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Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Having made some progress in my preparations for the second Marx lecture, and having nothing to say about Trump’s inaugural State of the Union message to Congress, I thought I would spend a few moments talking about the concept of a deep state. The term has been popularized by Steven Bannon but it was introduced into modern sociological discussions, under a different rubric, by the great German theorist Max Weber.

In his extensive and groundbreaking discussion of bureaucracy, which takes up a good deal of his posthumous work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society], Weber identifies the bureaucratic organization of government, and also of the economy, the military, the church, and the Academy, as the distinctive feature of modern capitalist society.  A bureaucracy is a functionally differentiated system of roles defined by written and unwritten rules that are independent of the persons who occupy the roles.  The authority exercised by the role occupants derives not from their personal characteristics – strength, height, intelligence, age, individual prowess, charismatic appeal – nor from their race, gender, family connection, ethnicity – but from rules that define the scope, functions, and authority of the roles they occupy.

It is characteristic of a bureaucracy that most of the roles are occupied by persons for whom those roles are their profession and source of income.  The persons in the command positions of a bureaucratically organized operation may come and go, appointed for relatively brief periods by some superior military, corporate, religious, academic, or governmental process, but the professional bureaucrats stay on, continuing to perform their rule-defined functions.

Inevitably, the permanent bureaucrats develop institutional loyalties and memories and a resistance to interference by those they view as amateurs or interlopers.  They resent such interference and, having an intimate knowledge of the bureaucracy, are frequently able to frustrate the policy plans of those who are technically their superiors.  Tenured professors, middle managers, local archbishops, master sergeants are all examples of career bureaucrats who function in this manner.  I was constantly amused, during my thirty seven years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, by the inability of the Chancellors, each recruited from the outside and staying no more than five or six years, to make much of a dent in the ongoing activities of the departments.  By the time the Chancellors found their way to the executive washroom, as it were, and had convened an all campus select committee to consider dramatic [and mostly unwelcome] changes to the institution, they were only two or three years from moving on to their next job.  It was child’s play for those of us who wanted no interference with our activities to slow walk administrative proposals until the next chancellor arrived on campus with his or her own exciting plans for reinventing UMass.

The United States Federal Government is an enormous cluster of bureaucratically organized departments, the regular career participants in which are protected from higher interference not only by the logic of bureaucracy but also by laws explicitly blocking the political class from reaching into the bowels of an office or department and directly removing individuals whom the powers that be consider inimical to their policies.  These career bureaucrats, who number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, are supporters of both principal political parties, but they are all partisan defenders of the same post-World War II policy consensus that has reigned more or less unchallenged for seventy years and more.  How could they not be?  They have been the creators and curators of that consensus!

There is nothing sinister or malevolent in this situation.  It is, as Weber taught us almost a century ago, an inevitable consequence of the foundational bureaucratic organization of modern mass capitalist society.  Steve Bannon, if we can take him at his word, seeks to overthrow that consensus, and he quite correctly judges that his principal enemy is not the political class – the elected representatives and the president – but the deep state, the bureaucracy itself.  The good news is that he will fail.  The bad news is that so would we, were we to win control of the Congress and the Presidency.

Would things be dramatically different in the socialism of my dreams?  Of course not.  Kibbutzim, communes, and love-ins to the contrary notwithstanding, a socialist state overseeing a modern post-industrial economy would necessarily, unavoidably be a bureaucracy.  The best we could hope for is a bureaucracy whose guiding principles were more just, more humane, and less exploitative.  But you may be certain that after the revolution, as we used to say when I was young, the men and women leading a socialist America would have to contend with the mort main of bureaucracy.


howard said...

Tell how advances in technology sway this bureaucratic inertia?

Jerry Fresia said...

I've just finished reading David Talbott's "The Devil's Chessboard" and "Brothers," both about the Dulles brothers and other security/deep state actors during the Kennedy era and before. I was dumbstruck by the power these bureaucrats exercised in defiance of presidential policy to the point where Arthur Goldberg said that had FDR lived, the Dulles brothers would have been brought up on charges of treason. JFK had to admit to DeGaulle, when a coup (with CIA backing) was being organized against the French leader, that he (JFK) was not in control of the government.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor, are you planning any posthumous work yourself? I ask because I have planned a lot of it for myself (it seems to fit my schedule better). Unfortunately, I cant figure the best way to go about it. How did Weber manage it? (Any chance I could get paid upfront on that work?)

Come to think of it, Weber probably had the right idea waiting till he was dead to deal with the bureaucracy. I will relegate that to my posthumous work also.

Unknown said...

In my 26 years as a tenured faculty member in one of the largest community college systems in the country, I have to agree with much of this analysis on the power of the bureaucrats (or what I call the worker-bees). At my college, we can be without Presidents, VPs, and Deans for months on end and we go right on without much notice. But if a faculty or staff member doesn't show up for one day, classes aren't taught and office work grinds to a halt. The bureaucrats do keep the lights on, literally. However, I have to add one caveat. When skilled leaders come in with changes and consult with the bureaucrats and enlist the aid of the bureaucrats, change may take place. Hopefully, it's positive, but that can be negative as well. For positive change you need moral leadership as well as principled bureaucrats. :)

Warren Goldfarb said...

In this connection, I thought I should remind the readers here of the hilarious BBC series from thirty years ago Yes Minister, whose plot line was entirely the defeat of the MP's plans by the bureaucracy.

Écrasez L'infâme said...

I think this is all going a bit far, y’all. I’m a bureaucrat in a public sector authority in the United Kingdom. The people around me are modern and flexible. We are not rule-bound - we use rules as tools for decision-making, as a judge uses precedent, not as excuses for not doing something or as a way of avoiding responsibility for our actions. And it certainly isn’t the case that bureaucrats I know are independent of the rules: every day, I and people around me make our own rules to suit changing circumstances. When we solve a particular problem, we habitually look to see whether our solution can be generalised or the root cause addressed. We don’t let a problem fall between departments, with each saying it’s the other’s responsibility. Are we perfect? Christ, no, but we do do the best we can to keep a city of around a million souls on the road, with little support from senior managers, councillors, or government, with inadequate renumeration, and with public abuse from right-wing media pushing a small government agenda. The last with which people on this board now agree with, apparently.

“Yes Minister” is very funny, but I doubt the civil service was ever like that - I know Thatcher said it was, but, well, she would, wouldn’t she? As for Weber - I bet bureaucrats were as diligent and innovative in his time as well, in their way, and that he himself was working from stereotypes.