The Epic Bureaucrat

by Corey Robin on February 5, 2015

Hannah Arendt often seems to counterpoise the epic nature of political action, the glorious and distinctive deeds of ancient heroes, to the anonymous and impersonal processes of modern life. Where is the Achilles of bureaucracy, the Pericles of the corporation? Nowhere, she appears to say: we live in an age where everyone behaves, no one rules.

Patchen Markell has an excellent article, “Anonymous Glory,” in the latest issue of the European Journal of Political Theory showing how subtly and carefully Arendt helps to undermine that distinction. The opposition she appears to draw between ancient action and modern behavior, between glorious deeds and impersonal processes, is not nearly as stark as we might imagine on a first—or second or third—read of her work.

There’s actually a wonderfully illustrative moment for Markell’s argument in the history of the New Deal. Hallie Flanagan—immortalized by Cherrie Jones in The Cradle Will Rock—was the head of the Federal Theater Project, which was an agency of the WPA, hiring actors, directors, stagehands, writers, and more, to, well, put on a show. In an article in 1939, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, she captures what Markell is talking about, turning the statistics of unemployment and poverty—and the Federal Theater Project’s efforts—into a glorious and heroic epic. “The bare statistics of Federal Theater,” she writes, “are in themselves a drama.”

So the government of the United States, upon the recommendation of Congress, gave papa a job. The result was an unprecedented outpouring of music, painting, writing, acting, some of it brilliant, some of it indifferent, but all of it together, while probably impossible for us to evaluate at present, significant in the pattern of contemporary American culture. For these actors, directors, designers, writers, dancers, musicians, receiving only the small security wage set by Congress, with no stellar billings and with a press and public at first hostile or skeptical, leaped to meet their chance, becoming, almost overnight, performers in a drama more exciting than any which has yet reached our stage. The bare statistics of Federal Theater are in themselves a drama [my emphasis]: some nine thousand theater workers employed in forty theaters in twenty states, playing within three years before audiences totaling twenty-five million. It is not only the drama of theater successes in what is probably the world’s most critical theater center, plays such as ” . . one-third of a nation . . .”’ “Prologue to Glory,” “Haiti,” and “Big Blow,” together with earlier New York successes: “Murder in the Cathedral,” “Dr. Faustus,” “Macbeth,” “Chalk Dust,” “Battle Hymn,” “Triple-A Plowed Under,” “Power,” “Class of ‘29,” “The Sun and I,” “Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Processional,” “Professor Mamlock.” It is also the drama of the Caravan Theaters in city parks, Shakespeare on a hillside, Gilbert and Sullivan on a lagoon, the circus under canvas, opera on a truck. It is the drama of a theater for the children of the steel mills in Gary, and for other children in Cleveland, New York, New Orleans, Newark, Los Angeles. It is the drama of a theater for the blind in Oklahoma; of a repertory theater, presenting Shaw, Shakespeare, O’Neill, Fitch, and Toller, on Long Island. It is the drama of “Created Equal” in Boston, of “Let Freedom Ring” in Detroit, of “Altars of Steel” in Atlanta, of “The Man in the Tree” in Miami, of “The Lonely Man” in Chicago, of the “International Cycle” in Los Angeles, the “Northwest Cycle” in Portland, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco.

But I’ve been mostly thinking about Markell’s argument as I write about Eichmann in Jerusalem. Particularly, how his argument might be applied in contexts less heroic and glorious than the situation described by Flanagan or some of the situations described by Markell. (To be clear, Markell doesn’t suggest that Arendt’s intertwining of process and action is meant to be entirely salutary or redemptive; it can pose, he insists, as many risks as it does opportunities). I won’t give the game away here, but this quote from a review essay Arendt wrote in 1952, eleven years before Eichmann, gives us a hint of how she thinks the realms of action and behavior, the desire for glory and the reality of red tape, can be brought together in the most malignant ways.


The truth is, as I think Mr. Poliakov’s book helps make clear, that the secrets of the Nazi regime were not so well kept by the Nazis themselves. They behaved according to a basic tenet of our time, which may be remembered in the future as the Age of the Paper. Today no man in an official position can take the slightest action without immediately starting a stream of files, memos, reports, and publicity releases. The Nazis left behind them mountains of records that make it unnecessary to confide the slaking of our thirst for knowledge to the memories of people who were in the main untrustworthy to begin with. Nor could it have been otherwise. Hitler’s great ambition was to found a millennial empire and his great fear, in case of defeat, was lest he and his fellows go unremembered for centuries to come. Red tape was not simply a necessity forced on the Nazis by the organizational methods of our time; it was also something they enthusiastically welcomed and multiplied, and so they left to history, and for history, typewritten records of each and every one of their crimes in at least ten copies.

