Monday, December 27, 2004

Max Weber made me cry

Well, that is a slight exaggeration. Rather I find him annoying and frustrating. His writings have the poetry and organization of a dictionary, albeit a good dictionary.

The particular source of my frustration is Weber’s ideas after the November Revolution of 1918. The sociologist was definitely kleindeutsch in his politics. He felt that the strength of the Reich flowed from the special role that the Prussian state played in German politics: the aristocracy was an important hinge between the powerful state bureaucracy and the dynasties of the other states. The unity of the Reich was based on the personal politics of a administrative-dynastic system that flowed through the Prussian monarchy. This odd mixture allowed for small measures of independent action on the part of the other states in the matter of their internal affairs, but unity based on the hegemony of Prussia in imperial affairs:
The member states of the German Reich, a federal state, were autocephalous. But in spite of this, within the sphere of authority of the Reich, they were heteronous; whereas within their own sphere, in such matters as religion and education, they were autonomous.

The abdication of the dynasties in 1918 through out the possibility monarchy as focal point of German federalism. Unfortunately, everything else that created Prussian hegemony was left behind: the bureaucracy and the large state. Weber admitted that the power of both would have to be severely delimited in order to found a democratic republic. That was easy: break up Prussia and separate the Prussia administration from the affairs of the Reich.

The problem: where to the competencies no longer exercised by the Prussian hegemony go. Weber’s solution was a repartition of powers in order to bring German federalism into balance on the basis of democratic principles (Repartitionsföderalismus). Weber focused his attention on the three assemblies: the Reichstag (popularly elected lower house), the Reichsrat (representatives of the estates and corporations that included appointments from the states), and the Bundesrat (representatives of the states who met in order to discuss the implementation of laws passed by the legislative assemblies by the state administrations). On the surface it appears that Weber was becoming a committed democrat: he stood out in favor of the introduction of popular representation to both the Reichsrat and the Bundesrat. They would behave more like parliamentary bodies. Furthermore, they would take over responsibilities that were once overseen by the Prussian ministers, creating two bodies that would protect federalism based on the self-interest of the constituent parts.

Weber had little influence over these matters. Hugo Preuß, another sociologist who was more liberal and had more of a sense of the struggle against Prussian hegemony, ended up writing the the constitution (with Weber's advice), and even his plans to reform federalism were rejected.

Interestingly, I think that Weber was naive about how the Reich worked under the Kaiser and how it could be reformed. As much as he would like to believe that the states had free reign in their internal affairs, Prussian policy usually set the agenda of other states’ administrations. Legislation was closely written by the Prussian ministers, who worked not to create a policy for Prussia alone but a masterplan for the entire Reich. Once the legislation was passed and implemented, the ministries of the other states replicated it. Each state varied slightly from Prussian practices, but for the most part there was a unified policy throughout the Reich. The only state that might deviate was Bavaria, which attempted to be independent (but was paralyzed by the influence of liberals in the administration).

His embrace of democracy was also half-hearted. He tended to look at the problem of political relations in terms of how rule functioned rather than how popular authority could be established. Most of his writings are based on his observations comtemporaneous states, few of which could be described as democratic. I cannnot remember him saying anything kind about France. He was not necessarily impressed with America. He seemed to have some affinity for Swiss federalism, but only because certain sectors of policy were conducted by a strong federal administration (limiting the influence of the cantons only to the formation of policy).

Weber was, therefore, not creative in conceptualizing how the republic would be built from the bottom up. It appears as if he wanted to reshuffle the deck of imperial politics, giving each piece a new relationship rather than reconsider the influence that they had. Weber would retain many features of the old system, adding more democratic features in order to compensate for the absence of Prussian hegemony. The layering of weak democracy over the old German system was exactly that which made the first republic so weak. All the Weber offered is that this system would be created as a means of reconciling the old and new, bringing them together in common purpose. The Weimar system that did emerge was, however, no compromise: it was an accommodation with those parts of the empire that refused to abdicate their authority, namely the bureaucracy and the Prussian hegemony.


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