Bureaucracy and the Secrets of Hierarchy

Bureaucracy for populists: The European Commission. Brussels, September 2017.

Everyone thinks they know what bureaucracy is about; paperwork, pointless rules, red tape, computer says no. Despite this seeming familiarity it nonetheless stubbornly resists conceptualisation.  The critique of bureaucracy – an endeavour once undertaken by all shades of the political spectrum – has fallen by the wayside in recent decades.

The reasons for this are multiple. Of special significance, however, was the framing in the immediate post-war years, of bureaucracy as a phenomenon associated with the state civil service and mass political parties.

Indeed this characterisation – which has been tacitly accepted – reached its extreme with Ludwig Von Mises’ Bureaucracy (1944) in which this father of neoliberalism blamed government suppression of the profit motive through regulation (and New Deal-style welfare advocacy more generally) for the rise of bureaucracy in the US. In an echo of what was to come under Reaganomics and Thatcherism, Von Mises located central government as the seedbed of bureaucratisation, the stifling of free enterprise and even totalitarianism itself.

Even before Von Mises’ polemic, the left had an ambivalent relationship with bureaucratic forms of organisation. On the one hand, Marx in his early writing saw in the state bureaucracy only an imagined universality which in practice was preoccupied with little else than securing and legitimising its own forms of activity and giving rise to a cult of authority. In his writing on the Paris Commune, he went further to claim that the suppression of the city bureaucracy by cutting its salaries to the level of an average worker was the Commune’s first truly revolutionary measure.

Lenin, on the other hand, viewed the state bureaucracy predominantly as a weapon of the dominant class and thus as potentially appropriable by a revolutionary party as a means to transform society. Lenin’s admiration of the 19th-century German postal system with its complex but remarkably efficient structures was well known and became the butt of jokes from Von Mises about socialists wanting to turn the whole world into a post office. Lenin’s adoption of bureaucracy “for revolutionary means” and the use the Soviet Union made of it significantly hampered any independent Leftist critique. Consequently, the pejorative “apparatchik” has become a near synonym for a bureaucrat.

Fast forward to the 1970s and these basic coordinates were the starting point for Claude Lefort’s analysis, with the civil service and mass party as his principal object. Interestingly though, Lefort raises the problem of bureaucracy’s autonomy with respect to the class struggle and the state. Like Max Weber in the early 20th Century, he recognised bureaucratisation as a problem with capitalist development generally and not simply as emerging as an instrument of class power. Bureaucracy’s rationalism, its reduction of complex tasks to technical, calculable units and its reliance on impersonal, non-clientelistic relations, are all factors drawing on wider developments in society.

By this account bureaucracy as a form of social organisation seems to have its own internal dynamic, irreducible to traditional Marxist categories, or for that matter the hyperbolic red scare rhetoric of the neoliberals. It is as the young Marx observed “a circle from which no-one can escape” but its essential character is stratification and ordering. As all the commentators on bureaucracy have noted, its principle tendency is towards self-expansion, thus mirroring capital’s ceaseless drive to accumulation. But if it’s not merely an instrument of the dominant class or an outgrowth of the state, where then does the power of bureaucracy lie, and where does it ultimately come from?

These questions were never really answered. With the advance of neoliberalism in the West and the collapse of Soviet Communism, social theory moved instead towards the individual subject and that subject’s placement within a network of power relations. Grand theory attempting to explain the rapidly emerging age of globalisation took a back seat. The caricature of the state or party bureaucrat proffered by the right won the day, and as socialism waned and mass parties across the West shrunk, the critique of bureaucratic power fell into abeyance.

In Lefort’s analysis, however, there were the beginnings of a theory of social power that would be developed throughout the decade and into the1980s, notably by the likes of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Michel Foucault. Little was done however to contest the notion of bureaucracy as exclusively a problem with socialism, the big state and mass political parties.

As David Graeber notes in The Utopia of Rules, the instances of the word ‘bureaucracy’ in English language publications have fallen steadily after reaching a peak in the mid-1970s. Intriguingly though he also notes that other terms generally associated with bureaucracy such as paperwork and performance review have risen dramatically over the same period. Could it be that rather than disappearing with the Soviet Union and the mass socialist parties, the problem of bureaucracy has been forgotten? Lost, owing to a theoretical development that has obscured the basic problem, tying its fate to the wrong historical figures and leaving us unable to understand how power and order function in the era of globalisation.