Ever since Weber, probably Tocqueville, we’ve tended to think of the soulless bureaucrat as the very opposite of the impassioned political actor. In her sharpest and darkest moments, Arendt saw otherwise: not only would the political aspirant have to work with and in a bureaucracy, but in his desire to be remembered for all time, to do something that no future could ever forget, he would happily find himself basking in paper, festooned in red tape.



Vladimir 02.05.15 at 4:29 am

Except it seems that the Nazis , when they wanted to remember and share, didn’t pass around paper but photographs and movies as well as some hideous artifacts. This is how the Holocaust is made real for many of us, not railways schedules and records of experiments with gas. Indeed many of the evils, crimes and plain indiscretions of civil servants and their political leaders are made known not through an accumulation of paper for the good of posterity but from the personal mementos they create or take away, either to share with each other or family and friends.


cassander 02.05.15 at 4:48 am

There are far better examples of heroic bureaucrats than Flanagan. Hyman Rickover, James Webb (not the senator), or George Marshall to name a few. Flanagan could not really fail at his job, his worst case scenario was that his make work projects would be bad plays. The three I mention competed against genuine failure conditions and won. Part of the problem of bureaucracy in general, and progressive government in particular, though, is that as it ages, it makes their like less and less possible by generating ever more red tape to tie down would be hero bureaucrats. One would think that those of the political persuasion to celebrate the work of these hero bureaucrats would worry more about that, but them seem not to.


Joel Anderson 02.05.15 at 7:30 am

I can’t help thinking how all of this gets turbocharged once we have left the Age of Paper for the Age of Social Media. Now you don’t even have to be a bureaucrat to have at your disposal the means of production of your epic status.


Harold 02.05.15 at 7:33 am

Alexander Hamilton, “America’s first bureaucrat”, soon to be the subject of a Broadway musical. So I am reading in the current New Yorker. “America, you great unfinished symphony / You sent for me.”

I don’t know if a Bwy musical counts as an epic. This one is through sung, though, opera style. Which is sort of heroic.


RoyL 02.05.15 at 8:28 am

My Dad was employed By the WPA, in the theater project, and in New York too, and his verdict was that it was the biggest bunch of timeservers he ever encountered and uttterly useless as Art, though the money was handy. However he was a follower of Norman Thomas and never joined CPUSA, which would have colored his opinions. But he was never an enemy of Federal money and was active in NEA grants for local theater well inyo the 1990s. But he would laugh as hard as anyone at equating the WPA arts programs as heroic bureaucracy. I agree with Cassander completely.

Honestly the very best WPA artistic products occurred where the bureaucracy was limited to only one or two individuals, and thus was hardly a bureacracy, Vardis Fisher in Idaho did fantastic work, but the WPA writers project in Idaho was just him. Similarly in Oregon and Northern California the WPA accomplished a lot but the bureacracy was basically an enabler there and stood back.


AB 02.05.15 at 11:25 am

I’d like to thank Corey for turning me on to “Eichmann Before Jerusalem” – a fascinating, horrifying (badly written) book. I agree that the marketing for EBJ as a “refutation” of Arendt is unfortunate. If anything, Eichmann comes across for me rather as Arendt imagined him based on her limited evidence: as history’s most terrible buffoon, precisely because of his pretense to heroism. Consider his (literally) suicidal performance in the Sassen interviews. He could not bear to lie low and keep quiet nor could he give Sassen and chums the answer they wanted (that the scale and organisation of the genocide was exaggerated, that Hitler did not know what was going on, that E had been manipulated by Zionists) because that would amount to downplaying the scale of the bureaucratic acheivement – the will to glory, to leave a monument “to history and for history” triumphed over the urge to please.
Consider the valedictory speech which E recited to his dismayed comrades as a conclusion to the interview:

EICHMANN: … and please don’t try and confuse me on this after twelve years, whether it was called Kaufmann or Eichmann or Sassen, or Morgenthau,290 I don’t care. Something happened, where I said to myself: fine, then I must drop all my misgivings. Before my people bite the dust, the whole world should bite the dust, and then my people. But only then!
I said this. I—and I tell you this as a conclusion to our matters—I, “the cautious bureaucrat,” that was me, yes indeed. But I would like to expand on the issue of the “cautious bureaucrat,” somewhat to my own detriment. This cautious bureaucrat was attended by a … a fanatical warrior, fighting for the freedom of my blood, which is my birthright, and I say here, just as I have said to you before: your louse that nips you, Comrade Sassen, does not interest me. My louse under my collar interests me. I will squash it. This is the same when it comes to my people. And the cautious bureaucrat, which of course I was, that is what I had been, also guided and inspired me: what benefits my people is a sacred order and a sacred law for me. Yes indeed.
And now I want to tell you, as a conclusion to all these records, for we will soon be finished, I must first tell you: I have no regrets! I am certainly not going to bow down to that cross! The four months during which we have gone over the matter here, during the four months in which you have taken pains to refresh my memory, a great deal of it has been refreshed, it would be too easy, and I could do it cheaply for the sake of current opinion … for me to deeply regret it, for me to pretend that a Saul has become a Paul.I tell you, Comrade Sassen, I cannot do that. That I cannot do, because I am not willing to do it, because I balk inwardly at saying that we did anything wrong. No. I have to tell you quite honestly that if of the 10.3 million Jews that Korherr295 identified, as we now know, we had killed 10.3 million, I would be satisfied, and would say, good, we have destroyed an enemy. Now through the vagaries of fortune, most of these 10.3 million Jews remained alive, so I say to myself: fate wished it so. I have to subordinate myself to fate and destiny. I am just a little man and don’t have to fight against this, and I couldn’t, and I don’t want to. We would have fulfulled our duty to our blood and our people and to the freedom of the peoples, if we had exterminated the most cunning intellect of all the human intellects296 alive today. For that is what I said to Streicher,297 what I have always preached: we are fighting an enemy who, through many many thousands of years of schooling,298 is intellectually superior to us. […]
And you must understand that this is my motivation when I say, if 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed, then we would have fulfilled our duty. (Pause for effect.) And because this did not happen, I will say to you that those who have not yet been born will have to undergo that suffering and adversity. Perhaps they will curse us. (Pause for effect.) Alone, we few people cannot fight the Zeitgeist. We have done what we could.

Trust Mengele to take this conception to the insane extreme: the bureaucrat as Christ!

“The event of 1 June [Eichmann’s execution], which I only heard about days afterward, did not surprise me, but it made a deep impression. Was there any sense in this killing? One is tempted to draw parallels, but then abandons the idea, horrified by the reality of the course history has taken over the last 2000 years. His people betrayed him despicably. This was probably the heaviest human burden for him. And that is probably the core of the problem in this case! One day the German people will be ashamed of this! Or else they will not be ashamed of anything!


