Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
They Said It:
All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss. In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor. “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.” Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association. What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance. Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system. The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.” The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death. All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.
Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, from Burke to Eliot, 1953.
THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHIC OPIKOPHOBIA.
Over the last several weeks, you have likely heard and read a great deal about bureaucracy in America and especially about its failures. And why not? Between last year’s Obamacare rollout, the ongoing IRS targeting debacle, the VA and its killer wait lists, the Secret Service and its inability to do much of anything except locate hookers, and the CDC’s insistence that all is well and there is nothing to see here regarding Ebola, it’s not hard to imagine how so many people have come to the conclusion that Big Brother is not only stupid but patently incompetent.
Putting the spotlight on the incompetence problem is a good thing, of course. Our concern, though, is that it actually understates and disguises the real problem with the bureaucracy, which goes far beyond incompetence and can be summed up by noting that a great deal of what looks like incompetence on the surface really isn’t.
To explain what we mean – and therefore what concerns us most about American bureaucratic culture today – we need to start, fittingly enough, at the beginning, with the Godfather of organizational theory, the German sociologist Max Weber. As you well know, Weber has always been a favorite of ours, largely because he recognized the duality of bureaucracy, both its necessity and the threat it poses. He outlined the ideal “type,” of course, but was never what you would call an advocate of the bureaucratic structure. Bureaucracy, Weber argued, was not something for which one could or should advocate. In an advanced, technically oriented democratic society, bureaucracy simply “was.” There was no choice in the matter. High-functioning modern societies have bureaucracies. Period.
A corollary to this is the notion that bureaucracy, because it is inevitable, is also inescapable. He put it this way in his classic multi-volume work Economy and Society, published in 1925.
Bureaucracy is the means of carrying “community action” over into rationally ordered “societal action.” Therefore, as an instrument for “societalizing” relations of power, bureaucracy has been and is a power instrument of the first order for the one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus.
The individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus in which he is harnessed. . . The official is entrusted with specialized tasks and normally the mechanism cannot be put into motion or arrested by him, but only from the very top. The individual bureaucrat is thus forged to the community of all the functionaries who are integrated into the mechanism. They have a common interest in seeing that the mechanism continues its functions and that the societally exercised authority carries on. The ruled, for their part, cannot dispense with or replace the bureaucratic apparatus of authority once it exists. For this bureaucracy rests upon expert training, a functional specialization of work, and an attitude set for habitual and virtuoso-like mastery of single yet methodically integrated functions. If the official stops working, or if his work is forcefully interrupted, chaos results, and it is difficult to improvise replacements from among the governed who are fit to master such chaos . . . More and more the material fate of the masses depends upon the steady and correct function of the increasingly bureaucratic organizations of private capitalism. The idea of eliminating these organizations becomes more and more utopian.
Because of this, Weber warned that the bureaucracy had to be watched; it had to be checked. Were it not, he argued, then the democratic society to which bureaucracy was so integral would, in due time, cease to exist, cease to maintain its democratic identity. As Wolfgang Mommsen noted in The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber, Weber “had no patience for any sort of final solutions for effectively doing away with bureaucratization.” Nevertheless, he worried about the ultimate impact that democratic accommodation of bureaucracy would have. The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World summarized Mommsen’s discussion of Weber’s thoughts on this subject as follows:
In Weber’s view, the key concern about bureaucracy was not that it be replaced but that it be checked, on the one hand, within a framework of mutually limiting power structures and, on the other, by ensuring that bureaucratic organizations were themselves subordinate to the control of individual leaders selected on the basis of nonbureaucratic principles and acting under such principles.
Weber believed that the bureaucracy could indeed be controlled, that its ultimate disposition was subject to political determination, not ideological predestination. This could only be the case, however, if the political forces wished for it to be; that is, if they took advantage of the general basic bureaucratic ethos and used it to advance their agendas. Specifically, he wrote:
[The bureaucratic] apparatus, with its peculiar, “impersonal” character, means that the mechanism – in contrast to feudal orders based upon personal piety – is easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it. A rationally ordered system of officials continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area; he merely needs to change the top officials. This body of officials continues to operate because it is to the vital interest of everyone concerned, including above all the enemy.
