Discipline and Modern Society: Something about Max Weber and Well-Paid Development Bureaucrats!

Hey, I published a book last October, Max Weber and the Problem of Modern Discipline. It is about Max Weber’s view of authority, and why so many of us obey.  What follows is a lightly edited version of the introductory chapter where I have a bit of fun comparing subsistence peasants to well-paid UN bureaucrats..  To get to the more uplifting parts, you will need to read more—I suggest you order it from your library, or if you are feeling wealthy, get a copy from Amazon.com. For the cheapskates out there, I still want you to read it, and have posted Chapters 1 and Chapter 2 to my Academia.edu account.  In the meantime, below will hopefully spur the interest of those who have an interest in Development Studies, and Social Theory.

 Discipline and Modern Society: A Three Part Paradox

     Max Weber defined discipline as the intrinsic justification people use to submit to authority. In other words, it is about why we do as we are supposed to, even when we are not asked! Weber makes the case that modernity is equated with the internalization of discipline, i.e. as the population is trained to shape itself to the authority of rationalized institutions, particularly that of the bureaucracy.  The more tuned to the inhuman demands of bureaucracy a population becomes, the more likely the population is to generate the enduring structures which we think of as the modern rationalized system of market and bureaucracy. Alternatively, if the population is not tuned into the demands of rationalization it seeks to avoid the demands of authority which is by definition inhuman and foreign.

I find Weber’s ideas about discipline to be powerful ideas because for me it explains a three-part paradox I saw between Thai and Tanzanian peasant farmers I knew in the early 1980s on the one hand, and well-paid western experts who were trying to bring them “development” on the other. The development experts were “disciplined” in Weber’s sense of the word, while the self-sufficient subsistence farmers I knew were not.  This requires a bit of explanation.

The first part of the paradox is that subsistence farmers who rely on the weather for their lives, and show up for “work” whenever the weather and season calls, are among the world’s greatest risk takers the world has ever known. They work very hard at any time to make sure that the crop is successful. In doing this they focus on preserving the resilient kin-based networks rooted in a sociality that gives their lives meaning.  Physically, many are strong and agile from decades of weeding, plowing, hoeing, harvesting, and the many other tasks associated with subsistence farming.

But a second part of this paradox is that such peasants are also among the most impoverished people I have ever met.  They are certainly poorer than rich people like me who restrict the amount they use their muscles, and insist on an 8-5 “job” during a “workweek.”  They even are paid yet more for not working during an annual vacation. We rich folk also expect a long lasting retirement in which we will do no “work” and still be paid.

Which leads me to the third part of the paradox, which is that the development bureaucrats, i.e. well-paid people like me with an 8-5 job (and holidays off), write memos complaining about how little work the poor peasants in “our” development assistance work do, how inefficient they are, how they are even lazy, and most importantly, that they lack the intrinsic capacity to submit to legitimate authority.  They lack discipline!

I have worked in and written about development and humanitarian relief since 1980.  In doing this I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I remember the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ambitious utopian slogan in the 1980s “Health for All by the Year 2000” campaign from Thailand.  I was in Tanzania during the 1990s and early 2000s when the United States’ imported free markets, elections, and democratic processes into that hope Tanzania would be more like the United States.  The 1990s after all, was the post-Cold War era of the utopian “Washington Consensus,” when it was assumed that “development” meant the application of the principles underpinning US-style democracy and capitalism. This was wrapped up in powerful western-controlled institutions like the IMF and World Bank which implemented American-style economic restructuring in the 1990s and early 2000s, when bankers forgave debts and reorganized African economies in order to generate more discipline.

And then, similar formula were applied to Afghanistan and Iraq after the US-led conquest of those countries.  That didn’t worked out so well, so the Washington Consensus is not as popular as it once was. (To be fair, the principles in a way worked in Tanzania which has boomed after about 2005, after just twenty years of “structural adjustment.”  Better late than never!).

