Bureaucratic Governance

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A. Aneesh:

"In modern times, the most important analysis of authority and power came from Max Weber (1978) in the early twentieth century. Within the framework of his ideal type of legal-rational authority, he systematically studied the rise of modern bureaucracy as a new form of power and governance. For Weber, bureaucracy represents an “efficient” ideal-typical apparatus characterized by an abstract regularity of the exercise of authority centered on formal rationality. It is marked by authority relations that erode old modes of trust and social hierarchies of estate (ständ) and honor, replacing them with “rational techniques” of domination. Weber situates bureaucracy within his theory of power, domination, and legitimacy, where domination is legitimized on the basis of “legal-rational rules” in contrast to “tradition” or “charisma.”

One of the modes of Weber’s theory construction is to formulate purified action orientations. In order to explain legal-rational domination, he shows how legalrational action orientation emerged from a struggle against monarchical absolutism in the Continental Europe, a struggle that denied the legitimacy of any law based on precedent rather than statute (Bendix, 1960). Thus, in legal-rational governance, people who occupy positions of authority cannot act as personal rulers, and the people who obey legal rational authority are not “subjects;” they are “citizens” who obey the “law” rather than the official who enforces it. Modern bureaucracy, as opposed to earlier bureaucracies of Egypt, China and medieval Europe, reflects the imperatives of such legal-rationality, which is “formal” and not “substantive.” By “formal”, Weber implies a juridical formalism, where procedures of a lawsuit emerge as a peaceful contest according to fixed “rules of the game.” For instance, if one cannot afford an expense to document a piece of information relevant to the lawsuit, one may be forced to surrender certain rights to which one is legally entitled. Purely “substantive” and ethical considerations for justice cave in to the care for the predictability of its “formal” procedures.

The development of modern rational bureaucracy, being dependent on formal procedures, a money economy, the free market, and the expansion of administration, is characterized by written rules in a hierarchy of specialized official positions; impersonal offices that must be clearly distinguishable from incumbents and their private life and property; and recruitment based on qualifications, and not on personal will of the master or leader. Weber’s discussion of bureaucracy is embedded in the dual context of legal-rational mode of domination and technical imperatives of formal rationality that require an efficient, methodical calculation and refinement of means to achieve an end. Thus, according to Weber, “business management throughout rests on increasing precision, steadiness, and, above all, speed of operations” (Weber, 1978, p. 974). The technical imperatives of rationality such as the speed of communication create a profound pressure for “speeding up the tempo of administrative reaction toward various situation. The optimum of such reaction time is normally attained only by a strictly bureaucratic organization” (p. 974).

Many scholars have questioned Weber’s idea of the technical superiority of bureaucracy, showing how actual bureaucracies are fraught with informal structures and conflicting interests of subgroups. They also dispute the notion that formal rules are efficient. Bureaucratic formal rules could be dysfunctional with unintended consequences, as the rules become ends in themselves rather than means to ends (Merton, 1949; Selznick, 1980). Informal practices are shown to be more efficient than rigid adherence to inflexible formal rules (Blau, 1967) and formal rules may be employed by members of bureaucracies to pursue their own interests in opposition to official goals (Crozier, 1967). The above kind of postWeberian research, despite its successes, has misunderstood Weber’s approach, reducing the wider context of what Habermas (1984) calls the “bureaucratization of the lifeworld” to narrow concerns for organizational efficiency. In fact, the question of “efficiency” as an object of analysis is itself made possible by discourses of instrumental rationality, which is institutionalized in actual bureaucracies. Weber himself acknowledges that “...the bureaucratic apparatus also can, and indeed does, create certain definite impediments for the discharge of business in a manner best adapted to the individuality of each case...” (Weber, 1978, 974-75). To say that Weber did not describe “real life” is to have an impoverished notion of the real. He appeared to be more concerned with the imperatives of formal rationality that produce a whole series of effects in the real by acting as grids for the perception and evaluation of things. To Weber, for instance, the discretionary acts of modern bureaucratic officials are vastly different from the discretionary acts in earlier forms of administration, because in modern bureaucracy, even the discretionary acts require an appeal to, and evaluation of, impersonal ends; one cannot openly confess personal favors and arbitrariness (Bendix, 1960). This orientation toward impersonal rules transforms the real world in significant ways. The question is not whether Weber’s ideal type was accurate; rather, whether there are other modes of governance that may compliment Weber’s diagnosis of modern organizational forms. Michel Foucault’s (1979) notion of Panoptic forms of disciplinary power has attracted enough scholarly attention recent years (e.g., Zuboff, 1988) to deserve a detailed analysis as an added dimension of organizational governance." (https://web.stanford.edu/class/sts175/NewFiles/Algocratic%20Governance.pdf)