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The Ironic Social Theory of Max Weber: The ‘Iron Cage’
Steven Seidman

Wiley-Blackwell publishing Ltd.

Max Weber has long been recognized as one of the founders of modern sociology. He has had an immense impact on how we understand the development and nature of our capitalist society today. Looking at almost all the major world cultures, Weber was able to analyze the different factors that he believes have contributed to the modernization of our society. He is well known for his work The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, where he explores the link between religious Protestant ideals and the start up of capitalist culture in Europe. After analyzing the upbringing of modernization in Europe Weber investigates why similar systems failed to develop in Eastern cultures; recognizing that religion and culture are key determinants. Later he identifies that charismatic authority also has an influence on modernization since these are the leaders that threaten the existing social and political systems and form revolutions of social change. Weber notes that this constant challenge by charismatic authority will eventually subside and is succeeded by a rationally controlled bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is inevitable, spreading to all major social spheres, and although a major force of modernity it has its negative impacts. Bureaucratic systems dehumanize social interactions, reduce freedoms, and cause people to become dependent and powerless. Weber believed the only way to preserve personal freedom is through competition with other bureaucracies, and as a result he supported Capitalism over Socialism. Overall, he anticipates a very bleak future for humanity. He considers bureaucracy the evil in our society but understands it will undoubtedly spread around the world and there is nothing that can reverse it. He leaves us locked in what he calls the ‘iron cage,’ a concept that I find the most intriguing out of his works.

The ‘iron cage’ is the increased rationalization that is characteristic particularly in Western capitalist societies. It traps individuals in systems based on technological efficiency, rational calculation and control. Like a birdcage it creates the disillusion that we are free, even when we are not. Bureaucracy and rationality have us living in a structure where we are controlled by employers, institutions, and material goods. I found this intriguing because you can see directly the negative implications it has had on our society today. Although the world has developed significantly and become more populous since Max Weber’s time, Bureaucratic systems are still in full force. This has lead to little room for personal individuality, and a dehumanization of systems. We are treated as cogs in the machine, similar to that of an aunt and bee colony. Max Weber wrote, ‘It is horrible to think that the world would one day be filled with little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards the biggest ones.” It can be seen that each of us has a role to play of which we mindlessly follow. For example, if I handed in my paper one day late with the excuse that my aunt was in hospital but the penalty was 5%, the teacher would not be sympathetic and give me the 5% because the “rules are the rules”. It shows the dehumanization of the student by the teacher whose job is to only follow the policies she was given. This kind of example can be seen throughout our society.

When looking at the concept of the ‘iron cage’ we can get a better understanding of the social, political, and economic realities in the world today. When looking at the social side of things we see that bureaucracy has a very negative effect. Although our society is more efficient, our interactions become less humanized and more robotic. When saying robotic I mean that we simply do as we are told, focusing our life around the production and exertion of money to the benefit of large companies. Although we may seem more together as a society then we have ever been before, in reality we are less connected. Through rules and regulations we no longer are able to sympathize or humanize each other. When looking at the other side of this we can see that we still have foundations in place, which allow us to freely express ourselves, for example the charter of rights. Human beings have a philosophical need to be connected to the rest of the world, we need to be respected, recognized and loved. This causes tensions with the bureaucracy and causes it to be more flexible in certain cases. Even though we have come more rational we have not yet lost our humanity, we still have the right to express ourselves and protest things we believe to be wrong.

When looking at politics, we see that bureaucracy has given us a false illusion. Though we many feel free we are actually not. For example, even though we have the right to vote, the parties we are voting for do not always reflect what’s important to society since corporations have a huge influence over them. The leaders then become puppets, generally without the ability to stand up and reflect societies needs over the profit-run intuitions that control them. Through funding, corporations win over the government and the rational-run bureaucracy limit the ability of the politicians to do the moral or ethically correct thing if it is less profitable. This is seen in the oil sands in Canada. There is mass environmental damage by these oil sands, as well as human distress, but because the large oil company’s gain such a profit the government struggles to reduce their production. It is a clear example where profit or rationality wins over our moral obligations.

Economics play a huge role in our capitalist society. It is what created our bureaucratic system and causes our intense drive for profits. We’ve become stuck in a rat race, where competition pushes us to make more and more money. Leading to the exploitation of not only resources, but also human workers themselves. Companies are all about profitability, where the needs of the individual become secondary. Today, economics control us and have put us into a system that we can no longer get out of.

Although there are many negative implications to the ‘iron cage’ rationality, Weber’s prediction for the future did not completely span out the way he planned it to. He believed that we would become completely subjected to the man, but in reality there is still the ability for us to better our society and change the rules. Although we have become extremely rational we still can see flexibility in our system. Gay marriage is a clear example of the flexibility we have in our laws. Our bureaucracy used to say only same sex marriage was legal but because of the influence of the people this law was changed, this shows we do have the ability to stand up and fight for what we believe to be wrong if we want to. The Internet is a huge influence for why we have not completely lost our humanity; it gives us the opportunity to stand up for what is morale. Through the spreading of information the people are able to make sure the world doesn’t become completely dehumanized. If there is an ethnic group being suppressed somewhere, there is sure to be a push by the people to stop it. In addition, music, culture, arts, books, etc continue to expand despite the bureaucratic system in place. With the expansion of knowledge the arts in our society still thrive and it is seen that we are not yet the boring people Weber predicted us to be.

Max Weber leaves us in the ‘iron cage.’ The question becomes where do we go from there. In our society we do see the negative effects bureaucracy has had, but I am not as pessimistic to believe that there is no solution to the problem. What can we do to ensure individuality? Will we fight for the right to be human or are we to become part of a bureaucratic wheel, where the individual freedom never goes beyond the iron cage. I see an importance of art, culture, books, movies, etc., that allow us to express new ideas and sway our society as a whole. Institutions like these are what expand our knowledge, letting us develop but also stay true to our humanity. Though bureaucracy is known for its rigid rationalization, we can still see the flexibility it has today, which gives me hope that although we are stuck in the iron cage there is a way out.

References

Seidman, S. (2008). Contested knowledge: Social theory today (4th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Grabb, E. (1997). Theories of social inequality: Classical and contemporary perspectives (3rd ed.). Toronto: Harcourt Brace.

Iron cage. (2014, August 27). Retrieved October 7, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_cage

By: Thea Wurtele

References: Seidman, S. (2008). Contested knowledge: Social theory today (4th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. Grabb, E. (1997). Theories of social inequality: Classical and contemporary perspectives (3rd ed.). Toronto: Harcourt Brace. Iron cage. (2014, August 27). Retrieved October 7, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_cage By: Thea Wurtele

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