More personally, I watched as western discipline for family were enthusiastically promoted in the refugee populations where I worked in 1994-1996, as four million condoms were distributed to rural Rwandans who had just suffered through genocide, flight, and the deaths of their small children.  The condom distribution didn’t work as intended—birthrates in the camp soared despite the condom distribution and “education programs” about family planning (see Waters 2001:253-263).  In the same camps, I also listened to the optimistic predictions of UN and US officials about the coming negotiated peace in Rwanda, Burundi, and elsewhere before fighting once again broke out.  Their predictions did not work out—preceding as they did the invasion of Congo/Zaire, the most destructive war since World War II, which today even in 2017 still sputters along at great cost.

What these programs had in common was a conviction that when the latest technocratic policy/program/law was implemented, the problems of poverty, war, gender inequality, etc., would be resolved through scientific western management systems.  With US victory in the Cold War, that that Washington Consensus became an accepted fact in development circles. Free markets, and politically free elections were seen as the key to unlock the “development problem.”

But inevitably “negative results” emerged 2-5 years after implementation was finished, if anybody bothered to count. And so then the “Why didn’t that work?” question was asked.  And it usually was answered by blaming the “beneficiaries,” not the western donors who designed the project in the first place. So, the bureaucratic recriminations would start as the well-educated and well-heeled “stakeholders” sought explanations rooted in their understandings of the unquestionable economic science behind the development plans.  Unusual was that that “science” was rooted in the utilitarian philosophy of post-Industrial Revolution England.  That dogma in turn was simplified into pop slogans about the efficiency of capitalism, and its unquestioned positivistic assumptions about consumption, materialism, and “human nature.”

And so when rich “stakeholder” theories rooted in pop economics, pop psychology, and pop utilitarianism did not work, blame shifted to the peasants and “their” local government.  In other words, the underlying assumption that utility and incentives work was never questioned.  Instead, there were complaints about corruption, laziness, punctuality, and a host of other issues regarding the “beneficiaries,” who in less politically correct moments were called “the natives,” or “the locals.”  Complaints were made about “risk averse peasants,” and occasionally the classic Stone Age Explanation was offered: “How can you expect people who are just one step from the Stone Age, to operate modern machines and institutions????”  Each of these complaints could be summed up in one word: Discipline!  The beneficiaries/locals/natives/peasants lacked the discipline that the scientific policy/program/law obviously offered. Technocrats offered such explanation without a trace of irony, never noticing that peasants are among the hardest working and greatest risk takers ever known.  And second. they never noted that Max Weber had a scathing critique of the western middle classes that the bureaucrats themselves comfortably embodied.  Indeed, for Weber such creatures were trapped in a rationalized iron cage by their own conceit:

… narrow specialists without mind, pleasure-seekers without heart; in its conceit, this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained (Weber 1904-1906/2002:124).

And how did the peasants, the “they,” who did not value work, and were not disciplined to the demands of modern life, and our scientifically designed programs respond? Shanin wrote in 1966:

Day by day, the peasants make the economist sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam (quoted in Waters 2007:229)

And of course the proud peasantry did this out of sense of contempt for those bureaucrat out chasing soft salaries in the marketplace, irrespective obvious loss of dignity involved.  Or as Ma Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie proclaimed about her sons:

     “There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said.  Oh, it’s bad enough to see [our son] Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper!  Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man [a farmer] is.  Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—He’ll never be able to call his soul his own….I won’t have [our next son] Almanzo going the same way!” Mother cried.  “I won’t have it, you hear me?”

A famer depends on himself, and the land and the weather.  If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you deep warm with wood out of your timber.  You work hard, but you work as you please.  You’ll be free and independent son, on a farm (Wilder, 1935:367, 370).

     All the simple supposedly corrupt farmer really did to provoke all that bureaucratic sighing, sweating, and swearing was simply ignore them, and their bureaucratic assumptions about human nature.  Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.

