The gradual road to nowhere.


Of Weber’s Vocation Lectures, we were asked to focus in on Politics as a Vocation for the purpose of our class, but having read that I am equally as interested to see what he has to say about science as a vocation so hopefully I’ll find some time to back and read that as well. One of the struggles I have in my course is that each reading opens up so many other potential readings and its hard to stay on track with what I have to get through before starting on anything else. On the other hand, picking up the occasional extra book really does supplement my ability to contextualize… so I hate to just eschew everything not on the course list for three months!

Delivered during the brief German revolution in 1918-19 (and right before the end of Weber’s life) Politics is an examination of political forms, personalities, history and ultimately winds up in a discussion of two kinds of political ethics. It is the ethics which I am going to talk about here because I was most moved by these passages and I think they get to the crux of the political paralysis that we face in North America nearly one hundred years later (and they also get to the heart of Kierkegaard’s argument in The Present Age not to mention the reason/passion divide more generally).

In Weber’s analysis, there are:

1) The ethics of conviction: Acting according to one’s beliefs regardless of the potential outcomes. Ie: Engaging in workplace sabotage may lead to an increase in workplace surveillance and potential firings, but someone who acts from an ethic conviction would argue that the response of the boss is not the fault of the saboteur. It’s a “shoot them all and let God sort them out” approach that gets things done in the immediate, but may have long-term consequences that are the opposite of the intended.

2) The ethics of responsibility: Taking responsibility for all forseeable outcomes or consequences of a given action which would (most likely) have a moderating influence on which actions are taken. Examples of this are found throughout the modern bureaucratic political order where (at least at the civil service level) all possible outcomes are mapped out extensively before a decision is taken. Analagous to the workplace sabotage example, a union leader practicing the ethics of responsibility would weigh out all potential outcomes before encouraging members of the union to take a strike vote, and then again before actually going on strike (and would never encourage random sabotage or wildcat action which could result in circumstances outside the leadership’s control).

What was interesting to me when reading the descriptions of each and Weber’s arguments which follow – was how swayed I was by the criticism of the former and the props Weber gives to the latter (for he is clearly one-sided on this, though he does attempt to resolve that at the end of the lecture). Swayed, that is until I considered what the ethics of responsibility looks like in practice and how deadening it can be to change.

Given my traverse between radical activism, trade union leadership and work in the government, I am intimately acquainted with both the ethics types which Weber describes.

“With an ethics of conviction, one feels “responsible” only for ensuring that the flame of pure conviction, for example, the flame of protest against the injustice of the social order should never be extinguished. To keep on reigniting it is the purpose of his actions.”

I can so relate to this statement, perhaps delivered somewhat derisively by Weber, but true to the overriding sense of purpose which drives many individuals into political activity. Coming out of a particular self-reinforcing activist community some years ago, I can only attest that I spent many years of my life feeling responsible for doing something, anything, to arrest the social and environmental travesties occurring around me. That a small group of people could take actions which would influence more and more people (until the masses rose up) was a religion I took to be my own, and that the job of the revolutionary in non-revolutionary times is to keep the flame of resistance burning is something that I still believe.

Of course the problem of conviction is that it puts us in a place of situational relativism where the ends most certainly justify whatever means are at our disposal. We may decry the use of violence in our opposition, but believe that one must “fight fire with fire” in order to be successful in our aims. As Weber points out, this relies on a particular kind of fundamentalism that is not out of place in the language of religion. “In the world of realities, or course, we see again and again how the representatives of an ethics of conviction suddenly become transformed into chiliastic prophets.” (By which Weber means individuals who argue that we must just use this use of force *one more time* to be transported into a future golden age without any violence). Not only that, but I have been witness to the conviction in radical friends that they are “special”, “chosen”, or “destined” in their path – which even among atheists – can be a powerfully romantic idea to carry into dangerous or potentially violent situations.

Because of my experience in conviction-oriented movements, I am now highly suspicious of the individuals involved in them – but at the same time I struggle with an ethics of responsibility that holds us back from taking most forms of action “in case” it causes one or another repercussion. The modern civil service under “risk-averse” governments is the worst example of this type of thinking. Weber was a big fan of gradualism, and promoted the civil servant as the professional best able to bring about social change without resorting to violence. And while it’s true that professional civil managers have the knowledge to make recommendations on policy and practical reforms within a system – it’s equally true that gradualism in any system eventually grinds to a halt under the weight of bureaucracy, over-consideration of risks, conservatism and internal negativity.

Take for example an issue like climate change. Inside the federal government – among the civil service – there is a fairly uniform view on 1) the reality of climate change and 2) the Canadian government should be participating in finding ways to stop or mitigate the effects of climate change. So for the last twenty years, many professional civil servants have traveled to international conferences and gatherings and research colloquiums to discuss, debate and sign onto various recommendations around this issue. Yay! Something I really do value about the government I work for is the number of intelligent, dedicated and well-researched people that I work with. But so what? Because we’ve spent probably over a billion dollars on climate change related activities and instead of listening to their own people, we have a political leadership who has pulled out of Kyoto and ramped up the Tar Sands. (It occurs to me as I write that what we might be seeing here is in fact a crisis between and ethics of responsibility and an ethics of conviction.)

Point being, that all this careful negotiating around an issue that has a time-sensitivity to it (like the polar ice caps are melting right now people) has actually allowed the opposition to change to take hold and slowly milk away what *small* gains had been made in the first place.

Canadian trade unions have been similarly guilty of practicing the ethic of responsibility to death since the eighties when the practice of fining unions large sums for work stoppages became de rigeur. Every potentially-spontaneous worker action is now drowned in fearful considerations about losing homes, being individually fined, or having the union go into receivership – not to mention a fear carried throughout the union movement that any worker action will reflect negatively on the NDP come election day. To the worst degree we find ourselves in the midst of a working class who seems to have forgotten that they can take action without a vote, without permission, and without being nice about it – simply by walking off the shop floor. Workers reported smelling gas at the Burns Lake Mill on Friday morning (several hours before it exploded), workers empowered by their rights (instead of afraid of job loss as the system is perpetually designed to make us) could have refused unsafe work and walked off the floor until the gas smell was investigated thoroughly. But in a culture which stresses the irresponsibility of leaving one’s work post vs. one of conviction around the right to a safe workplace – well we know the outcome in this situation. And it’s tragic.*

Ultimately, Weber tries to resolve what he originally has called two “mutually exclusive” modes by saying:

“… I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being – whether young or old in actual years is immaterial – who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with entire soul reaches the point where he says ‘Here, I stand, I can do no other’… In this sense an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.'”

This is a tidy way out of having to account for history, which as we know has both gradualist and dynamic phases of change owing to stable governments and periods of peace (on the one hand) and revolution, war or catastrophe (on the other). It’s too bad that Weber doesn’t spend more time in exploring this dynamic of mature political thought because it’s here that I think the challenge for the political actor in society lies. How do we walk the line between conviction and responsibility, suspending our own egos long enough to engage in rational debate?

* I in no way mean this as an indictment of any worker action in this situation, but use this as an illustration to a larger social problem of inaction bred by too closely following the gradualist position.

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