Max Weber and Agnes Heller on Disenchantment and Dissatisfaction

Max Weber’s position on science as a vocation encapsulates his core ideas on modernity, central to which are rationalisation and a resultant disenchantment. He used ‘rationalisation’ with a range of meanings that can be brought under that of ‘what is accessible to and can be organised by reason and calculation, the belief that everything can be understood’. This process, particularly since the rise of science and the coming together of disparate currents has resulted in disenchantment – ‘de-magification’, the loss of mystery in the world and of a cohering religious world view and collective meaning. Together with the rise of science, that of bureaucracy also meant the loss of freedom.

Yet contrary to this bleak perception, Weber claimed a commitment to science and considered rationalisation and bureaucracy as necessary and the vast machine of modernity as having liberating potential for those who are willing to engage with the challenge of creating a meaningful life for themselves. He advocated that those who make a career of science should do so on the basis of it being their ‘calling’. In a world of ‘warring’ autonomous value spheres stripped of meaning by rationalisation, resulting in tension and fragmentation, they must bring an exemplary and religious devotion to their work. In order to even have the chance of doing something great, they must specialise, since what is new knowledge today will be gone beyond in only a short time. Science cannot give meaning – that can only be found by ‘worshipping at one shrine’, by engagement with a sphere of value (for example science, politics, art) – but it can extend the technological control of life, it can provide a method of thought to enable clarity. It is the optimal tool for those heroic and strong enough to face ‘inconvenient’ facts.

Agnes Heller equated modernity with dissatisfaction from the perspective of needs and wants. Rather than thinking of dissatisfaction as something to be overcome or, as Weber did through ‘disenchantment’, mourned, she sees it as the fundamental motivational force in modernity. She argues that Marx and Weber were partially correct in their analyses, attributing dissatisfaction in turn to commodity production and rationalisation. She believes that modernity is a pendulum swinging between its dynamic and tension-related ‘logics’ of capitalism, industrialisation and democracy, each of which impact on, contradict and can subordinate the others.

A dissatisfied modernity is dynamic, accumulating and searching. The dynamism results from the generation of more needs than can be satisfied. The developmental ‘logics’ of Western modernity are embedded in the social systems. Where the motivational forces for the three are wants, and capitalism and industrialisation can satisfy endless wants, only the ‘logic’ of democracy can satisfy the needs that contribute to a person’s exercise of their autonomy. Heller positions subjectivity at the centre of modernity and believes our existential and ethical ‘task’ is to transform our contingency into our destiny by achieving satisfaction through determining our lives and building on our talents, to which choosing our democratic freedom is fundamental. Even though democracy contributes to dissatisfaction by advancing the values of freedom, human rights and equality as universal ideas and the other ‘logics’ have contributed to social emancipation and the scientific worldview, Heller hopes that democracy will triumph and contain the growth of the other two ‘logics’.

While her writing is after Weber’s, it is still a better attempt to theorise the contradictory dynamism of Western capitalism. Where Weber’s writing, standing in the shadow of Nietzschean asceticsim – with its heroes, prophets and gods – has a kernel of backward-longing to a romantic never-existent, Heller’s writing can be much more humane and understanding of self and others, and much more democratic. She wrote that as Weber observed, we cannot die satiated with life but, she added, we can ‘make a difference’ saying that in the light of the possibilities, we have achieved what we could. Yet Weber’s demands on his man of the ‘calling’ echo in her focus on ‘strategic moments’ and ‘key decisions’ and her failure to recognise indecision. The writing of both Weber and Heller has a romantic aura privileging the creativity of the highly-principled individual as they progress towards their personal destiny.

Heller wrote that to be satisfied in a dissatisfied society ‘we can be satisfied with our lives to the extent that we are able to transform our contingency into our destiny by choosing to satisfy our needs for self-determination directly and not indirectly. To be satisfied with our lives does not mean being generally satisfied.’1 The realistic attractiveness of the last sentence slumps limply against the brassy move from contingency to destiny in the first. Again, she wrote that since the modern western state has no organising centre (a contradiction in terms) greater possibilities for democratisation can be pursued in all spheres of society. To theorise democracy, one must first be clear on what comprises a state.

With regard to Weber – magic, disenchantment, gods, prophets and heroes play no part in a ‘hard-headed’ analysis of the current (capitalist) manifestation of ‘modernity’. Again, even though she recognises and explores their inter-relatedness, Heller’s ‘logics’ of capitalism, industrialisation and democracy cannot be pulled apart in the manner she does. Industrialisation is a manifestation of capitalism as is capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracy (not the only form of democracy) has developed both as a requisite of capitalism (we are all ‘free and equal’) and a concession to the struggles and assertions of both the middle and working classes – against the ‘craze for profits’ (which Weber denied).2 Trade unionism is another example of this – bitterly fought for but then become necessary and used to control the working class through its compromised leadership (the Accord is a prime instance).

Both Weber and Heller put subjectivity at the centre of modernity and politics yet for Heller the self-choice is the result of a series of intentional actions while for Weber it is a value-choice to which one remains committed. For Heller the existential choice is open to all (she has made these decisions, so can others), for Weber it is only open to those with shoulders to bear the challenge. There is an elitism in the writing of both – Weber’s ‘aristocratic’, ‘charismatic’, Heller’s more intersubjective, more understanding. Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ is incorporated in a romantic analysis – grandiose and unrelenting but with colour, passion and brilliance in the character of ‘hero’, the man of ‘calling’. Weber placed the emancipatory potential on the individual, ‘above’ the everyday. Heller placed the empowering potential on the individual as an integrated member of an everyday community.

Heller’s analysis of ‘dissatisfaction’ is of a concept the widespread presence of which is obvious in our society but it is not simply too abstract, it misunderstands the relationship between what she terms ‘logics’. Any analysis of ‘dissatisfaction’ on that basis must have serious flaws. Yet Heller wrote ‘It is this loss of relevance suffered by the redemptive paradigm that has led so many to despair. …Such despair, however, is misplaced, for if there is no social redemption, neither is there damnation.’3 The despair was misplaced because the cause was misunderstood. But her conclusion is sound and a most important truth to consider when thinking about ‘modernity’.



1. Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, ‘On Being Satisfied in a Dissatisfied Society’ in The Postmodern Political Condition, Polity Press, 1988, 36

2. ‘categories such as “acquisitive drive” or “the craze for profit” are…by no means sufficient to account for the “capitalist spirit” – whatever we understand by this concept.’ Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings (1905), trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells, Penguin 2002, 278. Contra-Weber’s justification of capitalism on the basis of ascetic ethics, Marx wrote ‘ By counting the most meagre form of life (existence) as the standard, indeed, as the general standard – general because it is applicable to the mass of men. He turns the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need – be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity – seems to him a luxury. Political economy, this science of wealth, is therefore simultaneously the science of renunciation, of want, of saving and it actually reaches the point where it spares man the need of either fresh air or physical exercise. This science of marvellous industry is simultaneously the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave.’ Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977 (Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property), 111

3. Heller, op. cit., 32