Volume 13, Number 1 (January 2016)
Author: Dr. Joseph Cunningham
Despite the Information Revolution transforming contemporary labor, bureaucracy remains the dominant paradigm of human organization. Moreover, Max Weber’s original theorization of bureaucracy still remains viable in understanding how present day bureaucracy operates. Weber anticipated many central features of bureaucracy that would only become more pervasive in the twenty-first century: its impersonality, lack of transparency, fetishization of data, degree of specialization, and propensity toward continued expansion and control. Most important, Weber discovered the principles of rationality at the heart of bureaucratic essence, a rationality that while producing efficiency in the face of complex tasks, held a series of problematic implications that would become more apparent over time. The philosophy of Jean Baudrillard sheds light on how those implications materialize. Although not a theorist of bureaucracy, Baudrillard points to many problems of the technocratic age, namely those of simulation. Baudrillard’s conception of modern (or postmodern) labor’s will to simulation unveils a pivotal contradiction within bureaucratic institutions and their domination over labor and the state. While Weber provides the material side of this dialectic (the physical means and measures through which bureaucratic labor is organized), Baudrillard provides the immaterial side, one in which bureaucratic institutions are not only cut off from the exterior world of work, but also, the internal logic of bureaucracy produces a meaning separated from itself.
II. Institutions of Simulation
We tend to forget that every institution is its own world. Governed by their own rules and particularities, the organizations where we work operate as different existential spaces. Compelled by the wage contract, we sacrifice our autonomy for forty hours (sometimes more, sometimes less) a week to abide by a certain set of rules, our behavior modified to complete some organizational task that often has little value outside of the organization. For instance, as a university employee, my working life, though certainly not without moments of personal gratification, is one of considerable restrictions. Spatially, temporally, and discursively, my choices are limited by a set of institutional norms, norms that I have not selected, but I nevertheless reproduce on a daily basis. And I am but one individual in a great laboring collective, compelled to do the same—the institution, in part, constructed via this continual organizational hegemony.
Despite the extensive paradigms shifts generated by the internet, communication technologies, and the Information Revolution, the bureaucracy remains the principal form of intellectual/white-collar/unproductive labor. Structurally speaking, employees within the bureaucracy operate in insular worlds described like one above. Arguments that the internet has dissolved this insularity, though persuasive, are not necessarily reflected in empirical reality. If anything, the bureaucratic structure is more readily replicated via the internet than somehow disrupted by it. The disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance, which are such a crucial component to modern bureaucracy, are aided and magnified through the implementation of communication technology. To some extent, the technologically-aided bureaucracy extends past the forty-hour work week. Now, the organization is in a state of continual motion, the world continual spinning on its axis, uninterrupted by temporal limitations of the working day.
This paper examines the composition of this world, one that teems with life of a material and immaterial character. Utilizing the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard to extend Max Weber’s original sociological analysis of bureaucracy, one grasps this dialectical character of the bureaucratic structure. Although Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy is largely from the perspective of an institutional form, there is a great materiality in it. Drawing in part from the influence of Marx, bureaucracy, for Weber, is an empirical force inextricably linked to labor and the state. Weber’s identification of bureaucracy’s key components still resonates today with greater intensity as hierarchy, specialization, and discipline dominate contemporary realms of work.
Regarding the last component, Baudrillard’s analysis of the postmodern world, laden with processes of consumption, simulation, and the rule of the sign, functions as a way to understand postmodern bureaucracy. Also drawing from Marx, Baudrillard’s philosophy uncovers the immaterial characteristics of bureaucracy. These immaterial characteristics largely consist of a false objectivism instilled in bureaucratic practices. Despite a fixation on rule, procedure, and assessment, simulation dictates the form of bureaucracy where reality and referent are often detached. When these two analyses converge, the dialectical essence of bureaucracy reveals itself, an essence that is self-perpetuating and continually expanding. Operating by its own rules and judgments, bureaucracy is a system closed off from the larger society—the iron cage all the more inescapable with its bars of simulation.
III. The Material Nature of Bureaucracy and its Secret
Max Weber’s account of bureaucracy in the third volume of Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretative Sociology stands as the canonical document that penetrates past the rationalism that bureaucracy seemingly exemplifies into its material essence. Composed in the early twentieth century, Weber’s text is very much a document of its time and carries certain problems that should not be ignored. Yet, much like Marx’s Capital, one can return to Weber’s account again and again, finding something with new each reading.
