Organizational form and power: the political performance of organizations

1. Situating bureaucracy

Weber (1947) made the case for rational-legal bureaucracy as a bulwark against the blandishments of patrimonial power and privilege. The argument is familiar. Classical liberal bureaucracy, conceived on a rational-legal basis, stood for an ethos of service to the public, through conformance to certain means, rather than the arbitrary treatment of people according to caste, status or resources. Rational-legal bureaucracy presumed democratic ideals, rule without regard for persons, and was intended as an abstract ideal as well as the basis for empirical description. Bureaucracy was a construct for Weber that served to represent in an accentuated form the qualities that any contemporary German liberal nationalist would admire as well as to condense the qualities appropriate to the construction of rational legality and bureaucracy.

In the last 20 years, a newer construct of market liberal bureaucracy has emerged with an alternative ethos of efficiency at its core.1 With the creation of the new public sector management, modern conceptions of efficiency have emerged as the domi- nant characteristic for judging bureaucracy (Clarke and Newman 1997). Today the entrepreneurial type of public official, focused on value for money, is required by senior policy people (du Gay 2000a: 114). Added value has been sought through the implementation of internal management processes ‘dominated by the twin rubrics of business planning and the building of corporate commitment to a spe- cific organizational “mission” and purpose, linked to survival in a competitive envi- ronment’ (Clarke and Newman 1997: 147).

In its application to practice, the original liberal bureaucratic construct has been criticized as failing to produce members emotionally committed to the pursuit of eco- nomic efficiency, which emerges as the central value of the new public sector man- agement critique (see du Gay 2000b). Efficiency, which, as we saw in the early chapters, was originally derived from classical mechanics, has influenced much of the meaning surrounding contemporary management discourse on bureaucracy. As some have maintained, whilst an organization may be economical in its use of resources, it will not necessarily be efficient if it is focused solely on cost reduction (see Ransom and Stewart 1994). Efficiency, in this context, stands as a signifier against waste, such that, in the popular and reformist imagination, war against waste is associated with an assault on old-style (Weberian) bureaucracy (cf. Osborne and Gaebler 1992).

It is well known that Weber (1978) had no truck (Albrow 1997) with the ethos of efficiency that has been predominant in writings on bureaucracy in recent times. The central values embedded within the character of being a classically rational- legal bureaucrat, and all that this meant in terms of vocation (Weber 1947), have come under attack. Such ideals included a lack of self-interest; commitment to principles embodied in rules; allegiance to authority positions instead of individuals; and above all, a sense of personal responsibility in service provision, the stress on being a public servant. Weber’s (1947) admiration for the culture of a professional administrative vocation is now seen as featherbedding and in need of replacement with a cost-cutting or entrepreneurial mentality.

The reception of efficiency has been one-sided. One dimension of public sector management – value for money – has been elevated above all other considerations in the ‘war on waste’ (du Gay 2000b). The rhetoric involves defining efficiency as the accomplishment of predetermined goals according to market-informed opportunities. Thus, efficiency has been constructed in such a way as to slice off the public value- dimension, so preventing discussion of goals by making discussion of the older type of efficiency out of bounds. What is now commonly defined as efficient involves neither questioning of public ends nor suggesting links to purposeful means (du Gay 2000b). Public servants understand the change in attitude. In the new climate, bureau- crats fear their jobs being contracted out to more ‘efficient’ markets (Rees and Rodley 1995). Advocates of bureaucratic reform conjure up a new ethic of accountability founded upon narrowly defined short-term commercial objectives. Decision making according to market-driven pressures will introduce the discipline of markets (Osborne and Gaebler 1992; see Stokes and Clegg 2002). Outputs should be defined and measured, and performance-based orientations developed towards them. Short- term goals are linked to accountability ‘since these are the ones against which outputs and performance are measured’ (Clarke and Newman 1997: 147). Finally, public employees will be inculcated with a culture oriented toward customer service, medi- ated by the managerial vision framing their goals.

Weber understood the function of technical virtuosity as a first line of defense in rational-legal bureaucracy against imprudent power, unbridled purpose, and vision- ary zeal. An intricate sense of due process could limit executive excess, as some crit- ics of naive reform have noted (Stokes and Clegg 2002). When one examines what gets adopted from ideas such as efficiency, one sees a complex interplay at work. The process of identity switching often deforms when translating superordinate desires, such as visions, into subordinate practice (see various arguments of, for example, Latour 1987; 1996; Law 1999; Callon 1998; Law and Hassard 1999; Newton 1996). Bureaucrats might be required to invest new relations of meaning into old values and identities in ways that surprise would-be reformers, and old meanings can be attached to new things that are envisioned as efficiency (see, for example, Newton 1996; Cálas and Smirchich 1999; Mol 1999; Callon 1991; 1998; 1999).

