Weber and Political Liberalism: Passion and Force

(This post is available in its primary form, with images, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog)

Following from last Friday’s post on ‘Weber’s Theory of Charisma in Politics’, I’m addressing Weber’s contribution to liberalism. I believe this is a contribution that needs to be appreciated more in points which disturb some self-described liberals, but should certainly be taken up any liberalism that is worth while. A liberalism that incorporates the realities of force and passion in human character and in political communities.

Politics is based on the pursuit of power, not the implementation of norms.

Legal norms only have meaning where a power exists that can enforce them.

The existence of effective powers requires individuals with effective rights to give orders at the top the power structure.

The legitimacy of a system of political representation rests on the ability of individuals with power to inspire others with the belief that they are suited to wield such power.

Political communities are nations, so the existence of a political community requires nationalism.

The international order requires states which are capable of exerting power beyond their borders.

Politics is competition for power and therefore rests on individual competitiveness, which is the desire of individuals to be greater than others.

Competitiveness is the basis of economic growth and of political growth.

These positions are often taken to be in contradiction with liberalism, either in the positive sense that liberalism is above such impurity, or in the negative sense that liberalism is too devoted to abstract norms to be able to deal with these issues.

I argue, following Weber, and some others, that liberalism as a complete theory, acknowledges and incorporates these elements as necessary to the existence of a law governed community of individual rights and representative government.

The ‘others’ will be discussed in later posts, here I will just mention Machiavelli, Tocqueville, and Foucault (mostly with regard to later texts).

Accepting these points does not mean that we embrace unlimited dictatorial power for individuals, though it does require that specific individuals always exercise power.

It does not mean there is no distinction between legal order and state force, though it does recognise that a state force greater than any sub-state force is necessary for there to be legal order.

It does not mean that there must be a cult of personality of national leaders, though it does mean that we recognise that a successful political community creates political actors who command unusual levels of respect.

It does not mean supporting nationalism of an aggressive kind, or national identity based on religious, ethnic, or cultural exclusivity and purity. It does require that recognition of national pride (along with other forms of pride in identity) is part of the existence of a political community.

It does not exclude the existence of international law or trans-national institutions, though it does require that certain nations take particular responsibility for giving force to the declarations of such bodies.

It does not require opposition to the existence of the European Union, or the greater integration of the European Union. It does require recognition that national pride (and sub-national regional pride) are inescapable and often positive motives for action, and that European integration rests on a growing sense of European pride.

Where to find Weber’s political ideas

Weber: Political Writings

Cambridge University Press, 1994


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