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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Bureaucracies (p. 100)

From chapter "Rationalization"

Wealth and consumption have come to form a never-ending circle: once work and wealth have been turned into a religion and made compulsive, the machine becomes self-propelling.

The dehumanizing impacts of bureaucracy also become self- propelling, as bureaucracy comes to dominate the quality of life and concentrate social, economic, and political power in the hands of a few. The concentration of wealth and power become inner and outer mirrors of the same dynamic: “This whole process of rationalization in the factory and elsewhere,” Max Weber wrote, “and especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master . . . [and it] takes over ever larger areas as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly rationalized.”

The problem, Weber understood, is nothing so straightforward as the existence of private property, or even a question of who controls the means of production. Weber and his colleague Robert Michels saw that the problem isn’t—and I hate to break this news to all you old commies out there—capitalism, with its basis in private property and profit. Michels, a socialist himself, described how socialist organizations are also dominated by a few leaders, declaring his Iron Law of Oligarchy: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

In other words, regardless of mission statements that appear to be leaning left, right, up, or down, or whether they appear to be operating in the economic, political, or cultural domains, large organizations mean bureaucracy, and bureaucracy means hierarchy. Industrial society is too complicated for democratic governance. Once you accept the premises of our machine culture, centralization is inevitable, and efficiency must allocate the resources and rules control the machinery of the bureaucracy. This isn’t a (merely undesirable) by-product of industrial organization: it’s the purpose. Organization: from the Greek organum, tool or instrument.

The problem, then, as Weber saw, is that rationalization, order, and alienation are inherent characteristics of bureaucracy, and common to all forms of industrialization, socialist as well as capitalist: “The apparatus (bureaucracy), with its peculiar impersonal character . . . is easily made to work for anybody who knows how to gain control over it. A rationally ordered system of officials continues to function smoothly after the enemy has occupied the area: he merely needs to change the top officials.”

Every conqueror knows this. Don’t destroy the bureaucracies.

Use them.


Worldwide, approximately 214,000 acres of forest per day are destroyed. Most countries have already lost the vast majority of their natural forests, and rates of deforestation continue to rise, altered only briefly by the cycles of the global industrial economy. The people who cut down these trees do not for the most part at least consciously hate trees, hate the wild, and we can say the same for their bosses, and their bosses’ bosses, all the way up the line. Yet the forests continue to be killed.

Ninety percent of the large fish are gone from the oceans, with no realistic hope of respite for the survivors. Those who run the factory trawlers presumably do not hate the oceans and those who live in them (Captain Ahab aside), nor do their bosses, their bosses’ bosses, and so on.

Last summer, more than nineteen thousand people died in Europe from the hottest year on record, yet the articles about these deaths didn’t even mention global warming. Do the corporate journalists hate truth, and do their editors, publishers, and so on? We think not (with a few notable exceptions).

Men and women in bureaucracies around the world do not torture. They do not deforest. They do not murder the oceans. They do not cause or ignore global warming. We merely push papers, attend meetings, do our jobs as well as we can, and then go home and try to relax (with television or chemical assistance if necessary).

The same was true in another holocaust. As preeminent historian of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg commented, “It must be kept in mind that most of the participants [of genocide] did not fire rifles at Jewish children or pour gas into gas chambers. . . . Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desk.”

And we have this account of other technicians in the Holocaust, “Specialists whose expertise normally had nothing to do with mass murder suddenly found themselves a minor cog in the machinery of destruction. Occupied with procuring, dispatching, maintaining, and repairing motor vehicles, their expertise and facilities were suddenly pressed into the service of mass murder when they were charged with producing gas vans. . . . What disturbed them was the criticism and complaints about faults in their product. The shortcomings of the gas vans were a negative reflection on their workmanship that had to be remedied. Kept fully abreast of the problems arising in the field, they strove for ingenious technical adjustments to make their product more efficient and acceptable to its operators. . . . Their greatest concern seemed to be that they might be deemed inadequate to the assigned task.”

The same is true now, except people are now destroying not just a whole people but a whole world by sitting at their desks, and by striving for ingenious technical adjustments that make their jobs more efficient.