On bureaucracy

Last week in my anthropology and global social problems class, students learned about bureaucracy and how anthropologists engage with the concept. We read the introduction to Hummel’s famous book on The Bureaucratic Experience, which is a pretty good primer on how bureaucracy transforms social action, human relations, and bureaucrats themselves.

We started class with this clip:

A brief description: With ominous music playing in the background, a young woman stands in the doorway of what appears to be a government office. Her eyes follow something — someone? — off-camera. Within moments, we see that she has been watching a dark-haired man who soon stops in the doorway, eyes wide and frightened. She responds with a sideways glance of her own. The woman is buzzed over to a desk where a bureaucrat, dressed in a black sweater adorned with leather, lazily chews on a toothpick and shuffles papers. She takes a seat at his desk. The bureaucrat interrupts her as she begins to speak and gestures for her to wait as he pours his coffee.  After the coffee is poured, the woman tells him that she would like to register as a freelance worker. The bureaucrat rapidly fires off a series of requests, procedures and esoteric form names. With each request, the woman slaps down a form with defiance. The final administrative task that the bureaucrat requires, stapling documents together, is presented to the audience with great suspense. The two stare at each other and then at a distant desk, where a lone stapler sits. The two dive for the stapler; the bureaucrat reaches it first. But the woman has one more trick up her sleeve. Reminiscent of the final gunfight in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, a close-up of the woman’s hand reveals a stapler neatly tucked into her shirt sleeve. The bureaucrat drops his stapler, the woman staples her documents. The bureaucrat, foiled in his attempt to set up requisite roadblocks and ‘red tape’, crumples to his desk, defeated.

What can we infer from this short film about bureaucracy? Some students recognized this as evidence of the psychological and cognitive effects of bureaucracy: one’s professional identity is lost once he has no administrative work to do! Others saw the depersonalization of bureaucracy in this clip. And of course, there’s the hierarchy and rules, procedures and paperwork that characterize bureaucracy.

The hierarchical organization of ‘the office’ and the numerous administrative procedures central to bureaucracy also come through in this familiar clip from Office Space (1999) about TPS reports:

Because bureaucracy is a common feature of university life — and everyday life, more generally — students were quickly able to recognize its features in this clip. The ‘iron cage’ of the increased bureaucratization of social life and human action was easy to see here.

Yet, when I asked them about Arendt’s claims about the links between violence and bureaucracy, they were challenged to think about how bureaucracies, as ‘tyranny without tyrants’ might inspire ‘real’ violence:

the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant. The crucial feature in the students’ rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy. This explains, what at first glance seems so disturbing, that the rebellions in the East demand precisely those freedoms of speech and thought that the young rebels in the West say they despise as irrelevant. Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact.

Or how it might, in fact, be backed up by the threat of violence, as in this clip from Brazil:

or in David Graeber’s provocative 2006 Malinowski Lecture, in which he writes:

We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force,” in turn, is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence. All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would indeed be summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.

This all dovetails into a guest lecture by Kirk Johnson, who spoke about his work with the List Project. During that lecture, Kirk talked about his work with USAID during reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In his book, he notes how his work was less about development and more about managing contracts and contractors. He also described his work with The List Project and the various administrative tactics used by the US government to prevent Iraqis who worked alongside US agencies and military (and are now in danger because of that involvement) to receive visas to come to the US.

Right now, we’re still grappling with the relationships between war and bureaucracy, why it matters, and what anthropologists have to say about this relationship. But I do think that we’re off to a good start.

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