The Administrative State Cannot Be Controlled or Reformed: "The Political Illusion" by Jacques Ellul
Red Caesar may ride in on his white horse, but he will not be able to reform the administrative state. Neither will super smart AI. Neither will running government like a corporation.
This is part four in an ongoing series on Jacques Ellul’s The Political Illusion. Part one can be found here: “The Necessary and the Ephemeral.” Part two can be read here: “The Autonomy of Politics.” Part three is linked to here: “Propaganda and the Political.”
The standard reaction to the growth of the administrative state in the democratic west is that what is needed is for the citizenry to exercise effective control over the state. The idea is that an educated, motivated, engaged citizenry can impose its will on the state. This, we will discover, is an illusion.
In order to exercise control of the state means a citizenry, at least a sizable chunk of the people, must be able to make themselves fully available to the task, that is, they must make it their full time occupation. Controlling the state is not something that can be done part time or occasionally. The Greeks and the Romans understood this. Exercising “democratic” control of the state requires a life of leisure.
Even if you had a contingent of men of leisure with the ability and desire to impose their will on the administrative state, it would be unreasonable to expect that they could truly affect the state. This is an unrealistic and illusory desire. The processes, procedures, structures and institutions of the administrative state are important, but reforming them will not lead to a true change in the reality of the administrative state itself.
“The idea that the citizen should control the state rests on the assumption that, within the state, parliament effectively directs the administrative organs, and the technicians. But this is just a political illusion.”
To put it bluntly, once you go down the road of implementing the idea of the administrative state as the means to effectively govern a people, once you embrace the idea of the of the professional bureaucracy, the citizenry and its elected officials effectively lose control of the government. The bureaucracy becomes the ruling sovereign.
“The organs of representative democracy no longer have any other purpose than to endorse decisions prepared by experts and pressure groups.”
This reality has been made clear to many during the recent Covid-19 lockdowns. Elected politicians deferred to “experts” in the name of “science.” It was obvious to most that for much of the so-called pandemic, the citizenry and its elected officials were effectively cut out of the decision making process. Increasingly, previously unknown bureaucrats and administrators were thrust into the limelight and many saw that it was they who were making all the decisions. We asked ourselves, “who elected these ‘experts’ and put them in charge?”
We discovered that the decision process was not a matter of legislation. It turns out that these decisions are made within a web of the personal judgements of credentialed specialists and experts. We could see, or sense the network of structures with their own traditions and conflicts. We could see the pressure groups at work. There seemed to be at once no one person in charge and yet one could feel the power of this dispersed network of decision making nodes at work. We now know what the administrative state is and yet we still live with the contradictory belief that we should somehow be able to control the behemoth, the many headed hydra.
We must understand that the modern state is not a centralized organ of decision, rather it is a decentralized network of political organs. This is the machinery of the bureaucracy. There are two separate, even contradictory, elements of the state. One is of course the elected political personnel with their various assemblies and councils. The other is the administrative personnel in the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats do not work for the politicians. They are a power unto themselves. The true administration of the affairs of government does not happen in the representative bodies. Rather, it occurs in the bureaus.
“The true political problems, those concerning the daily lives of the nation and affecting the relationship between citizen and public power are in the hands of the bureaus. In them resides the reality of the modern state.”
Part of the problem with the administration of a nation is the scope and size of the bureaucracy. It cannot be grasped in the whole, and nobody really controls it. The bureaucracy is everywhere and is the entire state. Every cabinet member and all of his key political appointees are nothing without the bureaucratic infrastructure. They need it more than the infrastructure needs the cabinet members.
The idea that a cabinet member can issue an order, make a decision, and this will be able to fundamentally change the nature of the bureaucracy is pure fantasy. Once an order is issued by a minister, it escapes his control. The matter takes on an independent life. It will circulate within the various branches of the ministry and eventually the bureau will decide what it wants to do with the directive. It is entirely possible that orders will emerge in line with the initial decision, but more frequently nothing will emerge. The decision will simply evaporate in numerous administrative channels and never see the light of day. Often this is done on purpose when the politicians and the bureaus are not ideologically aligned.
