Reviewed: Michael Löwy, La Cage d’acier. Max Weber et le marxisme wébérien
[The Iron Cage: Max Weber and Weberian Marxism], Stock, coll. "Un ordre d’idées", 2013, 200 p., 18€
Michel Lallement, Tensions majeures. Max Weber, l’économie, l’érotisme [Major Tensions: Max Weber, Economics, Eroticism], Gallimard, 2013, 288 p., 19.90€.
Was Max Weber a champion of modern capitalism and the triumph of Western rationality? Two recent books reply with a resounding “no,” as they seek to correct, on very different grounds, exaggerated interpretations of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In La Cage d’acier (“The Iron Cage”), Michael Löwy, a sociologist at the CNRS and an “ecosocialist” activist, explores the darker side of Weber’s approach to capitalism, connecting it to the “anti-capitalist” tradition of heretical Marxism. Michel Lallement, a labor sociologist working at the CNAM, identifies, for his part, the “major tensions” lurking within Weber’s account of the rationalization process. They consist of the conflicting forms of rationalization occurring within particular social realms, which cannot be transcended through syntheses or unifying mediations. These tensions, Lallement demonstrates, can be found in spheres as different as the capitalist economy and eroticism. These authors do not hide their admiration for Weber’s oeuvre: having overcome their reservations, which were ultimately tied to the history of Weber’s reception in France and the wariness with which it is associated, they have stumbled, as a result of actually reading his work over several years, on a number of fruitful discoveries.
Weber and the Unity of Opposites
Michael Löwy takes obvious pleasure in carefully tracing the history of concepts. Paradoxically, the term he has used in his book’s title is found nowhere in Weber’s oeuvre, despite being closely associated with it. This error is, however, a productive one: though it was initially the result of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons’ loose translation (“the iron cage”) of the German expression Weber used in The Protestant Ethic (“stahlhartes Gehäuse,” or a “compartment as hard as steel”), it is in fact a reference to an image found in a book that Weber often cites in his study of Puritan ethics, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678): “The iron cage of despair.” The superimposition of these two concepts points to an important aspect of Weber’s analysis of capitalism, which Löwy highlights: a combination of deep religious pessimism and an emphasis on the confinement and constraints capitalism imposes on those who are “born into this mechanism.” 
In one chapter of his book, Löwy reconstructs the history of another famous concept: “elective affinity” (Wahlverwandtschaft, in German). This is one that Weber himself used. He borrowed it from a novel by Goethe of the same name (Elective Affinities, 1809), the title of which was, in turn, the German translation of the Latin term attractio electiva, coined in 1775 by the Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman to refer to phenomena of “reciprocal attraction and influence [and] mutual reinforcement” (La Cage d’acier, p. 92). According to Löwy, Weber’s use of this term allowed him to “avoid the debate over the relative primacy of material and spiritual factors” (p. 80) by refusing, to quote the Protestant Ethic’s well-known conclusion, “to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of history.”  Having exonerated Weber of any suspicion of idealism, Löwy takes his own distances from simplistic Marxist notions of ideology as “reflection” and of base’s absolute primacy over superstructure. He adopts a more dialectical model for describing the process whereby “two terms seek one another out, attract one another, and seize hold of one another”: “election and reciprocal choice imply a prior distance, a cultural gap that must be filled, an ideological break” (p. 96). This notion of elective affinity as a “conjunction of disparate phenomena” corresponds well to Weber’s fascination with improbable sociological encounters—the reversals, the merging of opposites that create powerful social dynamics. The encounter between religion and economics that occurs in The Protestant Ethic is not an argument from continuity; it achieves its full effect precisely because it involves a paradoxical reversal. Taking contradictions to their logical conclusion and a fondness for blending opposites: this is the Weberian legacy that Löwy claims as his own, by way of a lineage extending first from Weber to the young Gyorgy Lukács, his student in Heidelberg (1912-1914) , then from Lukács to Lucien Goldmann, who was Löwy’s dissertation advisor in the sixties.  It must, however, be emphasized that for Weber, the moment of synthesis never comes. The basic dynamic of attraction and repulsion that, in his view, regulates social life cannot be dialectical: the “distance” that, Löwy maintains, underpins “affinity” is never overcome.
