Max Weber’s Theory of Rationalisation: A Deep Source of Despair

The renowned sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920), coined the term rationalisation as a key process of modern society. Weber held that the “passion for bureaucratisation” and the “exclusive rule of bureaucratic life ideals” was a deep source of “despair” for those in modern life.

Bureaucracy is a complex social invention that was mastered during the industrial revolution in order to organise and direct the various activities of businesses.

Bureaucratic rule is an undoubtedly necessary management style for modern society, yet it is also an invention which in turn destroys its creator, us. Bureaucracy is a crutch which modern society must prop itself on, lest it falls over in catastrophic fashion. With an ever-expanding population and therefore growing organisations and administrative needs, bureaucracy seems to be the only viable form of rule to cope with these rapid changes. There are undoubtedly major benefits that bureaucratic management has brought to modern life, it has nourished huge organisations, allowing them to grow and in turn fostered the rapid industrialisation of society. It is a necessary system, albeit one that society has grown to mindlessly support up to a dangerous point.

Max Weber was certainly correct in his blunt assessment of what was ironically his favoured model of authority, that under its exclusive rule it ultimately becomes a “source of despair”. Perhaps much of what we feel to be “just wrong” with society on a very deep and indescribable level can be attributed to this phenomenon of rationalisation.


Firstly, it is important to consider the historical context in which Weber formed his views, and it is from this point that the origin of his nostalgic pessimism (not cynicism) becomes evident.

Looking to the theory of the Iron Cage, which represents a system that is hyper-rationalised to a point of irrationality, Weber’s theory often intersects with Marx. Weber believes that if we are in such a cage, we have at least, in part, imprisoned ourselves, as mentioned earlier we are prisoners to our own invention. This process pushes us closer and closer towards total and inescapable imprisonment within the “Iron Cage” system which Weber described as “the polar night of icy darkness”.

Weber’s theory on bureaucracy appears to become more and more visible with time, as its pervasiveness in modern life increases at an exponential rate. The omnipresent nature of bureaucracy cannot be denied, it dictates our behaviour through a social conditioning that is ostensibly impossible to escape. This is no great conspiracy by any measure; you only have to look to large organisations or government bodies that we must interact with daily for proof.

Yet if bureaucracy provides us with so much progress, why is it to be viewed negatively?

Max Weber certainly endorsed a bureaucratic model of management, viewing it as the most efficient means of organisation. Weber had hopes that mankind could perfect his ability to rationalise, yet somewhere along the way this “perfection” was misconstrued for hyper-enforced. The advantage of the bureaucratic model was that it established safeguards, ensuring that legal tradition could enforce social roles rather than the unpredictable “cult of personality”. The threat that charismatic rule presented was a system susceptible to chaos and unanticipated consequences, whereas rationalisation could disarm this with a focus on technical competence instead. However, what Weber did not endorse was a vacuum of emotion, leaving only passion for bureaucratisation itself.


According to Weber, rationalisation is the central problem of the modern, industrialised world. Yet it is also the key to understanding this modern world, and its effects on the individual. Weber never explicitly defines the term “rationalisation” the most probable definition of the term is; a way of thinking concerned with the systematic and efficient organisation of social order to reach an end goal. This theory was developed via Weber’s observation of the rational calculation he saw within the Protestant Ethic. The Calvinist (offshoot of Protestantism) search for evidence of God’s approval or disapproval was dictated in their marketplace successes. High success was taken as a sign that they were adhering to God’s expectations, whilst failure meant the opposite. After identifying a correlation between the Protestant ethic and a vested interest in business, Weber argued that the modern spirit of capitalism viewed profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous.


Rationalisation in modernity is intrinsically linked with bureaucracy, as the implementation of rationalised thinking to maximise efficiency and therefore profit, ultimately leads to bureaucratic organisation. According to Weber, rationalisation is an inherent feature of modernity, and for this reason we value the notion of striving for a calculated utilitarian approach to governance in both personal and social life. Modernity demands the existence of huge administrative structures due to the sheer enormity of the population. Due to this ever-expanding population, highly organised administrative structures require the control of hierarchies to keep society running smoothly and most importantly, efficiently. The key trademark structures of bureaucracy involve; a division of labour based on functional specialisation, well-defined hierarchy of authority, system of rules covering rules and rights of the worker, impersonality of interpersonal relations and promotion based on competence.