David 02.05.15 at 1:58 pm

There are several distinct points here. Let’s try to tease them out.
First, as societies become more complex, and especially when they become democracies, it’s crucial to preserve the distinction between the impassioned political actor and the implementer of decisions. Alexander the Great or Louis XIV could make do with a few hand-picked collaborators, but no modern society can be run that way. Otherwise, you can have all the impassioned visionaries you like, but none of their ideas will ever be put into effect. This is also a fundamental part of the Rule of Law: you would not want a charismatic bureaucrat deciding that, whatever the nationalization law said, he or she was not going to give you your nationalization papers because of a personal dislike for you.
Second, these are not necessarily personality distinctions: I’ve worked for personally charismatic bureaucrats, and for politicians with the charisma of a wet tea-towel. Nor are the categories immutable – three French Presidents and many senior political figures began life as bureaucrats, for example. The distinction is a constitutional one, and has to be preserved in a democracy.
Third, circumstances alter cases, and in times of war and crisis bureaucracies (including the military by the way) will need to make use of people differently. My personal nomination for an epic bureaucrat would be Jean Moulin. He was a former Prefect (and Interior Ministry official) who escaped to England and joined De Gaulle. He was sent back to France to contact and unify the various resistance movements, which he did, under conditions of extreme danger, with the classic bureaucratic skills of patience, persuasion, consensus-building and organization. The fact that the different bits of the Resistance were not fighting each other in 1944 was largely his doing. Oh, and he was betrayed to the Gestapo and tortured to death, without revealing even his own name.
Fourthly, it’s almost never a good idea to use the Nazis to illustrate anything. German bureaucracy was highly efficient, and managed, somehow, to keep the state going until the end. But the Nazis themselves (with some exceptions like Himmler) were fiercely anti-bureaucratic, as you would expect. They were a disruptive political force that prized action and disdained administration, and stressed competition between people and institutions as much as any Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire today. Thus, individuals and organizations were given overlapping and competing responsibilities, and encouraged to fight each other so that the smartest and strongest would win.
Any sort of coherent planning was thus impossible. Hitler, for example, never read anything, and gave oral instructions which his staff had to try to make sense of. Nazi Germany resembles, in fact, a parody of the distinction that Arendt is supposed to be making (although she clearly had little understanding of politics or government) in which a shambolic and often incoherent charismatic leadership had to coexist with a highly capable, if often unimaginative bureaucracy. No wonder the result was often a kind of sick farce.
This is why there is often a mass of information at ground level, but no record of how and why major decisions were taken. Somebody, or several somebodies, must have decided in the winter of 1941/42 that the unprecedented number of Red Army prisoners who had been captured could not be fed, and so had to be killed or just left to die of hunger and cold (around three million apparently died in this way). But there was no meeting that decided this.
Even Operation Reinhard, the killing of about two million Polish Jews in 1942/43, which is what most people think of first when they hear mention of “The Holocaust” was based on verbal orders only from Himmler, and conducted in great secrecy using an almost entirely non-German workforce to construct the camps and carry out the killings. The camps were destroyed afterwards, and much of what happened has had to be reconstructed by historians from fragmentary recollections.


bianca steele 02.05.15 at 3:22 pm

Flanagan could not really fail at his job



Bruce Wilder 02.05.15 at 4:14 pm

Markell, from the essay’s precis:

The essay argues that, for Arendt, a conception of action adequate to the scale of modern social power must somehow be both indelibly tied to individual deeds and immersed in a processual field that is indifferent to the needs for meaning or purpose or satisfaction that individuals bring to what they do; and that Arendt’s engagement with this problem both complicates the relation of action to its supposed opposites, and makes it more difficult to conceive of action’s recovery as a reliable source of theoretical or political redemption.

Do we suppose actions to have opposites? recovery?


LFC 02.05.15 at 4:15 pm

David @6
German bureaucracy was highly efficient, and managed, somehow, to keep the state going until the end. But the Nazis themselves (with some exceptions like Himmler) were fiercely anti-bureaucratic…. Hitler, for example, never read anything….

Hitler certainly did read things. He read memos. Indeed, I recall reading somewhere reputable, can’t recall exactly where, that memos to Hitler were often typed on a large-font typewriter b/c he needed reading glasses but often didn’t want to wear them. (That was the gist, at any rate.) This doesn’t necessarily undercut your broader point, but the statement that Hitler never read anything is hyperbole at best.


LFC 02.05.15 at 4:19 pm

Do we suppose actions to have opposites? recovery?

Bruce, it’s not actions (plural), it’s action (singular). Easy to tell you’re an economist, not a political theorist. ;) [for those who are tone-deaf, this is friendly kidding, ok?]


Bruce Wilder 02.05.15 at 4:36 pm

So, we may suppose an action to have multiple opposites? Or, is it the abstract ideal of action that we suppose to have abstract or particular opposites? recovery?


LFC 02.05.15 at 4:57 pm

Bruce @11: It’s closer to the second. “Action” has a particular meaning in Arendt, and the article’s precis presupposes that the reader knows that. (As to what that meaning is, I’m not the best person to explain it and will let someone else do so).


john c. halasz 02.05.15 at 5:03 pm


“Action”, (which is basically a translation of “praxis”), is distinguished by Arendt from work and labor, on the one hand, and theoretical activity, whether speculative thinking or technical analysis, on the other. So “contrasting terms” is likely what is meant clumsily by “opposites”. “Action’s recovery” means a recuperation of its sense in the context of highly differentiated and bureaucratically administered modern societies, to which it would give a certain orienting impetus, an originating and renewing force, hence “as a reliable source of theoretical or political redemption”. In Weberian terms, action is supposed to possess a certain charisma.


