Failing upwards: Living in a bureaucratic world

Although there are three main frames used to understand the world, a Weberian fourth is realising itself.

    Bureaucracy runs our every day tasks - those who say bureaucracy makes government inefficient, are in reality calling for reform; more and better bureacracies [GALLO/GETTY]

    New York, NY - There are three main frames people use to understand why the world is the way it is. Each has truth in it, and each can be found among intellectuals as well as ordinary folks. A fourth way has a more underground existence, and is rarely seen as the key to the big picture.

    The first frame is economics. Why do things happen the way they do? The answer is to be found in who profits, or it is dictated by the laws of the free market or the dynamics of capitalism.

    Another frame concerns ideas and ideology. What matters in the world is what people believe, for it is these beliefs which inspire their action.

    A third sees the contemporary world as shaped by histories of imperialism and the division of the world between the West and the rest.

    Much of what is said about politics around the world fall into these three frames, whether the conversation is happening in a seminar room, a government office or in the corner market.

    The fourth prism

    "Of course, many condemn 'bureaucracy' as inefficient, especially in government. But what they have in mind is reform - to make more and better bureaucracies."

    The fourth way of seeing the modern world rarely appears as the central reason why things happen, as the big explanation. But it pervades our everyday conversation: the politics, personalities and irrationalities that daily oppress us in the organisations we work in.

    On the fourth view, the modern world is defined by bureaucratic organisation. Everywhere, in public and private life, we encounter a chaotic medley of organisations.

    Of course, many condemn 'bureaucracy' as inefficient, especially in government. But what they have in mind is reform - to make more and better bureaucracies.

    Bureaucracy is not only an enormously powerful way of accomplishing a task - whether building plastic widgets or managing a welfare system - it is the only way. Modern life is simply too complex to handle by any other means. You need an organisation and staff.

    Ideally speaking, what bureaucracies are good at is achieving a given purpose. Bureaucracies are supposedly rational means to achieve specified ends.

    An investment firm is designed to make good investments, to pay high returns to its shareholders and customers. That is its purpose. It is not designed to reflect on whether contemporary finance capital is a worthwhile activity, or whether it contributes to human flourishing.

    Every bureaucracy functions in this way, as an instrument for some given purpose. Everyone who works in a bureaucracy is a "cog in the machine". They work on some more or less minor aspect of the main goal of the organisation. In turn, each organisation is part of a chain of organisations, responsible for some yet larger goal, like all of the suppliers and services who support automobile manufacture. In turn, we use cars to achieve yet other tasks.

    Cogs within cogs

    In this set up, a world of organisations, everyone is a cog within a cog within a cog in an infinite regress.

    This vision of the modern world as consisting of powerful organisational means, amid systematic disregard for the substantive values those means serve, was first sketched out by the German political and social thinker Max Weber. What Weber had his finger on was the ever-widening gap between the values we believe in and the means we use to realise them.

    We cannot escape bureaucracy, but every day, in a thousand little ways, bureaucracies drift further away from the ends they ideally should serve. At the same time, bureaucracy systematically disables us from reflecting upon - and acting upon - our ultimate values.

    The employee of a corporate supermarket chain who manages to figure out he or she is part of a process which degrades the environment and makes the people obese, in order to enrich shareholders, is unlikely to complain about it to the manager.

    Weber was keen to point out that a bureaucratic world had a way of turning tables on people, even the powerful, helping them achieve the opposite of their intentions.

    Key performance indicators

    What neoliberals and others consider to be "reform" or "efficiency" only intensifies the ailments of bureaucracy. Contemporary management culture operates on two key principles. One is bottom line efficiency conceived in terms of dollar value. The other is the use of "KPIs" - key performance indicators.

    These are meant to help organisations achieve their purposes effectively at the least cost. They systematically separate means and ends, to the detriment of the latter.

    A KPI is a proxy, usually a quantitative measure, for effective performance of a task. But it is not the task itself. What it actually measures is how good you are at scoring high on the KPI. That is, you excel at some indicator of what you really are supposed to be good at.

    Meanwhile, a few pennies in efficiency savings might end up costing an organisation something that cannot be measured in marginal utility terms.

    "You don't fully realise the consequences until you return to your desk with a cup of tea and have nowhere to put the teabag."

    Preening cost-cutters in one department of state I am familiar with have removed the waste paper baskets of senior officials and their staffs. Money was saved on janitorial services! But the message to public servants was that their time and professionalism was not worth the value of a waste paper basket. As one remarked to me, you don't fully realise the consequences until you return to your desk with a cup of tea and have nowhere to put the teabag.

    Dedicated professionals will carry on. But they do so with yet another pinprick on the way to demoralisation, and yet another set of tasks concerning their trash to get in the way of their primary purposes.

    Bureaucracy and values

    This example may seem trivial, but compound it a thousand times and you begin to get the idea.

    Then think on this: the person who will rise to the top in such a world is the person who devises yet further "efficiencies", the person who learns to love and live "efficiency". Bureaucracy not only introduces a fatal gap between means and values, but also between personalities.

    In a bureaucracy, certain personalities thrive: the conniving "brown-noser"; the manager expert at rolling shit downhill; the career built on command of internal procedure; the smooth operator. These kinds of people come to run the world in bureaucracies.

    The successful bureaucratic personality is not the one committed to the values of their vocation, whether a doctor, a lawyer, a soldier or a teacher. Such values are profoundly and emphatically inefficient, demanding as they do dedication to excellence and outcome regardless of all else.

    Many of those who believe in the values of their professions spend much of their life energy working against the very organisations and people who are supposed to share those values.

    This is the rationalised, bureaucratic world Weber feared. In it, only irrational and unyielding commitment to our ultimate values gives us any hope of realising them in practice.

    Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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