"more paperwork, phone-trees and red-tape than ever"
February 10, 2015 8:30 AM   Subscribe

David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
Unlike the enormous and comprehensive Debt, Utopia of Rules is mostly argument, not history. It sets out to investigate the problem of "bureaucracy" -- basically, rules, and the simmering threat of violence that underpins them. Hidebound adherence to awful, runaround bureaucracy was always the sin laid at the feet of slow-moving, Stalinist states under the influence of the USSR. Capitalism, we were told, was dynamic, free, and open. But if that's so, why is it that since the USSR imploded, bureaucracy under capitalism has exploded? If you live in a western, capitalist state, you probably spend more time filling in paperwork, waiting on hold, resubmitting Web-forms, attending performance reviews, brainstorming sessions, training meetings, and post-mortems than any of your ancestors, regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain they lived on.

The Epic Bureaucrat
SSRN:
Deliberate Indiscretion: Why Bureaucratic Agencies are Differently Corrupt, McGirr, Shaun, Deliberate Indiscretion: Why Bureaucratic Agencies are Differently Corrupt (August 26, 2013).
Are Bureaucrats Really Paid Like Bureaucrats?, Boyle, Glenn and Rademaker, Scott, Are Bureaucrats Really Paid Like Bureaucrats? (March 9, 2014).
posted by the man of twists and turns (53 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
why is it that since the USSR imploded, bureaucracy under capitalism has exploded?

Because our rulers have ceded power from democratic institutions to the authoritarian hierarchies of businesses that are in many ways indistinguishable from the authoritarian hierarchies of the Stalinist state. We (the people) lost the Cold War.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:39 AM on February 10, 2015 [18 favorites]


Because bureaucracies always expand and we are in an era where adding regulations is easier than laws and has less scrutiny or recourse.
posted by cuscutis at 8:45 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


David Graeber: Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy, and interpretive labor. Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol 2, No 2 (2012)
The experience of bureaucratic incompetence, confusion, and its ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to behave outright foolishly, opens up a series of questions about the nature of power or, more specifically, structural violence.
Accountability, bureaucracy, and “due diligence” as necessary ethnographic projects

Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence

The terrorist bureaucracy: Inside the files of the Islamic State in Iraq
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:48 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


When you go through a phone tree or wade through printed boilerplate or mindlessly wade through deal complications for a decent price you are freely padding their profit margin. The profit motive is irresistible. You can get really great books about it delivered to your door in 24 hours from Amazon.com. (If you have a kindle you can get it instantly.)
posted by bukvich at 8:49 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Because we're in the fourth season and waiting for the aftermath?
posted by Going To Maine at 8:49 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills.
posted by No Robots at 8:50 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


The entire system is designed to fuck you.

I think there was a comment here years ago about how it often felt like modern life was like trying to sit down in a room made completely out of dicks, all of which are trying to cram themselves into any available orifice. Oh my, yes.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:51 AM on February 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


I'll withhold judgment on the general thesis until I read the book (which I'm planning on doing), but in my experience "performance reviews, brainstorming sessions, training meetings, and post-mortems" have made many of my workplaces happier and more productive places. We've only recently started implementing a system along those lines in my current office and it's a huge success; I would not go back to life without it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:54 AM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


" ... if that's so, why is it that since the USSR imploded, bureaucracy under capitalism has exploded?"
Assumes facts not in evidence. Has bureaucracy "under capitalism" exploded since 1991?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:54 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


The bureaucracy is expanding to fit the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:58 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sounds almost as insightful as Dilbert. I mean, offices, am I right?
posted by jpe at 9:01 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]




but in my experience "performance reviews, brainstorming sessions, training meetings, and post-mortems" have made many of my workplaces happier and more productive places.

It would probably be worth investigating what makes these things work in some places while they operate primarily as instruments of covert social violence in others. I surmise that this is what Graeber is - sort of - doing, since he seems to be interested in the unspoken logic behind these practices. "Here, we want to make things better so we will do this" is always the spoken logic, and sometimes it's the unspoken/true logic as well, but what differentiates? My surmise is that worker power is what differentiates - if the workers have relatively equal negotiating power (either because their skills are scarce or because of legal guarantees, unions, etc) then management is likely to assume a shape where post-mortems, etc, will be primarily in the interest of the workplace as a whole.

To my mind, the basic problem of the workplace is the need for worker power - all else flows from that, and the formal structure of the workplace can look any number of different ways.
posted by Frowner at 9:13 AM on February 10, 2015 [24 favorites]


I don't think that "hurfdurf capitalism" or "hurfdurf profit motive" is a really compelling explanation. The profit motive or corporate greed are not new. There are areas where companies have managed to free themselves from social or regulatory constraints and have therefore started to act in new and excitingly depraved ways, although I don't think we're really at a high-water mark in terms of depravity—there were companies whose sole existence was to facilitate the legal trade in actual human beings, not that long ago historically, so we can backstop our estimates of how far we have backslid by keeping that in mind—but this doesn't seem like one. There's not a sudden change to the regulatory environment which has allowed companies to start having a shitload of meetings. We didn't repeal the Meetings Reduction Act of 1935 or anything.