LFC 02.05.15 at 5:05 pm

Actually, you can infer some of it from the OP:
The opposition she [Arendt] appears to draw between ancient action and modern behavior, between glorious deeds and impersonal processes…

So when Markell’s precis refers to “action and its supposed opposites,” he’s presumably talking about roughly this opposition: the glorious deeds of the ancients vs. the inglorious, impersonal ‘behavior’ of the moderns.


Corey Robin 02.05.15 at 5:05 pm

Action is one of Arendt’s signature ideas from The Human Condition, which she opposes to labor and work (which she distinguishes between: labor and work, that is). More generally, she opposes action in the public sphere to the kind of anonymous and impersonal rhythms of labor that we find in the workplace or the mindless filing and following of paper in a bureaucracy. Markell’s point is that whereas generations of readers — admirers and critics — have taken Arendt at her word that these are hard and fast distinctions, she herself vastly complicates them, and Markell shows how in fact a close reading of what she is doing demonstrates their intertwining. As for “recovery,” he’s referring to readers of Arendt who think that if we can recover action as a category in the modern world — remember, the conventional reading of Arendt is that she sees action as a distinctively Greek mode of politics, that we’ve lost or are in danger of losing — we shall have achieved some sort of redemption of modern life. Markell is saying that the once we understand how subtly and carefully Arendt interweaves action with these other modes — labor, work, etc. — we can no longer see its recovery as a reliably leading us to the promised land.


LFC 02.05.15 at 5:06 pm

Sorry, cross-posted with J. Halasz’s explanation.


Corey Robin 02.05.15 at 5:07 pm

I see john c. halasz roughly beat me to it.


LFC 02.05.15 at 5:10 pm

(and cross-posted with Corey’s)


Harold 02.05.15 at 5:14 pm

The Emperor Franz Joseph “standardized the servants of heaven, dressed them in symbolic blue uniforms, and let them loose upon the world, divided into ranks and divisions—angelic hordes in the shape of postmen, conductors, and tax collectors. The meanest of those heavenly messengers wore on his face a reflection of age-old wisdom borrowed from his Creator and a jovial, gracious smile framed by sideburns, even if his feet, as a result of his considerable earthly wanderings, reeked of sweat. –Bruno Schulz, quoted in Larry Wolff’s The Idea of Galicia. Wolff mentions that Schultz came to realize as he grew older that the imperial bureaucracy had a dark side. (I would imagine the activities of the Austro-Hungarian secret service would have been an aspect of this.)


Anderson 02.05.15 at 5:47 pm

“didn’t pass around paper but photographs and movies as well as some hideous artifacts”

This is wrong. The Nazis certainly did report their crimes on paper. We have the minutes of the Wannsee Conference. We have paper reports on the numbers of victims murdered at certain camps over certain date ranges. Etc.


Bruce Wilder 02.05.15 at 6:05 pm

thanks to john c. halasz, LFC, and Corey Robin for those explanations.

I vaguely remember trying to read The Human Condition and coming away frustrated — probably I was just too young. She was good at playing with words, but that doesn’t recommend the activity as a method.


William Timberman 02.05.15 at 6:23 pm

May we not read agency for action here — at least somewhat roughly? There’s a great swamp of post-Nietzschean, post-Marxist, post-Existentialist definition and re-definition to be poled across before asserting such a bold equivalence, but even so, it feels sorta right at first glance.


john c. halasz 02.05.15 at 6:50 pm


If you’d want to dip your toes in the water again, the best synoptic intro to Arendt was by a Canadian leftie, Phillip Hansen:

Lotsa people find Arendt’s style awful. It’s really just rather Germanic though.


LFC 02.05.15 at 7:07 pm

Might be interesting to consider some of the issues raised in the OP in the context of, say, Napoleon, where the scale of ambition was huge but the demands of red tape perhaps not yet quite as insistent as they were later to become. The sociologist Randall Collins had a long post about Napoleon about a year ago (that I just happened to notice). I suspect not all that relevant here, but fwiw. (Link in next box.)


LFC 02.05.15 at 7:08 pm


Roger Gathmann 02.05.15 at 8:55 pm

Of course there is a heroic bureaucratic archetype: Bartleby the Scrivener. Who has become ever more relevant as the economy is swallowed by the sphere of circulation, to speak Marxese. The best recent book about bureaucracy is, I think, Ben Kafka’s brilliant The Demon of writing: powers and failures of paperwork.
Speaking of that last name – I don’t know if Arendt knew the Bartleby text, but she certainly wrote on Kafka, whose texts as a bureaucrat working on industrial accident insurance was translated in the 00s. Here’s a nexus for ya!


