The words of Max Weber (1864-1920), the renowned German sociologist, still ring true almost one hundred years after they were written. Although Weber died 90 years ago on June 14, his dark wisdom continues to haunt the highest achievements of modern society.
Working in the early days of the twentieth century, Weber was very interested in understanding how modern society worked; and he was especially interested in its bureaucratic institutions. Some consider his dark views concerning modern society and its future to be prophetic; perhaps he is today best remembered for his pessimism. It is this pessimism -- and the reasons for it -- that may help us to illumine some of our most pressing contemporary social and political problems, including education.
There is, for example, the following passage taken from his work that has helped to earn him his reputation as both a pessimist and a modern prophet:
What has happened in many years since these words were first written, of course, is that the distant threat on the horizon has now become the bureaucratic reality that envelops our lives. And still, there is no answer to Max Weber's question: "What can we oppose to this machinery in order to keep a portion of mankind free from this parceling out of the soul, from this supreme mastery of the bureaucratic way of life"?
Robert Michels (1876-1936) was a German/Italian academic who had won the support of Max Weber, but in spite of this was unable to teach in the universities of Germany due to his political involvement with the Social Democrats. Ironically, much of Michels' work with voluntary political associations, such as the Social Democrat party, was extremely critical of its political opportunism and hypocrisy. It is, however, for this work that he is remembered today.
Michels' political analysis is penetrating, and worth recalling. In the very least, Michels grounds the theoretical pessimism of Weber in the exigencies of political life, adding another dimension of support to the prophet's doomsday soothsaying.
“[T]he bureaucracy continually increases. It comes to assume the form of an endless screw [sic!]. It grows ever less and less compatible with the general welfare. And yet this bureaucratic machinery remains essential. Through it alone can be satisfied the claim of the educated members of the population for secure positions. It is further a means of self-defense for the state. … [but the] mechanism becomes an end in itself.”
“There are,” according to Michels, “two classes of intellectuals. One consists of those who have succeeded in securing a post at the manger of the state, whilst the other consists of those who … have assaulted the fortress without being able to force their way in. The former may be compared to an army of slaves who are always ready … to undertake the defense of the state which provides them with bread.” Thus, “The state best fulfills the need for securing a large number of defenders by constituting a numerous caste of officials, of persons directly dependent upon the state.”
From this analysis,
Michels derived his Iron Law of Oligarchy, which simply states that in large organizations, even those that are run on democratic
principles, there will eventually be only a small number that actually make decisions.
Furthermore, those in power tend to retain their power and privileges, and transfer these to those they choose, thus retaining
the character of an oligarchy. Lastly, over time, power elites will lose touch with the values and grievances of those that
put them in power, and will instead focus on staying in power – something elites are very successful at. (See Note 3.)
Perhaps it is no accident that Herbert Marcuse, the fiery Marxist prophet active during the Free Speech Movement at the University of Berkeley in the 1960s, most clearly and accurately characterized the darkest aspects of Weber’s nightmare for contemporary America. As the heir and recipient of the intellectual assets of the Frankfort School (which attempted to combine Marxist sensibility with Freud’s psychodynamics), Marcuse also received, and then communicated, the Weber-Michels critique of bureaucratic society.
Marcuse, in today’s bureaucratic mass society, “… all domination assumes the form of administration. At
its peak, the concentration of economic power seems to turn into anonymity: everyone, even at the very top, appears to be
powerless before the movements and laws of the apparatus itself. ” [Eros and Civilization, 98] This is Weber
and Michels gone completely and absolutely mad. For Marcuse, the process of “subordination appears as implemented through
the social division of labor itself (although physical and personal force remains an indispensable instrumentality).”
(89) The complexity of modern society can only be managed bureaucratically, that is, subordinated to the ordering imperative
of the bureaucratic society itself, the most efficient means of social control over human beings. Yet, this efficient means
of ordering society is invisible, undetectable, and limitlessly coercive. Thus, “the sadistic principals, the capitalist
exploiters, have been transformed into salaried members of a bureaucracy.” (98)
[The worst case scenario for all this, of course, is that democracy itself deconstructs or decouples into pure rhetoric and rhetorical procedures that mask the true concentrations of power and wealth. Perhaps it was never really there to begin with, just the result of special interest groups happily competing against each other behind the scenes, with a few helpful innovations thrown in. But if the intensity of that competition should suddenly grow, and is noticed, and threatens the mutual trust that makes free markets possible, then the system would be pushed aside. This, of course, was the fear of de Tocqueville, the aristocratic French traveler and essayist writing about Jacksonian America. Some contemporary political theorists continue to share his fears (see Beyond Tocqueville). Democracy, then, is the form of capitalism that can only exist on this kind of foundational trust.]
