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Wednesday, June 3, 2015


Anonymous Coward offers the following extremely suggestive comment to my most recent post:

“Dear Professor Wolff:

Since large corporate bureaucracies have emerged in the womb of the global neoliberal order to manage economic production, would not a future in which they completely controlled all economic production be rigidly hierarchical - they are bureaucracies, after all. I say this as a former member of a collectively owned small business which, despite its egalitarian rhetoric, retained bureaucratic relations of subordination.”

The problem ac poses [if I may be informal] is extremely interesting and, in my judgment, not satisfactorily treated by those socialist theorists I have encountered, so I should like to expand at length on the comment and explore possible ways of dealing with the problem it confronts us with.  For those who are seriously interested in moving on to consider how a socialist economy might be organized and managed, I would suggest spending some quiet time with two or three hundred pages of Max Weber’s hauptwerk, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, which contains the classic discussion of bureaucracy.

Modern corporations, as ac indicates, are organized bureaucratically, which is to say with a functionally rational top down command structure.  They are not alone among modern social organizations in this manner of decision-making.  Consider, for example, a modern army.  The basic organizational divide in the modern military is between commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers, who are themselves divided into noncommissioned officers [NCO’s] and private soldiers, or privates.  Armies are commanded by four star generals and are composed of divisions, which are commanded by two star generals.  Divisions are composed of regiments, commanded by colonels; regiments are composed of battalions, commanded by majors; battalions are composed of companies, commanded by captains; companies are composed of platoons, commanded by second lieutenants; and platoons are composed of squads, commanded by sergeants.

The most experienced NCO’s are vastly more knowledgeable about military affairs than the newly commissioned second lieutenants, but despite that fact, a rigid order of deference and hierarchy is preserved.  NCO’s salute officers, who return their salutes.  The newest and greenest officer never initiates a salute of the most grizzled NCO [save in the extremely rare case of an NCO who has been awarded the Medal of Honor, and is saluted even by generals as a mark of extreme respect.]  Officers eat at the Officers’ Club; NCO’s do not.  Save for battlefield commissions, NCO’s cannot earn their way into the ranks of the officers, nor are even the least competent officers demoted to the status of non-commissioned officers or private soldiers.

One finds a very similar structure of hierarchy in a modern research hospital.  The fundamental split, mimicking that between officers and enlisted soldiers, is between doctors and non-doctors.  Once again, an experienced nurse with twenty years of practical knowledge may know vastly more about medicine than a new intern, fresh out of Medical School, but every intern, resident, senior resident, and staff specialist is accorded the honorific title “doctor” [as are even medical students tagging long on hospital rounds], but no nurse, however knowledgeable and experienced, is ever addressed as “doctor.” 

Universities exhibit a parallel structure, despite the concerted effort of the most politically progressive professors to pretend otherwise.  Full professors are deferred to by associate professors, who are deferred to by assistant professors, whose status is clearly differentiated from that of contract or part-time faculty.  All of the faculty are clearly separated in the minds of everyone in the university community from secretaries, department administrators, or housing, financial aid, and central office personnel, as well as from those who work in the cafeterias or divisions of buildings and grounds.  Whereas officers wear their rank on their shoulders, and doctors signal their status by hanging stethoscopes from their necks, professors frequently go to great lengths to conceal their superior social and professional status, but to no avail.  I have spent time on a great many American college and university campuses, and I have never encountered one on which one could not immediately tell, at a distance of fifteen paces, whether the man or woman approaching was a secretary or a professor.

Which brings me to the modern corporation, the most recent addition to the ranks of major bureaucratically organized institutions.  It exhibits all of the structural features and visual and other status markers I have been noting in armies, hospitals, and universities.  The old division between Suits and Shirts has blurred as dress codes have changed, but we find the old familiar structural hierarchy.  Long serving executive secretaries defer to junior managers fresh out of Business School, their MBA’s unblemished by experience.  Pay codes, the timing of pay checks [by the month or the week, or even by the day], the assignment of office space, the extent and content of fringe benefits, all mark the command structure that imitates that of a military force.

There have been some very interesting innovative attempts to reorganize the structure of corporate command so that it extends horizontally rather than vertically, especially in high tech corporations.  I believe [correct me if I am wrong] that Apple has experimented with a modular organization in which commands do not radiate downward from top management through a pyramidal bureaucratic structure.  The interesting question, which I lack the knowledge or experience to answer, is whether it would be possible without a loss of operational efficiency to reorganize corporations in older sectors of the economy [automobiles, oil, retail sales, etc.] in similar fashion.

Whether socialism arrives by a democratic vote or a successful violent revolution, the day after victory is declared, the existing arrangements of production and distribution will, at least for a time, continue unaltered.  How could it be otherwise?  To be sure, major decisions concerning investment, pay scales, the distribution of social benefits [health services, education, etc.], and the recruitment of corporate managers will change as democratic decision making replaces private control of capital.  But at least at first, precious little difference will be experienced on the shop floor or in the office secretarial pool. 

Can the level of production required to provide everyone with a decent life be maintained while simultaneously reorganizing the social relations of production so as to overcome the alienation of work in a capitalist economy?  I do not know the answer to that question, but it ought to take precedence in our thinking over the question whether Louis Althusser was a poseur [clearly he was], or Gramsci has been overlooked [clearly he has been.]


Chris said...

I have to chime in! :)

"I do not know the answer to that question, but it ought to take precedence in our thinking over the question whether Louis Althusser was a poseur [clearly he was]".

If you ask me today if Althusser was a poseur, I'll say no. If you ask me tomorrow I'll say yes. I know I waffle on this question as the hours pass. So I must ask, how can you so adamantly say 'clearly he was'? Is it not possible that he suffered from the same affliction you and I, and many other educators suffer from, i.e., we perceive ourselves as frauds and do not feel we deserve our occupational positions, and yet, perhaps, we aren't frauds? Perhaps we got here by SOME degree of talent?

I wish I could find a definitive answer on this Althusser question, even if it is in some sense a waste of valuable time.

Anonymous Coward said...

Dear Professor Wolff,

Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful reply to my question. On further reflection, my original question was really getting at bureaucratic inertia and the probability of continuing inequality. Bureaucratic offices - and the authority of those offices - are forms of power, after all. Even if a socialist transition or revolution somehow leveled out economic inequality by bringing the forces of economic production under collective management - however that would be accomplished technically - there would still remain the problem of bureaucratic inequality. There would also be inequalities in other forms of social power, especially cultural capital, as you mentioned in your description of academic hierarchies.

Thinking along these Weberian and Bourdieuian lines, it might be feasible to have an economically equal society. But it seems sociologically impossible to have a society that is completely equal and classless in every respect, since there are many axes of social differentiation and domination: bureaucratic, cultural, political, etc.

The problem would then be that those in charge of the bureaucracy (or the revolutionary party) would be tempted to manage the economy in their own interests, rather than those of everyone. From what my friends from Cuba have told me, this seems to have been the trajectory of the Cuban Revolution. Perhaps someone better informed can say whether or not this is also what happened in the Soviet Union?

mesnenor said...

As you point out, the hierarchies in the military, in academia, in in heath-care are hierarchies in which are embedded fundamental class differences. Corporate hierarchies are somewhat more flexible than that. One does sometimes see workers promoted to management. High-tech companies are often very different from other companies, insofar as the management is often actually aware of Putt's Law, and its corollary, and thereby accord a great deal of respect to technical people who have NOT actually been promoted to management.