A Comparison of Some of the Themes of Irrationality, Illusion and Mystification Identified or Inferred by Karl Marx and Max Weber in Their Explanations of the Rise of Capitalism

By Farmer, J. Forbes | Journal of Sociological Research, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Comparison of Some of the Themes of Irrationality, Illusion and Mystification Identified or Inferred by Karl Marx and Max Weber in Their Explanations of the Rise of Capitalism


Farmer, J. Forbes, Journal of Sociological Research


Abstract

This comparative study was undertaken in the belief that our understanding of the modern economic spirit, volatility of global markets and political activism can be furthered by revisiting Marx's and Weber's sociological, philosophical, economic and religious explanations of the rise of capitalism. The author identifies and reconsiders much of the scholarly literature on the argument that there are themes of illusion, mystification and irrationality in the classical theorists' explanations and that the themes are antagonists in much of the original writings.

1. Introduction

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. (Marx, 1977: 342)

The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. (Weber, 1958:17)

The aim of this work is to reconsider some Karl Marx (1818-1883) - Max Weber (1864-1920) comparative scholarship. The boldness, energy, life and enthusiasm running through the original writings of these two German framers of modern sociology should be kept fresh during this current time of economic and market volatility, and remembered as the ideas that leftquite an indelible impression upon their contemporaries and those who have followed.

Etzrodt (2008:63) asserted that, "Modern economic theories are largely consistent with Weber's economic spirit." Dowd (2002:247) declared that, "The Marxian analytical framework remains essential for the understanding of contemporary capitalism." One particularly exciting theme is the omnipresent illusion, irrationality and mystification which serve as the ferret-like antagonists in these otherwise rational social theories that explain the rise of capitalism. The approach used here will be to first identify some ways in which Marx and Weber's methods are involved with these issues and then shiftto a more specific analysis of the force and control function of illusion and irrationality, its presence in charisma, its possible interchangeability with mystification, its presence in commodity fetishism and its role in the future.

The influence of these antagonists, although constant, is particularly difficult to identify because, as Weber (1958:194) pointed out in a footnote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "a thing is never irrational in itself, but only from a particular rational point of view." An example of this is that, for Marx, the workers wage is both a rational minimization of the costs of production and at the same time it is, to use the Weberian term, "substantially irrational." Sometimes there are competing rationalities that give the illusion of irrationality and often what may have been rational in a past culture appear irrational years later. Weber and Marx, in offering new explanations for the rise of capitalism and the spirit and future of mankind, were influenced by these illusions and were interested in shedding light on them. Naturally, as one goes about the task of demystifying illusions, one can be accused of being irrational in the process. Nevertheless, some interesting documentation has been uncovered despite the fact that Weber doesn't really have a fully developed conception of irrationality (Mehta 2001:207). For Marx, of course, the issue was quite central (Cauchi, 2011; Dowd, 2002).

1.1 Elucidating the Irrational

It was Marx who said in Capital (1974), "I presuppose, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself" (Tucker, 1972:192). One wonders how many readers had their illusions shattered or what kind of an impact Marx made with his reference in The German Ideology to the hanging, by Henry VIII of England, of 72,000 vagabonds (Tucker, 1972:145). It is known, of course, that in Pius IX's first encyclical, Qui pluribus in 1846, it was said:

You well know the monstrous errors and artifices which the children of this century make use of in order to wage relentless war against the Catholic faith. …

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