Arguing that bureaucracy is the most efficient form of human organization, Weber is sometimes characterized as celebrating the bureaucratic structure, but this would neglect the rather striking critical undercurrent to the text. Ultimately, Weber perceives bureaucracy as an advanced stage of power relations. By examining the nature of those relations, one ascertains the sociological character of the structure reflected in “the kind of relationship between the master or masters of the apparatus, the kind of relation of both to the ruled, and by its specific organizational structure, i.e., its specific way of distributing powers of command” (Weber, 1968: 953). Comparable to any other mode of domination, bureaucracy is typified by an unequal distribution of power. However, unlike a monarchy, dictatorship, or any other linear archetype of power, bureaucracy fractures this power across an intricate hierarchy.
Like Kafka’s doomed man who sits outside the gate to the law, access to the higher tiers of power is limited. David Beetham further characterizes the central feature of bureaucracy as “the systematic division of labour, whereby complex administrative problems are broken down into manageable and repetitive tasks, each the province of a particular office, and then coordinated under a centralized hierarchy of command” (Beetham, 1996: 12). The division of labor proves a central feature of bureaucratic control. The specialization (an integral component of contemporary bureaucracy facilitated through the widespread credentialism of an expanding post-secondary education system) that admits one into the bureaucratic apparatus also seals that individual into a particular institutional cloister.
Although Weber is primarily interested in the sociological character of bureaucracy, he does consider the role of the individual. Granted, Weber conceptualizes bureaucracy as a more civilized manner of social control, but Weber’s bureaucrat leads an alienated life in a Marxian sense—not in control of the labor process, but rather rendered as an interchangeable appendage of the larger mechanism. Weber famously writes that the bureaucrat “cannot squirm out of the apparatus into which he has been harnessed…the professional bureaucrat is chained to his activity in his entire economic and ideological existence. In the great majority of cases he is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (Weber, 1968: 988). Herein lies the materiality within the bureaucracy as represented in the bureaucrat’s working day. An ever-expanding apparatus of disciplined labor, the bureaucracy casts foundational elements of humanity aside, refining bureaucratic labor as a working identity. This highly rationalized ideological mobilization ensures the efficiency domination and replication of the bureaucratic structure.
Weber’s arguments regarding bureaucracy remain persuasive today, particularly in realms of culture and education where large administrative bodies now seemingly absorb more resources than the actual cultural, creative, and intellectual work performed by these institutions. Higher education is perhaps the most powerful example as the administrative apparatus in today’s colleges and universities now generate highly-paid positions that could instead be redirected to the fragmented, part-time faculty labor force. John Marcus, of the New England Center of Investigative Reporting, quantifies increases in administration positions in higher education: “from 1987 until 2011-12—the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available—universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day” (Marcus, 2014). However, such extensions of bureaucratic control do not mean that there is no opposition to Weber’s conceptualization. To the contrary, a number of scholars find Weber’s account of bureaucracy somewhat lacking. In an attempt to examine the fundamental characteristics of bureaucracy, Weber provided something of an essentialist account of the phenomenon with some of the supposedly “universal” characteristics of bureaucracy selected without strong empirical backing (Höpfl, 2006). Such contentions again can be attributed to the time when Weber constructed his analysis and the numerous limitations (access to data, the developing field of sociology, etc.) reflective of that time.
Temporality certainly plays a key role in any analysis, and bureaucratic structures have changed a great deal since Weber’s investigation. This is particularly true today as we sort through the impact of the Information Revolution and the network, global society in which we currently live. Some scholars argue that in such a landscape, we are witnessing the end of bureaucracy as we know it and are living in a post-bureaucratic state. One such scholar is Manuel Castells whose work, Rise of the Network Society, attributes great power to the Information Revolution and its capacities for generating new labor paradigms. Castells argues that now the world of work is transitioning from the rigid, stringent structures of bureaucracies to more fluid systems of work that he calls enterprises, defining this dichotomy in the following manner: “organization for which the production of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal; and organizations in which goals, and the change of goals, shape and endlessly reshape the structure of means. I call the first type of organizations bureaucracies; the second type, enterprises” (Castells, 1996: 171).
Undoubtedly, innovations in information and communication technology have influenced the terrain of labor in profound ways. From new forms of intellectual labor to greater communicative potential to increased automation removing jobs from the market, internet technology yields a great many transformative effects on work. Moreover, the integration of this technology has impacts within bureaucratic structures, most notably in terms of fetishized tools of assessment and documentation that have been features of bureaucracy from the outset. Technology also fosters a more disciplined workforce and collapses the identity distinctions between the private and public self. However, this technological integration primarily enhances and expands bureaucratic frameworks rather than deconstructs them. The internet is often linked to creativity and intellectual freedom that many cast in a role antithetical to bureaucracy, yet the internet is not immune to the dominant power relations of a given society. Prophecies of new technocratic labor paradigms that enable intellectual laborers to freely and fluidly interface with their work have not empirically replaced bureaucratic modes of organization by any substantial margin (McGuire and Agranoff, 2010). Even in a digitized space, the iron cage remains.
