Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation in 2019

A century after Max Weber’s Politics as Vocation was published – and 101 years after he delivered the speech on which it was based – it is fascinating to use the speech as a yardstick against which one can evaluate politicians like Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Whenever people think of the great German sociologist’s work on politics they instantly default to his comments about charisma and whether contemporaries either do or don’t appear to have it while ignoring the rest of his views.

As for charisma: Obama probably had it; Tony Blair thought he faked it pretty well but soon found out that it was a matter of having it or not; Bill Shorten definitely didn’t have it; Bob Hawke assumed he had it; and, Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Keating looked as if they might have had it but didn’t.

But the next immediate thought about Weber is remembering his assertion (echoing Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk) that the state is defined by it being a “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” Today, when Trump, Bush, Howard, Blair et al see that as an imagined global monopoly of overwhelming force and righteousness we get in some awful messes.

Weber’s three basic legitimations of the State’s domination are also useful contemporary yardsticks. The ‘eternal yesterday’ of ‘unimaginably ancient recognition’ of tradition says much about the UK system while the Conservatives willingness to trash that tradition – from Army officers disloyalty over Irish independence through Airey Neave’s abortive coup to Boris Johnson and Brexit – says much about how radical conservatives can be, and how tradition never gets in the way of the pursuit of power and the destruction of anyone, or ideas, on the left who or which looks as if they might threaten the status quo.

The ‘legal’ legitimation is based on the validity of legal statute and rationally created rules. Malcolm Fraser, Jo Bjelke Petersen, John Kerr, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson demonstrate that this justification is now dispensable.

“The personal gift of grace (charisma)” is about confidence in revelation, personal devotion and other qualities of individual leadership. Scott Morrison is obviously someone who believes in revelation and that he is one of his god’s chosen. Trump, in contrast, believes he is actually “the chosen one” although neither is probably what Weber meant when he talked about charisma. The irony of Trump’s comment is that atheists are prompted to call it sacrilegious while his fundamentalist Christian supporters suspect it may be true.

Weber was also prescient about today’s politicians and party functionaries when he identified the emergence of ‘professional politicians’ suggesting that the rest of us are only “occasional politicians when we cast our ballot or consummate a similar expression of intention, such as applauding or protesting in a ‘political’ meeting or delivering a ‘political’ speech.”

Meanwhile Weber said: “The management of politics through parties simply means management through interest groups” The Morrison Government is much in favour of those interest groups either applauding or being quiet but not so keen on anyone who protests or delivers political speeches.

Weber is equally prescient about the emergence of party hacks and machine politicians when he draws a distinction between those who “live ‘for’ politics… or ‘off’ politics”. Sadly many of today’s political cohort are in the second category before, during and after their elective careers.

Perhaps what Weber makes us think about most is the notion of ‘vocation’. A vocation has usually been seen as something almost religious in its implications something inspired by professional passion and commitment. Yet just to look at Australia’s current Government and Opposition it is hard to see much evidence of any of this version of vocation.

The only passion displayed is about tactical considerations. The Prime Minister introduces legislation with the words “this will be a test for Labor” as if this is the major rationale for a new law – as perhaps it was. Slogans and glib phrases – quiet Australians, have a go to get a go, unfunded empathy, back in the black – are substitutes for considered discussion. Just now the Government is starting work – after six years in power – on a productivity ‘package’ which may be ready next year. Significantly it is not a policy or commitment but a ‘package’ which will inevitably be a ragbag of projects and ideas with little coherence and arranged around a series of talking points and slogans supported by a massive advertising campaign.

A new Sunday Telegraph political editor illustrates this tactical obsession in recounting that in his first meeting with a Cabinet Minister the Minister urges him to write something about whether or not Labor would retract one of its election policies. The Tele may be aggressively biased to the Tories and vicious in its attacks on Labor, but even that corporate culture was not enough to distract the new editor from remarking on how odd the comment was from a member of a newly-elected government.

Weber also anticipated much about 20th and 21st century politics. “Since the time of the constitutional state, and definitely since democracy has been established, the ‘demagogue’ has been the typical leader in the Occident. The distasteful flavour of the word must not make us forget that not Cleon but Pericles was the first to bear the name of demagogue.”

But, Weber concedes: “The political publicist, and above all the journalist, is nowadays the most important representative of the demagogic species” anticipating Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, Hearst, Murdoch, Packer and rather too many more.