It has gotten to the point that the bureaus can effect actions independently, in their own interests, that are able to curtail and sanction the activity of the politicians. We have come to call this activity the work of the “deep state,” but it is merely the action of the administrative state demonstrating its power in such a way as to curb the power and influence of the elected officials.
We must understand that the complexity of the bureaucracy precludes any single decision being able to affect the whole of the administration. There is no single center. It is impossible to get the whole government onto a single page. The diversified inter-related network of decision making nodes are not responsible to anyone, not the politicians and certainly not the citizenry. No one person, or even a small handful of persons, are in charge. This is the state. This is the power that runs the modern nation state. This is the power that runs the increasingly globalized administration.
There is never one decision, but rather thousands upon thousands of partial decisions each with its own varying degree of implementation and effectiveness. The administrative state does not obey the rules of parliament or even of legislation or law; rather, it obeys its own laws of organizations and technique. The structure and nature of the technical as instantiated in the administrative state ensure its continuity regardless of the personnel or even the administration in charge. The administrative state will remain its own entity, its own continuing power regardless of the bureaucrats or elected officials who are supposedly in charge. Changing incumbents or regulations will do little to change a bureaucracy. They develop their own internal logic and they run according to its demands, its goals, its culture, its priorities which are largely unaffected by the personnel or legislative changes.
Dealing with a bureaucracy requires great specialization. We must also see the bureaucracy as an entirely rationalized entity. There is nothing organic about it all. It is the application of “scientific” and technical reasoning to affairs of the state. Bureaucracies seem slow and ponderous and inefficient, but that is mere appearance. Given the sheer volume of information that must be taken in, processed, assimilated and managed every day; given the over all number of decisions that must be made every day, the administrative state is a remarkable achievement of effectiveness and efficiency. In truth, the one rule that the bureaucracy does obey like an iron law is that of efficiency. What is the most efficient, effective, reproducible and consistent way of administering the details of the state?
Ellul also highlights for us that bureaucracies function by their nature with anonymity and secrecy. It is this character out of which the idea of the deep state arises. All decisions in the administrative state are made anonymously. In this sense, no one is making the decisions by which the country is being run. This is the essence of the de-politicization of the administrative state. It is a denial of politics. There are no political choices to be made in regards to the administrative state, there is no freedom of choice, because all decisions are dictated by the necessity of the organization. “Freedom” is a not a value of the bureaucratic order. It is a techno-rational determinism at the heart of the administrative state.
Administration and Man
We should not talk about the administrative state as an organism, as it does not obey organic rules. An administration is a technical abstraction. While there are people that staff the bureaucracy and they have personal strengths, motivations, flaws and their own agendas; while there are identifiable channels of communication, both formal and informal; while there can be a culture to an organization with its own habits and peculiarities; while there are power struggles within an organization with status issues and rivalries and class divisions, all of this is secondary, looking at the trees to miss the forest. We must remember that whatever “human” elements there are to an administrative state, these happen within the confines and limitation of a techno-rational system.
Within this system, no one person is ever able to influence the whole of the bureaucracy. Ellul notes that there is no differences in bureaucratic administrations. There is no difference between a “democratic” administrative state or the communist administrative state. Nor is there a difference between public administrations and private corporate administrations. They are all techno-rational systems. This is why corporate entities seem to be mimicking public sector entities. This is why American technocrats look favorably upon the work of Chinese technocrats and their administrative state. An administrative state is an administrative entity no matter what context it finds itself. It obey its own rules. The technical imperative of techno-rational administrative entities is for ever increasing expansion and reinforcing unity to create a singular technical system running all things. All bureaucracy is bureaucracy.
The politician is divided. He must gain and keep power. He cannot give his full attention to enacting administrative reforms unless he first gains and keeps power. In addition, the skillset necessary for the gaining and keeping of political office are quite different from those that make one an effective administrator. Because of the politician’s need to gain and keep power—even the dictator, the Caesar, must attend himself to gaining and keeping power—he will never be an expert administrator. He will never have the expert’s grasp of the administration. He will always be an amateur with an amateur’s grasp of the bureaus. Thus, the politician’s power over the bureaucracy is always theoretical because he is not first of all an expert administrator and the bureaucrats know this.
