history, the real world today

Bureaucratic utopianism

Bureaucracy is not meant to be Utopian.

After all, is not bureaucracy the home of the conformist, the cynical realists, the domesticator of conflict, the administrator of dreams, the banality of evil?

Karl Mannheim wrote in Ideology and Utopia:

“The fundamental tendency of all bureaucratic thought is to turn all problems of politics into administration…. The attempt to hide all problems of politics under the cover of administration may be explained by the fact that the sphere of activity of the official exists only within the limits of laws already formulated.”

Bureaucracy is rule-bound, conservative, a force for stability, and no place for dreamers. So the story goes, at least as it is told in the traveller’s tales of academics and writers.

Bureaucratic utopianism then would be an oxymoron. If only, this were true.

It is a phenomenon that I observe (as an insider, not an unsympathetic tourist like most political theorists) leaking out from this oxymoron.

You see it when officials and consultants talk endlessly about about  the”future state” – to describe how they want to change the world, even with the most mundane and practical of projects.

You see it in the training programs in which young bureaucrats are introduced to the “competencies” required of the “new” 21 st century bureaucrats – obsessed with innovation. In these workshops, young officials are seduced into a kind of religiosity by posting sticky notes to A2 pieces of paper under the heading of “ideal state.” Through this ritual, they are enjoined into the faith that they can control human destiny and fulfill their social fantasies.

You see it in all the talk of “reform readiness,” “bold thinking,” “ambitious plans”, even when these plans are expressed in vacuous abstractions such as “a shift to more personalised, evidence-informed and integrated services that are well-connected to informal community networks and supports.”

You also see it in the growing fondness for grandiose claims of the power of government to change social facts, and to set outcome targets that are not anchored in any reality or sense of history: ending family violence, halving the suicide rate, zero road deaths, zero avoidable harm from the practice of medicine, and preventing any number of human frailties from ever happening again.

You see it in the revenge against reality practised in forms of social constructivism, fluid gender politics, and all dreams that the constraints of culture, history and biology can be wished away by a suitably bold, radical and ambitious reform plan.

Utopian thought has its advocates, and amidst the ruins of our political culture is unsurprisingly experiencing a resurgence. Some like Russell Jacoby seek to distance utopianism from its many failures, and its long association with the dictatorship of ideas. He distinguishes a tradition of blueprint Utopians, who he distances himself from, and a tradition of iconoclastic utopianism – a apocalyptic longing for better that can “shake the world off its hinges” – which he embraces. This is the creed of the “disruptors” – the ones who want to tear down the place – without a moment’s thought for how we all will survive the ruin.

Others seek resurgence of practical utopias, such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and its advocacy of an universal basic income. These utopians harness their dreams to social movements, practical ideas for change,  innovative practices and making the most of their ideals in times of rupture, disruption and ceaseless change.

It is this latter style of Utopian who succeeds in today’s degraded bureaucracies. The courtier who promises disruption, who claims to be the enemy of the institution in which they operate, plays successfully to one of Robert Conquest’s three laws of politics: The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. They thrive on the chaos of change; prosper on the fantasy of better outcomes outside of their control; and envision future states they will never be accountable for realising.

This kind of thought and action, we should always remind ourselves, has a long and tragic history. They seek to obliterate the conflict, competition and compromise that is the necessary and terrible beauty of human societies. The road to Utopia is laid out in clean lines and marked all along the route by many sacrificial deaths. As Roger Scruton reminds us:

“Hence the Utopian fallacy which tells us that the ideal is immune to refutation. We need never turn our back on our utopian aims, since utopia itself can never be realized, and thus never disproved. It serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.” The Uses of Pessimism

This temper sits ill with the conservative disposition and the ordinary virtues of governing well. Those virtues require the bureaucrat to live with the difficult world as it is, and to draw on the resources of institutions and cultures which are our heritage for managing imperfectly our social conflicts and our misunderstandings of each other.

Bureaucratic utopianism is, like all utopianism, a kind of dark revenge against reality. As Scruton writes:

The ideal remains forever on the horizon of our experience, unsullied and untried, casting judgement on all that is actual, like a sun that cannot be looked at but which creates a dark side to everything on which it shines.

I do not celebrate the virtues of bureaucratic utopianism: bold thinking, innovation, disruption, design thinking that creates a total dream of systems, change, and outcomes. I celebrate the ordinary virtues of governing well. They do not dream of future states, but keep a modest awareness of the limits of government and the frailty of human culture and institutions. These bureaucrats talk to strangers, compromise with others, and believe the best approaches to social problems are discovered, not designed.

As Scruton says of the fundamental attack on utopias of all kinds:

“The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme, or a utopia. It is the residue of myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in customs and laws. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit laid down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it unfolds through the norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the utopian sets out to destroy.”  Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

Truly, indeed, bureaucracy is not meant to be Utopian.


Image source: Original Title Woodcut from Thomas More’s Utopia

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