Along these lines of thought in Marcuse, Paul Ricoeur points to Eichmann’s defense of the killing of Jews, where it was said “that they obeyed orders, that they were good officers.” Ricoeur’s comment here is illuminating: “The administrative system, then, may not only deprive the individual of personal responsibility, it may even cover up crimes committed in the name of the administrative good. … the anonymity of organizational relationships … has led to the diffusion of anonymity in society at large. Something in the human texture is harmed.” (Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, 206).
Robert Michels, “Bureaucracy and Political Parties,” pages 456-458 in Lewis Coser and Bernard Rosenberg, Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings, 3rd edition, 1969.
Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky, “Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy,” in The Discovery of Society, pages 215-218.
As were the authors, I was also shocked by the revelations of Richard L. Rubenstein (1975) that associated modern bureaucracies with the Holocaust. But if you are looking for more than a couple of superficial case studies highlighting von Braun's shadowy Nazi past, and an only somewhat plausible attempt to link the Challenger disaster with his managerial legacy, all sandwiched into a book on public administration, this is not the book for you (Chs 4 & 5).
Nor is this the book to reach conclusions useful for public administrators regarding the equally shocking results of Milgram's social psychology experiments in the 1960s; if this is what you are looking for, *The Lucifer Effect* by Philip Zimbardo is more relevant -- especially when it comes to "unmasking administrative evil" at Abu Ghraib. (But be warned: the descriptions and photos are very unsettling.)
Although Adams and Balfour frequently cite Zygmunt Bauman's classic, *Modernity and the Holocaust* (1989), it fails to supply them with the missing theoretical ballast which their fluffy book requires (especially in regard to Weber and the division of labor, the social production of moral indifference, and moral displacement in bureaucracies; see below). Even Zerubavel's *The Elephant in the Room: Denial and Silence in Everyday Life* is far more insightful when it comes to elaborating the social mechanisms of administrative evil; or even a book on mobbing in the workplace.
How a book on public service ethics can evade the issues Bauman raises seems itself an ethical lapse of significance.
I guess the problems start in the literature review in Ch 2, which lacks a theoretical center. This leaves the book badly under-theorized, and misses the chance to address the ethical problems posed by administrative bureaucracies of all kinds. For example, the authors never quite grasp the fact that public administration is a type of social institution, and thereby miss out on important contributions of organizational ecology and neo-institutionalism to our understanding of the operation of human organizations. (The book that addresses this head-on is Peter Berger's *The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness,* with Brigette Berger and Hansfried Kellner, 1973. Don't let the title fool you -- this book mines the deep reserves of social constructivism and social cognition by reminding us that the "structure of modern consciousness" is social, and it is also bureaucratic if it is truly modern.)
In hindsight, Woodrow Wilson's approach to studying administration (1887, p. 70 here) astonishes, and shows us just how big these problems really are. But without sufficient theoretical depth, the scant conclusions in Ch 7 fail to inspire (p. 174), and only sound like empty pleading.
Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (1989).
Some comments on Bauman by "Helen DeWitt" at http://paperpools.blogspot.com/2009/01/bauman.html , to which I have added.
Bauman's most important book, the one that introduced themes he has since explored other books, is Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). Bauman argues that the Holocaust was a by-product of certain key features of modernity, including:
-- the extreme specialization, the breaking down of work into small narrowly defined tasks whose relation to the whole is not evident, the incorporation and integration of these tasks into highly hierarchical structures (so that part of doing a good job is not simply performing the task but facilitating the smooth transmission of commands and responses up and down the hierarchy). But in order to accomplish this, following Max Weber, is the need to "follow orders" regardless of ones own personal feelings or opinions. In fact, as Weber states, the entire pyramid rests on the lack of autonomy of those at the lowest rungs, those explicitly denied the right to make decisions on their own.
The social process required to produce just this necessary absence of morality -- that is, the amorality that is necessary for the smooth operation of the bureaucratic machine -- Bauman refers to as the "social production of moral indifference." Relying on Elias and others, Bauman moves considerably beyond them in his analysis of amoral bureaucracies.
For Bauman, the disappearance of morality in all but the upper most reaches of a power hierarchy has to do with the segregation of duties that creates moral distance between roles, but which is also the mechanism at work in the displacement of "responsibility" up the chain of command, to the peak of the hierarchy. He calls this process "moral displacement."
