Many of us would hope that the atrocities of the 20th century have changed humanity into progressive beings. The modernisation of warfare, emergence of human rights, and the threat of nuclear war have each impacted upon how we view the purpose of politics. For the Western world in particular, having partaken in two World Wars, the year of 1945 presented an opportunity to re-invent the political system into one that prevents and resolves international issues before they could turn into conflicts: one that is ethical and progressive. With the collapse of colonial empires and the establishment of supranational organisations such as the United Nations, the international system was finally in the right position to prioritise diplomacy, peace and fairness.
In reality, the 20th century will be remembered for its half-hearted attempts to change the nature of politics. There are proxy wars still being fought throughout the developing world on behalf of the International superpowers. Racism and sexism continue to characterise the world's institutions. Neo-liberalism remains the dominant policy of choice in the international political economy. It is clear that progressive morality is only a secondary consideration in the actions of major politicians.
Today, as conflicts rage in Syria and large swathes of the Middle East; men, women and children, attempting to escape the violence of civil war, ended up drowning in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Politics is therefore seen to be failing horrifically, showing its inability to protect the most vulnerable.
Unfortunately, we usually wait for too long before we take action to alleviate such horrific happenings. It is sad to think humanity will only consider a remedy after a disaster has occurred. Nonetheless, a remedy is needed; one that places compassion, equality and the sense of common humanity at the forefront of political action.
Weber and Politics as a Vocation: Moral Values in Politics
After Germany’s loss in the First World War, and the consequent political turmoil at the founding of the Weimar Republic, Germany found itself in deep, psychological trauma. From the possibility of a socialist revolution sweeping across the European mainland, to the seeming impossibility that Germany would ever be amongst the world’s Great Powers again, many regarded the future of Germany as doomed to destruction.
During this time, renowned sociologist Max Weber presented two lectures to the "Free Students Union" of Bavaria in Munich. His most famous of the lectures – Politics as a Vocation (1919) – would later be published as an essay, and become one of the most regarded political works of the twentieth century, defining “the state” as an entity which has a monopoly over the use of force, as well as answering various philosophical questions of the political realm.
In particular, Weber attempted to explain what he considered to be the essential characteristics of a politician in the modern age. His answer? A person capable of striking a balance - between personal inclination, and the harsh realities of modern life.
In regards to ethics for example, Weber suggested that a politician would need to create a balance between an ethics of “absolute ends”, and an ethics of “responsibility”. In other words, a politician may indeed, wish to judge a political act according to what they consider good or evil, but in doing so, must also judge the respective act according to its potential consequences; deciding which action would ensure the stability of the respective state.
Weber may not have prioritised a politician’s progressive ethical code in his essay. However, one cannot ignore the fact that he considered it playing a pivotal role in the choosing of a political action. In emphasizing the need to balance between morality and pragmatism, Weber depicts the difficulty with which any politician comes to implement a political policy. As Weber concluded in his essay, a politician who merely followed ideals and a principled ethical code would be wonderful, but only so long as they occupied a world compatible with Shakespeare’s Sonnet #102:
Ignorance is Bliss
Despite written almost one hundred years’ ago, Weber’s words remain as pertinent today as they were in 1919.
And yet, it isn’t necessarily the lack of morality – in compassion, equality and common humanity - in modern politics that would appear to be primarily angering members of the general public. If we were to look at the political realms in both the UK and the United States for example, we find a yearning for politicians that favour some sort of ‘pragmatism’, over a progressive ethical code.
For example, the Brexit debate that was seen throughout the UK prior to the referendum, was far-removed from any ‘moral’ form of politics. From comparisons of major British politicians of the European Union to Hitler, to a host of campaign videos depicting refugees as some-thing less-than-human; the most striking feature of the referendum was the extent to which notions of common humanity, arising from the aftermath of the Second World War- arguably best presented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are disappearing from political debate.
The refugee crisis is another case to consider. Rather than a given in contemporary politics, the provision of homes to those that have travelled thousands of miles in an attempt to escape conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, cannot supposedly be justified merely in accordance with compassion.
However, it is a question of whether we have misinterpreted the disastrous response of countries such as the UK, to the growing refugee crisis as a lack of morality or the demonisation of disadvantaged groups for political gain? Could it be that rather than being deprived of a progressive ethical code, British politicians lack that very foundation upon which Weber considered political “power” best legitimated?
