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Hang the Last Bureaucrat?

It seems entirely natural to despise bureaucracy and compare bureaucrats to capitalists, imagining that an anti-capitalist politics is also synonymous with anti-bureaucracy.  In order for capitalism to function, after all, a vast bureaucracy is required––the rational distribution of exploitation, the maintenance of surplus, accumulation, militarism, and all of the institutional departments required for the machinery of capitalism to keep chugging along.  From the smallest to the largest site of exploitation, some form of bureaucracy is necessary to manage value.  The state is renowned for the level of bureaucracy it allows to develop.  All capitalist institutions, to a greater or lesser degree, require bureaucratic management; the larger the institution, the more arcane its bureaucracy.

And so it's entirely too easy to despise this bureaucracy and feel that this spite is politically motivated.  Just the other day, for example, I was forced to [yet again] deal with the overly byzantine bureaucracy of the institution I work for and, as usual, was extremely frustrated.  And since navigating these sorts of institutional labyrinths, because of my cognitive disability, fills me with an even higher level of anxiety and confusion than it would otherwise––sometimes an almost debilitating paralysis––I desperately want to believe that my frustration is politically motivated and that bureaucrats who are making my life difficult are class enemies.

Perhaps the most famous piece of graffiti from the May 1968 uprising in Paris was the aphorism "humanity won't be happy until the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat."  Here was the statement that equated capitalism with bureaucracy, a slogan for the angry rebels building barricades in the streets that felt almost as vital as the most important May 1968 slogan, demand the impossible.  And all of us who have been inspired, most probably in our student youth, by May 1968 are usually aware of this violent demand to strangle capitalists with the viscera of bureaucrats.

When one thinks of the paradigmatic bureaucrat, after all, one thinks of some nazi pencil-pusher managing fascist atrocity by stamping papers and filing forms.  This is probably the image of the bureaucrat the aforementioned graffiti had in mind during May 1968: the bureaucrat, the banality of evil, the fascist desk jockey, the adminstrator of capitalist irrational rationalism.  And it makes sense to despise this sort of person, to want to eviscerate the functionary responsible for the system's logical management, and attack such a person in revolutionary graffiti.

But I do not believe it is entirely accurate to simply classify bureaucracy and bureaucrats as synonymous with capitalism and capitalists.  As much as a part of me chuckles at John Reed's comment regarding Zinoviev ("the cold face of bureaucracy"), and as much as bureaucracy and bureaucrats upset me to no end, when I really think about what bureaucracy actually is I find it difficult to be snidely dismissive.  There is something, I must admit, rather infantile about a politics that professes anti-bureaucracy as one of its core tenets.

While I agree that capitalist bureaucracy needs to go––and that there are bureaucrats within the vast machinery of capitalism who are clearly class enemies––I've been finding it increasingly difficult over the past decade to believe that the two terms are synonymous and that bureaucracy, as arcane as it might feel under capitalism, is in itself evil.  To be a bureaucrat is not necessarily to be the same as the paradigmatic nazi bureaucrat anymore than being a soldier is synonymous with being an imperialist pig––there are, after all, cadre soldiers in peoples armies who should not be seen, by anyone who claims to be an anti-capitalist, as identical to the soldiers serving in, for example, the US Army.  Yes there were fascist bureaucrats, but there were also fascist brown shirts––the chaotic shock troops that brought fascism into existence––who were everything that the fascist bureaucrat was not.  Thus, to respond to the supposed evil of bureaucracy with the supposed good of anarchic revolt is politically bankrupt.

Moreover, just as the forces of production that developed under capitalism are necessary, under more advanced social relations, to build capitalism, it seems pretty logical to accept that some form of bureaucracy is also necessary.  Unless you're some sort of primitivist, it's pretty hard to imagine socialism without the technological advancements that the people have developed, through much struggle and bloodshed, throughout the long march of history.  Similarly, it's hard to imagine how this society would function without some form of rational management that would entail––much to the distress of those of us who still think fondly on the May 1968 aphorism––what would otherwise be called bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

The vast redistribution of wealth that should happen under socialism would require (and has required) that which we would call a bureaucracy.  One cannot imagine such redistribution without rational management; to believe it will happen spontaneously or with affinity groups is utopian thinking.  Nor does crowing about the self-management of the workers mean anything more than an empty slogan if you can't say how this self-management will produce the mechanisms necessary to: a) break-up capitalist social relations; b) produce the necessary avenues for post-capitalist management.  And it would seem, as much as a small part of me shudders at the thought, that the self-management of the workers on a vast and revolutionary social scale will mean the existence of a new type of bureaucracy… that is, if we understand bureaucracy to be the rational and institutional management of the social.

One only needs to look at large organizations that have often found themselves at odds with capitalism, now and then, to understand the necessity of some form of bureaucracy.  Take, for example, a labour union engaged in a strike––a limited example, for unions are also and often part of the labour aristocracy, but one that most leftists can wrap their minds around.  No strike has survived without some form of bureaucratic management.  While we would hope that such management is guided from a bottom-up approach, it is still necessary because everyone engaged in said strike, regardless of their utopian beliefs about self-management, still require people to be responsible for the daily and banal facts that allow a labour disruption to function.  And a strike, it must be said, barely resembles the overthrow of capitalism––so if you need some sort of rational management for a very small disruption of business-as-usual, then it seems entirely logical to assume that you need a much greater rationality and management for a large-scale disruption.

