Though Weber does not take a stand on the topical issues of his day – that is, the political problems in Germany at the time – some of his ideas are directly related to the struggles in Germany at the time. It seems, throughout The Profession and Vocation of politics, that such political strife provides a platform for Weber’s discussion of some of his meatier ideas. Weber was particularly concerned by what kind of politicians were produced by Modern Democracies: did they have the inherent qualities that Weber thought essential to good political practice? Indeed, did they have “hot passion and cool judgement”1?

He also discusses the differences between what he terms “conviction ethics” and “ethics of responsibility”, but again, with direct relation to the role of the politician. His outlook, at time, may seem particularly bleak. Indeed, he seems utterly disenchanted by the very notion of Politics. However, an analysis of his ideas proves very fruitful in the understanding and development of the role of the Politician in Modern Democracies.

Weber describes “politics” as an “extraordinary broad term”.2 He uses the term “only to mean leadership”3, and doubts whether it could be defined by the content of its activities. His definition is certainly a very curious one. He doesn’t attribute any particular values to “politics”, instead insisting that it can only be defined “in terms of specific means…..namely, physical violence”4. The state, then, is that entity which manages to control, or monopolise “legitimate physical violence”5 – that is, violence that is held to be legitimate. He stresses that violence is not the only means employed by the state. According to Weber, however, striving for political office is synonymous with striving for power or the distribution of power; the power that is acquired through being in control of the apparatus that has the only right to employ violence as a legitimate means for attaining certain goals: “Every state is founded on force”6. The level of legitimate force and violence is one characteristic that influences the production of politicians in modern democracies. A responsible wielder of power is obviously essential to the development of any state, but “anyone who makes a pact with the means of violence for whatever reasons – and every politician does this – is at the mercy of it’s specific consequences”7.

In order to set up the foundations of the modern state, the “prince” had to dispossess the independent of certain powers; political expropriation had to take place on a massive scale. In order for the modern state to work, there could be no fragmentation of power. In an almost Hobbesian outlook, Weber suggested that a single power was required to rule the country and that “for the state to remain in existence, those who are ruled must submit to the authority claimed by whoever rules at any given time”.

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This apparatus is held together mainly through “material reward and honour”8. However, their has to be some sort of inner justifications to glue the foundations together, and to stop it crumbling into anarchy. According to Weber, there are, in principle, three grounds legitimating any rule: Firstly, there is the authority of “the eternal past”9, encouraged by the fact that this rule has always been, and that the people are habitually predisposed to retain this rule.

This, according to Weber, is “traditional rule, as exercised by the patriarch and the patrimonial prince of the old type”10. Then Weber discusses those leaders that have, as inherent qualities, exceptional levels of charisma, of interpersonal skills, personal “gift of grace”. This is “charismatic rule”, most notably exemplified by Marc Antony and many other great Roman leaders. Finally, there is rule by virtue of “legality”, founded on the predisposition to uphold the legal statutory obligations. This last rule, according to Weber, is the one exercised by modern servants of the state. However, he is most interested in the rule of the charismatic leader, for this is where the idea of “vocation in its highest form has its roots”11. This leader is followed, not because of a habitual disposition to fulfilling statutory obligations, but because the men believe in him.

Weber went on to distinguish between those who live “for” politics and those who live “from” politics. . However, this antithesis is not an exclusive one; it is most likely the case that politicians live both “for” politics and “from” politics. Those that live “for” politics make it the center of their life. They may find inner security in the knowledge that their life has a drive and a purpose, or they may find enthralling the power they wield. If someone is living “for” politics, they must be economically independent, as anyone who is reliant upon the money they draw from their political activities is clearly living “from” politics.

However, this is not enough for Weber. For him, modern politicians have to be economically “dispensable” – that is, they must not be reliant on any activity for security of income. If a party is lead by a stratum who are economically dispensable, it is said that the “leading political strata are recruited on a plutocratic basis”12. However, this does not mean that this leading strata will not try to live “from” politics, by exploiting their political ties to further themselves economically. Nor is it the case that a politician who is not the holder of vast quantities of money, will use politics solely as a means of earning, and not devote himself to the “cause”. Indeed, securing oneself economically is something everyone performs unconsciously. Weber went on to point out that it is usually the case that those with substantive political ambitions are usually those who have no interest in preserving the economic status quo.

In modern politics, battle is done in the sphere of words. Politics, according to Weber, is now predominantly conducted in “public and by means of the written or spoken word”13. Implicit in this is the notion, again, that a charismatic leader is the most effective politician produced by modern democracies. The charismatic demagogue, appealing to the people’s most base instincts, is most likely to have “partisanship, fighting, passion”14, all that the “politician, and above all the political leader, thrives on”.

In modern democracies, also, the power of the press has become hugely important: “Of course, all important politicians need press influence, and hence press connections”. The charismatic leader would be most effective in building up such connections, and thus would be a more effective politician. Though the journalist plays a huge part in the outcome of politics, they cannot enter the political arena and rise to positions of power themselves. They are not economically “dispensable” and have to write articles in order to survive.

In modern democracies, we have an increase in the suffrage. Weber, in fact, was one of the main proponents for the extension of the suffrage, particularly to those soldiers returning from Prussia. He saw little need for any organizations or political parties based on violence, and was more concerned with “professional politicians whose aim is to achieve power by means of sober, “peaceful” canvassing by the party in the electoral marketplace”. Again, it is evident that what is needed to be an effective politician – even if the main aim is to acquire or retain power – is charisma or a “gift of grace”, not an iron hand.

Originally, parties were formed across the country under the “spiritual leadership of the intellectual strata”, divided “partly along the lines of class interests, partly on the basis of family tradition, partly for purely ideological reasons”, with no direct cohesion throughout the country. The little that was offered was from the members of parliament who took no real interest until they found benefits in possible “electoral compromises between localities , and in the effectiveness of unified electioneering in the country”16. So we see that politicians produced by modern democracies are those that take a – mostly selfish – interest in local government and political party cohesion.

The modern politician must also battle between “ethics of conviction” or “ethics of responsibility”; he must choose between the ends and the means. An ethic of conviction pays no heed to possible consequences, and could be seen as irresponsible. For Weber – who cited a sense of responsibility along with passion and judgement as “pre-eminently” important for a politician – conviction ethics may be deeply unsuitable for a politician.

It could be argued, however, that “ethics of responsibility” – particularly when concerned with preserving one’s political career – carry the loss of any sort of ideological or substantive conviction in politics. Weber suggests that this is not always the case. He continues: “no ethics in the world can get round the fact that the achievement of “good” ends is in many cases tied to the necessity of employing morally suspect or at least morally dangerous means”. The struggle between the two is mediated only meditated by violence as the decisive means of politics. Weber, however, dismisses conviction ethics as being too fluid, too open to change: “those who have been preaching love against force one minute, for example, issue a call to force the next”17.

According to Weber, ” there is no way of foreseeing today what outward shape the business of politics as a profession will take”. Indeed, Weber’s outlook is a particularly bleak one. The burden of ethical responsibility on the modern politician, and the sacrificing of substantive ideas for pragmatic ones, are prospects that should weigh heavy on the politicians heart: “Anyone wishing to practice politics of any kind, and especially anyone who wishes to make a profession out of politics, has to be conscious of certain ethical paradoxes and of his responsibility for what may become of himself under pressure from them”18 As The Profession and Vocation of Politics ends, we are reminded, again, of the necessity of violence and it’s many negative connotations for the type of politicians modern democracies produce: “He is becoming involved, I repeat, with the diabolical powers that work in all violence”19.


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