During the course of his long years in power, Bismarck brought his ministerial colleagues into unconditional bureaucratic dependence by eliminating all independent statesmen. Upon his retirement, he saw to his surprise that they continued to manage their offices unconcerned and undismayed, as if he had not been the master mind and creator of these creatures, but rather as if some single figure had been exchanged for some other figure in the bureaucratic machine.
The great example of this mastery of bureaucracy by political forces was, of course, the pacification of the German bureaucratic machine by the Nazis. As we’ve noted before in these pages, Hannah Arendt’s infamous term, “the banality of evil,” is an expression of the ultimate depersonalization of the bureaucratic apparatus and its consequent propensity to be harnessed in pursuit of any end, even the most heinous end imaginable.
In contemplating Weber’s bureaucracy, it is worth remembering, we think, that Weber’s bureaucratic type exists as a third class, literally a “middle-class” between the Marxian classes, labor and capital. Weber’s analysis presumes that this middle class lacks an ideology of its own – it is “impersonal” – which is why he supposes that the ideological and political forces of the ruling classes can be employed to control the bureaucracy. As we know from experience, though, as the bureaucratic class grows in power and size, it takes on a structural form that is capable of overwhelming and thus subsuming any ideology.
Weber’s German contemporary, the sociologist Robert Michels called this “the iron law of oligarchy,” which is the expectation that all democratic states will, over time, devolve into oligarchical entities, principally because the complexity of democratic society would necessitate both the knowledge base of the bureaucracy and unrelenting growth in the bureaucratic apparatus. Capital or labor could each, in Weberian theory, control the bureaucracy just as effectively as the other, but the bureaucracy would, in either case, be both statist and elitist in nature, meaning that its own preservation of power and status, combined with its insatiable hunger for growth would, in time, supersede the ideological predilections of democratic governance.
Unlike Michels, Weber did not advocate this oligarchical devolution. Nor did he live to see it, dying roughly two years before the ascendance Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. Nevertheless, Michels’ iron law clearly has some validity. Had Weber lived, he would have seen the oligarchical usurpation of democratic authority in Fascist Italy, in Nazi Germany, in post-war technocratic Europe, and even in the post-liberal United States.
We won’t repeat ourselves here today, but this process of bureaucratic usurpation of power is a subject well-worn in these pages and well-worn in the economic and political literature of the last half-century in this country. It should, we think, suffice to say here that the abdication of policy-making by the legislative branch and the related usurpation of that responsibility by the bureaucracy is one of the most important yet least discussed phenomena in contemporary American sociology. In the end, a bureaucracy which is not limited by a strong and committed democratic ruling class – and none of them have been to date – becomes a ruling class of its own, often with pitiless efficiency and power.
All of which brings us back to the dire news of the last few weeks and the “incompetence” meme that is preferred by the media and much of the ruling class.
Over the years, you may recall, we have come back to several themes time and again. One of these is the resource war between the ruling class and the country class, and another is the evolving new “feudalism” of the post-Cold War American economy. Each of these explains in part the massive shift of resources in this country away from private markets and entrepreneurial capitalism and the concomitant entrenchment of the bureaucratic oligarchy and its allies. They also explain in large part the perception rising among the country class that the institutions of government cannot be trusted, either because of their dishonesty or because of their ineptitude.
In brief, the old Marxian distinctions between capital and labor have largely disappeared in the post-Cold War era, as the New Economy powerhouses of Wall Street and Silicon Valley have combined forces with the bureaucratic apparatus, the mainstream media, and the governing elites to consolidate power and create an insuperable oligarchic structure with greater and greater claims on the nation’s economic resources. The empowered and remorselessly expanding bureaucracy – which the author and political scientist Joel Kotkin has called “the new clerisy” – draws greater and greater shares of the nation’s resources out of the private economy, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the massive government regulatory infrastructure enriches those select few in the private sector who both prosper beyond the dreams of avarice and then return a large share of their earnings to the government apparatus, to start the process all over again. And thus does the new economic oligarchy continue to build upon itself, to build its massive fortune at the expense of the ever-shrinking private-sector middle class, and to ensure its near-term fortunes. Or as Kotkin noted last year, using California as a prime example:
According to recent census estimates, the state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.