Weber envisaged bureaucracy as supporting a growing pervasiveness of rational calculation as a central value in all spheres of life, and he was well aware that the ends that public administration serves are determined elsewhere by politicians. Nonetheless, Weber regarded the means for their accomplishment as a technical vir- tuosity which political vision should not interfere with. The contemporary emphasis in organizations is on new values and visions to drive meaning throughout orga- nizational culture (see Bryman 1992). Ardent bureaucratic reformers, such as Peters (1992), Osborne and Gaebler (1992) and Kanter (1990), urge leaders of bureaucracies to develop new relations of meaning and purpose, framed by the vision conceived by their chief executive(s), or their consultants. Where Weber saw an increasing rationalization of the world, with the separation of bureaucratic means from whatever political ends drove their purpose, modern writers instead point to an increasing enchantment.

Chief executives and consultants have come to be defined as the enchanting visionaries of a secular age. Visionaries were not always so divorced from religious connotations. We should, perhaps, not forget the religious, pre-modern derivation of vision and visionaries. In feudal times – against which the economic conditions of a rational-legal conception emerged – one was as likely to be condemned as lauded for having visions (Roper 1994). Visions were generally dramatic and unset- tling challenges to the keepers of knowledge, the priesthood. While they might excite the populace they were as likely to enflame them and hence were best avoided in favor of the reiteration of organizational orthodoxy. Visions are no longer enchanted religious convictions, or, rather, they retain their enchantment only in as much as they have made themselves in the image of people for whom the market is their icon (Schreurs 2000).

Modern managerial capitalism has solved the unsettling effects of visions by making them the preserve of the powerful rather than the powerless, of CEOs rather than peasant girls such as Joan of Arc. The vision becomes a tool of pre- scribed action rather than emancipatory change. The less bureaucratically power- ful are urged to attend to futures imagined for them by the more powerful, rather than the vision being an articulation of an aesthetic made pure by its supposed distance from power, as enlightened knowledge. In the public sector the effects of visionaries upon employees’ work are reasonably well known. Since the set of policy initiatives that analysts loosely termed ‘Thatcherism’ (Gamble 1988) emerged in the early 1980s, the preferred route for changing the public sector entailed replac- ing the dedicated career bureaucrat at their apex with political appointees who would ensure that technical virtuosity did not undermine their attachment to polit- ical visions.2 Such appointments appear to require the adoption of a new subjectiv- ity by public servants; they will be the key mechanism whereby classical liberal bureaucracy transforms into contemporary market efficient bureaucracy.

Creating efficient contemporary liberal market bureaucracies involves a change of sensemaking about purpose. While new sensemaking may throw old ways of public administration into bold relief, rarely will it produce the superordinately desired new rules for making different sense of organizational realities. Interpretation will always occur in the context of the previous knowledge of those whose responsibility it is to make sense of rules or business practices. Old ways of doing things stick and settle down, deeply sedimented, in both consciousness and organization, irretrievably there, prowling about like a ghost, as Weber (1976) might have said. New orientations to action can rarely be bought and adopted wholesale, once they come to market, and the old discarded. In this respect, the multiplicity of overlapping and incomplete lan- guage games, comprising ambiguous, shifting, and frequently undercodified rules, appears a normal part of bureaucracy (Zimmerman 1971).

The emphasis on the legitimacy of bureaucratically authoritative meaning as emanating from superordinate vision within the rhetoric of the new public sector management may well be mistaken. It is neither the conviction nor the vision of powerful zealots, any more than it is individual receptivity to new rhetoric, or the content of the rhetoric, that conditions the acceptance of such rhetoric. Legitimacy belongs not to privilege alone to ascribe; it also has a contingent relationship to the meaning projected on to executive action by those subject to it.3 Increasingly, of late, classic bureaucracy has been delegitimated and alternatives to it have been widely discussed, especially the emergence of a new, post-bureaucratic or postmodern type of organization with different conceptions of power (Clegg 1990).

