‘There are no more politicians with a calling’

Nearly a century ago in Munich, Max Weber (1864–1920) gave is famous speech ‘Politics as a Vocation’. What would he say today if he were to give that speech again? ‘I am afraid that there is little reason for you to be hopeful.’

By Michiel Zonneveld (with many thanks to Hans Blokland)

Max Weber in 1894

Do you think the time when you made your speech can be compared to the times we now live in? In 1919, too, the established political order was crumbling. The German Kaiser had fled, the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy had collapsed, Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been assassinated, and governments were permanently on the wobble

‘Today, politicians are generally only removed from office. My work is about the consequences of the rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society, the economy and politics. In my time, we were already saying farewell to the institutions and political, cultural and religious traditions that bind society together. That led to new irrationalities. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened in Europe and the rest of the world after that. It is important to fill the vacuum created by the processes of modernisation. Back then, politicians proved unable to do that, and today it’s the same story.’

But, on the other hand, you could say that after the Second World War the Western world experienced a period of stability?

‘That was only an intermezzo. For a few decades, the economic crisis and the second great world war drove a whole generation back to what radicals on the left and the right refer to as the traditional or established political order, and we experienced a time in which societies worked on building up a welfare state. That intermezzo has now come to an end. In other words, the developments that I described during my lifetime have now resumed, stronger than ever. Politics are rationalised and bureaucratised. God is dead, to use Nietzsche’s words; the churches are empty, people are so individualised that there are no mass organisations in which a new and more positive rationality can develop, social values are being eroded, public services are being dismantled. As in my time, many people are being seduced by political opportunists. I am afraid that there is little reason for you to be hopeful.’

What should politicians do?

‘It is their job to provide a counterbalance. If they don’t do that, they become nothing more than the plaything of blind, indiscriminate processes of bureaucratisation and marketisation. That causes social malaise that in turn leads to populism, to calls for ‘leadership’ by someone who claims that they understand the causes of that malaise and that they have real solutions to offer. In German, my speech was entitled “Politik als Beruf”. In my language Beruf means both profession and calling. The tragedy of your time is that there are no more politicians with a calling. Take the Chancellor of my country. What I miss in Ms Merkel is the vision, the passionate dedication to a cause that is necessary to provide that counterbalance. She did show a little of that inner conviction during the refugee crisis but, other than that, she sees politics as a rational, bureaucratic process. She constantly insists that there is no alternative for the policies she pursues, whether that be her social policies, Europe or support for Greece. That is a painful slap in the face for people like those in East Germany who don’t have jobs. In fact, the message to them is that they simply have to accept their situation and get on with it. In that way, she has created fertile breeding ground for Alternative für Deutschland, just as Wim Kok created the space for Pim Fortuyn in your country.’

So you put more store in Trump?

‘I assume that is a joke. The president of America speaks in slogans, and that is completely different to having a vision. To really make a difference, you have to adapt your means to your ends. In my time, too, there were many politicians who made all kinds of promises but achieved nothing. Trump lacks the capacity to judge, to distance himself from the facts of everyday reality and reflect on them calmly. I have just learned about Twitter and what the president sometimes does with it in the middle of the night… But, let me remain silent on that score — it is all so far beyond the realms of my imagination.’

Nevertheless, he is the president van America.

‘Does that make him a good politician? All he cares about is power, the need to be the centre of attention. In 1919, I spoke of the dangers of politicians being seduced by vulgar vanity. In my view, Trump’s presidency will come to nothing, at best to disaster. But my opinion of Merkel is not much more positive. She may have a greater sense of responsibility and capacity to judge. But being a politician is so damnably difficult because you must be able to combine fiery passion with cold insight’


(This is the third instalment of the Dode Denkers (Dead Thinkers) Project, in which dead philosophers shine a light on current affairs. With many thanks to Hans Blokland, who helped us see today’s world through Max Weber’s eyes. Blokland is the director van Social Science Works (www.socialscienceworks.org) and author of works including Modernization and Its Political Consequences: Weber, Mannheim, and Schumpeter, New York and London, Yale University Press, 2006)