At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country — 23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally — worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.
Like medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and doing worse than their parents. . . .
California produces more new billionaires than any place this side of oligarchic Russia or crony capitalist China. By some estimates the Golden State is home to one out of every nine of the world’s billionaires. In 2011 the state was home to 90 billionaires, 20 more than second place New York and more than twice as many as booming Texas. . . .
Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that itself is increasingly oligopolistic. In contrast to the traditionally conservative or libertarian ethos of the entrepreneurial class, the oligarchy is increasingly allied with the nominally populist Democratic Party and its regulatory agenda. Along with the public sector, Hollywood, and their media claque, they present California as “the spiritual inspiration” for modern “progressives” across the country.
Through their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs have made job creation in non tech-businesses — manufacturing, energy, agriculture — increasingly difficult . . . .
If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will be the permanently property-less. This group includes welfare recipients and other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor. In the past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized by property ownership or better prospects for their children. Now, with increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less gruesome.
This new oligarchy composed of the bureaucracy and its corporatist coconspirators has its own worldview and its own conception of morality. We’re not sure that it has a fully developed ideology, but it certainly has a Weltanschauung, which is to say its own beliefs about how the world should work. As we have noted before, this Weltanschauung is rather simplistic, if incredibly powerful. It values non-judgmentalism and “tolerance” over all else, though not complete non-judmentalism nor complete tolerance, only that which fits into the constructed moral code. Cultural relativism dominates the Weltanschauung, which is to say that all cultures are considered equal in theory, although some are LESS equal in practice. The “oppressor” cultures of the imperialistic West – those which are perceived as “normal” or traditionally Western – are less equal, and significantly so.
An outgrowth/natural consequence of this worldview is the belief that the people of the country, which is to say the “country class” are incapable of enlightened thought, unable to manage their affairs rationally or “properly,” and are thus in need of direction, guidance and even coercion from the moral betters, the oligarchy. In 2004, the British philosopher Roger Scruton described this attitude, which is pervasive in the multi-culti West, as “oikophobia,” i.e. fear of the familiar. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto explained and updated the concept, applying it specifically to the new American oligarchy. He put it thusly:
The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.
Scruton was writing in 2004, and his focus was on Britain and Europe, not America. But his warning about the danger of oikophobes — whom he amusingly dubs “oiks” — is very pertinent on this side of the Atlantic today, and it illuminates how what are sometimes dismissed as mere matters of “culture” tie in with economic and social policy:
The oik repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed on us from on high by the EU or the UN, though without troubling to consider Terence’s question, and defining his political vision in terms of universal values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community.
The oik is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism. And it is the rise of the oik that has led to the growing crisis of legitimacy in the nation states of Europe. For we are seeing a massive expansion of the legislative burden on the people of Europe, and a relentless assault on the only loyalties that would enable them voluntarily to bear it. The explosive effect of this has already been felt in Holland and France. It will be felt soon everywhere, and the result may not be what the oiks expect.
There is one important difference between the American oik and his European counterpart. American patriotism is not a blood-and-soil nationalism but an allegiance to a country based in an idea of enlightened universalism. Thus our oiks masquerade as – and may even believe themselves to be – superpatriots, more loyal to American principles than the vast majority of Americans, whom they denounce as “un-American” for feeling an attachment to their actual country as opposed to a collection of abstractions.
Another way to think of this worldview is that it is distinctively self-loathing. Last week, National Review’s Kevin Williamson called it “anti-American-exceptionalism,” which he described as “the common belief among progressives that the United States is uniquely backward and knuckle-dragging in various critical ways.” This sounds about right to us, with the addendum that this unique backwardness applies only to “those people,” the great unwashed masses who are not as enlightened as the clerisy/oligarchy. “Those people” are nasty, loathsome, backward, “intolerant” rednecks. Lucky for them they have us to watch over them and to make sure that they aren’t allowed to screw the world up too badly.