David 02.05.15 at 8:57 pm

I think Napoleon is an interesting case, not least because he arrived just at the moment when reform and modernization of the French system were actually possible. Under the monarchy, government positions were distributed as patronage, or as a way of buying off potential opposition. The French monarchy was incapable of reforming itself, which meant that it had to go before France could be modernized. Napoleon’s ideas probably weren’t new, for the most part, but it was only after the Revolution that they could be put into practical effect. And to put them into effect he needed an administrative machinery, since, tireless worker and administrative genius that he might have been, he couldn’t be everywhere and do everything. (This had already started before Napoleon took power – the Ecole Normale Supérieure had been founded in 1794, so that the ablest students from all over France could be trained, at public expense, to instruct the new generation that would be needed to run a modernized France. Napoleon expanded this initiative and introduced others). Which is a way of saying that the dichotomy often assumed to exist between visionary leaders and bureaucrats immersed in red tape often does not exist in practice: the two are really complementary. Napoleon is a good example, since he could no more have reformed and administered a country by himself than he could have won a battle single-handed.


The Temporary Name 02.05.15 at 9:14 pm

One day there should be a thread titled “Best Books You’ve Encountered Via Crooked Timber”.


Moby Hick 02.05.15 at 9:49 pm

Would be a short thread. Dan Brown has only written six books.


stevenjohnson 02.05.15 at 10:24 pm

Is “bureacracy,” that is red tape and routine, really a thing?

Does it really make any sense to oppose the clerk to the entrepreneur, save for confusion’s sake?

Is this sort of thing really political or social analysis any more than counterposing marriage and romance? Seems at best a kind of imagery, or maybe a kind of psychology of the humors, the red bile of rule breaking versus the black bile of rule following?

I’m not at all sure that intertwining “action” (ancient or otherwise glorious,) and “modern behavior” can make any of this genuinely useful for understanding.


MPAVictoria 02.06.15 at 12:15 am

“One day there should be a thread titled “Best Books You’ve Encountered Via Crooked Timber”.”

Oooo. Excellent idea.


Harold 02.06.15 at 1:21 am

I am reading (from the library) Werner Sollers, The Temptation of Despair, on the recommendation of someone here. It’s really good.


Tyrone Slothrop 02.06.15 at 1:46 am

Best Books You’ve Encountered Via Crooked Timber

Hmm. Perhaps Charles E. Lindblom’s The Market System?


bob mcmanus 02.06.15 at 1:59 am

we live in an age where everyone behaves, no one rules

I am never entirely sure what Robin is getting at, with his pattern of starting with a generality and than following with a radically right often Nazi example. I presume he is getting somewhere closer to publication, but I can’t quite grasp the thesis.

However, Ikeda Hiyato is usually given the greatest credit for the Japanese economic “miracle,” and Japan, pre-war, post-war and possibly back to Tokugawa era can be considered the successful bureaucratic state par excellence. With one real political party and policy initiatives brought up from within the ministries and pretty much approved without argument by the legislature, there is very little of what we consider “politics.” But neither is there autocracy or even oligarchy. Japan is the place to study bureaucracy.

And pretty much everyone does “behave,” which is partly why it works.


Peter T 02.06.15 at 2:18 am

Sidenote: Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos were all about bureaucracy. What writing survives is all about so many jars of oil delivered, so many skeins of wool received for so many slave women to spin and weave, so many chariots in store. Even the Babylonians left more poetry. Achilles and Ajax were the surf on the wave.


Harold 02.06.15 at 2:20 am

24 & 27, The link on Napoleon is really fascinating. I wonder if he modeled himself on the figure of the classical “heroic legislator”, such as the ancients liked to write about, as much as or rather than a bureaucrat.


LFC 02.06.15 at 3:06 am

@36: Though Napoleon needed (as David, above, mentions) an administrative machinery, I don’t think he thought of himself as a bureaucrat. While some of his reforming impulses were admirable, they are outweighed ISTM by the lust for power and esp. by the huge numbers of deaths (military and, to some extent, civilian) produced by his wars. But this gets increasingly off-topic.


