Bureaucracy is an organizational model rationally designed to perform complex tasks efficiently.
Bureaucratic organizations are typically large organizations, and they are characterized by formalized
rules and regulations, systematic record-keeping and archiving of past decisions, formalized planning
for the future, hierarchies of status, defined career paths (within the organization and across organizations),
a concern for organizational identity, and other features.
Many of these features considerably vary
across organizations, but government, military and international corporations as well as international
organizations (UN, UNESCO, World Bank, IMF) are more or less typified forms. The army and most
churches also belong to this category. The fact that bureaucracies
are governed by rules make them something like staffed with human robots, where rules serve as a program
governing the robot behavior. And as in sci-fi such robots very soon start to demonstrate behavior that
was not designed by the programmers ;-).
For example, scholars and specialists often lament that once the bureaucracy commits itself to a
course of action, it rarely adjusts its path. Bureaucracies prize continuity over innovation and cling
to the prevailing orthodoxy even if that means moving strait till everybody start to fall from the
cliff. With the notable exception of the top layer of hierarchy ;-).
While each bureaucracy is created with particular mandate, like Frankenstein it very soon it
escape the control of its creators and start living the life of its own, pursuing goals that might
nothing to do, or worse completely opposite to those to achieve which it was created. At some point
a new phenomenon called organizational culture emerge. the latter comprises an interlocking
set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. The
elements fit together as a self-reinforcing system and are resistant to any attempt to change it.
Hierarchy, with its attendant multiple layers of goals, roles, accountabilities, values and
communication channels became entrenched.
Any bureaucracy is a political coalition that is designed to protect and enrich
its members (see Bureaucracy as a Political
Coalition). And that goal explicitly conflict with the goal of efficient and dispassionate service
that they theoretically should provide. That means that there is inherent contradiction within any
large bureaucratic organization. that also means that one of the most central problem of bureaucracies is
Principal-agent problem which is essentially another side of
The Iron Law of
Oligarchy. This problem recently (in 2008) get some attention in respect to financial sector:
In political science and economics, the principal-agent problem or agency dilemma treats the difficulties that arise
under conditions of incomplete and asymmetric information when a principal hires an agent, such as the problem that the
two may not have the same interests, while the principal is, presumably, hiring the agent to pursue the interests of the
former. The “agency problem” is an inherent dysfunction in all principal/agent relationships, a dysfunction so powerful
that such relationships can never fully achieve their stated objectives.
. Here is how
Wikipedia defines this relationship
The principal–agent problem or agency dilemma occurs when
one person or entity (the "agent") is able to make decisions that impact, or
on behalf of, another person or entity: the "principal". The dilemma exists
because sometimes the agent is motivated to act in his own best interests
rather than those of the principal. The agent-principal relationships is a
useful analytic tool in
political science and
economics, but may also apply to other areas.
Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent)
and shareholders (principal), or politicians (agent) and voters (principal).
For another example, consider a dental patient (the principal) wondering
whether his dentist (the agent) is recommending expensive treatment because
it is truly necessary for the patient's dental health, or because it will
generate income for the dentist. In fact the problem potentially arises in
almost any context where one party is being paid by another to do something,
whether in formal employment or a negotiated deal such as paying for
household jobs or car repairs.
The problem arises where the two parties have different interests and
asymmetric information (the agent having more information), such that
the principal cannot directly ensure that the agent is always acting in its
(the principal's) best interests,
particularly when activities that are useful to the principal are costly to
the agent, and where elements of what the agent does are costly for the
principal to observe.
Moral hazard and
conflict of interest may arise. Indeed, the principal may be
sufficiently concerned at the possibility of being exploited by the agent
that he chooses not to enter into a transaction at all, when that deal would
have actually been in both parties' best interests: a suboptimal outcome
that lowers welfare overall. The deviation from the principal's interest by
the agent is called "agency
“Looting” is a reasonably violent word that conveys
with some degree of accuracy the essence of principal-agent problem in financial sector.
Perverse incentives is more politically correct work meaning essentially the same. Attempts to constrain financial
looting using laws and regulation, or at the individual level, by a sufficiently powerful moral conscience proved inefficient.
Criminal prosecution is difficult as top officers amass considerable wealth and can afford the best defense money can
buy. At the same time Stalinism-style purges, while definitely effective contradict norms of the modern societies.
Changing situation via regulation is difficult as financial oligarchy controls lawmakers and, as Obama election had shown,
also might well controls the nomination of presidential candidates from both parties.
There are three laws that
govern this process of corruption:
Iron law of oligarchy:
when we speak "organization" we speak "oligarchy". Any established bureaucracy is by definition
an oligarchy that acts in concert and reflect interests of other oligarchic groups in society no
matter what is the formal charter of the organization. Democracy even if present is emasculated...
The Peter Principle
is the observation the in bureaucracies the selection of a candidate for a position is
based on the candidate's performance in his or her current role rather than on abilities
relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer
perform effectively, and "managers rise to the level of their incompetence."While it offers an oversimplified, and probably incorrect, explanation of this effect (see
The Peter Principle), Peter Principe
reflects the undisputable fact that higher layers of any large hierarchy are often staffed with
incompetent people (just search at Google the phrase "administration incompetence" to
understand about what we are taking about). Actually such accusations (which are not always
true) are extremely common in any administration. For example:
A former Pentagon official says the history of the Veterans Administration is littered
with stunning examples of waste and incompetence, and the latest allegations of delayed
care, secret wait lists and multiple sets of books at VA institutions only takes it to a new
In any case within any large organization there are powerful mechanisms (filters) which prevent promotion of competent people
into higher levels of hierarchy, selection of loyalty dominates selection based on competence
and there are well established mechanisms of degradation of previously competent members
as they climb up the hierarchical ladder.
Parkinson Law articulated by
Cyril Northcote Parkinson reflects the tendency of any bureaucracy expand
over time independently of the task in hand. Much of his initial humorous
essay published in The Economist in 1955 (which later was converted into a book Parkinson Law
) summarizes his extensive experience in the
British Civil Service, such as
the increase in the number of employees at the
Colonial Office while
overseas empire declined (he shows that it had its greatest number of staff when
it was folded into the
Foreign Office because of a lack of colonies to administer). He explains this
growth by two factors: (1) "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals"
and (2) "Officials make work for each other." He notes that the number employed in any
large bureaucracy typically
rose by 5–7% per year "irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any)
to be done". When, in 1986,
Alessandro Natta complained about the swelling bureaucracy in
Mikhail Gorbachev responded that "Parkinson's law works everywhere".
In other words systematicperversion of use of resources in bureaucracies is a rule not an anomaly.
Even in cases of indoctrination with ideology which inhibits those impulses, corruption of the organizational
elite is a serious problem as collapse of the USSR demonstrated to the surprised world. Only an idiot
(or PR prostitute ;-) would say that it was angry Russians who overthrow the Communist regime; in reality
it was Communist elite, including KGB elite which changed flags and privatized the state resources.
This is the key to understanding complex dynamics in large organization, where bureaucracies that
often engage in actions that look close to absurd (or are absurd) to the uninitiated, but are always
directed on preservation and enhancement of power of top bureaucrats. One of the most
important features of bureaucracies is that along with "functional side" it also necessarily becomes a political coalition
which relentless, consistently and skillfully fights
for self-preservation and growth of its influence, often sacrificing "functional" part like pawns in
the chess game. As soon as self-preservation
become the paramount concern, the original purpose of the bureaucracy to provide efficient and dispassionate
service ("functional part") is subverted and buried beneath the higher priority activities of providing benefits,
increasing staffing, and, the most importantly, increasing budgets ("political part").
As soon as self-preservation
become the paramount concern, the original purpose of the bureaucracy to provide efficient and dispassionate
service ("functional part") is subverted and buried beneath the higher priority activities of providing benefits,
increasing staffing, and, the most importantly, increasing budgets ("political part").
Tendency of mature bureaucracies to pervert their organizational, functional goals necessitates periodic purges
and reorganizations. One of the first political party which understood this complex dynamic were Bolsheviks,
who under Stalin instituted periodic purges of State-employed bureaucrats ("apparatchiks"), so
that the fear for their well-being (and often life) served as a powerful countervailing force to the
natural tendency of bureaucracy to pervert its goals. Which of course have had only temporary effect.
In the USA similar mechanisms of appointing as head of government agencies by political appointees
(who are often, unfortunately, are completely incompetent in the area of activity they were made responsible
for) is much less effective, but also has its positive sides. The US Congress looks more
stagnant then the USSR Politburo with the average serving term of senators probably exceeding twice
of more the term of a typical Politburo member.