Nevertheless, while Weber’s characterization of bureaucracy proves to be a useful and relevant analytical tool, the materiality of bureaucracy, specifically in a postmodern world, leads to deviations from the framework. The underlying tension within bureaucracy lies in the dehumanizing characteristics of the structure that are applied to transform people into vehicles of efficiency and the reality that no matter how strong the ideological or hegemonic power within the bureaucracy, the people who work within it may steer the structure in a different, potentially chaotic direction. In Russian Bureaucracy: Power and Pathology, Karl Ryavec speaks to this point, arguing that “a bureaucracy has powers of its own. It is not just a dutiful servant of the state or its leaders. A bureaucracy’s ways of doing things may well conflict with a government’s goals, priorities, or intended pace of work” (Ryavec, 2003: 81). Such contentions (and the material exemplars that realize them as in the case with Soviet bureaucracy) illustrate that the bureaucracy’s claim to a rationalized neutrality—a claim that distinguishes from other power structures—is rather dubious. As a dominant power relation, the bureaucracy’s motion is dictated by a complex assemblage of forces, governed by the dominant parties within the hierarchy, that maneuver a bureaucracy toward larger organizational and personal gain.
Weber’s essentialist account of bureaucracy typically precludes such aberrations with one crucial exemption. Extending the efficient pragmatism of a hierarchical organization structure to a somewhat darker place, Weber considers the insularity within bureaucracy to a crucial characteristic. In order to protect this insularity, secrecy (or the dissolution of transparency) becomes a powerful currency within bureaucratic structures. To this point, Weber argues that bureaucracy maintains its superiority over other organizational forms by “keeping secret its knowledge and intentions. Bureaucratic administration always tends to exclude the public, to its knowledge, and action from criticism as well as it can” (Weber, 1968: 992). One can interpret the implications of this argument in many different ways. Some may argue that within bureaucracies, some degree of secrecy is necessary (or at the very least, a necessary evil), and such a practice holds implications regarding understanding bureaucracy. However, when considering the incredible power corporations hold or the profound implications of secrecy when governmental bureaucracies like the NSA are involved, this feature becomes of pivotal interest.
If one were to ascertain the meaning of bureaucracy following Weber’s blueprint, the meaning of bureaucracy is characterized by its continual subversion of meaning. The ontology of the bureaucracy is intentionally indecipherable. Of course, there is a great body of existing contending otherwise. Bureaucracy fetishizes documentation and reporting. Now more than ever, the business of reporting tools and statistical analysis becomes an appendage of bureaucracy. Corporations must report on company performance to their shareholders. Governments provide mountains of unclassified documentation for public consumption. However, the essence of bureaucracy is not ascertainable through its own meta-discourse because much of this discourse is separated from the reality of bureaucracy. In considering this contention further, the work of Jean Baudrillard becomes a crucial analytical device, for bureaucracy largely exists in a world of its simulation where rhetoric and reality run parallel, but never converge.
IV. The Portal to Nowhere
The common thread linking Max Weber and Jean Baudrillard is the influence of Karl Marx. Both theorists had a similar relation to Marx in that Weber and Baudrillard admired portions of Marxist theory and were clearly influenced by Marx, yet were critical of Marx in other places and made clear divergences from Marxism. Nevertheless, in discussing Baudrillard’s contribution to understanding bureaucracy, Marx represents a worthwhile starting point. Although Marx did not write about bureaucracy extensively, he did compose an intriguing fragment early in his work where Marx tries to capture the spirit of bureaucracy:
“Bureaucracy is the imaginary state beside the real state, the spiritualism of the state. Hence everything has a double meaning, a real meaning and a bureaucratic meaning, just as knowledge and also the will are something double, real, and bureaucratic. What is real is dealt with this bureaucratic nature, in its otherworldly spiritual essence. Bureaucracy possesses the state’s essence, the spiritual essence of society, as its private property. The universal spirit of bureaucracy is the secret, the mystery sustained within bureaucracy itself by hierarchy and maintained on the outside of a closed corporation” (Marx, 1984: 20-21).
This passage is an early example of Marx endeavoring to apply Hegelian philosophy to social institutions, but of greater relevancy to this discussion is how one can hear Weber and Baudrillard in Marx’s discussion. From a Weberian perspective, one is reacquainted with the closed, insular nature of bureaucracy and the emphasis on secrecy. More intriguing is how Marx anticipates Baudrillard, to some extent, with the notion of the bureaucratic “double” and calling to question the realness of these organizations. By subjecting bureaucracy to an early form of dialectical materialism, Marx grasps the vaporous realm behind the material nature of bureaucracy—a realm of simulation.