Watson Ladd 02.06.15 at 4:08 am

The British East India Company was a bureaucracy. But it’s also the foundation of an ideal of the British Empire, which one joined by packing up and heading off to shuffle paper in some distant land. Likewise, the soldier of Napoleon (who brought law to Europe and destroyed the ghetto walls) carried out his desire to advance the revolution through moving around cannonballs, canned beef, and shoes.

But I don’t think this makes a lot of sense as a theory of political action. The bureaucrat executes the laws, and even to the extent that policy has been delegated to unelected and unaccountable agencies, a bureaucrat remains the executor of the wishes of another. Of course, they don’t always do what their masters tell them. But it seems strange to locate political transformation there, instead of in political power and how it is exercised.


ZM 02.06.15 at 4:34 am


“First, as societies become more complex, and especially when they become democracies, it’s crucial to preserve the distinction between the impassioned political actor and the implementer of decisions…. The distinction is a constitutional one, and has to be preserved in a democracy…. circumstances alter cases, and in times of war and crisis bureaucracies (including the military by the way) will need to make use of people differently.”

I was looking at a book relevant to John Quiggin’s Queensland election thread the other day — and I only read a couple of pages but it just so happens that one of the key points that was made is that the supposed separation between the parliamentarians as political actors and the bureaucrats as merely implementers is not true to how the practice of governance works:

“In Australia nearly 20 years ago Encel showed that top public servants are centrally involved with ministers and elected politicians not only in implementing national and public policy but also in its formulation and, equally, in the brokerage of interests and the articulation of national ideals and goals. This assessment was later vindicated by the large comparative seven-nation study made by Auerbach and his colleagues in the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, West Germany, Sweden, and Italy in the course of the 1970s.

Nowdays that view of top public servants is shared on both the liberal right and the new (and old) left of the political spectrum, and it is common to both empirical and social-theoretically driven studies of the modern state. Nothing remains of the old positivist distinction, one that defined a whole generation of policy studies from Wodrow Wilson to Herbert Simon, which says that politicians choose the values of public policy and public servants the neutral means for its implementation. Along with elected politicians and some types of intellectuals, top public servants are the ‘switchmen’ of history: when they change their minds the destiny of nations takes a different course.”

Pusey, Michael (1991) Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation-Building State Changes Its Mind


David 02.06.15 at 9:51 am

ZM – it’s obvious that public servants are involved in a complex relationship with elected leaders, that varies from country to country and system to system. This has always been the case (and I speak from long personal experience in different countries). Accepting that countries like the US and Japan are outliers (I don’t have enough personal experience of Australia to judge) the fundamental distinction, constitutionally and to a large extent practically, is between those who hold power temporarily, through elections, and those who are career officials. The first may well be accompanied by legions of advisers and retainers who share their views and their personal ambitions. The second are not, of course, robots; they have institutional cultures, personal views and above all a strong sense of what is feasible. In many societies, moreover, there is a sizable policy and ideological overlap between different political parties, as well as with senior officials and other actors outside government. Most defence and security issues are like this, and some economic and social issues as well. Officials try to influence political leaders towards what they think are sensible decisions, and may try to passively obstruct ideas they think are wrong or unworkable. The idea of the impersonal bureaucratic machine, mindlessly implementing policy, and coming from a careless (mis?) reading of Weber has always been a straw man, quite removed from reality. It’s not surprising that political scientists have finally realised this. But that doesn’t change the fact that constitutional functions are different, and that, ultimately, officials will implement the policy of a government even if they disagree with it. That’s part of the democratic process.
But the real issue here, I would suggest, is not at the ethereal level of values and interests, but in the impact on the public and the citizen. If a government decides to raise taxes, taxes get raised. You wouldn’t really want a tax official, who in private life happened to have strong libertarian economic views, deciding to disobey those instructions in the town for which he or she was responsible. This is essentially what a well-functioning bureaucracy is about, and if you have ever worked in, or lived in, a country without a well-functioning bureaucracy, then you’ll know what I mean.


