Glory & Misery of the Administration


"The human being is an animal that requires discipline and that is capable of achieving it through reason" said Immanuel Kant in Critique of Pure Reason, published for the first time in 1781. This quote implies that control, and more thoroughly here, discipline, is the basis based on which human beings can access reason. The notion of reason was established as the structuring principle of the Western philosophical thought during the age of the Enlightenments. The main idea of the philosophy is summed up by the metaphor of the Enlightenments in itself: human beings must seize their reason, and use it as a light to understand both their nature and the political and economic structures that surround them. However, at this time, the concept of reason was not only an intellectual tool, but also a new pattern to organize societies. This is how the long process of rationalization, that started during the XVIIIth century, and that still travels along our societies, arouse three centuries ago. The term rationalization comes from the Latin word ratio that means reason. Rationalization can be defined as the action to organize the reality in a more efficient way, based on logic, knowledge and science. Hence, control and efficiency are both the pillars and the goals of rationalization.

As the theoretical and the empirical scheme of Western society's organization, rationalization is one of the major fields of study of sociologists. In this perspective, three texts are the subject of this paper. First, it is the canonic "Bureaucracy" chapter, from Economy and Society by Max Weber, published in 1922. In this chapter, Weber lists the characteristics of bureaucracy. According to Weber, bureaucracy has emerged as a result of an increased democratization and rationalization of culture as well as the development of a monetary market that requires a more efficient administrative system. Bureaucracy is thus a paroxysmal form of rationalization, the only efficient way to build rational forms of government while producing massively, and that is based on new forms of domination and power as well as an increased efficiency. The second text is the first chapter of the third part of Michel Foucault's book Discipline and Punish, called "Docile Bodies". This major work was published in 1922 and analyzes the evolution of punishment techniques in Western societies. More precisely, this book shows that the consequence of the birth of discipline as a way of organizing societies is a normalization among individuals. In the chapter "Docile bodies", Foucault highlights how the discipline has created new forms of control upon individuals' bodies during the XVIIIth century. Individuals' bodies are now rationalized with the aim to maximize their efficiency. Foucault then analyzes the technique of the discipline and their impact on individuals and the organization of society. The third text is composed by the chapters 6, 7 and 8 of The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, published in 1944. This book shows that the market economy is an historical construction and not a natural result of the evolution of Western societies inherent to human nature. In the chapters 6, 7 and 8, Polanyi focuses on the transformation of the mercantile system, in which the social system was structuring the economic system, into the market economy during the XVIIIth century, in which the economic system has absorbed the social system and now structures it. To explain this phenomenon, Polanyi studies in depth the case of the Speenhamland law in England at chapters 7 and 8.

Within this frame, this paper will adopt both a chronologic and a thematic approach. Firstly, it will analyze how at the beginning of the XXth century, Weber postulated an ideal-typical vision of bureaucracy as an incarnation of the rationalization of societies. Weber's definition of rationalization through bureaucracy will thus be the starting point of this essay, in order to properly understand the shades brought by the authors that came after him. Secondly, this paper will hence discuss how Polanyi stood out from the legacy of Weber two decades after that Economy and Society was published, by ignoring rationalization in its analysis of the happening of a society dominated by the market economy during the XVIIIth century. Lastly, this paper will show that in the 1970s, Michel Foucault put into light the alienating nature of the rationalization of power upon individuals' bodies.

i. Modern bureaucracy as the paroxysmal point of rationalization underpinned by control and efficiency


According to Weber, rationalization is a phenomenon peculiar to the Western world. At the core of this phenomenon there is modern capitalism, which constitutes the most powerful and the most rational organizational way of producing goods. Therefore, economic rationalization is the dominating force within the global rationalization phenomenon. Polanyi, contrary to Weber, does not consider capitalism as a rational search for increased profits, but as an unrestrained will appetite for profit that cannot be understood through the prism a rationalization.

Moreover, according to Weber, all of society's spheres are also subject to rationalization, because individuals' actions are selected according to their efficiency and not according to their moral content. Therefore, social ties are becoming impersonal, and this is perfectly reflected by bureaucracy. Moreover, rationalization is linked to the disenchantment of the world. The fundamental meaning of the world has disappeared, there is a lack of sense, a free space, which is gradually absorbed by the search for increased control and efficiency.

All of these characteristics are embedded in modern bureaucracy, of which Weber gives a detailed description in the chapter subjected to this paper. Weber explains that modern bureaucracy is characterized by six main features: existence of official jurisdictional areas ordered by rules that form either bureaucratic agencies or companies, principles of office hierarchy monocratically organized and channels of appeal, management based upon documents called files, office management that presupposes a training in a field of specialization, the office requires the full working capacity of the official and the management follows general rules that can be learned.

