The discipline of organization

Although Weber’s interests were broad and many, for the contemporary organiza- tion and management theorist the most important types of power discussed by Weber derive from a constellation of interests that develops on a formally free mar- ket and from established authority that allocates the right to command and the duty to obey (Weber 1954: 291). According to Weber the modern world increas- ingly strips social actors of their ability to freely choose the means and ends of their actions, particularly as it organizes through bureaucracy. In modernity institutions rationalize and organize affairs, cutting down on individual choices, replacing them with standardized procedures and rules. Rational calculation becomes a monstrous discipline. Everything and everyone seemingly had to be put through a calculus, irrespective of other values or pleasures. It was a necessary and unavoid- able feature of organizing in the modern world.

Weber greatly admired the achievements of bureaucracy, as he saw them. In many respects these achievements were quite limited. Twentieth-century bureaucracy (that specifically modern form of organization that Weber saw) never achieved its full realization. We are confronting at the beginning of the twenty-first century its full realization in what has been named paradoxically ‘post-bureaucracy’, a more flexible and subtle form of organization that embodies bureaucracy in technologi- cal devices such as computers, cell phones, PDAs, etc. In other words, Weber saw an initial version of bureaucracy but not its full realization in modernity.

Weber was pessimistic about the long-term impact of bureaucracy. On the one hand, bureaucracies would free people from arbitrary rule by powerful patrimonial leaders, those who personally owned the instruments and offices of rule. They would do this because they were based on rational legality as the rule of law con- tained in the files that defined practice in the bureau. On the other hand, they would create an ‘iron cage of bondage’ (or more literally, as translated directly from the original German, a house of hardened steel). The frame was fashioned from the ‘care for external goods’ (1976: 181), by which Weber meant that if these goods were to come into one’s grasp in a market economy then one could gain them only by mortgaging one’s life to a career in a hierarchy of offices that interlocked and intermeshed, through whose intricacies one might seek to move, with the best hope for one’s future being that one would shift from being a small cog in the machine to one that was slightly bigger, in a slow but steady progression.

The iron cage would be fabricated increasingly from the materialization of abstract nouns such as calculability, predictability, and control, to which one must bend one’s will. Thus, power concerned less the direct imposition of another’s will on one and more the ways in which the conditions of one’s existence were increas- ingly inscribed in a rationalized frame which one’s will had to accommodate as a part of its assent to normalcy. Weber’s example is bureaucracy, characterized by rules and regulations, hierarchy of authority, careers, and specialization of roles. The bureaucracy operates in a predictable manner, seeks to quantify, and empha- sizes control over people and products through standardized and formalized rou- tines, such as those that Taylor advocated. Recast this way, Taylor had a very specific role to play, materializing the will to power.

If power were never resisted there would be no politics. For Weber, economic action based on the best technically possible practice of quantitative calculation or account- ing would be the most formally rational display of the form of rationality. By contrast, substantive rationality would denote concepts of goal-oriented action that will vary according to context and hence be indivisible from the real substance of specific set- tings. The second chapter of Max Weber’s (1978) Economy and society deals with the relationship between formal and substantive rationality (see the excellent account of the different conceptions of rationality in Kalberg 1980), where substantive rational- ity is the basis from which resistance springs as a menace to power, at least where it entails a project for humanity instead of a project for private individuals.

Where an individual has so internalized commitment to a rational institution, such as the civil service, or science, or academia, that the commitment shapes their dispositions in such a way that their will knows little or no resistance to its formal rationality, then this represents obedience to an institutionalized will to power. Power, at its most powerful, is a relation that institutes itself in the psyche of the individual. Simmel explored this when he examined how personality accommodates to the requirements of contemporary urban environments, emphasizing that punctuality, calculability and exactness become part of modern personalities to the exclusion of ‘those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within’ (1964: 413).

Increasing self-discipline, meshing with intensified bureaucratization, rationaliza- tion and individualization, marked modernity in the social world. External con- straint (sovereign power, traditional power) increasingly is replaced by internalization of constraint (disciplinary power, rational domination), assisted by the new tech- nologies of power that figures such as Taylor were developing. As Robert van Krieken puts it,‘being modern means being disciplined, by the state [and other organizational forms], by each other and by ourselves; that the soul, both one’s own and that of others, became organized into the self, an object of reflection and analysis, and, above all, transformable in the service of ideals such as productivity, virtue and strength’ (1990: 353). More recent writers such as Elias (1982) and Foucault (1977) are wholly in accord with Simmel (1971) and Weber (1978) in these respects.

The modern, rationalized person was increasingly disciplined in the discourse on power that Simmel and Weber jointly orchestrated. Simmel also saw domina- tion as in part a function of the symbolic content of widely held ideas embedded in everyday practices of life and discourse. These are conceptualized as ‘precepts’, a term derived from the Latin praeceptum, meaning instruction, tutelage, injunction, or command. The relevance to Taylorism thus becomes evident as a specific program of instruction and tutelage in domination, in the making of certain pre- cepts obligatory and exemplary, of framing a wholly rationalized way of organiza- tional life. It prepares the social and cultural foundations of a domination already secured economically by relations of production, ownership and control. As Simmel puts it, one becomes ‘habituated’ to the ‘compulsory character’ of these precepts ‘until the cruder and subtler means of compulsion are no longer neces- sary’ – indeed, until one’s ‘nature’ is so ‘formed or reformed’ by these precepts that one ‘acts … as if on impulse’ (1971: 119). When this occurs:

[T]he individual represents society to himself. The external confrontation, with its sup- pressions, liberations, changing accents, has become an interplay between his social impulses, in the stricter sense of the word; and both are included by the ego in the larger sense … At a certain higher stage of morality, the motivation of action lies no longer in a real-human, even though super-individual power; at this stage, the spring of moral neces- sities flows beyond the contrast between individual and totality. For, as little as these necessities derive from society, as little do they derive from the singular reality of individ- ual life. In the free conscience of the actor, in individual reason, they only have their bearer, the locus of their efficacy. Their power of obligation stems from these necessities them- selves, from their inner, super-personal validity, from an objective identity which we must recognize whether or not we want to … The content, however, which fills these forms is (not necessarily but often) the societal requirement. But this requirement no longer oper- ates by means of its social impetus, as it were, but rather as if it had undergone a metempsychosis into a norm which must be satisfied for its own sake, not for my sake nor for yours. (1971: 11)

The individual in a situation of formal domination increasingly comes to be sub- ordinated to ‘objective principles’ which they experience as a ‘concrete object’ whose necessity takes the form of a ‘social requirement … which must be satisfied for its own sake’. Foucault (1977) did not put it better or clearer.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *