize and control the body politic that is supposed to rule them.
Tocqueville does not deny that America is subject to the same enfeebling tendencies as other democracies, and, like Weber, he deplores the effects of a large, impersonal government that encompasses our lives and leaves little for us to do on our own. Indeed, Tocqueville had analyzed the role of Big Government half a century before Weber even began writing. Big Government, Tocqueville explains, is not a feature unique to modern democracy. Rather, it was the creation of French kings centuries before and was governed by the very principle of rational control Weber describes. Tocqueville shows that Big Government, though born of reason, is in truth unreasonable. People desire it because in a democracy each individual feels weak and isolated, in need of a protector and a "tutor." But in trying to control every risk to which human beings are subject, Big Government promises too much and finally makes itself ridiculous. The people both submit to it and rail against it; they did so in the 1830s, and they do so today.
To turn away from the temptation of Big Government, Tocqueville seeks moderate, reasonable remedies, such as voluntary associations, religion, and decentralized administration. Weber, on the other hand, goes looking for tragedy resulting from some mighty clash of persons or nations that might give democratic life meaning. Indeed, Weber maintained that a class of men he called "master peoples" had an innate calling for world development -- which suggests that he was not only no friend of democracy, but perhaps something more sinister.
Weber's impact on Germany has been much discussed since 1945. His idea of the "master peoples" was not racial in character, but it was intoxicating, especially to Germans licking their wounds after 1918. Even more intoxicating was his notion of charisma and its mutation of greatness into something excessive, irrational, and undemocratic. Charisma is a copy of heroism for times too sophisticated -- or too feeble -- to believe in heroes. It is primarily defined by its mysterious effect on those who are dazzled by it. A charismatic figure does not have to have great qualities; he need only be thought to possess them by mass audiences, who are poor judges. The ambivalent meaning Weber gave to charisma suggests that it combines the willfulness of a fascist bully like Mussolini and the superficial charm of a democratic smoothie like Clinton. It denotes phony greatness, which is the stuff of phony tragedy.
Weber did not see how deeply he had cheapened heroism when he separated it from excellence and made it a performance art. Weber fretted about "the castration of charisma" by bureaucracies and other forces, a phallic image that suggests charisma really is nothing more (and perhaps something less) than manliness.
Tocqueville, like Weber, felt the absence of greatness in democracy, and he too criticized the bourgeoisie for the pettiness of its ambitions. But he was wary of democratic vanity and demagoguery -- which resemble nothing so much as Weber's charisma -- because he thought these vices would be likely democratic responses to the flatness of democracy. He was also aware of the genuine danger to democracy from the tyrannical pretensions of great men. The idea of charisma treats these pretensions as though they were only rhetorical overstatements, and therefore it cannot warn us against the actual tyrannies that might follow.
It may be a tragedy that democracy and greatness are in tension.
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University.