Yet, the politician must put his faith in the bureaucracy. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of legislation originates in and among the experts that staff the administrative state. He will often sign into law legislation what he has never read, does not know and cannot know.
The larger the bureaucracy the more impossible it is for the politician to have effective knowledge of the state or have power over it, to direct it all. Scale is a significant part of the problem. Even if a politician can assert control over the administrative state, this will be a temporary situation. The experts will return soon enough and balance will be restored. It is true that the dedicated politician can effect the system. He can improve methods, controls, chains of command, internal coordination and efficiency. But these reforms do not make the administrative state more accountable. The better it runs, the more autonomous it becomes. The more that the administrative state is reformed, the more powerful and independent it will be. And the more independent the bureaus become, the harder they will be to reform in the future. A bureaucracy is always moving in the direction of greater size, scope and independence. As the administrative state penetrates the political machine and starts to affect and direct the decision making process of politicians, is the degree to which the bureaucracy becomes the state.
Dictators who think they can control a bureaucracy are fooling themselves. Their anti-bureaucratic speeches are similar to magical incantations. They will not be able to affect change in the system. They will need the system more than the system will need the dictator. A dictator or a one-party state does not change the essential nature and rules by which a techno-rational administrative state runs. Why is this?
For a dictator or an single political party to meaningfully challenge the bureaucracy, it must have its own staff of talented and dedicated experts. This idea is all the rage now on the right. We need to foster our own expert class to counter the expert class of the left. This is an illusory effort doomed to failure from the start. It does not matter and will do little or nothing. By developing its own cadre of experts, the party is in effect developing its own bureaucracy to challenge the bureaucracy of the state. At best you will end up with two battling bureaucracies. But because all bureaucracies are dictated by the techno-rational imperative, the two battling bureaucracies will in the end more resemble each other than they will represent two meaningful alternatives. They do not result in less bureaucracy or better bureaucracy. It always leads to more bureaucracy. More rule by experts. This is the inevitable result of any efforts to develop policy centers or think tanks or one’s own reformist set of experts. They all in the end add to the total web of bureaucratic expertise. The whole system become Kafkaesque.
No longer do people interact with government through their elected officials, through the voting box. The citizen’s relationship with government is through the bureaucracy. And because the idea that the individual person can in any meaningful way influence the administrative state, their impotence grows as the administrative state grows. The bureaucracy slowly becomes an omnipotent force in society.
“The state’s truly authoritarian face is not modified by one or the other decision. A bureaucratic administration cannot be anything but authoritarian, even if it has no intention of being so.”
Our bureaucratic state is authoritarian not because of any one political decision or any political ideology. Rather, it becomes so because every day thousands of decisions are made over which no one has any oversight nor any recourse against. Most of these decisions are routine and mundane.
The role of propaganda, as we saw last time, is to integrate us into the bureaucratic state, to accept its authority and to sympathize with its reasons for the actions it takes.
“It is precisely here that the political illusion resides—to believe that the citizen, through political channels, can master or control the state.”
Politicians do nothing without the administrators and they do nothing in opposition to them.
“The illusion is to believe that bureaucracy can be controlled by democracy.”
You cannot have a bureaucracy and a functioning self-rule by the citizenry. The two ideas cannot co-exist together in reality. In a bureaucratic state, democracy is no longer a means for controlling state power, but rather it is the medium by which the administrative state organizes the masses in harmony with its own ends. Democracy is the means for controlling the demos on behalf of the bureaucracy, not the other way round. Covid-19 lockdowns clearly demonstrated this.
We see the politicians on TV. You see the election results conveyed through the media. You think that you have participated in the real political mechanisms. But those remain hidden to us, opaque. The media keeps us from searching deeper and understanding the true nature of power and where it resides.
The belief that you can participate in political life in the world of the administrative state is another illusion.
“What we are offered here is, in reality, a propaganda-democracy in which the citizens decide nothing because they are organized in a rigidly structured mass, manipulated by propaganda and limited to endorsing with enthusiasm all decisions taken in their name or to pronouncing with authority all that has been suggested to them.”
