Saturday, 26 November 2011

Weber's "iron cage" and Mill's "tyranny of opinion"

John Stuart Mill, one of the great philosophers of liberalism, warned that democratic societies' Achilles heel was the risk of creating a "tyranny of opinion" in which dessentient voices are quelled by the irresistible need to conform with "majority" views and interests. This "need to conform" is very much reminiscent with Weber's warning of the "iron cage" of rationalized interests and the disenchantment of the world.

In an uncanny moment of prophetic insight, Weber could just as well have written about our times of climate change and the bankruptcy of moral/ethical coffers of the Corporation in the lines below (in talking about the Protestant work ethic, which he viewed as the motive force behind the industrial revolution and expansionism):

"This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquistion, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view the care of external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage." (page 181, 1953 Scribner's edition)

Though the two commentators on human societies were not contemporaries, and their impulse to write what they wrote were not the same at all, what one saw in the yet "enchanted world" the dangers of an uninformed and disengaged lay-populace's will to conform to majority views, the other saw the exact mechanisms of how this need to conform could and would be used/abused to serve the interests of any state/corporation bent on acquisition of political and economic power.

The "enchanted world" of religiosity which was the Victorian England informed Mill's ideas on economics and sociology. Alan Ryan writes:

"[Mill] thought Britain was socially oppressive in ways European countries mostly were not. He also thought that political tyranny was less of a problem in Britain than elsewhere in Europe; torture and corruption were not a British problem. In Britain, however, it had become clear that the rise of democracy - in this wide sense - was compatible with new forms of oppression, and these were consistent with the rule of law and an absence of political violence. Mill was at pains to remind his readers that he was writing about a new phenomenon, the rise of public opinion...

We should not exaggerate the unpolitical character of these thoughts. Mill's concern was with social conformity, but he saw that a government dominated by public opinion could hardly do other than enact public prejudice into law. If the public were to become agitated about the expression of anti-religious views, for instance, employees might find themselves sacked by employers who disliked their views; they would have a difficult time in court when judges and juries discounted evidence not given under an oath sworn on the Bible... ...All these things in fact happened regularly in Victorian England. The modern reader can substitute sexual, racial or ethnic prejudice in such examples." (xxvi to xxvii, Introductory notes, Ryan, Penguin Classics, 2006)

I would also include "socio-economic class" in our current political/economic climate, which the Occupy Movement is struggling to bring to the fore of our collective conscience. The insidious nature of this form of oppression is that it determines as within the pale "the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism" (ie, the middle-class (the largest sector of society) is economically/ideologically locked into, compelled by the interests of State/Corporation which often has gag orders built into employment contracts in "iron-clad" terms to preclude any hints of dissent from "malcontents" and "misfits"). Sad but true: the Occupy Movement is failing for these very reasons.

It wasn't that long ago when writers like Kurt Vonnegut could say that they (Americans of his generation) grew up believing in the American Constitution and the civil society it promises. Things have gotten so bad in the Western World that our legislatures can now seriously consider the possibility that pizza might be a vegetable; that dangerous and unproven pharmaceuticals can be sold legally to Canadians without regulatory constraints while testing and proving take a back seat to corporate interests (tests are lagging behind up to two years from sales and availability - Health Canada officials suggest, disingenuously, that thousands of drugs come into market every year and they can't keep up!) - in fact, pick any corporate interest and surely you'll find a disconcerting loop-hole to go with it; that war-mongering is diplomacy; that corrupt politicians are normal for our democracies; and, that people who are poor have no one to blame but themselves.

Is this democracy? No. It is more like a backwater tribal land where the rule of law and decorum is determined by the powerful few who quell and oppress the many through ignorance and fear of the "unknown" (ie, rational superstitions).


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