Limitation of term of the
President along with natural change of political objectives serves as a periodic, but
very mild reorganizing force.
This effect is watered down by the short term assigned to the presidency as in such short
period it is impossible to institute substantial changes in top departments such as Department of
State and Department of Defense (which actually has budget larger then GDP of the USSR and is
probably less efficient in
spending those money that the socialist economy of the USSR).
Intelligence community is another part that tend quickly escape the control and pervert the goal
for which particular organization was created. Here natural tendency of any large bureaucracy to try
to enlarge their sphere of influence and minimize the control from above looks really menacing
to the very existence of democratic government in the country as
Church Committee discovered long ago.
To members of the commission CIA looked more like a tail which wags the dog, then as a regular part
of the government, and as Assassination of President Kennedy had shown this is really the case.
And it was the chief of FBI J. Edgar Hoover
who convincingly proved that that idea of rotation of high level executives in the US government has well defined
exceptions. None of presidents dared to touch him until he died in the office occupying it for
almost 40 years (1935-1972).
In large corporation the role similar to Stalin purges can play periodic changing of location of headquarters, as election
of president of the corporation and its board are typically formal and are run by the same clique that runs the organization.
So it is interesting that the term psychopathic is applicable to bureaucracies too, not only to
individuals. Bureaucracies can demonstrate several of typical psychopathic traits. Like psychopathic
managers, bureaucracies often prevent subordinates doing their jobs and prevent employees fulfilling
their duties. The term
is often used to highlight the connection
between corporate psychopaths and modern government organizations and mega-corporations. Here is a
short but very useful list from
Our Church Administration is Critically Infected « Another Voice
1.Illogical Thinking:The lack of independent, critical thinking.
2. Highly Compartmentalized Minds:Authoritarians’ ideas are poorly integrated
with one another.
3. Double Standards :When your ideas live independent lives from one another it
is pretty easy to use double standards in your judgments. You simply call up the idea that will
justify (afterwards) what you’ve decided to do.
4. Hypocrisy:The leaders of authoritarian movements sometimes accuse their opponents
of being anti-democratic and anti-free speech when the latter protest
against various books, movies, speakers, teachers and so on.
5. Blindness To Themselves:self-righteousness.
6. A Profound Ethnocentrism:Ethnocentrism means dividing the world up into in-groups
and out-groups…….in-groups are holy and good…out-groups are evil and Satanic.
7. Dogmatism: the Authoritarian’s Last Ditch Defense:By dogmatism I mean relatively
unchangeable, unjustified certainty. Loyal followers obey without questions…..
key feature of such companies is that do not treat employees as humans, they treat them as animals to be culled when appropriate.
"The psychopathic company has no allegiance to the employees within, just to top management,"....
"A psychopathic company is always playing a short-term parasitic game."
Bureaucracies are bad but often better than alternatives
Although multiple vices and tendency to convert rules into absurd of large bureaucracies are self-evident
and huge volume of literature exists about perversions of bureaucracies, especially military bureaucracies
(The Good Soldier Švejk ), this form
of organization is not totally bad. At the same time progressive degradation of bureaucracies with age,
perversion of goals and tendency for unwarranted extension of its influence and size are well established.
In other words, benefits to the proverbial “red tape” associated with bureaucracy do exist, but as
its amount increase at some point all benefits dissipate and organization became totally parasitic.
Quantity just turns into quality. At the same time strong mechanisms of self-defense and survival ensure that such a bureaucracy can last
a long time past this point. And as Parkinsonaptly stated perversion of use of resources is a rule not an anomaly.
Also level of competency of
top bureaucrats are open to review as strong mechanisms within organization exist that put
loyalty to higher brass first and prevent promotion of
competent people into higher levels of hierarchy as well as mechanisms of degradation of skills (and
often IQ -- acquired idiocy) of previously
competent members as they change roles during climbing up the hierarchical ladder (The
There is also a strong tendency of top layers of any large bureaucracy to form a oligarchy and cut oxygen
for newcomers, and possibility of change. In other words forming permanent organizational
elite, much like aristocracies in the part. That's what
Iron law of oligarchy is about.
So there can't be a democratic established bureaucracy, even in principle. Any established bureaucracy
is by definition an oligarchy that often acts in concert and reflect interests of other oligarchic groups
in society no matter what is the formal charter of the organization.
For example, bureaucratic regulations and rules help ensure that the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) takes appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of Americans when it is in the process of
approving a new medication. It does not work perfectly as it is often perverted by special interests, but
it is better then nothing and might be even better then alternatives. The proverbial "red tape"
associated with truckload of useless documents actually also serves positive role documenting pretty
complex things, so that multiple players have common vision and if problems arise again, data exists for analysis
and correction. Here how John Kenneth Galbright viewed the phenomena:
John Kenneth Galbraith, who took the analysis well beyond the manufacture of pins. According
to Galbraith, much of the dynamism of the modern world could be attributed to the advance of science
and technology, which in turn resulted from “taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly
and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined
with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men.”12
As Galbraith implied, specialization creates the need for coordination. Bureaucracies bring order
out of potential chaos in two ways. The first of these is what people
tend to think of when they hear the word bureaucracy: rules, regulations, and strict procedures.
All bureaucracies make abundant use of explicit and implicit Standard Operating Procedures to guide
and control the activities of their employees. This, of course, can be another source
of frustration when dealing with a bureaucracy because there may be situations not covered by existing
rules, or the rules may be of dubious appropriateness. But even more frustrations, as well as endless
opportunities for corruption and abuse, would ensue if the members of an organization simply made
decisions on the basis of personal connections or individual whims.
Along with the use of formal roles and rules, bureaucratic organizations coordinate the work
of their members through another property that is distasteful to many: hierarchical authority. The
structures of most bureaucratic organizations can be (and usually are) depicted in an organization
chart that puts every position at a hierarchical level that clearly indicates who is subordinate
or superordinate to whom. In addition to aiding in the coordination of work, organizational hierarchies
serve a number of other functions, such as delineating responsibilities and motivating workers by
holding out the prospect of promotion. Organizational hierarchies are especially prominent in military
and paramilitary organizations such as police forces, where observing rules and obeying orders issued
by superiors are of paramount importance. Other kinds of organizations can get by with more egalitarian
structures, but some degree of hierarchical ranking will be found in all bureaucratic organizations.
A final characteristic of bureaucratic organizations is their extensive use of, and reliance
on, written records. It is no coincidence that the first extensive government bureaucracies emerged
in Egypt, Babylonia, and China, places where written languages were first created and developed.
As a practical matter, written records are essential for the preservation and dissemination of rules,
regulations, and operating procedures, along with essential documents such as contracts, tax records,
and voter registrations. What began thousands of years ago with the first scratching on clay tablets
continues to a greatly magnified degree today, as modern information and communications technologies
such as computerized databases and e-mail have extended the reach and potency of the written word
At this point, many readers are probably thinking that this discussion of bureaucracy is seriously
divorced from reality as they have experienced it. And they are right—not
only do bureaucracies in the real world often depart from the above principles, but the imputation
that they are the embodiment of rationality seems quite a stretch. Here we will again
simply note that an ideal type presentation of bureaucracy is only a starting point for further
analysis, just as a mathematical description of the acceleration of a falling body has to first
set aside the effects of air resistance in order to derive the formula for determining the rate
at which the body gains speed. There will be numerous places in this book where real-world organizational
structures and procedures and their consequences for the way work is done will be presented, along
with the reasons for their departure from ideal-type bureaucracies. As a starting point, we need
to consider which kinds of work environments are well suited to bureaucratic modes of organization
and which are not.
Likewise, the impersonality of bureaucracies can have benefits. For example, an applicant must submit
a great deal of paperwork to obtain a government student loan. However, this lengthy—and often frustrating—process
promotes equal treatment of all applicants, meaning that everyone has a fair chance to gain access to
funding. Formally bureaucracy discourages favoritism, meaning that on the surface friendships and
political clout should have no effect on access to funding. Reality is totally different.
The concept of bureaucracy is closely linked with the concept of oligarchy. Any large corporate
bureaucracy is an oligarchy.
Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively
rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions,
or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities that act in complicity
with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for society or environment at
Bureaucracies may have positive effects on employees. Whereas the stereotype of bureaucracies is
one of suppressed creativity and extinguished imagination, this is not the case. Social research
shows that many employees intellectually thrive in bureaucratic environments. According to this
research, bureaucrats have higher levels of education, intellectual activity, personal responsibility,
self-direction, and open-mindedness, when compared to non-bureaucrats.
