Pilgrim in the Machine

Dear Team:

Max Weber was one of the 20th century's greatest sociologists. This great German thinker discovered the concept of RATIONLIZATION. Where massive organizations in all spheres of modern life dominated the individual and depersonalized him. Huge bureaucracies generated wealth, but also destroyed the very enviornment that generated this wealth. Regardless of the political color of the bureacuracy whether it be Capitalist, Communist, Socialist, or Fascist. The end-result was often the same.

The Auschwitz chapter in Harvest of Gems shows the ultimate outcome of this rationalization. The Vietnam war and Hiroshima and the currrent Gulf conflict are also examples of rationalization gone crazy. The Harvest pilgrim renounces being a participant of this rationalization process and goes to small-scale spiritual centers to escape this iron cage and explore his inner mind where a vast inner universe is discovered and prepares the pilgrim to come back to society with a vision much larger than the iron cage he left....

Kafka and George Orwell were both reacting to Weber's rationalization with their literary masterpieces: The Trial and 1984.

I leave you with an article on Weber's work.


An extreme case of rationalization was the extermination camps of Nazi Germany. The goal was to kill as many people as possible in the most efficient manner, and the result was the ultimate of dehumanization--the murder of millions of men, women and children. The men and women who ran the extermination camps were, in large part, ordinary human beings. They were not particularly evil people. Most went to church on Sundays; most had children, loved animals and life. William Shirer (1960) comments on business firms that collaborated in the building and running of the camps: "There had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor:

To: The Central Construction Office of the S.S. and Police, Auschwitz
Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.

We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting ashes (Shirer, 1960: 971).

The “lethal blue crystals” of Zyklon-B used in the gas chambers were supplied by two German firms which had acquired the patent from I. G. Farben (Shirer, 1960). Their product could do the most effective job for the least possible cost, so they got the contract. Shirer (1960) summarizes the organization of evil. “Before the postwar trials in Germany it had been generally believed that the mass killings were exclusively the work of a relatively few fanatical S.S. leaders. But the records of the courts leave no doubt of the complicity of a number of German businessmen, not only the Krupps and the directors of I.G. Farben chemical trust but smaller entrepreneurs who outwardly must have seemed to be the most prosaic and decent of men, pillars--like good businessmen everywhere--of their communities” (972-973). In sum, the extermination camps and their suppliers were models of bureaucratic efficiency using the most efficient means available at that time to accomplish the goals of the Nazi government.

But German corporations went beyond supplying the government with the machinery of death, some actively participated in the killing process. "This should occasion neither surprise nor shock. I.G. Farben was one of the first great corporate conglomerates. Its executives merely carried the logic of corporate rationality to its ultimate conclusion...the perfect labor force for a corporation that seeks fully to minimize costs and maximize profits is slave labor in a death camp. Among the great German corporations who utilized slave labor were AEG (German General Electric), Wanderer-Autounion (Audi), Krupp, Rheinmetall Borsig, Siemens-Schuckert and Telefunken" (Rubenstein, 1975: 58).

I.G. Farben's synthetic rubber (Buna) plants at Auschwitz are a good example of the relationship between corporate profits and Nazi goals. I.G. Farben's investment in the plant at Auschwitz was considerable--over $1,000,000,000 in 1970s American dollars. The construction work required 170 contractors and subcontractors, housing had to be built for the corporate personnel, barracks for the workers.
SS guards supplied by the state would administer punishment when rules were broken. The workers at the plants were treated as all other inmates in the camp. The only exception was one of diet, workers in the plants would receive an extra ration of "Buna soup" to maintain "a precisely calculated level of productivity" (Rubenstein, 1975: 58). Nor was any of this hidden from corporate executives; they were full participants in the horror. With an almost inexhaustible supply of workers, the corporation simply worked their slave laborers to death.

The fact that individual officials have specialized and limited responsibility and authority within the organization means that they are unlikely to raise basic questions regarding the moral implications of the overall operation of the organization. Under the rule of specialization, society becomes more and more intricate and interdependent, but with less common purpose. The community disintegrates because it loses its common bond. The emphasis in bureaucracies is on getting the job done in the most efficient manner possible. Consideration of what impact organizational behavior might have on society as a whole, on the environment, or on the consumer simply does not enter into the calculation.