The displacement of morality, Bauman argues, is pervasive in modern life simply because bureaucratic culture is. According to Bauman, the Holocaust is the epitome of this kind of dynamic, not its perversion.
Bureaucracies are reliable and efficient because they grease the wheels of progress at the same time that the individual cog is rendered mute and insignificant. This is why the bureaucratic machine can operate so efficiently -- by removing the unpredictability of the individual.
But here is a mystery: Why did Bauman (on page 22) cite Weber (in German text, G/M p. 95), but leave out Weber's 'punch line'?
"To take a stand, to be passionate -- ira et studium -- is the politician's element, and above all the element of the political leader. His conduct is subject to quite a different, indeed, exactly the opposite, principle of responsibility from that of the civil servant. The honor of the civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of the superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction. This holds even if the order appears wrong to him and if, despite the civil servant's remonstrances, the authority insists on the order. Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces."
"Without this moral discipline and self-denial, in the highest sense, the whole apparatus would fall to pieces" (95). (Wow! This, then, is apparently why the justification heard most often during the Nuremberg War Crimes trials was, "I was following orders.") It is true that much of Bauman hinges on this very idea -- that the suppression of the moral dimension is what greases the cogs of the bureaucratic machine, and that this is what makes possible the increased efficiency and productivity of modernity [for ex., "...the organization as a whole is an instrument to obliterate responsibility" (163).] So I wonder why would he miss a chance to capitalize on this connection with Weber.
These features, however, are precisely those which made possible the abdication of personal responsibility documented in Stanley Milgram's 'Obedience to Authority'. Milgram's series of experiments is probably best known for the brute fact that subjects, told to administer a test and to punish wrong answers with what they were told were electric shocks, in a large number of cases proceeded to administer shocks which would, if genuine, have been fatal; for Bauman's purposes, however, the point of interest is the fact that results varied dramatically depending on the distribution of authority, the visibility of resistance to authority. (If there were two 'scientists' administering the experiment, and they appeared to be in disagreement over whether the shocks could continue, the vast majority of subjects refused to go on; if two subjects were in the same room and one resisted, the second was likelier to do so; and so on.)
Too often, when we study the Holocaust, no attention is paid to the machinery which makes such an event possible, or how one might put safeguards against abuse into the institutional structures of one's own society. As DeWitt points out, no school or university she ever attended showed any awareness of the moral implications of its bureaucratic structures; and she never dealt with a government agency anywhere that showed any such awareness; never has she dealt with any kind of health facility that showed any such awareness.
Not even, one can add, when these inner failings come to be recognized as "conflicts of interest" or "moral hazard."
Refs to Weber start in pages 13-15, where the "ethical blindness" feature of bureaucracy first appears, especially in 18-30, in sections on "Social production of moral indifference," etc. with 22-23 very strong, and 24-25ff.
Skip Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, which are very boring, all except the section "Racism as a form of social engineering" 66-72. Much of education can be seen as "social engineering" if viewed in terms of its progressivism, its optimism.
Chapter 4 is very strong, argues that "we can no longer assume that we have a full grasp of the workings of our social institutions, bureaucratic structures, or technology" (83). 86ff picks up and expands the moral crisis of the modern state, eventually bringing in Norbert Elias (96ff), who articulates some themes Michel Foucault made famous (again) without referring to the Holocaust.
My favorite section is "Effects of the hierarchical and functional divisions of labor," 98-102, because it addresses the problem of cognitive stratification of groups and organizations, and especially with institutions. Here he talks about statistics (graphs), and the role they play in the a-moralization of modern society -- "Dehumanization of bureaucratic objects" follows, 102-104. Then at 107 a new theme, the failure of societal safeguards, is introduced, with a mention of computers at the very end (115-116).
Ch 5, Soliciting the Cooperation of the Victims, describes a whole side of the manipulation of ghetto life by the Nazis I never knew about. It is striking that, just as the Nazis eliminated choice, they also eliminated the possibility of moral action. This point is implicit in the earlier chapters: you can only behave morally when there is choice -- precisely that which bureaucratic life seeks to eliminate when it buffers society against risk and against the individual.
Ch 6 uses the famous Milgram obedience experiments, and the reaction to them, that demonstrated the very processes discussed so far, to showcase Bauman's concerns. Really excellent -- even though I published a tiny bit on Milgram, this brought a whole new way of understanding this to light.