In part, the explosion of "bureaucracy" is ass-covering in response to various laws and regulations, most of them well-meaning, which didn't exist a few decades ago. I have to sit through a few dozen hours per year of anti-harassment training, anti-discrimination training, EEO training, anti-money-laundering training, anti-information-leakage training, IT security training, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act compliance training... while a similar worker in 1975 probably had to do, what, one fire drill a year and then it was back to eyeballing the gals in the typing pool or polishing one's tie pin or something. Whether or not you regard that as progress depends on your point of view, I suppose, but it's not exactly a money grab by Big Corporate. If anything, they've been dragged kicking and screaming into those particular instances of "bureaucracy".

Beyond that, workers themselves have been forced to create bureaucracy as a job-protection measure in the face of efficiencies that would otherwise accrue purely to the corporate bottom line. This is a direct result of corporate profit-seeking, after a fashion, but the bureaucracy isn't in service of the profit motive but actually directly opposed to it. A middle manager in a prior generation could expect to have a lot more actual people under his or her management than someone in a similarly-titled role today. E.g. clerks, typists, mailroom people ... they all had various levels of management. Now those jobs are largely gone, lost to automation, but the management-level positions frequently remain if the people holding them were clever enough to come up with tasks for themselves to do even after all their direct reports got pink-slipped.

There might not be a typing pool to manage anymore, but if the person who had that job in '75 was smart (well, and didn't take a retirement package and laugh all the way to the pension fund while it still existed), they might have been able to parlay that role into some sort of "HR" job, and those jobs are now pretty safe since they're now responsible for all the legal and compliance aspects of running a company that didn't exist back when you could fire your secretary for getting pregnant.

So ... mixed bag, really. I think looking just at the amount of paperwork and meetings is myopic without looking at the ends that the paperwork and meetings are supposed to achieve. Whether we could achieve the same ends with less paperwork or fewer meetings is a worthy question, along with whether having a lot of people in what basically amount to makework overhead jobs is really a productive use of human capital. But this isn't a Koch Brothers production. They'd love to ditch all that annoying bureaucracy, and bring back the "good old days" of unrestricted corporate warfare. Be careful what you wish for.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:27 AM on February 10, 2015 [14 favorites]


Bureaucracy is how you get standardization.

Standardization is basically an entry requirement for currently existing capitalism.

Standardization is in favor of those who set the standards.
posted by PMdixon at 9:40 AM on February 10, 2015


Bureaucracies exist to perpetuate themselves.
posted by CrowGoat at 9:59 AM on February 10, 2015


if you want to read about the kind of social decision making structure Graeber advocates, you should read his "Direct Action: An Ethnography" (think Occupy (TM)) the weird thing about that book is that it would read as being sharply critical of the way the proto-occupy anti globalization movements worked if Graeber weren't totally not self aware about the disastrous decision making and self destructive organizational structures he was a part of and describes honestly.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:02 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've read a couple of things by Graeber and look forward to this: "Debt" is a fascinating read. His short book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is available as a free PDF and is pretty interesting.

That said, these ideas about bureaucracy as stated in these links seem like a bit of a stretch, though the book itself might make things clearer.

One of the oddities about libertarian and right-wing economics is that they see themselves as ultra-individualists, but the principle of Division of Labour means capitalism depends on collective effort. Adam Smith's pin factory example showed how by dividing tasks into small specialisms, 240 times as many pins could supposedly be produced collectively as by individuals working alone. More recently, Ronald Coase's concept of transaction costs shows that the pin factory can't efficiently consist of a lot of individual self-employed contractors: they would spend all their time searching and negotiating contracts. Capitalism only works effectively if a lot of people are small specialised cogs working in large firms. That means there has to be some bureaucracy within capitalism: coordination is a problem. If the pin factory is potentially 240 times as efficient as individual workers, then as long as the average worker spends than 1/240th of her time on non-bureaucratic effort, capitalism still works better. Capitalism has a lot of room for bureaucracy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:06 AM on February 10, 2015 [15 favorites]


The idea of David Graeber, the man who gave the world the well-oiled machine for decision-making that was the Occupy General Assembly, still cranking out advice about organizational efficiency is a little rich for my stomach. The problem with anarchism in most of its strains is that it can produce some extremely trenchant and accurate criticism of the way the world is organized now, but when anybody tries to implement the proposed anarchist alternatives, they actually turn out to be even worse. How seriously is anybody really supposed to take a political philosophy that calls for smashing all hierarchy, but every time it tries to set up so much as a shared house or a used bookstore, it just turns into a swamp of informal bureaucracy and hierarchy rather than formal?
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:09 AM on February 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


Let me offer an alternate take: Yes, bureaucracy is a form of structural violence. But it's a lot more structured, and a lot less violent, than what it replaced. Bureaucracies were created to take power away from unpredictable and violent aristocrats, robber barons, warlords, mafia families, and corrupt machine politicians. Yes, bureaucracies have their own problems, but they're much better than what they replaced.