For Baudrillard, this vaporous realm is now the only true realm, simultaneously real and unreal. Early in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard depicts social systems as being “swamped by indeterminacy, and every reality is absorbed by the hyperreality of the code and simulation. The principle of simulation governs us now, rather than the outdated reality principle” (Baudrillard, 1993: 2). Within this quotation are the hallmarks of Baudrillard’s theory, his nuanced utilizations of hyperreality, simulation, and code. In Baudrillard’s philosophy, these concepts extend far beyond their conventional territory of digital space into everyday life where the symbolic character of things and the charged meaning behind it unravel the materialist dialectic, so that only the hyperreal exists. At times, these claims seem reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, but there are concrete implications of Baudrillard’s work in application as in the case of bureaucracy. As will be discussed, bureaucracy functions in its own theoretical space, a space often distinct from reality and submerged in rhetorical gestures of its own meaning.
Materiality is still a crucial component of any number of institutions, but it becomes subjugated by forces that elevate the immaterial. To quote the title of one his books, a system of objects still exists in a material fashion, but the reality of this system, interspersed with chaotic symbolic meaning, enforces a certain ambivalence regarding it. In Simulations, Baudrillard conceptualizes this overexposure as a power relation: “the only weapon of power…is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy, and the finalities of production” (Baudrillard, 1983: 42). Writing of political economy, Baudrillard reconceptualizes Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish into a far more pervasive ideological force. The commodity fetish was limited to fields of production and consumption where commodities held ideological powers that concealed the factors of their production and carried elements of social capital outside of their use-value. Now, according to Baudrillard, entire systems are littered with disconnects from reality, but these systems, as if masking these disconnects, attempt to reassert their ethos by continually referencing a false materiality in which they possess little relation.
For Baudrillard, the domination of concepts like simulation or symbolic meanings (i.e., his use of “the code”) do not necessarily replace reality. Instead, this mode of hegemony occurs through an overwhelming exposure to reality. In regard to the Baudrillardian conception of simulation, Rex Butler makes a similar argument of inversion and subversion: “the aim of simulation is not to do away with reality, but on the contrary to realize it, to make it real. Simulation in this sense is not a form of illusion, but opposed to illusion, a way of getting rid of the fundamental illusionality of the world” (Butler, 1999: 23-24). Although such quotations function as challenging mental puzzles to parse, these reflections provide a unique way for understanding capital and its connected organizations like bureaucracy.
Baudrillard writes about the three (potentially four) orders of simulacra, each order submerging society deeper into the logic of simulation. The first order, that of counterfeit, predates capital and is merely a lie, a duplication that endeavors to recreate the original. The second order, that of mass production, comes from the age of industrial capital. This order initiatively proves exponentially more influential as mass collections of laborers recreate the commodity again and again in production, the prototype and the replica essentially the same. The third order, that of pure simulation, is aligned with our current age. The third order of simulacra is the product of advanced technology where only the simulation exists; signifier possesses no signified to refer to. The internet is perhaps the most crystalized example of this order as the digital realm of the internet and its wonders bears little semblance to the servers and hardware—the material factors—that give it life.
What becomes interesting is how bureaucracy fits into the second and third orders of simulacra. Bureaucracy, as an institutional form, has progressed through the nineteenth (one can argue before), twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It has expanded and proliferated throughout other spheres of organized activity and has readily appropriated the technological dynamism of its particular age. However, like the order of simulacra, bureaucracy’s increased power and pervasiveness evolves hand-in-hand with an increasing disconnection from, as Marx originally contended, the “real” state. Bureaucracy of the second order was period of intense duplication. For Baudrillard, the second order of simulacra began at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the birth of the modern factory, where commodities were replicated in cycles of mass production. Bureaucracy, an appendage to capital that functioned as a bourgeois mode of production management, operated largely in the realm of sign duplication, a meta-conversation that bureaucracy had with itself. Weber’s squirming bureaucrats and Melvillean scriveners replicated reports on the embryonic world of modern capital, the bureaucratic apparatus itself replicating as these laborers doubled to meet the demands of an expanding structure.
The third order of simulacra is the period of pure simulation. Again, technological dynamism is a crucial feature of this order, for like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we cannot necessarily grasp or control the near-limitless complexity of the internet age. Simulation overtakes originality; generated meaning usurps actual meaning. Bureaucracy of this third order raises bureaucratic meaning to a dominant force within the bureaucracy, despite this meaning often being completely separated from reality. Aided by metrics, statistics, and other forms of computer-aided analytics, bureaucracy of the third order produces a vast wealth of information and data that may not reflect the material system. Additionally, new positions arise from the fabric of the bureaucracy itself, ones that actually hinder the efficiency of bureaucracy instead of facilitating it. Perhaps the most telling example of this order of bureaucracy is in the financial sector, a collection of bureaucratic firms that has become so contorted and twisted by the avalanche of data that it merely functions as an institution within a whirlwind—unable to steer it, only react to its vicissitudes.