I am no longer satisfied with this explanation, perhaps because I no longer think the Washington consensus on capitalism and democracy is the whole story—because as Chinua Achebe (1958) wrote about the western civilizing project itself, despite the best intentions, things do fall apart.

In this context, I re-read (and translated from German) what Max Weber wrote about the rationalization of society, and discipline, two qualities that Weber writes underpin modernity, including the utopian ideas lying beneath the humanitarian and economic goals of that Washington consensus.  For Weber, a rationalized and disciplined society will be wealthy; but wealthy is not a synonym for “good.”  For Weber, goodness as such is beside the point and in the realm of “values,” not sociology.  Weber’s bigger point is about rationalization and disciplined mass population starts to think alike, have the same loyalties, and there is a consensus (i.e. ‘internal justification’) about what is good and rational, and is a shared understanding of what that “good” is.  Rationality, means that modern people are disciplined by widely shared the same values and ethics rooted in an assumption that capitalist markets are good.  Such rationality becomes the “common sense.”

But this is only according to modern rational values.  But there is another paradox buried in here which Weber (2002/1904-1905:124) pointed to, which is that such a disciplined population become “pleasure seekers without heart” in which human qualities are replaced by a demand that thinking and muscles become aligned to the rhythms of the modern bureaucratic machine.  Here is what Weber wrote about the nature of modern discipline:

Based on these principles is the rational training and rehearsing of work routines in the famous American system of “scientific management,” which is extremely successful. Scientific management seeks to capitalize on the best and the most ideal consequences for mechanizing and disciplining a company.

In this process, the psychobiological nature of a human being is totally adjusted to the demands of production specifications, which are what the tools and machines of the outer world …. In short, the human being is adjusted to the functions demanded from him. The human being is stripped of his personal biological rhythm, and then is reprogrammed into the new rhythm according to the prerequisites of the task. This is done by the systematic deconstruction of the functions of every muscle, and then reconstructed into an optimal economic form of “manpower,” which is put into a new rhythm and shaped to the requirements of the work.

The whole process of such rationalization is everywhere, especially within governmental bureaucratic organizations, parallel with the centralization of the means of production under the authority of the ruler. With the rationalization of the political and economic fulfillment of demand, the expansion of discipline runs rampant. Discipline, as a universal phenomenon, irresistibly and increasingly curtails the meaning of … sophisticated actions by individuals. (Weber 1921/2015:71).

     So, in other words, writing at the time of World War I, Weber pointed to the short-comings of the rationalized scientific Washington consensus, of the 1990s.  He in effect said it was really nothing more than Frederick Taylor’s “famous American system of scientific management.” Weber then pointed out that in fact such “rationalization is everywhere.” Or he might have said, the discipline of the rational market is everywhere.  What this means is that in the modern world, and you adapt yourself to the psycho-biological rhythms we all share, and transform yourself into simple “manpower” a quality which can be evaluated as a “human resource” (Ferguson 1993:37-38).  The peasants that I knew in Thailand and Tanzania in the 1980s may have worked hard and been risk takers, but they did not readily adapt to the World Bank’s insistence on becoming a mindless narrow specialist without mind or heart! They avoided becoming simply a human resource, for the World Bank’s balance sheets!

The bureaucrats at the World Bank, USAID, IMF, and elsewhere are different.  They proudly believe themselves and others to be “manpower” in the labor market, and measure their personal worth, as well as that of others, by the salaries they command in that labor market. After all, for a technocrat, what other rational measure is there for personal success?  They reason that the bureaucrat costs $150,000 per year is because they are 1000 times as productive as the subsistence peasant, who only contributes $150 per year to the market economy.  Or so this circular self-justifying logic goes.  And indeed, the modern manpower at the World Bank take their own situation so for granted, that they cannot see that their every, thought, muscle and rhythm were deconstructed and reprogrammed in the decades of rationalized primary, secondary, and tertiary education which culminated in a PhD in econometrics reflexively sought by the Bank’s bureaucratic machine.


Have to get the book, or email me at twaters (at) csuchico.edu!