For Weber, politicians possessing charisma, exemplify the qualities of a strong leader: only then would they be both willing and able to inspire, “to take a stand”, or “be passionate.” Each and every great political success of the modern age - from revolutionary acts against colonial rule, to the growth of the public sector in Western Europe - would not have been possible without charismatic persons fighting for change in the social and political realms, together with moral and courageous aims.
Moreover, this offers yet another explanation for the failure of the Remain campaign in this year’s referendum. Despite the majority of British politicians campaigning on behalf of the Remain vote, they lacked what the Leave campaign would appear to have had in abundance – (albeit questionable) charismatic politicians, who were able to display a sympathy with the ordinary British voter, and inspire voters to look away from the status quo. What they lacked in political skill, was made up for in the presentation of their argument.
Thus, the need to remind politicians of their morality in any liberal democracy is one thing, but simultaneously, the significance of charisma in modern politics cannot afford to be understated.
“City on a Hill”: US Politics
This phrase – taken from Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “The Model of Christian Charity” – is discounted by many today for its gross Christian symbolism, and reinforcement of American exceptionalism. However, as the 2016 Presidential race begins to draw to a close, we cannot ignore that such a phrase remains enormously relevant to America’s – and the world’s - highest office in the land.
Morality, democracy, liberty and strength: the US continues to conduct itself on the world stage as if they behold some form of divine providence. This sense of American exceptionalism has existed throughout the country’s relatively short history, often emboldened by US politicians, signifying that they are on the side of ‘good’, and are a necessity in the chaos of the 21st century. Indeed, that same sense of exceptionalism can be said to have often encouraged American citizens to act in a nationalistic, “USA-USA” chanting manner.
Speaking in September at the American Legion’s national convention, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton demonstrated the full-extent to which America supposedly remains exceptional on the world stage. “…it’s not just that we have the greatest military or that our economy is larger than any on Earth. It’s also the strength of our values, the strength of the American people… In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead.”
It is this exceptionalism that provides the US military with a justification to regularly launch external state-building missions. It is this exceptionalism, that provides liberal democracies all over the world, with the assurance of American support. And it is this exceptionalism, that provides each and every President with an unparalleled responsibility – and to many, an enhanced moral standard – to uphold and abide by.
So, when we have a presidential candidate proclaiming he was “smart” to have avoided paying federal income taxes, can we afford to merely turn the other cheek? Should the American electorate care that he bases his entire policy against terrorism on a xenophobic regard for an entire religion?
Certainly, this political candidate possesses some form of charisma, having regularly attracted tens-of-thousands of supporters to his campaign rallies throughout the election period. But, according to Weber’s own criteria, does this man deserve to be President? Having never held a position in public office before, he bases his political experience upon his business, and a working-style that has amounted to numerous bankruptcies, law-suits and broken promises. But, most significantly, it is his disregard for an ethical code, one based upon compassion, equality and humanity, that best disqualifies him from possibly becoming the next President of the USA. He may have the charisma, but where is the sense of responsibility to help those less fortunate than himself, in education, in welfare, in pensions?
Weber viewed politics as an “art of compromise”, reserved for charismatic persons capable of leading. He suggested that a politician should not be a man of "true Christian ethic”, proposing that the “political realm is no realm for saints.” The world is not one in which summer's bloom lies immediately ahead of us but rather that politics is a vocation. Some people are better suited to be politicians than others – to fight, to be passionate and so forth. Most importantly, some people are better than others to inspire, to encourage righteous actions in the face of evil, or to support the most disadvantaged within society. One can attempt to view politics as devoid of an ethical code, but in doing so, fails in the quest to become what a politician ultimately should be in the “polar night of icy darkness and hardness” – a leader.
One can persistently lament the the fact that our politicians follow a morally regressive ethical code, however in doing so, they prohibit themselves from mourning the loss of something more significant from the political realm: Inspirational characters in politics, able to stimulate compassionate action on an enormous scale from people all over the world. Weber’s disdain for the future of humanity was best-encapsulated in his characterisation of the ‘bureaucrat’, as the opposite of “real leaders, leaders with political ambition and the will to power and responsibility.” - a characterisation that beholds much in common with many of today’s politicians. Unfortunately for us, what some politicians today lack in a progressive ethical code, they apparently make-up for in their charismatic persona.
We can only hope that humanity has experienced a scenario such as this too many times before, most dramatically during the 20th century, to want to experience it yet again.