Weber then analyzes the position of the officials of the bureaucracy. Inside the bureaucracy, office holding is understood as a vocation. The link between the official and the office is impersonal and obeys to a functional purpose. This vision can be compared with that of Foucault. Indeed, in the chapter "Docile bodies", Foucault explains that submitting individual bodies to the discipline increases the forces of the bodies in economic terms of utility and diminishes the forces in terms of political obedience. Moreover, Foucault shows that discipline results in a normalization, that is to say an increased impersonality, among individuals.

Weber adds that the quantitative development of administrative tasks is the first basis of bureaucratization. However, a qualitative development of these tasks also stimulates bureaucratization. The reasons of this expansion are variable: Weber gives several examples, such as the water economy in Ancient Egypt or the development of public finances and more complex civilizations in the Modern West.

Bureaucracy is also characterized by the concentration of means of administration: Weber states the importance of the bureaucratization of the army and of university. The case of the army is precisely the field studied by Foucault in "Docile bodies", however his approach of rationalization is not based on bureaucracy but on the way power is exerted.

Weber then analyzes that bureaucracy developed itself in parallel with mass democratization, and that democracy can conflict with the bureaucracy tendencies, as democracy tends to shorten the tem of office through election and recall. The question of mass democratization is also analyzed by Polanyi. Indeed, he shows that the suppression of the Speenhamland law in 1834, which enabled the industrial society to blossom out, was the result of the increased self-consciousness of a worker social class, that had a more significant political power since the Reform Act of 1832.


To sum up, according to Weber, bureaucracy embodies a paroxysmal degree of rationalization underpinned by a strict legal control upon society that allows an increased efficiency, and reveals the superiority of bureaucratic organizations over administration by notables for instance. Thus, the more dehumanized is bureaucracy, the more successful it is, according to the sine ira ac studio principle. The extreme level of rationalization of bureaucracy explains that bureaucracy is almost indestructible. Indeed, its impersonal character makes it vital to the interest of everyone, and thus nobody has interest in a change.



ii. The happening of market economy during the XVIIIth century: a phenomenon deprived of rationalization?


As discussed in i), contrary to Max Weber, Polanyi does not see the development of capitalism as the results of individuals' rational search for profit. It is quite the opposite: according to Polanyi, capitalism is the result of individuals' unbridled search for profit.

Indeed, in chapter 7 of The Great Transformation, Polanyi shows that until the modern times, markets were secondary components of the economic life: the economic system was absorbed by the social system, a situation which Polanyi calls the embeddedness. In the mercantile system, land and labor formed part of the social organization itself.

During the XVIIIth century, a market economy, which is an economic system controlled, regulated, and directed by markets alone, arouse. This self-regulated market could develop itself thanks to two conditions: first, the existence of a market for each elements of the industry (goods and service, land, labor and money), and second, the absence of regulation from the State. This is the disembeddedness phenomenon.

Therefore, Polanyi explains in this chapter that the history of the XVIIIth century is at the meantime that of the extension of the market system to all real commodities and of the implementation of specific measures in order to limit the impact of the market on fictitious commodities[1]. Society is this way protecting itself from the damages the absence of regulation of these peculiar commodities could cause. At the beginning of the XIXth century, reembeddedness is complete: self-regulated markets have become the main actors of society, which has been absorbed by the economic system. Therefore, contrary to Max Weber, that has a quite positive opinion about bureaucracy, Polanyi regrets the destruction of traditional social ties entailed by capitalism and the rise of bureaucracy.

To illustrate this point, Polanyi takes the example of the Speenhamland law. He explains that during the most active period of the Industrial Revolution, from 1795 to 1834, the creation of a labor market in England was prevented through the Speenhamland Law. The Speenhamland law, implemented in 1795 and also called "right to live", aimed at diminishing the seed price variation's effects due to the war with France by a system of salary complement. In this system, the profits of the workers were constants whatever the salary value was, as the parish would complete the salary. Thus, employers had no interest in increasing salaries, nor workers had to increase their productivity. Within a few years, both productivities and salaries dropped to such a point that the difference between the workers and the workhouse almost disappeared. Thus, many workers were dismissed out of their land when a new wave of enclosure arouse. Not only did the Speenhamland law prevented the establishment of a competitive labor market, but also it resulted in a massive pauperization that ended up by jeopardizing the productive capacity required by the rising industrial society. In 1832, the Reform Act enabled a new social class, mainly workers, to come to power. The Speenhamland law was abolished two years later, and the market economy was able to significantly develop itself. In 1834, elites were convinced that the Speenhamland law has been a mistake and that it should be abolished, but no one was able to explain the paradoxical phenomenon of a massive pauperization while the production of goods at the scale of the country was increasing, as the industrial society was getting more and more complex.

