MAX WEBER: ON BUREAUCRACY
Copyright (c) 1996, R.J. Kilcullen.
Marx on Capitalism
Reading Guide 8: Max Weber
'GM' refers to H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (trans. and ed.), From Max Weber (New York, 1946) (H/33/.W36).
'SEO' refers to Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, tr. Henderson and Parsons (New York, 1947) ((HB/175/.W364).
'ES' refers to Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. G. Roth and C. Wittich (New York, 1968) (HM/57/.W342).
'Beetham' refers to David Beetham, Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics (London, 1974) (JA/76/.B37).
In this lecture I want to look at what Weber says about bureaucracy, in G and M, p. 196 ff, and in SEO, p. 329 ff.
First, something about the word. 'Bureau' (French, borrowed into German) is a desk, or by extension an office (as in 'I will be at the office tomorrow'; 'I work at the Bureau of Statistics'). 'Bureaucracy' is rule conducted from a desk or office, i.e. by the preparation and dispatch of written documents - or, these days, their electronic equivalent. In the office are kept records of communications sent and received, the files or archives, consulted in preparing new ones. This kind of rule is of course not found in the ancient classifications of kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy - and bureaucracy? In fact it does not belong in such a classification. It is a servant of government, a means by which a monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, or other form of government, rules. Those who invented the word wanted to suggest that the servant was trying to become the master. Weber is of course aware of this tendency; in fact he attacked the pretensions of the Prussian bureaucracy to be an objective and neutral servant of society, above politics, and emphasized that every bureaucracy has interests of its own, and connections with other social strata (especially among the upper classes); see Beetham, chapter 3. But formally and in theory the bureaucracy is merely a means, and this is largely true also in practice: someone must provide policy direction and back the bureaucrat up (if necessary) with force. 'At the top of a bureaucratic organization, there is necessarily an element which is at least not purely bureaucratic', SEO, p. 335, to give policy direction.
In the middle ages the most effective kings ruled from horseback: they travelled round the country, armed, accompanied by armed men, and enforced their will. They were prepared if necessary to enforce their will on their armed companions by personal combat, though their prestige was such that this was seldom necessary. The king was accompanied also by 'clerks', i.e. clergy, who could read and write, who took along a chest containing records and writing materials; the modern bureaucracy developed from this. In modern countries the ruler does not have to fight in person, or travel round much; he or she rules by sending messages, through a bureau. The messages are usually acted on mainly because of the government's moral authority or prestige (a 'status' phenomenon), but also because they can be backed by force, by a 'staff' of police or soldiers. As Weber points out (e.g. SEO, pp. 330-1), armies have been bureaucratized. Napoleon had to watch his battle from horseback, but the modern general receives and sends messages. Napoleon had a 'staff', officers who galloped off with written messages, the modern army has a 'general staff'; the Prussian general staff was in Weber's time regarded with pride one of the key institutions of the German empire - it was in Weber's terms a bureaucracy. As he also points out, not only government services but also political parties, churches, educational institutions, and private businesses, and many other institutions have bureaucracies. That is, they all have a professional staff for keeping records and sending communications which will be...