Four bureaucracies

I’ve always been interested in the power of bureaucracy.  The word “bureaucracy” is often used to mean an inefficient organization, but if that’s all bureaucracy really was it would never have become the most pervasive form of social organization in the modern world.  In fact, bureaucracies are the most efficient of organizations.  We become frustrated with them not because they can do nothing right, but because they often seem to do everything except what we need. 

The current issue of The Nation got me thinking about four major bureaucracies in particular: the regime of Nazi Germany; the state of Israel; the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; and the criminal justice system in the USA.   

One of the writers whose works have done the most to inform my interest in bureaucracy was Raul Hilberg, the historian of the Holocaust.  An essay about Hilberg in the current issue of The Nation quotes a key sentence from Hilberg’s 1961 book The Destruction of the European Jews: “The destruction of the Jews was an administrative process, and the annihilation of Jewry required the implementation of systematic administrative measures in successive steps.”  Hilberg’s masterwork lays out the operation of this process according to the drastically simplified rationality that makes an impersonal bureaucracy so powerful a form of organization. 

The essayist comments on the chapter of The Destruction of the European Jews that Hilberg devotes to an absurdly harsh diatribe against the Judenräte, the Jewish councils that tried to develop a policy of accommodation with the Nazis.  Keeping in mind that much of the power of the Nazi regime came from the smooth functioning of its bureaucratic apparatus, we can see why the Judenräte were not able to be very helpful to their coreligionists.  The informal, traditional, neighborhood-based influence of the Judenräte was no match for the modern bureaucratic state. 

Being unfair to the Jews of Holocaust-era Europe is not a way to win friends; one of the reasons the essay is titled “A Conscious Pariah” is the criticism his chapter on the Judenräte brought Hilberg.   Something else hat might have made Hilberg a pariah among the left-wingers who write for The Nation was his outspoken Zionism.  The Nation is sometimes described as anti-Israel; I don’t think that’s a fair characterization, but certainly the word “Zionist” does not often appear there as a term of praise.  The magazine is largely written by left-wing Jews from New York, and its coverage of Israel/Palestine is mostly based on reports from left-wing Jews in Tel Aviv.  So its views tend to reflect the Meretz/Peace Now line, and to dismiss arguments as to whether it was a good idea to found Israel as distractions from the peace process.  Someone of Hilberg’s orientation would almost have to be a Zionist, though.  If the only force that can resist a modern bureaucratic state is another modern bureaucratic state, then we not only have to condemn the Judenräte of the 1930s and 1940s as  worse than useless to the Jews targeted by the Third Reich’s policy of extermination, but we must also say that the only thing that could have helped them was a modern bureaucratic state with their interests at heart. 

In the same issue, Katha Pollitt voices her exasperation that the Roman Catholic Church is still treated as a source of moral authority despite the endless cascade of scandals involving bishops who have sheltered pedophile priests from exposure.  Pollitt responds to defensive Catholics who claim that the hierarchy of their church is being singled out by listing other individuals and groups that have been accused of sexually abusing children.  She goes on to say that there is a difference between the Roman church and these others:

The difference is, when other professionals who work with children are caught out, justice takes its course. People are fired. Licenses are lost. Reputations are ruined. Sometimes jail is involved. No human institution is perfect, and it would be foolish to suggest that incidents are always investigated and that abusers who don’t happen to be priests are never protected by colleagues or superiors. Still, it’s probably safe to say that if a principal was accused of overlooking a child molester in his classrooms or recycling him to other schools, nobody would compare his suffering to Christ’s.

Pollitt campaigned for the release of Bernie Baran, a Massachusetts man wrongly convicted of sex crimes against children; certainly she would not say that in his case, or in the cases of many gay Jewish men like him, justice was done.  But neither would she want an entrenched bureaucracy like the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church to close ranks around those accused of such crimes.  Rather, she seems to want the bureaucratized justice systems of the USA and similar countries to function without interference from the bureaucracy of the Vatican.  When the justice system went awry in the Baran case, Pollitt joined a public campaign to set the wrongs right; this seems to be her preferred method of vindicating the innocent.

Sociologist Robert Merton wrote about the distinction between the “manifest functions” of social institutions and the “latent functions” of those institutions.   The manifest functions of an institution are the things it is explicitly supposed to do; the latent functions include everything else the institution also does.  So, manifest functions of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church include assigning priests to parishes.  The latent functions of that hierarchy include keeping some very old-fashioned restaurants open in central Rome.   

The four bureaucracies I’ve mentioned in this post differ from each other in their manifest functions, of course.  The Nazi regime was specifically designed to kill the Jews, enslave the Russians, and humiliate the French.  As techies say, those are features of the system, not bugs.  Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church was not explicitly designed to protect pedophiles; that’s a latent function of the system.  Nor is there a law on the books that says the US justice system will send gay Jewish men to prison for decades if they take jobs which bring them into contact with children.  That’s a latent function that comes about when the public assumes that there are sufficient safeguards in the system to keep homophobes and anti-Semites from railroading the innocent. 

Likewise, this distinction between manifest and latent functions makes it possible for Israel to be, not merely the only democratic state in the Middle East, but in some ways the freest society on earth, and at the same time a nightmare so bleak that many of its residents and subjects would rather kill themselves and as many random passersby as possible than go on living on the same planet with Israel.  The professed goals of the state are remarkably humane, and in much of its practice Israel does in fact meet these goals.  But even as it does so, the unintended, unforeseen, unacknowledged consequences of its policies are often quite grim.

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