This example clearly illustrates, through an historical perspective, that Polanyi does not establish a link between the history of modernity and rationalization, as Foucault and Weber do. On the contrary, he shows how the successive measures implemented during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England were contradictory. He also highlights the lack of both efficiency and control of industrial capitalism, and the impossibility for elites to understand it, and thus to act upon it in a rational way.

iii. Rationalization as and alienation?


In "Docile bodies", Michel Foucault also focuses his analysis on the XVIIIth century. He explains that the classical age discovered the body as a target of power. A vision of "man as machine" emerged, that had two sides (an "anatomico-metaphysical" register which considered the body as analysable and a "technico-political" register which considered the body as manipulable) summed up in La Mettrie's book, L'Homme-machine into the concept of docility.

The novelty of this highly rationalized control exerted upon the body is its scale, its modality that implies a constant coercion and its object, that researches the efficiency of the movements.

This is discipline: a new form of control that tends to maximize efficiency and that is based on the rationalization of the human body. One can see how this notion is similar to Weber's conception of bureaucracy, a new form of rationalization based on control and efficiency.

Michel Foucault then explains that discipline creates out of the body it controls four types of individuality.

The first of them is cellular, and relies on the distribution of individuals in space. Discipline organizes an analytical-cellular space. Functional sites appear, that is to say particular places that are defined to create a useful space. These sites were firstly hospitals, then administrative and political places. At the end of the XVIIIth century factories emerged, organized according to the same principle. Moreover, elements are interchangeable in discipline "because each element is defined by the place it occupies in a series and by the gap that separates it from the others". This point is very close to Weber's definition of bureaucratic impersonality status.

The second type of individuality is organic, which corresponds to the coding of activities.

The third type is genetic-individuality. This describes a new technique for taking charge of the time of individual existences and regulating the relations of time, bodies and forces. To sum up, exercise, in the history of the West, was at first a" way of ordering earthly time for the conquest of salvation". Gradually, it served to economize the time of life, "to accumulate it in a useful form and to exercise power over men through the mediation of time arranged this way". On this point, one can oppose Polanyi's view that does not see the organization of modern lives as a rational calculus, but as the incidental consequences of individuals' unbridled search for profit.

The last type of individuality is combinatory. Indeed, new demand appeared to which discipline must respond by composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine.

Therefore, Foucault concludes that the classical age saw the birth of great political and military tactics by which the control of bodies and individual forces was exercised within the states. This form of control was the scope of testing for both individual and collective coercion of bodies. This rationalization experimented upon human bodies was thus the pattern on which control was built within the whole society.

Once again, the link with Weber is obvious. However, there is one fundamental diverging point between Weber and Foucault: according to Weber, rationalization under the shape of bureaucracy is positive, because it enables mass production and rational forms of government to arise. However, Foucault considers this form of control as an alienation. Indeed, the systematic character of control upon human bodies and the normalization it implies among individuals lead according to Foucault to a previously unseen form of alienation that harms individuals' possibility to develop themselves as unique and free human beings.




Through a travel in time, from Weber to Foucault, it appears that at the beginning of the XXth century, Weber laid out a solid theoretical framework to understand bureaucracy as a paroxysmal form of rationalization, underpinned by control and efficiency. However, both Polanyi and Foucault put into light more negative aspects of rationalization. Polanyi stood out from Weber's legacy by denying the rational-basis of capitalism and condemning the destruction of traditional social ties it entailed. Foucault's analysis in terms of rationalization and control are comparable to that of Weber, however his conclusions are different, since he warns against the alienation implied by the increased rationalized control upon individuals.

To finish, these three authors brought subtle shades to the Homo œconomicus theory, and can also be read as ways to polish our understanding of ourselves, supposedly reduced to rational consumers willing to maximize our profits nowadays. 

© Rosalie Calvet, October 2014

[1]           Polanyi explains that commodities are goods produced to be sold out on markets. According to this definition, work, labor and money are not commodities, and thus it is fictional to describe them as commodities. But, it is thanks to this fiction that land, money and labor are organized, because they are eventually sold out on markets.