Even those anti-capitalist groups that profess utter disdain for bureaucracy end up producing their own form of bureaucracy in order to function and persist.  Working groups, committees, "point people"… all of these assemblages are themselves a form of bureaucratic management because they are attempts to structure the unstructured, to produce a form of rational functionality so as to not collapse into chaotic dysfunction.  Hopefully the kind of "unofficial" bureaucracy that results from this type of organizing will be better than the bureaucratic structures tied to capitalism but they are still, regardless of whatever label they give themselves, another form of bureaucracy.

We would hope that structures evolving to liquidate capitalism would be organized enough to be able to liquidate capitalism.  We would hope that they possess some sort of institutional memory, some rational permanence, some logical plan about goes beyond slogans about self-management so as to plant the seeds of concrete self-management.  For if we look at capitalist society it is not difficult to see that its bureaucracy is very good at managing society according to the needs of capitalism and, because of this bureaucracy (and also because of its military, police, and other managerial institutions) has reproduced and mutated.  And if a post-capitalist society is mis-managed, if it is allowed to fall apart because there is no managerial plan as to what this society should be in the first place, then our anti-bureaucratic morality means fuck all.

Those of us who demonstrate a juvenile disdain for bureaucracy-qua-bureaucracy are most often those who spend most of our time enjoying things that vast and invisible bureaucracies make possible.  We spend a lot of the time on the internet, for example, arguing with other leftists about bureaucracy and capitalism, but we generally don't seem to realize that the very existence of this internet requires the very bureaucracy we despise.  This does not mean that we shouldn't despise the class nature of this bureaucracy, only that we should argue that the management of the complex things we enjoy would be better if it was transformed.

Bureaucracy might be a necessity but the bureaucracy under socialism cannot be identical to the bureaucracy under capitalism.  So rather than simply assume that bureaucratic management is one of the ills of capitalism that cannot possibly exist under socialism, it is far better to imagine a transformed bureaucracy that, in the period of socialist class struggle, will potentially wither away along with the state.  For it is utopian to imagine that everything necessary to produce socialism will happen spontaneously, that there will not need to be institutional memory and the dogged job of complex redistribution, accountability, checks and balances, records, and everything that requires the often invisible labour of bureaucrats.

So rather than declare bureaucracy synonymous with capitalism––and thus, fuelled by our own terrible experiences of bureaucracy, argue that we won't be happy until we use bureaucratic intestines to lynch capitalists––we should instead try to figure out how bureaucratic management under socialism will be transformed into something that is guided by self-management and a mass-line.  This way of thinking about the problem of bureaucracy, I believe, is more productive.

[If you are a bureaucrat with money who enjoyed this, perhaps because it justified your job as a bureaucrat, then feel free to help me bureaucratize MLM Mayhem!]


  1. Check chapter III, in particular sections 2 and 3, of Lenin's 'State and Revolution'. It may give some more ideas. Connect that to today's computer revolution, add some Marshall McLuhan, and you will have a lot of good points for explaining how the future society may be organized. Very much is about simple book-keeping as Lenin saw it, and with that realized in the software of modern data networks, it will be still more simple. I am always surprised that very few people who call themselves socialists/communists today are able to see what they have before their own eyes, i.e. the technological revolution which makes socialism and communism possible!

  2. This is one of your better posts, JMP.

    In the US political narrative the idea of bureaucracy is always counterpoised to the idea of the private sector. Supposedly, the state is a clunky bureaucracy but the profit motive makes the private sector a nimble bureaucracy-less (bureau-less?) process in comparison. This isn't true, of course, but it's how most people in the US think of these things.

    Recently Atul Gawande published this article about how the centralized and managed production practices of chain restaurants should be applied to medicine because it leads to better outcomes. He is persuasive, and this article set off a wide-ranging conversation about medical practice in the US media. What I find interesting is that neither Gawande, nor really any of the people who support his argument in the debates he spawned, seem able to imagine a replacement for the public-private healthcare system in the US. This is weird because it seems obvious that if centralized and highly managed systems of production lead to better health outcomes, then there isn't much utility in preserving the decentralized system that privileges profits over health outcomes. One big bureaucracy that can enforce the optimal system of production would be the better choice. But that's not even talked about as an option.

    I bring this up because I think it illustrates that there is a tension around the politics of bureaucracy that is the child of capitalist ideology, even on the left. There is definitely this imago of the merciless cold-blooded bureaucrat, but I honestly think most people in the US imagine that bureaucrat to be Russian or Chinese, not fascist.

  3. I think we need to distinguish between bureaucracy and administration, which are two very different things. While we will need workers' administration under socialism that functions as Lenin outlined in State and Revolution, we will not necessarily need a bureaucracy and bureaucrats unless the revolution is limited to a very underdeveloped country that has a very low level of literacy. In Canada today, for instance, I see no social need for bureaucrats if the working class were to take power.

    I still believe that everyone should pass through the administration regularly in an area suited to their other work or their general interests as part of their democratic right and their responsibility to a socialist society. This would of course be extremely 'bureaucratic' in the way the term is generally used, but professional full-time bureaucrats would not be needed for it.

    1. I think, though, that we might be playing with semantics here. An administration is just another word for a bureaucracy; the term "bureau" literally means "public administration" and a "bureaucracy" is an organized/structured system of public administration. So while I agree with your second paragraph, to be precise in our definitions I also believe that you can't just change words that mean the same thing due to the fact that one word has a pejorative meaning attached to it… a workers' administration is just another type of bureaucracy since a bureaucracy is, as defined above, an organized system of administration.


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