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To What Degree Is the Modern State Defined by Bureaucracy?

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Wordcount: 4666 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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To what degree is the modern state defined by bureaucracy?

A pivotal role in the modern state is played by the set of administrative tools employed to govern its territory and the population within that territory, namely what Weber famously defined as ‘bureaucracy’. Clearly, governmental administrative bodies are at the core of a state bureaucratic system; but it must be recognised that many non-governmental entities are also involved in the administration of people’s everyday lives. This essay will argue that, while not specifically tied to the phenomenon of the state, bureaucracy is indeed a direct product of it. Moreover, it arrived to greatly define people’s lives and the state itself. In making this argument, it will be necessary to evaluate historical, political and societal aspects of the interplay between the development of the bureaucratic system and the rise of the modern state. Therefore, the essay will firstly investigate the shift from pre-modern administrations to rationalised bureaucracy. In analysing these historical changes, it will be become clear that the modern state provides the perfect conditions for bureaucratic expansion. Specifically, as Weber argues, the state comes to be defined by a ‘legal-rational’ bureaucracy, which – although perfectly fitting the reality of modernity – also presents a significant threat to civic and political liberties. To conclude, the Foucauldian concept of ‘panopticism’ will show how rationalisation permeated state’s institutions, in order to form easily governable ‘docile bodies’

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Although far from being bureaucratised, pre-modern political organisations presented indeed forms of administrative apparatuses and institutions. These were particularly common in large empires which – to prevent disintegration – required to efficiently and effectively disperse their authority (Pierson, 2004). For instance, the Chinese empire firstly established an organised civil service, composed by several officials and emperor’s advisors. Likewise, an administrative culture was developed in Ancient Egypt as well as in the Roman Empire and in the Byzantine Empire: administrative operators were appointed to collect taxes and tithes, to maintain tallies of money, to write laws and to mobilise the population in order to undertake important projects and constructions. Throughout the Middle Ages, feudalism also employed several administrative practices as it required to maintain extensive records concerning nobles’ rights and obligation over lands (Pierson, 2004; Riggs, 1997; Weber, 1991; du Gay, 2005).

These historical examples show how for centuries, administrative practices and institutions have been crucial in societies’ advance and upholding. Nevertheless, in many aspects they do differ from modern bureaucracies, which – as Weber argues – are primarily and essentially a phenomenon originating from – and going hand-in-hand with – the rise of the modern state (Weber, 1991; 1978).

As Spruyt argues, modern statehood began to take shape around the 11th century, at the wake of feudalism breakdown (Spruyt, 2002). Modern European states uniquely started to evolve as governments developed institutional capacities far beyond those of pre-modern political organisations, becoming synonymous with sovereign territorial rule (Spruyt, 2002). From the 15th century onwards, endorsed by the Reformation ethos, monarchs of individual territorial-political units increasingly asserted their independence from the imperial power. With Peace of Westphalia (1648), legal and spiritual authority – which were once shared and divided among serval political players – were centralised in the sovereign’s authority (Burns, 1980; Dusza, 1989; Hirst, 1997).  This was the climax of the process engaged to consolidate sovereign’s powers. At the same time, other several political and economic transformation took place and governments gradually expanded, taking over many aspects of social life through taxation, administration and policing of society (Spruyt, 2002).