Marx and Weber: A Classic Comparison Reconsidered
La Cage d’acier opens with a chapter comparing Weber and Marx, a somewhat classic exercise since Karl Löwith’s essay on the same topic (1932).  The major point of convergence between them that Löwy identifies is the “lucid, pessimistic, and profoundly radical critique of the paradoxes of capitalist rationality” (p. 43). On this issue, Weber is just as critical as Marx; his vision is simply more “resigned.” Löwy rightly notes that certain assumptions about the difference between Marx and Weber’s respective analyses of capitalism’s origins must be reexamined. For example, Weber’s refusal, in contrast to Marx, to see “primitive capital accumulation” as the basis of modern capitalism and his insistence on distinguishing between a “rational” form of capitalism, primarily based on the intensification of labor discipline and profit-saving, and an “irrational capitalism,” which produces wealth through expropriation, colonial exploitation, the slave trade, and so on, must not be confused with his views on capitalism’s successive “stages of development.” For Weber, “irrational” or “imperialistic capitalism” does not disappear when “methodical” capitalist labor becomes widespread, as war financing and colonialism attest. Löwy has published a new translation of a little known text by Weber entitled “The Economic Foundations of ‘Imperialism,’” in the essay collection Max Weber et les paradoxes de la modernité (Max Weber and the Paradoxes of Modernity).  In this text, which is included in German editions of Economy and Society, Weber places the term imperialism in quotation marks, but then goes on to offer the kind of analysis of war financing that one would expect from Marx. According to Weber, armed conflicts are primarily caused by economic interests that are ultimately indifferent to a war’s outcome and which push for war even when its effects are highly uncertain: “Banks, which finance war loans, and today large sections of heavy industry are in any case economically interested in warfare; the direct suppliers of armour plates and guns are not the only ones interested. A lost war, as well as a successful war, brings increased business to these banks and industries. The partners within a polity are politically and economically interested in the existence of large home factors for war engines. This interest compels them to allow these factories to allow these factories to provide the whole world with their products, political opponents included.”  Such deciphering, which seems more relevant than ever, requires us to qualify—somewhat unexpectedly—the traditional view of Weber’s otherwise nationalism.
Weber’s “Left Cultural Pessimism”
With Weber, the critique of dehumanized capitalism (which, as Löwith observes, inverts the relationship between means and ends) results in a form of “cultural pessimism,” the contours of which Löwy attempts to trace. He sees the conclusion of The Protestant Ethic as a kind of manifesto for this position: Weber belongs to a “category of resigned romantics, who are little inclined to believe that pre-modern values can be restored, and even less that a future utopia can be achieved” (p. 55). His outlook is neither reactionary nor messianic, like Ernst Bloch, whom Weber knew at the same time as Lukács. Through a “strange inversion of Enlightenment optimism,” Weber thus depicts Puritan asceticism as a force that, like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, “‘always desires goodness and always causes evil’” (p. 59). Despite the differences, Löwy equates this position with what he calls “left cultural pessimism,” which he associates with Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School. In Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Reason (1947), he detects “a view of history that is essentially Weberian” (p. 161). This position is quite far from Lukács’ brutal verdict at the end of The Eclipse of Reason (1961), in which he identified his former teacher with a rising tide of “irrationalism,” culminating with Nazism. Borrowing the term “Weberian Marxism” from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Adventures of the Dialectic (1955), which devotes a chapter to Weber, Löwy applies it to Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, and even Walter Benjamin, whose essay “Capitalism as Religion” (1921) he discusses.” 