Now, if you look at the list of bureaucratic “blunders” over the last several weeks and months, one thing that many of them share is this Weltanschauung, this attitude about the country and the people over whom they rule. And a critical way in which this attitude manifests itself is in the knee-jerk dismissal of the people’s concerns, even to the point of overt dishonesty and patent condescension. Consider, for example, a recent event that made the hometown of half of The Political Forum a national laughingstock. As National Review reported last week:
A Nebraska school district has instructed its teachers to stop referring to students by “gendered expressions” such as “boys and girls,” and use “gender inclusive” ones such as “purple penguins” instead.
“Don’t use phrases such as ‘boys and girls,’ ‘you guys,’ ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ and similarly gendered expressions to get kids’ attention,” instructs a training document given to middle-school teachers at the Lincoln Public Schools.
“Create classroom names and then ask all of the ‘purple penguins’ to meet on the rug,” it advises.
The document also warns against asking students to “line up as boys or girls,” and suggests asking them to line up by whether they prefer “skateboards or bikes/milk or juice/dogs or cats/summer or winter/talking or listening.”
“Always ask yourself . . . ‘Will this configuration create a gendered space?’” the document says.
The instructions were part of a list called “12 steps on the way to gender inclusiveness” developed by Gender Spectrum, an organization that “provides education, training and support to help create a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for children of all ages.”
This is, needless to say, the epitome of the bureaucratic/oligarchic moral ethos. Purple penguin inclusiveness; good stuff. Naturally, the Lincoln Public Schools responded defensively to National Review and others who picked up on the story. In a message to parents, LPS Superintendent Steve Joel avoided the accusations almost entirely, denied allegations that were never made, and then declared that this was a non-story, caused by “confusion” and the dispersal of “misinformation.” Of course, he never actually said what this “misinformation” was, never challenged, much less refuted the specific allegations made by the conservative media, and never clarified for parents, or anyone else, the nature of the “ongoing training” that his teachers receive. In short, he addressed the charges, not by refuting them, but by dismissing their legitimacy.
Mr. Joel, unfortunately, is hardly unique. Look at the host of bureaucratic scandals and debacles plaguing the bureaucratic apparatus these days. And then look at how the bureaucrats in charge respond to any question, concern, or doubt about their mission. Almost universally, they react defensively. Almost universally they subtly but categorically deceive their purported clientele. And almost universally, they do whatever they have to do to ensure that the backward, redneck people of this country don’t get too riled up about things they can’t possibly understand.
Take Ebola. From the President of the United States to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), virtually the entire ruling class has focused its Ebola mission not on telling the truth and protecting the citizens of this country, but on keeping the canaille from panicking. The President assures us that Ebola is unlikely to manifest in this country – less than two weeks before it does so. The CDC says not to worry; we have everything under control and have a set of precautions in place to handle any eventuality – less than a week before a health care worker in full garb contracts the disease. The President says don’t be afraid of public transportation – even as the CDC warns Africans not to ride buses. The CDC says that you can’t catch the disease through casual contact – even as the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the disease can possibly be spread by coughing or sneezing. The CDC says that the disease is ONLY carried in bodily fluids – even as Emory University Hospital in Atlanta says that the disease is present on the SKIN of symptomatic patients. The director of the NIH lays blame for the disease’s spread on Republican budget cuts – even as his agency continues to spend funds investigating obesity in lesbians.
This same segment of ruling class officialdom insists that closing the American borders is impossible and unnecessary, that isolating the Ebola-stricken nations of West Africa will actually make the disease worse, and that there is no reason – short of racial animosity – for anyone to fear foreign travelers. The CDC insists that there is no risk from Ebola on airplanes, since you can’t transmit the disease until you’re symptomatic – even as contagious disease experts worry about the casual and perhaps inaccurate use of the word “symptomatic.” The President insists that screenings will solve everything – even as it is reported that ibuprofen can beat thermometers and that the thermoscanners are not particularly effective diagnostic tools anyway. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declare that they have the screening business under control – even as “America with Jorge Ramos” reports the following:
The World Health Organization is sending doctors to countries where the virus is most prevalent — Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Fusion’s Jorge Ramos spoke to one of the doctors, Dr. Aileen Marty, who recently returned home to Miami after spending 31 days in Nigeria. She says she was surprised what happened when she arrived at Miami International Airport.