The intriguing question is the extent to which bureaucracy is a symptom or a cause for the dislocations with understanding what is real. Baudrillard argues that this sense of dislocation reaches beyond work and production into nearly every facet of society. In The Deconstruction of Baudrillard, Aleksander Santrac discusses how far Baudrillard perceived the rule of simulation in contemporary life: “striving for universal and sense, we reach fatal triviality and nonsense; in the absence of meaning, we are left to seek it. There is no coherence or universal purpose.
Baudrillard’s final conclusion is that there is no real, no value, and no law” (Santrac, 2005: 27). At first glance, the overwhelming tide of negation in Baudrillard’s work appears utterly irreconcilable to bureaucracy. Returning to Weber, the essence of bureaucracy lies in its universal purpose and coherence, its continual rational insistence on rules and procedures, and its ability to make sense. Regarding this last item, bureaucracy is a structure of meaning making via fragmentation. Through the division of labor, a task formerly overwhelming to one individual, a group, or an entire state is divided and subdivided to foundational parts. The communicative network among these parts can then sift through the white noise of complexity, generating the meaning necessary to complete the task. This process is one of the reason Weber had faith in bureaucracy as a monolith of rationalism. Bureaucracy is a grand testament to human reason. For all its flaws, the United States government and its sprawling bureaucracy keeps a country as expansive and diverse as the U.S. moving—perhaps not always in the best direction, but to move such a chaotic mass in any one relative direction is rather incredible feat that we often take for granted.
What Baudrillard accomplishes—akin to what Marx accomplished with capital—is the problematic side of such institutions, despite their marvels. The rationalist coherence and purpose that makes bureaucracy so powerful can be called into question, for at its very core, bureaucracy is a pivotal lever in moving from the second order of simulacra to the third. At its very foundation is simulation, the imaginary world that Marx alluded to spreading outward. In the “Vanishing Point of Communication,” Baudrillard, in some sense, points to the expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus: “when we speak of communication, it is because there is no communication any more. The social body is no longer conductive, relations are no longer regulated by informal consensus, the communion of meaning is lost. That is why we must produce a formal apparatus, a collective artefact, a huge network of information that assumes the circulation of meaning” (Baudrillard, 2009: 16-17).
Again, Baudrillard’s perspective of intense negation is intertwined with structures of domination that enforce the very meaning that is negated. The formal apparatus, a bureaucratic structure, acts as a substitute for community and communication within it. It is a simulation of the highest form, one that bears little connection to the archetype, yet wields greater credibility. By lending great power to the structure, by instilling within it a vast framework of rules, the rational artifice swells with meanings that are indecipherable—a new leviathan.
V. Dialectics of Determinacy in Bureaucratic Systems
A Baudrillardian account of bureaucracy finds its essence in simulation, real and hyperreal oscillating ambivalently back and forth. This essence proves replicated in the laboring force within bureaucracy and the inner workings of the institution that it produces. Always prepared to argue with Marx, Baudrillard, in Symbolic Exchange and Death, moves labor outside the realm of alienated production into a different estranged territory: “this is because labour is not a power, it has become one sign amongst many. Like every other sign, it produces and consumes itself. It is exchanged against non-labour, leisure, in accordance with a total equivalence, it is commutable with every sector of life. No more or less ‘alienated,’ it is no longer a unique, historical ‘praxis’ giving rise to unique social relations” (Baudrillard, 1993: 10). Here, Baudrillard takes all the crucial characteristics of labor that Marx painstakingly detailed in his voluminous writings and subjects it to rigorous deconstruction. Instead of the creator of value, the revolutionary agent, or the preeminent subject of history, labor is subsumed in the miasma of symbolic logic, devoid of Marxian precedence.
This controversial account of labor and the working class should not be perceived as all –encompassing. If considered as such, one can take Baudrillard to task on numerous charges, most notably that he neglects the very real exploitative machinations of capital and the material nature of inequality that enforces a great many problems of the working class. However, this omission does not render Baudrillard’s claim meritless, for there is considerable value of this account when considering particular structures of labor like bureaucracy. Bureaucratic labor, in most instances, does not produce value in a Marxist sense. Despite often managing production from afar or reporting on it in a symbolic manner, bureaucrats do not produce commodities, but rather are auxiliary contributors to the political economy with varying degrees of necessity.