Another benefit of bureaucracies for employees is job security, such as a steady salary, and other
perks, like insurance, medical and disability coverage, and a retirement pension.
Programmers and system administrators rarely have anything good to say about bureaucracies, and their
complaints may hold some truth. As noted previously, bureaucratic regulations and rules are not very
helpful when unexpected situations arise. Bureaucratic authority is notoriously undemocratic, and blind
adherence to rules may inhibit the exact actions necessary to achieve organizational goals.
Concerning this last point, one of bureaucracy's least-appreciated features is its proneness to creating
“paper trails” and piles of rules. Governmental bureaucracies are especially known for this. Critics
of bureaucracy argue that mountains of paper and rules only slow an organization's capacity to achieve
stated goals. They also note that governmental red tape costs taxpayers both time and money. Parkinson's
Law and the Peter Principle have been formulated to explain how bureaucracies become dysfunctional.
They are pretty fascinating findings:
Parkinson's Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states
in his book Parkinson Law that in a
bureaucratic organization any
work, no matter how useless or even harmful for the organization, tend to create more work up to the point of filling the time available for its completion. That
is, Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow. Which now might be not always true
outside top layers (corporate brass). Still he noted a distinct tendency that all managers wish
to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating paper and rules, filling out evaluations
and forms, and filing. Then they hire more assistants, who in turn require more managerial time
for supervision. Moreover, many bureaucratic budgets rely on the “use it or lose it” principle,
meaning the current year's expenditures determines the following year's budget. This provides a
deep incentive to spend (even waste) as much money as possible to guarantee an ever-increasing budget.
Parkinson's views remain consistent with those of conflict theorists,
who hold that bureaucratic growth serves only the managers, who in turn use their increasing power
to control the workers.
In other words Parkinson law stipulated that bureaucracies have a immanent
tendency toward malignant growth. In this sense bureaucracy behaves similar to cancer cells within the organism. Like
cancel cells it is preprogrammed for malignant growth at the expense of the host, unless special
measures to suppress those tendencies are taken. One of the earliest know effort were Stalin's
purges, when top layers of government and Communist party bureaucracies were periodically sent to Gulags for real or
perceived crimes or transgressions,
providing the very effective, but unusually cruel mechanism of rotation.
Peter Principle, named after sociologist Laurence Peter,
who in his famous book The Peter
Principle postulated that employees
in a bureaucracy are typically promoted to the level of their incompetence. It really
pinpoint one interesting feature of bureaucratic elite -- top layers are mostly skilled
politicians with sharp elbows, not a competent technocratic elite as you would expect. This is
true even in
technology companies. Such a replacement occurs gradually with the age of the company. While
Peter principle suggest that competent managers
continually receive promotions until they attain a position in which they are incompetent the
real mechanism is more complex, although lead to a similar net result. This interesting and somewhat paradoxical
aspect of large bureaucracies suggests an inherent instability of large bureaucracies:
while created to promote competency and specialization large bureaucracies do not value
competency and do not necessary use it as a promotion criteria for top layers of hierarchy. The
drive of top level hierarchy for self-preservation and enhancing of their current status is more
powerful factor even if at the end it might deal to destruction of the company.
In a sense, weakness of explanatory part of Peter Principle ignores the nature of bureaucracies as political coalitions.
It only suggests that there are hidden but powerful mechanisms which prevent appointing competent members
into positions of power. Moreover at higher levels of hierarchy successful candidates are often
intentionally mediocre as they were selected as a compromise reached between two groups
which fight for power. Paradoxically 'faking mediocrity" is a successful policy for
getting some politically savvy and competent managers to the top. Another aspect is that mediocre but power hungry managers are wee aware about this weakness
and try to mask it by corresponding selection of less competent but more loyal candidates. This
tendency is related to Steve Jobs well known observation that "bozos tend to select bozos" (“the bozo explosion.”).
Why Every Company Needs A No Bozos Policy - Forbes:
What is a bozo? It’s a little like pornography, you know it when you see it. However, let
me try to more precisely define one.
A bozo is someone who thinks they are much smarter and capable than they actually are. They
constantly over-estimate their abilities and under-estimate the risks and threats around them.
They typically don’t keep an open-mind. They look instead for data that confirms a previously
held bias. They also don’t handle details well. They expect other people to clean up their messes
when they happen, and so don’t feel the need to obsess over the little things. Because they
don’t have a keen sense for the competitive market in which they operate, they typically don’t
have good judgment in key strategic decisions or when hiring top talent. Instead of hiring the
smartest folks around them, bozos prefer to hire people who blow smoke, telling them how great
they are, or for some non-obvious business reason such as sharing the same college or frat.
In this sense we can talk about Institutalized perversion of "competence based promotion" and resulting incompetence at
top layers. The accent here is on servility as
substitution for competence for loyalty and "politically correctness" as the key
values which determine promotion in large bureaucracies. This is
most common for military bureaucracies. See also
Although the extent of bureaucratization should reflect the kind of work being done, the decision
to organize things along bureaucratic lines may also reflect existing economic and social cleavages.
As several critics have argued, a key element of bureaucratic organization, the division of labor,
may represent an effort by management to simplify workers’ tasks to the point where no skill is
required to get the job done. From the perspective of management, this has two advantages. First,
it lowers labor costs by allowing the use of unskilled, low-paid workers. Second, “de-skilling”
removes an important source of potential power within the workforce. Employees with special skills
are hard to replace, and this significantly improves their bargaining power when it comes to wages,
benefits, and working conditions.15 In similar fashion, bureaucratic hierarchies may be established
and maintained not because they contribute to the effective functioning of an organization but because
they confer authority and prestige to some of its members at the expense of others. These points
have been emphasized by Marxist critics of capitalist organizations, who have argued that both division
of labor and hierarchy are organizational devices used to control workers and accumulate capitalist
Marxists have not been the only ones to take a critical stance toward bureaucracy. Other critics
have been particularly concerned with the effects of bureaucratic organization on employees and
the way they go about their work. One of the most trenchant criticisms of the effects of bureaucracy
on individual workers came from Max Weber himself. For Weber, the formal
rationality embodied in bureaucratic structures and procedures was itself problematic. After all,
what Weber saw as the cultural basis of rationality, the “disenchantment of the world,” carries
a double meaning. Especially in everyday use, disenchantment connotes a sense of disillusionment
to the point of cynicism. As Weber fully realized, a totally disenchanted world is flat and gray,
containing little to elevate the spirits of men and women. As Weber noted in a famous passage in
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a totally disenchanted culture produced “narrow
specialists without mind, pleasure seekers without heart; in its conceit this nothingness imagines
it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained.”17
A more sharply focused insight into the effects of bureaucratic organization on individual workers
has been provided by Robert Merton through his description of the “bureaucratic personality” and
the circumstances that give rise to it.18 For Merton, bureaucratic structures and procedures are
established to get certain things done, but sometimes they become ends in themselves. When this
happens, we may see the emergence of the “bureaucratic virtuoso,” a functionary who closely adheres
to all the rules and procedures but hardly accomplishes anything of significance. Organizations
and their personnel can succumb to this malady for both organizational and personal reasons. In
the case of the former, “bureaucratic ritualism” may be used by organizations as a defense mechanism
in a hostile political climate. For the individual bureaucrat, job insecurity may provoke a need
to do everything “by the books” so no blame can be assigned when things go badly.
A more recent description and analysis of contemporary bureaucracy and its consequences for working
life comes from George Ritzer, who has invoked the McDonald’s chain of fast-food restaurants as
the archetypical early 21st-century organization.19 Echoing Weber, Ritzer describes four key features
of McDonald’s operations: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and the control of people through
the use of nonhuman technologies. There is nothing dramatically new here; “McDonaldization” has
a lot in common with Taylor’s scientific management and Ford’s assembly line. But while Taylor’s
ideas were never fully implemented, and the use of assembly lines was largely confined to the manufacturing
sector, McDonaldization has gone well beyond the fast-food industry. The procedures, technologies,
and managerial values that have made McDonald’s the world’s largest hamburger chain are now being
applied to a great variety of organizational settings: retail establishments, schools, and even
the sex industry.20
Although critics have assumed that McDonaldization necessarily results in a thoroughly unpleasant
and alienating work environment, careful research into the actual experiences and feelings of McDonald’s
workers has presented a more complex picture. The most intensive effort at assaying the effects
on employees of McDonald’s organizational structure and operating procedures was conducted in the
mid-1990s by Robin Leidner.21 In some ways, her research supports the conception of McDonald’s as
a stereotypical impersonal, bureaucratic organization. Although dealing with individual customers,
one of the central activities in any fast-food establishment, is difficult to routinize, this is
accomplished through the use of numerous formal rules and procedures, as well as prepared scripts
that workers use when interacting with customers.