“I get to the kiosk . . . mark the fact that I’ve been in Nigeria and nobody cares, nobody stopped me,” Marty said.
“Not a single test?” Ramos asked her, surprised.
“Nothing,” Marty answered. . . .
Dr. Marty says she was not surprised to hear about the first case of Ebola in the United States.
“If we don’t change our entry method and this outbreak continues to get completely out of control. . . it’s likely to be seen in other countries,” Marty warned.
We are told that there is no reason to fear the flood of illegal immigrant children who crossed the border this summer and are currently being housed and schooled in all 50 states – even as Virology Journal reported last year that the particular strain of enterovirus (enterovirus-68), which has been wreaking havoc on schoolchildren this fall and which is not common in the United States, was found in significant numbers among clusters of Central American children.
Does this mean that enterovirus-68 is the result of illegal immigration? No. It likely isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. And when the ruling class dismisses those concerns out of hand, with no evidence, and condescendingly, all it does is reinforce the notion that it can’t be trusted, that it simply doesn’t know what it is doing. We are afraid that much of what the public and the right-leaning press sees as “incompetence” is not actual incompetence, but the mere appearance of it. The ruling class/bureaucratic worldview is so stiff and so unbending that its practitioners look silly as they nevertheless try to navigate to twists and turns of the real world. Consider, for example, the following, noted by the inimitable Mark Steyn last week:
Thomas Eric Duncan has the distinction of being America’s Patient Zero – the first but not the last person to develop Ebola symptoms in the United States.
Is he a US citizen? No, he’s Liberian.
Is he a resident of the United States? No, he landed at Washington’s Dulles Airport on September 20th, in order to visit his sister and having quit his job in Monrovia a few weeks earlier.
So he’s a single unemployed man with relatives in the US and no compelling reason to return to his native land. That alone is supposed to be cause for immigration scrutiny. . . .
Just to give you an example of how hard-assed the boneheads of America’s immigration bureaucracy can be when they want to:
The legendary Gord Sinclair, longtime news director of CJAD in Montreal, had a ski place near Jay in northern Vermont, and he invited his engineer on the show to come down and visit him. “What’s the purpose of your visit?” asked the agent at the small rural border post.
“Oh, just a relaxing weekend at my boss’ place,” said Gord’s colleague affably, and then chortled, “although I don’t know if it’ll be that relaxing. He’ll probably have me out in the yard chopping wood all day.”
So the immigration agent refused him entry on the grounds that he would be working illegally in the United States. . . .
And yet the unemployed guy from an Ebola hot zone gets in.
Every day CBP agents pull stuff like that weekend-in-Vermont thing, screwing over perfectly obviously law-abiding persons – tourists, businessmen, legal residents and, indeed, citizens.
But the Ebola guy gets in.
Steyn, bless his heart, calls this “boneheaded.” But it is not. If not entirely intentional, it is nevertheless a logical outgrowth of an American ruling class/bureaucratic-oligarchy that values the nebulous principle of non-judgmental inclusiveness over the concrete bureaucratic principle of a rational, impersonal organization dedicated to the impartial enforcement of written rules.
One can argue, given this, that Weber was wrong and that bureaucracy cannot remain entrenched in society and also remain rational. We would argue, rather, that Weber was right and that a bureaucracy that is not checked is a bureaucracy that grows out of control, eventually undermining the very values that gave it birth.
What does it all mean? Well . . . we’ll be damned if we know. Our guess is that what it means is that Americans will continue to get bad information and worse treatment from their government, regardless of which party is in charge. Likewise, it means that the American people will continue to distrust and dislike said government. Changing the folks at the top – either of the elected government or the bureaucracy – won’t change a thing. The dysfunction is as entrenched as the bureaucracy itself. And there is very little that any politician or “reformer” can do to change that.
In the end, we suppose that the ultimate relief from this condition will be both painful and nasty. The oligarchy will run out of steam only after it runs out of money, which is to say that it will continue to grow, to appropriate the private economy, and to treat us all like children until it no longer can. And then it will collapse.
And then we will all be free – and broke.