The problem is further compounded by the decline of many traditional institutions such as the family, community, and religion, which served to bind pre-industrial man to the interests of the group. Rationalization causes the weakening of traditional and religious moral authority (secularization); the values of efficiency and calculability predominate. In an advanced industrial-bureaucratic society, everything becomes a component of the expanding machine, including human beings (Elwell, 1999). C. Wright Mills, whose social theory was strongly influenced by Weber, describes the problem:

It is not the number of victims or the degree of cruelty that is distinctive; it is the fact that the acts committed and the acts that nobody protests are split from the consciousness of men in an uncanny, even a schizophrenic manner. The atrocities of our time are done by men as "functions" of social machinery--men possessed by an abstracted view that hides from them the human beings who are their victims and, as well, their own humanity. They are inhuman acts because they are impersonal. They are not sadistic but merely businesslike; they are not aggressive but merely efficient; they are not emotional at all but technically clean-cut (C. Wright Mills, 1958: 83-84).

The result is a seeming paradox-- bureaucracies, the epitome of rationalization, acting in very irrational ways. Thus we have economic bureaucracies in pursuit of profit that deplete and pollute the environment upon which they are based; political bureaucracies, set up to protect our civil liberties, that violate them with impunity; Agricultural bureaucracies (educational, government, and business) set up to help the farmer, that end up putting millions of these same farmers out of business;
Service bureaucracies designed to care for and protect the elderly, that routinely deny service and actually engage in abuse. The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a major factor in understanding contemporary society. Weber called this formal rationalization as opposed to substantive rationality (the ability to anchor actions in the consideration of the whole). It can also be called the irrationality of rationalization, or more generally, the irrationality factor (Elwell, 1999). The irrationality of bureaucratic institutions is a major factor is understanding contemporary society.

Weber and Marx

Weber believed that Marxist theory was too simplistic, reducing all to a single economic cause (Gerth and Mills, 1946). However, Weber does not attempt to refute Marx, rather he can be interpreted as an attempt to round out Marx's economic determinism (Gerth and Mills, 1946).

"Weber's views about the inescapable rationalization and bureaucratization of the world have some obvious similarities to Marx's notion of alienation. Both men agree that modern methods of organization have tremendously increased the effectiveness and efficiency of production and organization and have allowed an unprecedented domination of man over the world of nature. They also agree that the new world of rationalized efficiency has turned into a monster that threatens to dehumanize its creators. But Weber disagrees with Marx's claim that alienation is only a transitional stage on the road to man's true emancipation" (Coser, 1977: 232).

Weber believed that the alienation documented by Marx had little to do with the ownership of the mode of production, but was a consequence of bureaucracy and the rationalization of social life. Marx asserted that capitalism has led to the "expropriation" of the worker from the mode of production. He believed that the modern worker is not in control of his fate, is forced to sell his labor (and thus his self) to private capitalists. Weber countered that loss of control at work was an inescapable result of any system of rationally coordinated production (Coser, 1977). Weber argued that men could no longer engage in socially significant action unless they joined a large-scale organization. In joining organizations they would have to sacrifice their personal desires and goals to the impersonal goals and procedures of the organization itself (Coser, 1977). By doing so, they would be cut off from a part of themselves, they would become alienated.

Socialism and capitalism are both economic systems based on industrialization--the rational application of science, observation, and reason to the production of goods and services. Both capitalism and socialism are forms of a rational organization of economic life to control and coordinate this production. Socialism is predicated on government ownership of the economy to provide the coordination to meet the needs of people within society. If anything, Weber maintained, socialism would be even more rationalized, even more bureaucratic than capitalism. And thus, more alienating to human beings as well (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 49).

Sociocultural Evolution

According to Weber, because bureaucracy is a form of organization superior to all others, further bureaucratization and rationalization may be an inescapable fate. "Without this form of (social) technology the industrialized countries could not have reached the heights of extravagance and wealth that they currently enjoy. All indications are that they will continue to grow in size and scope." Weber wrote of the evolution of an iron cage, a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society:

"It is apparent that today we are proceeding towards an evolution which resembles (the ancient kingdom of Egypt) in every detail, except that it is built on other foundations, on technically more perfect, more rationalized, and therefore much more mechanized foundations. The problem which besets us now is not: how can this evolution be changed? --for that is impossible, but: what will come of it."
Weber feared that our probable future would be even more bureaucratized, an iron cage that limits individual human potential rather than a technological utopia that sets us free (Aron, 1970; Coser, 1977).

It is perhaps fitting to close with a quote from Max engaged in speculation on the other future possibilities of industrial systems. While Weber had a foreboding of an "iron cage" of bureaucracy and rationality, he recognized that human beings are not mere subjects molded by sociocultural forces. We are both creatures and creators of sociocultural systems. And even in a sociocultural system that increasingly institutionalizes and rewards goal oriented rational behavior in pursuit of wealth and material symbols of status there are other possibilities:

"No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has obtained a level of civilization never before achieved" (Weber, 1904/1930: 181).

© 1996 Frank Elwell

All contents of this site © Finberg Books by Michael Arthur Finberg