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Weberian Charisma, Its Relevance to Modern Contemporary Democratic Politics and the Role of the Trickster.

Weberian Charisma, Its Relevance to Modern Contemporary Democratic Politics and the Role of the Trickster.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Bryan Wall. Originally submitted for Foundation in Sociological Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Arpad Szakolczai in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Bryan Wall. Originally submitted for Foundation in Sociological Theory at University College Cork, with lecturer Arpad Szakolczai in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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Weberian Charisma, Its Relevance to Modern Contemporary Democratic Politics and theRole of the Trickster
Modern contemporary politics is a far more complex undertaking than it was just one hundredyears ago. This is for many reasons, the main ones being the advent of technology and the ensuinginstantaneous communication across vast expanses along with the power of certain interest groupsin “deciding” who gets elected. But while things have changed rather substantially in one sensesince the days of Weber, things have also stayed very much the same in certain aspects. This in particular is what makes Weber and his work, regarding democracy, more relevant than ever  before. Modern democratic politics is the age of charismatic politician and/or leader; one whocommands respect and admiration from everyone, which sometimes, rather conversely, includestheir enemies. Image has become everything in the 21
century, where the soundbite is a far moreeffective tool than a long winding tome reminiscent of the kind espoused by Martin Luther King Jr.Face value and marketability has become everything in politics today and the charismatic leader in particular is one who stands out from the rest of the pack. But this also inevitably leads to the issueof the character of the trickster. The charismatic leader can be an honorable one but they can also be a trickster hiding under the guise of a charismatic leader. This is what makes democratic politicswhat it is; a competition between liars and heroes and it is what makes Weber's work from nearlyone hundred years ago still relevant today.Charisma, in the Weberian sense is not the same as charisma in the everyday sense, although bothtypes are not far apart at times. Charisma, which translated literally means the “gift of grace”,according to Weber is something that can “be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed withsupernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities”
(1978, p.241).
These abilities are not something which can be attained by a regular person and instead theseabilities are thought to be of divine origin. The religious overtones of this are obvious to any reader and Weber was aware of this importance. He juxtaposed the charismatic character with that of the prophet from religious texts “who in virtue of his mission announces a religious doctrine or adivine command” (
 Freund, 1968, p. 195).
If you replace religious doctrine and divine commandwith manifesto and/or election promises, you basically have modern politics; where promises and predictions are made by those attempting to attain political power via democratic methods and theyare voted for by people on the basis of their apparent ability to follow through with their promisesand predictions. This is an important part of the idea of charismatic power and its legitimation. It is1
only validated by those who are under the rule of the one with the talent or divine gift of charisma.To add further weight to the above Weber also says that “Depending on circumstances, the prophetmay assume the character of a law-giver or simply that of a teacher of doctrine. In the former case,his action is intended to influence social relations through the creation of a new kind of law. In thelatter case, he is principally the promoter of a new way of life or a new code of ethics, but not inthe same manner of the founder of a new philosophical school, for he remains the herald of a truthof salvation by virtue of a revelation”
(Freund, 1968, p. 196).
From a non-divine point of view, charismatic power is also the exceptional form of political power,the other two forms being legal and traditional power. This exceptionalism is not due to rarity but“because it sets aside the usages of normal political life”
(Freund, 1968, p.232).
In the politicalworld this type of person can come in the form of a demagogue, dictator, military hero
or revolutionary but no matter which form the charismatic leader comes in, the ensuing power of theleader always results in the preferential treatment of one group of people over another which cansometimes lead to the use of physical force. Weber was also quite aware of this and wrote, with anobvious cynicism of political machinations, that politics is something which “successfully upholdsa claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order”
(Weber, 1966, p. 154).
He went further and added that power, in the political and charismatic sense,is “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out hisown will despite resistance”. He sees domination, which inevitably goes along with power, as “the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of  persons”
(Weber, 1966, p. 152).
Whilst Weber saw charismatic power as being opposed to tradition, bureaucracy and allinstitutional routines, it can become routinised and turn into what it was initially opposed to. Thiswas precisely the case with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Initially he was a charismaticleader, in the Weberian sense, who was vehemently opposed to the then current form of democracyand parliamentary power in Venezuela. He was swept into power on the back of massive supportand admiration of his personal achievements and personal heroism along with a seemingly divinegift to lead the people. After a decade in power however, he has become precisely as routinised and bureaucratised as those he initially opposed and eventually replaced. The case of Chavez is amicrocosm of charisma in politics in general. Democratic elections simply become a competition2
to convince people that one candidate in particular is better than the other solely on mundaneaspects of their personality and beliefs; something to be used as a means to an end.This leads on directly to the idea of the trickster figure and the intertwining of this figure with thecharismatic figure. The trickster figure is present in all mythologies throughout the world and has been a constant figure in the mythos of humankind. Some cultures even have multiple trickster figures in their mythos, such as the Native American Indians. Even within different NativeAmerican tribes, they have different figures that represent the trickster. In the tribes to the North of America, the coyote is seen as the trickster where as on the Northwest coast the raven is seen asthe trickster but also as the cultural hero. This last part is important. Not only does it show theubiquitousness of the trickster mythos but also that of the cultural hero or one who has charisma.The two attributes, at times, cannot be separated from one another 
(Hultkrantz, 1980).
Today, inthe modern world, not only is it the time of the charismatic leader but it is also the time of thecharismatic trickster. This is because the trickster abounds in times of upheaval, revolution andchange and no matter what positive changes are taking place, “the trickster is always lurking in itsshadow”
(Szakolczai, 2007, p.45).
Here it is worth noting that the trickster, at least in NativeAmerican mythology, can sprout from the cultural hero, possibly one who has charisma in theWeberian sense.In Native American mythology, the cultural hero is weak compared to the Supreme Being; the onewho is the creator, the almighty. This is what “paves the way for his development as a trickster.And through his great deficiencies and clumsiness – compared to the Supreme Being – in the process of creation he inflicts much misfortune on humans, sometimes, it appears, intentionally.More than any other mythological figure he has thus come to represent the somewhat capricious,dangerous, often malevolent aspect of the supernatural”
(Hultkrantz, 1980, p. 33).
Despite the factthat tricksters generally threaten societal norms, conventions etc., “there are some tricksters whocreate the impression of possessing a high moral ground; even pretending to be the solerepresentatives of an ethical way of life”
(Szakolczai, 2007, pp. 256 – 257).
As already mentioned,Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez seems to fit this description as he was seen as a cultural hero by his supporters but now he seems to have gone down the path of despotism. On more local level,former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern fits the criteria of cultural hero, a charismatic leader andtrickster figure. He was elected to office on the back of popular sentiment but all the time he wasguilty of extreme financial irregularities and was partly responsible for the current economic crisis3

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