Ch 7, Ch 8 and the Appendix attempt a "sociology of morality," with mixed results. What is valuable is
the re-iteration of the themes just discussed. 192-198 discusses the social production of moral distance, and the Appendix
deals with the "Social Manipulation of Morality." Bauman only slips when his relentless critique lapses, as he attempts to
redeem the "Iron Cage" (Weber) he so masterfully analyzes. The purity -- and the horror -- of his analysis is that no such
redemption is possible. But even Bauman cannot face this truth.
The Law of the Multiplication of Work, as Parkinson proposes, follows from an examination of "Admiralty statistics for 1914 and 1928. [And... ] the comparison between the sharp fall in numbers of those available for fighting and the sharp rise in those available only for administration, the creation, it was said, of 'a magnificent Navy on land.' ... What we have to note is that the 2,000 Admiralty officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. ... Yet in these circumstances we had a 78.45 per cent increase in Admiralty officials over a period of fourteen years; an average increase of 5.6 per cent a year on the earlier total."
Parkinson estimates the range of increase to be between 5% and 7%, per year, "irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done."
He also identifies, or proposes, two distinct mechanisms that operate to produce this kind of growth: (1) "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals" and (2) "Officials make work for each other."
Corollary to this is the idea that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion," and that the "demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource."
In such a technological age as ours, Parkinson argues, "[w]e might not wonder to see more draughtsmen on the pay-roll, more designers, more technicians and scientists. But these, the dockyard officials, increased only by 40 per cent in number, while the men of Whitehall increased by nearly 80 per cent. For every new foreman or electrical engineer at Portsmouth there had to be two more clerks at Charing Cross. From this we might be tempted to conclude, provisionally, that the rate of increase in administrative staff is likely to be double that of the technical staff ..."
ALLOMETRIC SCALING and COGNITIVE BUBBLE FORMATION
As Peter Berger, et al, point out, rationalization is always functional (The Homeless Mind, 1973). Functional rationality is administrative: it is planned, predictable, and seeks uniformity and above all else, compliance. It is, as Marcuse says, a form of domination.
For the moment, let me just list some promising avenues of investigation that appear to converge on just this problem of cognitive bubble formation:
-- Adam Ferguson's initial contribution of an economically based understanding of social cognition has been almost completely overlooked, it seems. A colleague of Adam Smith's, Ferguson recognized very early on the negative impact of exhausting routine labor and repetitive tasks on the worker. But few realize that Karl Marx's first encounter with alienation was in connection with just this kind of the division of labor brought by industrialization, described almost 100 years earlier by Ferguson. It was only later that Marx linked this kind of social differentiation with private property by forging a dialectic identity between the two, between the social level and the material level (Ollman, 158. See also, Rob Beamish, Marx, Method, and the Division of Labor, 1992.) Others, such as Paul Ricoeur, Ideology and Utopia, 1969, point to Marx's concepts of ideology, 'false consciousness,' and reification as forming an early sociology of knowledge with an emphasis on social cognition. The basic economic and class-based sociology of cognition that Marx produced was then extended by Italian Antonio Gramski through his examination of the social and economic bases of "common sense" perception and "taken-for-grantedness," which he took to be even more fundamental than Marx's "class" distinctions.
-- Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, presents a more sociological approach to social cognition, but even she denies that density has anything to do with social solidarity. She is clearly wrong, of course, but the connection between density and solidarity have yet to be addressed, even with the advent of the internet and the formation of online communities in cyberspace, where you would think this could be easily studied. (See Zerubavel, The Elephant in the Room: Denial and Silence, for more on social cognition.)
-- Stephan Fuchs, Against Essentialism (2004) discusses the emergence of essentialist realism at the cores of mature social networks of all kinds (278-292). The epistemological collapse of these aging network cores (302, 291) is a given. Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1935) is an early precursor to the kind of approach Fuchs takes to its limit, and is also a formative influence on Thomas Kuhn.
-- Irving Janis, Groupthink, explores the escalation of commitment, sunk costs, side-bets, etc., in order to explain the continued commitment to faulty policies and bad decisions. Social psychology and management theorists such as Barry Staw and Marc Street have also studied these problems, now (2010) subtended by the rubric of "moral hazard."
