Political scientist Wendy Brown is a relentless critic of neoliberalism, well known for her interrogations of power, citizenship, and political identity in contemporary liberal democracies. Given these theoretical and political leanings, the focus of her latest book may come as a surprise.
Based on her Tanner Lectures delivered at Yale in 2019, Brown’s Nihilistic Times aims to show the contemporary relevance of Max Weber, the pioneering social theorist most famous today for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. As Brown acknowledges, many on the Left regard Weber as complicit with some of the most sinister forces shaping the present, perhaps even as an architect of them. She does not dismiss this accusation out of hand, but instead counters it by arguing that his thoughts on politics and scholarship may help us to right our own ship or, at least, to navigate the raging storms.
Brown is alert to the need for orientation in our destabilized present. The compass points offered by established political traditions no longer suffice. But theorizing completely from scratch is also a fool’s errand. Instead, we need to be attentive to the long-running historical forces that structure contemporary society and willing to learn from the insights of earlier theorists, provided that we think both with and against them.
She offers three main reasons for her focus on Weber. First, Weber was a dark yet soberly future-oriented thinker in a world he viewed as choked by powers destructive of spirit and freedom. Second, he confronted crises of political and academic life that parallel our own, including the crisis of liberalism. Third, and most importantly, Weber confronted the intellectual and political predicaments resulting from a pervasive nihilism that Brown views as characteristic of our own era. Like both Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche, Brown is concerned with nihilism not as a subjective attitude but as a historical condition that, for her, is intensified by the neoliberal economization of all value and by new technologies like artificial intelligence.
Nietzsche’s canonical account of nihilism emphasizes its roots in various forces of European modernity, above all, the Enlightenment’s challenge to divine authority. Nihilism follows from the toppling of God, coupled with the fact that neither secularized religion nor its cousins, science and reason, can secure meaning for human life. According to Nietzsche, the conviction that life is meaningless manifests in a life-denying lack of desire. However, this conviction is itself prisoner to the condition that produced it and, as such, is a pathological transitional stage. Nietzsche calls for the secular creation or “legislation” of new values independent of moral systems rooted in divine law. This renewal of value would not arise from deliberation or calculative choice but from a wellspring of passionate attachment; it would have the non-rational character of eros.
While Weber shares much of Nietzsche’s view, Brown holds that he charts nihilism’s development differently and stages a different struggle against it. For Weber, too, nihilism lies in the gaps between knowledge, politics, and religion opened up in modernity, but it is more than the mere depletion of values through rationalization, secularization, and disenchantment. Values are not just trivialized and weakened; they become more numerous and diverse, leading to moral chaos. Nihilism’s egocentric and instrumental relation to the world manifests today in widespread, disinhibited assertions of power and desire shorn of concern for truth, justice, or future consequences.
Nihilistic Times revisits two of Weber’s most well-known lectures, “Science as a Vocation” (1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). But Brown’s discussion reverses the order in which they were written, bringing into view a tacit post-nihilist project that Weber pursues in politics and scholarship—for him, two sharply distinct realms.
In “Politics as a Vocation,” as Brown reads it, Weber dives right into the problem of nihilism and offers a vision of political leadership capable of responding to it. The lecture presents us with the ideal political leader under conditions of nihilism: a sober hero characterized by spirit, force, and stamina who labors through bureaucratic torpor, party machinations, the stupidity of the masses, cynicism, defeatism, and the temptations of egoism and instrumental power to embrace responsibility, vision, and purpose. Weber insists that only political leadership of this kind can renew and redeem the distinctly human capacity to shape and direct our common life.
In contrast to both traditional authoritarian leadership and modern legalistic authority, charismatic leaders offer meaning in a disenchanted world. They disrupt prevailing norms and they command obedience by challenging status quo powers, assumptions, and routines. Responsible charismatic leadership helps solve the nihilistic predicament by acknowledging that values are contextual and partial while managing to galvanize commitment to them anyway. Charismatic leaders make us feel that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. They combat a pervasive egocentric and instrumental relation to the world without assuming humanity has a natural or necessary shape and destiny. In short, charismatic leadership reconnects political life with ideals and action.
This separates charismatic leaders from demagogues: their authority resides not in a manipulative appeal to popular prejudices, but in the overwhelming attractiveness of the ideals they embody. They couple passion and determination with inner restraint and a sense of responsibility. This combination turns them into a value- and world-making force.
Brown acknowledges that Weber’s account of charismatic leadership is disturbing to left-liberal thinkers, even apart from the danger of despotism. It seems to reinforce problematic hierarchies, surrender reason as the source of political action, and undermine representative democracy. She echoes some of these concerns. By focusing on charismatic leaders, individual actors whose main stage is the state, Weber marginalizes and even discredits insurgencies from below—social movements, protests, and experimental alternatives to unjust institutions. This may end up leaving the work of political disruption to the acquisitive, and often destructive, drives of markets and technological innovation.
Nevertheless, according to Brown, Weber’s commitment to education helps to partially assuage these worries. Due to its embodiment of virtues that may seem contradictory, charismatic leadership can offer valuable lessons to citizens and social movements. It can teach them to be passionate yet responsible, visionary yet careful, inspirational yet sober. As Brown notes, left-wing efforts at large-scale transformation—such as left populism, green democratic socialism, abolitionist and indigenous practices—are continually troubled by the question of leadership. They struggle to find models that go beyond feckless parliamentary tinkering but stop short of naïve, irresponsible revolution. Weber’s charismatic leader is a powerful picture of a happy medium and, one could add, suggests the need for a more nuanced account of authority capable of distinguishing visionary and inspirational leaders from authoritarians.
