Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. 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 acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for 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.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.

2 comments on “Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

  1. Many years ago I read a (German) book by two former managers who had just quit their stressful corporate jobs and taken a leap of faith. It was a mixture of autobiographical vignettes and philosophical essay about ‘work’ and related culture and history – about how undesired toils turned into a symbol of status. About how profession / work / job – ‘Beruf’ in German – became vocation and calling – ‘Berufung’ in German (and how Luther tweaked language with new terms and triggered that transformation). I was also most impressed by quotes from Weber’s books.

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