Weber’s theory of bureaucracy and modern society


How Prevalent are Modern Bureaucracies ?



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How Prevalent are Modern Bureaucracies ?
The modern capitalist state is completely dependant upon bureaucratic organisation for its continued existence. As Weber says, “The larger the state, or the more it becomes a great power state, the more unconditionally this is the case.”2 Nevertheless, whilst the size of the administrative unit is a major factor determining the spread of rational bureaucratic organisation, there is not a unilateral relationship between size and bureaucratisation.3 The necessity of specialisation to fulfil specific administrative tasks is as important as size in promoting bureaucratic specialisation.4
As Weber identified, the major reason for the encroachment of bureaucratic organisation into the performance of routinised tasks is its efficiency.5
“The fully developed bureaucratic apparatus compares with other organisations exactly as does the machine with the non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs - these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic organisation…”6
Weber believes the growth of the bureaucratic state is allied with the advance of political demarcation, as the demands made by democrats for political representation and equality before the law necessitate complex administrative and juridical provisions to lawfully limit privilege.7 It is this very relationship between democracy and bureaucratisation that Weber believes creates one of the most profound sources of tension in modern capitalism. This contradiction between the formal and substantive rationality of social actions is illustrated by development of abstract legal procedures which, in helping to eliminate privilege, reintroduce a new form of entrenched monopoly which is in some respects more arbitrary and autonomous than that which they influence.1
Thus, bureaucratic organisation is promoted by the democratic requirement for impersonal selection of office bearers according to the possession of educational qualifications, but this in itself creates a stratification as identified by Luhmann, that produces a privileged group having more administrative power than before.
Giddens recognises that government solely by the masses is an impossible aim in large modern societies, with direct democracy only being possible in small scale communities. As Weber says in Politics as a Vocation, “… there is only one choice between leadership democracy with a ‘machine’ and leaderless democracy, namely, the rule of professional politicians without a calling, without the inner charismatic qualities that make a leader, and this means what the party insurgents in the situation usually designate as ‘the rule of the clique’.2
Bureaucracy is a consequence of not merely in the sphere of politics or government, but society in general. In some respects, Weber’s focus on bureaucracy is his answer to the idealism of Marxism. Marxism saw prospects for increasing freedom coming out of the most advanced social forms arising from capitalism, whilst Weber saw great changes and threats in its allied reliance on bureaucracy.
Weber was worried by the naivety of Marx’s view in “expropriating the expropriators”, regarding this as simply replacing a multiplicity of capitalists with a simple unified capitalist. Giddens, thus identifies the most significant divergence between Marx and Weber as being how far the alienating consequences of the rationalisation of society derive from bureaucratisation, which is a necessary requisite of the modern society, whether capitalist or socialist.3 Thus, whereas Marx saw socialism as the panacea of the evils of capitalism, Weber saw socialism would necessitate “a tremendous increase in the importance of professional bureaucrats”4, thus exacerbating the worst evils of capitalist bureaucracy and therefore alienation.
Weber believes that once bureaucracy has become established it is extremely resistant to any attempt to remove its powers. He says, “Such an apparatus makes ‘revolution’, in the sense of the forceful creation of entirely new formations of authority, more and more impossible…”5 The encroachment of bureaucracy across modern capitalism is thus both cause and consequence of the rationalisation of law, politics and industry, being the concrete, administrative manifestation of the rationalisation of action which has penetrated into all spheres of Western culture.1 Giddens believes this spread of rationalisation can be indexed by the progressive ‘disenchantment of the world’; the elimination of magical thought and practice, induced by the great religious prophets and the systematising activities of priests.2
Weber notes the connection of bureaucracy with the work ethic, as he explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism3, but makes the important distinction that whilst the “Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.”4 Weber believed people’s relation to work was not as mere labour, but as invariably adopted as a form of vocation evidenced by the need for training qualifications. Weber noted that the official takes on his/her work with a sense of carrying out a task according to a sort of spirit or ethic with moral overtones. The main normative issue then is not how the process of bureaucratisation can be reversed, but, “What can we set against this mechanisation to preserve a certain section of humanity form fragmentation of the soul, this complete ascendancy of the bureaucratic ideal of life”5
Bureaucracy has had the effect of institutionalising expertise. The more bureaucratised a country, the more attention was paid to expert knowledge and efficiency. Welfare and progress became increasingly determined using terms defined by experts. The culture becomes rationalist and utilitarian, searching out the cheapest and effective manner for achieving stated goals, with social goals tending to become defined in terms of the technical means that are available, with democracy becoming irksome as it is increasingly perceived that only experts have the knowledge and experience to decide.6
Taken to their ultimate limit, these ideas imply that industrial society is best run without a democratic political system that may only hamper the interests of professional bureaucracies of government, and the private sector. The realities of government meant it was impractical to implement the untested initiatives that may evolve from a democratic political process, with modern bureaucracies having evolved to compromise discrete and specialised sphere headed and jealously guarded by their own expert bureaucracies.7 Given these observed pitfalls, why is it that bureaucracies have not diminished?



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