Brown offers a similarly ambivalent reading of Weber’s “Science as a Vocation.” With substantial reservations, she endorses the distinction Weber draws between the pursuit of value in the realm of politics and the submission of value to relentless intellectual scrutiny in the realm of academic scholarship and education. She agrees that building a moat between political and academic life helps maintain the promise of both universities and politics, which face different but related threats. Universities are threatened by the hyper-politicization of knowledge and its vulnerability to the influence of money, while political life is threatened by rationalization, power politics, and “virtue politics.”
On the academic side, a moat is needed to protect reflection, imagination, and accountability in the production and dissemination of knowledge. On the political side, a moat clearly demarcates politics as the realm for struggle over values. Fine-grained argumentative analyses of claims like “housing is a human right,” “trees have standing,” or “love makes a family” are suitable in academic contexts, but they are not feasible or appropriate in politics, where the need for action gets in the way of responsible discussion.
Of course, this doesn’t mean values can’t be subjected to rigorous analysis. Despite the absence of an unshakeable rational foundation, even “ultimate values” can be interrogated as to their premises and internal structure and placed in a comparative historical perspective. For Brown, the main strength of “Science as a Vocation” is its insistence on the importance of cool and impartial evaluation of values in the appropriate domain. Such analysis neutralizes their seemingly magical powers.
But Weber’s sharp distinction between facts and values and the corresponding rigid separation of science and politics goes too far, according to Brown, producing troubling implications on both sides of the moat. For one thing, severing ties between the politically motivating power of values and their academic examination encourages ignorant and unreflective political behavior and helps irresponsible demagogues prey on popular fears.
Particularly troubling for Brown are the consequences for political education. Weber’s view of scholarship is puritanical: it requires us to excise our beliefs about and cares for the world from research, eliminating personal expression and fostering the hermetic modes of thinking and practice characteristic of egocentric instrumentalism. Weber advocates for a form of teaching and learning divorced from passion, vision, and motivation. He treats values as ahistorical and emptied of human desire, without consideration of any personal attachment to them. For him, the meaning of values is purely in their relation to other values, not in any connection with truth or anything bigger than human interests and concerns. Belief in transcendental reason, capable of making contact with larger truths, is a delusion.
Brown emphatically distances herself from these positions. She argues that Weber’s ideal for teaching would forestall the education of political leaders able to combat the prevailing nihilism. Furthermore, he leaves no space for determining what pedagogies would best empower citizens and help them address our many social and political problems. Overall, he demands an intellectual purism that eviscerates values, draining them of meaning and denying their powers of emotional gratification. Perhaps the most serious consequence, in her view, is that he encourages the academy to withdraw from public life at the very moment it is released from the vice of the Church. Weber makes education largely irrelevant to political transformation, preventing contact with mass movements and hindering its capacities to influence the direction and demands of such movements.
Furthermore, Weber’s view ignores how values acquire meaning through the discourses they figure in and how they may be transformed in new projects. This is why conjectural and imaginative thinking are indispensable parts of scholarship. Brown’s critique helps us see how a refusal to allow space in the academy for rethinking and fashioning new values has isolated academics, throttled efforts at change, and worked hand in hand with the neoliberal economization of education.
Yet, despite Weber’s excesses, Brown concludes that the depersonalization and depoliticization of values would help students today. They might begin to understand the highly personalized political claims proliferating online today as effects of atomization and a crisis of meaning. Brown calls for a reorientation of the liberal arts that would both further rigorous, critical analyses of values and help the current generation of students respond imaginatively and creatively to the apparent lack of a collective future.
Nihilistic Times presses us to think more carefully and imaginatively about the relationships among human freedom, human value, and something beyond purely human concerns, be it truth, God, or Gaia. Brown retrieves from Weber’s writings an idea of freedom that exceeds the entrenched liberal and neoliberal conception of freedom as the mere absence of restraint. Against readings that focus narrowly on Weber’s “negative” view of freedom as non-interference, Brown argues that he recuperates a more capacious idea of freedom, rescuing it from its descent into a licentious disregard that, at its worst, actively attempts to destroy the social fabric.
On this alternative view, freedom is a practice, a mode of self-realization that has its wellspring not in the calculating ego but in “the soul.” It involves enacting a life we have chosen and living by the lights of our beliefs. Regrettably, Brown does not fully pursue this line of thinking in her lectures. Doing so would have helped provide a future-oriented, spiritual counterpart to the critical deconstruction of values.
My last thought concerns Brown’s diagnosis that we live in nihilistic times. In these lectures, as well as in previous books of hers like Undoing the Demos (2015) and In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019), we find much to support this view. Nonetheless, in a post-pandemic world in which anthropogenic ecological disaster has become a lived reality, her reconstruction of Weber needs to be taken further.
While dominant economic, political, and social forces continue to foster a nihilistic voiding of value, there appears to be increased receptivity to the need for radical social and political transformation. At the same time, widespread perceptions of political powerlessness mean there is a missing step from discontent to effective resistance, resulting all too often in apathy, despair, and violence. With her emphasis on the political importance of education, Brown’s reconstructed Weber may offer a partial remedy. Educating sober visionaries, unafraid of imagining ideal worlds, but vigilant in maintaining a critical distance from them, could help toward political empowerment.
Thinking with Max Weber
$22.95 | 144 pp.