Notes on Bureaucracy and Group Agency

26 October 2019

At some point in the 20th century, the word “bureaucracy” developed a negative connotation and became associated with unnecessary paperwork. Theda Skocpol’s use of the term in States and Social Revolutions is much closer to Max Weber’s conception of bureaucratic organisation as an effective juggernaut that simultaneously serves as an iron cage for individual freedom. Her interest is primarily in bureaucracy as a source and expression of state power.

Skocpol’s initial description of imperial China offers a particular revealing discussion of the role of bureaucracy. In contrast to the ancién regime France, there was a developed systems of selecting officials by examination. Skocpol, however, wants argues that China falling behind its international competitors in both economic development and state power created the conditions for a social revolution. Why did the apparatus of officials not provide imperial China with the state power to fend of the revolutionary situation? There are two arguments with which Skocpol seeks to overcome the challenge:

1) Imperial China did have not a proper, or fully developed bureaucracy. For example, Skocpol uses the term “literati” (1979: 72) to denote the class of people available as agents to the states, not “bureaucrat” or “public servant”. This choice reflects a perspective on the Chinese examination system according to which its focus on Confucian literature failed to ensure the proper qualification of those who passed. The selection of officials was systematised by the examination, but not according to the efficiency criteria which distinguish a well-functioning bureaucracy.[0] As a result, they were not effective in implementing the central will.

2) The budding bureaucracy devolved during the key period leading up to the revolution. It particularly became less effective in ensuring that the governmental agents followed the central will, rather than merely seek to enrich themselves. For example, Skocpol (1979: 71) points to a rule of avoidance which removed officials from their home locations, presumably attempting to reduces instances of problematic nepotism and self-dealing. This rule, however, lost in influence prior to the revolution (ibid. 76). Similarly, officials had increasingly to rely private agents of their own, which sought to extract fees for themselves. As a result, the state lost the ability to ensure incentive alignment with those who had to bring about the will of its government. State power was reduced.

In my description of these two arguments, I used the concept of the “will of the government”, which raises the question whether we should ascribe some form of group agency to imperial China. Is the state or at least the government at the hear of it an agent in its own right? My interpretation is that one dimension of state power is the development of group agency.[1] In line with this reading, Skocpol emphasises the partial autonomy of the state as an organisation, with the level of Weberian bureaucratisation as one determinant of the state’s autonomy. Thus, the loss of state power resulting from the mis-aligned apparatus of officials can be understood as a move away from effective group agency.

That leaves many questions open. Is proper group agency, the realisation of mental states on the level of the group, ever achieved, or merely the means of enacting the will of governing individuals? What is to be made of the outsized role of the emperor in determining the state’s will? What interests me here is the role of bureaucratisation as enabling a will to become effective throughout the group, an issue which I believe is somewhat neglected in the current analytic group agency debate.


[0] This interpretation of the imperial examination system assumes that such systems do not primarily serve the purpose of signalling general intelligence and learning ability in the case of modern bureaucracies.

[1] Notably, the issue of incentive alignment is discussed in List & Pettit’s influential Group Agency (2011).