Food preparation is highly routinized through
the technologies that require little or no judgment on the part of the cooks, such as dispensers
that always supply an exact quantity of ketchup and cash registers that tell cashiers how much change
to give customers. For managers and owners of individual restaurants, McDonald’s provides “the Bible,”
an exhaustive manual covering all the procedures and standards to be employed.22
In addition, the
firm requires that prospective owners of franchises attend “Hamburger University” in Oak Brook,
Illinois, where they are taught operational procedures and, more generally, are imbued with McDonald’s
These key elements of “McDonaldization” have served the firm well, although they have been criticized
for making work at McDonald’s a routinized, poorly paid job that requires
little in the way of worker skills. At the same time, however, these organizational
rules and routines can work to the advantage of McDonald’s employees. The well-defined routines
reduce uncertainty and conflict over who is supposed to do what. Routinization also shields
employees from clashes with customers because the workers can defend and justify their actions by
noting that they are simply doing what they were required to do. In Leidner’s summation,
“Depending on the context, service routines can help workers do their job, can boost their confidence,
can limit the demands made upon them, can give them leverage over service-recipients, and can offer
psychic protection from demeaning aspects of the job.”24
Of course, it is precisely this ability to invoke bureaucratically established rules that has
allowed some individuals to justify unethical or even criminal behavior by claiming “I was just
following orders.” Several classic experiments in social psychology have demonstrated the willingness
of people to inflict harm when they are ordered to do so.25 We therefore also have to take into
account the moral dimension when assessing the advantages and disadvantages of bureaucratic organization.
Rules and regulations are an essential part of bureaucratic administration, but they also may allow,
and even encourage, actions that individuals would not do on their own volition.
"Red tape" ... "You can't fight city hall" ... "climbing the corporate ladder" ... "suits" ... "clients"
... "the bottom line is the bottom line" .... We live in bureaucracies which penetrate every aspect
of our existences. We are citizens, employees, unemployed, students, teachers, clerks, patients,
customers, drivers, subscribers, debtors, prisoners, etc. All of these terms can be said to describe
social roles that connect us to formal organizations.
In this course we will explore the nature of formal or bureaucratic organizations. We will look
at bureaucracy and bureaucratic processes in five interrelated areas (see Hummel's Preface): socially,
culturally, psychologically, linguistically, and most importantly, as a political system -- a system
of power. Let's very briefly develop some working assumptions from these five areas.
A bureaucracy imposes, and is characterized by, certain types of social relationships --
typically a hierarchical system of authority -- as
well as horizontal coordination of tasks.
Bureaucracies imply "bureaucratic culture" -- that is, norms, values, beliefs, knowledge,
and even morality that are typically bureaucratic.
Psychologically, bureaucracies promote a bureaucratic way of thinking or an "organizational
Bureaucracies produce their own language or linguistic categories for defining the
world. In popular jargon, this bureaucratic language is known as "company speak."
Bureaucracies are systems of power -- social organizations whose purpose is to control
material, informational, and especially human resources.
In one of his earlier writings, Karl Marx described bureaucracy like this:
"The principle of its knowledge is...authority, and its
is the idolatry of authority. But within bureaucracy the spiritualism turns into
crass materialism, the materialism of passive obedience,
faith in authority, the mechanism of fixed and formal behavior, fixed principles, attitudes,
traditions. As far as the individual bureaucrat is concerned, the
aim of the state becomes his private aim, in the form of the race for higher posts, of careerism."
But the real pioneer of the sociology of bureaucracy was Max Weber. Weber understood bureaucracy
in much the same way as Marx. He understood bureaucracy as a principle
of social organization which historically only comes into being with the modern state
and as he said, with "the most advanced institutions of capitalism." Weber understood the
growth of command by large-scale, alienating, and impersonal bureaucracies to be a historical principle
of development in Western society, in a process that he called "rationalization."
Social organization would, to Weber, become progressively more machinelike. People would, as
a result, lose more and more of their freedom and community control over everyday life. This would
impose upon us the "iron cage of organization."
An important question addressed in this course is whether or not the bureaucratic form of organization
itself and this progressive loss of freedom which Weber described as our fate, are inevitable? Are
more human and humane forms of organization and society possible?
In emphasizing the study of bureaucracies as political systems we must look not just at the "intra-organizational"
distribution of power and authority, but at bureaucratic organizations in the context of larger,
even global political and economic contexts like the state, class, and market. Bureaucracies or
formal organizations, which are for us the contexts in which we live our lives, are themselves contained
in larger and more inclusive contexts of power.
To be able to identify the differences between primary groups, secondary groups, aggregates,
To be able to identify the various types of leaders associated with social groups
To be able to compare and contrast the research of several different social scientists on group
To be able to recognize the importance of reference groups to group dynamics
To be able to distinguish between ingroups and outgroups
To understand the relevance of group size to the dynamics of social groups
To be able to identify the types of formal organizations
To be able to identify and describe the basic characteristics of bureaucracy
To become aware of both the limitations of and informal side of bureaucracy
To be able to consider ways of humanizing bureaucracy
To consider the issue of the McDonaldization of society
A social group is defined as two or more people who identify and interact with one
another. Not all collections of individuals are social groups; some are categories, and others
Primary and Secondary Groups Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) studied the extent to
which people have personal concern for each other in social interaction settings. A primary
group is a small social group whose members share personal and enduring relationships.
Relationships in such groups have a personal orientation. Secondary groups
are large and impersonal social groups whose members pursue a specific goal or activity.
The distinction between these types of groups is not always clear in real life.
Group Leadership Some research reveals that there are usually two types of leaders
in social groups.
Two Leadership Roles
Instrumental leadership refers to group direction that emphasizes the completion
of tasks. If successful, such leaders gain a distant respect.
Expressive leadershipfocuses on collective well-being. If successful,
such leaders enjoy more personal affection. This differentiation is also linked to gender.
Leaders also vary in the ways in which they include others in the decision-making process.
Three decision-making styles are identified.
One is authoritarianleadership,
which focuses on instrumental concerns. This type of leader makes decisions independently
and demands strict compliance from subordinates.
Another type is the democratic leader who takes a more expressive approach and
seeks to include all members in the decision-making process.
A third type is labeled laissez-faire. Leaders using this approach tend to downplay
their power and allow the group to function on its own.
Group Conformity Three research projects illustrate the importance of group conformity
to the sociological understanding of group processes.
Asch’s Research Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in which "naive" subjects were asked
to answer questions concerning the length of lines. Five to seven secret accomplices of the experimenter
comprised the rest of the group. They purposely gave incorrect answers. Often the naive subject
would give a "wrong" answer in order to conform. Figure 5-1 (p. 111) illustrates an example
of the lines used in this experiment.
Milgram’s Research Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that naive subjects believed
was about learning and memory. The experiment was actually measuring obedience to authority. Naive
subjects played the part of "teachers" and thought they were giving electric shock to "learners"
when wrong answers were given.
Janis’s Research Irving Janis studied factors that he believed affected decision-making
processes and created groupthink, the tendency of group members to conform, resulting
in a narrow view of some issue. The Kennedy administration's decision to invade Cuba is used
as an example of this phenomenon.
Reference Groups The term reference group signifies a social groupthat serves as a point of reference in making evaluations and decisions. These groups can
be primary or secondary. They are also important in anticipatory socialization processes.
Stouffer’s Research Samuel Stouffer conducted research on morale and attitudes of soldiers
in World War II in order to investigate the dynamics of reference groups. Stouffer found what appeared
to be a paradox: Soldiers in branches with higher promotion rates were more pessimistic about their
own chances of being promoted than soldiers in branches with lower rates of promotion. In relative
terms, those soldiers in branches with higher rates felt deprived. This research suggests specific
social groups are used as standards in developing individual attitudes.
Ingroups and Outgroups An ingroup is a social group commanding a member’s esteem
and loyalty. This group exists in relation to outgroups, or a social group
toward which one feels competition or opposition. This dichotomy allows us to sharpen boundaries
between groups and to highlight their distinctive qualities.