However closer inspection into the various parts that compose the bureaucratic whole, begin to reveal each trait is susceptible to contradiction. Of course great artistic figures like Kafka and Chaplin have explored these often-absurd contradictions throughout their work.

Take for instance the system of hierarchy of authority, a trademark structure of a bureaucracy. Administrative structures demand hierarchic top-down approaches, in order to create clear lines of authority and compliance, the bottom layers are always subject to supervision and control of higher layers. Generally individuals seek to advance their position, and “move up the (corporate) ladder” so they can exercise more self-autonomy. When an individual gets a promotion they may believe they have in a sense “changed things” for themselves. However they remain in essentially the exact same position as before, albeit with potentially extra responsibilities, or a higher pay rate (if within a corporate context). Weber eloquently summarised this phenomenon when he said, “It is horrible to think that the world could one day be filled with nothing but those little cogs, little men clinging to little jobs and striving towards bigger ones.”

It is expected that the “cogs” that keep the bureaucracy turning struggle to show self-awareness of their position. According to Weber, this is because the bureaucrats at the top arrange the system to work in a way that only they understand, and perhaps others may phrase this as “the system is rigged from the inside”. Ultimately, it would take an outsider many years to understand its workings. Hypothetically even if some level of understanding is reached, it is more difficult to leave the system than it is to enter it (even for the bureaucrat who claims some awareness of his circumstances). Even though the absurdities of bureaucracy should be strikingly clear to society, the point is that it is a system that insidiously attaches and installs itself without hope of removal.

Weber wants to demonstrate that although rationalisation is a necessity to modernity, it is a system with serious flaws and ironically major irrationalities. Rationalisation demands that values and emotions are superseded in place of efficiency and calculability. This creates a double standard in the psyche of the modern individual, demanding a high degree of counterintuitive behaviour. The modern individual must somehow be expected to toss aside ingrained values and hardwired emotions in favour of cold rationality, for the purpose of reaching the capitalist end goal.


Considering the inherent danger of each bureaucratic trademark when exercised too far, the most immediate and crucial damage is a corruption of culture and values. Modernity faces a total saturation of bureaucratic organisation, with the consequence being a gradual eradication of traditional values and humanity. Ultimately if bureaucracy is occupying such a large degree of modernity, its values of rationality can be expected to creep into the greater portion of society. The division between private and public life becomes blurred. Ideally bureaucratic organisations are to be kept separate from the public sphere. However this is not the reality as Weber states (Weber, 1922, p.197) when describing the characteristics of bureaucracy. It is found in public as well as in private enterprises. Under this rule individuals will soon become apathetic to the changes as they do not concern business, so when culture is nullified, there is little care shown. Individuals have become retrained to the point where their only concern rests in following and exercising bureaucratic rule, not through any real essential passion of their own, but because conditioning makes it so.

This blur between private and public sphere is where rationalisation reaches a very dangerous tipping point. The peak of rationalisation can be seen when looking to fascist and dictatorial regimes, for instance the rise of Nazi Germany. The Nazi regime emphasised efficiency and calculability, in the process rendering man into machine-like instruments. This is the horror that an “exclusive rule of bureaucratic life ideals” can lead to producing. It is the fear regarding people becoming merely cogs in a machine that Weber described, fully realised. When individuals are stripped of self-autonomy they have no means to resist, furthermore when they are without emotion they have no desire to resist. Bureaucracies are single-minded and goal-orientated mechanisms, when this is coupled with the individual’s loss of self-autonomy there can be dangerous results. What is “good” or a favourable outcome for the bureaucracy may not be good for society as a whole, as seen it can be detrimental. Whilst using Nazi Germany as an example of this point may be extreme, it is very easy to find the damaging effects on society that bureaucracy can enact in day-to-day life, let alone political governance.

Leaving dictatorial regimes aside, people generally create bureaucracies for the purpose of helping other people (motivated by a desire for capital profit), however the fact that they operate under strictly impersonal conditions means they often fail to carry out their intended purpose. Political bureaucracies are established in order to protect and enhance civil liberties, yet through the imposition of these rules our liberties are often violated. Service bureaucracies such as health care aim to help the sick, yet many are denied help on the basis of specific criteria and red tape protocol. Agricultural bureaucracies designed to help farmers can also drive them out of business in the face of market competition and industrialisation.

These examples demonstrate that bureaucracy has grown into an untameable and irrational beast, and we are severely unqualified in our role as its handler to rein it in. In actual fact, we find that it is the bureaucratic beast that controls us with considerable ease.