Would you really want your next paycheck or hospital visit to depend on the whims of a Charles II or a Boss Tweed?
posted by clawsoon at 10:09 AM on February 10, 2015 [20 favorites]


This topic is a great example of what I mean about how I think we're often too abstract and overly-general in the basis of our thinking. "Bureacracy" is such a broad, vague term and encompasses so many different kinds of things that serve so many different kinds of purposes, it's sort of a folie à deux anytime two or more people get together to discuss it, because it's impossible to tell what's really under discussion.

Let's take a specific example of bureaucracy and think this through...

Filling in and submitting timesheets to your employer: Is that bureaucracy? Well, sure. It's exactly the kind of thing we mean when we talk about the stuff. Filling out forms to track things that need to be tracked by an entire organization of people working together, or at least, things that need to be tracked and reported on for purposes of running the organization well.

Is the bureaucratic need for employees to submit timesheets really a thing whose purpose is unfathomable, designed for no reason but to perpetuate itself, and all the other general kinds of claims people usually make in discussions about Bureaucracy™? Of course not. It's a reasonable requirement just about anyone would implement in their organization. But then, how do you keep track of all those timesheets overtime? What happens if someone made a mistake completing their last month's timesheet, etc., etc. All of those other complications require still more bureaucracy to manage in a reliable and consistent way.

Bureaucracy in some form is absolutely necessary for managing big, complicated tasks and projects. It's insane that people have developed a generalized contempt for one of the most important toolsets a civilization has, just because we've all seen so many examples of mismanaged bureaucracy.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:27 AM on February 10, 2015 [20 favorites]


To my mind, the basic problem of the workplace is the need for worker power - all else flows from that, and the formal structure of the workplace can look any number of different ways.

I think you can take this concept further and apply it to all human interactions. When two people need each other to reach a goal (such as survival), each person has to give something to get what they want or need and everyone gets something.

As soon as one person doesn't need the other for survival, it turns into the calculus of force: can I take what I want without the other party hurting me too much?

My personal theory is that morality evolved as a way to navigate relationships when you rely on others while anti-social behavior is most advantageous when you don't have to.
posted by Schrodinger's Gat at 11:13 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Kind of loving Metafilter's response to this. A lot of people are talking good sense in this thread. Basically any time you read something by Graeber you can be sure that James C. Scott wrote about it first and better.

Count me as someone who is deeply suspicious of bureaucracy and the growth of administrative middle-management, especially in my workplace, while also benefiting from it a lot personally and without any sense of what might be better.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:00 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I like Melville House and since I haven't read his book I'll do Graeber the favor of assuming that the nuances of his arguments aren't adequately represented either by the Vice interview or by Doctorow's short review. I say a favor because, boy, both of those pieces are early candidates for the most fatuous prose of the year. The interview sounds like a stoned Kevin Smith exchange
"Say you want to go get a book by Foucault from the library describing why life is all a matter of physical coercion, but you haven't paid an overdue fine and therefore you don't have a currently valid personal ID. You walk through the gate illegally. What's going to happen? ... Men with sticks will eventually show up and threaten to hit you."
while Doctorow's piece is as slick and facile as a Silicon Valley promise to disrupt breakfast.
"Graeber wants us to demand the impossible. To stop making capitalism. To wake up in the morning and just walk away from the lie. To refuse the intimidation of latent violence. To reclaim the critique of rules and privilege that was the Left's to take to the streets in 1968."
(Which, you know, 10 out of 10 for the spirit of soixante-huit, but I haven't a clue about what any of that actually means.)
posted by octobersurprise at 12:07 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


The entire system is designed to fuck you.

I think there was a comment here years ago about how it often felt like modern life was like trying to sit down in a room made completely out of dicks, all of which are trying to cram themselves into any available orifice. Oh my, yes.


Hey, about this comment...

I think we can all recognize that it's not arising from an exclusionary or intentionally hurtful place. As such, I don't think it indicates something fundamental about the character of SEMM. But it *is* the type of comment, and imagery, that does masculinist work.

The basic premise of the comment is that the appropriation of one's labor by corporations is fundamentally similar to the appropriation of the victim of a sexual assault by the rapist. The comment genders workers into powerless victims, taking away workers' agency. The image reiterates the rape script, but for anyone who's not a capitalist. And simultaneously it does work that reduces the power of sexual assault and its threat, by turning rape into the (ostensible) everyday experience of life under capital. The sort of casual equation of wage-labor to rape instantiates a problematic equivalence between laboring bodies and either feminized bodies or male homosexual bodies, or both. Both are stigmatized.

And the equivalence serves not the purposes of solidarity, but of delegitimization. By equating wage-labor to rape, the effect is to make everyday threats of rape and everyday rape less powerful--to equate them to the sort of practice that is common and the norm.