Group Size Group size significantly influences how members socially interact. As a group's
membership is added to arithmetically, the number of possible relationships increases in a geometric
progression. Figure 5-2 (p.113) provides an illustration. George Simmel studied social dynamics
in the smallest social groups. He termed a dyad as a social group with two members.
What makes this type of group special is the intensity of the relationship. The triad
is a social group with three members. Dyads and triads have certain unique qualities resulting
in particular patterns of stability, intensity, and other socially significant variables.
Social Diversity Race, ethnicity, and gender also affect group dynamics.
A network is a web of weak social ties. Little sense of membership is felt
by individuals in the network and only occasionally do they come into contact. Most networks are
secondary in nature. Demographic characteristics such as age, education, and residence influence
the likelihood of a person's involvement in networks.
Today our lives seem focused around formal organizations, or large, secondary groups
that are organized to achieve their goals efficiently.
Types of Formal Organizations Amitai Etzioni uses the variable of how members relate to the
organization as a criterion for distinguishing three types of formal organizations. The first is termed
a normative organization.
People join this type of organization to pursue some goal they consider morally worthwhile. These
are sometimes also called voluntary associations. The second type is referred to as a coercive
organization. These serve as a form of punishment (prisons) and treatment (mental hospitals). The
third type identified are utilitarian organizations. These organizations provide material benefits
in exchange for labor.
Origins of Bureaucracy Formal organizations date back thousands of years. Max Weber suggested
that tradition, referring to sentiments and beliefs about the world passed from generation
to generation, dominated the world view in preindustrialized societies. Focus was on the past, and
so organizational efficiency was not of great concern.
Characteristics of Bureaucracies
Bureaucracy is an organizational model rationally designed to perform complex tasks
efficiently. The telephone system in the United States is discussed to illustrate a bureaucratic
system. Max Weber identified six basic characteristics or elements of the ideal bureaucracy. These
include: specialization, hierarchy of offices, rules and regulations, technical competence, impersonality,
and formal written communications. Each of these characteristics is defined.
Organizational Environment refers to outside factors such as technology, economic and
political trends, population patterns and other organizations that affect the operation of organizations.
The Informal Side of Bureaucracy While in principle bureaucracy has a highly formal structure,
in reality not all behavior in bureaucracies precisely fits the organizational rules. While it is
the office that is supposed to carry the power, the personalities of the occupants are important
PROBLEMS OF BUREAUCRACY
Bureaucratic Alienation Alienation is a problem within bureaucracies as they tend
to dehumanize those they serve through their impersonal operation.
Bureaucratic RitualismBureaucratic ritualism signifies a preoccupation
with rules and regulations to the point of thwarting an organization's goals.
Bureaucratic InertiaBureaucratic inertia refers to the tendency of bureaucratic
organizations to perpetuate themselves. An example from the federal government is used to illustrate.
Oligarchy Robert Michels observed the fact that oligarchy, or the rule
of the many by the few, is a typical outgrowth of bureaucracy. He suggested that individuals
in high levels within a bureaucratic hierarchy tend to accumulate power and use it to promote their
The Evolution of Formal Organizations
Scientific management was developed by Frederic W. Taylor, who placed an emphasis on the scientific
organization of work.
The First Challenge: Race and Gender Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out that gender and
race often determine who holds power and who is given the most opportunities in bureaucratic hierarchies.
She finds that such a system has important consequences for on-the-job performance. Figure
5-4 (p. 122) provides information on U.S. managers by race, sex, and ethnicity.
Deborah Tannen claims that women have a greater information focus, and men have a greater
image focus in organizations. In a similar vein, Sally Helgesen has found that women tend
to place greater value on communication skills, are more flexible, and are more attentive
to the interconnectedness of all organizational operations than are men.
The Second Challenge: The Japanese Organization Japan's formal organizations reflect
their culture's collective identity and solidarity. In the U.S., on the other hand, we have
stressed individuality. Five distinctions between Japanese and Western formal organizations
are highlighted by William Ouchi. These include: hiring and advancement, lifetime security, holistic
involvement, nonspecialized training, and collective decision making. In the U.S. the focus
is on individual achievement, while Japan focuses on success by the group.
The Third Challenge: The Changing Nature of Work There are a number of ways that work
is changing: (1) creative autonomy, (2) competitive work teams, (3) a flatter organization, (4)
The McDonaldization of Society McDonald’s organizational principles are steadily coming
to dominate society. The basic principles include: efficiency, calculability, predictability,
and control through automation. Max Weber warned in the early part of this century of the price
paid for efficiency -- dehumanization.
Can Rationality Be Irrational? George Ritzer, who developed the concept of the McDonaldization
of society, echoes Weber's concern asserting that the rationality of McDonaldization may be the
ultimate irrationality. In the
Controversy and Debate box (p. 128) concern about the growing loss of privacy
in formal organizations is discussed. In the Seeing Ourselves box (p. 129), National
Map 5-2 indicates where in the U.S. people are most concerned about the growing loss of privacy.
Writing in the same iconoclastic spirit he brought to Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of
Reason in the West, Canadian writer Saul offers a damning indictment of what he terms corporatism,
today's dominant ideology. While the corporatist state maintains a veneer of democracy, it squelches
opposition to dominant corporate interests by controlling elected officials through lobbying and
by using propaganda and rhetoric to obscure facts and deter communication among citizens.
Corporatism, asserts Saul, creates conformists who behave like cogs in organizational hierarchies,
not responsible citizens. Moreover, today's managerial-technocratic elite, while glorifying
free markets, technology, computers and globalization, is, in Saul's opinion, narrowly self-serving
and unable to cope with economic stagnation.
His prescriptions include eliminating private-sector financing from electoral politics, renewing
citizen participation in public affairs, massive creation of public-service jobs and a humanist
education to replace narrow specialization. His erudite, often profound analysis challenges conservatives
and liberals alike with its sweeping critique of Western culture, society and economic organization.
LeeBoy (Pine Bluff, Arkansas)
A coup d'etat in slow motion?, August 12, 2005
A key premise of the book is that a life worth living, the so-called examined life,
the fully aware life cannot take place without individuals in the society being fully conscious
- or without seeking the kind of self-knowledge that readily can be translated into action.
Saul maintains that we have a "new religion," the blind pursuit of self-interest.
It is led by an ideology of "corporatism," which has deformed the American ideal of a life worth
living into one devoid of a concept of the common public good. Through it, one of America's
most noble ideas, that of "rugged individualism" has been sullied, distorted and transformed
into an ideology of selfishness; an ideology that has so manipulated our reality that our the
language and knowledge, usually placed in the service of actions and designed to improve our
way of life, has become useless.
The corporate compartmentalization of, and distortion of public knowledge,
and the accompanying enforced conformity has so confused us and has so muted our voices that
knowledge no longer has any effect on our consciousness nor on our actions. Individual
selfishness as "modeled" by corporate self-interest has hi-jacked Western civilization as we
have come to know it.
The book describes how corporatism has accomplished this feat: It has used its
own ideology of self-interest (and the promise of certainty that all ideologies promote) to
render us passive and conformist in areas that matter and non-conformist in those that do not.
This new pseudo or false individualism has the effect of immobilizing and disarming our civilization
intellectually and thus renders it unconscious.
The most important way it does this is by denying and undermining the legitimacy
of the individual as the primary unit and defender of, as well as the center of gravity of the
public good. The public good becomes deformed by, and subordinate to, and equated with the
narrow pursuit of corporate self-interests, as most often defined by the pursuit of profits
and associated corporate perks. The hedonistic model of the corporate life is projected on to
society writ large as the only life worth living.
The impetus for placing corporate interests (and the corporate model of our humanity)
at center stage in the drama of Western Civilization, seems to have come about through the misconception
that rugged individualism, democracy and our current understanding of the public good were once
defined by, depend on, and proceed directly from, the pursuit of economic interests. This is
a misconception because in actual fact exactly the reverse is true: It was notions of the public
good as defined by democracy and individualism that gave rise to economic interests, and not
the other way around.
Moreover, economic models have been so spectacularly wrong and unsuccessful, that
they could not have survived without an ideology that renders the public unconscious. Saul suggests
that even the best economic models amount to little more than passive tinkering. The fact that
we have come to rely on them -- even though we know they are seriously flawed and have little
or no basis in reality -- is compelling evidence of our lack of memory and thus, of our lack
of collective consciousness.
According to the author, it is the proper use of knowledge and memory that
renders us conscious (and thus by extension, also renders us human). The misuse of knowledge
and memory through corporate and technological, manipulation, specialization and compartmentalization
is just a deeper form of collective denial.
