Bureaucracy ?

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Thu Jan 2 15:03:32 MST 2003

Hi Doyle,

That was an excellent mail, just like Fred Feldman's, although I don't
understand one passage of his.

Collegially speaking, I am a city council documentalist and therefore in a
sense a glorified fileclerk as well. People sometimes wonder what I am doing
in that job, well, it was a bit like Bob Dylan's song "subterranean homesick
blues", except I am not yet physically impotent by a stretch (the handle
still seems to work). I guess I should have done something about the parking
meters earlier.

Some of the main historical sources of bureaucracy as a social stratum in

- religion
- tax collection
- the military
- the supervision, control and accounting for production and reproduction
- legal and policy systems for the regulation of civil conduct
(administration of the implementation and enforcement of social rules)
- monopolisation of knowledge, expertise and skills (for the purpose of e.g.
extracting revenue, privilege or profits)
- the evolution of relations of communication and communication technology
(this is often not well understood in Marxist circles, who often focus
mainly on production relations - whatever they are defined to be - without
including relations of communication in that)

The Marxian theory of bureaucracy as regards Europe is covered fairly well
by Marx and Engels (especially their critique of Hegel's philosophy about
the Prussian State etc.), Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel,
Christian Rakovsky, Hal Draper etc. to name just a few authors available in
English. Also bureaucracy is covered by non-Marxist authors like Max Weber
and Michels. The state-caps don't usually form sophisticated theories of
bureaucracy, it is just all one big pot of capitalist evil for them.

Stalin and Mao also had theories of bureaucracy, but they are more concerned
with "bureaucratism", that is, an annoying adherence to formalities and
procedures (practices) which get in the way of doing what the Central
Committee of the Communist Party (or the leader of the party) wants to do.

The Marxist theory boils down to the idea that the roots of bureaucracy are
in the social and technical division of labour, and therefore are bound up
with the emergence of proto-class and class society (this is actually not
quite accurate, as in tribal societies you sometimes find bureaucracies).
This must be viewed politically, since the division of labour is not "a
naturally given fact" but a social and technological outcome which changes
and shifts over time, that is, the division of labour is itself shaped by
political power. The bureaucracy has a mediating role in social
conflicts/problems and tries to contain conflicts/problems to a manageable

The "social" division of labour refers to the division of labour according
to social status (including social classes, groups, institutions and social
strata with a more or less defined culture, gendered divisions and so on).
This is a people-people relationship.

The "technical" division of labour refers to the specific share-out of the
practical tasks which actually have to be done to yield a socially required
output of some kind. The use of technology requires the performance of
certain tasks by a certain number of people, obviously. This is a
people-thing relationship.

A critical question to ask then is, "how does a social status get to be
attached to a practical task, or to a person performing the task ?". This
leads straight back to a theory of value.

The mystery and mystique of bureaucracy is largely attributable to the fact
that these two ways of dividing labour become intertwined in practice
(sounds sexy, but often isn't at all), thus, what practically needs to be
done, gets mixed up (indeed distorted) with issues of power, status, sex,
influence, money and so forth. It so becomes exceedingly difficult to
untangle what is a "technical" necessity or task, and what is the social and
political part of it (maybe a "class determined" necessity). You can really
only do this by focusing on your (common) goal, and on the interests or your
(common) "stake" involved in the situation.

The strengths of the Marxist theory are (1) it explains the historical
origin of bureaucracy  (2) it explains sociologically the various
manifestations of bureaucracy in the social structure. The weaknesses of it
are (1) it tends to focus on political, para-state and governmental
bureaucracies, neglecting bureaucracy in private enterprise (corporate
bureaucracies), (2) it often doesn't really tell you very much about how to
get rid of, or avoid bureaucracy beyond citizen participation in
decision-making, "democracy", fights about who controls what in the division
of labour, and so forth. In part, this is because often Marxists haven't
thought through yet what markets mean, and what abolishing them means, or
what democracy means in its specifics. They thought what Marx said was
enough, but it isn't.

This issue becomes complicated because the neo-liberals want to destroy
public services in which workers have a vested interest (they cannot pay for
private services), in order to form a stripped down laissez-faire "caretaker
state" or "nightwatchman's state", and they do that in the name of
combatting bureaucracy, even although they substitute parasitic
consultancies and corporate bureaucracies for public services (New Zealand
millionaire property developer Bob Jones, an intelligent man, said once
(paraphrase) that the idea that management practice is automatically better
in private enterprise than in public services is just a false and unproven
dogma; the difference here I might add is that public services require much
more public accountability than private companies do).

