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rationalization


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Just as it is impossible to understand Karl Marx's concerns without seeing the centrality of labour power and its alienation into capital, so also it would be equally difficult to grasp the intellectual coherence of Max Weber's writings without understanding what Alvin Gouldner has termed the ‘metaphysical pathos’ associated with his vision of the rationalization of everyday life. This progressive disenchantment of the world, the eradication of mystery, emotion, tradition, and affectivity, and its replacement by rational calculation, informs much of his research and writing. It has created a whole industry among students of his work, who continue to debate the issue of whether or not Weber offers a fully developed theory of rationalization, and (if so) where precisely in his writings it is to be found (see, for example, S. Lash and S. Whimster (eds.), Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity, 1987).

Weber saw modernization as a process of rationalization that affects economic life, law, administration, and religion, elminating traditional ideas and customary practices in favour of formally rational criteria. It underpins the emergence of capitalism, bureaucracy, and the legal state. The essence of the rationalization process is the increasing tendency by social actors to the use of knowledge, in the context of impersonal relationships, with the aim of achieving greater control over the world around them. However, rather than increasing freedom and autonomy, rationalization makes ends of means (slavish adherence to the rules within modern bureaucracies are an obvious example), and imprisons the individual within the ‘iron cage’ of rationalized institutions, organizations, and activities.

Commentators have remarked that, in his concern over the rationalizing tendencies of modern societies, Weber was more pessimistic in the prognosis for human freedom than any of his contemporaries. Marx at least foresaw an emancipating revolution, whereas for Weber the only antidote to rationalization was the emergence of the charismatic figure. Socialism, Weber claimed, would create an even more confining cage, since it would combine formal rationality with substantive rationality. Whereas the market had counteracted bureaucratic state power under capitalism, socialism would see the two combined. That it was toppled in its Soviet variant by the charismatic individuals and movements of Walesa, Solidarity, Havel, and Civic Forum would seem to provide some optimistic respite, in the face of all-encompassing disenchantment. See also reflexive modernization.

Subjects: Sociology.


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