Additionally, the bureaucrat’s position within the proletariat is a tenuous one. No one has mistaken the bureaucrat for a revolutionary subject (besides, other bureaucrats). Often well-paid and not coerced into the harsh conditions of the factory, bureaucrats are not galvanized through their exploitation. That is not to contend that the bureaucrat’s labor is devoid of a variant of Marxian alienation. To the contrary, one can read the bureaucracy as the symbolic correlative to the factory. Similar principles of alienation dominate bureaucratic labor: the division of labor, the replication of tasks, and the appropriation of what the bureaucrat produces. In this sense, the bureaucracy operates beside the factory, governed by similar principles, but producing, in lieu of commodities, Baudrillardian code.
The identity of the bureaucrat is also influenced by this determination. Weber indicates that in the name of efficiency, there must be an impersonal quality to bureaucracy. The self becomes absorbed into a larger institutional identity. In “Postmodernism, Bureaucracy, and Democracy,” Ralph Hummel and Camilla Stivers speak to this notion from the perspective of social interaction: “we-relations are no longer possible in bureaucracy; instead, interaction is completely subsumed under rule-defined roles. The reification of bureaucracy makes it appear to human beings that they are the product of bureaucratic action rather than the reverse” (Hummel and Stivers, 2010: 329-330). Weber’s bureaucratic characteristics (hierarchy, secrecy, complexity) seemingly give bureaucracy a life of its own; the bureaucratic wheels continue spinning, masking the notion that the workers are the ones producing the system. The institutional self further contributes to this reification. The bureaucrat, in essence, strips away the elements of his or her identity in order to better facilitate the work, personal life and work life enforced by strict boundaries. This is Weber’s conception of the bureaucratic world, one that, when considering the work of Baudrillard, has become more expansive. Now there is a dissolution between the private and the pubic self. The individual is a representative of the organization twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Being required to answer work related emails and calls at home, being fired for controversial activity on social media, the postmodern bureaucracy is one that extends outside of the office, the institutional identity now a permanent feature of one’s ontology.
Bureaucracy, above all else, is an institution of control. Agricultural institutions are dependent on the whims of nature. The modern (and postmodern) factory, despite serving as the archetypal structure for controlling human labor and production, is subject to modes of chaos: machinery breaks down, workers strike, and the larger organization, though controlled, is secondary to the commodities being produce. Bureaucracy—although not without limitation—is a more disciplined structure of labor. Workers are better-paid and are keener to advance in the system as opposed to rallying against it. The office is a more controlled environment than the factory or farm. Most important, within bureaucracy, maintaining the organization is the top priority as opposed to production.
The bureaucratic environment merges with the ideological system, creating a seamless institution of control. In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard creates a blueprint for this process: “the dissociation of every complex subject-object relation into simple, analytic, rational elements that can be recombined in functional ensembles and which then take on status as the environment. For it is only on that basis that man is separated from something he calls the environment, and confronted with task of controlling it” (Baudrillard, 1981: 187). Bureaucratic spatiality is as calculated as its ideological forces, each contributing to the other’s creation. Baudrillard first speaks of the ideological motions of rational institutions like bureaucracy, the reduction of complex relations into easily comprehended parts that can then be reconstituted as a means to an end. This occurs not only bureaucracy, but in any number of environments. When a natural space is converted into an oil field, ecological systems are discarded in order to focus on oil extraction, and the land is reimagined specifically for this purpose. A school can be a dynamic environment of organic learning, but when discipline and test scores become the exclusive aims, the entire space and its epistemology are simplified for these purposes. Bureaucratic spaces are no different. Assessment and evaluation—effectively extensions of labor surveillance—determine the physical and technological shape of the office. Discipline and procedure become the principal aims of bureaucracies, all in the name of controlling not only the environment, but the labor with it.
However, this reoccurring notion of control reveals the pivotal contradiction of bureaucracy, one that Weber only alludes to. For this control, while the primary objective of bureaucracy, does not materialize as an absolute power. In the quotation above, Baudrillard characterizes the task of controlling any environment as a confrontation. Weber’s allusion to the necessity of secrecy as primary level in bureaucratic management carries within it a chaotic subtext. In “Organizational Expertise and Bureaucratic Control: Behavioral Science as Managerial Ideology,” Frank Fischer points to potential causes for the secrecy fetish within bureaucratic management:
“In programmatic terms, human relations ideology masks a strategy to stabilize or legitimate managerial authority and domination. Through the manipulation of the organization’s psychological climate, the purpose is to promote an atmosphere of attitude of loyalty to management. Although never stated formally, the specific objective is to blur the worker’s consciousness of general issues of power, authority, and class; particular unjust practices; and repression” (Fischer, 2010: 187).