These changes cannot be considered revolutions, neither they can be located within the boundaries of a precise century or historical period. Rather, they should be appreciated as part of a broader process of ‘rationalisation’ (Weber, 1991). As Weber argues, modern states were essentially undergoing a process of cultural, political and societal rationalisation that led to ‘universally applied rules, laws and regulations […] particularly in the economic, legal and scientific institutions, as well as in the bureaucratic form of domination’ (Ritzer, 1996, p. 123). Weber describes this rationalisation process as the practical application of knowledge in attaining a desired end. This, in return, leads to efficiency, coordination, calculability of results and control over the social environment (Turner, 2002; Elwell, 1999). Therefore, the shift from inefficient and disordered administrative realities defined by patrimonialism (i.e. office-holding based on personal relationships and loyalties) and prebendalism (i.e. individuals’ self-financing through revenues collection), to modern organised forms of bureaucracy (Spruyt, 2002; Pierson, 2004; Weber, 1991, pp. 208) Likewise, as new military technologies revolutionised warfare, the army was also hierarchically arranged, based on different levels of authority. People were now called to commit to state military service, as mercenaries’ armies were abandoned, and soldiers training and drilling practices were introduced (Downing, 1992; Weber 1991). Moreover, as governance was homogenised, well-defined written legal codes were formalised. Royal authority was de facto legitimised through laws and monarchy effectively became a public office. New legal codes also promoted the expansion of a capitalistic economy in which possessions were replaced by private properties (Spruyt, 2002; Poggi, 1990; Strayer, 1980). Capitalism was also promoted by the increase in trades and the growth of money economy based on the reinvestment of profit into the system of production and, most of all, into governmental bodies – i.e. the army (Spruyt, 2002; Poggi, 1990; Strayer, 1980).

These political, economic and legal changes – as well as improvements in agricultural production, new means of communication and transportation, growth in education and taxation and rise in states’ territorial space and in population size – are defining features of the rise, establishment and upkeep of the modern state as such. Clearly, these several practices and institutions can be successfully exploited and maintained only by a coherent and rational form of administration (Pierson, 2004; Weber, 1991).

 Hence, this demonstrates that the modern state has been both ‘perfect soil’ for bureaucratisation and a product in itself of bureaucracy. Ultimately, bureaucracy came to define not only the modern state, but also the apparatuses that sustain state and society: legal systems, armies, political parties, education, fields of knowledges, economy are all subject of rationalisation and bureaucratisation processes (Weber, 1991, 1947, 1978).

Weber maintains that modern state administration is essentially characterised by ‘legal-rational bureaucracy’, where ‘rational’ describes an instrumental process in which the best tools are adopted to achieve specific objectives (Pierson, 2004; du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991). In ‘Economy and Society’ Weber provides an ‘ideal-type’ of bureaucracy, namely an exemplification of bureaucracy in its most ‘rational or pure form’ (du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991).  The Weberian ‘ideal-type’ bureaucratic model is defined by the presence of different, well-defined jurisdictional areas, hierarchically ordered by written laws and administrative regulations. The division of labour is also hierarchically organised based on office authority: lower offices are controlled, directed and disciplined by higher ones. Office holding is regarded a ‘vocation’ that offers a career path in which authoritative status is gained thorough training and specialised qualifications. Lower offices’ duty is fundamentally to fulfil the aims set out by the higher offices, represented by management in private corporations and by the ultimate legal authority in public organisations as governments. In achieving these aims, duties are to be delivered in an impersonal manner as roles are determined by laws and not by individuals’ personal qualities, hence placing the continuous and main source of authority in the ‘office’ itself, rather than in the individual undertaking a task (Pierson, 2004; du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991, pp. 196-204).

This type of bureaucracy emerged as technically superior to any other form of public agency organisation. As Weber writes: ‘precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration’ (Weber, 1991, pp. 214).

These inherent features of bureaucracy make it the most effective and rational mean to exercise authority over human beings and to maintain modern society civilisation. At the same time, however, the major extents to which the modern state – in all its expressions – has been bureaucratised worries Weber, who arrives to warn about the ‘iron cage of bureaucracy’ (du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991, 1947, 1978). Division of labour, hierarchical order, impersonal rules, specialised knowledge, expertise and the legitimated functional rationality underlying decision-making processes form the life-blood of the bureaucratic organisation (Pierson, 2004; Weber, 1991, 1978). These elements, as Weber suggests, create a ‘virtually indestructible organisation mechanism’ expressing the main dynamic and drive underpinning the modern world: the constant search for power to control people’s lives (Weber, 1991). Above all else, exercising authority based on knowledge dismantled traditional social relations that held the community together in pre-modern societies, replacing them with more rational, instrumental, individualistic and competitive forms of social and political organisation. Moreover, bureaucracies’ legal-rational, value-free and knowledge-based character limits human protentional, dehumanising and alienating individuals which are increasingly brought to act ‘sine ira et studio’ (du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991). In addition, bureaucracy has the inherent tendency to exceed its functions. According to Weber, this is empirically showed by the late 19th century Prussian circumstances as the state’s government was effectively controlled by its bureaucratic apparatuses. Although Prussian administration defined itself to be ‘above party’, Weber looks at this statement with scepticism. He believes that bureaucracies have their own values and interests, different indeed from those of the political parties which recruited them. This difference in values brings bureaucracies to act as autonomous bodies, concerned with their own preservation and expansion and therefore, risking failure in meeting the political order’s objectives (du Gay, 2005; Heper, 1985; Weber, 1991; 1978).