Because going to work in the morning may suck, but it is not like rape. Not at all.
posted by migrantology at 12:17 PM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


I am starting to think I hallucinated that comment. I see where you are coming from, but I think that's too narrow an interpretation. My read of it was as a metaphor for how everyone is trying to take advantage of you, and you must be continually on your (exhausted) guard or you are going to get taken advantage of at every opportunity. You could say "a room made out of spikes," but that loses the independent agency of the things that are making it so uncomfortable and impossible for you to find a secure seat. Getting fucked/screwed is an established idiom from whence the metaphor as written derives its power. At this point, though, I will probably stop referring to it because I can no longer be sure that I didn't just make it up out of whole cloth, and it's not a very pleasant image.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:29 PM on February 10, 2015


Oh boy, I proofread this book while dealing with excruciating bureaucratic paperwork (relating to insurance after I was hit by a car). If nothing else, Graeber provided a welcome reality check that I wasn't crazy for finding filling out forms so overwhelming and demoralizing.
posted by ferret branca at 12:34 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Bureaucracy in some form is absolutely necessary for managing big, complicated tasks and projects. It's insane that people have developed a generalized contempt for one of the most important toolsets a civilization has, just because we've all seen so many examples of mismanaged bureaucracy.

yea, just like it shouldn't be about big/small gov't but whether it works or not (and for whom) bureaucracies should be judged by their effectiveness.

anyway, fwiw:
  • The new global 'savings glut' [*]
  • The great global imbalances of the last few decades have been caused by an unequal distribution of energy. So, those countries which had control of large easy-to-tap energy resources — whether they were fossil fuels, as per the surpluses of the oil producing countries like Saudi Arabia, or sweat fuel, as per the surpluses of the under privileged human capital countries like China — held those countries which demanded those resources or had the know-how to employ those resources under a type of bondage.

    But technology has and will continue to disrupt that power imbalance, and in the process it will transfer the power and leverage that comes with ownership of a resource that everyone wants to the technology companies themselves.

    On that basis, I predict, as the global imbalances that have plagued the global economic system for decades inevitably begin to unwind, they will inadvertently be transferred from sovereign balance sheets to corporate ones.

    In some way we already see this happening in the great cash piles of Apple and Google. The stock of these companies can as a consequence equate to a quasi corporate currency — a public currency float...
  • The Corporation as a Command Economy [*] - "That our economy is populated by large corporations shapes how we live. Our social being cannot but be shaped by the one-third of our waking lives spent at work. Our politics would be very different without corporations both as sources of pressure an influence on politicians and as intermediaries serving the purposes of politicians."
  • The Managerial Revolution [*] - "The Managerial Revolution, the 1941 book in which Burnham laid out his theory, was a bestseller and critical success. It strongly influenced George Orwell, who adapted several of its ideas for his own even more famous work, 1984. Burnham described World War II as the first in a series of conflicts between managerial powers for control over three great industrial regions of the world—North America, Europe, and East Asia."
  • The Consequences of Money Manager Capitalism [*] - "In the wake of World War II, much of the western world, particularly the United States, adopted a new form of capitalism called 'managerial welfare-state capitalism.' "
posted by kliuless at 1:11 PM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


lol at "Apple is unlikely to survive its current crisis" in the The Corporation as a Command Economy link.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:27 PM on February 10, 2015


Systems are created to limit and channel power, but in turn must be operated to work. The operators of the system gain power, so new systems must be created to limit and channel their power. GOTO 10.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:31 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Is the bureaucratic need for employees to submit timesheets really a thing whose purpose is unfathomable, designed for no reason but to perpetuate itself, and all the other general kinds of claims people usually make in discussions about Bureaucracy™? Of course not. It's a reasonable requirement just about anyone would implement in their organization.

Of course bureaucratic measures like timesheets aren't implemented for unfathomable reasons or simply to perpetuate bureaucracy. Bureaucratic systems are accretions of instrumental rationality. Each new step in the implementation of such a system seems reasonable -- that is, useful or practical -- in itself. The problem is that a series of individually-rational steps can (and often does) produce a whole that is irrational and alienating to those subjected to it. Even though timesheets may solve certain problems for a large hierarchical organization, to an ordinary worker in that organization it can easily seem that timesheets are meaningless, time-consuming paperwork, that the timesheet-managing apparatus will always put its own rules and interests before the worker's needs, and that the whole situation only proves how undervalued and powerless they are in the workplace.

I don't doubt that some degree of bureaucracy is essential for certain forms of social organization. But I think those forms of organization are generally inimical to other human interests, and we should look for other ways of organizing ourselves.

It's insane that people have developed a generalized contempt for one of the most important toolsets a civilization has, just because we've all seen so many examples of mismanaged bureaucracy.

The prevalence of examples of "mismanagement" is actually a pretty good reason to be reflexively suspicious of bureaucratic systems in general. It suggests that there are inherent flaws in those systems, or at least that certain failure modes are extremely difficult to avoid. A healthy skepticism of bureaucracy is a sensible response.
posted by twirlip at 4:10 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I had never noticed this before, but the word seems to mean "rule by office"
posted by thelonius at 4:45 PM on February 10, 2015


Honestly, I think the conversation begins and ends with Frowner's observation upthread about worker power being at the crux of whether or not bureaucratic systems stand as tools of oppression.

