Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017

Why is bureaucracy problematic?

In the long term pluralist commonwealth model, localist solutions are emphasized wherever possible, but they are also complemented by interventions carried out by larger public institutions when technologically necessary. In some areas this creates an important challenge which cannot be avoided. To the extent economic power is located in the hands of larger public institutions, the design of any model inevitably moves away from democratic participation and towards a de facto centralization of power at odds with genuine democratic control.

In the United States, the not terribly encouraging history of the Army Corp of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Columbia River Authority, the Bureau of Land management, and, of course, the Department of Defense suggest some of the critical problems. All are essentially socialized entities, but all are only very partially responsive to democratic input, if at all. These pathologies of bureaucratic power are magnified a thousandfold, of course, when we turn to the history of state socialist systems. Not only do large-scale bureaucracies offer major opportunities for elite capture (both by politicians and by the bureaucrats themselves, not to mention private interests), but they often prove ill-suited to certain kinds of challenges related to PLANNING (although the record on this question is far more interesting and subtle than most realize). And of course, by operating at a scale in which human lives all too easily become abstractions, they tend to project an image of a world in which it is hard to locate the values of community and solidarity.

What can be done in a pluralist commonwealth to minimize necessary bureaucracy?

Even so, the critical point is that many economic, ecological and other issues can only be dealt with at a scale larger than one neighborhood or one community. Nor does the challenge disappear by leaving large scale operations to large private corporations. The problem of scale, capitalist or socialist, private or public, cannot simply be wished away. Anyone who has flown across the Atlantic Ocean or ridden a high-speed railroad or used a cellphone that depends on satellite communication relays (and the rockets that established the system) knows that not all things can be built and managed in one neighborhood.

A crucial set of systemic principles that can help guide approaches to the challenge of scale include DECENTRALIZATION and subsidiarity, the latter referring to the idea (with origins in Catholic social thought) that all other things being equal, you pick the smallest possible scale at which a problem can actually be solved. By treating large, centralized power with a degree of suspicion, you can help forestall the creation of unnecessary bureaucratic power. Nevertheless, there remain challenges at which larger or more centralized solutions are the most appropriate—here PLURALISM can help, by ensuring that institutional power is never lodged in a single locus. In a very large nation like our own (Germany can fit within the confines of Montana!), regional—rather than national—public forms and structures are projected as part and parcel of the Pluralist Commonwealth (See REGIONALISM).1  A circumscribed role for MARKETS can also help keep bureaucratic inefficiencies at bay. Beyond that, one of the key areas for innovation in the development of the Pluralist Commonwealth is the creation of robust mechanisms for participatory input and governance that deepen democratic control over large-scale public and non-profit entities.

What contemporary interventions or potential interventions illustrate democratic control of large-scale entities?

Structural change like that projected in connection with regional decentralization is a critical longer range strategy. However, as the furor over the Affordable Care Act demonstrates, it is a serious mistake to ignore the lack of control we now have of major corporate institutions and to abandon the critique of bureaucracy to the right. What we now have often involves the worst of both corporate capitalism and state socialism. Despite some undeniable gains, the corporate foundation, complexity, and bureaucratic irrationality of our current healthcare system, for instance, should be countered by the simplicity of a single payer system (or even the provision of medical care directly as a public service without a layer of insurance that adds extra costs and complications). Medicare-for-all would be a major step in this direction—i.e. the substitution of what is essentially a large public insurance company for contending private corporate insurance bureaucracies whose main interest must be profit rather than health (and whose day-to-day operations are often more bureaucratic and unsatisfying than the way in which government run Medicare operates).

At the local level, many of the efforts around “crowdfunding” seek to eliminate the bureaucratic restrictions that prevent direct community funding of community projects. Participatory budgeting, despite its limited scope at the current stage of development, at least in the United States, points towards the use of directly democratic citizen involvement in the allocation of public resources—making possible a degree of transparency and accountability that demystifies and limits what are traditionally fairly bureaucratic government activities. Other promising strategies involve deliberative democracy, citizen juries, and new neighborhood decentralization of municipal decision making in connection with certain issues (SEE PLANNING).

Ultimately, the control of larger economic as well as political decisions depends on organizing economic life so that individuals have sufficient economic security and adequate free time to participate meaningfully in important public decision making. The goal is to build up a capacity for what political theorist Benjamin Barber calls “strong democracy” in everyday life so that we Americans can develop experience and skills to ultimately assert much greater control over the larger scale institutions of any society. As noted, our economic system already produces enough so that we could radically reduce the work week, allowing time for genuine participation, and this will only increase as time and technology go forward. Ultimately the conquest of bureaucracy, private or public, depends on DECENTRALIZATION, simplification of mission (as in Medicare), the development of a culture of genuine democratic participation, and the reallocation of income and time to make powerful citizen participation feasible.

See also:


Further reading

Andre Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason, (London: Verso, 1989).

Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003 [1984]).

David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2015).

Josh Lerner, Everyone Counts: Could “Participatory Budgeting” Change Democracy, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. For the size of Germany: The World Factbook, “Country Comparison: Area,” United States Central Intelligence Agency, accessed November 2, 2016; for the size of Montana: “State Area Measurements and Internal Point Coordinates,” United States Census Bureau, 2010, accessed November 2, 2016. 


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Gar Alperovitz | May 15, 2017