Catholicism as a Frontier of Weberian Thought
Finally, Löwy is interested in a question that Weber barely addressed: the relationship between Catholicism and capitalism. Löwy takes on this issue as someone acquainted with Latin America, where he was born. There, he observed the “opposition of progressive Catholics to the cold and impersonal character of capitalist relations” (p. 106). Citing The Protestant Ethic, he shows that the antagonism between Catholicism and capitalism is, for Weber, primarily due to the nature of the “Catholic ethic,” in which Weber discerned “a traditional, mostly inarticulate hostility towards the growing power of capitalism, which was impersonal, and hence not easily disposed to ethical control.” 
In his chapter on Catholicism, as throughout the book, Löwy turns the Weberian perspective on its head, bringing together anti-capitalist arguments from Weber himself, authors who were directly or indirectly influenced by him, and religious groups like Catholics. Weber built his religious sociology on exactly the opposite premise: he asked what factors favored, in specific religious cultures, modern capitalism’s improbable rise. Resistance to capitalism was Weber’s starting point, not a critique he formulated after the fact. For Weber, rejection of capitalism was the attitude that most of the world, for various reasons, spontaneously adopted—with one major exception: groups shaped by Puritan religious culture. The point is not to grasp the (countless) reasons why one might oppose capitalism, but to understand why some groups, for reasons that at first glance seem unfathomable, began to promote an economic system in which happiness mattered so little. Similarly, in his study of India, Weber did not ask why the caste system provoked such hostility (from his perspective, this reaction, when confronted with the “abysmal differences Hinduism has established between social strata,”  was self-evident), but rather why “negatively privileged” castes have and still do bear its burdens without rising up in revolt. “Certainly there were, and are, rebellions against the Hindu order, rising from the impure castes …. Rebellions by lower castes undoubtedly occurred. The question is: Why were there not more of them and, more important, why did the great, historically significant, revolutions against the Hindu order stem from altogether different, relatively privileged strata, and retain their roots in these?”  For Weber, the fact that oppressive social and economic systems like caste hierarchies and capitalism were often rejected was quite simply obvious, particularly among those social groups with the least interest in their perpetuation. What required explanation is why people support such systems, accept their constraints, and recognize their legitimacy. In the passage of The Religion of India just cited, Weber was developing a sociology that was critical of castes; while he never specifically proposed, at least explicitly, a sociology of anti-capitalism, much of his work in the sociology of religion built on his insights into the relationship between various social groups and the economy of rationalized profit-seeking. The aversion of intellectuals to capitalism seems, from the standpoint of this sociology, to be a high sociological probability, since intellectuals traditionally base their legitimacy on the “disinterested” character of their knowledge and on a conscious distance from the economy. It was, rather, the increasing similarity between the “university” and the “capitalist corporation,” which is discussed at length in his 1917 address, “Science as a Vocation,” that plunges Weber into confusion and constituted, in his eyes, an enigma.[Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber, op.cit.. For a French translation, see La Science, profession et vocation, trans. I. Kalinowski, Agone, Marseille, 2005.]
The “Major Tensions” of Weber’s Work
Like Löwy’s book, Lallement’s Tensions majeures begins with an astonishing discovery: the realization that “the radical hypertrophy of rationality into an end” (p. 30), which is so frequently attributed to Weber, is simply not found in his work, any more than the “Eurocentric bias” (p. 36), of which he is often reproached. Not only does rationalization occur in many different spheres, which are coordinated neither in time nor in place, but, as Lallement notes with fascination, “within any given sphere of activity, rationalizing forces tend to oppose rather than to complement one another” (p. 50). There are “major tensions” between what Weber calls “formal rationality” and “substantive rationality”: the former refers to a rationalizing process that obeys an autonomous logic, while the latter to forms of rationalization that are favored by external interests. Lallement begins by considering the example of law: “Formal rationality makes it possible to elaborate a legal theory consisting of norms that are exclusively based on the coherence of an abstract legal order and which can be deduced from one another. Formal law is a totality that obeys a logic that ignores any considerations other than the law itself. Conversely, a law is deemed substantive if it is consistent with extra-legal values and interests” (p. 41). Referring to recent legal debates, Lallement observes that this tension, which is often seen as “dysfunctional,” is in fact constitutive of law as such. Rationalization is not a priori a unified process. The convergence of different forms of rationalization is the exception, not the rule. Weber himself notes: “formal and substantive rationality are always in principle in conflict, no matter how numerous the individual cases in which they may coincide empirically” .
