All Articles All Articles


Is Bureaucracy Here to Stay?

Is Bureaucracy Here to Stay?

By Dennis Loo (12/10/13)

Anyone who seriously undertakes the task of addressing the problems that confront humanity has to sooner or later come up against the problem and the question of bureaucracy. The sooner one recognizes this the better because anything you do that dodges or seeks to avoid this question is time largely wasted. Bureaucracies are the formalizing and concrete manifestation of the need to organize group activity. Group activity is the sine qua non of human existence since we are first and foremost social beings and can only continue to exist through our sociality. You cannot even be born but through groups, beginning with a couple of the opposite sex who are your (biological) parents. And you cannot survive and become human - since being human isn't a feature only of having human DNA but of being taught to be human - without groups, including the other person together with you who make up a group.

Bureaucracy, however, concentrates within it both the reasons why it is so powerful but also why it is such a danger. In the first part of this article I explore different dimensions to this, drawing upon the work especially of the foremost theorist of bureaucracy, Max Weber, and that of his student, Robert Michels. In examining their work I expand and develop certain aspects of it and in so doing lay the groundwork for a resolution to the problems that both Weber and Michels were unable to find.

Excerpts from Globalization and the Demolition of Society, by Dennis Loo, 2011:

The Nature of Bureaucracies

It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now.

--Aaron Broussard President of Jefferson Parish, New Orleans, 2005

Max Weber pointed out that bureaucracies reach their highest development in advanced capitalist countries and represent the material ascension and installation of rationality, a process by which nature, society, and individual action are increasingly mastered by planning, technical procedure, and rational action. Bureaucracies triumphed, beginning in the West, because they embody a specific combination of being the most predictable, dependable, efficient, and controllable way of doing things. In any given situation, bureaucracies might not be the most efficient way to do something, as anyone who has had any experiences with bureaucracies knows, but over time bureaucracies’ other attributes as an ensemble are almost impossible to beat. Attempting to run things by consensus for any groups larger than a few people is unfeasible. The business of organizing work of any kind, be it that of a club, a political party, or a corporation, necessitates a division of tasks and specializations with the actual major work and decisions made via committees and specifically the leaders within those committees, especially the executive committee—in other words, a bureaucratic structure. The trouble with bureaucracies is precisely an outgrowth of the very things that make them so powerful and so difficult to combat and/or undo. As Weber wrote:

This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

This “iron cage of rationality” that Weber warned of substitutes

• routinization for creativity

• formal rationality (bureaucratic logic focusing on uniform and consistent procedures for how things shall be done) for substantive rationality (the commonsense meaning of rationality—a logical goal pursued by logical means)

• orders from above (regardless of whether those orders are the best ideas and whether or not those orders are even rational) over ideas and knowledge from below or from the outside,

• specialization of tasks over big picture reasoning

• secrecy and deception in order to keep its activities obscured from scrutiny by others, including public officials and the public. 
Rivalries between different bureaucracies and their reluctance to share critical information with each other—for example, between the police and the FBI, between the FBI and the CIA, etc.—even when the consequences of this non-cooperation could be devastating, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11, are an outgrowth of the basic nature of bureaucracies: their secrecy (not just from the public and public officials, but also from other bureaucracies) and their jealously protected turf. Their sectarianism is not, in other words, a product primarily of bureaucrats’ myopia. It is a product of the narrowness that springs from bureaucracies’ fundamental nature—the constant striving to guard their turf and their persistent attempts to expand further the areas under their control.

As former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman points out,

The NSA had information on the Nigerian bomber [the Christmas Day 2009 failed terrorist on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit] that wasn’t shared with the CIA and the FBI; the CIA prepared a biographic study of the Nigerian bomber, which it didn’t share with NCTC. The State Department did not pursue whether the Nigerian bomber had a U.S. visa, let alone a multiple-entry visa, in his possession.

The blind spot created by bureaucracy’s tendency to privilege process over results can and does produce awful consequences. In addition, the specialization of tasks that mark bureaucracies and reflect, in certain important respects, a particular strength over other forms of organization, also tends to undermine synthetic reasoning—pulling together diverse strands and seeing the larger picture.

Organizational divisions, therefore, also express themselves in a tendency for bureaucracies to fail to see the big picture—a failure to put 2 and 2 together.

Finally, bureaucratic chiefs tend to suppress information that makes them look bad both before a disaster (tending to dismiss information that requires major action or that requires demoting or disciplining people they like, e.g., warnings of shoddy performance or of a catastrophe coming) and after a disaster (suppressing evidence that they failed to respond to obvious signals of trouble brewing).