Essentially, the arguments about new organization forms boil down to a propo-sition that new power relations are emerging, based less on formal rules and depen- dent more on neoliberal forms of governmentality, with flatter hierarchies and proliferating projects and networks, in which employment relations become based less on career and more on contingent contracts. It may be ‘post’ but it is still political, as we have argued elsewhere (Clegg and Courpasson 2004; Clegg et al. 2002) and as we shall elaborate in the next section.

2. The politics of bureaucracy

All the debates and controversies about the demise of bureaucracy have not changed the fact that bureaucracy is the point of departure in thinking about orga- nizational forms, and remains the central icon of organization studies. Bureaucracy is without any doubt ‘the primary institutional characteristic of highly complex and differentiated societies’ (Landau 1972: 167). Bureaucracy ‘epitomizes the modern era’ according to Blau and Meyer (1971: 10), because the meaning of bureaucracy is basically political. Bureaucracy is a political design as well as – indeed, even before – an organizational design. Bureaucracy aims to enhance the political performance of specific power structures.

As Weber noted in his speech to German army officers near the close of the First World War, the distant drum to whose beat they were likely to march in the future would be less probably shaped by socialism or capitalism than by bureaucracy. In this statement one can see the idea that bureaucracy is a purposeful social construction rather than a natural force coming from uncertain origins. Additionally, the deep political nature of the idea of administration is evident; it subsumes ideologies in this view. Bureaucracy has deep implications in terms of the management of power. The bureaucratic division of labor means that ‘individual workers and employees can be exchanged and replaced at any time’ (Dreyfuss 1938: 75). Bureaucracy is rather more a system of endogenous governance than a ‘mere’ organizational configuration stem- ming from exogenous contingencies and constraints. In other words, bureaucracy is a political shell functioning as a shield behind which the alternatives to bureaucracy dissimulate their inherent weaknesses.

Weber’s seminal insight was that, in an organizational context, the rationaliza-tion process that produces bureaucratization results in a diminution of individual power. People are rendered into machine-like obedient objects, trapped in the ‘iron cage’, as we have seen in Chapter 2, such that from the outset, a political economy of the body and then the soul was oriented to achieving this outcome. Bureaucracy represents the institutionalization of the political efficiency of centralized author- ity legitimized by the power of knowledge, neutralizing, thanks to the proliferation and dissemination of experts into the social body, any possibility and any vague impulses of contestation. As Waters puts it, bureaucracy is a power structure that is in principle ‘capable of being aggregated in an “upward” direction’ (1993: 56). It is an ‘upward-oriented’ kind of political structure because it enhances the develop- ment of a professionalization of experts, as knowledge producers and knowledge holders, so to speak. To quote Weber,

Bureaucratic domination means fundamentally domination through knowledge. This consists on the one hand in technical knowledge … but in addition to this … the hold- ers of power … have the tendency to increase their power still further by the knowledge growing out of experience in the service. (1978: 225)

Bureaucracy is an institutionalized power system where, according to functionalist logic, power flows as a circulatory medium in an inherently relational system. In Parsons’ (1963) words, bureaucracy is a ‘relational system within which certain cat- egories of commitments and obligations, ascriptive or voluntarily assumed – e.g. by contract – are treated as binding, i.e. under normatively defined conditions their fulfillment may be insisted upon by the appropriate role-reciprocal agencies … in case of actual or threatened resistance to “compliance” … they will be “enforced” by the threat or actual imposition of situational negative sanctions’ (in Scott 1994: 23). Power in bureaucracies is, therefore, a set of enforceable rules that prevents indi- viduals from contesting and resisting binding obligations, such behaviors being likely to diminish the general political performance of the organization. As we saw in Chapter 5, this conception of power stands in opposition to that of authority; indeed, it is only when the remit of authority fails or is resisted that power comes into view, always as the action of the ‘other’ opposed to management.

Following Weber (and putting aside most of his critics), he acknowledged the possibility of a paradoxical domination (and thereby of a paradoxical power struc- ture) when rational techniques and procedures became embodied in organiza- tional forms (McNeil 1978). To put it differently, the meaning of bureaucracy lies in the forms that organizational leaders are able to design to control employees, implying that political asymmetries exist that will structure social action. Bureaucracy is concerned much more with ‘efficiency of control’ (Benello 1969: 268) than with economic efficiency. Or, more precisely, economic performance stems from the political efficiency of organizational control.