In my experience in the American workplace, a tremendous amount of worker time is devoted to keeping up the appearance of adherence to the law. There is an elaborate affective labor involved in maneuvering workplace practices, a sort of mandatory kayfabe that demands that we all carefully prepare detailed records that claim that we're not (for example) having our wages stolen, or being placed in risky work conditions, or whatever. We must make sure that all truth is carefully scrubbed from these records, but we must also never, ever acknowledge their fictional status.

If we do acknowledge the fictional status of the records we prepare to cover up our employers' naked disdain for labor law, or if we by chance or perversion fail to fictionalize when fictionalization is demanded, we can be fired for it.

Or rather, we can be just coincidentally fired for completely unrelated reasons.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:36 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


It would probably be worth investigating what makes these things work in some places while they operate primarily as instruments of covert social violence in others. Frowner

Such a good point. I'm currently teaching in an ESL program at a university in the Middle East. The university has adopted wholesale various technologies of assessment and observation, such as extensive use of rubrics for students and instructors, fingerprint check-in machine for specific, wayward students, constant overt and implicit pressure to be at your desk every day, eight hours a day, regardless of whether classes are in session or not. The taking of roll at professional development meetings. My "facilitator" constantly regales us with cautionary tales of instructors who made small mistakes in procedure or committed cultural gaffes and either huge headaches resulted or THEY FOUND THEMSELVES ON A PLANE HOME.

I don't wish to be reductive about culture in the gulf region of the middle east, but at this particular college there's a sense that if you draw attention to yourself in any way, even if it is to suggest an ostensibly useful program or policy, then Bad Things Will Happen. There is this strange intersection of imported layers of bureaucracy and Gulf nation culture that combines and recombines in strange (to me) ways. It's like an entire university has been transformed into an uninspiring office job.

I know this happens in the West, but here it exists in sharp relief. Although I learned in graduate school to dismiss notions of individual passion and motivation and focus on larger, system issues, feeling their absence in this setting has made me realize how important they are to education.
posted by mecran01 at 7:45 PM on February 10, 2015


Is the bureaucratic need for employees to submit timesheets really a thing whose purpose is unfathomable, designed for no reason but to perpetuate itself, and all the other general kinds of claims people usually make in discussions about Bureaucracy™? Of course not. It's a reasonable requirement just about anyone would implement in their organization.--saulgoodman

Bureaucracy can be a reasonable requirement, or it can be unfathomable, with no reason other than to perpetuate itself. I envy you, since you have apparently never worked at a company where this is the case.

It's insane that people have developed a generalized contempt for one of the most important toolsets a civilization has, just because we've all seen so many examples of mismanaged bureaucracy.--saulgoodman

It is exactly because we have seen so many examples of mismanaged bureaucracy that we have a generalized and justifiable contempt for it.
posted by eye of newt at 11:05 PM on February 10, 2015


Frankly, I think this is one of the more important problems of modern political theory, and my sense of the evidence is that it's tempting but wrong to believe that *most* bureaucracy in unproductive. Pointing to mismanaged bureaucracy as evidence of an inherent flaw in bureaucracy is pretty obvious hasty generalization.

Max Weber, here, is illuminating: often when I am trying to explain problems in the modern political landscape or my own approach to political philosophy, I will return to Weber’s account of bureaucracy as more efficient than private office. Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about “efficiency” in bureaucracy, but Weber’s argument rested on the contrast between private and capricious office-holders and the public and publicly accountable form of governance that characterizes both state and business organization. Precisely by requiring that office-holders be replaceable, that the actions of one bureaucrat be explicable to the others, bureaucracies inhibit fiefdoms. Sure, it's not consensus or democratic decision-making, but it allows a lot more efficacy than that. The hierarchies are efficacious, they're *better* than the proximate alternatives (even if it might be the case that there's something quite distant and non-capitalist that would work better still). Weber’s concern was that bureaucracies were too efficient, that their tremendous instrumental rationality obscured a real stupidity about the best ends to pursue. (They have instrumental-rationality but not teleological-rationality: they accomplish any goal they are given efficiently and don't discriminate.) Weber’s theory of bureaucracy was vindicated in the way that Nazi Germany efficiently murdered people for no good reason.

Of course there's much more to it: how do firms' bureaucracies differ from governments? Why should we believe that profit-seeking firms would let themselves waste resources on paperwork if there wasn't actually something in it for them? How much of private firms' bureaucracy is the product of the government's requirements?

There's a lot of great work in this area, and as I said upthread I think the dominant anarchist critique from James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is basically right. But these kinds of externalist critiques often try to wave away the real coordination problems of large groups, and that's where firms come in and help show how extremely productive a lot of bureaucracy is. Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson shared a fake economics Nobel Prize specifically because they'd done such interesting work making sense of the way institutions like firms (but not just firms) matter, the way they transcend markets in resolving collective action and coordination problems.

But there's just so much good work on this: not just Weber, but Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas; Theodore Lowi and Claude Lefort; Ostrom and Williamson; Agamben and Scott; Hayek and Barnes; not to mention the whole literature of public choice.