Undoubtedly – bureaucracy is the organisational from of modernity as it allows the mechanisms required to respond to the incessantly changing demands of modern capitalist societies, polities and economies. Nevertheless, Weber remains extremely ambivalent about the value of bureaucracy and the inevitable advance of the ‘iron cage’ that threatens political and civic freedoms (du Gay, 2005; Weber, 1991, 1947, 1978; Wolin, 1961).

Weber seems to be giving a compelling account of rationalisation, bureaucratisation and power. However, he partly fails, as he does not locate sources of power outside the State. Foucault’s research on disciplinary power seems to be complementary – at least in this sense – to Weber’s analysis and description of rationalisation and bureaucratisation processes. From the late 18th century, Foucault argues, as industrialisation advances, people are increasingly disconnected from the sovereign authority; however, they are governed through other, more subtle forms of power (Foucault, 1979). Society comes to be administered not directly by sovereign power, but through what Foucault calls ‘disciplinary power’. This kind of power works through several different institutions and practices to shape both people’s bodies and behaviours. Famously, in ‘Discipline and Punish’ (1979), Foucault genealogically analyses the transformations in the means of punishment and imprisonment of individuals in the modern world. He emphasises that the new modes of punishment are effectively models to control societies. He roots the reforms in the means of punishing and imprisoning in the principle of ‘panopticism’. Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural model of a perfect prison, in which from a central observation tower guards are able to control prisoners, without being seen. Aware of the threat of surveillance, prisoners would ultimately internalise authority and regulate their behaviours (Foucault, 1979). According to Foucault, the model of ‘panopticism’ has effectively infused both private and state organisations, in the attempt to form a ‘docile’ society. As bureaucracy and rationalisation, the power of the panopticon is impersonal, organised, diffused and tied up with expert knowledge, as people are constantly observed. However, in contrast with Weber, Foucault argues that it is not only the state that came to govern people, with its forms or rational bureaucracy; rather, different types of government operate in people’s everyday lives, directing their behaviours.

With its different institutions and practices, the bureaucratic organisation came to define the modern state, playing a pivotal role in its rise and expansion. Moreover, despite the ‘iron cage threat’, representing a possible threat to freedom and cause of alienation, bureaucracy and its legal-rational character successfully pervaded society, defining ultimately not only the state, but people’s lives.



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   What is the State?

The state is the principal form of political organisation in the modern world, governing many aspects of people’s lives.

↳        The modern state has only been established recently: it emerges during the 16th century in Western Europe.

↳        In the 19th century it becomes the dominant form of political organisation in Europe and then the world.

Understanding how and why the modern state came to be the dominant form of political organisation in the world is important for understanding the nature of the state today and thinking about its future.

⇒     What is the modern state?

The state’s main characteristics are: sovereignty, territoriality and administrative hierarchy (→ these should be considered ‘ideal types’ – i.e. useful abstractions that help to get a better grip on what the state is, but the claim is not that any state possesses all these features, or that these features cannot themselves be qualified in various ways).

What the state is, it is not a mystery.

The state is a form of political organisation, made up of various institutions and practices. But the ‘state’ is also a concept that allows to make sense of the world, to understand it more clearly, and ask whether it should be changed and if so, how.

How from the system of politics characteristic of Medieval Europe we got to the international system of states that has its origins in Western Europe and that became by the early twentieth century the dominant form of political organisation in the world?

②   Political Transformations

How did the sovereign territorial state become the main form of political organisation in Europe between mid-16th and mid-18th century?

⇒     Pre-Modern State.