Power is the core issue. Corporate elites design structures and procedures aiming ‘to gain information about labor, commodity, and capital markets, and then take strategic advantage of them’ (McNeil 1978: 70). These administrative structures alone do not obviously explain the enormous political differentials existing within bureaucracies. Moreover, managerial leaders occasionally, from time to time, need the intervention of the state. We see this most clearly when, ‘by not explicitly pro- hibiting exploitation in the making of contracts, the state was tacitly granting to pri- vate corporations extensive proprietary rights through contract law’ (1978: 71). Still, it was the modes of calculation used by bureaucratic elites which were the major mechanisms shaping the use of power rather than some instrumentality of the state. Weber’s view of the exercise of power by corporate elites depends profoundly on the conception of leaders’ and subordinates’ respective rationalities, and the role these rationalities play in shaping efforts to transform the environment (Giddens 1977). Administrative rationalities are crucial to understanding how elites trans- form ‘potential power’ into the actual exercise of power from within structures of dominancy regarded as legitimate authority, the essential meaning of bureaucracy as an administrative apparatus. The dynamics of available organizational forms affect important underlying aspects of organizations: the rationalities at hand, the power structures, the exercise of power, and the legitimacy of power holders. In short, they affect the entire political regime of organizations.

Organizational forms generate enormous power for corporate elites because it is through these that they inscribe and express their authority. The important question, therefore, is how elites shape and design the dynamics for controlling expressions of their power, politically, as well as understanding those reactions that resist it. Indeed, Weber stressed that the only way for individuals to gain freedom against the overwhelming power of bureaucracy was through permanent political struggle. And yet, as McNeil puts it, ‘rational-legal bureaucratic control is Hydra- headed’ (1978: 76) and not easy to dismantle.

The stratification of struggles between a manifold of actors (business leaders, con- sumers, organizational sectors, cities, etc.) gives to bureaucracy the paradoxical aspect of a contestable regime requesting democratic forms of deliberation to come up with credible ways of ending debates and ‘calling truces’. Democratic control has, therefore, to be relentlessly reasserted and strengthened, even if, contrary to what most critics have argued, bureaucratic control does not, per se, rule out democratic control (Albrow 1970). Specific organizational forms provide alternative solutions and ratio- nalities to legitimate the concrete use of power. Once again, what certain critics of bureaucracy have neglected (Blau 1957) is the constant linkage that Weber makes between power and technical rationality, where power is the very means of develop- ing and maintaining organizational performance. For modern organization theory, bureaucracy appears to be the demonstration that organizational forms should be conceived as the linkage between political and economic efficiency. Of course, the notion of bureaucracy being constructed in close relation to that of efficiency – rather than technical rationality – is not one that Weber would have been familiar with.

3. The meaning of (organizational) democracy and oligarchy

In the past, there has been little systematic reflection on democracy and organiza- tions, other than in Follett and the organizational democracy movement, particu- larly in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, in the 1960s and 1970s, as we saw in Chapter 3. However, there are much older and well-established notions of democ- racy, which are highly controversial when applied to the organizational world.

Two major lines of thought serve as a basis for developing our understanding of the relationships between democracy and power. They help us to conceive of orga- nizations as enabling, rather than tutelary, political systems. First, there is the work of Tocqueville, who presents a sophisticated theory of democracy through which we may see bureaucracies as associative rather than fragmenting and atomizing organizational systems (Goldberg 2001). Second, following Michels’ insights, a theory of democracy can help us understand how democratic forms of power either break down (Linz and Stepan 1978) or shift and turn, fatally, into oligarchic forms of power.

Understanding Tocqueville today entails, as he himself put it, that one should ‘adapt old values and ideas to new circumstances’ (Goldberg 2001: 292). Tocqueville’s theory of democracy can enlighten us on the influence that new organizational forms might have on equality and the concentration of power.4 Democracy for Tocqueville (2000: 3–7) is not restricted to popular government but is assimilated to a process of increasing social equality. Democracy is a way to cope with the ever- growing threats of modern times and the atomizing effects of modernization. It is a political and cultural cornerstone of institutions capable of sustaining political equality, despite the fragmenting and ‘disempowering’ effects of modernity. A question arising from Tocqueville’s work is whether ‘organizations [can] be a cred- ible alternative institutional setting replacing aristocratic institutions and values’. And in his terms, we need also to ask how ‘communities can be protected from tyranny and license’ (2000: 9). Thus organizational democracies are foundational settings in which every individual could be likely to

achieve freedom and fulfillment by being an active participant in a dynamic, self- governing community characterized by tight solidarity and fundamental – though usually not absolute – equality. This solidarity does not proceed primarily from personal ties, par- ticularly ties of personal dependence, but from common participation in an active com- munity which forms a moral whole. (Weintraub 1979: 6, quoted in Goldberg 2001: 293)