Sure, a passionate small group or a charismatic individual can briefly organize a lot of folks to accomplish a shared goal. But frequently that goal is directly or indirectly tied to the enrichment of the charismatic individual and in any case the whole collaboration tends to fall apart when he moves on or dies. So charisma has its limits. When we want to transcend those limits, we bureaucratize.

And bureaucracies do lots of awesome stuff, lots of bad stuff, and lots in between. Bureaucracies distribute social security checks, they prevent companies from dumping chemicals, they organize massive research programs, they produce a flu vaccine that actually works every year, and they also disproportionately incarcerate black men, organize the bombing of a lot of innocent brown people half a world away, and come up with reasons to keep non-citizens from traveling across arbitrary borders to find work. Reducing all that to filling out irritating forms is a weird kind of externalist critique: it's cherry-picking of the worst sort that doesn't really try to understand why even people who hate forms might choose them. It's like pop psychoanalysis, reducing everything that's wrong with your life to a few simple stories about that fictionalized time you caught your parents in bed.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:05 AM on February 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the alternative to bureaucracy is not a philosopher king, it's little kingdoms run by capricious assholes for their own benefit.

I don't think you can dismantle power relationships but if you're going to try you have to first make them legible. Bureaucracy is the closest thing we have to that.
posted by PMdixon at 7:24 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


My personal experience has always been, even on the very small scale, that people who hate bureaucracy and consciously avoid it will, over time, invent it by another name when they finally have to manage a large enough number of people over a long enough time. And it doesn't have to be that complex or that long; a moderately complex theater production is easily enough to purge out the anarchistic tendencies from most everyone after a few good fuckups.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:34 AM on February 11, 2015


yea, the professional bureaucracy subject to periodic 'how am i doing?' evaluations (reputation economy!) is where i'd like to see things go; how do you _improve_ bureaucracy? wonder showzen kaizen?

i don't think you have to go far; canada is premised on 'good government' and the nordics routinely top transparency (and livability) rankings; how crazy is it that there are places where people actually like the way things are run, that make sense, etc?

on that score there are ways that technology can be employed to make bureaucracies more effective (transparent/efficient?) like check out:
Company Culture and the Power of Thoughtful Disagreement [1,2] - "Ray Dalio, chairman and chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates, discusses meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical truth and radical transparency."
copcams and dashcams in the office obviously aren't sufficient for a favorable/accountable/tolerable panopticon but at least there's an (open access) record leveling the playing field that people can start agreeing on, upon which to establish facts and maybe even consensus and decision making.

oh and re: philosopher kings, ha-joon chang has a great chapter [*] on this :P
posted by kliuless at 8:18 AM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


It should also be mentioned that bureaucracy may be the main form of productivity economic growth. If you look at Solow and economic growth models, there's this mysterious variable he calls "Total Factor Productivity." So you can get more labor (by employing more people or making the ones you already employ work longer and harder) or you can get more capital goods (more machines, faster machines, etc.) but this doesn't make sense of what we see across developing nations unless you can makes sense of what it is that makes the people and the machines so much more productive over time.

Total Factor Productivity is very likely a measure of how human beings solve coordination problems through institutional development, and improvements in TFP are very closely associated with the growth of bureaucracy and good government measures like transparency and rule-clarity and reporting standards.

Basically, if you think something about the capitalism/democracy/liberalism triad works pretty well to improve standards of living, you can go libertarian and attribute those improvements to markets and competition or you can go progressive and attribute it to bureaucracy (which makes markets and competition possible.) I want to go further down the anarchist road, but there's a reason Scott was only willing to give two cheers for anarchism, after all.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:30 AM on February 11, 2015


The problem is that a series of individually-rational steps can (and often does) produce a whole that is irrational and alienating to those subjected to it.

Believe me, I get the problem. It's just I think the targeting and framing is off in a way that makes it harder to solve. By making the issue "Bureaucracy" writ large, we rhetorically throw the baby out with the bathwater. Bureaucracy in the abstract is not only not a bad thing, it's an indispensable thing. Most problems with bureaucracy are not general problems that apply to all instances of the class, they're implementation specific problems or various problems of overreach. In a lot of cases, bureaucracy gets out of hand because it's used to try to manage problems that are so complex, they might not really be neatly solvable, but the social need to try to manage them still exists. There are lots of ways bureaucratic processes can be abused, mismanaged, poorly-designed, etc., but despite all the potential for bad bureaucracy, there's no escaping the need for it in some form. We spend a lot of energy in the public discourse discussing the issue as if it were both possible and desirable to simply eliminate bureaucracy completely. That's absurd! We throw all our energy into arguing about whether bureaucracy as an abstraction is good or bad, rather than discussing specific cases of problematic bureaucracy and attempting to find solutions for them. That's the nihilistic impulse: When we see a problem that feels overwhelmingly difficult to think about and solve in its particulars we retreat to thinking about the problem in the broadest possible abstract terms as if we could abstract the more complex and specific issues away, but for many classes of problem, we can't. There's no single, all-encompassing solution to the "Problem of Bureaucracy," so there's really no point in discussing the problem at that level of abstraction except to frustrate ourselves and rationalize our nihilistic impulse to throw it all out the window rather than deal with all the annoyingly particular problems bureaucracy can lead to in implementation.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:35 AM on February 11, 2015


Bureaucratic systems are accretions of instrumental rationality. Each new step in the implementation of such a system seems reasonable -- that is, useful or practical -- in itself. The problem is that a series of individually-rational steps can (and often does) produce a whole that is irrational and alienating to those subjected to it.