Said differently, (corporate generated) specialization creates its own illusions.
When knowledge actually becomes confused and is sufficiently narrowed, compartmentalization
promotes the illusion that knowledge is multiplied when in fact it has shrunken. It leaves the
impression that more rather than less knowledge is being created. It promotes the illusion that
truth is only what the specialist can measure; that "managing is doing," (and more importantly
that a managerial class is important and necessary). Finally, it creates the illusion that the
ideology, which promotes corporatism, produces certainty (the main job of any ideology).
These illusions all have facilitated the corporate takeover of what would otherwise
be seen as, the public interest. By doing so, the legitimacy of the individual as the center
of gravity of the public good is crowded out, undermined and denied.
Thus the management elite, (with their suitcases full of money to buy off our elected
representatives) like a cancer, is let loose on society. It lives within its own insulated cocoon
creating an artificially interiorized sense of its own importance, wellbeing and its own distorted
vision of civilization as a whole. Insulated from within, the management elite is free to grow
without bounds, without accountability, and in complete disregard for the reality "out there,"
and always only to satisfy and service its own selfish needs. Truth is not in the world "out
there" but is in what the professionals can measure and whatever is reported to these insulated
elites. The deeper the insulated managerial class retreats into its own interiorized illusions
of reality, the more confused language becomes and the less likely knowledge can be translated
into actions that will effect the wider reality, and thus the public good.
In its pursuit to deny the legitimacy of the public good and to replace it with
corporate econometric models of reality, Saul has traced the history of this process and gives
many examples of how it works: through media propaganda, films, ads, music, sports and style-and
always through insinuations of what is considered proper thought and ways of behaving.
One of the better examples he gives is how unemployment keeps getting redefined
downward with no relation to the reality of the labor market but mostly to suit the needs of
the neo-cons (the courtiers of the corporate elites). Or how, even as companies are losing money
and are laying-off large numbers of ordinary workers, the salaries and incentive packages of
the managerial elites continue to rise - often even until the very day the companies actually
Another example given is how through the process of globalization, that by the
year 2020 the U.S. will be fully reduced to a Third World country. We are told that our future
standard of living will depend entirely on globalization. Here globalization (like its companion
concept, productivity) is a synonym for pegging workers' wage rates to the lowest wages available
worldwide. It is never mentioned in such discussions that the salaries and incentive packages
of the managerial elites will actually rise significantly as this "mother of all least common
denominators economic formulas" is being applied to the lower end of the economic class scale.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the salary of U.S. workers will equal those of Chinese peasants
by 2020; and the corporate elites all will be filthy rich like Sam Walton. This "Wal-Martization"
of America is already well in train.
Why are we so susceptible to being manipulated by corporate generated ideology
and power? Saul gives an answer: We have an addictive weakness for large illusions that
are tied to power and that can simplify our worldview by promising emotional certainty. The
examples he gives are none other than the great religions themselves, and their spin-offs of
Marxism, fascism and most of the autocratic governments of the past, including Hitler's Third
The roads to serfdom, or to fascism or communism (or pick your own ism) all intersect at
the same ideology reference points: they begin as enforced social and political orthodoxy and
conformity: first fashion and style; then the social enforcement of ways of thinking; and then
patriotism is made into a religious-like requirement; after which rights and free speech are
suppressed in the name of national security or loyalty to the state. One-by-one laws are suspended
and then arbitrary arrests and disappearances begin; and finally the country is rendered completely
passive and unconscious - compressed into a pseudo-patriotic religious trance.
In the modern era, this progression is by now all too familiar: It leads directly to the
de-legitimatization of the citizen as the primary defender of the public good. This just as
inevitably leads to handing over power to those whose self-interests are larger than their dedication
to the preservation of the public good or even to the preservation and defense of the state
The citizen then ceases to be able to determine what is, and is not real. He becomes immobilized
like a child, unable to judge what is in his own best interests -- let alone what is in the
best interest of the public good or the state. He is then forced to sing for his dinner and
to dance to the corporate tune for any sense of wellbeing or self-worth. The "public good" becomes
completely subordinate to the "corporate good."
What Saul admonishes us about is already imminently clear: that the kind of society we have
is determined by where the true source of legitimacy lies. Today legitimacy in America -- that
is its power, organization, and influence -- lies not in the vote and in stylized but impotent
public citizen participation, but in the hands of the lobbyists, the technocrats, and the anti-democratic
and anti-patriotic corporate vampires.
Saul did not need to tell us that all the serious decisions are now made in the back rooms
without consulting the people. The best "the people" can hope for (and indeed what they yearn
for) is that the decisions made over their heads will at least retain a semblance of emotional
While the corporate robber barons sneak out the back door to their off-shore tax havens (with
the nations valuables in tow), the public good has been distorted and transformed into little
more than "What I have" or into bumper sticker sized emotionalisms: the advancement of creative
design and the right to post the Ten Commandments on the court house steps, abortion and gun
rights, anti-Affirmative Action, states rights, etc. Because of its lack of consciousness, Americans
have lost the ability to conceptualize a common good larger than their own immediate individual
narrowly defined self-interests.
How do we get out of this coup d'etat in slow motion? Saul's answer is that we must change
the dynamics of the process but he gives few specifics on how this can be done. This a great
and very sobering read. Five stars.
Joyce (Bonham, Texas)
Makes the complex understandable, November 29, 2012
Saul has unusual skill in making complex entanglements understandable, colorful, and often humorous.
His satire is biting. His irony is satisfying. His writing is dense with fresh insights about
difficult subjects, so reading him is challenging at times but worth the effort. In this book,
Saul explores how the dictatorship of reason unbalanced by other human qualities (common sense,
ethics, intuition, creativity, memory) leads to the rational but antidemocratic structures of
corporatism. He lays out the historical roots of corporatist doctrines (going back to Plato)
and how they are so woven into our social fabric that they threaten the practice of democracy.
He notes how our civilization is blinded to its true character by sentiment and ideology and
argues that while Fascism was defeated in World War II, its corporatist doctrines are powerfully
influencing our society today.
For Saul, one central aspect of the corporatist doctrine is its hijacking of the term
"individualism," defining it as self-absorption or selfishness. Both Left and Right positions
are based upon that definition. The Left agrees with the Right that individualism is selfishness,
only it wants individual rights to be equally distributed and more fair. Whereas Saul talks
about individualism thus:
"Rights are a protection from society. But only by fulfilling their obligations to society
can the individual give meaning to that protection. . . Real individualism then is the
obligation to act as a citizen."
"The very essence of corporatism is minding your own business. And the very essence of
individualism is the refusal to mind your own business. This is not a particularly pleasant
or easy style of life. It is not profitable, efficient, competitive or rewarded. It often
consists of being persistently annoying to others as well as being stubborn and repetitive."
And further still:
"Criticism is perhaps the citizen's primary weapon in the exercise of her legitimacy.
That is why, in this corporatist society, conformism, loyalty, and silence are so admired
Saul discusses the role that four economic pillars play in either accentuating or reducing
our unconscious state as citizens: (1) the marketplace, (2) technology, (3) globalization, and
(4) money markets.
Here is my summary of his lessons on these four.
The danger of using the marketplace as our guide is that we are limiting ourselves to
the narrow and short-term interests of exclusion. If we wish to lead society we must calculate
Business schools (following the "scientific management" Frederick Taylor brought to
Harvard) treat men and women as mechanisms to be managed along with machines. And we are
lining up students behind machines, educating them in isolation when what is really needed
is to show them how they can function together in society.
Trade cannot in and of itself solve societal problems. The main effect of globalization
has been to shift the tax burden from large corporations onto the middle class. Adam Smith's
repeated admonition has been ignored. It is: high wages are essential to growth and prosperity.
Money is not a value in itself. Money in money markets is not available for taxation,
and it doesn't really exist. It is pure speculation. We must see what is truly of value
to society and reward those things.
This is only a bit of the clarity Saul's book gives us as citizens about what we are dealing
with, empowering us with weaponry to overcome the Fascistic creation of corporatism.
Christopher (Seattle, Washington, USA)
A roundhouse shot at corporatist, group-think American life, March 19, 2002
"Are we truly living in a corporatist society that uses democracy as little more than a pressure
Not satisfied with hurtling the literary hand-grenade of the 1990's, "Voltaire's Bastards",
into the midst of our oblivious Western society, John Ralston Saul has now equipped his metaphorical
sniper rifle, and in his crosshairs is the 'deviant class' which has destabilized our American
dream. In "The Unconscious Civilization", Saul targets `corporatist' groups, the special interests
(both economic and social) which have lulled citizens into replacing their own thoughts with
those of factions who magically (and absurdly) claim to represent their beliefs and dreams.