Counterterrorism Czar Richard Clarke, for example, tried mightily to get the Bush White House to pay proper attention to the threat of al-Qaeda, but people higher in the bureaucracy than himself overruled him. That fact is well known. What is less well known is that Clarke was also stymied from below by lower levels of the bureaucracy, specifically by leaders within the FAA. As described by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in Brighton, UK:

The White House National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, had also given direct warning to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to increase security measures in light of an impending terrorist attack in July 2001. The FAA refused to take such measures. 
Former Federal Air Safety Inspector Rodney Stich, who has 50 years of experience in aviation and air safety, had warned the FAA about the danger of skyjacking, specifically highlighting the fact that cockpit doors weren’t secure, and further that pilots should be allowed to carry basic weapons. The FAA refused to implement his suggestions, and when it became apparent the threat was real, they blocked efforts to arm pilots, or to place air marshals on planes, among other security measures. In an extensive study of the subject, Stich observes that:

“Federal inspectors... had years earlier reported the hijacking threat and the simple inexpensive measures to prevent hijackers from taking control of the aircraft.

Numerous fatal hijackings further proved the need for urgent preventative measures. Instead of taking the legally required corrective actions, arrogant and corrupt FAA management personnel destroyed official reports of the dangers and the need for corrective actions; warned air safety inspectors not to submit reports that would make the office look bad when there is a crash related to the known problems; threatened inspectors who took corrective actions or continued to make reports—even though crashes from these uncorrected safety problems continued to occur.”

The Los Angeles Times corroborates this assessment:

“Federal bureaucracy and airline lobbying slowed and weakened a set of safety improvements recommended by a presidential commission—including one that a top airline industry official now says might have prevented the Sept. 11 terror attacks...

“The White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, created in 1996 after TWA Flight 800 crashed off Long Island, N.Y., recommended 31 steps that it said were urgently needed to provide a multilayered security system at the nation’s airports... The Federal Aviation Administration expressed support for the proposals, which ranged from security inspections at airports to tighter screening of mail parcels, and the Clinton administration vowed to rigorously monitor the changes. But by Sept. 11, most of the proposals had been watered down by industry lobbying or were bogged down in bureaucracy, a Times review found.”

The U.S. government thus bears direct responsibility for this state of affairs, by consistently failing to comply with its avowed responsibility to “rigorously monitor” and enforce the required changes. Larry Klayman, Chairman and General Counsel of Judicial Watch, the Washington-based legal watchdog, comments that:

“It is now apparent—given the near total lack of security at U.S. airports and elsewhere—that the U.S. government has not been forthright with the American people...

“During the last eight years of scandal during the Clinton administration, and the first eight months of the Bush Administration, reports this morning confirm that little to nothing was done to secure our nation’s airports and transportation systems as a whole—despite warnings. Instead, cosmetic reform of education, social security, taxes, and other less important issues were given precedence...” 51

Ahmed concludes that the above is “more than a case of incompetence... [indicating] wilful [British spelling] and reckless negligence of the highest order on the part of the U.S. government, rooted in sheer indifference to the potential loss in American lives.” Indifference to the potential loss of American lives is, however, par for the course for bureaucracies that focus on process more than on results. It is also par for the course as businesses lobby relentlessly and successfully to weaken or avoid measures that regulators demand of them. Corporate lobbying power—both in its increasing use and in government’s obsequiousness to it—has mushroomed under neoliberal regimes; market forces are, after all, to use Star Trek’s terminology, “the prime directive.” Like the elephant in the room, corporations get to do nearly anything they want.

Warnings prior to 9/11 of a pending attack were dire enough that Richard Clarke acted with tremendous urgency. The record shows that Bush, Cheney, National Security Advisor Rice, and others above Clarke behaved with criminal indifference to repeated and urgent warnings by Clarke and other members of the intelligence community. Many look at this evidence and conclude that Bush, et al must therefore have wanted 9/11 to happen. They may well have wanted it and they raised not a finger to forestall it. They have obviously benefited from it in spades.

But what is striking here is how much their behavior before 9/11 matches their actions prior to and after Katrina—utter indifference and criminal negligence. While 9/11 obviously served as the equivalent of a false flag attack for the Bush White House, Katrina did not. Katrina, in fact, created widespread disaffection with Bush and Cheney. At least the FAA’s behavior, which was subject directly to Clarke’s edicts prior to 9/11, can also very reasonably be ascribed to the power of lobbyists in a weakened regulatory environment and to the common characteristics of bureaucracies especially before a disaster strikes: “We’ve always done things this way, and we’re damned if anyone outside of us, even if they are above us, is going to make us change what we’ve been doing.” The worst and most alarming news here, in other words, is not that 9/11 was an inside job, a grand conspiracy hatched within the highest US government echelons. It is instead that 9/11 and other disasters such as the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe are due to the normal and ordinary workings of capitalism, and specifically neoliberal policies. That is much more distressing than believing that 9/11 was an inside job. (GDS, pp. 158-163)

Bureaucracies are indispensable to all forms of government, “democracies” among them. Yet the bureaucratic impulse and the bureaucratic mode are at odds with the democratic impulse and objective. “Democracies” cannot do without bureaucracies, but their need for bureaucrats as well as the inherent nature of bureaucracy undercut democracy itself. As Max Weber pointed out in his close study of bureaucracies, bureaucrats by their very nature try to shield what they are doing from public scrutiny. Secrecy and deception are synonymous with bureaucracy: “The concept of the ‘official secret’ is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude.” (Gerth and Mills, 1958, p. 233)

One need only attend a legislative committee hearing once or a few times to see that bureaucrats, brought before the committee routinely dodge, misrepresent and depending on which bureaucracy, not infrequently outright lie before legislators. The activities of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, and others are masked even from the putative people’s representatives. Even some members of the White House itself, including the President, have been regularly excluded from knowing the full activities of segments of the government’s bureaucracy.