Equality is generated through the same types of processes as authority. It is a slow and often contested social construction involving power struggles. It is the result not of a discursive construct, but of political debates and contestation. For Tocqueville, this is the very essence of democracy, as a set of institutions whose engineering facilitates the emergence of intermediary forms of power, enabling conscious democratic decisions and developing an individual and collective sense of responsibility. Democracy entails a whole set of moral values whose activation helps organizations to avoid both social isolation and the excessive domination of bureaucratic and centralized power. From a political point of view, Tocqueville use- fully differentiates centralized government from centralized administration. The former refers to the concentration of power used to direct the general interests of the whole community, and is deemed necessary to the prosperity of any kind of collective. The latter refers to the concentration of power used to direct certain peculiar local interests, which, according to Tocqueville, is a threat to democracy.

To a certain extent, a neo-Tocquevillean theory of power would put forward the idea that reforms and redesigns of organizational forms should be carried out mostly by intermediary and associative groups. The treatment of equality within organiza- tions, from a neo-Tocquevillean perspective, requires an understanding of power structures, as efforts to control inequality supposedly hinder the development of ‘new aristocracies’ (Goldberg 2001: 305). In other words, the first meaning of democracy in the context of organizations is how to avoid different corporate oligarchies taking over either from rule-governed forms of expertise, or from custom-governed forms of aristocracy, and developing more or less legitimacy in the process? The problem for democracy is oligarchy, in other words, as Michels (1915) recognized.

Oligarchy is located at the core of power; it is the means of monopolizing and perpetuating resources of power through perfectly legal and rational processes. Michels’ basic reasoning was that organization precludes democracy, because ‘[I]mmanent oligarchical tendencies [exist] in every kind of human organization which strives for the attainment of definite ends … [and that] … the majority of human beings, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined … to submit to the dominion of a small minority’ (1915: 11, 32). According to Michels, political leadership is ‘incompatible with the most essential postulate of democracy’ (1915: 390). Organizations necessitate oligarchy as a set of arrangements ‘neither absolutely democratic nor absolutely autocratic’ (May 1965: 419). Simply, any kind of association becomes more or less rapidly ‘divided into a minority of directors and a majority of directed’ (Michels 1915: 32).

Power struggles are evident as the core process of internal oligarchization, and thus create a paradox of democracy. According to Michels, organization necessi- tates delegation and dispersion of authority; thus, ‘in the case of an association where one or just a few members have exercised all authority, the effect of organi- zation will be counter-autocratic’ (May 1965: 421). Even organizations that are democratic in conception, in the goals they promote as inclusive reasons for mem- bership, will fail to be democratic in the procedures and rules they design and use; they may be democratic in the plurality of interests they objectively and institu- tionally represent, rather than in the causes they actually promote through their strategies (see May 1965). Consequently, even if organizational forms end up trans- forming democratic regimes into oligarchic regimes, this influence will be exer- cised concretely through power struggles. It is simply the underlying arguments and criteria, deciding who governs, which are likely to evolve.

Michels thinks that democracy, rather than being viewed as a ‘simple equality’, is more a regime which ‘gives to each [citizen] the possibility of ascending to the top of the social scale … annulling … all privileges of birth … the struggle for pre- eminence should be decided in accordance with individual capacity’ (1915: 189). A meaning common to knowledge-based bureaucracy is therefore established. Oligarchy derives from the political process of the ‘professionalization of leader- ship’ more or less directly, because the interests of the experts in leadership are expressed in a struggle between leaders, who, in striving to compete to solidify their own personal positions, clash with those of the ‘masses’. The political struggle is the very definition of democracy, according to Wilde, as it is defined by ‘those rules that allow (though they do not necessarily bring about) genuine competition for authoritative political roles’ (1978: 29).

To sum up, whatever the origin of the analysis, the fictitious political continuum between, say, bureaucratic forms embedded in oligarchic regimes, and post- bureaucratic forms (Heckscher 1994) embedded in democratic regimes, inevitably displays the existence of central political antagonisms which cannot be concealed. The relationship between the dynamics of organizational forms along this contin- uum and the dynamics of organizational power is at the heart of the construction of the political performance of organizations.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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