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Sunday, January 1, 2017


For inspiration, I turn to Karl Marx.  For consolation, I turn to Max Weber.  Let me explain.

Thirty years ago and more, when I was doing research that I hoped would undergird the third and consummatory volume of my projected trilogy on the thought of Marx, the volume that would bring the mathematical thesis of Understanding Marx and the literary antithesis of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky to a satisfactory synthesis, I spent many pleasant hours wandering down such beguiling byways as the theory of cost accounting and the critique of index numbers.  One of my favorite sources of enlightenment and amusement was a series of volumes called The Statistical Abstract of the United States.  The Statistical Abstract, which appears annually, is a big fat book of more than five hundred pages consisting entirely of tables of data on every conceivable measurable aspect of American society and economy.  The Abstract is produced by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, as cognoscenti call it, which is located at 2 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, half a mile north of the Capitol.  Although the University of Massachusetts, where I was then teaching, has a mediocre library at best, it is designated a “depository library,” which means that it routinely receives and stores a vast array of official government publications.  In the UMass library stacks I found row on row of Statistical Abstracts, which I could consult but not check out.  [This is long before the digitization of social reality.  Now, of course, all of this available, as they say, online.]  The wealth of information about America contained in these volumes is beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.  I have often reflected that distinguished European historians of the medieval period would trade the promise of eternal bliss for one page from one volume of, say, The Statistical Abstract of 12th Century Burgundy.

At one point in my research, having formulated a question for which I had no adequate answer, I conceived the idea of calling the Bureau and asking to speak to someone there who might offer guidance.  The receptionist at the Bureau guided me to the appropriate person, whom I imagined as a chap with rolled-up sleeves and an eyeshade, rather like those gnomes working in the bank in the Harry Potter movies.  We struck up a conversation, and I explained that I was working on a book on the thought of Karl Marx.  To my surprise, he did not hang up, but instead lowered his voice just a bit and replied in a way that made it clear that he was extremely sympathetic to my enterprise.

Why have I told you this story?  Because on this first day of a year that promises to be the worst year of my life, the story gives me a glimmer of hope that things will not be quite as bad as I fear.  It is here that I take consolation from Max Weber, the great theorist of bureaucracy.  The United States government is a vast complex of departments, divisions, and offices staffed, below the very top, by career bureaucrats.  These folks are, by and large, extremely knowledgeable and well educated, and their jobs are protected virtually for life by a Civil Service Administration that, like the telephone company in The President’s Analyst, runs much of the country behind the scenes.  The permanence of the federal bureaucracy is a source of perpetual agita to Democratic presidents who come to Washington eager to implement change, but as Weber makes clear, the inertia of bureaucracies is not ideologically inflected.  It affects conservatives as much as liberals, reactionaries as much as radicals.  And at least some of those hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats are, like my secret friend in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on the left!

It is not much of a straw for grasping, but if we can learn from Grushenka’s parable of the onion in The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps it can pull us all out of hell.


David E said...

Not to put a pin to the bubble, but this is a story from that vast bureaucracy you mention.

A friend of mine is about to end a very long career at the Department of Commerce, which runs a variety of programs, good and bad:

When Obama was elected, the federal agency was overrun by youngsters who had worked on the president's election campaign and were now harvesting their political rewards. Now, as Trump is about to be sworn in, these older and wiser, but now well-trained bureaucrats from the meritocracy, are putting their belongings into cardboard boxes and clearing out for much less youthful, but equally political, appointments. And these entitled folks DO indeed push their weight around -- regardless of party.

"So, it's pretty much as I imagined," I asked. "Yes," he said, "Of course."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Couldn't you wait one day before popping up as Debbie Downer? :) Those were political appointees. I am pinning my fragile hopes on the career grunts below them. The question is, how much sand can they throw in the wheels of regress?

s. wallerstein said...

Why are you so sure that this is going to be the worst year of your life?

Besides the possibility that Trump is impeached in a month after trying to rape a White House intern, well, one of your grandchildren could surprise you positively in numerous ways, you could discover a Chinese poet whom you've never read and who fascinates you beyond any poet you've read previously, your forthcoming videos on Marx could be the spark that lights a renewed interest in Marxism among youth in several continents.

Sorpresas da la vida, la vida te sorpresas.

s. wallerstein said...


That should read: sorpresas te da la vida, la vida te da sorpresas.

Chris said...

Wallerstein, that still leaves us with Pence!

s. wallerstein said...


People who study these things with more attention than I do fear Trump more than they do Pence, since Pence is more predictable and less impulsive.

I listened to a dialogue online yesterday where from the standpoint of world peace they most fear Trump and Flynn, especially the two together without the imput of other advisors who are supposed to be more prudent and less impulsive.

Mattis is supposedly the most rational of the bunch. Who knows?

LFC said...

From Wikipedia entry on Statistical Abstract of the U.S.:

"The U.S. Census Bureau stopped publishing the Statistical Abstract of the United States with the 2012 edition. It stopped compiling the data on which it is based, along with the supplemental products, as of October 1, 2011."

Doubtless a lot of the data is/are still available in other pubs., but the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. has ceased to exist as an ongoing pub.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is just awful

Matt said...

A few quick thoughts, largely in agreement:

One of my favorite philosophers, Charles Lamore, has a nice brief section in his book _Patterns of Moral Complexity_ called "in praise of bureaucracy". It's short, but does a nice job showing the necessity of (good) bureaucracy for a just society. It's an over-looked topic in contemporary political philosophy.

But, it's awfully easy for a bureaucracy to go bad. Russia is a fine example, where a bureaucracy has swollen vastly under Putin, being essentially what we might call an "extractive industry", sitting on the rest of society like a giant oppressive leach. If it were all done legally, it would still be bad. (It's much larger and less effective than desirable) But, in fact, the bureaucracy there is such that "informal payments" are necessary at all levels to accomplish anything at all. This gives significant amounts of power to such people, and puts a major break on productive, useful activity. Perhaps as bad, or maybe even worse, as going into the extractive bureaucracy becomes more and more the safest way to make a steady living, fewer and fewer young, smart people do things that are actually productive and useful. Unsurprisingly, this causes a spiral.

Bureaucracy isn't like that, for the most part, in the US and probably in much of Europe, Canada, Australia, etc. (For other areas, I am unsure.) But, this is as much a cultural issue as a legal one. Changes in this area is one thing that really worries me about Trump (and his seeming admiration for Putinism, a "philosophy" that is fully enmeshed in systematically corrupt bureaucracy.)

Changes in the Civil Service laws could make this worse, though how likely they are I do not know. It's also possible via "burrowing" - the process of shifting political appointees into civil service positions. (This has long been a common practice. I _hope_ that Obama is doing some of it. It did real harm to the Justice Dept. under Bush II. I'm sure it will happen heavily under Trump. I'm not sure how easy it would be to stop it.) Additionally, if Trump, for example, is successful in hiring a large number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") agents to be his "deportation team", these will likely be people highly ideologically committed to opposing immigrants, and likely to violate the rights of them. They, too, will be protected by civil service legislation. I fear that cultural changes like this can be very easy to make, at least at certain points in history, and that we face this now. The major importance of a professional and competent bureaucracy for a decent society makes it all the more important.