"One of the difficulties faced by citizens today is making sense of what is presented
as material for public debate, but is actually no more than the formalized propaganda of
interest groups. It is very rare now in public debate to hear from someone who is not
the official voice of an organization."
Characteristic of Saul's previous work, "The Unconscious Civilization" is a firm, wind-knocking
shot to the gut. But luckily for you, your opponent is also teaching you how to fight. Hear
him shout: `Stand up, slothful citizen. Your constitution is failing.'
"The statistics of our crisis are clear and unforgiving. Yet they pass us by--in newspapers,
on television, in conversations--as if they were not reality. Or rather, as if we were unable
to convert knowledge into action."
Do you feel protected by the Internet, by the millions of voices which you feel will conglomerate
to represent you? So how's it working for you so far? Sure we have information, but what the
hell good is it doing for the spirit of our nation?
"Knowledge is more effectively used today to justify wrong being done than to prevent
it. This raises an important question about the role of freedom of speech. We have a great
deal of it. But if it has little practical effect on reality, then it is not really freedom
of speech. Without utility, speech is just decorative."
In this work, Saul scopes out the corporatist mindset, the coalescence of many minds into
one body with only one voice (corpus from Latin, meaning body), which has invaded business,
politics, and civil society alike. The result is chilling, for when we rise to speak, we find
our individual words have different meanings to each of these bodies. As a consequence, we are
learning to speak less.
"In a corporatist society there is no serious need for traditional censorship or burning,
although there are regular cases. It is as if our language itself is responsible for our
inability to identify and act upon reality."
We may be blind to the corporatist processes, but we should be able to fairly see their results.
In politics: 38% voter turnout rates, lowest political convention viewership, the quashing of
third-party voices; in business: the plastering of disclaimers, sloganeering, and that opaque
wall of business-speak between every salesman and their customer; in civil society: the inability
to progress in conversation without soundbites, and the number of people who flat-out don't
want to talk to you.
This partition of words has not obstructed John Ralston Saul, though. An advocate of "aggressive
common sense", Saul portrays himself correctly as a classic liberal, defender and klaxon for
the citizen, neither champion nor foe of the marketplace.
"The market does not lead, balance, or encourage democracy. However, properly regulated
it is the most effective way to conduct business."
"Every important characteristic of both individualism and democracy has preceded the
key economic events of our millennium. What's more, it was these characteristics that made
most of the economic events possible, not vice-versa."
John Ralston Saul's work consists of five chapters loosely based off a series of 1995 lectures
at the University of Toronto. Like "Voltaire's Bastards", Saul here is discursive and entertaining;
each chapter is a new dive into an invigorating Arctic lake of realization. Chapter One, "The
Great Leap Backwards" launches the assault. The remaining chapters focus on reconstruction...
their titles: "From Propaganda to Language", "From Corporatism to Democracy", "From Managers
and Speculators to Growth", "From Ideology Towards Equilibrium".
Moderately mistitled (resulting in a one-point demerit in the overall review score),
a more appropriate title for this book would have been "The Corporatist Civilization".
A true attack on the `unconscious' among us would have been welcome, though Saul does meander
briefly into this realm, with a few sections that fit cozily into the overall thesis:
"Perhaps the difficulty with the psychoanalytic movement is that from the beginning it
has sent out a contradictory message: Learn to know yourself--your unconscious, the greater
unconscious. This will help you to deal with reality. On the other hand, you are in the
grip of great primeval forces--unknown and unseen--and even if you do know and see them,
it is they who must dominate."
One-quarter the size of "Voltaire's Bastards", Saul this time out initiates a concise attack:
on utopias, ideology, technocracy, demagoguery, and group mentality... all of which direct the
individual to replace their view of the world with that of an `official spokesman', eerily reversing
the vector of our society towards a fascist state. An insightful read; terse, but somewhat condensed
and abstract at places. The trade-offs are more than acceptable, though. Steel yourself for
a barrage of Truth.
Lacks The Big Picture, July 3, 2000
John Ralston Saul is considered one of the great humanist essayists of this time. That is
true but he is also very much a man of our times, with both the advantages and disadvantages
of the current Weltanschauung. I bought this book after having read some rather rave reviews
and had high expectations. I can't say that I have got anything from this book that I didn't
already have or suspect. He's reinforced some of my opinions without adding to my empherical
knowledge to back them. The concept of the individual, individualism if you will, is dominant
today, representing a narrow and superficial deformation of the Western idea. Market Capitalism
does not guarantee democracy; you can have poor democracies and prosperous dictatorships.
Today we are in an unconscious process of masochistic suicide destroying the very substance
of our public institutions, institutions which were the products of decades of thought and democratic
debate, all in the pursuit of making things more `effective', more `business-like'. . .
So according to Saul, and on target IMHO, but what does this all mean? What can we draw from
these intermediate conclusions?
He then goes on to describe the crisis that grips the West, which he dates from 1973. Bureaucratic
thinking and rationalization continue to manipulate our perceptions, dominate and drive our
existence, controlled by what he describes as `Corporatism'. He states,
"the corporatist movement was born in the nineteenth century as an alternative to democracy.
It proposed the legitimacy of groups over that of the individual citizen." Pp16-17
Napoleon, Hegel and Bismarck helped the process along by emphasizing rule by elites and adherence
to the state. This was all only a lead up to the great
"new all-powerful clockmaker god - the marketplace - and his archangel, technology. Trade
is the marketplace's miraculous cure for all that ails us. . . I would suggest that
Marxism, fascism and the marketplace strongly resemble each other. They are all corporatist,
managerial and hooked on technology as their own particular golden calf." Pp19-20
...Weber warned of the dangers of bureaucracy, of how capitalism mated with ever increasing
rationalization and technological innovation would become a very difficult beast to control.
He also warned against the subversion of democratic institutions by powerful non-democratic
groups with oligarchic tendencies. Saul's view on the triumph of rationalism is also, by the
way, influenced by Weber. So instead of damning Weber he should be thanking him. Here we see
the tendency so common among US (and Canadian) intellectuals today of putting the blame for
their perceived crisis on foreign thinkers (usually German or French) who have some how lead
the well-intentioned, but all too trusting North Americans astray. Alan Bloom, on the right,
was guilty of the same thing in his The Closing of the American Mind. In all, this tendency
represents a mixing up of cause and effect. If you want to look for a foreign culpret, how about
the English Utilitarians who put morally accepted self-interest and quest for profit in the
service of individual gain above anything else? An attitude that has since then been enthusisatically
and uncritically accepted by the mass of American intellectuals.
What is Saul's solution? Persistent public commitment by the citizenry can turn the tables
on corporatism. But how, given the power that Saul says the elites have to manipulate and
control all the spheres of our existence? What of their ability to define "freedom" in
wholly consumerist terms, making it a mere matter of material choice? As long as the US Constitution
allows for majority rule, the public will have the last say, but how to mobilize the public,
how to educate them as to defending their best interests when the reigns of mass communication
are in the hands of the corporatists? How do we make the interests of society take priority
over the interests of profit? The moral dilemma in all this is ignored by Saul who distrusts
anyone who even mentions it. Unable to follow Nietzsche's lead he stumbles. Nietzsche, alas
a foreigner, was also primarily a moralist. Morals are important since they shape the way that
we adjust to the struggle for our very existence in an ever more competitive world. While a
sense of the spiritual is necessary, the vast bulk of our actions, the reality we must deal
with in our every day lives, is economic due to the pervasive market system which is the very
air we breathe. It is therefore very much man-made, synthetic, something that has been grafted
onto society, not a component of it. Morals are as necessary now as when we lived in small farming
communities, since it is by working together, by accepting each others' strengths and weaknesses,
by learning to control our own impulses and irrational drives and by accepting the inate worth
of each person that we insure not only our own but the survival of our species in the coming
hard winter. A, "myth-building" exercise you say, but is it any more a myth than that of "the
Market corrects itself and all we need do is trust in it"?
