[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: The tragic view

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John Gray: The tragic view
The Times Literary Supplement, 97.9.26

    MAX WEBER. Politics and the spirit of tragedy. By John Patrick
    Diggins. 334pp. HarperCollins. £20. - 0 465 01750 9.

    Max Weber could scarcely fail to have a formative influence on the
    development of social thought in the United States. As one of
    sociology's founding thinkers, he set the intellectual agenda for
    social scientists everywhere. Yet Weber's view of politics and society
    has had few echoes in American intellectual life. It is too
    disenchanted a vision to be accepted in a society begotten in the
    faith that it is exempt from the tragic conflicts that have marked
    political life throughout history. For Weber, conflicts of values are
    the engine of history and politics. The task of politics is not to
    achieve an ideal harmony among social goods. It is to sustain a
    precarious coexistence between irreconcilable ideals and interests.
    Skilful leadership can mediate conflicts of values; but they can never
    be finally resolved. The vocation of politics is tragic, because no
    such balance is ever achieved without irreparable loss. Political life
    will always remain a realm of warring gods.

    Weber's view that the intractable conflicts and murky settlements of
    politics are not marks of a phase of historical development that may
    soon be transcended, but permanent features of human experience, has
    never been accepted in the United States; it has proved even less
    digestible there than the stoical doctrines of Sigmund Freud.
    Psychoanalysis was assimilated into American culture by being made to
    serve self-realization rather than - as Freud surely intended -
    resignation. Weber's thought has proved resistant to such a

    In Max Weber: Politics and the spirit of tragedy, John Patrick Diggins
    contrasts Weber's understanding of politics with "an American
    political culture almost innocent of irony and tragedy". At the same
    time, he suggests that Weber's thought has analogues in American
    literature, and in the thinking of Abraham Lincoln about the choices
    engendered by the Civil War. Though it encompasses an illuminating
    account of Weber's life, Diggins's book is not a biography of Weber,
    nor is it an analysis of his sociological writings. It is an extended
    meditation on the bearings of Weber's thought on American life, using
    as its primary evidences Weber's responses to the historical
    circumstances of his time. Together with other interpreters, Diggins
    maintains that Weber's view of the conflicts of modern society was
    shaped by the understanding of tragedy which he appropriated from the
    work of Nietzsche and Simmel and by the account of the limits of moral
    responsibility he derived from his studies of Calvinism.

    Weber's recurrent theme, of the disenchantment of human experience in
    modern societies, expressed a conception of the inherent limitations
    of the rational and moral exercise of power that Diggins plausibly
    argues is Calvinist and Nietzschean in origin. For Weber, the spread
    of rational calculation throughout society is an undoubted good, in
    that it enables human wants to be satisfied more effectively; but it
    is also a cultural and moral hazard, since it drains social life of
    significance and subjects human beings to the meaningless demands of
    efficient administration. Weber thought this an antinomy that no new
    political dispensation could hope to elude. Like his disciple Joseph
    Schumpeter, he had no hopes of Soviet Communism, and reacted with
    incredulous contempt to suggestions that American capitalism could
    escape the ironies all modern societies are fated to endure.

    Throughout Diggins's carefully crafted account of Weber's life and
    thought, he compares and contrasts Weber's views with those of the
    principal interpreters of the American condition, particularly
    Tocqueville. He records Weber's cool comment on Tocqueville's thesis
    of the danger of a democratic tyranny of the majority in the United
    States - that it presupposes that the fiction of popular government
    will some day become a fact of American political life: which is an
    impossibility. Weber shared Tocqueville's belief that the intensity of
    commercial competition in the United States owes much to the pervasive
    American illusion of equality; but he had no fear that egalitarian
    levelling would ever become a reality in the United States. Wiser and
    more prescient than Tocqueville, Weber expected that new inequalities
    would arise in the United States that were immune from accountability
    and control by democratic institutions. He anticipated that these new
    inequalities would be legitimated as inevitable by-products of the
    rational allocation of resources in free markets.

