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Max Weber's Theory of Democracy in a Realist Key

Democracy
Political Theory
Critical Theory
Realism
Liberalism
Normative Theory
Sung Ho Kim
Yonsei University
Sung Ho Kim
Yonsei University

Abstract

Realism has come back to political theory. Along with its enduring relevance in international politics, the latest appeal of political realism relies on its usefulness as a critique of “high liberalism” of the Rawlsian and Habermasian variant. Making it distinctive and especially useful to that end is its principled methodological stance. Bernard Williams, for instance, suggested a Humean criticism of the neo-Kantian way of doing liberalism, that is, transcendental moralism. For all its virtues, however, this influential articulation of political realism seems vulnerable to two kinds of critiques that hail from within– first, it does not fully represent the realist tradition in the history of political thought, and second, it is too morally or methodologically inclined to address real-life political issues, such as democracy, directly. In other words, political realism in this guise can be as abstract as the moralism of a Neo-Kantian bent, and there may be other ways of retuning realism for more substantive political engagement. This paper proposes to explore those other ways by revisiting Max Weber, and in and by doing so, to find “new discoveries” for today’s realism. First, Weber’s name is unfailingly mentioned when the realist tradition is invoked for the contemporary revival. But the claim is too often asserted than elaborated and, as such, does not explain Weber’s rejection of Real- or Machtpolitik as political realism was called in his own time. The first goal of this paper is to identify his proper place in the tradition of political realism that runs the gamut from Machiavelli to Schmitt. Second, Weber’s evaluation of the German politics of his time will be outlined as a context-bound yet theoretical criticism of the bureaucratic practices and institutions in Germany. It was bureaucracy in all its multilayered meaning for Weber, and not justice as morally and legally elaborated, that was the main question for him, but that does not deny his political realism a normative-critical vista. Based on these exercises, third, Weber’s realist theory of democracy will be summed up along two axis – one, political partisanship and civil society, and the other, leadership democracy and nationalism. It was of a counterpointed structure that squared off an agonistic kind of modus vivendi liberalism with the centrifugal politics to control its democratic energy. So reconstructed, Weber’s theory of democracy will be used to highlight some of the salient features in contemporary political realism, while exposing some of its blind spots that have to do with the weakness, even danger, inherent in his own formulation. Weber shows how political realism can engage with the real-life issues in democracy from a political and normative-critical perspective that is rooted in the immanent historical and cultural values rather than detached moral utopianism from above and outside. Along the way, its shortcomings will also be brought forth again as “new discoveries” that show the challenges facing the latter-day political realism.