 An essential point which has often been overlooked is that bureaucracy is both a form of social ordering and an ordering power itself. Its nature is order through and through and one where the edges are difficult to find. Furthermore, it’s an ordered/ordering power distinct from the type of rulemaking authority we associate with sovereign nation states. In other words, bureaucracy does not attempt to ground itself in anything like a popular will or charismatic leader.

As Weber noted, charismatic power is antithetical to the impersonal power of the bureaucrat. The cult leader or Medieval king might draw his power directly from his person, but the public official draws theirs from their position within the hierarchy. Rarely do bureaucrats or officials of any kind feel the need to justify themselves in political terms since their sphere of actions is deemed to be purely technical or administrative and relations with others governed by contracts of the business rather than social kind. This does not mean however that the power of the bureaucrat is neutral or benign. Indeed the lack of a traditional centre of authority is one of the more often complained about aspects of bureaucracy.

How often do people demand to “speak to someone in charge” when dealing with a big company or state service? What people want is someone with the authority to “cut through the red tape” and just make a decision. Often such a person simply does not exist (charismatic individuals tend to be weeded out by bureaucracies). Authority in a bureaucracy is widely dispersed and jurisdiction heavily prescribed. The lowest call centre workers or even their supervisors simply don’t have the power to interpret the rules, whereas senior managers know next to nothing of the details of their businesses and are transfixed by metrics and key performance indicators that tell them nothing of the reality on the floor. A general incompetence prevails, yet the money continues to roll in while lives are daily thrown into turmoil.

What are the basic characteristics here? Let’s think again about the most generic description of bureaucracy; ordering and stratification, nominally independent of sovereign (or if you like political) power. Ordering is perhaps too general a concept to be of much use here. Armies are heavily ordered and have chains of command, but soldiers are not bureaucrats, though the upper echelons of the armed forces are sometimes considered to be. And we can think of endless examples of highly ordered human arrangements that are not stratified; a football team for example or the members of a theatre troop. Workers too might have many different roles but all be on the same grade at a big company, in practice organising the work between themselves. Management, on the other hand, we always tend to associate with “layers”.

The relationship between modern managerialism and bureaucracy is an important part of this story which we’ll leave for another day. Of our two principle concepts, we’re thus left with stratification, or to be more precise, hierarchy. No true bureaucracy is without hierarchy and every description of bureaucracy from Marx to Graeber emphasises it as a fundamental trait. Have we not, however, ended up back where we began with a familiar concept, the very familiarity of which resists precise determination?

What then is hierarchy? It’s a Greek word, the origin of which is in fact very precisely, though not very widely known. Rather than denoting mere gradation, it refers to a totalising form of order and action that operates explicitly within an economic context. Economic, that is, in its broadest sense as the administration of people and things.

There is no unambiguous translation. However, Marx, when he referred to bureaucracy’s “cult of authority” and Weber when he described the “ideological halo of the bureaucrat”, may have had some inkling of its etymology. In early Christianity, it referred to the office (the ἀρχή, archē) of the bishop in relation to his subordinates, and developed out of the more general hierarchēs meaning the one who carries out a sacred ritual.

It is however through the works of an unknown author of the 5th Century known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite that the term acquired the lexical weight which it has carried ever since and which St Thomas Aquinas denoted as sacred power (sacer principatus). In two texts – The Celestial Hierarchy and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, this apocryphal author describes how a transcendent first principle (God, nominally) is able to govern through the use of intermediaries right down to the smallest elements of creation.

The intermediaries of this divine government of the world are respectively the order of angels and the clergy. These works had immense authority during the middle ages owing to their supposed provenance as the writings of an Athenian convert of St Paul. Aquinas, in particular, drew from the Corpus Areopagitum, citing it in his Summa Theologiæ more frequently than he did Aristotle. The ranks of Angels carrying titles such as thrones, principalities, archangels, and cherubims can still be seen depicted on the ceilings of Medieval buildings throughout Europe and the near-East.

Hierarchy, sacred order, is the name for this metaphysics of government, the original “world order” connecting heaven and earth and the origin of the key concept in bureaucracy. It is also a  commonplace term used to describe all manner of systems of gradation. That this symbolic figure of global technocratic malaise has its locus in theology is one of the great mysteries of power in the West.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.