What Is Neoliberal Bureaucratization?

The growth in the number of norms has long been noticed with, over the past few years, an increasing number of studies that have emphasized the extension and diversification in the use of norms2 behind a technicization that often conceals the breadth and the spread of the phenomenon.3 As a result, the ubiquity of rules, norms, and procedures seems to “go without saying.” Yet this is precisely what has to be questioned. In my most recent work, both personal and collective, I have come to problematize this situation in terms of a “neoliberal bureaucratization,” understood as the spread of bureaucratic practices produced by the market and by managerial “big business” all over, and, so, as formalities becoming abstractions since they are universalized.4

A set of normative and procedural arrangements, the bureaucratization I analyze here is diffuse, dispersed, and often elusive. It is not an administrative arrangement, nor is it an institution or an administration, let alone an organizational structure. It is a social form of power, a “social movement”5 in the sense that it does not lie outside society. Far from it: bureaucratization unfolds across all the actors whom it targets and who, wittingly or not, carry out this process by furthering it or combatting it. As a place in which the political sphere finds utterance, neoliberal bureaucratization is one of the forms of expression of domination in contemporary societies, whose shape is defined by the rise to power of a technical rationality, the increasing ubiquity of market and business norms, the formalization of a government at a distance, and the intensification of a specific kind of operations of abstraction.

This bureaucratic dimension of neoliberalism, even though it may appear paradoxical or indeed shocking from the point of view of neoliberal hegemony, is familiar to specialists in the historical sociology of politics and to readers of the great classics of this discipline. When, in his 1978-1979 Lectures at the College de France, Michel Foucault pointed out that “the market (...) was (...) invested with extremely prolific and strict regulations,” also stating that government “must produce” freedom, and that the production and management of freedom came to constitute “the conditions for the creation of a formidable body of legislation and an incredible range of governmental interventions to guarantee production of the freedom needed in order to govern”6; when he pointed out that an art of governing based on the market cannot be embodied in laissez-faire, but rather in a “framework policy”7 paving the way for an “active” gov- ernmentality necessary to ensure that society as a whole conforms to the principles of enterprise, competition and the market, Michel Foucault was writing within this tradition.

The above-mentioned analysis of the craze for rules and norms now goes back over a century, to when Max Weber showed that, historically speaking, liberalism had created an expansion in the number of economic institutions, and that the development of bureaucracy was closely linked with the development of capitalism. Karl Polanyi furthered this tradition when he pointed out that “there was nothing natural about laissez-faire,” and highlighted the way liberalism triggered an unprecedented growth in legislative and administrative measures, precisely so as to facilitate the dismantling of obstacles to the commodification of land, money, and labor.8 Historians have shown that markets were created by human interventions, especially on the part of the state.9 I interpret this as a bureaucratic process because, in order for it to be accomplished, rules have had to be invented and procedures put in place.

With all this in mind, the bureaucratic dimension of neoliberalism should seem at least as paradoxical as the expression “neoliberal bureaucratization” might itself sound ironical. The irony comes from the fact that a whole part of neoliberal rhetoric takes wing from a critique of state bureaucracy and of direct government intervention in the economy. One of the key arguments of neoliberals (the well-known slogan “cut the red tape”) turns on the necessary and radical limitation of state interventions. As suggested above however, neoliberalism can certainly not be equated with laissez-faire, and has been diversely interpreted as an “intervening liberalism,”10 a “government at a distance,”11 an “entrepreneurial government,”12 a “normative state,”13 or a “redeployment” of the state via its “privatization.”14 Neoliberalism is the art of governing by compartmentalizing and shaping interventions in accordance with market and managerial norms. From the world of big business, these bureaucratic modalities of government spread all over, within the state especially and in the name of the fight against bureaucracy! A whole series of measures is advocated, from the privatization of public businesses and services to new public management, via the development of various public-private partnerships, the implementation of rules that either favor business and market mechanisms or fit in with the demands of the private sector. The two inseparable aspects of the neoliberal art of governing—namely the critique of state administration and government practices on the one hand, and, on the other, the development of practices designed to foster an interventionism that respects the framework, and conforms to the market and to enterprise—both engender this specific form of bureaucracy.

This paradoxical and ironic dimension of the “bureaucratization thesis” can only be understood if “state administration” is not being confused with “bureaucracy”: as Weber analyzed it, bureaucracy also characterizes business and private companies, the market economy as much as organizations that see themselves as being part of civil society.... In fact, anyone who lives, produces, or consumes, anyone who seeks relaxation, education, or health these days, is well aware of one thing: bureaucratic practices, arrangements, or procedures cannot be escaped. For how else are we to describe the ever-increasing demand for paperwork? We need papers to travel, to register at an institution, to cash an insurance policy (including for private insurance). We are increasingly confronted to formal procedures, be it when trying to rent a flat, to access to credit and electricity, to connect to a computer network, to go to law, or for a private business’ accounts to be certified, a vegetable to be authenticated as “organic,” and even an article to be accepted for publication in an academic journal. We are constantly required to conform to all set of norms and rules.

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