Much like the division of labor reinforces capitalist alienation, bureaucratic hierarchy reinforces its ideology for the purposes of control. The important question is why is this insistence on control a necessary feature of bureaucracy? In sites of production, alienation and other forms of capitalist control of labor are clearly linked to producing more commodities at a reduced cost, generating profit. The bureaucracy rarely produces value, so this line of argumentation does not apply as readily. However, another ramification of the division of labor proves to be a more satisfactory correlative to bureaucracy. The division of labor prevents direct communication among the entire working body, ensuring a more disciplined workforce that is less likely to upend the exploitative productive process.
Bureaucracy employs discipline in a similar way: to ensure its maintenance and continuation. Fischer locates the objectives of bureaucratic control in purposes of masking class relations and other issues of power that could threaten the bureaucratic system. In “Forms of Control in the Labor Process: An Historical Analysis,” Richard Edwards discusses how the historical trend in bureaucratic management is to make workplace hierarchical authority “invisible, submerged and embedded in the structure and organization of the firm, rather than visible and openly manifest in personal, arbitrary power” (Edwards, 1984: 108). As in Weber’s original analysis of nascent bureaucratic structures, control in bureaucracy is embedded more so than explicit, a Foucauldian power relation that instills organizational discipline in order to maintain and expand the structure. Returning to Kafka’s doomed man before the law, the lack of understanding pervades not only the man, but the first gatekeeper, the lowest level bureaucratic who cannot even stand the sight of the monstrous third gatekeeper who is but another checkpoint in an infinite bureaucratic spiral.
These postulations make the pivotal contradiction in bureaucratic essence clearer. For bureaucracy to overcome the confrontation of control, it is dependent on secrecy and hierarchical indetermination—a gesture towards unknowing that defies the rational essence of bureaucracy, dragging it into Baudrillardian hyperreality. Baudrillard writes in Fatal Theories about how digital networks submerge information in form of metaphysical ambivalence: “an immense uncertainty is all that remains from the sophistication of networks of communication and information—the undecidability of knowing whether there is real knowledge in there or not, whether there is any real form of exchange or not” (Baudrillard, 2009: 22). Extending this argument to the material network of bureaucracy, the certainty that bureaucracy seeks to enforce—a mass of reported, documented activity, quantifiable and measurable to the most minute component—is contained in a system that belies this certainty via a collection of interrelated contradictions.
The bureaucracy seeks to coordinate activities through the division of labor and specialization, yet that system, augmented by vast computer networks, becomes so complicated that malfunctions are all but destined. Bureaucratic ideology also endeavors to reduce error and inefficiency by subsuming the human element of its organizations, yet greedily appropriates an expanding mass of human labor within its hierarchy, producing more and more opportunities for people to generate these inefficiencies. Lastly, bureaucracies expand into areas in which bureaucratic systems are often ill-equipped to control the external chaos that they are instituted to manage. Governmental and military bureaucracies are prime examples of this contradiction, but this is also rather prevalent in school systems where the bureaucratic apparatus has undergone great expansion. Susan Moore Johnson describes these circumstances in “Teaching and Learning in a Bureaucratic School” when detailing the conditions that are incongruent to bureaucratic management: “schools operate in uncertain and sometimes volatile environments. They encounter unexpected budget cuts, sudden arrivals of large immigrant groups, new mandates from state and federal governments, and constant political demands from all segments of the community” (Johnson, 2010: 284). The regimented, streamlined bureaucratic approach, with all its efficiencies and array of assessment metrics, still struggles to enforce a system of discipline and control when situations are messy. Yet, the faith in bureaucracy, although criticized by those in the trenches, remains unshaken. Even in situations hostile to bureaucratic management, simulation—coupled with epistemological indeterminacy—produces a message of certainty and control that empirically may be untrue.
Simulation is, in essence, controlled chaos—a generated discordance engineered as a solution to the organic complexity and chaos of everyday life. Bureaucratic structures of various forms in numerous locations employ methods of simulation to not only maintain and expand the bureaucratic structure in these environments, but also to reproduce bureaucratic essence within these problematic situations. This means of control is, in a Baudrillardian sense, simultaneously ineffective and effective. Materially speaking, bureaucratic control is often ineffective in that the simulated discordance proves too great for the material of an environment as is the case with military bureaucracy. Additionally, it is also immaterially ineffective in terms of achieving objectives that are too complex for the methods of simplification and reduction essential to bureaucracy (e.g., as is the case with prison bureaucracy, which serves little redemptive purpose other than removing individuals from the larger populace).
