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The Iron Cage of Bureaucracy

Related References:
Jonathan Lear and "Knowingness"
Zizek on Reductive Reading of Lacan

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: September 4, 2001
Latest update: September 4, 2001


Max Weber

Entry by Darby

Teaching and Review Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, and Individual Authors: September 2001.
"Fair Use" encouraged.

On Monday, September 3, 2001, Darby wrote:

Unlike Marx and Durkheim, both of who projected optimistic outcomes in the transition of modernity, Weber rejects the Enlightenment's view of evolutionary progress and happiness. Instead he projects a "polar night of icy darkness," a highly rational and bureaucratically organized social order, an "iron cage" in which people are trapped."

Considering Weber lived and wrote in Germany one hundred years ago it is eerie how he articulated modern American social order. Yes, we live in an iron cage. Our bodies themselves are being colonized as our system of bureaucracy takes us further into alienation. We live within the oligarchy that Weber realized. Our society and economy are controlled by one percent of the population and that elite cares nothing for the masses. Marx saw this too but (perhaps) foolishly believed in some utopian outcome brought about by the solidarity of the people. How can we find solidarity when we are trapped in an iron cage?

We do live within the "polar night of icy darkness" and there seems to be no morning in sight. The individuals from the Enlightenment School, including Marx and Durkheim, are rolling in their graves. Even education, the most noble of all pursuits, has become terribly impersonal and ultra-rational. Students are coerced into taking out student loans from banking institutes to buy books from monopolized book stores that promise to buy back these same books, albeit at a greatly reduced price, so they can sell them again (at the original price) to the next unassuming student. This is education?

One might argue that education for the masses is a sign of social progress. But what we offer as education is further proof of Weber's vision. Our teachers are required to administer very specific material, to test and grade using hierarchical methods; grading students as if they were fish being measured and assessed whether to be kept or tossed back overboard. But what about the students who don't "measure up"? Do we toss them aside? Of course we do - we have no system in which to work with them. Gone are the romantic days of a teacher/student relationships like Socrates and Plato. We have education factories where the sole purpose is processing not educating. Education has become bureaucratic.

This is a mere microcosm of modern society. Wertrational (wert="value") has been superceded by zweckrational (zweck="aim, goal, purpose"). Goal-oriented thinking has undermined the very soul of society. Weber's pessimistic view of the transition of modern society has been realized. As compared to the Enlightenment this is certainly a time of the "polar night of icy darkness".

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, jeanne responded:

I agree, Darby, that it's eerie how accurately some of the predictions of a hundred years ago were. Part of the reason for that is reductive reading. (Zizek on Reductive Reading of Lacan) We tend to oversimplify such thinkers' ideas and to grasp what is easiest for us to fit into what we already know. "Knowingness" again.

I agree also that Weber's view is pessimistic. That's hard to take when you're starting out on a professional career, and we describe the world as going to hell in a handbasket. (Albert O. Hirsschman, Rhetoric of Reaction on our tendency to use pessimistic rhetoric instead of rational argument - and that goes for both liberals and conservatives. Nag me to find earlier posts to site and to provide more on this. I taught with Hirschman before the site was up and available. jeanne.) Habermas' attempt to maintain a hopeful stance and not resort to the rhetoric of pessimism is one of the reasons for our choice of him as our mentor.

I would suggest that some of the balancing signs that give me hope are the current acceptance (albeit grudging and undermined) of multiculturalism and diversity and the differing perspectives that have come to us through postcolonialism. Also the reinterpretation of metanarrative and its constraints on local narrative, offers a deeper and more self-reflective approach to the social issues we face today. Another hopeful sign is the availability (albeit under corporate duress) of the Internet and the World Wide Web as providing the possibility for new forums that cross time and space. These represent knowledge breaking out of the constraints of dominant discourse, and knowledge is one source of hope.

Your comments should offer us many opportunities for disscussion in class and on the site.

love and peace, jeanne