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Politics as a Vocation

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Submitted By jdur
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Politics as a Vocation: Essay 1 “Politics as a Vocation” is a speech that Max Weber gave to the Free Students Union of Munich University in January of 1919, almost immediately after the end of WW I. He opens his speech by saying he will not take a position on the actual problems of the day, but rather “I shall raise certain questions concerning the significance of political action in the whole way of life” (1, 27). Weber’s main goal throughout his speech is to address the broader philosophical questions of how a person might make politics his livelihood in the sense of a vocation, along with dissecting the idea of what exactly politics is in relation to power, and what characteristics people who are considered to be politicians posses in order to be considered successful politicians. Weber begins by expressing his desire to relay the idea that politics refers to “the leadership or the influence of leadership of a state” (1, 27). Politics in this sense proves itself to be a domineering force, but this begs the question what is a state? Weber promptly answers this question expressing: “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory… The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence” (1, 27). By defining a state in these terms, Weber is not trying to limit the definition by allowing only this to define the institution, but rather force is the means specific to the state. The state is instrumental in allowing and disallowing certain institutions and people to use physical force to carry out the operations of the institution itself. Through this lens, politics takes on a new meaning, “Hence, ‘politics’ for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state” (1, 27). In order for a political institution to gain power and have this dominating nature over men, there must be a legitimate source from which this power is derived. Weber then lays out the three types of legitimate power: power derived from custom, power derived from charisma, and lastly power derived from statutes. All of these are avenues through which politicians exert their influence over the common man and elevate themselves to a leader of the people; however, Weber expresses that the man who is legitimized through charisma proves to be the best suited leader out of the three saying, “domination by virtue of the devotion of those who obey the purely personal ‘charisma’ of the ‘leader.’ For this is the root of the idea of a calling in its highest expression” (2,27). Politics and power are two non-mutually exclusive ideas that overlap each other as very common themes within “Politics as a Vocation,” and next Weber goes into the centralization of power within the moderns state. The centralization of power in the modern state refers to the fact that “All states may be classified according to whether they rest on the principle that the staff of men themselves own the administrative means, or whether the staff is ‘separated’ from these means of administration” (3,27). Weber then gives an example of the outdated way of governance in which the lord (equivalent to the politician) would seek to have the entire administration dependent on him, and own the administrative means in a sense. In contemporary times, Weber relates “In the contemporary ‘state’… the ‘separation’ of the administrative staff, of the administrative officials, and of the workers from the material means of administrative organization is completed. Here the most modern development begins, and we see with our own eyes the attempt to inaugurate the expropriation of this expropriator of the political means and therewith of political power” (3-4, 27). Through this evolution of the modern state, political power has become centralized at the top of this proverbial “political spectrum” allowing there to be a distinct separation between those who govern and those who are governed. Weber goes on to say, “During this process of political expropriation…‘professional politicians’ have emerged” (4, 27). Corresponding with this new breed of “professional politicians” the distinction between politics as a vocation and politics as an avocation begins to take root. There are two categories that politicians can fall under in regards to making politics their life. Weber claims “Politics… may be a man’s avocation or his vocation… Politics as an avocation is today practiced by all those party agents and heads of voluntary political associations who, as a rule, are politically active only in case of need for whom politics is, neither materially nor ideally, ‘their life’ in the first place” (4, 27). People who practice politics as an avocation do so when summoned by a greater force, thus allowing them to pursue other endeavors and have other lines of work than just being a politician. On the other hand, one who makes politics his vocation can be divided further into two more categories: “Either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics. By no means is this contrast an exclusive one” (5,27). The idea of someone living for politics relates to the idea that he “makes politics his life in an internal sense… In this internal sense, every sincere man who lives for a cause also lives off this cause” (5, 27). Relationally, one who lives off politics “strives to make politics a permanent source of income” (5, 27). Weber goes on to explain however, “Under normal conditions, the politician must be economically independent of the income politics can bring him” (5,27). Virtually all politicians in this day and age do not rely on the income that being a politician provides, but rather had some previous endeavor that provided him with the income necessary to pursue a career as a politician. Transitioning from the ways politics can manifest itself in one’s life, Weber goes into a discussion of the characteristics required to be a successful politician. According to Weber, the three “pre eminent” qualities one must possess in order to be an effective politician are: “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion” (20, 27). He then goes into a dialogue of how “passion… is not enough. It does not make a politician, unless passion as devotion to a ‘cause’ also makes responsibility to this cause the guiding star of action. And for this a sense of proportion is needed” (21, 27). The notion of being able to balance all of these traits also ties back to the idea of the “distance” that is required between the politician and his constituents. In the same manner, Weber illustrates that there must also be a balance of the ethic of ultimate ends with the ethic of responsibility. The ethic of ultimate ends incorporates decision making without factoring in the consequences that could occur from one’s choices. The ethic of responsibility relates to thinking about the consequences of an action beforehand. Discovering the balance between these two seemingly paradoxical ideas, is what Weber claims, makes a man a good politician. Weber concludes by distinguishing between the exclusivity of the ethic of ultimate ends, and the ethic of responsibility and coming to the realization that the two are “not absolute contrasts, but rather supplements which only in unison constitute a genuine man- a man who can have the ‘calling for politics’” (27, 27). Many of the points that Weber expresses in his early 20th century speech still hold true today. For example, I work in the Texas legislature for Senator Joan Huffman and I am able to clearly see how this cooperative relationship between passion, the feeling of responsibility, and proportion all manifest themselves as characteristics of politicians. When drafting legislation, and dealing with other members of the legislature, Senator Huffman constantly maintains this balance between all three qualities in her work for the legislature. Additionally, the idea of living off and living for politics applies in a general sense today. Considering the fact that members of the Texas Senate only get paid $7,200 a year for their work in the legislature, highlights the fact that virtually all of the legislators in the Texas Senate live for politics due to a greater calling than just financial reasons. Lastly, Senator Huffman is a delegate for the people, meaning she has to acknowledge the requests of her constituents, while making decisions on what she deems to be best for her district and more importantly the state of Texas. Tying back to the sense of proportion that Weber highlights in his speech. Max Weber does a masterful job in laying the groundwork for how politics can become someone’s life through his speech “Politics as a Vocation.” He eloquently explains how politics and power are correlated, how political power is centralized in modern times, the distinction between politics as an avocation versus politics as a vocation, and finally the characteristics required to be a successful politician. Through this essay the complex world of politics is seen in a different light, and even though the speech is almost a century old, virtually all of its central themes still hold true to this day.

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