Max Weber and Walter Benjamin
By Lucía Pinto
In his critique of modernity, Walter Benjamin had many interlocutors. One of them was Max Weber. In Benjamin’s text Capitalism as Religion written in 1921, he referenced the thesis that Weber developed in 1904 and 1905 in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He argued that if Weber had demonstrated that capitalism was “a formation conditioned by religion» (2002, p. 288), he intended to understand capitalism “as a religion” (2002, p. 290).
There is a huge difference between Weber and Benjamin on the possibilities of overcoming capitalism. Weber understood bureaucratization as an irremediable occidental destiny, which affects capitalism and even socialism. This implies, for instance, that the separation of workers and the means of production cannot be eliminated. This led Weber to seek development possibilities within the capitalist system. Conversely, Benjamin stood up for a revolution that abolished capitalist exploitation and inaugurated a classless society. He understood history as a catastrophe that humans must stop. No one can deny this difference between both thinkers. However, is this all we can say about these two classic thinkers’ respective analyses of capitalism?
I think the answer is no. This question has obsessed me for the last few years and I would like to share some intuitions about it so that we can think together.
In recent decades, a considerable number of studies have focused on highlighting the differences and affinities between the thoughts of Weber and Benjamin. The starting point of this discussion was the publication of the previously unknown text Capitalism as Religion in 1985, in which Benjamin explicitly quotes Weber. Within the ensuing debate, there are specialists who point out the unbridgeable distances between the two thinkers, and those who emphasise their affinities. The first group sheds light on the gap that exists between the authors with respect to the possibility of overcoming capitalism and the diagnosis of the secularization of the economy. The second group emphasizes the connections between Weber and Benjamin in terms of the affinity between rationalization and myth, as well as their shared intellectual cosmos.
In this regard, I would like to contribute to this discussion and propose an interpretation of the Weber-Benjamin relationship with politics as its central element of inquiry.
Benjamin in Capitalism as Religion both approaches and distances himself from Weber: religion has not only been a contributing factor in the genesis of capitalism, but capitalism is a religion. Let us point out the aspects of this capitalist religion.
The first aspect of capitalism is that it is a religion of cult, i.e., one far from dogma and theology. The second aspect reveals something about its rituals, namely, their permanent duration: «Capitalism is the celebration of a cult sans rêve et sans merci [without dream or mercy]. There are no ‘weekdays’. There is no day that is not a feast day» (2002, p. 288). Benjamin does not describe these rituals, although he tells us that the ritual has no pause. The third feature of capitalist religion is that the cult causes guilt: «Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement” (2002, p. 288). Capitalism generates a guilt that is impossible to atone, and thus leads to a universal consciousness of guilt, even of God himself, who must remain hidden and “may be addressed only when his guilt is at its zenith” (2002, p. 289), which is the fourth and last aspect of capitalist religion.
Guilt, which the young Benjamin places in the context of myth, appears in texts written before Capitalism as Religion. In Benjamin’s critique of myth, guilt appears as a symptom of an order in which there is no freedom, insofar as humans cannot atone for the guilt induced by the gods. In this conception, guilt refers to an order in which there is no way out. This impossibility of atonement leads to a state of complete despair.
I consider, in turn, that Benjamin’s diagnosis shows that capitalism appears dangerously as a religion. Thus, the critique of capitalism is a key to understanding Benjamin’s analysis of modernity: he refuses to frame it in the binary terms of religious/secularised. It is more complex than that. Capitalism is a system in which humans are trapped and which presents itself as a destiny. Far from being a religion that promises salvation, it drives humans to despair.
In this sense, Capitalism as Religion is a text in which the critique of capitalism goes to the core of human existence. This critique is linked to Weber’s diagnosis of capitalism as a system that imposes itself “as a factually unalterable casing” (Weber, 2012, p. 18) which individuals are fated to inhabit. Capitalism, Weber argues, does not need its religious drivers anymore. Work is no longer guided by a religious faith in salvation, but rather by human needs. Yet, the accompanying process of rationalisation makes humans unable to choose the best ways to realise their ultimate values, having instead to adapt to a system they do not control. I find this diagnosis of capitalism as a system that imposes itself on humans independently of their will one of the key affinities between the two authors.
So, what to do in the face of capitalism? This is a question that both authors raised. Weber attempted to influence the path to development of Imperial German capitalism in the 1890s, giving lectures and publishing articles of public scope on hotly debated issues such as the ‘rural labour question’ and the establishment of a stock exchange. He recognised that there is an inevitable global capitalism system in which Imperial Germany must find its own development, applying protectionist agricultural tariffs, if necessary. Towards the end of his life, more specifically in his lecture Socialism of 1918, he examined the socialist revolution’s chances of overcoming capitalist slavery. Given the present development of technology, he finds it impossible to go backwards, i.e., return the property of the means of production to workers. He was lucidly aware of an adverse fate: the process of bureaucratisation as an unstoppable phenomenon which affects the whole society. Weber’s criticism of the socialists, in this regard, did not target the principles which guided their political practice, namely achieving liberation from capitalist exploitation, but the possibility of its realisation.
As for Benjamin, his Critique of Violence published in 1921 supported a revolutionary general strike along the lines of anarchist Georges Sorel. Benjamin postulated the strike as a political action which aims to disrupt relations of authority based on the administration of violence. Then, in the 1930s, he focused his efforts on the critique of technical development and inserted himself into the political debate. More specifically, he denounced the destructive character of war technique and proposed a communist revolution as the way to avoid future wars. He also suggests that the modern conception of technique as exploitation of nature is directly linked to capitalism. The revolution seems to him the only way to overcome this.
Thus, both Weber’s and Benjamin’s political analyses of the fate of modernity are linked to their understanding of capitalism. Weber teaches us that politics should be understood as an action in this world and for this world, which is affected by irreversible and uncontrollable forces. For Benjamin, politics refers to the possibility of interrupting the course of history.
In other words, stating that Weber is a “capitalist” and Benjamin a “revolutionary” does not take us very far. Instead, I propose that both converge on a way of thinking about politics: in order to unravel the possibilities of modern politics, the conditions imposed by capitalism must be considered.
Buenos Aires, April 2023
Benjamin, W. (2002) Capitalism as Religion. Selected Writings. Volume 1 (pp. 288-291). Harvard University Press. Translation by Rodney Livingstone.
Weber, M. (2012) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge. Translation by Stephen Kalberg.