Bureaucracy and Democracy: Lessons from Max Weber and Barack Obama for South Africa

2016-05-06 12:27

Bureaucracy and Democracy: Lessons from Max Weber and Barack Obama for South Africa

Sometimes reading a great book – for the first time – has unexpected rewards. I spent the other day reading Max Weber’s Economy and Society cover to cover. Its rambling, overstuffed quality, while sometimes tedious, also make it a pleasure. The book contains tidbits about places and states and religions from antiquity onward that you’d never otherwise know, and that not even Wikipedia provides. Economy and Society deserves praise for spanning 2500 years of world history and creating a typology for sociology still in use today. That said, I only found one useful observation for my current interest in the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy in South Africa. Weber clearly thought that a strong bureaucracy – in a strong democracy – could rebuff patrimonial efforts (through patronage systems) to rearrange power in a whimsical, capricious and ultimately dangerous way.

However, the United Stares, under President George W Bush’s regime, shows how easily a massive federal bureaucracy of lifelong, relatively neutral public servants (lifers) can be gutted in two indifferent to malignant terms of office. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney regularly ignored the advice of experts in the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Indeed, both agencies wrote compelling memoranda that denied claims regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Innumerable, irrefutable, findings on this subject were reduced to a single footnote by Cheney and Company in its final report. This shouting down and shutting out of the bureaucratic lifers was indicative of the problems that they faced when repeatedly confronted by Bush’s Big Dog (Cheney) in the Room.

One of many of President Barack Obama’s silent successes has been repopulating the federal agencies that his predecessor destroyed. Obama’s new non-political lifers brought the US government into the twenty-first century though the use of cutting edge analytic tools, novel technology and the Internet. The higher public satisfaction with more efficient state services has led to fewer calls for small government. (As a result, Republican/Tea Party calls for less government have stopped resonating with the general public.) Well-trained and committed professionals can now deliver public goods as effectively as private entities. The hours worked between public officials and private entities are often comparable if people care about, and receive some acknowledgement for, their work. Obama’s retooling of the Department of Education will be but one of his many, quiet legacies. Far, far more important still, bureaucracy and technology helped overcome initial glitches with the implementation of The Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (‘Obamacare’). The Act is, without doubt, the most important piece of social welfare legislation in almost 50 years. It provides access to healthcare to 40 million Americans who previously lacked such coverage and has actually lowered insurance premiums. (However, less expensive coverage does occasionally limit the range of healthcare services provided.)

The absence of a strong bureaucracy – after the purge of apartheid apperachics by the ANC and SACP – and the subsequent growth of two competing patronage systems within the ruling alliance thereafter shows how important a strong professional bureaucracy is for any democracy. My hardly controversial hypothesis is that had the ANC-led alliance taken greater concrete action (despite clear cognizance of the problem) to resolve lacuna in our bureaucracy – and not primarily used organs of state to advance the interests of the party – it would remain without populist rivals (such as the EFF). More importantly, it might have resolved some of the deep structural flaws in our highly stratified, unjust and unfair social order. Instead, contemporary South Africa provides support for an alternative Weberian thesis. Patrimonial arrangements of power undermine the pressing goals of a developmental state. Political appointees may bicker and backstab. However, such political maneuvering often means that they fail to discharge their bureaucratic responsibilities.

If the EFF succeeds in municipal elections, then this twist might provide some evidence for the proposition that a strong, responsive bureaucracy is rewarded at the ballot box and that poor to non-existent service delivery is likewise punished. The EFF as currently organized may not be strong enough to demonstrate this proposition. But the clearly documented loss of support for the ANC amongst black South African urban dwellers suggests that a well-organized opposition (that overcomes racial, ethnic and class mistrust and consequent problems of collective action) could shake up the body politic. That’s surely a healthier outcome than waiting for the ANC to implode.

Support for this thesis regarding South African politics receives some support from the results of the Democratic Party primaries still underway. President Obama’s ability to enhance the sophistication of federal agencies and attract lifers back to the federal government has two resonated most profoundly with persons who receive government entitlements and other forms of support (a greater sensitivity to gender concerns and immigrant status.) The unintended beneficiary? Hillary Clinton – the only establishment figure to survive the primaries. Her base of women, African-American, Latino-American and older voters (who benefit most from federal entitlements and support) has been essential for Clinton in barely beating back Senator Bernie Sanders’ incredibly successful campaign. In short, these groups feel most comfortable with a politician whose record most closely aligns with that of (Democratic) President Obama. (Obama and Clinton are roughly identical in terms of policy positions on the left-centre of the political spectrum. Indeed, Hillary Clinton first crafted a (failed) health care bill during the first years of Bill Clinton’s first term in office (circa 1992).) Their common record suggests continued support for those entitlement programs if she is ultimately elected President . Her base (and President Obama’s base) understand this connection regarding federal support that they deem essential for their everyday lives.

This learning may come too late for the ANC. But it’s surely one lesson that any pretender to the throne must absorb in order to secure the trust of a majority of South Africans. That’s a majority currently excluded from meaningful participation in public affairs and access to private opportunities that might lead them out of lives of (no longer quiet) desperation. It’s a lesson that even the privileged few in South Africa must absorb (quickly) should they wish to retain their privilege.

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