I've been thinking a lot about the bureaucracy problem of late as I've found myself dealing with a few unfortunately from a position that is definitely not of strength. Strangely, what keeps coming to mind is something I heard said many years ago in the early days of computing.

"The problem with computers is they do exactly what you tell them to. Forget one line of code, make on typo in your code ... and voila, bewildering results that make perfect sense once you actually review the code."

I'm beginning to think that bureaucracies are much the same, with the "what we're telling them to do" being convoluted, contradictory, sometimes outright insane. Stuff like, "increase the services we're offering because people are demanding it, but cut the cost in half because people are also demanding that".

And so on.
posted by philip-random at 8:54 AM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


i don't think you have to go far; canada is premised on 'good government'

well, it's a good premise, I guess. Just don't go getting yourself hurt in a foreign war.

Veteran tired of government making him prove he lost his legs
posted by philip-random at 8:58 AM on February 11, 2015


Frankly, I think this is one of the more important problems of modern political theory, and my sense of the evidence is that it's tempting but wrong to believe that *most* bureaucracy in unproductive. Pointing to mismanaged bureaucracy as evidence of an inherent flaw in bureaucracy is pretty obvious hasty generalization.--anotherpanacea

Yeah, the alternative to bureaucracy is not a philosopher king, it's little kingdoms run by capricious assholes for their own benefit.--PMdixon

I keep vacillating between telling long stories or just summarizing. I'll keep it short. I think the problem with bureaucracies is that they don't age well. The bureaucracies themselves become the little kingdoms run by capricious assholes. Companies end up just managing bureaucracies rather than running the company. (Governments are the worst example of this). You can usually tell this is happened by how many layers of management there are.

I've worked for large companies that have become choked with bureaucracies where the only solution is to rip them out and start over. And I've worked for companies with very little bureaucracy (where they understand it is a tool to be tamed at all cost, and not an end itself), where the companies could move very fast and easily overtake prodding bureaucracy filled companies.

Seriously, have none of you read Kafka or have been to the DMV (or some other government office) for something complicated?
posted by eye of newt at 9:02 AM on February 11, 2015


Seriously, have none of you read Kafka or have been to the DMV (or some other government office) for something complicated?

My job has been designing and working in IT support for bureaucracies for more than a decade. The problems are not ones you can generalize about in my opinion. You can't solve the problem for any general case because any particular bureaucracy may involve radically different goals and requirements. The problems in my opinion are application specific, not general, except maybe in the sense that they all flow from the general limits of human capability and competence.

Nothing ever gets fixed when we just talk about "bureaucracy" as a problem instead of talking about the specific cases we think are problematic because solving one case of "bad bureaucracy" doesn't necessarily solve--or even address--them all.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:14 AM on February 11, 2015


So, each bureaucracy is a special snowflake, and we cannot apply general rules of organizational behavior to improve them?
posted by No Robots at 10:25 AM on February 11, 2015


The problems are not ones you can generalize about in my opinion.

I think your interpretation is clouded by the fact that you work in IT support, a specific area of bureaucratic implementation that usually does have specific solutions that can be improved on. In a more general sense, the idea you can't generalize about the problems of bureaucracy is pure, utter crap. If that were true, Kafka's writings from a century ago about people caught in insane bureaucratic tangles wouldn't be so instantly recognizable to everyone that reads them today. Everyone who has ever had to interact with a bureaucracy is familiar with some very common 'failure modes' of bureaucracies. I think they can actually be pretty easily generalized into a few interwoven categories:

1.) Policy in place of humanity - this is maybe the most classic case, the one where each individual person working within a bureaucracy lets their own common sense and/or empathy be overruled by the policies the bureaucracy has put in place. The excuses are familiar:
"I'm sorry sir, but it's policy..."
"I'm sorry, but the computer says..."
"Well, I don't make the rules..."
"It's not up to me..."
"We can't go making exceptions for everyone..."
Whatever the bureaucracy and whatever its policies are, those policies are put in place because they keep the bureaucracy functioning well most of the time, but there is never and has never been a policy-based solution to a whole category of problems that won't have any edge cases. You can sit and spitball about how to come up with specific policies for specific bureaucracies that work better, fail less, and have fewer edge cases, and maybe that's where your thinking is at, saulgoodman, but the fact remains that bureaucracies as a type of entity routinely, categorically and legendarily fail at dealing with edge cases in situations where an individual human could fairly easily make a snap judgement call.