Max Weber and his best-known student Robert Michels offer an instructive angle on the preceding. Weber was the foremost theorizer of the rise and triumph of bureaucracy in the modern state. He observed that bureaucracies would prevail and dominate because they are, as an ensemble of characteristics, the most efficient, predictable, dependable, and controllable way of doing things; but he also saw that their very nature would create an “iron cage of rationality,” stifling freedom of thought, creativity, and liberty.

Weber’s solution to this inevitable and inescapable dilemma was a hope that a charismatic leader would periodically emerge from within the ranks of the existing major political parties and shake up the iron cage for a time. Because charismatic leaders derive their power from their personal followings and from outside of bureaucratic-legalistic procedures and channels, a leader can, for a time, use that appeal to bring into motion efforts that can suspend or bypass bureaucracy’s established power. The operative phrase here, however, is “for a time,” because inevitably the bureaucracy (since it is the most powerful means of carrying out “societal action” and since mass action, e.g., social movements and rebellions/riots/revolutions, can only sometimes and only for a while overcome bureaucracies) will reassert its “iron cage” and have the last word.

Weber prescribed that the charismatic leader should come out of the ranks of the existing major political parties because he was not, after all, a socialist or a revolutionary. In an 1895 speech entitled “The Nation State and Economic Policy,” Weber declared: “I am a member of the bourgeois classes. I feel myself to be a bourgeois, and I have been brought up to share their views and ideals.” Owing to the nature of major, established political parties and their requisite bureaucratic character, a person with enough charisma to actually challenge the existing bureaucracy is highly unlikely to survive the journey up the party hierarchy where charisma is regarded with suspicion and as a shortcoming rather than as an asset.

Michels, who started out as a socialist, came to the conclusion that no matter how democratically an organization or a society starts out, it will inevitably and ineluctably become an oligarchy—that is, ruled by a few. He dubbed this the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” As a result of this chain of reasoning, Michels ended up becoming a fascist.

Anyone who has been in an organization of more than a handful of people knows that most of the time organizational decisions cannot realistically be arrived at through consensus. In groups—be they clubs, sororities/fraternities, political parties, associations, legislative bodies, and so on—the actual work takes place in committees. The group’s membership as a whole may come together periodically to consider what the committees have recommended and, while on occasion the body as a whole may reject something coming out of committee, in general committee recommendations are ratified. Within the committees themselves, leadership devolves to one person or to a few people who are aligned with the one leader. If there is a sharp and equal division of loyalties within the committee between two leaders, sooner or later this division is resolved in favor of one or the other through defections, departure of the dissident(s), or elimination of the dissident(s).

Anyone in a group who has had to issue a group statement on any issue knows that the statement itself cannot practically be drafted by the body as a whole and that its drafting ends up being placed in the hands of an individual or two. An expression of the resulting problem in common parlance is “too many cooks spoil the broth.” The initiative always rests with a few individuals operating in committee, either formally or informally. The act of ratification, it should be noted, differs very substantially from the act of initiating something. Ratification is commonly presented as equivalent to initiative, whereas in fact the two differ substantially, sometimes dramatically.

Groups that have attempted to run their affairs by consensus run up against two major problems. One, it is virtually impossible to get everyone to agree, so if consensus is necessary the group members quickly get bogged down and get little done. Two, even if majority rule is adopted, originating ideas and following through on them within the body as a whole falls, for practical reasons, before the more effective and efficient mode of delegating nearly all matters to committees where most of the organization’s work actually occurs. Committees, and especially the executive committee, then end up running the organization’s affairs. As anyone knows who has ever been on a committee, one person leads each committee, with the greatest power residing in the hands of the person who runs the executive committee. This is as true in the US Congress as it is in any other organization. As Michels put it: “Whoever says organization, says oligarchy.” Was Michels right? Is authentic popular rule doomed to fail?

The answer to this question is “not necessarily.” But the problems that Weber and Michels point to are real and the answer to their pessimistic prognoses involves very large challenges and a protracted struggle within and across multiple generations, at the very least. For these problems to be overcome, determined, popular struggle in an ongoing way would be indispensable. The nature of that struggle and its particular features I will address shortly herein … but first it is vital that we delve further into the actual conditions that face the people in societies. (GDS, pp. 242-244)

Add comment

We welcome and encourage discussion and debate. We find truth via contention.

Security code