According to Lallement, these internal tensions are at work throughout Weber’s sociology, including in his youthful writings, such as those he devoted to a popular account of how stock markets work . One might also ask how these tensions are connected to another characteristic of Weber’s sociology: his specific tendency to think in polarities or dualities—that is, of defining one concept in opposition to another, of contrasting to identify, and comparing to distinguish (as with the priest and the prophet, for instance). This form of pre-structuralist thought inspired Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “fields.” The “tensions” examined in this book do not coincide exactly with Weber’s polarities, as they are far more asymmetrical: they refer to divergences and tendencies that, without overlapping, never become binary opposites or direct contradictions. Not only does Weberian sociology not take a dialectical path and never achieves synthesis or moments of systemic completion, it even strays from the polarizing structures towards which it is spontaneously inclined. Rather, it seeks to develop original logical models, of which the dual rationalizing processes described by Lallement describes are a prime example.
According to Lallement, the same asymmetrical configuration can be seen in the relationship between Weber and his predecessors and the theories that inspired him. In terms of economic sociology, Weber’s simultaneous interest in the Austrian school and the theory of marginal utility, on the one hand, and the German historical school, on the other, can be seen as the resulting from the fact that he was interested in two forms of rationality: “Using his own terms, one detects in Max Weber a tendency to oppose substantive rationality (the production of factual arguments, in the tradition of the German historical school) and formal rationality (the models used by Austrian economic theory)” (p. 103). Weber tempers the latter’s formalism by showing that, sociologically, the “rational actor” whose traits the Austrian school mistakenly universalizes, is likely encountered only in very specific and historically limited conditions: for example, the unlikely case of the “Quaker,” who set out to rationalize every aspect of his existence, spending and consumption habits, and social life. Weber observes: “The Quaker was, so to speak, a living law of marginal utility,” in refusing to spend “for not very urgent needs above necessary provision for the real needs of life.” .
Weber’s analysis of the “free market” and of the relationship between the development of labor law and the economy leads to a highly conflicted conception of “economic rationality.” To support Lallement’s claims, one might invoke a phrase Weber often uses: that loaded understatement, “(formally) free labor.” The recognition of a right to work and the formalization of labor relations through contracts do indeed constitute a form of rationalization, when compared to the ways of organizing labor power associated with slavery or serfdom. However, laborers and employers cannot take advantage of this formally recognized freedom to the same degree, as employers use this opportunity to “acquire power over others.” . The emergence of a legal structure for labor can thus, as Weber argues in The Sociology of Law, paradoxically “facilitate a quantitative and qualitative increase not only in coercion in general but quite specifically of authoritarian coercion” . The “major tensions” that Weber identified, as early as his work on the stock market, between industrial and financial capitalism are apparent in the still relevant contradictions of corporate rationalization: a “further substantive irrationality specific to the modern economic order” lies, according to Weber, in the fact that the running of a company, through “the mode of control over managerial positions,” can be determined by “business interests which are oriented to ends having no connection whatsoever with the organization, or, finally, pure gambling interest” .