Ellul has pretty much summed up the state of things. We believe that our participation matters, that our opinion matters, but that opinion has been manufactured by propaganda. And for that matter, does the citizenry even have the desire to participate? We protest and debate, but we rarely take on the work of governing society. In truth, the kind of person capable of participation is not wanted.
“The more organized a state becomes, the more streamlined its institutions and its economy planned, the more it becomes necessary to eliminate the politically mature citizen who is independent and thoughtful and acts on his own will.”
“The growing state (even the democratic state) can do nothing with such genuine dissenters except eliminate them.”
The agenda has not changed Anon, but you know that. The one who understands, the one who is politically mature is an obstacle to good political organization. The state must eliminate them because they cannot be used by nor integrated into the state.
And if you are politically mature, it does you no good to work within the system, because if you believe that by doing so you will be influencing politics and interacting with real political affairs you are giving into the most pitiful of illusions, says Ellul. To participate in party politics is to participate in a pseudo-reality.
Yet, one of the dominant philosophies of the day, existentialism, as manifest in autonomous individualism, gives people, especially the young, the idea that they are free and because they are free they must engage in politics to find and establish their freedom through the political. But this participation is based on the idea that parties and political organizations have actual influence on political affairs and that the party structure provides people with ready-made judgements that allow the individual to surrender personal responsibility for this supposed influence. Thus the individual is co-opted into the party believing that in so doing they are actualizing themselves towards influencing the political, when, in fact, they are selling themselves out to an entity that has no ability to influence the character of the administrative state all.
The truth is that political leaders, the leaders of the parties and the political action groups, have all accepted the plans and goals prepared for them by experts, the same or similar experts who staff the administration and dictate the ends and means of all policies. It is pure idealism to believe that through participation in party politics one can effect the course of government.
Stakeholder groups are no better than the parties. The moment a group starts organizing in order to influence the state it will begin to take on and form its own bureaucracy of experts. Eventually this group will be ask to “advise” the government, at which point it simply becomes and extension of the administrative state itself. This goes for all unions and NGOs as well as think tanks. They all eventually become extensions of the bureaucracy. Once their interests become bureaucratic, these so-called activist groups will then start to resist input from the masses. The more influential a group becomes the more their function is not to bring the input of the citizen to government, but to keep the people in line.
Eventually the state will get the better of all groups organized to reform or counter the state. Once these local and intermediary powers are co-opted or eliminated, the field is open for increased administrative state authoritarianism. The more you organize to oppose or reform the state, the larger and more influential the state becomes.
If you think that things would be better if we got regular people into these positions as opposed to college educated experts, this too is a mistake. The idea that if the “chuds” take power this will make all things better is an illusion as history tends to show that when ordinary people are put into positions of power, they tend to be crueler and harsher than the professionals.
Neither is the “rustication” of the bureaucracy a solution. Breaking up the bureaucracy and spreading it around the country will not work. The administrative state requires, demands, centralization. No sooner that it is done, the march towards re-centralization will begin in earnest. Decentralization is not an option.
The astute observer is likely beginning to see the solution. It is not quite as simple as “burn it all down,” although that seem to be a big part what Ellul is implies without saying it out loud. Man cannot, does not, have the space to govern himself, to embrace the fullness of his humanity as long as he is governed by the administrative state. We will flesh out this heroic journey next time and try to inspire readers through words, through Ellul’s ideas, to take up the task of becoming free men. There is a moral and spiritual aspect to this: a society of heroically free men.
I was re-reading this excellent article when something you wrote on Twitter struck me.
You wrote, "Let's face some hard truths about the culture war. In war there is no rules. Rules of war are for peace time." If the culture war really is a war then instead of analysis don't we need to be talking about strategy and tactics?
Thank God for communism, otherwise I would have become a democrat.
P.S. "Government is not about morality, it is about stability; keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. Still being here tomorrow!"-Sir Humphrey Appleby
P.P.S. "There are no ends in administration. Only loose ends. Administration is eternal"-Sir Humphrey Appleby