ZM 02.06.15 at 10:05 am

Well I think the issue in the book is how in Australia Treasury and Finance bureaucrats managed to convince the leading figures in our Labour party (who likely never thought it up by themselves due to preferring drinking and sports and fashion and Mahler to reading lots of math-sy books on economics) to implement what we call “economic rationalism” (neoliberalism). Then thanks to these intervening bureaucrats we poor Australians just ended up with two economically liberal parties: before the interventions of the bureaucrats our Labour party always wanted to nationalise things for us like banks or farms — but after the Treasury officials somehow convinced the leaders to support economic rationalism then our Labour party turned around and privatised as much as they could of what we had of national and state assets instead :/

(Um, the book may not say exactly that, since I just read a couple of pages)


David 02.06.15 at 10:39 am

Indeed, the same sorry sequence of events happened elsewhere. I think it’s clear that Treasury/Finance Ministry officials in just about all countries are naturally and disproportionately given to neoliberal money-grudging policies. (FWIW I used to speculate that Finance Ministry officials are not born, like you and me, but manufactured somewhere centrally, and then installed with robot brains). But in the cases I’m familiar with (US, UK, France, for example) neoliberal policies were very deliberately imposed on a reluctant bureaucracy by the political leadership. In the 1980s in Britain, for example, even Treasury officials were heard to wonder aloud about the sanity of some of the policies they were being asked to adopt. There were other actors with economic interests, of course, notably the media, the banks, and private sector actors who stood to make a fortune. And politicians had a vested financial interest in these neoliberal policies, since many went on to work for privatized parts of government.


Harold 02.06.15 at 12:09 pm

I think all civil servants who are honest, whether they be bureaucrats or administrators, are heroic.

A famous one is Chiune Sugihara


Anderson 02.06.15 at 5:30 pm

37: ‘I wonder if he modeled himself on the figure of the classical “heroic legislator”, such as the ancients liked to write about, as much as or rather than a bureaucrat.’

He certainly did, Caesar in particular, as encountered in Plutarch.


AB 02.06.15 at 6:53 pm

@7 David I agree that Nazi rule was anti-bureaucratic, since bureaucracy is fundamentally incompatible with the führerprinzip.

For me a bureaucrat is someone who uses knowledge of regulations, rules and procedures to exert power. In this sense, contra ZM above, the very concept of bureaucracy is a critique of the ideal of the neutral civil service.

@43 Now this is very speculative, but I’m tempted to say that insofar as one can speak of the bureaucracy as a class, their political agenda in recent decades has been to promote privatisation of services while preserving high levels of government spending, so that the ‘entrepreneurial’ functionary, in his new guise as consultant, contractor, accountant, ‘approved service provider’, can take an even bigger bite of the outsourced pie.

On a chain of associations from Eichmann… I think a good candidate for an epic (and heroic) bureaucrat would be Raoul Wallenberg. I don’t just mean in the trite sense that he was a functionary who acted heroically – but that thanks understanding of business and diplomacy he was able to manipulate regulations and procedures to exter a small measure of political power against what ought to have been insurmountable odds. He was able to exploit precisely that unbureaucratic quality of the nazi extermination apparatus to frustrate its aims.

I’m not sure if it is available yet in English, but I can highly recommend Ingrid Carlberg’s account of Wallenberg in Budapest, “There is a room here waiting for you”.


Yastreblyansky 02.07.15 at 2:48 am

8 Maybe Harry Hopkins?


maidhc 02.07.15 at 8:09 am

I fall back on “Yes, Minister” as setting forth the role of bureaucracy in a democracy. Sir Humphrey was at times very eloquent on the specific details of the relationship.

Bureaucrats can also run an autocracy, going back to ancient Persia, Egypt and (cited by Peter T) Mycenae, etc. It would be an interesting study to see how many bureaucrats managed to survive the Russian Revolution, morphing from Tsarists to Bolsheviks. From my limited reading, it seems like quite a few in the middle ranks.


Harold 02.07.15 at 9:05 pm

The Library of Congress has film footage of an WPA African-American puppet theater project in Buffalo N.Y., which utilized Sicilian-type puppets, made by a local Italo- American Sicilian puppet-maker, which put on a show about Stephen Foster losing his song rights to the Christie Minstrels, a blackface show that originated in Buffalo. The puppet of the enraged and alcoholic Foster appeared on stage, bottle in hand. The original puppets were discovered to be still existing in an attic in Oregon.

The mind boggles at the layers of creative irony of an African American troupe doing a show about blackface minstrels appropriating the rights of a white songwriter, who wrote (but received no money for) immensely popular imitation black songs — not to mention the presence the Sicilian puppets. I understand this film was planned to be put on the internet.

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