Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

I would gnaw out ‘bureaucracy  ’ like a wolf

I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think François Fejtő somewhere refers to Brezhnev as a ‘raging barbarian bureaucrat’—perhaps as incongruous a description, on the whole, as the Soviet Encyclopaedic Dictionary ’s ‘revolutionary statesman of the Lenin type’. Was Leonid Ilyich really quite so, well, high-energy? But this single phrase—even if we did not know it applied to Brezhnev—would probably be enough to identify Fejtő as having a political background on the Left and indeed on the anti-Stalinist Left in particular. That is the thought-world in which ‘bureaucracy’ comes to stand most explicitly not merely for a social function but for a regime, so that we can talk of a ‘bureaucrat’ and mean something between a usurper and a despot. (The idiomatic Leftspeak translation of hoi triáconta týrannoi, as the name of the junta that came to power at Athens after the Peloponnesian War, would certainly be The Thirty Bureaucrats.) Outside the jargon of the Left, on the other hand, a ‘bureaucrat’ probably sounds a bit too staid and a bit too office-bound to be fully convincing as a ‘raging barbarian’.

Giving up any of our favourite buzzwords is always a wrench; the Left is hardly likely to welcome the invitation to stop talking about bureaucracy and bureaucrats. But it should. Because these terms are damagingly ambiguous—and using them almost inevitably spreads confusion.

So entrenched is the confusion, in fact, that we hardly ever even notice the ambiguity. But, unlike other -cracy words, bureaucracy refers to an activity itself as well as to rule by the people who carry out that activity. Filling in forms? Bureaucracy. Ratifying the minutes of the previous meeting? Bureaucracy. A political system in which effective power is concentrated in the hands of permanent officials, so that democratic institutions become an empty façade? Bureaucracy. It is as though we had no words to distinguish between an expert and a technocrat, a believer in God and a theocrat, a soldier and a military dictator.

Under these circumstances, the sensible aspiration to avoid bureaucracy in the sense of rule by administrative officials gets mixed up with the vacuous hope for an organization or a society without bureaucracy in the sense of files and records and procedures. The idea that a large, complex organization could operate in the complete absence of admin is (if anyone actually entertains it) Utopianism of the most obtuse and uninspiring kind. True, the volume of red tape could probably be reduced to a bare minimum if the members were prepared to live with a certain amount of muddle; though they would of course also need to get into the habit of endorsing the leader’s wishes—and the leader’s recollection of previous acts and decisions—by acclamation. But an organization that wants to be at all efficient or democratic simply cannot do without sometimes taking minutes. On the contrary, it seems highly probable that the most efficient and democratic organizations will be the ones in which administration and record-keeping are sufficiently developed that they combine flexibility with regularity and sufficiently clearly established that they can be worked without arcane specialist knowledge.

The words bureaucracy and bureaucrat should therefore be avoided in any halfway serious discussion of organizational matters. The key question of how to create viable democratic organizations is precisely the question that they obscure. And they also, as it happens, offer a needless insult to people engaged in admin work—an area of activity without which neither socialism nor democracy would be conceivable on any scale larger than the microscopic commune or affinity group.

Saturday, 10 March 2018