Under bureaucratic rule, values and human emotion become a foreign and un-learnable concept to individuals constrained. The most common experience associated with dealing with a bureaucracy as an outsider is one of intense frustration, most often due to a failure to employ common sense and values. Cold rationality is not a trait we aspire towards having (at least in Western society) yet it is the baseline under which bureaucracy operates. Weber described the phenomenon as “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” This contradiction is striking because throughout history, a world dictated by rationalist ideals is something society has strongly fought against, yet our man-made bureaucracies seem to do just that.

I have already outlined the benefits and necessity of bureaucracy in modernity and although important they are limited. Whereas the potential damage that bureaucratic ideals can generate when overemphasised is far greater. Bureaucracy has certainly created an alarming movement in favour of social regression as opposed to progression. In separating man’s essential nature from his labour, the bureaucratic machine has created a social and moral vacuum. Bureaucracy has caused the stagnation of culture in our society through a loss of values.

On this point I may slightly veer from Weber’s argument that there will be a complete loss of values under bureaucratic rule. I’d posit that there is actually a reconstruction, or disfiguration (depending on your perspective) of notions of symbolism and myth, notions of fate and luck, sexuality, religious or other ideologies (Jenkins, 2000). Organisations are not real material entities, rather we enter a social agreement upon which companies exist. What greater example of rationalisation and peak efficiency than a “drive-thru” at a McDonalds! A clearly set out menu gives unbreakable guidelines to follow, minimal interaction with the vendor, and not to mention efficiency in the meal’s preparation leading to efficient use of time for the customer. McDonalds has a history and story, its name elicits a familial name and is enjoyed by families internationally. Its icon of the great “M” acts as a totem and symbol of sorts. One can go on explaining the “religion” of McDonalds, but the point is made that bureaucracy contorts sacred values so we can identify with businesses.

Yet this is merely a superficial set of values that we are being fed. The loss of real (non-commercial based) values strips individuals of their humanity and identity, and in the process it tears at the fabric of society. People lose their ability to engage in society unless they belong to a large-scale bureaucracy, however even here they cannot engage meaningfully. Under this system individuals no longer interact on a personal basis, instead of using feeling and rationalism as a basis for communication, people become merely abstract calculations. Following this point, if each bureaucrat is equally a prisoner to their own system as Weber writes, then it stands to reason that even those at the top of administrative structures will act in this detached irrational manner. This is extremely problematic considering it is their job to make sound decisions that will impact the lives of people. However if bureaucrats have been retrained to only see people as numbers then we can expect that decisions will not take into account the lives of individuals with empathy.

We see this within several life-altering systems today. The objective of the U.S. prison system is to supposedly provide “corrections” to individuals. However due to the largely commercial influence the system’s aim is now arguably to perpetuate itself. Furthermore, Algorithms known as “risk assessments” are used to predict inmate behaviour, and can determine their sentences. Yet the inner workings of these tools are largely hidden from public view. Credit scores are another example of how individuals are viewed simply as pieces of data, with little to no concern for considering them as a person. It’s easy to understand how massive corporations make scores of people redundant with no sense of empathetic consideration.

Ultimately the bureaucracy dictates right and wrong not based off any real moral or ethical standpoint, but whether “the rules” deem a thing acceptable. If the rules or data of an organisation demand action, then the bureaucrat will set a plan into motion without any critical analysis of why those rules ought to be followed. Weber once described bureaucracy as a social machine, equating it to “a modern judge who is a vending machine” who categorically spits out responses (Bennis, 1993). For Weber the disenchantment of the world lay right at the heart of modernity. In a disenchanted world everything becomes understandable and tameable (Jenkins, 2000). This is to say that bureaucracy has taken what is sacred, in a sense, and rationalised and abused it for its own gain.

Even the “ideal type” of charismatic leader, who can in fact shake the system and revitalise it will inevitably become swallowed by the system they help to recreate. There seems to be little hope in the capacity of humans to resist or subvert this system. As organisations grow larger in complexity our potential for disruption decreases.



Bennis, W. (1993). Beyond bureaucracy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp.31-32.

Jenkins, R. (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. Max Weber Studies, 1, pp.14-15.

Weber, M. (1922). Economy and society. Berkeley, Calif. [u.a.]: Univ. of California Press, pp.650-78.

Weber, M. (1947). The theory of social and economic organization. New York : Free Press ; London : Collier-Macmillan, p.328.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: