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.