-- John T. Bonner, Why Size Matters, is a book on allometric scaling in nature, from slime molds to animals. In the book he has an interesting chapter on the association of societal complexity (the differentiation of roles and the extension of the division of labor) with community size. This is among the first attempts to deal with this topic, building on the earlier work of Robert L. Carneiro (see Figure 26). Bonner needs just a hint of Marx's insight into the "false consciousness" of workers to recognize the cognitive limits imposed by one's location along the hierarchical labor pyramid. As Fuchs would put it, what you know, see and feel is contingent on your social network location.
-- Adrian Bejan's Constructal Theory examines scaling issues in terms of their dynamical non-linear characteristics, and his book with Gilbert Merkx is a first effort at extending constructal law to social systems. Constructal theory is especially promising, since it recognizes the inherent laws governing density dependence (as found in density dependence theory) and the link between threshold densities and emergent scaling properties of social systems. The next step, of course, is to apply this kind of approach to the formation of new bureaucratic organizational forms -- which should be relatively easy, given the centrality of energy-conservation and optimality in constructal theory. The problem lies in the fact that just these assumptions about organizational optimality and survival have been under steady attack by the neo-institutionalists since the 1970s, and even earlier. I am not sure how to position the two differing points of view in a way that would address these problems, but I am sure that it can be done. Perhaps all we have to do is recognize the locations of each of these points of view as Luhmannian 'observers,' as Fuchs would do.
-- Clive Gamble, Colin Renfrew, and others working in 'material culture' take great pains to understand how our technology allows society to scale-up in ways that, among other things, address the Dunbar Number limitation (Robin Dunbar), and even can be said to constitute 'mind.' Work in the philosophy of technology (Pickering, Ihde, Haraway, Latour, etc) approaches these same issues from another direction (for example, through gestalt / phenomenology), but my point here is that both would benefit from the allometric / constructal understanding of emergent scaling properties of social systems (i.e., emergent scaling properties of social networks, and cognitive scaling properties of social institutions). Both these approaches also have volumes to say about technology and its impact on social cognition.
-- Doug Rushkoff has been looking at Corporatization in his Life, Inc., and with good reason. Since the collapse of the global financial system, the cumulative effect of cognitive deficits has become glaringly apparent. There is, of course, a whole cognitive dimension to neo-institutionalism that is particularly relevant for those interested in the negative effects of creating legal entities that lack the moral imperatives that bind its creators.
Corporations of all kinds, then, can be viewed as engines that are engaged in the production of institutional legitimacy, that is, as "legitimacy engines" that are apt to take on a life of their own. Corporations provide an opportunity to examine bureaucratic scaling issues, particularly in regard to cognitive and moral bubbles (Bauman).
All this (and especially Bauman) brings us to a truly momentous question: Whether the small-scale democratic processes at the founding of our nation can be effectively scaled-up, or not. I don't see no reason why it should be. What worked well for small groups, whose decisions directly impacted the stakeholders, is not now working for massive, scattered populations that are far from the site of decision making. Nor are the results of representational democratic processes immediate or even short term. Due to the enormous complexity of modern life, bad decision making can now take generations before the results are known. This issue of temporality points to the negative impact of the accumulation of cognitive distortions over time, which can go unnoticed precisely because they became part of our taken-for-grantedness long ago.
-- Since I am not aware of anyone else raising this next issue, which is surpassingly important and urgent, so I raise it here and now. It concerns problems with the scalability of our democratic institutions and processes, or more specifically, the scalability of our Constitutional form of government. Originally devised in 1789 for the governance of a much, much smaller population, the US Constitution was created for a predominantly yeoman-farmer populace. It was modeled on other earlier small group processes, which incorporated checks and balances of different kinds for the branches of government, and its operation was distinguished by the fact that political decisions were made by those for whom the consequences would be immediately or soon clear, making them accountable for their decisions, guiding and constraining the process. This is no longer true today. In comparison with today's society, the political processes envisioned by the Constitution for designed for small groups, more or less sharing a common interest and, what is more important, a "common sense" of what political processes could or could not accomplish. But all this has radically changed today.
The problem is that these originary conditions no longer apply, resulting in distortions up and down the
hierarchy, and across the different branches of the governing organization. The small failures to scale-up across massive
populations that we can now observe (i.e., the rise of special interest and professional groups, particularly the government
bureaucracy itself, which with the judicial system, seems to have taken on a life of its own) and the lack of adequate
compensatory mechanisms to bridge these gaps, raises questions for me about the future of large-scale democracy. The emergence
of public education, for example, can be seen as part of an early effort during the industrial revolution to bridge these
widening institutional cracks, but one which, pardon the pun, seems to have run out of steam.