Max Weber: the "Iron Cage" & the Commercialization Model

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Dec 7 17:06:28 MST 2000

Max Weber writes:

>"these peculiarities of Western capitalism have derived their
>significance in the last analysis only from their association with
>the organization of labour.  Even what is generally called
>commercialization, the development of negotiable securities and the
>rationalization of speculation, the exchanges, etc is connected with
>it.  For without the rational capitalistic organization of labour,
>all this, so far as it was possible at all, would have nothing like
>the same significance, above all for the social structure and all
>the specific problems of the modern Occident connected with it.
>Exact calculation--the basis of everything else--is only possible on
>the basis of free labour. (p 22. TPE)

The problem, however, is _how_ free labor came into being.  That is
why Carrol & I asked folks to read Ellen Wood, _The Origin of
Capitalism_, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1999; _Democracy Against
Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism_, Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1995; etc.  Wood writes:

*****   ...There have been various refinements of the basic
commercialization model, from Max Weber to Fernand Braudel.[2]  Weber
certainly did not fail to see that a fully developed capitalism
emerged only in very specific historical conditions and not in
others.  He was [unfortunately] more than willing to see some kind of
capitalism in earlier times, even in classical antiquity....The [most
important] point, however, is that he always tended to talk about the
factors that _impeded_ the development of capitalism in other places
-- their kinship forms, their forms of domination, their religious
traditions, and so on -- as if the natural, _un_-impeded growth of
towns and trade and the liberation of towns and burgher classes would
by definition mean capitalism.  Weber also, it should be added,
shares with many others the assumption that the development of
capitalism was a trans-European (or West European) process -- not
only that certain general European circumstances were necessary
conditions for capitalism but that all of Europe, for all its
internal variations, followed essentially one historical path....

...It is important to notice, too, that even the _critique_ of
modernity can have the same effect of naturalizing capitalism.  This
effect was already visible long before today's postmodernist
fashions, for instance in the sociological theories of Weber,
specifically his theory of rationalization.  The process of
rationalization -- the progress of reason and freedom associated with
the Enlightenment -- had, according to Weber, liberated humanity from
traditional constraints.  But at the same time, rationalization had
produced and disguised a new oppression, the "iron cage" of modern
organizational forms.  There is, of course, much to be said for
acknowledging the two sides of "modernity," not only the advances it
is said to represent but also the destructive possibilities inherent
in its productive capacities, its technologies, and its
organizational forms -- even in its universalistic values [Yoshie:
recall Adorno & Horkheimer's criticism of Kant in _The Dialectic of
the Enlightenment_; Walter Benjamin's _Illusions_; etc.].  But in an
argument like Weber's, there is something more going on.  Capitalism,
like bureaucratic domination, is just a natural extension of the
long-term progress of reason and freedom.  It is worth noting, too,
that in Weber we find something closely akin to the postmodernist
ambivalence toward capitalism, in which lament is never very far away
from celebration....

[2]  I discuss at some length the ways in which Weber adheres to the
commercialization model in _Democracy Against Capitalism_ (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uiversity Press, 1995), chap. 5.

(_The Origin of Capitalism_, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1999, pp.
16-7, 115)   *****

At 8:51 PM +0000 12/7/00, Justin Schwartz wrote:
>>Also, you neglect that Weber
>>thought that Z-R was a very mixed blessing, leading ulrimately to the "iron
>>cage" in which he thinks we moderns are caught. --jks
>>CB: What's Weber's solution to the problem ?
>The problem that we are caught in an iron cage of bureaucratic,
>instrumentally ratiobal societies? He doesn't have a solution. Live
>with it, he says. Suffer. --jks

Weber was a liberal pessimist (as well as nationalist).  Ellen Wood,
in essence, argues that the acceptance of the commercialization model
-- even in its more refined forms, like Weber's -- as the explanation
of the origin of capitalism tends to be tied up with the equation of
modernity with capitalist modernity as well as naturalization of
capitalism -- hence Weber's resignation in the face of the "Iron
Cage."  For he could not see why modernity could be exist otherwise,
that is, without capitalism.

Moreover, the acceptance of the commercialization model tends to
reproduce asceticism even in critiques of asceticism (like Weber's
remarks upon Puritanism).  It is no coincidence that Weber draws upon
Werner Sombart in his analysis of capitalism; recall that for
Sombart, the origins of capitalism lie in love and luxury among the
aristocracy & in towns.  While Weber differs from & criticizes
Sombart, their shared acceptance of the commercialization model
inclines both of them to ascetic attitudes of their own.


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