Zygmunt Bauman: another curious absence

It is not only that Weber and Goffman have been written out of the history of orga- nization theory. Others were never written in. Zygmunt Bauman is one of the world’s most eminent intellectuals, notable for many outstanding contributions to social science, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). It is a work of great organizational significance, although this fact seems to have escaped the majority of writers and authorities in the field, for it is rarely cited in the standard journals or subject outlines.

Bauman’s argument is that bureaucratic rationality was one of the essential factors that made the Holocaust possible. The usual explanation of the Holocaust is that it was a reversion to barbarism. On the contrary, says Bauman. The mechan- ics of the Holocaust were made possible by precisely those features of society that made it ‘civilized’, chief amongst which was rational bureaucracy. Rational bureau- cracy was used to try and resolve what was referred to as the ‘Jewish Question’, one which flowed from the premise that Jews were a contagious plague, a pestilence, the other on whom hatred could be focused. The answer was to be found in a ‘Final Solution’ organized around extermination, the Holocaust.

If a central aspect of the Holocaust concerned its organizational possibility, wouldn’t one think that this might be a central theme of contemporary organiza- tion studies? Wouldn’t organization studies want to focus on this case as an exem- plification of how what was good in organization could produce what was evil in human action? Might it not want to comb through the records of the Holocaust to identify the trail that the Gestapo left behind or conduct oral histories of the few of its victims to survive? Or should it simply seek absolution for its silence? The sound of silence and the need for absolution are overwhelming: we know only of one such oral organizational historical account (through the work of Chris Grey 2005) that explicitly engages with the Holocaust, by Madsen and Willert (1996), who examine the structure of daily life in a Nazi work camp. They do this through conversations with the Danish social psychologist, Gunnar Hjeholt, who was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and spent nine months in the Porta Westfalica concentration camp before being liberated. Much as Bauman, he concludes that the most fright- ening thing about the camps as a system was the fact that they were, organization- ally, not at all unique. Once inside the logic of their system, certain actions became routine. They were much like other systems with which we are all familiar. Many victims (or their relatives) of Gestapo terror are still fighting for compensation, so such systematic organizational oral histories have important legal as well as ethical significance. In the face of missing formal evidence about Gestapo crimes, gaining such compensation has proved a rather hopeless cause for many of the victims or their representatives. Until very recently, most slave laborers who worked for German companies during the Second World War fought in vain for compensa- tion. Only about a year ago, 60 years after the events, was a fund eventually set up to compensate the victims. Needless to say many of the latter have meanwhile died. Apart from Madsen and Willert (1996), the only work of significance that does address the Holocaust, which is not entirely without discussion in the organiza- tions literature (see Clegg 2002; Grey 2005: 25), is Bauman’s, although much of the discussion misses the mark. For instance, du Gay (2000b) argues that Bauman’s representation of bureaucracy is one-sided, since he only refers to the potentially amoral character of bureaucratic procedures and not to the bureaucratic ethos of justice. According to du Gay, racist and party-political convictions, normative and moral sentiments, rather than the application of rules, drove the Nazis. Armbrüster and Gebert (2002) argue that the SS was more a social movement than a rational bureaucracy, animated by spontaneous improvisation rather than rule-driven behavior. The Nazis overthrew the legitimate rule of legal-administrative bureau- cracies through politicizing the institutional organs of the state by forced appoint- ments of party members to leading institutional positions (see du Gay 2000b: 48–51; 1999). When ends become detached from means, as Grey (2005: 25) says, substantive ethics are dangerously weakened.

Irrespective of the arguments about bureaucracy, there is no doubt that the Nazis were experts in moving from the gaze, through the selective use of members’ catego- rization devices, to the construction of a career, in the sociological sense of that term, often terminal, in a total institution. (The wonderful autobiography of Janina Bauman, Winter in the afternoon: the recollections of the life of a young girl in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1986, is a narrative account, by one who resisted and lived to tell the tale, of how the controls of that total institution tightened.) 7 The juridical eye of the state increasingly promulgated special laws and decrees. These fixed the gaze with the use of devices such as the star that all Jews were obliged to wear prominently on their clothing, or the labeling of businesses as Jewish with prominent signage. After the gaze came confinement, initially through being rounded up and herded into ghettos, where began the career inside the total institution proper. For many millions it was to end, after transportation jammed in cattle-trucks on the rail systems of Europe, in some unknown place in Eastern Europe that the world ought never to for- get. The final total institutional experience might last no longer than it took to strip and have a communal shower. For many, the final destination of the gas chambers was the end of what had been a long and slow career in total institutional settings of increasing intensity, while for a few the struggles to survive continued in the work camps associated with the whole business. And business it was, as we shall see.

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

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