# 164: Bureaucracy and Power

Gerth, H. H., and C. Wright Mills, eds. (2009). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 232.

Story behind the Passage

There is no way of doing justice to Max Weber in one short blog post — so I am not even going to try. I simply have to write about the topic today because it is increasingly being discussed in Germany. The state is basically falling behind because this huge machinery which is commonly summed up as “bureaucracy” is not able to respond flexibly to any new developments. Actually, it is not able to respond at all because it only knows how to do things the way they have always been done.

That is not enough (anymore).

As always, I do not just pick up topics that are somehow prominent in public discourse. I pick up topics that move me in some way. And this issue really is one that is driving me nuts. I feel like I do not even know where to start talking about it. So, I will start and focus on the most relevant aspect for me these days: justice. Yes, so many things are simply violating principles of human justice these days because bureaucracy is in the way. People are not getting their money from the state, people are losing the businesses they and their parent’s generation have built, and children are suffering at home without no proper computer and access to the internet because the state is not able to provide equipment.

“We need unconventional solutions,” one of the federal ministers just said in an interview.

Yes, true, but that is not going to happen soon because only people can bring about solutions. And most of the people that Germany has been educating in the past were trained to become good civil servants who know how to maneuver their way through bureaucracy. Do not get me wrong, I highly respect all this because it is needed to maintain and organize a state. But there are limits. And these limits seem to have been reached now. All this has a lot to do with the foundational principles which Weber already revealed in his theory of bureaucracy in the early 20th century.

What we are now struggling with and increasingly criticizing is the superlative of bureaucracy — bureaucratism; a word I just heard for the first time a couple of days ago. Both versions, of course, are related to questions of power. And power has always been at the center of political science. Still, the reason why I am so moved by all this these days is because we live in a world that, compared to the times of Weber, is much more heterogeneous and diverse. In other words, what I am trying to say is that German bureaucracy used to be its hallmark and is now becoming its doom. But, as always, the people responsible for bureauratic decisions and the implementation of bureaucratic norms are not the ones suffering from the consequences.

My Learnings

“The fact that bureaucratic organization is technically the most highly developed means of power in the hands of the man who controls it does not determine the weight that bureaucracy as such as capable of having in a particular social structure.” I am just realizing, as I am reading this, how beautiful it is to read political philosophy again. Actually, I miss it a lot. But that is a different issue. In any case, the sentence demonstrates how much you can express in one single sentence. In this one, the first thing that strikes me is the fact that bureaucracy is a sign of “development.” We intuitively know that this is true because only a state that has the money and “peace” to set up and implement all kinds of structures and rules can be considered a bureaucracy. But it is also quite sarcastic to read this in a period when the entire world is hit by a pandemic and especially those “highly developed” — rich — countries are breaking their own neck because their bureaucratic machinery is not suited for dealing with crises.

The interesting thing that follows next in the sentence is that bureaucracy is “a means of power.” Everyone who has ever had an appointment at some agency in Germany and faced some official there knows what “power” means in these moments. Usually, it boils down to a very simple thing: signatures on a piece of paper (it still is paper, literally, in most cases— electronic signatures are a thing unheard of in many fields still). What freaks me out about this is that many people experience these moments of powerplay between the state — as embodied by a civil servant of flesh and bones — and the citizen in positions with no power at all: poor people with no job, no social status, no education, and sometimes not even with a home.

They are the victims of bureaucratic power — of the bureaucratic state.

This power play usually depends on one crucial thing: knowledge as rooted in education. Only people with a certain level of education can actually mobilize at least some forces to counter the power of bureaucracy. All others simply have to give in. And the reason for this is that most of the power from the bureaucratic state is based on complexity — the complexity of bureaucratic language and respective regulations that only those people can understand who have gone through the bureaucratic socialization process of public education. This is how a bureaucratic state gets its offspring. If everyone were educated in schools that have their very own independent rules and values, this would look very different. Still, what I simply want to highlight is that this effect of being at the mercy of the bureaucratic machine is the ultimate evidence of power play. This is what really outrages me.

I just became aware of this today when reading a public tender. The funniest thing was that this is a program that deals with science communication. So, the goal behind the funding is that more and better communication between (complex) science and supposedly less complex public and private stakeholders shall be supported. The most embarrassing thing about this call is, however, that the way it is described (on roughly 10 pages of dense text) demonstrates the exact opposite of the self-set goal. In others words, there is no “walking the talk.” The state, based on the evidence of this tender, demonstrates its inability to communicate clearly. And it demonstrates how power works: Not even a person with several university degrees is able to really understand the gist of the text within a reasonable amount of time and after reading it epeatedly.

Neither am I willing to invest more time.

So, to make it clear, this is how discrimination works. You exclude people because you are using a language and a format that denies people access. This is how power is being used by the bureaucratic state. To finally link this to yet another element of this one single sentence above: one “particular social structure.” In other words: there is not the universal bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is always tied to the system it helps govern. And in Germany, for many different historical reasons, we seem to have developed a form of bureaucracy which might have been a strength at some point but which now causes ridicule.

“Whether the power of bureaucracy as such increases cannot be decided a priori from such reasons.” I am not a lawyer but a priori is always a key term when looking at texts like this one. It tells you that there is a lot of room for flexible developments occurring. In this case, the different variations of bureaucracy do depend on the respective system. And I am truly interested in how things will develop. In Weber’s times, as one can see in the text, one could not be sure if bureaucracy was still on the rise. As of now, given the many problems that we are currently seeing, one would actually expect to see a decrease of bureaucracy. But that is actually the thing that I am most afraid of — yes, really afraid. Since human beings are capable of learning quickly but also very skilled in forgetting, I am not so sure that things will change.

Even more so, with the rising need for European-level political management, the EU will most likely have to deal with more complex decision-making and respond with even more bureaucracy. Why? Because it does not know any alternatives. Systems learn like individuals learn. If there is no alternative to learn from, things will most likely continue this way. This is really tragic because it will mean that many more things will not improve that desperately need improvement — above all: education and the integration of people from diverse backgrounds and with different (organizational) cultural mindsets into the system. These and many more things indicate that more bureaucracy might be the response, no matter how loud even politicians are now calling out for unconventional measures.

If you want that, start with the people — the people who know how to work around bureaucracy in the bureacratic state.

Reflection Questions

1) Did you ever experience the power of bureaucracy in a negative way? In which situation?

2) Do you think you could ever work in for a bureaucratic agency? If you already do, what was your driving motivation to enter?

3) What are the positive aspects of bureaucracy according to your perspective?

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