    It is surprising that Diggins fails to note how strikingly Weber's
    expectations have been corroborated by the growth of economic
    inequality in the United States over the past twenty years. Average
    incomes have fallen in the United States during a period of virtually
    uninterrupted growth in productivity and national wealth. Yet the
    realities of growing economic inequality have been effectively removed
    from the agenda of American politics. The issues of economic justice
    and social cohesion raised by widening inequalities have been
    addressed only by maverick politicians, such as Ralph Nader and
    Patrick Buchanan, who have been swiftly marginalized. Diggins follows
    the course of recent American politics by side stepping these issues
    and focusing on the multicultural politics of identity and
    entitlement. As a result, the eminently Weberian conjunction in
    contemporary America of enhanced economic inequalities with a
    political culture of rational management goes unexamined.

    Diggins rails against "the contemporary cult of multiculturalism",
    which practises "a politics of institutional infiltration on the part
    of minorities that have nothing to lose but their grievances",
    resulting in a "return to a pseudo-aristocratic politics of privilege
    based on inherited rights by reason of birth". Yet the most
    distinctive trend of late twentieth-century America is not the
    separation of social groups by race promoted by some advocates of
    multiculturalism. It is the segregation of racial groups by economic
    class. In this, the United States resembles some Latin American
    countries, especially Brazil, more than it does any European country.
    Diggins refers to racial and ethnic conflicts in America today as if
    they were the results of mistaken multicultural doctrines rather than
    a consequence of the confluence of ethnic and racial with economic
    divisions. In neglecting this ominous prospect for the trifling
    commotions of multiculturalism, Diggins passes over one of the most
    arresting applications of Weber's thought. In a more consistently
    Weberian perspective, ethnic and racial conflicts can be understood as
    expressing divisions in American society in which economic
    inequalities and cultural identities have become fatefully

    One of the most interesting aspects of Diggins's book is his
    exploration of the political sensibility he finds in Abraham Lincoln,
    and the contrast he identifies between Lincoln's outlook and that of
    Woodrow Wilson. He interprets Lincoln's ethical and political outlook
    as being, like Weber's, tragic and antinomic. It was concerned with
    achieving a provisional settlement among equally legitimate but
    inherently opposed moral claims, rather than with the attainment of an
    ideal condition in which their incompatibility was somehow overcome.
    Diggins finds parallels between Lincoln's admission during the Civil
    War that he was willing to tolerate slavery in order to preserve the
    Union and Weber's defence of a morality of responsibility in his
    famous address, "Politics as a Vocation". (In an interesting footnote,
    Diggins compares Weber's view of morality with the account of
    rationally incommensurable values developed in the writings of Isaiah
    Berlin.) In Woodrow Wilson, Diggins recognizes an unthinking moral
    absolutism that could scarcely be further removed from the acceptance
    of insoluble ethical dilemmas that characterized Lincoln and Weber. He
    observes that the principle of national self-determination which
    Wilson invoked to determine the terms of peace after the First World
    War articulated a states-rights tradition that derived from Wilson's
    Virginia roots. It had not laid the basis for peace in the United
    States, but instead led to the Civil War. This is an irony worth
    pondering, but notably subdued in American reflection.

    The paradox whereby a principle commonly believed to be progressive
    and liberating had its origin in the defence of slavery is occluded in
    the dominant tradition of American political thought - the liberal
    progressive tradition of Jefferson, Wilson and Dewey. Diggins tells us
    that there is another tradition of American thought, beginning with
    Calvinism and articulated in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the
    writings of Herman Melville and Reinhold Niebuhr, that is more
    receptive to these ironies. He is ingenious in detecting affinities
    between Weber's Nietzschean affirmation of antinomies in politics and
    the insights of Lincoln, Melville and Niebuhr into the contradictions
    of ethical life.

    The argument that these disparate figures constitute an American
    tradition of tragic political thought remains deeply unpersuasive.
    There are worlds of difference between Melville's experimental
    nihilism, Lincoln's pragmatic recognition of the political limits of
    ethical reasoning, and Niebuhr's Calvinist conviction of original sin.
    Diggins's thoughtful and pioneering book is weakened by the claim that
    these fascinating but ill-assorted figures exemplify an American
    tradition of antinomic thinking about ethics and politics akin to that
    which he rightly discerns in Weber. Such a far-fetched claim can only
    confirm the truth of Diggins's belief that the thought of Max Weber
    has yet to find a proper hearing in the United States.

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