However, through methods of simulation, bureaucracy can be immaterially effective in that organizations operate to their own internal bureaucratic logic, irrespective to external measures of failure and success. Utilizing Baudrillard to critique performance-based budgeting policy, Annette D. Beresford argues that “simulation and simulacra…are integral to the performance policy process, regardless of the state, the level of government, or even the sector…Academic accreditation agencies, for instance, generate simulated performance indicators in their evaluation processes, as do human services departments and not-for-profit organizations” (Beresford, 2000: 494). Beresford’s analysis illustrates how the seemingly rational measurements and guidelines, employed by bureaucracies to make policy decisions, are often irrational, arbitrary concepts that are disconnected from the material activities they are supposed to measure. Yet, despite this inadequacy, these ideological maneuvers are effective in generating credulity for the institution. This organizational ethos fosters material effectiveness as the bureaucracy manipulates this ideology to expand and grow—once more, regardless the actuality of the institution. This dialectical tension within bureaucracy renders no synthesis, but ensures its continual existence, the primary goal of any organization. Simulation functions as a means to keep bureaucracies stable in the face of any crisis. Destroy the physical space, and the bureaucracy still stands, existing as a shadow over the ashes.
VI. Final Implications of Bureaucratic Simulation
This essay employed the theories of Weber and Baudrillard to expose the dialectical essence of bureaucracy. One limitation of this approach is despite bureaucracy’s dominance as a power relation pervasive across a wide scope of human activity, no two bureaucracies are the same. Indeed, when examining individual bureaucratic structures and comparing them, a great collection of differences are inevitably going to rise to the surface. Corporate bureaucracy differs substantially (although less so each year) from university bureaucracy. Military bureaucracy differs substantially from other bureaucracies of the state. Every incarnation across time yields different particularities, an argument often lodged against Weber’s conceptualization of bureaucratic forms.
There is no satisfactory response to this argument (besides the question of Weber’s historical position already discussed) other than considering how this argument does not really apply to Weber when one reflects of his larger objective. As a social theorist, Weber was not necessarily attempting to provide a purely scientific study of bureaucracy. Instead, in examining multiple bureaucracies and parsing out the commonalities, Weber endeavored to generate a way of understanding bureaucracy and its pivotal features. This understanding of bureaucracy is still quite valid today as this organizational form (despite contentions otherwise) still remains a powerful societal force. Moreover, Weber’s analysis can be augmented by more contemporary frameworks, like those of Baudrillard, to obtain a clear understanding of what bureaucracy means, even if that understanding is, by the nature of the subject, difficult to obtain.
Lastly, in utilizing Baudrillardian theory and examining bureaucracy from a critical theory viewpoint, there is a tendency to demonize this organizational form. Indeed, bureaucracy is a fairly easy topic to demonize as individuals from Dirty Harry Callahan to your local schoolteacher are short on praise for the bureaucracies in which they operate. To some extent, such characterizations are not groundless. At a basic level, bureaucracies function as hierarchical power structures and this lack of equity, coupled with the secrecy employed to maintain that power, generates problematic conditions on a wide spectrum of degree. Tyrannical bureaucracies have led widespread oppression and death while bureaucracies within fields of labor inhibit individuals from performing their work. However, returning to the preceding argument, when it comes to considering bureaucracy as problematic or even evil, the individual nature of each bureaucracy comes into play. When investigating the essence of bureaucracy, as Weber did previously, one sees a structure that is inherently neutral. Even when examining its hierarchical structure and dependency on secrecy, these characteristics are prevalent as a result of human agency and remain prevalent due to their ability to meet human need. When the bureaucracy is released from its theoretical vacuum and populated with actual individuals, then it may acquire odious capabilities.
Therefore, instead of calling for the end of bureaucracy (which is currently unrealistic) or prematurely celebrating bureaucracy’s demise, there is still a larger need to understand the organizations that we often find ourselves working in and reproducing. This analysis points to a potentially problematic feature of contemporary bureaucracy in which the technologically-driven organizations of the current age have a greater capacity to embody Baudrillardian principles of simulation that expand features of bureaucracy that Marx and Weber formerly critiqued. These principles have a variety of implications, including even less bureaucratic transparency, increased reification of communicative patterns, greater inefficiency and alienation within the workplace, a more profound dissolution between personal and public life, a fetishization of data, and a general lack of meaning and interaction with that which is outside the bureaucracy. Time will dictate how problematic any or all of these implications may become for a given bureaucracy, but as events like the NSA scandal arise, in part, due to some of these implications, the imaginary world of bureaucracy becomes very real even as its meaning lies in a realm comparable to nightmares.
About the Author
Joseph Cunningham holds a Ph.D. in Educational Studies from the University of Cincinnati. He is the coordinator of UC’s Academic Writing Center and an adjunct professor in the English department. His current scholarly interests consist of Marxism, critical theory, and their relations to education and labor.
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