The elimination of bureaucracy requires the invention of new forms of
association, communication and organisation, in short a new culture, which
Marxists are often reluctant to do, except in revolutionary situations which
force a change in practices. They don't mind "innovations" as long as the
Marxists stay in control of them.

So anyway you often get this flip-flop between bureaucratism and
individualist anarchism in Marxist circles. Organisation is decried as
"bureaucracy" and individual spontaneity is decried as "disorganisation",
etc. Instead of being the solution, Marxists become the fulcrum of the
problem. But when they are the fulcrum of the problem, they don't explore
it, they just ask questions like "why do we stay a small group, why don't we
have influence  ?".

There are such people as organisational anthropologists, but as far as I am
aware it is not a welldeveloped scientific field of study. A lot of people
in that area are just people who had some experience of organisations and
decided to become consultants. But that is not yet the same as a systematic
scientific discipline which penetrates through an ideological fog to reveal
the real situation as regards organisations.

New technology can abolish bureaucracy, but also create it anew. So in
evaluating new technology, one needs to ask whether it creates more
bureaucracy or reduces it. But that is not how capitalist business looks at
it normally speaking, they look at it from the point of view of what markets
there are, and what profits can be made, and how part of their costs can be
offloaded on to somebody else. They are interested in eliminating
bureaucracy primarily from the point of view of cutting their own costs,
creating new markets and more profits. But if bureaucracy is profitable,
it's okay. People who concern themselves with administration are low in
their pecking order. For its part, the state bureaucracy looks at it from
the point of view of statutory (social) interests, and its own interests.

You asked:

So how am I to understand dividing up this labor so that we can build a
socialist movement?

That is an excellent question, but it can be answered specifically only in a
practical context. At the theoretical level, all you can really say is that
you have to clearly specify what the goals of a socialist are, and what
means are conducive or permissible to that end. And you have to relate that
back to the personal situation of the people involved. There are, of course,
many different socialisms, as Marx acknowledged (cf. Hal Draper, Karl Marx's
Theory of Revolution, Volume 4). A key question is "who (what kind of
people) do I want to work with, and what does it take to work with them ?".

You asked:

Why is a bureau a significant tool of advancing capitalist systemic

Previously we had a discussion on this list about capital being not a thing
but a "social relation". I said it isn't a social relation, although the
capital relation is a social relation, which I defined. In the same way, a
bureau is indeed a thing, but it may get a lot of power because of social
relations pertaining to that bureau, it may indeed get a sort of
"supernatural power". Thus, the very name "bureau" may signify an
institution with a certain amount of clout. If you want to elaborate on
this, think of Plato's theory of the forms of knowledge.

You asked:

 If we got to the point where we had enough political support what would our
left do to make that
sort of work socialized into a good marxist system?

You have to ask Henry that. I don't believe in getting work "socialized into
a good marxist system", because I am a socialist, not a Marxist, I want a
socialist community, not a Marxist society. Marx is just an aid at times.
All I can say is that our ability to get a lot of support, depends on our
ability to really solve problems for our own constituency. But as long as we
are trapped in false dichotomies such as utopian thinking versus science, or
reform versus revolution, or network versus party, or reason versus emotion,
etc. we don't get anywhere fast.

I cannot offer you my complete theory of bureaucracy yet, but I did delve
into it (some would say I got lost in it), as I mainly worked in
universities, schools, libraries, central government and local government,
but also for instance briefly in a factory when I was very young, in a
call-centre more recently and for an internet provider. Okay, I also did
jobs like newspaper photographer, postal delivery, working in forests and
farms, and various other jobs, but bureaucracy impacted on all of them. I
cannot say I am a very good socialist, but then, none of the theories fully
satisfy me. Some people would say well that just means you are a closet
liberal, but that isn't the case either, I think it is more a
theory/practice issue really. As I said before on the list, I often find it
extraordinarily difficult to form a satisfactory praxis. It's a sort of
conundrum, a handicap, as I am sure you can understand.

Now I got to go - gotta take good care of my organs (I was supposed to stop
smoking cigarettes, but I arrived home alone and smoked cigs again writing
this !).



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