Weber, Post-Truth Politics and the Complicity of Social Science

Monday, 16 July 2018: 11:30
Oral Presentation
Will LEGGETT, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom
The tumultuous politics of 2016 saw ‘post-truth’ designated as the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Post-truth political practices are typically counterposed to academic and expert narratives. This is broadly consistent with Max Weber’s account of ethical neutrality, and the appropriate relationship between the social sciences and politics. However, using Weber’s broader legacy, this paper suggests that social science is in fact deeply – if unintentionally – implicated in the emergence of the post-truth era, and in ways that extend well beyond the usual suspects of ‘postmodern relativism’. Three features of Weber’s work are highlighted. The first is his politico-centrism – notably regarding the analysis of the state. This marginalises the role of societal institutions and structures, as well the content of norms and values. It instead presents social life as a boundless field of ‘purely’ political struggle between power-seeking actors, likely to impose their own truths. The second area is Weber’s more structuralist analysis of societal rationalisation. While the rise of modern bureaucracies such as an impartial civil service arguably institutionalise the fact-value distinction, they have also given rise – as Weber intimated with the concept disenchantment – to the technocratic centrism that contemporary populist movements react against. Thirdly, Weber’s own preoccupation with charismatic leadership as an antidote to a disenchanted, rationalised politics is of obvious appeal when explaining the rise of populist figureheads such as Donald Trump. However, Weber’s account – underpinned also by his focus on intersubjective understanding – has additionally given rise to what we might call ‘leaderism’ in social scientific analysis. This increasingly fetishizes the dispositions and performance of individual leaders, in a way that further blurs the fact-value distinction. The result of these tendencies is that social science does not just describe – but also reinforces – a post-truth political climate.