Individuals within the bureaucracy making their own judgement calls are anathema to the effective day-to-day functioning of a bureaucracy, however, largely because if decisions made by the bureaucracy can be traced back to a specific person, the following feature (not bug!) starts to break down:

2.) Absorption of responsibility - if you've ever heard any of those phrases I listed above, you probably know how impossible it is to find one person within the organization that you can pin the blame on. Bureaucracies are designed this way - the same way a bulletproof vest works by spreading the impact force of a bullet out over a much larger area, a bureaucracy spreads the responsibility for any individual action out over a large network of policy-makers and policy-enforcers. This is, like I said, by design - the protection offered to people within the bureaucracy (as long as they don't make individual judgement calls) is a strong incentive to get them to follow orders and so functions to both quiet down squeaky wheels inside the organization and relatively painlessly absorb the ire of critics outside the organization by diffusing it.

Of course, once you know that you'll almost always get in trouble for disobeying orders (no matter how trivial or sensible) and you'll almost never get in trouble as long as you were following orders (no matter how ridiculous or terrible), it becomes possible, from within the bureaucracy, to "game" this aspect of it to be a dick to people, or be a lazy ass, or run your own ego-tripping little mini-fiefdom, safe in the knowledge that the blame for your (shitty) actions will also tend to get distributed across the bureaucracy as long as you don't do anything to stand out too much. If you've never run into that bureaucratic clerk or official who knows they can't be fired and acts like it, count yourself lucky, but I would bet most of us have.

3.) Going sloooooowwwwwly - the third thing that bureaucracies famously don't do well is move fast. Decision-making is distributed, although typically not as distributed as the responsibility is. The larger number of people that need to think about/sign off on a decision, the longer it takes to make. Technology can speed things up (and the classic "sign these forms in triplicate" is mostly a technological information-storage-and-retrieval problem, that just happens to crop up most frequently in bureaucracy because of the number of people that need the information to participate in the decision) but only so far, and never to the speed that a single individual could make that same judgement. This actually isn't necessarily a problem; people who only or predominantly deal with bureaucracies just get acclimated to things moving slowly, and don't encounter a problem until they run into someone who predominantly deals with the world of individual humans and expects things to move at that pace. It's getting caught in the mismatch in speed between the different "worlds" that tends to screw everything up, usually to the detriment of the poor soul that desperately needs the bureaucracy to speed up.

These are structural problems inherent to any large organization of people that does distributed decision-making (things like the military, with a clearly-delineated hierarchy, are a different sort of animal). They are always going to expect those decisions to overrule the judgement of individuals within their organization. They are never going to make decisions as fast as one person.

Like some other folks in this thread, I think the flaws of bureaucracies become more crippling as a bureaucracy ages - folks who would make their own decisions get weeded out, folks who game the system for their own benefit tend to both accumulate and get better at gaming the system, and on the speed front, not only do bureaucracies usually want to check that their new decisions don't contradict old ones (which takes more time the more old decisions there have been) but whatever system was originally put in place for making distributed decisions becomes old and outdated compared to newer, faster communications options.

The biggest problem, though, is that these things which appear to be flaws from an outside-the-bureaucracy perspective are actually "working as intended" when viewed from the inside. That makes them damn near impossible to fix. Insofar as libertarian nutjobbery is based on a seed of truth, the free market "fixes" corporate bureaucracies (but not government ones) by functioning as a kind of evolutionary jungle which chokes off and kills bureaucracies that become too slow to adapt. Doesn't do a damn thing about either of the other problems, though - in fact makes them worse, because instead of bureaucratic policies being put in place for the (ostensible) good of the many, they're put in place for the good of the profit margin, which makes absorbing/diffusing the anger from the people you're screwing over for a profit that much more necessary, and that much more appealing, from within.

I don't really have a solution other than "periodically raze them to the ground and start fresh so they don't get so bad" which is, I will freely agree, not ideal, not practicable, and very much a baby-and-bathwater kind of solution. But to deny that there even are common problems that we can even talk about is inane.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:35 PM on February 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


I don't really have a solution other than "periodically raze them to the ground and start fresh so they don't get so bad"

A bureaucracy jubilee! Every seven years the policy manual is burned.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:09 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't really have a solution other than "periodically raze them to the ground and start fresh so they don't get so bad"

Hitler (!) famously would set two competing parts of the bureaucracy off to do the same thing, and reward the victor. great comment
posted by alasdair at 3:54 AM on February 12, 2015


pdf of max weber Characteristics of Bureaucracy (short)
posted by bukvich at 2:38 PM on February 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Instead of always throwing the whole thing out, why don't we just accept that bureaucracy in some form is probably necessary and even sometimes beneficial and then stop trading in broad generalities and get down to the tedious work of looking at the many specific cases of bad bureaucracy and thinking up ways to fix them. Talking about and thinking about it from a million miles away in orbit around the problem just makes us frustrated and wastes time and energy we could spend actually improving things.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:36 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


absolutely. An older friend of mine ran a museum for a number of years. As she put it, "We would never have survived were it not for the good government bureaucrats out there who helped us negotiate the various funding minefields."
posted by philip-random at 2:33 PM on February 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


[mefi's own!] stewart butterfield on slack enabling organizational transparency :P

also btw...
Time to tear up the paperwork: "Why is so much of modern life dominated by endless bureaucracy and frustrating administrative tasks?"
posted by kliuless at 7:21 AM on February 21, 2015


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