Bureaucracy Without Borders
Who hasn’t grumbled about red tape? Yet while complaining about bureaucracy is easy, understanding its processes, remits and many facets is less so. From the observation that bureaucratization is a continuous process, Béatrice Hibou, CNRS senior researcher and political economy specialist at CERI Sciences Po, questions the logic behind this development and its political signification. What is bureaucratization? Why and how does it interfere in every aspect of our lives? Can we resist? Béatrice Hibou answers these questions in her book The Bureaucratization of the World in the Neoliberal Era published by Palgrave Macmillan. In this interview, she gives us a broad outline of her findings.
One might think that neoliberalism marks the end of bureaucratization. Yet in your view, the opposite is true. How do you explain this paradox?
Indeed, neoliberal rhetoric has made the fight against bureaucracy—with its famous “cut the red tape” slogan—one of its main leitmotifs. What I show in this book, however, is that our contemporary world is experiencing an increase in the number of formalities (standards, procedures, rules, categories, etc.) which, if we stop assimilating them to “state administration” and adopt a sociological approach, can be understood in terms of “bureaucracy”. From this point of view, bureaucratization is one facet of neoliberalism.
Specifically, from a sociological point of view, how do you define bureaucracy?
Max Weber is the sociologist who developed this concept the most, after Marx. For Weber, bureaucratization is a process of rationalization, characterized by the division of labor, specialization and technical training, and assessment by impartial procedures. It expresses and reflects a need for calculability and predictability specific to industry and adopted by capitalism in increasingly formal and rigorous terms.
Is this phenomenon visible at all levels of society?
Yes indeed. In his analysis, Weber stated clearly that bureaucracy is not only about state administration, but rather that it is “universal”. Weber shows that bureaucracy characterizes modern industry and capitalism, but also associations, churches and political parties.
Hasn’t anything changed since Weber and the early twentieth century?
Yes and no. What is not new is the process of rationalization as such, and its relationship to capitalism. What has changed, it seems, and what I try to show in this book, is that there is an extension of this process to social life in general, since what is not directly linked to capitalism is nonetheless affected by the expansion of norms and procedures. What is new, is that the standards and procedures of the market and managerial firms are considered appropriate whatever the situation or event, and must serve not only the sphere in which they originated (the competitive market, large managerial firms) but also public services and government, entertainment and politics, war and peace, etc.
You chose to open the analysis in your book with a clear reference to Alice in Wonderlandby Lewis Carroll. Can you tell us more about the analogy you make between the adventures of the girl and the (mis)adventures, or bureaucratic adventures of Alice, a nurse in Paris in the mid 2010s? Is it the “absurd” that links these situations?
Yes, in the first analysis, it is obviously the absurd side of many situations we experience, as embodied by the sequence of Alice's life; at her work, where she spends one third of her time doing anything but medical work, and after work when she struggles with absurd standards that complicate her daily life. Yet there is much more than the absurd in Carroll, there is also the multiplicity of worlds and logics. There are constellations of rationales and divergent interests that explain and enable this process of bureaucratization, which is not only imposed from the top, but also by our own expectations, behaviors and demands.
Precisely, in your book you show the central role of the actor in the process of bureaucratization as a form of exercise of power. You show that the actors are both the target and the agents of bureaucratization, whether by fighting it or asking for it.
I try to show the ambivalence of bureaucratization. While Alice's adventures highlight the absurd side of applying managerial standards in sectors with other rationalities and principles (in this case, a public service, the health sector), the treatment of poverty or the management of migrants or asylum seekers according to these same models emphasizes another negative aspect of bureaucratization: it is one of the modes and methods of domination, particularly through the production of indifference.
Yet bureaucracy can have its “bright” side, and therefore be desired. Take the example of procedures meant to make actions—public or private—fairer, more transparent, more explicit, quicker to evaluate. Such is also the case when standardization is inextricably associated with modernity and progress, as with the new information technologies; or when the development of procedures and rules is justified by the principle of security, safety and precaution.
In the end, what seems clear is that we are all bureaucrats, and sometimes our own! This was perfectly expressed by Henri Lefebvre, “(…) bureaucracy bureaucratizes the population more efficiently than a dictatorship, integrates people by turning them into bureaucrats (thus training them for the bureaucratic administration of their own daily lives) and rationalizes ‘private life’ according to its own standards.” Henri Lefebvre, Everyday life in the Modern World,1971, p. 159.
This book is a continuation of your previous work on domination, obedience and the continued redeployment of forms of exercise of power. What questions brought you to devote a book to the problem of bureaucracy?
In The Force of Obedience about Tunisia and then in Political Anatomy of Domination, I showed, in a comparative perspective, how domination is not only exercised top-down, by constraint or even by force, but that it is necessarily mediated by the targets themselves, through their needs or expectations, interests, understandings, modes and way of life. In The Privatization of the State, I emphasized how the state redeployed itself despite the impression of withdrawal and powerlessness, a redeployment that was once again mediated by the private sector, networks, etc. In The Bureaucratization of the World in the Neoliberal Era, I crossed these two issues by analyzing the process of bureaucratization both as a form of government and therefore as an efficient dispositif of domination—as already emphasized by Weber—and as a lifestyle, a behaviour characterizing a certain order, and as an expression of an ideology or hegemony, neoliberalism.
To conclude… Is it possible to resist bureaucracy?
Yes, it is possible, although it can often be difficult, if not illusory. To be more precise, I think we can withstand certain forms of bureaucracy (neoliberal bureaucratization), but not necessarily bureaucratization as it is understood in its sociological sense, as a process of rationalization. In the academic world for instance, we can resist neoliberal bureaucratization by refusing to return to quantitative evaluations, or by refusing to fill out forms asking us to assess our production in terms of “deliverables” and other “performance criteria”. This does not mean that it escapes bureaucratization. We can indeed agree to be evaluated by our peers to avoid mandarinat and cronyism in the academic establishment, but according to criteria that come from the world of knowledge, not of business.
Should we resist?
That is a philosophical question, a question of our relationship to the world and to freedom. If one accepts the idea that neoliberal bureaucracy is a form of domination, everyone is free to comply, to resist, or to develop their self-will (Eigensinn).
Béatrice Hibou was interviewed by Miriam Perier, CERI Sciences Po.