Bureaucracy gone insane

Published online 4 June2009.

The idea here is to take seriously the warning of Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and the Holocaust and maintain a tight vigilance upon our bureaucratic cultures — for the sake of a better world.  Here I suggest that, though we are not at the level Bauman criticized in that book, we are still plagued by (relatively mild forms of) bureaucracy gone insane.

Since this trope recurs in a lot of different situations, I thought it worthy of a diary: bureaucracy gone insane.

As a footnote, I thought that “bureaucratic insanity” wasn’t an exact title: I want to focus upon the idea that bureaucracies can be rational entities, or at least that we want them to be rational entities, and that “bureaucracies gone insane” is something we see as a form of deviance.  Is bureaucracy an insane form of social organization?  What do you think?


At any rate, the most extreme form of bureaucracy gone insane is depicted in Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust.  Bauman’s argument is simple: the Nazi genocide against Jews (not to mention homosexuals, Gypsies, dissenters etc.) was not a mere product of violent hatred.  The Kristallnacht of 1938 was not qualitatively different from previous anti-Jewish pogroms.  What was unique about the Holocaust was that it was a product of a bureaucratic decision.  It was modern bureaucracy, in its full, rational guise, for the rational implementation of an insane aim.  Bureaucracy made the Holocaust possible: by extension, it makes modern genocide possible.  And genocide, by extension, was the most efficient way of implementing the mandate granted the bureaucracy, given the (wartime) conditions placed upon it — to exclude Jews from (Greater) Germany.

Now, I’m not going to go all Godwin’s Law on people here.  Nobody is “like Hitler.”  And the Holocaust was an extreme example of bureaucracy gone insane.  But, as Bauman suggests, if we’re going to entrust our society to a bureaucracy, we’ll need to know that bureaucracies are capable of killing us all.  Here Bauman suggests a “recipe” for genocide:

The carriers of the grand design at the helm of modern state bureaucracy, emancipated from the constraints of non-political (economic, social, cultural) powers; this is the recipe for genocide.  Genocide arrives as an integral part of the process through which the grand design is implemented.  The design gives it the legitimation; state bureaucracy gives it the vehicle; and the paralysis of society gives it the ‘road clear’ sign. (114)

Now, Bauman’s warning here is pretty obvious: this could happen again.  And, given the neoliberal “grand design” in the heads of our political class, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.  What I’m going to suggest here is that there are some rather milder versions of bureaucracy gone insane which are in fact going on right now, and that we need to stay alert for worsening symptoms.   Let’s start with:

  1. Military madness: so, what, maybe half of the $11+ trillion national debt is an attempt to keep a bloated military-industrial complex alive?  Meanwhile, the immediate pressing need is for more stimulus, not deficit reduction — so thirty years of Keynesian “pump priming” through military spending failed to prevent the crash of ’08.  The government threw all that money out there, and nobody’s got any?
  1. Medical madness: we’ve got this wonderful health insurance scene here in the United States, don’tcha know.  CareerBuilder.com send me emails: “Hottest Careers You Must Consider In Today’s Job Market.”  Number #1 on the list: medical billing.  That’s right, hounding the poor saps whose medical insurance didn’t cover their illnesses.  Deciding who does and who doesn’t receive coverage, bureaucratic services paid for with the premiums of those who aren’t receiving the coverage.  Number one career.  We’ve got a private medical bureaucracy costing us more than twice as much as the public one would cost, we’ve got the public on our side, and we’ve got a media blackout on the debate.  Oh, sure, they’re private bureaucrats, and public bureaucrats would still be bureaucrats, even tho’ cheaper ones.  Just because it’s private doesn’t mean it’s not bureaucracy gone insane.

Meanwhile, the public bureaucrats are wasting their time with “reform” that will do nothing to resolve the core problem: too many private bureaucrats, and a public intimidated into paying for them.  Maybe they’ll increase the intimidation factor, and erect a police state to force people with no money to buy health insurance that covers nothing with “hardship subsidies” which aren’t forthcoming.  You know, the “Massachusetts plan” of our good friend Mitt Romney, only nationwide.

  1. Abrupt climate change madness: As Joseph Romm pointed out some time ago, the IPCC has rather severely underestimated the risk of abrupt climate change, and for political reasons.  This is why you have James Hansen telling us we need to turn the clock back to 1988 on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  Meanwhile the politicians in this country attempt to erect another “cap-and-trade” system, despite the failure of such systems in Europe.  Someone had to say it.  Take a look at the text of Raupach et al. in PNAS: even amongst enforcing Kyoto signatories, carbon emissions increased.  There are simply too many pressures, political and economic, placed upon capitalist economies and neoliberal states, for them to be any good at dealing with abrupt climate change.  Still, we trust those bureaucrats to save us from “global warming” — expect drastic changes in weather in a few years, with catastrophic effects.  (Footnote: I put forth a diary last year on what I think really ought to be done — don’t hold your breath.)


Just what do we expect from our bureaucracies?  In present-day modern society, they make the decisions which keep us fed, clothed, and sheltered, or maybe their decisions will leave us dead from preventable diseases or perpetually malnourished through the absence of affordable food.  We obviously haven’t gotten rid of them.  We’d like to pretend that all of the decisions made about us are our own — but practically everyone reading this message is dependent either upon a corporate bureaucracy or a government bureaucracy.

These days, the bureaucrats are there to defend “the economy.”   In a world in which participation in “the economy” means the possession of money, defending “the economy” means making sure those who have money will continue to have it.  After all, the private bureaucracies continue to run in order to maximize the profits of the investor class which owns them, mostly that top 1% of America which owns half of its non-home capital assets.  The rest of us just pay the bills.  Never mind that the privileges of economic participation could be expanded to everyone — on a global scale, “defending the economy” means defending a world of 794 billionaires living amidst a bottom half of humanity making less than $2.50/day.

Maybe we could have a society which did without bureaucrats — but that would imply a bigger commitment to real self-sufficiency as opposed to the faux variety which colors our propaganda about the “work ethic.”  (Our work ethic is more like a payroll ethic — nobody cares that I’m working my butt off these days, for instance — what’s unimportant about me is that I’m not making any money.)

OK, then, presumably we want our bureaucracies to be rational — but that’s not much of a standard.  After all, the Nazi bureaucrats were rational by their own standards.  The Nazis simply refused to recognize the insanity which was at the core of their practices, and focused upon rational questions of efficiency, strategy, and so on.  How about if we asked our bureaucrats to be humane?  In actual practice this appears to be forbidden by the application of rules.  After all, rules are made so that bureaucrats can be obliged to apply them.  But would it really be all that disruptive to society for us to demand that bureaucrats, all bureaucrats, be humane in their application of “the rules”?  I’m sure we could devise a way of making sure such a demand be abided.


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