Book Theme: Pathway to Meltdown

Max Weber moves attention away from class and order to the entrenchment of new forms of power, control, and rationality in modern society. “Your Smart Phone Might be an Evil Genius” is the apropos title for the introductory essay, which discusses how the advancement of technology constrains us as much as it liberates us, not unlike Weber’s notion of the “iron cage.” The pathway toward increased rationality, Weber warned long ago, might also lead to meltdown. We include excerpts from his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as well as essays on social action, authority and domination, and bureaucracy. We also include two pieces from the Frankfurt School of critical theory—Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Jürgen Habermas’s Toward a Rational Society—and an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, all of which look at the subtle ways new kinds of power and surveillance become ingrained in modern society. Finally, we include a piece from Anthony Giddens that provides a systematic look at some of the many consequences of living in the modern social world.


Writing Out Loud


Ah, bureaucracy – that endless hallway of never-ending paperwork and thick red tape. Weber introduced the idea of bureaucracy claiming that it is the most rational form of organization and domination, but it was not without its negative side. Take a look at the key components of bureaucracy and then answer the following questions.

Pathway to Meltdown

Class, Status, Party

Like Marx, Weber was also interested in how societies were stratified along class lines. However, unlike Marx, Weber suggests that class and status are distinct from one another. Whereas class can be identified objectively, status is something that is more socially determined. Read the excerpt carefully and then ponder the following questions.

Pathway to Meltdown

One-Dimensional Man

In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse serves up a scathing indictment of advanced industrial society. He is particularly critical of consumerism, which he argues contributes to the creation of “false needs” and the perpetuation of social control. As you read the excerpt, ask yourself: has much changed since Marcuse was writing? Then, answer the following questions.

Pathway to Meltdown

Toward a Rational Society

In Toward a Rational Society, the Frankfurt School theorist Jurgen Habermas argues that modern societies are increasingly characterized by a tension between technology and the social life-world. As you read the excerpt, think about how Habermas explains this tension and what he thinks needs to be done to fix the problem. Then, answer the following questions.

Pathway to Meltdown

Discipline and Punish

The beginning of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is grim. Its vivid portrait of the torture and execution of Robert François-Damiens illustrates just how far the modern penal system has come. However, Discipline and Punish is not just a book about prisons – it is also about how we discipline and control our bodies. Answer the following questions after completing the reading.

Pathway to Meltdown

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

Many of the scholars of rationality included in this text (Weber, Ritzer, Bauman, etc.) emphasize the destructive nature of rationality. Graeber has a different perspective: rationality, without visionary leadership, becomes trivialized, distracting us from truly transformative social change. After you complete the reading, please respond to the questions below.

Pathway to Meltdown

Interactive Readings

Supplementary Sources

Test Materials

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