  • Ancient Greece: cities and regions share similar “culture”, but there is not a centralised form of political power.
  • Roman Empire: there is a centralised political authority that links up the several main cities of the empire. In the territories in between the main cities, the imperial authority does not apply as strictly. → It is more an imperial network, rather than a territorial integrated political organisation.
  • Feudalism: economy and politics are effectively fused: political power is directly related to the power over land ownership. → The warlords and their armies are the most significant political unit, who aspire to gain as much territory as possible.

⇒     The emergence of the Sovereign Territorial State: in 15th – 16th century, besides the Holy Roman Empire, there are two kinds of powerful territorial states:

  1. Italian City-States: cities characterised by their power to exercise authority within the city itself, and on the surrounding hinterland.
  2. City-Leagues as The Hanseatic League: a commercial and defensive confederation of merchants and market cities.

Why, despite their power neither of these survive, being overruled by sovereign territorial states?

Spruyt’s argument: sovereign territorial state system work because of factors both internal – i.e. states consolidating their internal power by defeating their internal enemies – and external – organisations mutually empowering one another and forcing out the last forms of pre-modern states.

↳        However, this tends to ignore the historical complexities that accompanied the rise of the modern state, which cannot be seen as ‘inevitable’, rather it needs to be approached as the result of the coincidence of several long-term trends and short-term episodes.

③   War

War is an important factor in human history and changes in warfare have played a key role in shaping the success of the sovereign territorial states.

↳        State building involves the gradual monopolisation of the means of (legitimate) violence (see Weber’s definition of ‘state’).

↳        In early modern Europe, sovereigns aim to have the monopoly of the means of violence by defeating their internal and external enemies.

⇒     Changes in the character of warfare

  • Feudalism: fighting in war is into the hands of private individual. → The knights perform military service for the higher nobility, in return receiving land, payments for their armour and horses, and the ability to call on a retinue.

↳        They lived in castles, and social prestige and status grew around the size and strength of one’s castle.

↳        No real distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ warfare.

  • By the 15th century, several developments occur:
  1. The use of phalanxes of pikemen who are increasingly trained
  2. The use of gunpowder.
  3. The development of mercenary armies as product of a monetised economy. 

↳        Positional warfare becomes popular and, in return, fortifications are improved (see trace italienne).

Early modern Europe changes in technological warfare favoured the sovereign territorial states, since smaller realities became less and less able to keep up, while, when competing with big empires, positional warfare allowed smaller states to better defend themselves.

↳        However, it is too simple to assert that the ‘military revolution’ was the main inter-state factor in promoting political change: in fact, the ‘revolution’ was not as quick as that term tends to suggest, and war remained an often haphazard and contingent affair in early modern Europe, with states still being defeated by non-state entities well into the 18th century.

④    The System of States

‘Sovereignty’ is not created only from within: the system of relationships among states also influenced the development of sovereign territorial states. → Two important historical factors:

⇒     The Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

At the end of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) – political and religious struggle, involving the major powers of Europe outbroke from the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther discipline) – the Peace of Westphalia is signed, establishing the principle of ‘cuius regio eius religio’ and declaring that no state can interfere in another state’s affairs.

↳        Realist international relations theory sees Westphalia as the starting point of the modern international system of states, marking the moment when already constituted sovereign states agree to respect each other’s internal authority.

→     However, as Hirst argues, Westphalia is central mainly because the principle ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ allows states to have greater control over their internal populations, and thus assert their sovereignty over them (→ Consolidation of internal power).

It is vital for the international system that sovereigns establish a monopoly of the means of violence within their territories, as well as it is crucial for them to control the external means of violence, so to have complete control over what their subjects do in relation to other states.

↳        Thomson argues that this process of controlling the external means of violence does not happen until well into the 19th century and it can only occur when the international system of states emerges, a system of nation-states.

⇒     The Congress of Vienna in 1814.

The objective of the Congress was to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. → They want to create peace and stability in Europe around the idea of powers’ balance (i.e. great powers should balance each other out)

↳        What they did in creating peace and stability around Europe was to provide the environment in which liberal nationalisms can emerge, driving eventually towards the development of the nation-state.


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