Since the end of the 18th Century we in the West have lost almost every remnant of our pre-Capitalist
past. We have forgotten our entire community or social or human-to-human history, we are unable
to recall when an action did not infer some sort of self-benefit. We fail to see that the so-called
Third World is as we were two hundred years ago. It is not a question of scientific or technological
or commercial progress, in the most human sense, but of the maturing and decay of an ideological-based
Saul's main drawback is that he lacks the indepth knowledge of the numerous disciplines necessary
for this very complex subject. That and `distance' since he approaches the problem with far
too many preconceptions. A much better book in a related subject is Karl Polanyi's The Great
Transformation. His history of the market economy provides much of the background necessary
to illuminate our current situation. Few if any thinkers today have the breadth of knowledge
to provide the big picture of our current post-modern situation. Men like Max Weber, who had
a encyclopedic knowledge of several wide fields of study no longer walk the earth. Still a much
more refined, yet wide view which would include a fuller understanding of social economics,
history, political science, sociology, theology and philosophy is necessary in order to get
a grip on the tendencies which are slowly eating away our society and threaten to turn us all
into what Max Weber described as "a culture of specialists without spirit, sensualists without
Herbert L Calhoun
Wake up and Smell the Oil Wal-Mart Shoppers, August 10, 2005
If the doubling, in less than a year, of the price of oil for no discernable reason
(with no end in sight), and with absolutely no reaction from us or our government is not evidence
that something is terribly wrong with our collective mind. Then surely an order of magnitude
increase in the cost of medical care and prescription drugs, and the quintupling of our health
insurance (for those of us who have any), should be.
Or, one might have imagined that the juxtaposition of soaring corporate profits
(in these very same areas) with an effective reduction in "actual wages" everywhere else, would
also have shaken us from our deep collective slumber?
Or maybe the fact that we have been led into yet another war for no defensible
reasons and without either an exit strategy or a fighting plan -- a war whose justifications
and rationale keeps changing with each increased attack from the terrorists as our national
debt continues to soar -- would have shaken us out of our passivity.
While our government's response to the needs of the "rank-and-file" is increasingly
non-existent, or completely ineffectual, and the "managerial class" continues to rob us blind
as they laugh all the way to the bank; we are obsessed with the risk of breast implants, abortion
rights, hanging the Ten Commandments in the public square, reality shows (that are anything
but real), Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, and how to continue to win at the game of "Democrats
and Republicans (or liberals and conservatives, or Blacks versus Whites, or males versus females,
or pick your own senseless emotional dichotomy)."
But the very best evidence yet of our lack of consciousness and proof that our
society is being thrown under the bus while we watch in horror with our eyes wide open, is when
the most devastating critique of our own slothfulness is also the sanest, most compassionate
and most eloquent.
Saul in this trenchant sanity check of the society that leads the Western World realizes
that the time for vitriol and shouting has long since passed. That is why with eloquence, understated
passion and with measured but devastating logic and reason (that quality he so distrusts), he
has issued a broadside at the foundation stone of what ails our society most: Rampant and immoral
And even though in the end, his prescription for how we are to extricate ourselves from this
dilemma is unconvincing, he has laid the necessary groundwork for serious thinking to begin.
If "the people" in Western Democracies are ever to regain control of their minds, and then eventually
their societies; Saul's ideas in this small volume must inevitably be contended with.
Saul is a modern secular prophet!, March 28, 1999
You can add the name John Ralston Saul to those of Noam Chomsky, Ivan Illich, Franz
Fanon (and who else?) on your list of the key late 20th century 'global conspiracy theorists'
- people who are visionary seers/prophets who have unorthodox views and make outrageous pronouncements
on this and that, but with whom you have to broadly agree. Because they operate outside the
conventions of fixed ideologies, they're able to see the broader picture, and see more deeply
into the nature of things.
The Unconscious Civilization - the 1995 Massey Lectures - was written in an oral style by
Canadian freelance intellectual, essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul.
His thesis is disarmingly simple: in the long line of history's totalitarianisms, we
can now add undemocratic 'corporatism'.
Our society, he argues, is only superficially based on the individual and democracy.
Off and on for about 20 years, I had the honor of working with the greatest military theorist
America ever produced, Col. John Boyd, USAF. As a junior officer, Boyd developed the energy-management
tactics now used by every fighter pilot in the world. Later, he influenced the designs of the F-15
and F-16, saving the former from becoming the turkey we are now buying in the F-35 and making the
latter the best fighter aircraft on the planet. His magnum opus, a 12-hour briefing titled
“Patterns of Conflict,” remains a vast mine of military wisdom, one unlikely to be exhausted in
Boyd is best known for coming up with the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle. He posited that all conflict
is composed of repeated, time-competitive cycles of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting.
The most important element is orientation: whoever can orient more quickly to a rapidly changing
situation acquires a decisive advantage because his slower opponent’s actions are too late and therefore
irrelevant—as he desperately seeks convergence, he gets ever increasing divergence. At some point,
he realizes he can do nothing that works. That usually leads him either to panic or to give up,
often while still physically largely intact.
The OODA Loop explains how and why Third Generation maneuver warfare, such as the German Blitzkrieg
method, works. It describes exactly what happened to the French in 1940, when Germany defeated what
was considered the strongest army on earth in six weeks with only about 27,000 German dead, trifling
casualties by World War I standards. The French actually had more and better tanks than the Germans.
It is also a partial explanation for our repeated defeats by Fourth Generation non-state entities.
Our many layers of headquarters, large staffs, and centralized decision-making give us a slow OODA
Loop compared to opponents whose small size and decentralized command enable a fast one. A Marine
officer stationed with our counter-drug traffic effort in Bolivia told me the traffickers went through
the Loop 12 times in the time it took us to go through it once. I mentioned that to Colonel Boyd,
and he replied, “Then we’re not even in the game.”
Another of Boyd’s contributions to military theory explains more of our failure in recent conflicts.
To the traditional levels of war—tactical, operational, and strategic—Boyd added three new ones:
physical, mental, and moral. It is useful to think of these as forming a nine-box grid, with tactical,
operational, and strategic on one axis and physical, mental, and moral on the other. Our armed forces
focus on the single box defined by tactical and physical, where we are vastly superior. But non-state
forces focus on the strategic and the moral, where they are often stronger, in part because they
represent David confronting Goliath. In war, a higher level trumps a lower, so our repeated victories
at the tactical, physical level are negated by our enemies’ successes on the strategic and moral
levels, and we lose.
Boyd had a reservoir of comments he repeated regularly, one of which was, “A lot of people in
Washington talk about strategy. Most of them can spell the word, but that’s all they know of it.”
The establishment’s insistence on an offensive grand strategy, where we attempt to force secular
liberal democracy down the throats of every people on earth, is a major reason for our involvement
and defeat in Fourth Generation conflicts. A defensive grand strategy, which is what this country
followed successfully through most of its history, would permit us to fold our enemies back on themselves,
something Boyd recommended. With us out of the picture, their internal fissures, such as those between
Sunni and Shiites in the Islamic world, would become their focus. But as usual, Boyd was right:
virtually no one in Washington can understand the advantages of a defensive grand strategy.
Being involved in every conflict on earth is useful if the real game is boosting the Pentagon’s
budget rather than serving our national interests. Here too Boyd had a favorite line. He often said,
“It is not true the Pentagon has no strategy. It has a strategy, and once you understand what that
strategy is, everything the Pentagon does makes sense. The strategy is, don’t interrupt the money
flow, add to it.”
most frequently uttered warning was, “All closed systems collapse.” Both our military and our policy-making
civilian elite live in closed systems. Because Second Generation war reduces everything to putting
firepower on targets, when we fail against Fourth Generation opponents, the military’s only answer
is to put more firepower on more targets. Ideas about other ways of waging war are ignored because
they do not fit the closed Second Generation paradigm. Meanwhile, Washington cannot consider alternatives
to our current foreign policy or grand strategy because anyone who proposes one is immediately exiled
from the establishment, as was Boyd himself. It says something about our current condition that
the greatest military theorist we ever produced retired as a colonel. At John’s funeral in Arlington,
which I attended, most of the people in uniform were junior Marine officers. His own service, the
Air Force, was barely represented.
John’s work was often elegant, but in person he was always the direct, and sometimes crude, fighter
pilot. Boyd’s favorite, inelegant phrase for defeating one of his many opponents in the Pentagon
was “giving him the whole enchilada right up the poop chute.” That is what history will shortly
give this country if we continue to allow closed systems to lead us. Boyd’s work, which is best
summarized in Frans Osinga’s book Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd,
could put us on a different course. But learning from Boyd would require open systems in Washington.
Perhaps after the establishment collapses, Boyd can help us pick up the pieces.
William S. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook and director of the American
Conservative Center for Public Transportation.