Lallement might also have referred to the “The Psychophysics of Industrial Work” (1908), Weber’s interesting study of Taylorism and the rational organization of labor,  to support his thesis: after having initially accepted the idea that work could be scientifically rationalized through laboratory-based statistical measures or by organizing production on the ground, Weber shows the limits and even the aporia of methods of maximizing profitability by examining the difficulties associated, for scientists as well as for labor managers, of controlling the incidence of such factors as “fatigability.” Despite its apparent relevance when considered from a macro perspective, the cracks of the rationalizing project become apparent when analysis zeroes in. These are not only due to the limits of measurement methods, but also, more fundamentally, to the impossibility of reliably and precisely delimiting the factors that are truly operative in a given process. The 1908 study thus identifies rationality’s “replications” at the very heart of modern capitalism’s most rational procedures, and not only in “irrational” capitalism or in the conflicts between financial and industrial interests.
Eroticism and Rationalization
But there is a realm that, even more than capitalism, lays bare, for Lallement, the paradoxical nature of the dual processes of rationalization which Weber studies: eroticism. Lallement detects a “turn” in Weber’s approach, occurring around 1910, that is tied to his views on eroticism, which may even have suggested to him a way of “reenchanting the world” (p. 129). Previously, Weber had, in keeping with traditional classifications, considered sexual love as an irrational instinct, observing how Puritan asceticism had attempted to rationalize this drive by promoting a “sober” form of conjugal commerce (a “sober procreation of children” ) dedicated solely to reproduction. Yet a reevaluation of the place of sexuality in social life led him to emphasize subsequently the “cultural content” of the increasing refinement that became associated with eroticism as a “culture of sublimation.” Weber grew obsessed with the love poetry of the troubadours. In 1912, for example, he sought to finds its traces during a trip to Baux-de-Provence, where he hoped to find remnants of Provençal “courts of love.” . Weber thus began placing eroticism, “the greatest irrational force of life,”  alongside other novel forms of rationalization. Lallement rightly points out that despite the value he attached to these sophisticated forms of physical love, Weber never followed those anarchist or “bohemian” trends which, at the time, advocated a “return of the instincts” and a liberation of impulses. While Weber spent considerable time frequenting this political and cultural avant-garde’s strongholds, such as Monte Verità on Lake Maggiore. Though he debated with these groups relentlessly, he remained violently hostile to apostles of sexual liberation like Otto Gross, Freud’s dissident disciple.
All this has been known for some time. Martin Green’s 1974 book on the von Richthofen sisters, one of which, Else Jaffé, was Weber’s mistress, while the other, Frieda, was D. H. Lawrence’s partner,  provided readers everything they might want to know about Weber’s love life. After long being ignored in Germany, this information recently provoked controversy when Joachim Radkau addressed it in his biography of Weber, which appeared in 2005 in German  and was translated into English in 2011. In this respect, Lallement’s book offers little new: it resituates the problem of eroticism within the broader perspective of the divergent movements of rationalization that are its focus. The double life of rationalized eros—ascetic restraint, on the one hand, erotic subtlety, on the other—can also be connected to the new approach to the body which takes shapes in Weber’s religious sociology beginning with The Religion of India, the manuscript of which was almost complete by 1913 . This great work of religious sociology was of major importance, even if commentators mostly overlook it; its significance extends well beyond the religious sociology of the Indian world. For Weber, the discovery of Asia, beginning with India (a discovery that occurred entirely through books, as Weber never traveled there personally), was a cognitive shock, which disturbed the categories he had previously used to analyze the corporeal realm. In studying Asia’s religious virtuosos, starting with Brahmans, ascetics, and Buddhist monks, he was confronted with a correlation he had yet to encounter, between the possession of esoteric knowledge and highly elaborate techniques of corporeal mastery, notably breathing and meditation practices. Hinduism and Buddhism’s virtuosos unsettled the distinction between rationality and magic, between knowledge and the body. Becoming aware of the need to reconsider these dichotomies at the very moment when he was also reevaluating eroticism’s meaning, Weber was able to break, as it were, the conceptual bolt that hitherto kept his thought imprisoned by the conventional frameworks of his age. As a result, his concepts became dynamic, endowing Weber’s sociology with the remarkable freshness that characterizes it to this day.